Illinoying

Illinoying

Illinois has a very different climate from New England. Being close to the Atlantic, the air was typically damp, and the temperatures drifted slowly from winter to summer. Meanwhile, in Illinois is thermal changes were akin to a 3 year-old with a light switch. You can go from winter through to summer and right on back to the Arctic in a few days. In the winter, everything freezes solid: the ground, the plants, and your brake fluid. When it snows, the air is so dry that it will frequently sublime away. Spring is short and it rushes straight into summer (and then back to winter for a few days). Whole apple crops are lost because of the erratic nature of the weather. This was a whole new ball game.

Before we had even bought a house, I was farming a small plot of land at work. Akin to an allotment, the space was divided and a group of us set to work. Peppers, squash and tomatoes were my prime goals as they needed less attention. Weed fabric kept down the maintenance, and a fence kept out the rabbits. Rabbits were easy to handle, they didn’t climb trees. The first few weeks were perfect. Lots of sun, a lot of nice warmth, and periodic showers. It was a surprise that not all of the plots were taken. The tomatoes took well and the squash started to run.

Work

My defeat came at the hands of the weather, or more precisely the interaction of the weather with the topology of pancakeland. Illinois I had discovered was incredibly flat. Thanks to glaciers this state is the second flattest in the Union (Florida is #1). You can drive all day and never see so much as a hillock. It is no surprise that the Dutch settled in the area in the 1900s. However, this leads to one minor problem, drainage.

River Flood

As the old saying goes, water will always flow downhill. Well what happens if there is no downhill? Along comes a storm and drops 3” of rain onto your vegetable patch, and where does it go? Combined with a very heavy clay soil, and your vegetable patch will quickly turn into another of the great lakes. The water table rises, and now instead of being a few feet below the ground, it is above it. The whole world becomes sodden. A few days later you are looking for some short season crops to compensate.

Except that is for the squash plants. They were planted in small hills, and soaked up the water. Fruit grew and the plants flourished. While my coworkers loved taken home pounds of squash each day, for me there was an air of disappointment. In 20 years, my life had come full circle. All I could grow was squash.

…and it all went to his head.

…and it all went to his head.

For those who have read through my previous posts will have experience my struggles against not only nature but also a large dose of gardening ignorance. It was a journey of discovery, which developed into an all out war. This was not the end… far from it  An internal battle was looming, it was time for my sanity to take a little vacation.

The adventures with the groundhog did not end with the fencing. As soon as spring appeared, it was time to push the advantage and leave the rodent with a herculean challenge. My reading online taught me that groundhogs are creatures of habit.  Each spring they leave their winter abode and create a summer den where they rear their pups. The location for this vacation home of procreation just happened to be under my shed, which in turn was right next to my vegetable patch. The final phase of the battle entailed the enclosing of the space under the shed with wire netting (and burying it 12” underground) in order to make the summer den inaccessible. Once complete… no crops were lost again to the hog. The plants were safe. I had my victory. My memorial to the battle involved building more raised beds. A lot more raised beds.

If we go back to one of the key tenets of Square Foot Gardening, it is that using the high density method, the backyard gardening can reduce the amount of effort that they put in and increase their yields. I first started with with about 100 ft² of garden, which gave me an excessive crop of lettuce, spinach, carrots, leeks and all manner of healthy vegetables. The second phase of expansion raised it by 50%. Yields were curtailed due to the groundhog, but they were still reasonable. However, my celebratory escapade proceeded over a period of 12 months to add a further 500 ft². I expanded into every part of the garden. Areas which were previously for parking cars… gone. Corners by the deck… gone. It was a massive undertaking requiring over 20 cubic yards of compost (which was still cheap). My wife would come home from shopping to find a new set of beds which had magically appeared. Irrigation systems were expanded. My mind went into overdrive thinking of the crops I would plant.

