I began gardening for health reasons. I had recently developed myasthenia gravis, and after walking a block, I would have to lie down on someone else's lawn to gain the strength to return home. In my garden I could lie down privately often. Now I routinely commute several miles on my bike, and my husband feels 20 years younger than he did 20 years ago. Fresh, organic food is as good for health as it is reputed to be.
Gardening without poisons, chemicals, or power equipment, as I do, also has obvious environmental advantages. The Union of Concerned Scientists concluded in their study of what consumers can do to preserve the environment that eating organically is the third most important step.
Now I also believe it is the patriotic duty of everyone who can to raise as much food as possible. Typical U.S. food travels about 2000 miles from grower to eater, and that takes a lot of oil, which makes us dependent on countries I think we would be better off not depending on. Vegetables and fruit require much more energy than grains because of refrigeration.
Below are lists of what I do each month, of what we harvest each month, my favorite books, and free commerical catalogs, and ideas about composting. I have raised all my family's vegetables year round for over two decades while working full-time, even when there were four teen-agers in our home. It need not take much time!
January: Drag home 5 neighbor's Christmas trees and cut them up as mulch for blueberries. If there is a thaw, dig the ground, plant lettuce and pak choi, and cover with floating cover, a plastic sheet that admits light and water. Plant leaf lettuce on the windowsill. Order the year's seeds from catalogs (see below how to get them).
February: Prune blueberries and fruits. Apply dormant oil spray. Start brocolli, Sweet 100 tomatoes, and Malabar spinach indoors.
Sow Sugar Ann peas early in the month and more than a half pound of sugar
snap peas later.
This is the year's most tedious job, but it feels great in the warming
sun. Do it over many days.
Indoors start basil, parsley, celery, nasturtiums (yes, we eat the flowers and leaves!), and Early Girl tomatoes. Sow lettuce, radishes, and pak choi outdoors under floating cover.
Outdoors sow root crops (carrots, parsnips, and maybe salsify) under floating
At mid-month transplant brocolli and remaining lettuce outdoors. Then put out the first tomatoes under walls-of-water and nasturtiums. The average last frost free date here is April 15, but it's been years since we've had a late April or May frost.
Sow more radish and lettuce seeds outdoors, and repeat sowing lettuce every three weeks until September. Sow leek seeds.
Indoors sequentially start various types of tomatoes and flowers. Buy eggplant, cabbage, and pepper plugs and coddle them in larger pots than a nursery can provide. Throughout this month and until mid-May transplant plants to larger pots as soon as they are as tall as the pot they are in. Late in the month start zuchinni and cucumbers seeds inside.
Make the first planting of corn and bush beans under floating cover. Repeat such plantings every few weeks until mid-July, omitting the floating cover at warmer times.
May: Frost-free date is May 15. At mid-month plant out tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and flowers. Begin mulching with grass clippings, and continue this process until frost.
pole beans to climb where the pea vines will die in July. Thin carrots
to a half inch spacing and mulch with grass clippings as you go, partially
to mark where you have been. This is the year's second most tedious
Late in the month start more zuchinni inside to plant out in July as a second crop. The squash borer usually kills the first crop, but it comes only once a yaer, so the second crop can be quite prolific in the fall.
collard, kale, and michihli (or another large chinese cabbage) seeds either
indoors or out. If indoors, plant the window starts out later in
the month after clearing peas and first corn crops. Start lettuce seeds
inside instead of outdoors so they are easy to keep moist.
Thin carrots to one inch spacing and eat the "finger carrots." (In 2001 there were two gallons of these delicious carrots!)
August: Start fall pak choi, perhaps where first crop of zuchinni has collapsed. Thin carrots to two inch spacing, and eat the thinnings.
September: Sow lettuce seeds outside for the last time this year. Perhaps plant lei choi and lettuce to winter under floating cover for early spring harvest; recently I've been waiting until January for this.
October: Cover tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant with burlap if frost is predicted, usually about the time of the full moon. Remove when weather warms. Plant bulbs outside and in the root cellar.
Harvest last tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant just before the first frost,
usually under a full moon. After cleaning away the debris, sow green manure
(winter rye, etc.) where these were.
Collect about 100 bags of leaves to compost. Put some over the root crops to keep them from freezing during the winter. Keep most of them for alternating with live matter (primarily kitchen and yard waste) in next year's compost heaps and for mulching raspberries.
