The year is drawing to a close and seed catalogs have already made it to my mailbox. I’ve been reflecting on my successes and failures from this past year’s garden and am starting to dream up designs for 2020. I thought I’d share a time lapse of my 2019 garden with you so you can see the progress we’ve made on our homestead this year.
After over 5 years of dreaming and goal setting, we installed our new garden last year (you can read more about that here). 2019 was my second year in this garden and boy did it keep me busy! My garden took over my life this summer, but I’m not complaining one bit. My garden is my happy place. I spent my days planting, pruning, weeding, harvesting, shoveling, and pushing wheelbarrows. I planted our fruit trees, expanded our strawberry patch, and did my best to keep up with our prolific harvest. When I wasn’t outside working, I was in my kitchen canning, dehydrating and freezing all kinds of yummy goodies.
My big goal this year was to eat as much out of the garden as we possibly could without using the grocery store. We didn’t have to buy fruits or veggies from the beginning of spring until mid-November, so goal accomplished! In fact, we still have carrots, beets, lettuce and spinach in the ground that we can harvest, although the lettuce is starting to get a little wilty under the frost cloth. We also have carrots in the ground that will be ready to eat come the end of winter. Our freezer is stocked up with chicken from the meat birds we raised, along with salmon and steelhead that my husband, who is a professional salmon and steelhead fishing guide, has been bringing home. Our chickens are still going strong giving us eggs, although they did slow down for a few weeks before Christmas. The pantry is full of pickles, applesauce, green beans, jam, chicken stock, homemade ketchup, and dehydrated fruits and veggies.
Now that I have a little bit more time to kick up my feet and reflect on the past year, I decided to put together a post to show you how my garden evolved through the seasons. Watching things grow is one of the reasons I love gardening so much. After over a decade of playing in the dirt, it STILL amazes me to watch a tiny little seed sprout and become a massive plant that gifts me with food that is so much more delicious than anything I can buy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful we live in a time when the grocery store is an option, but garden fresh definitely tastes way better!
So without further ado, let me take you on a little tour of our 2019 garden and show you how it grew throughout the seasons.
A late summer shot. I like to interplant orangeus catus between rows of lettuce to deter bunnies. 😉
Right Side of the Garden
At this point, garlic and weeds were my main crops. The raspberries (left) were still a month or so out and the apple tree behind the chicken run had baby apples growing, but nothing edible yet.
Our last frost was the middle of May this year. I actually made a big mistake and put my peppers, tomatoes, and basil in the ground THE DAY BEFORE LAST FROST. I killed everything I had started from seed. (If you look closely, you can see the brown dead remains of starts on the right.) I had every intention of pulling out all of the dead plants and replacing them with store bought starts, but…
…within a week every single plant came back to life. That’s not the norm, and I give full credit to the Back to Eden style of gardening. I didn’t do anything to the plants to bring them back — no water, no fertilizer, no pruning, nothing. And yet, even with that setback, everything thrived. Plants are resilient, especially when they are growing in homemade chicken manure compost and mulched with woodchips. You can see I top-dressed the tomatoes and peppers with the chicken manure compost from my run to give them an extra nitrogen boost during their growth phase. I did this throughout the garden and it worked really well.
On the left, you can see I had a couple of rows of lettuce ready to harvest, and to the right of them were onions growing (more on them later). The nasturtiums in front of the lettuce were still pretty small. The sunflowers in front of the chicken run were starting to get taller. The apple tree’s limbs were so heavy with apples that they touched the ground.
You can also see the makeshift chicken coop I made for our meat birds. For the first half of their life (before their chicken tractor was built), I divided the chicken run into two parts with some fencing and covered an old greenhouse frame with a tarp. All that hard work, and the chickens still slept outside of their coop. Silly birds. That makeshift coop has come in handy though. It’s not the prettiest thing, and it has started to look a bit ragged, but it is currently providing my egg layers with an extra space that is protected from the weather during these colder months. Next spring, I’ll probably take the tarp off and just leave the frame for them to roost on.