Dirt

It was around this time that the spreadsheets appeared. If I was going to go into mass production, I needed to plan. Each crop would be planted at a specific time and if I organized everything correctly, I could get more than one crop from a single square foot in a seasons. Seeds and seedlings would be planted at the correct time to maximize yields. My garden would become a model of efficiency, it would be complete victory over nature. [Evil laugh with hand rubbing]

Spreadsheet

With so much potential yield, plans were drawn up to go into seedling production. To hit my peak production quotas, I needed over 150 seedlings. Not just tomatoes, but squash, peppers, corn, lettuce, herbs, and psychosis. The dining room became the center of a micro manufacturing industry. Mats would heat the seeds in sprouting medium. Once they had a few leaves, they were re-potted into small containers. A second potting would them see them transferred to the basement where lamps and a semi-automatic irrigation system would provide them with a month of growth prior to being planted out. It was perfect, a model of efficient. Row upon row, tray upon tray, everything was designed and calculated so that even with some losses, I could fill every square foot of my life with plants. If this worked, then I could plan it down to the future meals. Months in advance, I would know what crops would be ready when. It would be like eating at the end of a 4 month long conveyor. [More evil laughing]

Reality of course set in. In many ways, it brought me full circle. Some crops would flourish, others were choked by weeds. While indeed, I was able to grow more, apparently it came at the expense of the things I also liked. Spending time with my family for example. My wife discovered that she didn’t like farming (not that she ever expressed an interest that she did). My daughter and spent less time together (apparently gardening was only slightly interesting to her). My water bill skyrocketed, as did my electricity bill from all of the lamps. The successes were heavily outweighed by the failures. Some beds would go a whole season without a single crop. I managed to turn a wonderful backyard hobby into a nightmare.

Garden July b

Unfortunately, like an alcoholic, you never truly recover from this sort of insanity. Rather than being cured, it was removed from my life. In mid 2011, in part due to work, we found ourselves in Illinois. A state with a different climate, new vermin to deal with, and a yard untouched by a vegetable gardener. This time I would do it right. This time it would be different. This time I would learn from my mistakes… This time I will….wow, my office has these wonderful plots of land that I can farm.

The Attack of Phil

The Attack of Phil

Growing up in England you become accustomed to the local wildlife. Squirrels dig holes in the lawn, rabbits are found in the countryside, and ferrets turn up in people’s pants. Generally, people live so close together that aside from mice running through the kitchen, they don’t bother the vegetable patches. Moving to the US has opened my eyes to wildlife. Suddenly, you have to defend your plot of land. There are animals out there who will consume your annual crop in a night. In some parts of the country, they’ll skip your lettuce and consume you instead. My nemesis in Massachusetts was a groundhog. OK, it was less to do with the fluffy rodent and more to do with my ignorance of what those bastards were capable of. I thought that they were like rabbits, and generally kept themselves away from people. Was I wrong… so wrong.

Groundhog,_eating

In my second year, I decided that some expansion was in order. With such success I campaigned to increase my yields by adding more vegetable patch, another 50 ft². Further, my temporary fencing needed upgrading. I needed the type of fencing that would show my neighbors that I was in this for the long run. Instead of surrounding each bed, it would encompass my micro farm. What I needed was welded wire fencing with 3” holes. This was the Cadillac of fences. This would keep horses out. My plan was set, a whole weekend was spent erecting wooden posts and stapling this fencing to it. A gate was built with a latch. At the end it was elegant and modern, it combine the country with the town. It was perfect.

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A few weeks after the fence was built, my spinach was gone. Down to the roots… nothing was left. Upon inspection, a gap in my defenses was identified. The groundhogs were apparently smarter than I gave them credit. A patch job was quickly erected. Nothing would stop me now from winning. The next day the lettuce was gone. No obvious source of entry was found. Did these animals fly? Learn the enemy was one of Sun Tzu’s main teachings. My victory would come from watching them penetrate my defenses. I set up station in the living room, waited and watched…

One evening, I spotted at the fence-line the groundhog. Not at the weak point I had previously identified, but slap bang in the middle. I anticipated the spectacle of the rodent’s impending frustration. Unfortunately, his never materialized.  Mine however did. Instead of being defeated by modern wire meshing, this animal just put its head up to the fence and walked right through it. For a second it looked like something David Copperfield would do, transporting himself through a solid wall. This pest, with a brain the size of a walnut, defeated my iron shield by walking through it. A quick scan of the internet provided me with my first lesson in rodents… they are mainly fur. As a result, the fence provided little (if any resistance) as the animal itself was smaller than the holes in the fence.

Phase 2 was an easy fix… if the animal was able to move through the holes in the fence, then I would make the holes smaller. The brain power of Homo Sapiens would defeat that of Marmota Monax, I was a tool maker, I had a digital watch! In single day, my vegetable garden was converted into Fort Knox. Chicken wire was added. All possible points of entry were blocked. My fence was impenetrable. Nothing would get though it. My vegetables were finally safe. It was the Maginot Line of Massachusetts!

