Thursday, January 8, 2009

January Dreams of a Backyard Garden

Martha Stewart Living, Architectural Digest, and even Better Homes and Gardens, endlessly offer enticing headlines about small backyard gardens that turn out to fill three times as much space as I have. Everything is so iced over the past few days I haven't even been out to measure it, but I've got a space that's 8-10 feet wide and 30 feet long. It's on a rather steep hill, so it's broken into five little terraced squares. The top two get very little direct light. I fit a lot into those little spaces: berries, lettuce, cukes, tomatoes, peas, green beans, herbs and every year a little something different too.

I'm not much of a planner when it comes to gardening: I prefer trial and error, and throwing things down wherever they seem to fit best at the moment I'm putting them into the ground. I have had remarkable success simply by being attentive to the plants. Every day, I wander around the garden, weed a little or a lot, pinch, tie, and stake, and if something isn't doing well I pull it out and try something else. I always overcrowd, and the result is usually rather rough and tumble but quite productive.

Unlike with cook books I bore easily of books about gardening, and rarely follow their advice. As much as I think carefully about what goes where and when and how in the kitchen, I just throw something in here, stir a little there, and see what happens in the garden. I find gardening to be incredibly intuitive, and am probably not at all qualified to write about it in a way that anyone could be expected to follow.

But this year I'm hoping to be just a tad more deliberate. I want to try to grow not just things we'll eat fresh off the vine but perhaps a bit we can put away for the winter. I want to focus on heirloom and native plants. And I'm definitely putting in a fruit tree: plum, apple, pear, or peach?

Now is the time to pour through catalogs, place orders, and dream. If anyone knows of great sources for New England heirloom/native fruits and veggies, please share!

In order to maximize my small space, I know that I need to think carefully about timing, and plant in waves. Peas and lettuce love the cold weather of early spring, and can't stand the warmth of New England summer. So I'll plant those first, and a few weeks after they go in, right up alongside or even in between them, will go something that takes a while to get going, then thrives mid or late summer when the peas and lettuce are gone.

Beans and cucumber are the perfect companion to peas as they can make use of the same trellises. These three are great to line the edges of a little plot and form a kind of natural fence. So far, the best bean I've found is Blue Lake, but I like to make at least half my bean planting something else, for variety. And beans and cucumber also die out toward the beginning of fall in time to pull up replace with a last planting of fall lettuces: arugula and mache are my favorites.

Nasturtiums are essential filler because they add wonderful color and spice to a salad and because they have some amazing natural pest-deterrant qualities.

Between spring the lettuce rows, I put rows of green onions and leeks. What's great about these is that they last through the first winter snows, but they're also wonderful mid-to-late summer when they first develop a little white bulb at the base.

I have the blessing of a wealth of volunteer tomatoes, so as soon as those start popping up I start transplanting them. They have to go in a different spot each year, and they need lots of sun and plenty of water in the early stages. It's also essential to put up nice big cages while the plants are teeny tiny. Partly, this allows them to grow into the cages and allows you to pinch and tie as they do so, but mostly it stops me from over-planting them. Tomatoes and are so yummy, and I have so many little seedlings, I just want to line them up a few inches apart. The cages remind me how big they'll grow and how much space I'll need to get between them as they do so.

So now I'm going to pour through catalogs and wait for recommendations!