Earlier on this year I wrote this post as a “mid-season” report on how the little backyard farm (named Croy Family Farms) of mine has been doing. Since that time, in July, I’ve been eagerly waiting to write this post and somewhat “conclude” the 2014 growing season.
The past couple of summers we have had a moderately active backyard garden, but this year I wratcheted up the seriousness by keeping a spreadsheet with harvest yields from specific dates, taking numerous photos and towards the end of the season, a “lab notebook” with dated observations and book-keeping of notable events (plantings, fertilizing, etc). If you’re interested in the layout of the farm, please consult my poorly laid out documentation from the previous post.
Jump ahead to:
The Score Card
Here’s a breakdown of the total yield from the season:
- Cucumbers: 58 count, 45.3lbs
- Bush Beefsteak: 101 count, 11.2lbs
- Cherokee Purple Heirloom: 41 count, 10.85lbs
- Sun Gold: 1047 count
- Early Girls: 523 count, 85.9lbs
- Corn: 41 ears
- Apricots: 23.8lbs
- Basil: 12 baskets
- Parsley: 4 baskets
The tomatoes, cucumbers and the corn had the most impressive yield to me personally, the 523 Early Girl tomatoes were created by two plants. The 45lbs of cucumbers were created by three plants, one of which died halfway through their harvest period. The 41 ears of corn were grown from 17 plants that reached maturity and were properly pollinated. More details on all of these below.
The amount of tomatoes produced, and not produced, from this season is mind boggling to me. In the “Underproducer Hall of Shame” we have: 1 Bush Beefsteak plant and 2 Cherokee Purple plants. Despite my optimism for both of these varieties of tomato, they both produced around 11lbs of tomatoes.
While heirloom tomatoes are generally not as productive as varieties like Early Girls, I had no idea that the two Cherokee Purple plants would be so immensely underwhelming.
I do not expect to plant either variety again, the cost-per-tasty-tomato ratio is way out of my error bars.
Meanwhile, over in the “Hall of Obscene Productivity”, we have: 1 Sun Gold plant, and 2 Early Girl plants.
Many of my coworkers at Lookout grew to appreciate my weekly basketfuls of tomatoes, that were largely from these two varieties of tomato plants. I still find it nuts that a thousand little Sun Gold tomatoes came from one plant, and that 85lbs of Early Girls came from the two other plants. I’m a slender man and those two plants produced about half my weight in tomatoes over a single growing season (harvesting from early August to late October).
Last season I had a more crowded tomato patch, with eight plants, so the decrease to six plants in the box I believe led to the more productive season.
Similar to last season however, all of these plants were purchased at a local nursery, ain’t nobody got time to grow tomatoes from seed.
For the 2013 season I had planted cucumbers in Box #2 without much structure or anything around them. I had a couple lines of 4-5 plants going across the narrow part of the rectangle, and the resulting crawling cucumber chaos meant the plants were so intertwined that I would sometimes miss ripe cucumbers until past their prime.
For this season I attempted more science, I planted two plants inside of tomato cages and one without. Over the course of the summer I would guide the growing vines of the cucumber plants up and around the different levels of the cages. In the case of one plant, it shot out a crawling vine to the side which I ended up stabilizing with two garden stakes to make sure it didn’t hurt the plant.
For some unknown reason the third plant, outside of a cage, died halfway through the harvest period. While I don’t want to draw a direct conclusion from this one event, the leaves and plants in the cages appeared much more green and healthy than last year’s. I believe the separation of the leaves and the plants themselves helped stem the spread of mildew and other pests that attack the plents.
I did also identify a number of cucumber beetles this season, but I neglected to rid the garden of them.
Last time around I remarked at how much fun growing corn was. When I had written the mid-season report, I had only begun harvesting from the first corn crop. By the end of July that crop had been fully harvested and removed, so I planted another crop of corn. Both times the crops were grown entirely from seed.
For the second crop of corn I did a few things:
- I planted dried seeds from the first crop, my own seed!
- I planted a larger number of seeds.
- I worked almost an entire cubic foot of cow manure into the soil
- Wrapped the box in a home made greenhouse.
To the uninituated, corn does not self-pollinate, and therefore it much be planted in rows to allow the wind to blow pollen from the male part of one plant onto the female part of another plant. The fact that corn gets pollinated at all might seem amazing until you shake a flowering corn stalk and see the plume of pollen that they generate.