It worked, for about a week. Then plants started to disappear. The lettuce, I had replanted, was gone. Peas, just a memory. Beans, all but destroyed. However, the fence itself was perfect and without any signs of damage. Perhaps they did fly after all.

Fortunately, at this time the mulberry bush in my yard came into fruit and all answers were solved. Not only are groundhogs good diggers, but they also are good climbers (which by the way was totally omitted by the pest control websites). There in my garden was my nemesis, 8 ft up the tree happily eating fruit. It quickly dawned on me that my 3ft high fence was just a small workout for the little blighter. Rather than create a barrier, instead my defenses were more like a good workout to help build up an appetite. I had underestimated my foe and paid the price. Nature is persistent, and plays by its own rules.

Hog1

Phase 3 was more elaborate. At the top of the fence, I now create an overhang of about a foot. To scale this the groundhog would need to be able to hang upside down. To help the defense, this section was built so that it would flex and feel unstable.

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Week after week my plants continued to grow. For the rest of the season they remained untouched. The season was a bust in comparison to the previous one, but man had finally overcome nature. The tool maker had dominion over his little patch of the world. I was ruler of my kingdom! And it all went to my head.

In Homage to Mel

In Homage to Mel

My time in the farmhouse in Pennsylvania was curtailed by a beautiful women, who in spite of my habits, fell in love with me. A few years in Pittsburgh, a couple more in Boston, throw in a good job and a marriage, and we were a family of three looking for a house. Our destination was near the Massachusetts border with New Hampshire, we had a garden and the previous owners had again tried their hand at gardening. I had everything in my favor. I had sun, soil, and space. Then I discovered Mel.

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Mel Bartholomew has for many years driven a concept called square foot gardening. The concept is simple, stop thinking about rows and spacing. Instead, think about maximizing the amount of crop you can get from a small space. Divide up your garden into squares, each 12” x 12” and place your plants in those squares. Some plants will be grown 1 per square, like peppers and eggplants. Others meanwhile, you plant up 4, 9, or 16 per square. His approach helps you overcome a major misconception you have in backyard gardening, that is you think you area farmer. When farming, your goal is to create consistent crops for market. When backyard gardening, it is all about maximizing what you can grow in you back yard. You should care less about the size of your carrots and more about the potential yield. With square foot gardening, the vegetables are generally smaller, but the number goes up. His book became my bible.

I also discovered that the town delivered compost. In fact, they had so much of it they were almost giving it away. If you go to your local garden center then you might be able to buy 40 lbs of top soil for $1.50. 40 of those bags will give you a cubic yard, at a price of roughly $60/cubic yard. For that cost, including delivery the town would drop 4 cubic yards of good compost into my driveway. Being so cheap, I quickly built 6 raised beds, filled them with up, gridded the beds and planted seeds (lots of seeds). I was away.

The first major crop was spinach. Where before I was lucky to get a few leaves, I now had pounds of it. In fact, not only did we eat out fill, but colleagues at work found themselves with bags of fresh spinach in their briefcases on the way home. Spinach is a cool weather crop and will bolt given the first few days of heat. As a result you frequently over plant it so you have enough. However, that spring was long and cool. We had the best spinach crop ever. Each meal was started with 3 lbs of fresh spinach. Sometimes, all we ate was salad. That spring was probably the healthiest set of meals I have ever had. Even Popeye never ate so much spinach.

Carrot seeds were planted following Mel’s advice, 16 to a square. As were parsnips, peppers, leeks, shallots, tomatoes, peas, beans, squash… the list went on. In total, I had over 200 ft² of vegetable beds growing in the square-foot style. It started to look as if some modern artist had taken over my garden. Watering now became my next challenge. While I understand the benefits of watering the plants, I find that it gets a little boring now and then. You start to miss a few days, and then you find yourself unable to sleep for fear that your plants are dying. Therefore, I needed to take the effort out of things… I needed to be creatively lazy.

Raised Bed 1

The first issue was that the nearest faucet was a good 40 foot from the veg patch. While a long hose would reach, if left strewn across the grass not only would daughter trip over it, but also I would probably shred it with the lawnmower. Fortunately, being the engineer that I am, I realized that both of these problems could be solved if I buried it under the lawn. Trenching across the garden did lead to a long length of dead grass. However, grass in my mind is a weed and that wretched stuff grows back. In a few months my water main was invisible. Next was a simple timer and lots of sprinklers. Now when I felt the plants needed a water, I just needed to open the faucet, turn the dial and watch as my job was done for me. Not only could I garden, but I could be a lazy sod doing so.

