Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Embracing Easy - Thoughts on Eco-Perfectionism and my Summer of Gardening Lite

Well folks, we're headed towards mid-October and I've reached the point in the gardening season where I'm sorta hoping for the first hard freeze to kill off the zucchini plants! Seriously, my freezer is full and I'm just not sure I can eat any more of those little suckers!

Not my photo, BTW - but you get the idea!

So you may remember that back in the spring I had a bit of a time deciding if I really wanted to commit to a garden this year. The weather gods had not smiled upon us the past few summers and I really just wasn't feeling up to it. Ultimately I decided to to "gardening lite" and since the season is almost up, I figured I'd give y'all the review of how it went.

The short answer is that gardening lite gets a bit thumbs up!

So here's the play by play.

Buying plants. So, in the past I've tried to start everything from seed - which is REALLY challenging with a house full of cats who will destroy anything that gets in the way of their window space. Letting go of the idea of starting things from seed made it much less stressful, if a tad bit less "green."

Watering. One of the biggest struggles I've had with gardens in the past was keeping enough water on them. So this year I mulched heavily with both straw and the free Christmas Tree mulch that the city gives away, and everything did much better. Of course, the fact that Denver has finally emerged from the drought didn't hurt! I also set up my homemade old garden hose drip irrigation system which made it sooo much easier when I did need to water.

This photo is from a few summers ago when I wasn't quite so good about mulching!
But you can see the old garden hose which has little holes poked in it to make a drip irrigation system.
The other thing I did to make watering less of a hassle was to use some cheap Y connectors so that when I wanted to use the drip system, all I had to do was turn on the water and flip the switches in the right direction rather than having to haul the hose around, unscrew the sprinkler and screw it into the irrigating hose.

Not sure why, but this made a HUGE difference in my attitude toward watering. It worked so well, in fact that I set up a similar system in the front yard switching between the sprinkler and the hand held sprayer. I plan to expand this whole concept next year to the "herb garden" section of the garden that got sorely neglected this season. (More on that later.) I may have to find a few more dead garden hoses somewhere, but that shouldn't be too difficult!

Plant Protection. Another big gardening struggle here in Denver is hail. Not sure why, but our city is pretty vulnerable to frozen marbles and golf balls falling from the sky. In the 19 years that I've lived here I've lost numerous gardens to hail, not to mention roofs, windows and siding!

So this year I decided that I'd had enough of the OMG here comes a storm, quick cover the garden game and I constructed a hail cover for a big section of the garden. Early in the spring I crafted some individual protectors for each plant using some old pieces of window screen.

This photo also shows off this year's thorough mulching!
This worked so well that I decided to see if I could expand the idea once the plants got bigger. I basically put tall metal fence stakes in the ground and attached hardware cloth on top to create a cover that would let in sun and rain while protecting the plants from hail.

It was sort of a pain to put up so I decided that the volunteer squash was on it's own,
which worked out just fine!
This was a HUGE win. I didn't have to run outside in the rain, get pelted with hail or risk getting hit by lightening even once!

The only problem with my little "hail house" is that it isn't terribly sturdy, and was sorta hard to put up. I was hoping I'd be able to leave it up all winter, but it's really rickety, so I think it's coming down when the garden is done. But for next year I have an even better idea for a new and improved hail protection system.

My basic plan is to buy a large portable greenhouse. Something like this:

This may take come creativity to accomplish, but I'm planning to cover the frame (at least the top portion) with the hardware cloth so it can function as a "hail house." Then I can use the cover that comes with it on top of the hardware cloth in the early spring and in the fall to extend the growing season. I'll take the cover off during the main gardening season so it doesn't get too much wear and tear, and so the plants don't over heat.

If it works like I'm hoping, it should also save me from the quick, cover the plants here comes an unseasonable snow/frost/etc panic that seems to strike several times each year. Hopefully I can avoid having to employ too many creative tent-building schemes next year!

Plant Support. I'm not sure if you could tell from the pictures, but my poor tomatoes suffered again from toppled over syndrome. It happens every year - they get so big and tall that they outgrow their 3-4 foot tall tomato cages. I staked the cages this year so they wouldn't fall over, but still the branches grew too big and draped over the tops making it hard to harvest the tomatoes and doing damage to some of the stalks.

So next year I'm either gonna suck it up and buy some expensive taller cages (like the six feet tall variety) or else I'm gonna try a new system. I was watching one of my "escape from the Amish" television shows recently (I'm a bit obsessed with this topic... sorry) Anyhow, there was a scene where they showed them growing tomato plants and instead of cages, they somehow trained them to grow up strings like this:

Has anybody out there ever tried this system? I'd love to know how difficult it is or isn't. I figure if I'm gonna leave the greenhouse frame set up all season, I'll have something that I can easily tie the strings to.

