Archives for posts with tag: vegetable gardens

As noted on their license plates, the State of Maine is known as Vacationland. And now I know why.

Rachel and I have driven up to Rockport for the weekend (we’re mixing Rachel’s business and our vacation) and have discovered that the Maine coast is just one big family resort. The woods and forests are pristine, the coastline long and scraggly, and the air is clear and fresh. There are also some good restaurants here (lobster, anyone?).

But, most of all, the climate is perfect. Here we are in the middle of August—the summer’s peak, really—and the midday temperature is in the mid-70s. That’s warm enough to wear shorts and a tee shirt with no worry of overheating. It might be as humid as it is at home (that would be due to the proximity of the ocean) but it’s so moderate in temperature that it feels comfortable.

In short, the weather is perfect for spending the entire day outdoors. Anything that can be done outside is at its best when done here: Hiking, boating, swimming, cycling…

…and gardening.

It turns out that there are many lush gardens in Maine. Most of the houses we’ve seen have a plot of vegetables or flowers—or both—in their yards. And a garden center near our hotel is one of the biggest I’ve seen anywhere, with an astonishingly diverse assortment of growing things. Who would have expected it?

Not me. I always thought that with its short growing season and cold, icy winters that Maine would not be ideal for gardening. The climate (I figured) might be suitable for evergreens and chrysanthemums but not tomatoes.

What I failed to consider is that although the growing season may be short, the growing day is long. Sixteen hours of sunlight per day, it appears, more than makes up for the loss of May and September.

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Now that it is fully a month into spring, we made another visit to Stonecrop Gardens. We brought along Rachel’s mother who has never been here before. We were very excited to show her around.

During our previous trip (see March 22, 2014), the ground was still covered by snow and we were confined to the Conservatory, the Pit House and other enclosed spaces.

This time around, the snow is long gone (not counting Tuesday night’s dusting, which only disappeared on Wednesday; see April 16, 2014), the skies are clear and brilliantly blue and, remarkably, it is comfortably warm. Perfect for a stroll through the outdoor gardens.

It’s a good time to see daffodils, hyacinths and other flowering bulbs (although it is still too early for irises and tulips). Not many of the trees have blossomed yet but the weeping cherry tree, the view of which is perfectly framed by one of the moon windows of the Wisteria Pavilion, looked beautiful anyway. Its slender branches have been carefully pruned to cascade downwards in a spherical spray of tiny buds.

This is the earliest we’ve been in the enclosed flower and vegetable gardens and their appearance is strikingly different from how we’ve seen them before. Late last summer (see July 27, 2013) for instance, the beds were overflowing with a rich variety of flowers, groundcovers and vegetable plants. The pathways between them were difficult to navigate without brushing against outreached branches or getting in the way of busy bees and other pollinators.

Today, these gardens are practically bare. Anything annual is long gone—cleared away in the fall, no doubt—and everything perennial has been trimmed back, almost to the roots in some cases. It is hard to believe that it will ever return to its abundant summer state.

But there are promising signs that this will indeed be the case. The Stonecrop gardeners were busy planting peas, lettuce and root vegetables, all under the watchful eyes of the benevolent scarecrow Miss Gertrude Jekyll (who was herself receiving restorative attention after what must have been a tough winter outdoors).

There is always so much to be done—my to-do list is lengthy—but only so many hours in which to do it.  On any given day, I have to make several decisions about what I can accomplish before the sun goes down.  To a few things, I say “Yes”; everything else gets an implicit “No”.

The choice can be difficult, especially when the garden is on the receiving end of one of those nos.  When that happens, I sometimes feel like I’m neglecting the vegetables and that something critical may occur while my attention is elsewhere.  Perhaps hornworms will appear on the tomatoes (Yikes!) or a first eggplant will form (Rejoice!) and I won’t be there to witness it and take appropriate action (removing the offending insects for the former and photographing the blessed fruit for the latter).

So my goal is to avoid missing the garden for more than one day.  Frankly, not much happens in the garden in any particular 24-hour period and often the garden will go for several days with no discernable changes, good or bad.  (Those dreaded hornworms, which can chomp their way through entire tomato plants in a very short time, might be an exception.)  If I have to be away longer, I get someone to look after things.

Ironically, blogging about the garden can be counter-conducive to the actual gardening activities themselves.  Noting the progress (or lack thereof) of the vegetables, taking photographs, writing about it (probably the largest demand on my time), and posting; these things take time.  That’s time that could be spent doing the things that eventually I will be blogging about.  It could easily become a Catch-22:  I can’t write the blog if I don’t do any gardening but if I spend too much time gardening, I can’t write a blog about it.

