2011 turned out to be a very tough agricultural year in Indiana and in many other parts of the U.S. Here the Spring weather stayed cold and very wet on into early summer, delaying planting in fields and gardens until well past the optimum planting date. Corn harvests were way down for the commercial growers locally, and many gardeners decided to skip their projects because seed rotted in the ground from all the wet weather and nothing could get started. Tomato growers put plants in just ahead of the summer heat that stops tomatoes from pollinating. Everything seemed to go wrong.
In many ways that’s a normal gardening year, because gardening is all about overcoming problems. In the worst of conditions you often wind up with something back from it anyway, even though in many years you technically lose money compared to shopping at the store. Planting on higher mounds got many of my plants started on time, but other things suffered the same problems as in other gardens. The wet weather didn’t kill the tomatoes and potatoes growing in the mound garden out back, but it held them back well enough and they had very little advantage in terms of timing. The constant rain threw everything off. Other vegetables reacted differently, some failing completely and some plugging along in spite of the weather, and I wound up with a good garden and a constant sufficient supply of fresh food.
Right now I’m considering projects for next year, based on what happened this time. December or January are the best times to plan gardens and order seed but it’s easy to go overboard. There are many things I’d like to grow that don’t do well here, and other things that require so much space there’s no point in putting them in a small garden. I save seed from some plants, and I don’t throw away unused seed, so my seed bill will be small this time. In spite of all the warnings about weird plant crosses and seed that doesn’t sprout, I’ve seldom seen problems from open-pollinated heirloom seeds or seeds carried over to the next season. After three years I figure it’s time to toss them and move along, but nearly all seeds survive at least two or three winters in storage.
Here’s a list of successes and failures from this past season, with my own guesses about what might work better next year. You never know, next year might be a whole new set of problems.
Everyone grows tomatoes or tries to, and here in the heavy wet clay we seldom succeeded with them but always tried, usually getting a few in late summer in spite of the unfavorable circumstances. A good tomato is worth the trouble. This year I tried growing tomatoes in an upside-down hanging garden built from an aluminum ladder and a bunch of empty 2-liter soda bottles. Altogether the plants probably produced a couple of dozen good tomatoes, but I saw very little advantage to the hanging garden system. Despite the claims manufacturers of the commercial versions make, the plants still got hit by leaf diseases on occasion, although not so severely as in the ground, and tomato hornworms still showed up. It was harder to find the worms on the hanging plants than on the plants growing at ground level.
I grew about a half dozen types of tomatoes, in the hanging pots and on a small mound I built up out back. Black Krim, Aunt Ruby’s German Green and Persimmon heirloom tomatoes all did well enough to talk about. I would rate the flavor of the tomatoes from the hanging plants as not much better than something you’d buy at the store, in spite of regular feeding with Miracle-Gro and plenty of summer sunshine. The difference between those tomatoes and the ones that grew on the mound was shocking, in a good way.
The mound tomatoes had exceptional flavor and grew vigorously to heights I’d not seen before in tomatoes. Aunt Ruby’s German Green, the only heirloom tomato on the mound, developed fusarium wilt but struggled past it, bearing good tomatoes anyway until cool weather late in the year gave the fungus the advantage. Most of this year’s tomato crop, however, came from a hybrid called Yellow Better Boy. Yellow Better Boy grew vines about eight feet in height and bore delicious fruit with a salty acid flavor until a frost finally knocked the plants down in November. For next year I’ll try Aunt Ruby’s again, as well as Black Krim, because both have flavor worth working for, but I’ll definitely emphasize Yellow Better Boy. Yields count. The one new type I’m trying out next year is an heirloom from Taiwan called Bullseye, which ripens green with a red spot on the bottom and reportedly tastes unusually good. No hanging garden for me, though, it was more work than it was worth.
For much more about successful seed choices click
I’d never buy beets in the supermarket more than once a year, it’s a flavor that doesn’t thrill me, but I still try to grow them and this past year had success with two standard varieties. Both Cylindra and Ruby Queen beets sprouted well enough in the wet and the cold to make a spring crop, although a spotty one. I’d read good things about Cylindra but found it disappointing in flavor and coarse in texture, and after more research discovered that it was developed for commercial canning rather than fresh use. Many seed companies don’t mention that. Ruby Queen, an old standard, produces round bulbs that sit mostly on top of the ground and don’t fit in a jar as neatly. I grew Ruby Queen in both spring and fall and had some luck with it, but the taste of the spring crop was amazingly different. Harvested in late spring when bulbs were two inches or less across, Ruby Queen tasted more like sweet corn than beets. Harvested in the fall, it tasted like beets, oh well. Ruby was still infinitely better than Cylindra in the fall. Cylindra tasted like maybe you should can it and save it for later when you’re really hungry.
Although I did get a few Cherry Belle radishes in the Spring, that was one of this year’s surprise failures. Out of a half dozen succession plantings, only one produced anything worth mentioning. Those few were very good, but I had expected much more out of what is usually a very reliable cold weather crop. French Breakfast Radishes grew better and turned out to be some of the best salad radishes I’ve ever eaten. My Miyashige daikon radishes also fared badly in the wet spring weather but did produce a few very hot roots about carrot-sized before bolting. That was a fall variety, and I ordered a summer type along with more seed for fall. In spite of being advertised as a dependable summer crop, the Tai Mei Hwa summer daikon gave up completely in the summer heat, and probably what the company meant was that they don’t bolt as quickly in the springtime. I will try them again in the spring, since they mature quickly and at a smaller size than the Miyashige White Neck daikon radish I planted successfully in August. That daikon produced a bountiful crop of mild white winter storage radishes from six to 18 inches in length and up to two inches in diameter, as well as tasty greens for fresh use and canning. I’ll be eating daikon and daikon leaves all winter, I bet.