I also need to give the cucumbers something to grow up because they got totally lost under all of the squash this year. Perhaps the old tomato cages can be re-purposed for the cucumbers!

Plant Selection. OK, here's where I still need some work.

I knew going into this season that I did NOT want to be blanching, peeling and putting up boxes and boxes of tomatoes like I have in the past.

So instead of my customary 6-8 tomato plants, I just did 4 and two of them were cherry tomatoes. I think next year I'll just go with 2 plants, one cherry and one regular.

And in general, I think I just need to plant less of everything... like say, maybe just one zucchini plant next year! Seriously, I wasn't really gonna plant any, but there was some extra room so I threw a few seeds in the ground... you know how this story goes!

I also have to be ruthless with the volunteer squash. Apparently squash seeds don't compost very well, so I inevitably end up with them all through the garden, and for some reason I just feel too guilty to pull them up in the spring. But then they start to take over and shade everything else, and I end up with ridiculous amounts of pumpkins and mystery squash instead of what I wanted to grow.

NO MORE, I say! From now on, I shall be ruthless!

So, I'm hoping that if I stick to those rules I'll have better luck next year growing something besides zucchini, tomatoes and squash!

Which brings me to my dirty little secret....

That only covers about half of the garden. I actually have another section of raised garden beds that's even bigger than the part of the garden I've talked about so far, and I pretty much just ignored it this year.

To tell the truth, this whole section of the garden is pretty much a mess. The raised beds that I constructed about 15 years ago are completely falling apart, and I think I've decided to do away with them completely and just make this into one big plot. Having everything boxed off was a nice idea, but the reality of it ended up being that it was just too difficult to maintain that way.

Trying to turn the soil in those boxes is a real pain in the arse, especially now that entire sections of the wood has rotted away, and over the years the paths have filled with so much debris that the landscaping cloth that was supposed to keep things from growing there is practically meaningless because there's at least 3 inches of soil on top of it now!

Plus, the oregano and catnip have nearly taken over their entire plots, and other sections are being invaded with creeping bellflowers... which are impossible to dig out because the boxes are in the way, and the asparagus that I've been trying to grow in the plots on the right hand side is doing absolutely nothing!

Anyhow, I think my plan for this section is gonna be to remove the boxes, do some terracing (it's on a bit of a hill) and then use the area for perennials (like asparagus... not willing to give up yet) and herbs. Removing the boxes will also make it easier to set up another garden hose drip system there.

And... we're not done yet.

This little plot here also sat fallow this past year:

I haven't decided what to do with this section yet, but I'm thinking that I might plant another section of raspberries because they're so easy to grow and honestly, is it possible to have too many raspberries?

But before I do anything with this area, there's a volunteer elm stump that needs to be removed - so since that could very likely take all next summer to accomplish, I'm not really gonna worry about what to put here at the moment.

OK... so there it is! Just to summarize here... my plan going forward is:

  • Fewer of each kind of plant
  • More variety of crops
  • Be ruthless with volunteers
  • Set up greenhouse for hail and weather protection
  • Automate watering with drip systems and hose diverters
  • Better plant support
  • Mulch, mulch, mulch!
  • Create a place for perennials and herbs
  • Buy from a nursery instead of planting everything from seed
  • Stop trying to be perfect!!!! (heavy emphasis on this point!)

I guess the thing I realized this year is that it's OK to look at the garden as a fun hobby instead of a phantasmagorical save the planet while not spending a dime and making myself miserable in the process sort of a project. I don't have to try to preserve tons of food for the winter - I can just enjoy the fresh produce when I have it and plant with that in mind.

In fact, since I spent less time and energy during the growing season this year, I wasn't as burnt out as I usually am, and I actually did some things like making grape juice from the concord grapes and drying some oregano to use later.

I even had the energy to experiment with freezing some summer fruit (peaches and watermelon) that are sooo cheap and plentiful now, but will be unavailable soon (unless you count stuff flown in from the southern hemisphere).

Somehow I've always chaffed against the idea of buying things for the garden... like greenhouses, or extra hoses, or plants from a nursery. It sorta went against my "something for nothing" gardening philosophy.

But ultimately, sustainability has to be sustainable for the people too. And perhaps making a few compromises like this will let me enjoy it more, and keep doing it longer!


  1. I think you are smart--good for you for simplifying! My hubby is the gardener in the family--if it were up to me, I'd have a few plants for summer eating, and that's about it. It's easy to get all philosophical about growing your own food, but it is a job!