Only six weeks later, the garden exploded! The sunflowers and nasturtiums bloomed, the original lettuces went to seed, we had harvested our first raspberry crop, and the tomato plants were covered in green tomatoes. I pulled the garlic on this day, which is a bit late, but at least I got to them before too much damage was done. At this point, we were harvesting big ol’ onions regularly too. I love how the sunflowers were a living wall that created shade for the chickens during the hottest time of the year.
By this time, the nasturtiums, tomatoes and sunflowers were completely taking over. We loved adding nasturtium leaves to our salads for a spicy kick and were regularly harvesting lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, onions and peppers from this side of the garden.
We started planting fall crops a few weeks before this and you can see carrots and beets had started to grow on the far left behind the nasturtiums. I was big on succession planting this year and wanted to make sure I always had something to eat but was never forced to harvest a ton of anything all at once. To accomplish this, I planted a little bit each week throughout the season and it worked out really well.
I love the final burst of color before the cold hit. The garden was lush and overflowing, and I tried to remember to slow down on the work a little just to appreciate it all for a moment. At this point I was just trying to keep up with the tomatoes.
Far Right Side of the Garden – Tomatoes, Basil, Garlic and Peppers
Here is a better view of the far right side of the gardens, where I brought my tomatoes, basil and peppers back from the dead!
If you look closely, you can see the brown remains of the tomatoes, peppers and basil. I thought for sure they were goners, but they all came back. It was a bit of a time setback, but I don’t think it ended up hurting my harvest much at all.
To the right, you can see pea and bean starts. I made a trellis out of t-posts and twine, but quickly realized the twine wasn’t going to cut it and replaced it with wire. I think next year I’ll replace the wire with actual wire fencing so the peas and beans have more to hold onto.
In the back, you can see my original strawberry patch that came with our house. I cleared out spots for asparagus to grow among the strawberries. I’m new to growing asparagus, and it goes against most of the garden advice I’ve read to plant asparagus this way, but I think the strawberries will act as a living mulch for the asparagus. We’ll see if I’m right or not next year. I already do so many things that aren’t supposed to work (like not tilling and never watering my garden) that I can’t help but experiment with other “garden no no’s.” I just have to see for myself.
For about a month, I stressed over my tomatoes, peppers and basil because they were so much smaller than everyone else’s. Were they gonna make it? Would they have a good yield? Should I have ripped them out and planted starts? That basil really doesn’t look that good… Honestly, I do this every year, but gardening is an act of faith. You plant a bunch of seeds knowing that some won’t germinate at all, others will be eaten by slugs or bunnies, but SOME, hopefully, will make it to your table. You try your best to help your babies along as they grow, but anything can happen at any time to kill your crop. You could very well be doing all of this work for nothing. More often than not, however, most of your plants reach harvest and by the end of summer your counter tops will have disappeared under baskets of fresh produce. It never fails. Months of garden anxiety followed by months of garden overwhelm, with so many beautiful days inbetween. Gardening is a lot like life in that way.
As you can see, all of that worry was for nothing. Even my garbanzo beans on the right somehow survived the bunnies this year! (Thank you garden kitties.)
I had a great basil crop this year. If you go back through the last few photos, you can see those puny starts transform into a full on hedge of bushes next to the tomatoes. I pinched the flowers every time they started to bud to prevent the bushes from flowering, and the plants kept getting bigger and bigger. It’s a really easy thing to keep up on if you want to maximize your basil harvest.
Far Left Side of the Garden
The right side of the garden that I just showed you is intended for more annuals, while this left side is where I planted perennials like fruit trees and berries. This year, I planted two pear trees, a peach, a cherry, and a plum. Strawberry Hill, my hugelkultur hill (more later), came with a blackberry bush and then I transplanted strawberry starts onto it from the existing strawberry bed when I had to make room for the asparagus I planted there. Watch how the strawberries completely took over by the end of the season!
