Hoe, hoe, hoe! A Victory Garden wish list

Dear Santa,

December is already here, and though I'm sure you must be busy running the rush orders through your workshop and checking those lists of "naughty" and "nice" and loading up the sleigh, I'm afraid that we've been so caught up with putting our gardens to bed for the winter that we're a little late on sending you our wish lists.

It's been a rough year for consumerism, what with the economy, the bailout, and tragedies on the biggest shopping day of the year, and I wouldn't be surprised if you're getting a bit fed up. Another wish list might just send you over the edge: really, Santa, we don't want to do that to you.

But I promise you, our wishes are modest.  We're not even asking for results right away. Some of the Ethicureans live in colder climes, like you, and can't even start their gardens until later in the spring. And we're not really being selfish: most of us shared our harvest this year, whether as fresh produce or preserved, and we'd like to do it again next year. Maybe we can even encourage some other people to grow their own food.

Just... take a little look, won't you, Santa?

Charlotte, gardening in chilly Montana, has a handful of requests and New Year's resolutions:

1. No mutant broccoli, please! My broccoli plants grew three feet tall with nary a head among them. I don't know if it was the early-season hot spell we had or what, but even after cutting the axial buds off in hopes of spurring side shoots, nothing. They're still out there, still growing leaves in between freezing spells, still with nothing remotely head-like. So I won't plant that again, though I might try one of the purple broccolis from my beloved Seeds of Italy.

2. Put all the peppers in the tomato beds. I scattered the pepper plants throughout the beds this year and lost most of them in an early frost. Next year, I'll put them all in the long beds along the south fence where I grow tomatoes. What I lose in specificity thanks to cross-pollination, I'll make up in being able to cover them in plastic when the weather gets cold.

3. Plant more flowers in the raised vegetable beds, more herbs in the perennial beds. I put some containers with flowers in among the veggie garden this year and it was really lovely. Next year, I think more flowers in among the veggies, and perhaps tuck a few more herbs in with the perennials. Since I don't spray anything there's no worries about edibles amongst the flowers or vice versa.

4. Could we get some less challenging weather? The ground was frozen solid well into May this year, we got our last snow in mid-June, then a blazing hot spell for 2 weeks in late June/early July, then our first frost in mid-September. It was a short, strange season. (Maybe you know what that's like, Santa.) Next year I'd like a little more spring so I don't lose my early-season crops, the broccoli rabes, favas, spinach — and so the hot-weather crops get a chance to get started before the heat hits.

Charlotte is quick to add, though, that "All in all it was a pretty good year — I have a freezer compartment full of greens and beans, a stack of home-canned tomatoes and sauce, and most of all, my garden was beautiful and provided me with a daily source of joy. The seed catalogs are starting to trickle in and I'm already dreaming of new things — Romanesco cauliflower perhaps?"

Up in frigid Montreal, Peter has lingered over the last tomatoes ripening indoors and has stocked his freezer with borscht made from beets harvested from his community plot. But he has a few wishes for next year's garden, too:

1. I'd like to figure out what went wrong with my broccoli. I love broccoli, and my CSA doesn't grow it, so I thought I'd give it a try. It took up a lot of space and grew very tall, but the heads did not develop properly. I think we Ethicureans need some broccoli tips. I might try cauliflower or some other similar vegetable.

2. I've been thinking about putting a layer of hay down after planting, to keep the weeds at bay. Mine is a plot in a community garden, and weeds from other gardens are seeding weeds in my garden, which creates more work than I want to do.

3. I never really planted flowers, but I'll admit they do make the garden look prettier. Maybe next year I'll plant some, if my wife helps me out.

4. I'd like to change my lettuce-growing approach. This year I sowed three rows of leaf lettuce: faux-spinach mix, arugula, and some other red leafy stuff that someone gave me. We loved the arugula, the red stuff was so-so, and the spinach grew so fast we couldn't keep up with it. (I still have several containers of giant blanched spinach leaves in the freezer.) Next year I hope to plant different lettuces throughout the growing season rather than three types all at the same time. Our best salads were a mix of arugula, spinach, and sorrel, and we'd love to have a greater variety. Having such a variety of tastes and textures in our lettuce was so delicious that we rarely added other vegetables.

(Do you sense a little trend here, Santa?  And did you notice we're willing to help you help us on these wishes?  Moving on...)

Out in the Midwest, Janet, our resident herb farmer, has perhaps the simplest wish of all: "I'm hoping that my rosemary and bay leaf survive the winter." She'd also like to find a sunnier spot for her thyme and oregano, though I think she has no worries whatsoever about the hardiness of her mint. She adds, "I may also try to make friends with more people who grow more than they can eat."  After all, we want to support our friends and neighbors in their gardening efforts, right?