    My 8-year-old grew 4 green bean plants from seed on our windowsill ... and our bad cat ate all but one of them! Fortunately, the one survived and thrived and she was able to enter green beans at the 4H fair. We are another household, like yours, where indoor-growing just doesn't work. :)

    1. It is indeed a job!

      I'm totally laughing in a knowing way about the cats eating the green bean plants - aren't they supposed to be carnivores? I think someone forgot to tell them. But it's really interesting to me that growing green beans indoors worked at all - don't they need to get pollinated in order to produce fruit? I wonder how that works...

  2. I think you've learned some very important lessons--the most being it's okay to do it for fun.That's something I haven't quite gotten to. In the area where I grew up, every one had a big garden and canned most of the summer. And my father seemed to have the biggest of all-an acre or more. That's pretty big for one family. I have tried gardening many times in my adult life but always thought it didn't count because it wasn't big enough. Of course, this is not what my rational mind said, but the emotional mind often speaks louder. That combined with invasive weeds (I'm an expert in this area) and hungry deer and groundhogs made me give up. I still plant a few things, but not too many. Luckily there are still those out there that occasionally have a banner year and like to share.

    As far as the tomatoes go, have you made tomato sauce or juice with a food mill (ricer)? That's how we processed our hundreds of jars when I was growing up. After washing and cutting out the bad places and cooking for a bit, you run the tomatoes through the mill and the seeds and skins are left behind and you get good sauce. A possibility for you to try if you like tomatoes.

    1. Oh yes... the rational vs. the emotional mind. I know those tug of wars well!

      Your food mill idea is very interesting... though I'm not exactly sure what a food mill is. I have a hand held potato ricer that I inherited from my grandmother... sorta looks like an enormous garlic press - is that what you mean?

      Anyhow, it's a very interesting idea. I do have a bowl of tomatoes that I pulled off of one plant that got a blight and died so they're ripening indoors and probably won't make great raw eating - perhaps I'll try something like this with them. Putting up 1-2 jars of tomatoes sounds much more manageable than 20-30!

    2. Here's a wiki link to give you an idea: Essentially, it looks like a pot with a sieve in the bottom with a blade that attaches to handle that forces things through the holes of the sieve. There is a wire scraper that scrapes the bottom as you turn the handle that keeps the holes from clogging up. A simple but quite handy device. This is something that I would keep my eyes open for in a thrift shop or yard sale. If you weren't going to use it a lot, it may not be worth the cost new (~$30-50). Ironically, I was going to use mine for some tomatoes this year, but I couldn't find it. I guess it got "reorganized" in the kitchen remodel.

    3. Very interesting! I'll have to keep my eyes open for one at the thrift store!

  3. I've never heard of growing tomatoes in cages before! We always grow ours with a bamboo cane shoved into the ground next to it- you then tie the tomato to it as it grows, so it doesn't just flop on the ground!
    I tried to add a link to a photo, but as phone is not cooperating, just google images for 'tie up tomatoes'!

    I think as tomatoes are a vine they can be persuaded to grow up anything, with a bit of string!

    1. Hmmm... that's very interesting. But what do you do about the branches that get 5-6 feet long, do you tie those up too? They get sooo heavy when they're covered with fruit and then they always end up on the ground. I'm thinking perhaps I need a combination approach here - like perhaps taller cages and tying up the branches that escape. Hmmm...

    2. I think you are supposed to pinch out some shoots so they grow how you want them too...

      Maybe the bamboo cane thing works well here because the plants don't get that's not warm enough!
      Perhaps you could grow a tomato against a wall or fence and have some sort of horizontal strings or wires going across the wall for the branches to be tied to...? Like espaliered fruit trees...

    3. Oh god... I don't think I could bring myself to pinch off any shoots - same thing as pulling up the volunteers, it just kills me to do it!

      Growing tomatoes against a south facing wall works really well. My best friend grows hers up against the south facing wall of her garage and they grow so tall that they often end up on the roof! I don't really have an appropriate place to try it though... at least not without removing quite a few shrubs and bushes!

    4. Sounds like the cages might be the best bet then...I am terrible at remembering to pinch out shoots etc....I am much better at low maintenance crops like potatoes :)
      I've been deciding what to grow next year and I'm keeping it (hopefully!) quite simple...well, more simple than last year! And hopefully I will be growing only things I really like eating and actually cook with!

    5. Ha! Yes... sticking to stuff you actually like and will use is a good plan. :-)

    6. I'm now imagining you building a south-facing wall. In the middle of your yard. :-)

    7. Hmmmm... now there's an idea!

  4. Hooray for Y connectors: they are the bomb. And I love your hail contraptions, too: very creative. I remember someone trying that string technique at our old community garden. The results weren't great, as I recall.

    1. Contraptions R Us! Seriously, I'm not sure why it took me so many years to hit upon the Y connector thing.

      Yeah... I'm thinking that the string approach probably requires a significant amount of human intervention to make sure that the plants cooperate. I suppose if I do fewer tomato plants then I'm only talking about buying a few cages, not dozens. That makes it seem like much less of a big deal.