December: Harvest last chinese cabbage, pak choi, leeks, and collards before the temperature drops below 20 degrees and put them in the refrigerator to eat during the next few weeks.
As needed: Weed, double-dig,
and mulch with grass clippings (continually), wood chips as available,
and chopped leaves when a neighbor kindly provides them. Keeping
a heavy mulch minimizes (1) weeding and (2) watering and (3) adds organic
matter to the soil. Heavily mulched organic soil does not need to
be dug unless you want to; superficial raking will prepare it adequately
for seeding. John Jeavons says not to dig a "mature" garden soil
at all so it can keep its structure; mulch heavily.
Dig in compost or distribute it (partially rotted) around plants as a mulch. I use the three-pile method of composting: one pile I am adding to, one I'm taking from, and one that is "cooking." Compost heaps decrease to about one fifth their size in a year, and are then ready in this climate if you alternate "green" (nitrogen-rich: mostly kitchen and lawn waste) and "brown" (carbon-rich, mostly dried leaves) matter at roughly four inch layers. My husband brings home about 100 bags of leaves each fall, about a ton. For 20 years it has all disappeared into our suburban back yard!
Never water the lawn. Water the garden only (1) with a watering can after sewing seeds until they are viable and (2) in mid-summer if tomato plants look thirsty in the evening. (This never happens some years.) Then water deeply, for at least an hour of steady spray, or much longer if the source rotates. Encourage your plants' roots to grow deep; don't favor surface roots by light watering. I watered twice in 2001, and had a lush harvest.
Pat Kenschaft's Harvests
Winter: Put neighbors' bagged leaves over carrots planted in April when the leaves look cold. Brush snow off the bags and and pull the carrots all winter. Similarly for parsnips, salsify (G), and Jeruselum artichokes, but there are fewer. Kale survives outside; just break off and thaw inside for February salads. Grow sprouts inside. Winter rye and other cover crops planted after frost provide nitrogen to the soil and the roots loosen it.
March: Collards look dead during the winter, but revive and can be eaten again. Pak choi and lettuce planted in January may sometimes be taken from under the floating cover. Finish eating the carrots and parsnips before they become stringy. Harvest lettuce planted on a windowsill in January.
Mid-April: Fresh lettuce salad and stir-fry Lei Choi Chinese cabbage, both planted in a January warm spell under floating cover (A). Gourmet Blend lettuce (B) planted every 3 weeks from April to Sept., yields a continuous varied harvest until December. Cook's Garden's Summer variety packets is more prolific in summer.
Late May: Sugar Bon Peas (B) planted early in March under floating cover. Also broccoli started indoors in late February and planted out in April. Nursery broccoli plants are available too late, but nursery plants for tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, and eggplants are fine. If I pick and discard bitter broccoli all summer, it becomes sweet again in the fall. It has a large yield for Thanksgiving, and typically some in December. Strawberries.
Early June: Snappy (B) or Sugar snap peas. In 1986 I froze 150 servings and served many, but most years provide a more modest yield. Peas freeze easily in the kitchen refrigerator. Peas, beans, and brocolli keep well frozen if you blanch them (that is, boil them for three minutes) before putting them in a zip-lock bag in the freezer. Labeling dates helps, but isn't essential for the super-busy.
Mid-June: Naking cherries (G). Basil for pesto; pesto freezes well. Basil deters insects from tomatoes and pesto is delicious; plant lots of basil! I prefer mammoth basil; it is faster to clean and tastes the same to me as standard basil.
Late June: Zucchini, usually beginning June 26! Since squash bugs destroy these by early August, I plant new seeds in late June for a September crop. Sweet Million and Early Girl tomatoes may begin in June. Blueberries begin and various varieties yield throughout the summer. Ancestral and heritage raspberries begin and are abundant in July.
Mid-July: Jubilee yellow tomatoes (B). Roma bush beans
freeze well. Successive plantings yield continuing crops. Concord
Early corn (P) planted under floating cover in mid-April begins. Staggered plantings can yield until October, but the squirrels oftn steal corn. For more plentiful crops, fertilize it by hand (i.e. take some pollen and scatter it on the silks) and hide each fledgling ear with a paper bag if the animals are naughty.
Late July: Peppers that I chop and freeze. Before freezing eggplant, I dip slices in an egg-milk mixture, then in Italian flavored bread crumbs, and fry so they come apart easily for eggplant parmesan. Climbing summer spinach (Malabar) is abundant now until frost. Plant kale, head Chinese cabbage, and collards. White peaches.
