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Shifting Seasons: The Autumn Garden

November 15, 2011

It’s early November, and while the East Coast has already had its hammering of frost and snow the West Coast has remained relatively warm, with a few final gasps of summer extending all the way into October.  The last of the heat has finally broken now, and with it has come the time to clear the gardens of worn-out hot weather plants to and prepare the garden beds for winter.

I live in what is probably a fairly typical suburban plot for my area: a four-bedroom house built in the early sixties, only around 1250 square feet total, and on perhaps an eighth of an acre of land (if that much).  As much as I love books like The Backyard Homestead, the advice they give tends to lean towards the assumption that people are on a quarter acre or more and can therefore convert it to produce enough food to sustain their household.  At our size we don’t come anywhere close to achieving total food self-sufficiency, but we make up for it through the use of intensive gardening methods and space-saving approaches to growing food, such as growing them vertically on trellises and in tubs.  Several of these methods are given here, and will hopefully provide inspiration to anyone else on a tiny urban or surburban plot without a whole lot of growing space.  Even a small backyard can support a garden and follow the changing of the seasons.

The tomato plants had already come out due to hungry squirrels attacking the green fruits still on the vine, but the potatoes were still in place and needed to come out first.

Potato PlantsPotato plants at the end of summer

Because we have a limited amount of garden beds, we had been growing the potatoes in collapsible plastic canvas bags designed specifically for potatoes – they have little flaps in the sides so you can pull out new potatoes without digging up the whole mess.  They worked well enough because of the way potatoes grow.  You plant a few seed potato pieces (or in our case, tiny whole potatoes from last year’s crop, stored overwinter in the refrigerator) at the bottom of each in six inches of potting soil, and add more and more soil all the way to the top as the potato plants strain towards the sun to encourage the production of more potatoes.  That said, at about ten gallons each they are probably too small to get more than a very limited harvest out of each.  More worrying, we encountered the same issue with them that we have had with hanging planters made of the same material: namely that the tarplike plastic canvas breaks down very quickly upon exposure to both sunlight and water, and the sides weaken very rapidly.  In others, the colors have also leached quickly out of them, making me worry about where exactly they leached to since we generally use them to grow food plants.

Potatoes fresh from the soilOnce the vines were out, the soil was loosened gently with a hand fork.  Potatoes were removed and placed in a nearby bowl, and the loose soil could then be turned out into a large wheelbarrow.  This had the added advantage of letting us find any escaped potatoes still in the soil.

This year we had a long growing season for potatoes, so they produced better than in previous years, probably about four or five pounds of yukon gold potatoes ranging in size from a very few large individuals to marble-sized tubers.  Our best guess is that they were limited by the small size of the potato bins, and next year we will be trying larger bins made of hardier material, with thirty gallons a recommended size for potato growing.

As we turned over the soil, more than just potatoes came up: freeloaders like a curled-up cutworm, This year's potato harvestthe flattened shell of a native snail, a horde of ants irate about having their home upended by a busily-digging garden ape, and something I initially took to be a potato until I managed to clean the dirt off it.  Too large to be a mouse skull, too long and low to be a squirrel.  Roof rats have been a constant problem for us in the fruit trees all summer, where they clamber up to get at the ripening apples and pears, and one such tree overhangs the potato bins – but hell if I knew where the rest of the rat had gone.

The soil used to grow potatoes really shouldn’t be used for growing them again, as they are susceptible to fungal diseases that overwinter in the spent soil.  They don’t bother other plants, however, and so the soil from the bags was emptied onto the nearby bed to prepare it for planting.

The rat skull

A very unusual potato.

Climbing PeasPoles prepared for climbing peas

The bed underneath the apple tree has long since been stripped of its dried-out cornstalks and dying melon vines.  Because the crops that grew there in the summer were largely heavy feeders, they are being replaced by at the moment by peas, which will return nitrogen to the soil.

Three tall wooden stakes had been driven into the soil after the green beans that had leaned on them for support all summer had been pulled and composted, but before peas can be grown on them they will need a new webbing of twine to give the plants something to clamber.  Climbing plants can be grown on metal or wooden trellises, but pole-and-string ones work just as well and are easy to take down.  When the plants are exhausted, the strings are cut and theNails are used as anchors for twine. whole mess – beans, strings, and all – tossed into the composting bin for recycling.  Since we use natural fibers for the twine, they compost just as well as the plants if the tempratures are high enough.  Our bins do not typically get hot enough for these tough natural fibers, so we usually add them to the city compost bin, which can handle materials that require high temperatures.