You can see that the blackberries are flowering, the strawberries are getting larger, and I’ve planted the summer garden. I planted a lot of broccoli, cabbages, watermelons, cucumbers, beans and corn, and then top-dressed them with chicken manure compost from my chicken coop.
Here, the watermelons and cucumbers are starting to take over. We were harvesting broccoli and cabbage regularly at this point. We grew Broccoli di Ciccio, an Italian variety. It doesn’t hold well in the fridge — you pretty much need to cut and cook — but it is so incredibly juicy and tender! I tried something new with the broccoli leaves this year. I cut them up into the size of potato chips, sprinkled them with salt and garlic powder, and then dehydrated them. They turned out really yummy and are the perfect salty savory snack.
Except for the couple of broccolis I let go to seed, we’ve eaten up all of our broccoli and cabbages at this point. I used our free space to start cold-hardy lettuces. When the frost started to hit, I covered the lettuces with a frost cloth and was able to pick lettuce through November.
If you can’t tell by my blog’s logo, I kind of love chickens and sunflowers together. My logo actually comes from some folk art that my grandfather painted, so there is a little extra sentiment there. Not only do I think they make a beautiful combination, but sunflowers are one of my favorite flowers and I love to have them as a centerpiece in my garden. Planting them next to the chicken run also has the functional purpose of creating a living wall to block the sun and give them some cool shade during the hottest time of the year. And once the sunflowers are done, I pop off the heads and give them to the chickens for a delicious, nutritious treat!
This particular spot in the garden had very compacted soil from the tractor we used to originally install the garden. I don’t like to till, so sunflowers are a great crop for breaking up the soil without damaging the soil life. They also act as a trap crop by keeping garden pests away from my other plants.
As you can see here, I planted multiple seeds per hole and then thinned the starts once they got bigger. You never know what kind of critters will eat your plants, so I say always plant more than you need and you’ll never lack. Last year, a squirrel would chop my sunflower starts in half just for the fun of it. I think the cats kept that little punk at bay this year. I love my garden kitties, always patrolling.
They are starting to grow….
…and getting taller….
Finally the first bursts of color! The red sunflowers are called Autumn Beauty and it was my first time growing them. In the past, I’ve only grown Mammoth sunflowers, which don’t usually pop until September. But when I was seeing other gardens graced with sunflowers much earlier than mine, I knew I had to try some new and different varieties. These were so beautiful. Each stalk had multiple heads which would bloom in succession. Sunflowers make me so happy.
Finally my Mammoth sunflowers started to pop! The sunflower stalks were so heavy at this point that I had to use wire to trellis them upright. I should probably plant fewer rows next year, but man it was gorgeous.
I hate to see them go, but they weren’t giving up without a fight. And would you check out how those zucchini plants took over that bed?!
Our Volunteer Tomato That Took Over
If there is one thing I’ve learned about volunteers over the years, it’s to leave them where they are. If you move them, they tend to take the shock hard, but if you let them be, they will absolutely dominate. They are also a bit of a risk, because they have usually been cross-pollinated and it’s a toss up if they will taste good or not. Even so, I tend to leave volunteers that pop up in my garden as long as I have the room for them.
This tomato popped up next to the chicken coop, where I undoubtedly dropped tons of tomatoes last year while feeding scraps to the chickens. So not only was it a volunteer that was likely to thrive, but it was growing in straight chicken manure. It completely took over by the end of the season…
It climbed it’s way up the fencing and bird netting around the chicken run and completely took over the path. I just did my best to stake it up so I had at least a little bit of room to walk by.
It was the last tomato to start ripening and I ended up having to harvest a ton of green tomatoes before the last frost hit. We ate those tomatoes through the middle of November. I roasted the green ones with other veggies in the oven, and used the ones that ripened on sandwiches. They didn’t taste the best fresh, but they were amazing roasted. And they made it so we didn’t have to buy tomatoes from the grocery store until much later than usual. It was also, by far, the healthiest tomato plant in the garden this year, like volunteers usually are.