  5. Yes, we have a three-way Y-connected (does that make it a W?). One arm goes to the irrigation system, one goes to a sprinkler, and the third usually has a short section of hose attached to it for washing hands, rinsing produce, etc.

    Congrats on a successful garden-lite season! Glad it worked so well for you.

    1. I've never seen a W - I'll have to check that out. Sorta makes me think of that old movie - It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world --- maybe there's a treasure under your W! :-)

  6. So many good ideas, here! I also prefer starting from plants, and I'm trying to put FEWER plants in my little 4x4' beds. I love the idea of putting baskets over the plants - I've been trying to determine how to enclose the garden, and there seems to be no good way to do it without keeping me out and encouraging rampant vine growth (the volunteers in my yard...why I oughtta...)

    Will try the baskets.

  7. My garden was bad this year. Basically only got some cherry tomatoes a few cucumbers and some herbs. Changed where the herbs were planted and for some reason it became a buffet line for the insects. One of the major problems for the main garden area was that it was shady (only a tiny part of the yard gets full sun, and that's only during midday and I can't plant there due to association bylaws), which I finally got someone to trim the branches...after the season was basically done here. Might go with some raised beds for the herbs next year to try to fix the insect issue.

    1. My cucumbers and peppers were a disaster. Not sure if it's because they got shaded by the volunteer squash or because of some nutrient deficiency in the soil.

      I'm sooo glad not to have a HOA to deal with, that would make it even harder. I'll be curious to hear if the raised beds helps the insect problems. I didn't even plant any greens this year because the last few years they all got infested with leaf miners... YUCK!

  8. Some good ideas here if I get into gardening. I'm all for doing less if it really is how to do more!

    Only I do very little, partly because I hate it (weeding is so hard in my clay soil, so gardening is never, ever relaxing) and partly because I don't like vegetables.

    Currently my only food plant is rosemary (which I don't even eat--I just use it to decorate presents--and feed the bees apparently). Supposedly it matures to 6 feet in diameter. Mine is 12. Or it would be if my house weren't in the way. Stupid lying literature--I put it 3 feet from the house like I was supposed to.

    Oh, wait, I also have black walnuts now. But the walnuts are kind of tiny and weird. Maybe it takes a while to get real walnuts.

    My figs and peaches have died and my pepper plant got mowed.

    But I sometimes can grow strawberries and I fantasize about growing a single zucchini plant one day. Oh, and garlic and green onions would be good.

    1. Ha! Well, in my experience zucchini grows itself - maybe I just have the zucchini gene but I haven't found a way to kill it yet! Garlic, on the other hand - I've tried for years, but it always falls over and dies long before it matures. Sigh.

    2. Oh, I've never tried to grow zuchhini. I just know that people always get way more than they want, so that's why I want only one plant.

  9. I love this! Whatever works, right? I lose my gardening mojo too early to do fall planting (and I learned that the hard way). But I'm done feeling guilty about it. What I grow during the summer is good enough!

    And I'm making a note of your mulch trick for next year!

    1. Fall planting is really tricky. I've not had a great deal of success with it - of course fall weather in Denver is a tad but unpredictable. We're just as likely to have 80's as snow! And I highly recommend mulch - here in Denver's dry climate at least it's sorta not possible to add too much!

  10. For someone who wasn't going to have a garden yours did way better than mine. I think I need to stick to fruits! The strawberries were two weeks behind but then did well, although the ever bearing didn't produce all summer but with such a cold season it's no wonder why. I had to fight powdery mildew again this year losing a lot in the process. The rest was just getting ready to ripen when I moved so I left it for family and neighbors to pick over.

    I love raised beds for me but if I didn't have physical problems I wouldn't bother, it's costly to build and takes way more soil. Your beds which you let go fallow would be great places to grow those raspberries and other perennials. Do you have a place you can sit out in your yard? Maybe add a bench somewhere too?

    1. I'm sorta blown away by this year's zucchini harvest - not bad for something I wasn't gonna plant! I just went freezer diving to dig out a few tubs of frozen food for Princess and had to paw my way through about a zillion frozen stuffed zukes! This year I swear that I will have them all eaten before next year's harvest begins!

      And in terms of sitting areas - my backyard has both a raised deck and a covered porch so I'm more than covered in terms of places to sit! Plus I have a covered porch in front, and an area under the raised deck that needs to be finished into another patio. I have grandiose plans of trying to make one of those spaces into a "kitty enclosure" so the cats could have some "outdoor" space to enjoy. At the rate I'm going I could be 90 before that project makes it to the top of the list though!


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