The poles have a few nails driven into them.  These are anchor points around which the strings are firmly tied and to hold them in place at the top and bottom of the poles, with additional anchorage being added by the use of a staple gun (although more nails could easily be added).  The strings are woven around the poles as shown here, with perhaps half a hand’s spacing between the strings as they climb up the poles, zigzagging up the poles at a low angle to ensure that they aren’t spread too far for the vines to be able to reach.

Once the poles were strung, we could dump the potato soil inA staple gun provides additional anchorage and turn it into the soil to prepare for winter planting.  This needed to wait until after the poles were strung since that requires us to walk both in and out of the beds, and part of the A (mostly) finished trellispurpose of turning the beds is to loosen the compacted soil so that the plants will be able to reach deep with their roots.  This is a particular issue here in the Santa Clara Valley, where most of the soils are alluvial in origin and contain a very sticky, clumping clay, montmorillionite.  The method we used for spreading the potting soil is similar to the way we spread fresh compost across the beds in early spring, after our compost bins (the black bins in the background with the wooden lids) have had six months to work on the garden plants, kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and other things they were stuffed full with the previous summer.

Spreading a wheelbarrow of potato soilSpreading soil with a bow rakeSingle-digging to turn over the bed

Spread the fresh soil or compost relatively evenly across the bed – a metal bow rake works well here – and then take a shovel to start turning the soil underneath it, flipping it over.  It doesn’t matter if the soil is not immediately even, as it will be evened out once the entire bed is turned.  Normal turnover goes one shovel’s length deep (single-digging), but if the bed has not been fully turned over in a long time you may need to go down two shovels’ worth (double-digging) to ensure that the deeper soil is not too heavily compacted.  Once the entire bed has been turned, the bow rake is used to even out the soil and eliminate any remaining clumps.

Pea seedlings growing in a homemade flatPlants go in once the soil is prepared.  We grow most of ours from seed in homemade wooden flats filled with soil; while we’ve tried various seed-starter pots, everything from the little expanding peat pots to biodegradeable cardboard and coconut husk, enerally we find that the seedlings can’t break out of the initial pot and either end up with a tiny pot wrapped around the base of a much larger plant (like this year’s zucchini) or the seedlings strangle once they reach a certain size.  Here you can see one of the starter flats with shelling peas growing in it.

The flats can be transported (with difficulty, if they’re this big!) or the individual seedlings carefully worked out by hand and moved to their new planting spot.  Wwe ended up doing it the hard way and going with the former approach.  According to the seed packets they should be planted two inches apart if planted straight into the ground, so they were planted zig-zag on either side of the trellis to ensure that they would be far enough apart to grow well.

Arrangement of planted pea seedlings

Boysenberry Plant

The boysenberry after trimmingWe had started a boysenberry in a pot from a small, innocent-looking twig bought from a garden store in bare-root season two years ago, and although it hasn’t produced many berries yet it’s gotten huge!  Boysenberries are a cane berry, like blackberries and raspberries, and were produced as a particular hybrid of raspberries and native West Coast blackberries, although its exact lineage is somewhat obscure (as described here).  The flavor is sweet like a raspberry, but has a bite like a blackberry.  Too delicate to find for sale anywhere, it’s one of Mark’s favorite berry flavors and seemed an ideal breed to try growing at home.

It’s done well enough for having grown in a pot, although it could use a larger one.  It will get one after the winter, when we’re back in the bare-root season most favorable for transplanting rose bushes and berry vines.  For now, we determined it was time to trim it back and to try and get it under control on a single wooden trellis that we had been using earlier in the summer for a Malabar spinach – a climbing, vining type of green vegetable.  It had previously been growing espalier-style on long strings run sideways across the fence.

Normally when cutting back a cane berry, only the older growth from previous years is trimmed.  Since we were trying to retrain this one, most of it was clipped to encourage more vertical growth – and to get it out of the nooks and crannies between the fenceboards where it had been attempting to stage a coup of the neighbor’s backyard.

This, incidentally, is why we’re not planting it in the ground.

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