And, sometimes, it feels preferable to blog about something rather than do it, a la Andy Rooney.  For instance (nasally, whiny voice):  Don’t you just hate it when you have to remove sod?  It has to be the most difficult part of constructing a garden.  And what do you do with all of that sod, anyway?  It’s not like you can sell it or exchange it for other plants.  (With no disrespect to Andy Rooney, who wisely—or luckily—made a long, successful career out of such rants.)

While I’m on the topic of ironies, here’s another one.  At times, I feel reluctant to harvest vegetables when they are at a near-perfect state of ripeness and aesthetic beauty.  They look so nice, the well-formed squash, blossom still attached, or pristine white turnip, peeking out of the ground with a symmetrical plume of succulent greens on top.  It would be a shame to spoil the tableau.  And once harvested, a void remains, a barrenness, an absence of beauty.

But, hey, this is dinner!  I snap a few photos, grab the vegetables and head for the kitchen.

This weekend is the first time this spring that is has been both warm and free of snow.  Finally, we can start our outdoor planting.

But first, a little planning.  I mean, it’s not like we can just throw some seeds in the ground, right?  Well, I suppose we could (and many people do, successfully) but then there would be less to write about.

Our main consideration is crop rotation and making sure that we do not plant anything in the same place we grew it last year.  Because we are doing the same vegetables again this year and have two raised beds, this simply means swapping everything from west to east and vice versa.

Our secondary consideration is expansion.  At the end of last season (see September 25, 2012 and January 16, 2013), we concluded that the zucchini and the cucumbers need more space than the raised beds can provide while still accommodating other vegetables.  Therefore, we will move them elsewhere (posts will follow).

So, without further ado, here are the planting layouts for the raised beds:

East planter:  Tomatoes in the north half; lettuces in the southwest sextant; eggplant and bell peppers in the south central sextant; and basil in the southeast sextant.  We have already started the tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers and basil from seed indoors (see March 24, 2013) and will direct sow the lettuces in a week or two.

West planter:  Sugar Snap peas in the north half; turnips and carrots in the southwest quadrant; and radishes and beets in the southeast quadrant.  Starting all of these from seed—sowing them directly into the soil—was today’s activity.

The Sugar Snap Peas will expand to a row the full width of the planter which will, hopefully, increase our yield proportionally.  The duration of the harvest should not change—we planted the entire row today—but each day’s crop should be greater.

Last year, we alternated rows of radishes and beets and this year we did the same.  Unlike last year, however, we planted the seeds in longitudinal rows.  It might not be the most efficient use of the available space (we could fit a slightly larger total length of rows if arranged transversely) but it will be much easier to water.  We took the same approach with the carrots and turnips, sowing their seeds in parallel rows.

By moving the peas farther back in the planter (and strictly speaking, they will occupy less than half of the bed), we can fit five rows of the root crops.  We planted one row of carrots and radishes (half of each) and one row of turnips and beets (again, half of each).  We will follow this in a week or two with another row of carrots and radishes and of turnips and beets and wrap up with a final row of carrots and radishes a week or two after that.  Our harvest will be staggered and should last well into summer.

We measured the rows and marked them by removing the mulch.  The seeds went in quickly—even the teeny-tiny carrot seeds—and we brushed a thin layer of soil onto them for cover.  Rain is expected later today so we will let Mother Nature do the watering.

With a big snowstorm approaching, we sat down with the seed catalogs today to continue—in a much more concrete way—our planning for the upcoming growing season.  We intend to start just about everything from seed this year and having made that decision, our options are much, much wider than they were last year.

Instead of being limited to the seedlings at our farmers’ market or garden center, we can choose from scores of different varieties of each type of plant.  And given the number of seed catalogs out there, the possibilities are practically unlimited (or let’s just say that they are only limited by our time and patience).

We wiled away an hour or two flipping through the pages of the John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog, trying to keep in mind what vegetables we actually eat (as opposed to what sounds interesting) and what our experience was last year.  When we had gone through every page, here is what we picked:

  • Sugar Ann Snap Peas
  • Amethyst Purple Filet Bean
  • Roma II Bush Beans
  • Black Opal Eggplant
  • Rainbow Carrot Mixture (Atomic Red, Purple Dragon, Red Samurai, Royal Chantenay, Snow White and Yellowstone varieties)
  • Tanja Slicing Cucumbers
  • Alibi Pickling Cucumbers
  • Gourmet Rainbow Radish Mixture (Flamboyant French Breakfast, Feugo, Hailstone, Helios Yellow, Pink Celebration, Plum Purple, Roodkapje and White Icicle)
  • Jericho Romaine Lettuce
  • Red Salad Bowl Loose-Leaf Lettuce
  • Chioggia Beets
  • Touchstone Gold Beets
  • White Lady Turnips
  • Cavili Zucchini
  • Supersett Yellow Crookneck Summer Squash
  • Country Taste Beefsteak Tomatoes
  • Aunt Ruby’s German Green Tomatoes
  • Brandywine Tomatoes
  • Yellow Brandywine Tomatoes
  • Sungold Cherry Tomatoes
  • Black Cherry Tomatoes
  • Naguri Kabocha-Type Squash
  • Zeppelin Delicata Squash
  • Quadrato d’Asti Rosso Bell Peppers
  • Orange Sun Bell Peppers

Listed longhand like that, it seems like a lot of different vegetables.  However, there are only two more different types of vegetable than we had last year (the carrots and turnips).  Of these, the tomato, cucumber, eggplant and bell pepper seeds should be started indoors (and soon!).  Seeds for the rest can be sown directly in the garden, starting in early April.

We are also considering a few vegetables that we have never grown before but think might be manageable (and that we would actually eat):  Asparagus, Broccoli, Cauliflower and Bean Sprouts.  We can wait to start broccoli and cauliflower until mid-summer while beans can be sprouted indoors, anytime.

Asparagus would be a lot of fun to grow (and it will grow here; we have seen it at Stonecrop Gardens).  And yet, it would be a long-term commitment as it must be grown in a protected spot its first year and then given several seasons to reach harvestable production.  But it would be worth it to have this harbinger of spring growing in our own garden.

Our goal is to get the seed trays, lighting, heat (if needed), etc., prepared by the end of the month so that we can start sowing—and watering and lighting—at the beginning of March.  This will give us at least two months of indoor growing before transplanting the seedlings outdoors in May.

There is nothing like a field trip to make my day, especially when it starts early, includes breakfast and takes me to another national park.  I’ve always loved the incomparable beauty of their locations (for the most part), the optimistic (some would say naïve) outlook of their educational exhibits and, most of all, the friendliness and earnestness of their park rangers (who are often the most naturally gregarious people).

So, with friends visiting for the New Year’s holiday, we decided to spend the last day of the year on the road and headed up to the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park.  It is one of the National Park Service’s more unusual properties (technically speaking, it is a National Historic Site) in that it is not directly focused on the natural environment (like Yellowstone or Yosemite) or a person or event in our government’s history (such as Gettysburg or the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt just down the street).

Instead, it highlights the lifestyles of the rich and famous—of the early 20th century.  Of course, the Vanderbilts had a huge impact on the U.S. economy and their significance in our history (along with other extremely wealthy families) cannot be discounted.  But perhaps the main reason the mansion makes sense as a national treasure is that it is a monumental example of the physical works that can be achieved by people when given sufficient motivation, resources and money (all the same thing, sometimes).  In that regard, it is more akin to, say, Hoover Dam (operated by the Bureau of Reclamation) only with more gilt.

The Vanderbilt Mansion also differs from many Park Service venues in that its main features are indoors.  Given the cold and snow left over from Saturday’s storm, an alternative to outdoor activities was desirable.  Plus, by making our visit prior to New Year’s Day (when the site will be closed), we were able to see the mansion decorated for the holidays.  On Wednesday, the staff will begin to remove the trees and wreaths that brighten almost every one of the 54 rooms.

Though large by mere-mortal standards, the Vanderbilt Mansion was considered modest by its original inhabitants and was used only in the spring and fall (summers were spent in cooler seaside locations and the only acceptable location for the winter social season was New York City).  Still, a lot of expensive architectural details and fancy furniture are packed into its 55,000 square feet of real estate.

Most of the rooms (not counting the servants quarters) are hopelessly ornate but I found it interesting that both the main kitchen and the one bathroom on view (on the second floor) are decorated in a functional style that is still popular today (open layouts; stainless steel, copper and marble fixtures; white subway tile).  The bathroom includes what is perhaps the most beautiful sink drainpipe that I have ever seen.

Outside, the views of the Hudson River were spectacular even on this wintry day.  The only downside to visiting at this time of year, however, is that we were unable to properly tour the grounds which include dense woods, expansive lawns (polo, anyone?) and formal gardens (modeled after those in Italian villas).  I do not know whether anything remains of the vegetable gardens and livestock farm that originally supplied the mansion with food but on a future visit, when the ground is not snow covered, I intend to investigate.