The Circle Of Life In The Garden, by S.M.

Every year brings subtle and not-so-subtle changes to a garden. In my fifth year on the learning curve of gardening, I’m amazed and surprised by the drastic changes that took place in the garden over the past six months. This past winter the weather was not typical, so that may have had something to do with the very different garden I have this year as opposed to the garden that grew this time last year. The fall crops grew beautifully through the winter, and we have large amounts of onions and carrots to show for it. There were only three freezing days in November, when we covered the tomatoes, and the rest of the winter they just kept on producing. It really was an enjoyable winter in the garden. I’m sure we won’t have another like it for years to come.

Here is a quick month by month analysis of the garden and how we used some of the produce harvested:

November. We harvested: tomatoes, green peppers, jalapenos, and Swiss chard.

We covered the tomatoes for three consecutive days, then they didn’t need any more protection. We kept waiting for cold weather to return, but it didn’t.

We planted: lettuce, spinach, Chinese cabbage, beets, radishes, carrots, onions, garlic, and dill. Planting was done the beginning of November this year, because the warm temperatures in October threatened seed growth. More would have been planted, but there were so many tomato, pepper, and jalapeno plants still in the ground and producing that there wasn’t room for more.

December. We harvested: tomatoes, green peppers, jalapenos, and Swiss chard.

We sadly watched as parts of the country had a horrible winter, and we kept waiting for the cold to return and wipe out our garden. We had a very warm winter; all the cold air and storms went north.

January. We harvested: tomatoes, green and yellow peppers, jalapenos, Swiss chard, and carrots (mostly thinned them).

We should have planted tomato plants this month, when a gardening friend offered us some starts, but the old plants were still producing, and there was just no room for more unless the old plants were ripped out.

February. We fertilized and mulched around the lemon tree.

We harvested: tomatoes, green and yellow peppers, Swiss chard, dill, carrots (mostly thinned them), and onions.

We processed: dill, peppers, and carrots.

Dill has been abundant this month. Newspapers or parchment paper were spread out on the long bar counter in the kitchen. Dill was harvested and laid out on the counter to air dry for a week. At the end of the week the dill was collected, stripped off the stems (very easy when dry), and stored in pint jars. The next batch was placed on the counter, when the last batch was removed. This went on for weeks.

Peppers were chopped, since they freeze very well. When cooking, we just pull them from the freezer, dump them into the pan, and continue cooking. They keep their texture and flavor very well in the freezer.

We canned some carrots. Most of the carrots were small but very tasty. Canning is labor intensive when the vegetables are small and need to be peeled and cut. The color in the jars is very bright and pleasing though.

We planted: okra, basil, beans, cucumbers, and zucchini.

Also, we bought a hand-turned wheat grinder.

March. On March 1, we had the first rain since November, and collected as much water as possible for the garden.

An investment was made in a dehydrator and dehydrator bible.

The lemon harvest was very small this year, so they were juiced and made into lemon bars. Some of the juice was saved for every day cooking. Blossoms and new lemons have been growing since January, and the lemon harvest should be huge next year. Fertilizing and deep watering are important to a good lemon harvest next winter.

The green pepper harvest is continuing – chopping, freezing, and using peppers in daily cooking.

The dill harvest continues. I finally graduated to quart size jars to store all the dill. When I asked the spouse if I had enough to last a year, hubby said, “You have enough to last five years!” I finally pulled the six-foot tall dill plants. Dill is wonderful; I love it in so many dishes, and now I’m set for a while.

We harvested all the beets and made pickled beets, though it was not a huge harvest. We didn’t grow many because beets aren’t a family favorite. The beet seeds were from a friend who is a seed saver, and I have enough to plant for at least a few more years.

We harvested the remaining jalapenos, with some being roasted in the oven and others chopped and frozen.

We also harvested all of the Chinese cabbage. Chinese cabbage can be used in stir-fry recipes.

We sprouted sweet potatoes to plant. (They are called slips.) However, the way I do them they are more like sprouts.

We traded tomatoes and other garden produce with a neighbor for grapefruit, which we juiced, and finally pulled the tomato vines and harvested the last of the tomatoes.

We planted green beans and flowers in the front, north-facing garden. The African daisies and hollyhocks were seeds from friends. Geraniums and strawberries, which will get more shade and last longer, were planted. I’m experimenting with strawberries in different locations around the property to see if the micro-climates help in keeping them going for a year or more. The strawberries will be covered with straw when it gets really hot. I will continue deep watering the strawberries throughout the summer in hopes of saving the plants into the winter.

The spouse built a long, low-growing box five feet by fifteen feet long. It’s only half as tall as the other garden boxes so that the squash vines can run over the edges and spread out. The construction is the same as the previous boxes, using red wood, bricks, ground cover, and water sealer. This is the three sister’s garden that I’ve wanted to experiment with. Native Americans planted corn, beans, and squash together because of the beneficial mutualistic symbiotic relationships between the plants. Beans release nitrogen into the soil while corn takes large amounts of nitrogen out of the soil. The squash helps balance the other two out, so all three plants thrive. This is an excellent arrangement for plants in Arizona. According to the Internet, plant four corn seeds first in every other mound in the box. When the corn plants reach four inches high, plant beans near the corn stalks. The beans will use the corn to climb up for support. Plant the squash in the other empty mounds. I’ve never planted corn before and so it will be an interesting experiment. This bed was also built and started late in the planting season, so we may not get good results this year, but at least we began working on this goal.