Onions – Charles Dowding’s Style
I played around with a new method of growing onions this year that is great for maximizing space and I absolutely loved it. Charles Dowding introduced me to this method in one of his videos (watch it here). I used this method and then also planted from onion sets so that I could compare the two methods and see which I liked better and which gave me a better yield. Charles’ method gave me the higher yield by far and I will definitely be doing this next year. The onions were larger, healthier, and it allowed me to harvest from early spring through the fall in a very small space.
The gist of the method is that you plant multiple onions in one spot and they grow together. In the early spring, you can break off the younger scallion type onions, while the rest in the bunch continue to grow into larger heads. Throughout the season, you break them off from their bunch one by one until all of the onions are gone.
At first I was skeptical about growing them in a bunch because I wasn’t sure if they would get enough nutrients from the soil if they were so close together. I had nothing to worry about. They seemed to really like being planted together and got much larger and healthier than the individual sets I grew separately.
I started my onions by seed in January. I used Jiffy seed starting mix and planted about 6-8 seeds per cell.
You can see they grew quite a bit under a grow light for the first 2 months, so it was time to put them in the ground.
Keeyu, my garden kitty was inspecting the new starts before planting.
If you were wondering how the soil beneath the woodchips looks, here you go. The soil is rich, dark, moist, loose and filled to the brim with soil life. It’s a gardener’s dream soil and it’s made without tilling once!
The onion bunches were planted about six inches apart in rows between the lettuce and garlic. We pulled onions as needed throughout the season. I really love this method and will be doing it again!
Strawberry Hill was originally a weird little hill covered in old tree stumps, grasses and weeds right smack in the middle of where I wanted my garden to be. I knew it would be next to impossible to flatten the hill, and so I tried to be creative about finding a solution. The more I looked at the awkward, ugly hill, I started to realize that it was a natural hugelkultur hill.
When you create your own hugelkultur bed, you lay down stumps and branches as the base and cover them with dirt and compost. The stumps and branches hold water like a sponge and release it as needed for the plants. As the stumps and branches break down, they also feed the plants with nutrients. As an extra bonus, the hill shape adds square footage to your garden because you can plant more than you would be able to if it was flat.
So I decided to embrace the ugly hill and make it a centerpiece in my Back to Eden food forest. I laid down cardboard, compost and woodchips and then created a sweet little path so I could harvest my plants at all points on the hill. I took strawberry starts from my other strawberry patch and planted them on the hill and by the end of the season, the starts had spread out and completely covered the hill! My experiment was a total success.
I actually planted a second variety of strawberries on one side of the hill. Home Depot had the white pineapple strawberries on sale last fall and, even though they looked like they may not make it, I gave them a chance and bought them. Four sick plants came back to life and thrived on Strawberry Hill! That seems to be the theme in my garden this year: bringing dead plants back to life. The risk was so worth it, too. Those white strawberries are DELICIOUS.
The west side of Strawberry Hill, covered in strawberry starts.
It only took a few months for the strawberries to completely take over!
The east side of Strawberry Hill, where I planted the white pineapple strawberries. I transplanted them the previous fall and they had already started to spread…
…but by mid-summer, they completely covered the hill.
A close-up of the east side.
The strawberries grew well beyond the rock boundary and tried to take over the path!
There was barely enough room for me to walk on the path!
Three Sisters Garden
I’ve always wanted to try growing a Three Sisters garden. I’ve read about them for years. If you’re not familiar with the Three Sisters, this is a growing method that some Native American tribes have used in the past. They planted corn, beans and squash together and believed they helped each other to grow. The corn acts as a trellis for the beans. The beans add nitrogen to the soil for the corn. The squash acts as a living mulch, which suppresses weeds and prevents the soil from drying out.