August: Beefsteak Tomatoes (B) make good sauce for freezing and provide ample eating while other tomatoes take a heat break. Abundant fall-crop heritage raspberries.
September: Frostbeater soybeans(B) (or bought ones) in whole wheat pita with fresh tomatoes, pepper, cucumbers, and lettuce. Pole Roma and/or lima beans grow where peas once climbed. Pears and then apples.
October until below 20 degrees: Lutz beets, Chinese cabbage, collards, and rutabaga. Kiwi
November: Just before frost, pick, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.
Freeze extras. Put unripe tomatoes in layered newspaper in the basement
to ripen, sometimes into the holidays.
Free catalogs: (F) Fedco Seeds is a cooperative that has no color in
its catalog and no phone-ordering service. However, it offers enormous
variety at pheonomenal prices. Get a catalog at either 207-873-7333
or P.O. Box 520, Waterville, ME 04903-0520
(B) Burpee: 1-800-888-1447, the old stand-by with a glorious color catalog. However, their telephone answerers assure me they do not carry any genetically engineered seeds;
(C) Cook's Garden 1-800-457-9703, a family-run newish establishment; (G) Gurney's: 1-605-665-1930; (P) Parks: 1-864-223-7333, the only source for Malabar spinich, which climbs gloriously all summer until frost, but they don't carry it every year; (S) Stokes: 1-716-695-6980; Territorial Seed Company: 541-942-9547;
(A) Gardens Alive: 812-537-8650; Gardener's Supply Company: 800-863-1700: These two carry the extras for organic gardeners that make organic gardening successful
Hints for beginners: Plant tomatoes, beans, and peas. Double
dig repeatedly, digging compost in deeply. Mulch profusely with grass-clippings,
chopped leaves, wood chips, and partially rotted compost. If you have plenty
of sunshine and compost, try zucchini.
The second year try lettuce, Chinese cabbage, chard, and other leafy vegetables, perhaps broccoli.
Wait until the third year for root crops. Keep frozen cooked soybeans in your freezer to mix with rice and stir-fries. Consult your local library for many good gardening books.
I especially recommend John Jeavons' How to Raise More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine and Ruth Stout's Gardening Without Work: for the Busy, the Aging, and the Idolent.
Check at your own library! Fine new books are appearing all the time. I learned by listening to old-timers and to my guests at my open gardens. Nobody knows very much compared to what there is to know about growing food locally. Enjoy. And remember that a gardener can bury her mistakes without anyone caring!
Composting hints: There are books written on this topic,
and I spent lots of time composting at first because I wanted lots of compost
However, for the past decade I composted only my own garden and kitchen
waste (we are vegetarians), and others' leaves and grass clippings.
No longer do I turn piles; in this climate a pile composts in about a year
without turning. I alternate "brown" and "green." "Browns"
are carbon-rich and slow the composting process. "Greens" are nitrogen-rich
and speed it up. (Too much nitrogen and it stinks.) Everything that
is not yet dead is "green," including coffee grounds. I try to alternate
brown and green in layers of about four inches; I don't succeed well, and
I don't worry about it. Compost happens.
My husband brings me 100 bags of leaves that others kindly leave on their curbs each fall. At about 20 pounds per bag, that's a ton of leaves a year -- for 20 years. It just disappeared into our yard. I use the bags over the root crops to keep them warm in the winter, spread the leaves as a mulch around raspberries when convenient, and use more leaves in the summer to alternate with the "greens" that are so abundant then.
I use the three-pile method of composting. There is one that I'm building, one that I'm taking from, and one that is "cooking." Generally (with luck), when I take all the compost from the pile I'm taking from, the one that is cooking will be ready to have its top put in that place and underneath there will be ready compost. Then I continue to pile things where I just started (the previous "taking from" pile), take from the one that was previously cooking, and leave the other just to sit. Typically piles are close to five feet high when I leave them, and less than a foot high after they have settled down due to composting. These three piles are under trees, where little grows.
Compost barrels that you can turn easily will compost faster -- in less than a month in our climate -- and many commercial compost bins are more sightly for closely inhabited places. No container is needed, however. Others have found that leaves piled in a frame of chicken-wire are ready to spread as attractive mulch late the following summer so the frame is ready for the next autumn's leaves.