Lucky Elanor, blessed with a year-round growing season in California, has recently cleaned up her community garden plot and started a garden at her new residence in Oakland. Now that she has finished this year's round of food preservation, she has been able to transplant rosemary, thyme, and onions to the new space and has added lettuce and fava beans to take advantage of the somewhat cooler weather. (She says she might also plant some winter greens like kale and chard, too.)

For next year, though, Elanor has a few thoughts:

1. Though it appears to have been a universal season of cruciferous failure for the Ethicureans, I tended my cauliflower throughout the summer and into fall, but none developed proper heads. I do want to try some Brussels sprouts, my favorite vegetable.

2. I grew no fruit this year and ended up feeling really sad about it, so next year I'm going to try strawberries and melon (not sure yet what kind), and I'm really hoping to put in a Meyer lemon tree.

3. My goal for this next season is to learn more about soil. My approach thus far has been "keep adding compost!" but I'm certain there is more I have to learn about that critical garden resource. I'm starting fresh in this new plot, so I want to really work to make the soil as healthy and happy as possible. (Recommendations for soil reading would be much appreciated!)

Our own Corn Maven, Kathryn, had a very fruitful garden, but she has a few ideas for how to do things better next year (with a little help, of course):

1. I'd like to give my apple trees more attention. This year I didn't get around to culling the two trees and I need to come up with a better way to control the moth problem. Next year I want to make — and possibly can — apple sauce.

2. I think I'll plant fewer tomatoes. I had ten plants this year but felt guilty with all of the watering that number required. Next year I will definitely plant Sungolds again — I had two plants this year and one really took off like crazy. I'm still picking cherries off of them. My Roma tomatoes also thrived, and many are now in the freezer for future sauces.

3. If the stars finally align, I want to construct at least one raised bed next season. Wine barrels provided small raised beds with enriched soil for this year's lettuce crop and the beautiful Romas.

4. I'm considering moving some of my butterfly- and bee-friendly plants, and adding more. I'm realizing some of the placements could be better. My garden is beautiful in late winter/spring with poppies galore, but once they're gone, so goes most of the beauty.

5. I'd like to learn how to hand pollinate. My pattipan and butternut squash plants bloomed more than produced actual fruit. Time to take matters into my own hands.

And I think all of us would agree with her final wish: not to delay the garden planting because of a severely sprained ankle!

You may have noticed that these Victory Garden updates have contained very little news from Bonnie. She writes:

I've started and abandoned several posts confessing to the embarrassing fact that the Ethicurean's editor happens to be the team's biggest lame-o as a gardener. Just like last year, this summer I planted several heirloom tomato plants in wine-barrel containers, forgot to water them half the time — should have hooked up a drip system— and as a result got probably half as many tomatoes off them as I could have. But the ones I did were delicious. I killed the strawberries I was trying to grow; my Meyer lemon tree has fruited but they're all quite tiny and not very sweet, thanks to an antaphid infestation; my herb garden has been overrun by oregano, which I don't even like… the list of failures goes on.

It's time for me to put my black thumb where my mouth is (eww) and get serious about this. In early 2009, Bart and I are going to construct and build raised beds, with a drip system, and I am going to become a gardener. You are all my witnesses.

As for me, I've already gotten a big present already: the friends who host my garden have agreed to double the space for planting next year.  With a new vegetable bed at the top of the hill and a wider one below, I'm hoping to see the following:

1. I'll be buying blueberry bushes to plant at the edge of the garden space as a way to thank my friends for making room for me in their backyard. Though I don't expect a big crop the first year, I'm already anticipating the friendly tussle over who gets the most berries — and who makes the first pie.

2. Even though my results on growing beans for drying were somewhat mixed this year, I found enough success to keep me trying again. I'd like to plant another heirloom variety or two to go along with the beans I saved from this year's harvest, and then I can do a little better at stocking my pantry with some high-protein items.

3. Thinking about other unusual crops I can't find at the farmers market, I'd like to try a couple of small experimental grain crops, like oats with no hulls or winter wheat or buckwheat. If they can be used as green manure crops or winter cover crops, all the better!

4. I'd also like to extend the harvest season more effectively next year, which means having a better plan for planting succession crops and putting out row covers when needed.  I'd really love to try cold frames, but we'll see what happens!  And I'll try, try again this winter to encourage a crop of greens indoors.

There you have it, Santa. We've all got our hopes for next year's gardens, but we're willing to work for them.  Seems only fair since I'll bet you don't have much of a garden yourself. (Though maybe as things warm up in your polar neighborhood, you might be able to dig in and plant something next year yourself!)  And if you'd like to work out a trade of our homegrown carrots for reindeer manure, well, we gardeners are just devoted enough to our work to help you out.

Thanks so much, and we all hope you have a good season!

Your friends at the Ethicurean

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