Raised Bed 2

The results of my endeavors were wonderful. Beans took over their trellis. Carrots were amazing. Peppers were incredible. Leeks were in such excess that neighbors would find themselves going home with them as a result of saying hello. From my raised beds, I grew 100 times more crop than I had in my lifetime. It tasted great. Of course, there were a few crop failures. However, I was eating food from my garden in substantial volumes. Crop were in excess. Bellies were full. For the first time in my life my dreams were coming true…. This was it, I was gardening. I was in heaven…. Mel was a god! However, reality was looming, and it was furry.

A Nation Of Gardeners

A Nation Of Gardeners

I grew up in England in the country of gardeners and allotments. Everyone seem to be doing some sort of gardening, growing flowers or vegetables. Picking raspberries at my grandmothers. Peeling peas with my grandfather. As a child, I went to school with farming children. I visited orchards and farms. I loved getting my hands into the dirt. Gardening was everywhere. It was in my thoughts, in my fingers, and I wanted more. When we finally had enough room in our garden at home to grow things, my mind went into overdrive. I had images of a small piece of ground with a nice depth of good soil and plenty of sunshine. I dreamed that I would plant vegetables, flowers, and maybe some heirloom tomatoes. I could bring fresh food to the evening meals. If I worked hard enough, perhaps I could get more ground increase the production until we bought less at the supermarket. Unfortunately, reality set in when I realized my parent’s view of my goals was slightly different than mine. Rather than the prime spot in the garden I had been eying up. I was allowed to farm a rock strewn, two square foot wasteland with no organic matter on the north side of the house. I kept up hope, I was sure I could grow something well. How hard could it be?

Mars_rocks

During my visit to the local garden center, I realized that my funds did not stretch as far as I thought they would. I had just enough pocket money for a few packets of seeds. The result was a few packets of seed for some carrots, some flowers, and courgettes (English name for zucchini). I realized that I probably wasn’t going to make a dent in our weekly food budget, but my dreams were still alive. My perseverance would overcome everything placed in my way. I carefully planted the seeds per the instructions, watered them, and waiting from the cornucopia to spring forth. Things sprouted, and my hopes soared as the shoots shot skyward. However, just like life taught me later, if you are not in the right environment, all the effort in the world will not overcome it. The flowers quickly died. The carrots succumbed to nutrient deficiency. As the season progressed, my goals became more and more realistic. Perhaps, I could make a couple of meals. Perhaps, a few bunches of flowers. Maybe a few fresh carrots to take to lunch. However, a single courgette plant kept on living. It made a single flower, and a single fruit. Everyday, I watched it grow a little more each day. All of my efforts were focused on this one entity. I started to know how James felt while looking at that single peach. My final crop was a 2 lb marrow which I hollowed out, stuffed it with mince, seasoning and rice and cooked it for the family dinner. It was one of the best things I had ever eaten.

Marrow

It was also the only thing I ever grew in England. University, marriage and work took me to America. In 27 years living in the country of gardeners, I grew one marrow. One solitary fruit. A large water filled, flavorless mass. That’s it. I had a point to prove.

13 years later after my success, my life had changed dramatically. A recent widower, I found myself living in an old farm house in Pennsylvania. I was seriously depressed and doing everything I could to keep my life together. The back garden became my hope again. There was a patch of ground which the previous tenant had used for many years to grow things. This was a chance to get my hands dirty. This time there was sun, there were nutrients in the ground. There was hope. There were also groundhogs and chipmunks. Lettuce were lost. Carrots were mowed down in a single night. Corn never made it anywhere near an elephant’s eye. However, a few beets survived as did some tomatoes. I actually grew something! There was hope.

At this stage, I started to realize that growing stuff was not just about putting seeds in the ground, and voilà, you got a crop. It was about not killing the plants. Nature was out there to take your hopes and dreams and either turn them into animal’s dinner or smother them with weeds. If your seedlings survived either of those, then you probably have the wrong soil, moisture, weather or sunshine. As quickly as the seedlings sprung forth, they would wither and die. I could relate to this… I was English.