In theory, it sounds great, but I’ve come across quite a few gardeners that claim the science doesn’t back it up and that the whole things just becomes a big mess. You don’t know for sure until you try, right? So I decided to do a Three Sisters experiment in my garden this past year to see for myself. To be honest, I was less than impressed. I got a poor harvest from the pumpkins and corn and it was difficult to harvest the runner beans that were tangled up in the corn.
I think the gardeners who warned against this method were probably right. Everything was planted so close together that there was too much competition for nutrients and the plants suffered as a result. I’m curious, though…have you ever tried a Three Sisters garden? What were your results? Let me know in a comment below.
My Favorite Varieties in 2019
One of my favorite things about gardening is getting to try different varieties of fruits and vegetables than I would normally find at the grocery store. There can be so much variation within different groups of plants. Carrots aren’t just orange–they’re also yellow, white, red, and purple. Tomatoes aren’t just red–they also come in pink, orange, yellow, and purple. And with the range of colors comes a range of flavors. Your options increase so much when you grow your own food. You literally cannot buy this perk. Not even the Farmer’s Market can provide all the options. Only gardeners get this experience and this year I fell in love with a few new and delicious varieties.
Ok, so I tried Broccoli di Ciccio for the first time in 2018, but it is definitely worth mentioning. This broccoli is so incredibly sweet and tender. It is nothing like the broccoli you buy at the grocery store. It grows small heads, but the stems and leaves are just as delicious. The one drawback to this variety is that it doesn’t hold well in the fridge. You pretty much need to cook it right after you harvest it, but that’s ok. You get more of the vitamins and minerals this way anyway. I like to roast it in the oven with some other veggies for about 30 minutes on 350 degrees F. You can add the leaves to your salad, or even tear them up and dehydrate them to make broccoli chips.
I fell in love with radishes this year, and I owe a lot of that love affair to the watermelon radish. I had never really been a fan of radishes until I started growing them myself. They don’t taste as harsh when they come from your garden, and are juicier and a little more mellow. Radishes also come in a wide variety of colors and shapes. But these. They are beautiful and tasty.
I already mentioned the Autumn Beauty sunflowers earlier in the post, but would you look at this beauty up close?? I happened to catch a beautiful shot of it with a bee harvesting pollen. These flowers are a striking addition to the garden.
I grew a variety of lettuces this year, but Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce is my all time favorite. It grows really well in my PNW climate and it produces for a long time. Just harvest the outer leaves and you can keep a couple of rows producing for months. My kitty loves it too. 😉
I grew these Blueberry tomatoes for the first time last year and wasn’t impressed, but decided to give them one more chance. Boy am I glad I did. I don’t know what went wrong with them last year, but this year they gave me a huge harvest of sweet tomatoes that are perfect on their own or tossed in a salad. This is how they look on the vine and then…
…you’ll want to harvest them when they turn mostly red but still have some light purple coloring.
Ok, so of all the things I grew in 2019, Orangeglo watermelons were my absolute favorite. This watermelon is INSANELY GOOD. I wish I knew how to describe the flavor properly. It almost tastes like an orange creamcicle watermelon. It is super sweet and juicy but has a mellower taste than the red watermelons you are used to. I cut them in half and devour them with a spoon until my stomach literally can’t hold anymore, and then it is still hard to stop eating. Orangeglo watermelons from Baker Creek Seeds will be a new staple in my garden from here on out. Knowing I have to wait all year for this treat makes it even more special.
I tried a little experiment with growing mustard seeds in my garden this year. I use a lot of mustard seeds for canning pickles and relish and those little jars are not cheap, so I thought, why not grow my own? A couple of plants would probably give me way more than I needed! So I started some seeds right out of my spice cabinet and sure enough they germinated and produced plenty of seeds for me to use in recipes this next year! They are beautiful little plants too.
This was such a great year in my garden. I was able to succeed where I had failed before, learn a few new tricks and discover new varieties that will have a place in my garden for years to come. How did your garden do this year? Tell me about what you learned and discovered in the comments below. And Happy New Year!