When I planned the second crop, I figured if I had a more dense “field” of corn, then I would see a higher yield since there would be more pollen to go around.
The first crop had 7 matured plants that produced 24 ears of corn, approximately 3.5 ears per stalk. With the second crop, there were 10 matured plants, with 18 immature plants taking up space, and only 17 ears produced: 1.7 ears per stalk.
I have a couple of potential explanations for this, but without further experimentation I would not be able to be certain which had the greater effect:
- The “field” laid fallow for only about a week before I worked lots of manure in and planted again. Corn is notoriously hard on the soil, so I may have just depleted too many nutrients from the soil.
- The corn plants were simply too numerous and too close together. The strong competetion for soil and sunlight may have caused the plants to devote too much energy to survival and not enough to making me tasty corn to eat. Considering this corn crop was almost a half foot taller, reaching 7 feet, than the previous crop gives this theory some weight.
With the next crop of corn I plant, I will be certain to rectify both potential causes.
Below is a collection of notes and observations from my lab notebook:
- Creating a home made greenhouse for the corn sprouts appears to have accelerated their growth by keeping the soil warm and moist.
- Pill Bugs (also known as rolly pollies) will eat baby leafy greens, such as kale or spinach started from seed.
- Planting little red radishes in between the rows of the corn stalks did not work. THe resulting radishes were all very small. Apparently due to overly compacted dirt or competition with corn roots for space.
- Lacinto kale requires far more sun than box #4 has available to it in order to grow effectively.
- Planting snap peas (or beans) adjacent to corn, a la the three sisters method requires planting the snap pea seeds immediately after corn sprouts appear. By waiting until the corn shoots are at least 6” tall allowed them to overshadow and impact the growth of the snap peas.
- Plants that aren’t producing or contributing might as well be cut down to the soil level. Letting the plant die without disrupting potentially intertwined root systems. In the case of the dead cucumber plant, I believe this also prevented adjacent plants from being affected by mildewing leaves.
- Spraying a soapy water mixture on an ant-aphid colony that had set up shop on one corn blossom worked and took care of the aphid problem in the corn for the rest of the season.
- Black garden matting appears to work better as a soil insulator and protector than redwood mulch. The latter absords much more moisture than the former which allows some water to pool on the surface before being absorbed through the mesh.
- Some combination of the low-sunlight and proximity to other bushes appears to cause a large number of caterpillars to munch on whatever is growing in box #4.
- Squirrels are a pest that will steal and eat avocados and apricots. We did not witness them stealing tomatoes fortunately. A simple Daisy BB gun hanging by the back door has been sufficient to ward them off. Whenever they hear the BBs rolling in the barrel they flee into the trees.
This growing season started late for me, I don’t believe I put anything into the ground until late April. Fortunately the bay area has a growing season of almost 9-10 months, or even year round if you can protect your crops from the frosts which hit in late November. Despite only six or seven months of growing and harvesting, the entire endeavour was highly rewarding, even the parts where a crop didn’t work out (looking at you broccoli).
This year also had a fun social aspect to it as well. Last season I would bring in tomatoes and basil for a few folks in the office, but with more this year, I started sharing with the entire company. What better thing to share with the people in your life than fresh, healthy food? As a result of sharing my regular bounties, I know the other gardeners in the office much better, some of which who also started bringing in their bounties. I think I’ve also helped show some how accessible gardening can be. Whenever conversations would turn to “wow, you must be a good gardener, what do you do?” I would always reply frankly “well, I put plants in the ground and then I water them regularly, that’s about it.”
Truth be told, that’s the majority of the work involved in gardening. It’s a great hobby for patience and diligence. Plants will grow, sometimes the wrong ones (weeds) and sometimes not, but the important thing is to constantly tend to the plot and make sure that your plants have every opportunity to succeed.
While I didn’t make any money from the farming this year, I can definitely see myself visiting a farmer market with a crop somewhere in the next few years. Of course, not from this little backyard garden but from a bigger parcel of land that may be in our future. I wouldn’t consider myself a genuine farmer by any means, there’s a lot more I have to learn, but owning more land means that there is more space and opportunity to experiment with growing different crops in different configurations.
I cannot recommend gardening highly enough.