Purple-top White Globe turnips are really all the turnips you need if you live in the Midwest. Best when harvested at 2 or 2 1/2 inches across, the bulbs could grow to twenty pounds or more in perfect places but even at 3 inches develop a hotter and stronger flavor and a fibrous texture. At two inches across, this fall crop tastes sweet with the tender texture of an apple. OK, an apple that tastes a lot like a turnip, there’s still no disguising it. In the spring, the turnip crop failed here, but after some false starts due to grasshoppers in August the plants suffered through temperatures over a hundred degrees without giving any appearance of prosperity, and then produced excellent roots in early fall. When a turnip talks you into trying to grow it again, you know it’s a good turnip. Considering the poor results in the Spring, I’m probably going to try one of the fast growing oriental varieties next Spring, and I’m leaning toward Tokyo Market turnip, a pure white turnip for fall and spring that needs only 30 days to produce roots of worthwhile size.
Potatoes need good drainage and good ventilation or fungal diseases set in from both above and below ground. Planted on level ground here, the plants sometimes live long enough to produce another potato a little bigger than the piece you planted. On mounds, the potatoes fared better, but since I lacked mounding experience when I planted them this past spring, they didn’t get a fair shake.
I’ve seen no good results in past years from Yukon Gold, Russets, or Russian Banana fingerling potatoes. The two varieties that have survived the wet and the clay are Peruvian Purple potato and German Ladyfinger fingerling potato. Both adapted well enough to overwinter as forgotten tubers in the ground here, in spite of the constant winter mud, and sprouted to try again. Both produced better on the amateur mounds I put together in early spring, but although I got potatoes this year I would expect better results in good conditions.
I tried growing both in a small mound garden built on slightly sloping ground, raised 18 inches above ground level, and got most of my potatoes from that plot. Peruvian purple made tubers up to six inches long and three inches across, most neatly rounded but some with the distinctive convoluted shape that gives these old Andean heirlooms special names like Dog’s Turd and Bride’s Tears (the sadness of having to peel the twisty ones, I expect — so don’t peel them). German ladyfinger gave spotty results, sometimes forming clusters and chains of small but delicious waxy yellow tubers of two inches in length and about a half inch in diameter, and sometimes growing larger narrow tubers up to seven inches long. The purple potato definitely produced more, but has a much milder flavor similar to russets. German ladyfinger gives small yields here but the flavor makes me keep trying. I did try growing both in potato towers built in a wire cage three feet in diameter and piled two feet high with dirt, topped with deep layers of mulch as the plants grew taller. Though the plants grew good tops that way, they produced no better in the towers than on the mound garden. Next spring it’s more and better mounds, no potato towers.
Out of five varieties planted, two produced. Melting Sugar Snow Peas produced well, and Wando shell peas produced poorly. All others either rotted in the ground or died shortly after emergence. Melting Sugar thrived on a three foot high mound that soon compacted to a little over two feet in height, and eventually outgrew a six-foot trellis by at least four feet. Wando did not like the weather and although rated highly as resistant to powdery mildew and heat, succumbed just after the first small crop of shell peas. Melting Sugar Snow Pea yielded a picking of delicious pea pods every two days for several weeks, dying back in the first real summer heat. Both are worth trying again, and I’ll look for a Sugar Snap to go along with them. This year, Sugar Snap did not care for the weather, although a few seeds did come up in the fall long after I’d given up on them and not soon enough to make any pods.
The “other things” make a garden fun, because it’s always about trying new things and tinkering with the stuff you never had much luck with before. It was a bad year for beans, whether the soybeans were planted in the field next door or in the garden here. Kentucky Wonder green bean took off remarkably well and produced some good beans early but soon was overtaken by Japanese beetles and diseases.
Henderson’s Bush lima bean and Fordhook limas started with a bang but never produced enough to bother with. Unless it’s a warm spring and beans get a good start, the summer heat prevents pods from setting. Summer diseases set in before the air cools down in the fall. Next year I’ll go back to edamame green soy bean and I’ll try some yard-long beans, a variant of the plant that gives us blackeye peas. Georgia Vates collards did ok this year, a crop in spring and a fall crop from the same plants reviving in the cool weather. Surprisingly few problems with cabbage moths until late fall when I had to pick off a few by hand. Turnips, collards and daikon have all survived through several frosts and hard freezes, with temperatures as low as 21 degrees at night, and none show any sign of frost damage as yet. Most of the root crops are inside in cool storage already but I apparently jumped the gun on that. Hearts of Gold cantalope did better this year and I learned a few tricks I hope will work next time.
Clemson’s Spineless okra produced successfully again, and seems to produce enough okra for me every year even though all the conditions are against it. I’ll plant it again and I might try a taller variety like Cowhorn okra also. I’ve read that okra will produce until fall frost but I’ve not actually seen this happen. When yield stops in early fall you might as well get rid of the plants. Zucchini and yellow squash fizzled this year after a good early summer yield and cucumbers never did a thing, but those are garden staples and you always plant them again. Most years they do well.