Labor Day seems like a fine occasion to reflect on the failures and triumphs of my efforts to grow a huge garden and preserve great quantities of fruits and veggies for winter eating.
Huge is relative, of course. My garden is puny by my rural neighbors’ standards.
On an area maybe 60 feet long and 15 feet wide, I lined up 13 rows of straw bales, four bales to a row.
Following directions in the book “Straw Bale Gardens” by Joel Karsten, I “conditioned” the bales with water and fertilizer in early spring to create basically a raised bed garden where the broken-down straw inside the bales served as a soil-less growing medium.
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I planted only summer crops because, frankly, cool-season crops such as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower are challenging in our climate, where short springs usually turn quickly into long, hot summers.
Here are the box score results for the major crops:
Tomatoes: This was my second year of sensational harvests growing tomatoes in straw bales. I bought a farm scale to measure the yield of each of the 20 plants — to compare varieties — but that quickly became too much of a bother, so I weighed them all together.
So far, I have picked 280 pounds, which averages 14 pounds per plant. The vines are still loaded with green tomatoes, so I suspect I will end up at around 20 pounds per vine average. Not record-breaking but a great return on my investment, because the seeds were free (saved from last year) and 400 pounds of heirloom tomatoes, if I end up with that, would cost $1,200 at $3 a pound.
Yields don’t matter unless you are attempting to store a lot of food for winter, as I am. I do not can tomatoes by themselves; I can tomato sauce, namely Sicilian Tomato Sauce from the “Gourmet Cookbook” by Ruth Reichl.
The sauce concentrates the flavor of the ripest tomatoes by simmering them for hours with tons of garlic and basil and a splash of olive oil.
All winter long, I use the sauce as a starter ingredient for pastas, pizza, stews and ratatouille. I also use some of it immediately to make large batches of caponata, which I also can.
Caponata is a luscious Sicilian sweet-and-sour eggplant relish. I use Mary Taylor Simeti’s recipe from “Pomp and Sustenance.”
So far I have canned 30 pints of tomato sauce and 12 pints of caponata and I am far from done. I have several gallon bags of whole tomatoes that I blanched and froze before my vacation, plus the remaining tomatoes on the vines.
That will last me until next year’s harvest comes in, which is the ultimate goal for all my harvests.
Favorite varieties: Grandma’s Pick and Dester, both slicers, big and luscious and not prone to cracking. I’m still looking for a good paste variety. Amish Paste had low yields, and Rosso Siciliano were undersized.
Cucumbers: Also my second year of crazy-big harvests from a total of about 16 plants in four bales, trained up trellises.
I think the plants were too crowded; I will plant fewer per bale next year and fewer overall. I have canned around two dozen quarts of dill pickles plus pints of sandwich dills and hamburger dills and, frankly, who needs that many pickles?
On the other hand, Christmas gifts are taken care of.
Favorite variety: A&C Picklings make nice straight slicers when they pass pickle size.
Cantaloupe: Frustrating because you can’t can or freeze them, but so rewarding because the taste is so sublime, nothing like store-bought. I planted them three times, three weeks apart, to prolong the season, but they all ripened at once anyway. So I ate cantaloupe every day for a week. That was a good week.
Favorite varieties: the perfume-y, grapefruit-size Petit Gris de Rennes and candy-sweet, enormous Hale’s Best.
Watermelon: Like cantaloupe, store-bought can’t compare. Also like cantaloupe, you can’t fool Mother Nature, and spaced-out plantings all ripened at once. Another good week.
Favorite varieties: small, round, dark-red-inside Sugar Baby and big, swoon-inducing Moon-and-Stars.
Those four crops are my all-star lineup that I will definitely grow again next year.
The needs-improvement category includes green beans, lima beans, pumpkins and winter squash. Those things all tasted great but succumbed early to grasshoppers and bugs. I will give them another chance and try to be more aggressive at natural pest control.
In the good-but-need-to-plant-more category were a dwarf variety of okra, eggplant, sweet peppers and hot peppers.
And my favorite category, most improved, includes onions, beets and carrots, which last year I could not get to grow in freshly conditioned bales, but they did great this year in bales left over from last summer.
The biggest flop, for the second year running, was potatoes. I harvested roughly the same amount that I planted. Fortunately, potatoes are available year round for a very low price.
And that is an important lesson of gardening: Grow only things that you really love to eat and that you get enough of to make the labors you poured into them worth it. For all the rest, let it go and support your local farmers market.