April. We harvested: onions, garlic, carrots, Swiss chard, artichokes, celery, green peppers, green beans, and finished the dill.

An electric wheat grinder was given to us.

We used the new dehydrator to dry carrots, celery, green peppers, onions, and garlic with varying results. The garlic wasn’t satisfactory, but the others turned out fine. The instructions said things like, “dry for six to ten hours.” There is a big difference between six and ten hours, and I’m not always sure what the finished product is supposed to look and feel like. I need more practice with my dehydrator.

I read an article on dehydrating lemons. I’ll do this next year, when my bumper crop of lemons is ready. Dried lemons can be placed in water for a refreshing flavor and a vitamin C boost or placed on top of and underneath roasting fish.

We dug up many aloe vera plants and donated them to the school’s desert garden. They will be used to make aloe vera lemonade to serve at the Earth Day celebration.

We planted tomatoes (very late) in a partially shaded bed (but not the same partially shaded bed they were grown in last year). Rotation of tomato plants is important to prevent diseases from spreading. Tomato cages or spikes used to hold up the plants should be cleaned carefully between seasons as well as for plant health. Tomatoes need to be watered deeply at least three times per week to clean the salts off of the roots. They should have lighter waterings in between as well. I pinched the stems off of the lower portion of the main stems and in the v’s as well. This promotes more tomato growth higher up on the plant. The tomatoes are growing quickly. A sun screen and bird netting will be added in June, as the tomatoes ripen and the weather gets warmer.

We also planted cucumbers, zucchini, okra, basil, cantaloupe, and sweet potatoes.

The birds ate half of the corn seeds in the three sister’s garden, so we replanted and put up a bird net to help protect the baby corn.

The celery was planted a year ago. I decided it was time to harvest and see what the celery was like. Of the four original plants, only one survived, but it looked very healthy. After dehydrating some of the celery there were a few small sections left over and a couple had root chunks on them. I decided to replant these and see what would happen. All but one looked dead for a time, but they’ve now perked up and are doing fine. In another year I’ll have more celery. It’s a plant that teaches patience.

We attended a preparedness class and took notes to add to my preparedness manual. (I now have four actually– general, cooking, money preps, and gardening.)

We cleaned and filled more 2-liter soda bottles with water, and bought a fire pit to accompany the gas grill, though we still need a solar oven.

We gave some of the dried dill to friends as gifts.

May. It’s strange to see empty spaces opening up in the garden as things are harvested and not replaced. Most places in the country are just now planting and getting their gardens going, while I’m pulling many plants that were planted last fall.

We harvested: onions; carrots; zucchini; elephant garlic; green, red, and yellow peppers; Swiss chard; strawberries; lettuce; green beans; and basil.

Zucchini is a versatile vegetable. A few years ago my zucchini wouldn’t grow, and a gardening friend suggested it might be the pollinators. I didn’t try to grow it last year, but this year it’s doing great. It really may have been the pollinators, (Zucchini has male and female flowers and therefore needs lots of bees to germinate.) I’m glad to have lots this year. I’ve made bread and fried zucchini– melt some butter in a pan, chop an onion from the garden, slice in the zucchini, and sauté. Add some spices and a little sour cream right at the end, and you have a delicious side dish. Zucchini can also be used as a filler in spaghetti and casseroles, because it takes on the flavors of the other ingredients. I also have a recipe for zucchini chips that I’m anxious to try. The zucchini is literally maturing in two to three days.

The elephant garlic had many small nodules among the roots. I showed them to my gardening friend, and he said they were probably reproductive organs. I dried, saved, and labeled them and will try to plant them next fall. It will be interesting to see if they grow. The elephant garlic is delicious and seems to do better than regular garlic in my garden beds.

We planted sweet potato slips. Sweet potatoes are a staple in South American diets, and I thought they would be a great addition to our diet as well. We also planted beans and squash (summer squash, zucchini, and pumpkins) in the three sister’s garden.

There are over 100 lemons on the lemon tree already. It has been blossoming since January and continues to blossom. Some of the lemons are a good size. We may have an early harvest.

We dug around and cleaned out the area surrounding the lime tree. We’ve had the lime tree as long as the lemon tree. It’s about one sixth the size of the lemon tree and has never produced a lime. We deep fertilized the tree in May instead of June to see if I can get it going.

I made soup/stew using produce (carrots, onion, garlic, dill, zucchini, and celery) from the garden and pressure canned it in glass pint jars.

We worked on our compost container by stirring, adding water, layering the scraps, dried leaves, and soil on hand.

