Monday, March 10, 2014
Each winter farmers and home gardeners begin the humble adventure of figuring out what to grow. While farmers are producing on a much larger and more consistent basis with their rows of primary crops (their staples), those of us with a backyard vegetable garden can relate to the eagerness of awaiting the summer bounty. As the snow piles grow we turn the pages of seed catalogs and imagine tomatoes in various shades, beans climbing up the trellis, purple and gold beets, and green plumes of kale.
In Boothbay, Maine, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens (CMBG) Burpee Kitchen Garden lays dormant. Rodney Eason, Director of Horticulture and Plant Curator, and Diane Walden, the horticulturist who oversees the Kitchen Garden, have a few months until watering and weeding begins. For now, their focus is on designing the 2013 Kitchen Garden and selecting which plants to grow. They paused from their work to offer some sage advice on the seed selection process.
Rodney Eason, Director of Horticulture and Plant Curator CMBG
Diane Walden, horticulturist CMBG
If you are like me, picking what to grow can be at once manageable and impossible. Nearly everything in seed catalogs looks beautiful, the descriptions magical, and the promised results delicious. The possibilities are endless until you take into account a few practical steps. Identify your personal goals. What do you need? What do you want to accomplish? What are your limitations?
DW: Aha! The nutmeat of editing. Each garden has a mission: name it and you've set your criteria and kickstarted your design process. Last year my CMBG Kitchen Garden design was dubbed 'The Avocado Green Kitchen Appliance Garden.' It featured idiosyncratic retro plants. 2013 it's 'The Hootchie Kootchie Pucci Garden.' Strong saturated color will be featured reminiscent of Emilio Pucci's fabric designs.
Shop around from different seed suppliers. There is a lot of variability in the prices between different companies.
For the past two years I’ve tried to be good about taking notes of what worked in the garden, what didn’t, what I ate and fed to the chickens (they love kale), and those plants that I just love to look at (sunflowers). Tell us about the importance of planning ahead what to grow each year.
DW: Just as you've noted, I too make tickle notes throughout the growing season. I stash them on my iPad and in the little notebook I carry daily about the gardens. By August I was well on my way designing the look of the 2013 garden.
Banning being dependent upon the success of crops as ONLY source of sustenance (food or cash flow), one needn't subsume the joy and fun of kitchen gardening to planning overkill. Annuals are the wild & crazy flings of garden design; indulge yourself. Certain seed varieties may be sold out if one doesn't order early but the sheer overwhelming marvelous variety of seeds and the clamoring number of seed purveyors flooding our snail and email boxes verges on brain freeze as it is. Toughest part of planning process is EDITING choices.
My secret editing weapons? A highlighter and a spreadsheet. Come Dec/Jan, comb through catalogs of your choice with highlighter in hand. Next, follow up with The Ultimate Wish List Spreadsheet (TUWS)! How groovy that tax prep prime time coincides with January garden planning obsession. For every hour that I tediously plug medical deduction info into column X, I then reward myself with double the time of plugging in vital stats of my latest botanical must haves. TUWS can be as elaborate as one needs; this columnar format works for me:
Column Headings include:
Botanical Name - Common Name - Source -Order # - Page # - # Seeds - Cost - Height/Spread - Color - Days to Maturity - Sow Method - Notes I then sort by Botanical Name. This allows for easy comparison between multiple sources so I can order the best value for my needs. Home gardeners with limited space may prefer smaller seed packs to best $ value. Gardeners on a limited budget may find it beneficial to split seed orders with friends.
This year a big part of deciding what I am going to grow is dependent upon days to maturity and time of harvest. I want to do my best to ensure there are plants blooming in late spring and September. What is at the root of your selection criteria when it comes to ordering seeds?
RE: The key is to know the days to harvest, yes. When you have that in mind, you’ll know when to come in with a second crop, if necessary. This year is going to be a big learning experience for me. There was a house that my dad rented when I was in middle school in North Carolina that was in the middle of a huge watermelon field. We could walk right out and pick a huge watermelon out of the field. Those melons would be tough to grow here because they need 90-100 growing degree days at a temperature we may get for a couple of weeks here in Coastal Maine. I would love to try a few of the shorter day melons. Diane has these wonderfully cute Mexican watermelons that ripen at the end of the season. They are about the size of a quarter and taste more like a cucumber than a sweet watermelon.
DW: Aesthetics! Color! Texture! I want great taste AND great looks. I choose a color palette and run with it. Reliable performance and disease resistance are a given. I also try to include a few new and unusual selections to up the 'kapow' factor.
How do you feel about integrating flowers and vegetables in the same area?
DW: I'm a rabid mingler. It is so much fun to drape Sweet peas amongst one's Eggplants, Cucumbers through the Honeyberry bushes.
What challenges have you faced, if any, when developing the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens Burpee Kitchen Garden?
DW: Thousands of folks visit it each year so I like to have it looking as sharp as possible. Daily maintenance is crucial albeit a pleasure. Ample water, deadheading, and crop rotation keep the beds fresh. How to produce an ample weekly harvest yet NOT have it look ravaged? Plant selection likewise crucial. Pea tendrils and 'cut and come again' greens have been troupers. A challenge with myriad solutions that I've the great good luck to tackle annually! The short season creates its own demands: May 30th (post tulips)-mid-October (frost date).
Do you have any planting tricks you can share with us?
DW: Absolutely mulch; 2 inches of well-rotted compost. Remain calm. Be flexible. Bugs munch, bunnies likewise. Fungi & wilt encroach. Crops will fail. Have some back-ups in mind. The post will easily speed seed to you overnight!
Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower has been essential to my developing a deeper understanding of what growing requires and provided an unparalleled level of comfort as I navigate crop rotation, manure, weeds, and harvesting. I’ll be picking up a copy of his Four-Season Harvest this winter. What books and periodicals have been essential to your learning processes?
Periodicals and Books
DW: Decades ago I began my vegetable gardening journey with Jim Crockett's Crockett's Victory Garden (Little, Brown & Co, Boston/Toronto, 1977). It remains a stalwart and entertaining guide.
Madderlake’s Trade Secrets: Finding & Arranging Flowers Naturally by Tom Pritchard
Flowers Rediscovered: New Ideas About Using and Enjoying Flowers by Madderlake, Alan Boehmer, Tom Pritchard, Billy Jarecki
The British periodical Gardens Illustrated (Rodney also recommends this periodical)
Books by Christopher Lloyd
RE: Michael Pollan’s books on food and food production are great reads on how food has been transformed from sustenance and enjoyment to a nutrient.
Margaret Roach’s blog Away to Garden. She chronicles her transition from a Martha Stewart Living editor to gardening and growing her own food in upstate New York.
Comstock, Ferre & Co. (heirloom seeds)
Ernst Conservation Seeds - (ask for their Pollinator Habitat)
Fedco-Seeds (Maine company)
High Mowing Organic Seeds and check out this fun article Becky Maden, Assistant Farm Manager at Intervale Community Farm, wrote for their newsletter outlining a few simple ways that you can trial new varieties on your farm or in your garden
Hudson Valley Seed Library (specialize in heirloom seeds) Check out their “art packs”
Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Maine company)
Seed Savers Exchange (non-profit dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds)
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.