Veggies Take Over The World, or, Tiny Farm Gone Wild
What a difference a few months can make! Last year, my veggie beds were rapidly overrun by grass and weeds; the lawnmower couldn’t fit between them, and the plants were all trying to escape. They still came out okay, but there were so many disappointments that we were determined to do this year’s beds differently. In mid-April, Calin decided to rebuilding my beds for me from scratch. We decided to model them on the old ones but take pointers from several internet sources. So we got some solid white pine (cedar is too expensive, and pressure treated is a really, really bad idea – especially for edibles!), and he got to work making me bigger, better beds.
It took a few hundred dollars of wood and crazy deck screws and landscaping fabric, and about two weeks (with our time constraints) to get them all built, but in the end they were substantially larger, tall enough that the grass won’t just grow in the sides, and just generally much better. (I know it doesn’t look like it in this picture – our lawn mower broke, so this is with three weeks of grass growth under steady, growth-inducing rain.) We lined the bottoms with landscape fabric – wrapped up the outside – so that the crab grass will stay out longer (hopefully forever), and we cut them into the hillside farther apart and actually level. We also made sure that the top sides were much farther above ground level, so the yard won’t take over the beds from the top.
Side by side, before the new beds were in, it was pretty clear this was going to be immensely better. The new beds seemed huge, and because Calin loves to overdo things (in a good way) they’re solid enough that it took both of us to move them, and you can stand on one corner and bounce without the bed even creaking.
This is a really strange optical illusion, because all four beds are exactly the same size. They’re 6 x 3 feet, to maximize what we could do with a 12 foot board. That picture is so disconcerting that I’m sitting here questioning my memory of that – but it’s dark outside, and raining, so I’m not going to go check. They’re all the same size. The camera is lying.
Last year’s veggies were their own experiment because I grew them all from seed. I ended up regretting that decision for several reasons: 1) I have a soft spot for baby plants, so I couldn’t discard any of my seedlings and I ended up with way too many, and my beds were too crowded. 2) I ordered seeds from a company online, which had a great reputation but which wasn’t in Virginia, and doesn’t have to grow things in our climate. My peppers didn’t make it, and most of my tomatoes were fairly flavorless. 3) I don’t have a greenhouse, so I grew my seeds in an old freezer. When it was time to put my seedlings in the ground, they were still teeny tiny, and they took a long time to catch up with the season.
This year, I bought all my plants as seedlings from the Charlottesville City Market, from local farms who know what varieties grow well here and can vouch first-hand for flavor and quality. I only bought exactly as many as I calculated I needed, instead of having twenty extra tomato plants. (I still miscalculated, but for different reasons this year. I just underestimated how well these darned things would grow!)
By the end of April, I had three of my four beds planted. Cucumbers planted to grow up a trellis, green and purple basil with room to expand, and thyme. Four different kinds of peppers; four different kinds of tomatoes; sage and marjoram. I hadn’t gotten mulch yet, and I hadn’t figured out what I was going to do about water, but the plants were in.
A week and a half later, all of these questions had been answered. We picked up a pickup full of mulch from the local nursery (which ended up being about 4x too much mulch, but who knew…), and I ran soaker hoses through the beds. It’s a bit inefficient to be watering the grass between the beds, but I haven’t come up with an alternative yet. (One of the bed design websites told us how to run PVC piping through all the beds, but just the cost of the piping would have been another couple hundred dollars, and it would have been a lot more labor. We skipped it this year.)
I had also decided on my plants for the last bed and what to use to fill in the “hole” in one of the other beds. I resolved on four more peppers, chives, parsley and cilantro. I had also discovered that something really wanted to eat my cucumber plants, so I fenced them in. In retrospect, it’s a really good thing I did this when I did, because it turned out that that trellis was serious wishful thinking, and if I’d waited another week or two I wouldn’t have been able to get in there to fence them.
The tomatoes had almost doubled in size, but everything else was still just creeping. I started to worry about the basil because it wasn’t keeping up with what I wanted to harvest already.
Everything was in, and everything was starting to settle. The peppers were growing, the tomatoes were flourishing, and all the herbs except the sage were really starting to take off. Nobody had gotten out of control yet, and everybody looked happy. I was starting to get excited.
This is me going through the garden and telling all my new babies how well they are doing and how much I love them. And taking their pictures, up close and personal, so they would feel special. In retrospect, I may have made the cucumbers and tomatoes feel a little too special.
Two weeks later, I started to realize I had created a monster. The cilantro had to be pruned every day or two at the most to keep it from bolting, the pepper plants were falling over, and the tomato plants had gone from “aww, they’re growing!” to “oh no! grab some stakes and string, quick!” I invented my own system of tomato supports out of desperation – I used cotton yarn and wrapped it around the stems and suspended them on each side from one of the stakes. Actually staking the stems individually was not an option – these guys were reaching for the stars. And the house. And the cucumbers. And the peppers. And the fence. Basically, just reaching.
Actually, the tomatoes and cucumbers started to scare me. I thought four tomato plants in one bed with a pepper plant in the corner was going to be plenty of room. By this point, I was pretty sure that not only would they overgrow the bed, they would straight up eat the pepper plant. He’s holding his own, here, but the end is coming. And the cucumbers – man. What made me think that four plants would stay neatly confined to four tiny stakes? Because they are now about to explode their nice little wire enclosure that I made them for an entirely different purpose, and I have no idea how I’m going to get the cucumbers out when they are ripe. But it’s all exciting anyway.
Another close-up session with my babies. I just can’t help it – I have to encourage them! The basil was finally starting to get up production, the cucumbers were making baby cucumbers, and the pepper plants were growing peppers like mad! The sage had also finally caught on and started to grow!
Another week, another madness. These peppers say things like “70-80 days”. It’s been what, a month since I put these in? I have an entire plant full of green peppers, and the mysterious “rainbow bell” has produced four or five mottled purple peppers that seem like they’re close to being harvested. The tomato plants (not featured here) just had their first haircut (more like a thinning – I didn’t trim the tops, I cut all of their lower arms off so they can breathe), and are producing baby tomatoes like crazy – they aren’t showing color yet, but it’s coming. Oh, and I’m up to about six layers of string holding them up – they just don’t want to be contained!
We did have our first harvest on Saturday, which I didn’t document because it was only two peppers. One hot banana and one sweet banana, that both looked like if we left them on the plants much longer somebody would eat them for us. Ironically, nearly as soon as we brought them inside and left them unattended for five minutes, someone very nearly did it anyway. Calin found Reenie in the middle of the living room playing cat and mouse with the sweet banana pepper. (I cut the adulterated ends off and we ate it anyway. It was pretty tasty.) Calin had the hot banana pepper on a turkey burger – he said it was just the right level of spice, and he’s excited to use them to add kick to salsa once the tomatoes are ready.
I’ll keep you updated on where all this goes. I have big plans for those purple peppers.
As an aside, I’ve added a new page to my blog that gives a bit of background on the whole purple thing, and provides some entertainingly (I hope) bad poetry. Check it out here!