We bought canning jars on sale and some fruit on sale, which we made into jam. I’m waiting for strawberries to be on sale so I can make more jam.

We canned tomatoes from a friend. He said, “Come back in two weeks for more.” Since my tomatoes are late this year, I will probably take him up on the offer. I do have quite a few green tomatoes on the vine right now, but they are still a ways away from being ripe. I didn’t plant as many tomatoes as last year, so getting some from those with too many is a blessing. I made spaghetti sauce using meat and other veggies and pressure canned it.

We harvested the last of the lettuce and cleaned out the small growing boxes.

We’ve researched and explored ideas for two water projects– water for the garden and potable, drinking water.

Security was upgraded as well.

Successes This Year

I met some of my goals, including:

  • built a three sisters garden, while it isn’t a screaming success yet, we will keep working with it to try and make it a productive garden,
  • purchased a dehydrator and dried some foods in it,
  • explored and used new recipes for different foods,
  • didn’t just grow nice plants but actually produced more food to eat from the plants,
  • tried some new plants in the garden and worked on crop rotation, and
  • preserved more home grown food than ever before.

We also had some unexpected successes. Our long growing season for tomatoes, peppers, jalapenos and dill helped. Next year we will diversify into other plants as well. We’re expecting a large lemon crop next year with over 100 lemons on the tree, so we need to prepare for them. The storage space for jars is now a big issue. (This is both good and bad.)

Challenges This Year

We waited too long to plant many crops, in part due to space limitations as many old plants produced longer than expected.

The lettuces and spinach didn’t do as well as they usually do because the winter was so warm.

We didn’t plant peas or broccoli, due to space and warm weather issues.

We didn’t learn what to do with excess Chinese cabbage, so some of it was wasted.

I didn’t write everything down in my garden journal.

I didn’t plant trees that were intended for the garden. This goal will be carried over into next year.

Water storage needed to be a bigger priority. It’s at the top of the list now.

We’re running out of storage space. This must be addressed this summer to prepare for next fall.

General Thoughts on Preparedness

Each of us has a preparedness wheel. (Picture one of the large wheels on a pioneer covered wagon.) Spokes radiate out from the center; one spoke each for food, water, security, first aid, fuel/light, bug-out capabilities, communications, and so forth for each category. Some spokes may be short right now, like our security spoke, (but we’re working on this one) and others may be long, like our food prep spoke, which has definitely grown the most. If all the spokes are the same length and fairly long, then you have a wheel that will get you someplace. If the spokes are short and different lengths, then the lopsided wheel will keep you from moving forward. As I work on my preparedness, I visualize my wheel and determine which spokes to work on next, attempting to have the same length and balance in all areas.

Another way to look at this is the McDonald’s analogy. A few years ago a movie came out called Super-size Me. In it, a man spent 30 days eating only at McDonald’s, and if they asked if he wanted his meal Super-sized, then he had to say, “Yes”. After eating this way for a time, he developed all kinds of health issues and began craving the chemically-loaded food. In his case, Super-sized meals were harmful, but in preps, super-size is better. Less isn’t more in a survival situation. Items can be discarded along the way as they aren’t needed, but you can’t conjure up a solar oven just because you need one right now! You may be able to make one with a cardboard box and aluminum foil but only if you have aluminum foil on hand. Picture each prep area and think, “Is this a Happy Meal-sized prep, a regular prep, or a Super-sized prep?” Next, set a few goals in each area to achieve a Super-sized prep. Continually working on each area will assure peace of mind and better preparedness. Picture a monster truck with huge tires crushing a little VW bug. A super-sized monster truck with huge tires gives the driver a better perspective of the big picture because he can see for miles. Those close to the ground can’t see very far at all, and if they have lopsided tires on their preparedness vehicle, they just don’t have much hope. We all want to drive a monster truck of preparedness. We just need to strive for it one step at a time. It’s something to think about.

Garden Wrap Up

I would have to say I’ve learned more this year than ever before. The learning curve has grown exponentially. My preparedness notebooks are full of information to be used now and in the future. This summer may be a bust in the garden, due to high temperatures and more bugs and pests than usual because of the warm winter. It’s okay; I’ll do what I can. Non-chemical pest control will be a new area to become educated on. Time will tell.

As I make soup and jam in my very warm kitchen, I feel so much gratitude for the blessing of a garden. Last year I was making salsa and spaghetti sauce. This year is a nice change with bottled carrots and home grown soup on the shelf. I look forward to trying my hand at okra. What will I do with it? How can I best use sweet potatoes in meals for the family? I know the garden’s productivity will ebb and flow through the years, some years successful and other years not so much. One year can make a huge difference to the same garden. Go with it; you don’t have to have a salsa garden every year. You don’t have to grow peas and spinach every winter. If the winter is warm, keep the tomatoes and peppers going. When it gets really cold, put up some quick hoops or cold frames and concentrate on greens and cold weather crops. The circle of life continues in the garden, even if the circle changes every year. The garden has been a great teacher to me. I look forward to a lifetime of learning and instruction in my garden.