Thursday, March 8, 2012


One way to extend your pantry is to grow your own foods. This is not always the easiest thing to do. We live in an apartment and are lucky to have a complex with garden plots. For the last two years these have not been the most successful plots but I think I have finally figured out how to fix the problems. Our weather has been rather uncooperative with late starts. Last year we had frost into June then the weather turned amazingly hot and we didn't see rain for the entire summer. I lost the plants I started because I started them too late and they were not hardy enough to survive. I bought plants but they were in the ground too late to really produce well.
We have two plots, each 6x6 raised beds. One is our "permanent" plot that we filled with herbs and berry plants. This year I plan on adding a comfrey plant. The other is our veggie garden.
Our plants for the year - zucchini, watermelon (because we had seeds from the year before - watermelon is hard to grow in our area), pie pumpkins, tomatoes, jalapeno and sweet peppers, spinach. I think that's everything. I do plan on buying an additional blueberry plant to add to the permanent plot. It does cost to use the plots - $20 per plot per year.
I started plants a week ago - everything but the spinach and the zucchini. The zucchini I purchased is a 60 day crop meaning that they'd be producing before I got them into the ground and I don't want that. I might start them in May so they have a little time to grow before I plant but that all depends on the weather.
Knowing your weather and what grows best is a trial and error process but you can ask your neighbors. I never rely on USDA charts because I know they are for more professional growers. That doesn't mean they aren't useful but I find talking with people who are actually growing food in the area are better resources. Here in the Palouse region of Washington, I have found that tomatoes, peppers and zucchini are almost fool proof plants.
Now things to look for when you plan your garden, especially if you are "unseasoned" - I swear by growth dates. Each packet of seeds comes with a number of days. Ideally this is the amount of time it takes to produce a crop. If you've lived in your area awhile then you have an understanding of your growing season. Here, up north, this is the time between the last frost in the spring and the first frost in the fall. Some plants can tolerate some frost but it's best to use those dates when planning your garden. I know that we often have frost and snow up to May (on average not on odd years like last year). This tells me that I can plan to plant in May (or gives me a time to start looking for the end of frost). Some plants such as peas and potatoes prefer the cooler weather and can be planted in April (my mother says the rule of thumb is to plant them on Good Friday). Peas don't really do well when the weather gets hot. As much as I love fresh peas - I don't bother with them because I, personally, have not had good luck with them.
I know that the first snow fall often comes at the end of October but that the frost can start early September. Reoccuring events help. Our county fair is in September and that gives me an indicator for weather patterns. We can easily get really cold weather during that week and some years the fair just wasn't worth braving the cold for. Other years, the weather is beautiful.
In a perfect year, I can get my garden prepped in May and my plants planted. I have until the middle of September before the frost can potential kill my plants. That gives me a growing season of approximately 120 days. I work to avoid anything that takes that long, instead opting for plants that mature in 60-90 days if I can get them. As I said some plants, such as pumpkins, will tolerate the cold and many will not have numbers lower than 100 days. I still seek out the lowest number I can.
There are tricks to extending your growing season such as using greenhouses and frost protectors. This year I plan on experimenting with them but at this point I can't share any experience with you.
Now, on another note, I plan on growing some plants on my balcony and in my apartment. We have limited space so I can't go hog wild but I will be planting the spinach indoors - for longer growing season and convenince. I will be using containers to grow peppers and tomatoes as well. For me, this is a back up plan in case something happens to my garden. I'm thinking about making or purchasing one of those topsy turvy tomato hangers for my balcony (probably making). The trick here is to purchase good soil for the plants I keep close to home so they have the best possible chance of survival.

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