Jungle to Veg Garden!

The sun reaches its northernmost point on the horizon today. Tomorrow evening it turns around and starts heading south again. In the US, we call this the beginning of summer, but traditionally this is the middle, Midsummer. 

The official date of the Midsummer holiday is the 24th, much like the winter solstice holidays are tied to the 25th to avoid the hassle of trying to plan annual calendars around a fluctuating event. Particularly this fluctuating event that is rather vague in experience and thus sort of pointless from the perspective of timing. Unless you live near one of the remarkable calendrical constructions — and these days have special clearance to be at those heritage sites — it’s difficult to even see the actual solstice. Day length is relatively constant for weeks on either side of the solstice, with changes being measured in seconds as you get into the week of the event; and unless you have a flat eastern or western horizon with either natural or built reference markers, it’s really hard to see the difference in the sun’s apparent path from one week to the next. It usually takes me a few weeks before I can tell that, yes, the sun is now rising a bit more to the south than it was at the summer solstice. And this is largely relative to my garden.

For most of my life I’ve lived in mountainous regions. I’ve never lived with a flat horizon. Even my time in the Midwest was spent in hilly karst country, not the wide-open prairie. But I’ve always had a plot of earth that was growing things that had various light requirements. So I’ve always kept track of how much sun is falling on that plot. This has made me rather more attuned to the path of the sun than either those who can just count on sunlight hitting their veg or those that don’t grow veg at all. My current, and hopefully last, veg garden is on the top of a southwest(ish)-facing ridge, which is great, but it’s also got to contend with a tall garage to the southeast and mature hardwoods all around, which is not so great. 

I spent last summer watching this plot to see how much light fell and where. This summer, as you know, I began the jungle remediation by cutting down all the grack on the top of the ridge, that which blocked light on much of the garden plot space for most of the afternoon. This was especially irritating since my whole property is perched on the foothills of a mountain to the east and so doesn’t get direct sun for over two hours after sunrise. So in the summer, the first light to fall is after 7am, and with that grack it was back in shadow by mid-afternoon, giving whatever grew there less than 8 hours of direct sunlight even in the peak growing season. Now, many garden plants are just fine with afternoon shade as long as there is lots of indirect light, but not my favorite food plants — chiles! — so steps needed to be taken…

Happy onions!

Well, the slope of that ridge is now cleared. Plus, in the jungle at the base of the slope, I cut down a good deal of wild plum, sumac, Virginia creeper, wild grape, alder and approximately 8 billion maple saplings (maybe I’m exaggerating…). I nearly made it to the apple tree at the very bottom of the property. (Can’t actually get down there yet because of a large pile of random enormous granite blocks that might have been a retaining wall at some point but which now makes for about a 6’ foot drop onto an unknown, brush-choked landing. Brer Rabbit I am not…) I discovered some lovely dogwood, quite a few eastern redbuds and a truly amazing trio of healthy ash trees, maybe the last in New England (or the world?). But even more amazingly, now that the bank is cleared, that formerly dour plot of level earth next to the garage gets sun almost until 8pm at this time of year. My onions are already showing their appreciation by doubling in size in the last week or so.

Weed barrier (or, rather, creeper & sumac barrier)

Meanwhile, I’ve moved 6 cubic yards of compost into the new beds and onto the surrounding hügelkultur mound. I covered almost all the area in between beds with landscape fabric and will top that with cheap cedar mulch next week because I just can’t keep up with sumac and creeper shoots. The weed barrier might give me a fighting chance. Also it’s not at all fun trying to keep the grass out of the raised beds when it is growing right up to the bed frame. I’ve tried that one in the past, lured by the romance of having clover-dotted lawn around beds teeming with produce. But it never works out like that. For one thing, the teeming produce often spills over the edge, making mowing impossible. But that lawn stuff will just send its runners under the bed framing and into your bed and will colonize the entire thing in days. And often you won’t even see evidence of this happening until there is a solid mat of roots woven under and around your veg, so that when you pull out the lawn, everything else comes out with it. So anyway, the beds are set and there is a plan for keeping the weeds out, as much as that is possible.

I finished up the planting last week. The sweet potato slips are peaky and there isn’t much germination yet because it’s been so dry, but I planted extra of everything to accommodate the high probability of low survival. I figure if half of it is productive I’ll have more than I need and maybe some to sell — if I can figure out how to do that in my town. Apparently, my neighborhood zoning proscribes nearly all uses and structures apart from those necessary to warehousing people. There will be words on this, but not in time for this year’s harvest. But I plant heirloom varieties and odd veg that local farms just don’t grow, given my experience managing the farm stand last summer. So I could probably sell my oddball stuff at least to my former employers (though that’s sort of up in the air also as they are going through a bit of an upheaval right now). 

The newly sunny garden. And I can see the town now too!

I have an abundance of winter squash, pumpkins and summer squash in these beds. The hügelkultur mound is nothing but winter cucurbits — pumpkins, gourds and squash — and sun-loving annual flowers for pollinators and bird seed. So there will be much quick-bread baking and freezing of roasted purees for soup and casserole bases. Combined with chiles and black beans, also both in abundance in the garden beds, this is the bulk of my diet. I’m pretty sure that the annual savings on the grocery bill will more than pay for the soil, lumber, weed barrier and seed. Especially if you do that standard accounting trick of amortizing the costs over the course of their useful life, which, I figure, is probably eight to ten years for the cedar frames and essentially forever for the compost and weed barrier. I will, in any case, never be buying that much fabric, mulch and compost ever again. I might not pay for all of it in one growing season, but it will be close, definitely made up by next harvest.

I’ve already started plans for storage in the basement. With just a bit of shuffling and a bit more investment in crates, I can probably store all but apples down there with no refrigeration. And, significantly, no more shelf-buying either. I already have done potatoes, so I know that works, though I didn’t plant any of those this year. There are potatoes at every farm stand around here in a bewildering array of varieties. Much like corn, I don’t see the point in growing my own. Especially because, much like corn, it takes up so much garden space, space that I’d rather fill with things I can’t readily buy local. Now, for that reason, blue corn might make an appearance now and then… if I can reign in the squirrel problem just a bit… yeah, right…

And on local predation issues, I’m putting the chickens on indefinite hold for now. We have the usual owl, raccoon and fisher-cat issues here. But we also have urban foxes. I’ve seen a mama running around even in broad daylight. (Obvious mama… ) And last month there were three youngsters playing down in the jungle. I don’t know if they’re living there, but it does seem like ideal fox territory. Protected by walls and ridges all the way around, on the border of both downtown with its Dumpsters and conservation lands with its rodents, and just riddled with cozy den sites under fallen granite block. This is good news for the veg garden as a fox in residence will definitely control the rabbit and groundhog populations (which are, in fact, notably low here!). But not so great if I want a chicken coop in that same space. So that was a bit of a bummer, but not too surprising. In any case, I still haven’t figured out if my property zoning allows for chickens. A quick perusal of the regulations sort of has me thinking no… (Goes double for goats, I suspect… as I said, there will be words…)

So that’s the news on the jungle remediation at Midsummer. There is still a ton of grack to clear, and I’m thinking a couple of the dead trees are going to have to come down (meaning firewood!). But it’s coming along nicely.

And now I’m off to carry water over to the seed beds. Oof… Hope this dry spell breaks soon! (But I did buy a rain barrel from Gardener’s Supply… so that will make things easier.)

©Elizabeth Anker 2022