A walk through a homesteader’s organic vegetable garden

by Charlotte Walker

We rely heavily on our garden. It must produce.  Here in Northern New Brunswick Canada (zone 4a) the growing season is quite short and there aren’t too many opportunities to make up for lost crops. This year has been a difficult growing season.

Winter was mild, creating the perfect environment for an invasion of bugs, both the plant and people-chewing varieties. Our spring was long and cold, getting the garden off to a late start. Summer has been dry, hot and peppered with some misplaced frost warnings. We just recently had an “out of nowhere” freezing rain and hail storm.  I know we are not alone in this.  News all over the world indicates that we should continue to expect the unexpected. Weather is going to challenge those who carry the weight of producing food.  There is an acquiescence among homesteader that in order to succeed in these unpredictable times we need to adjust, adapt and improvise.

We are trying a number of things to get ahead of the changes including: preventative organic pest control, attracting pollinators, planting short season crops & utilizing cold frames.   I can describe what we have going on in the gardens far better with photos so let me take you through a guided photographic tour. This is our garden as of early July.

This pollinator friendly garden helps us keep the proerty and the vegetable garden healthy.

This pollinator friendly garden helps us keep the property and the vegetable garden healthy.

The first garden you see when you arrive at the top of our driveway is a bee & butterfly garden. This garden was planted last year and is a hodgepodge of pollinator friendly flowers. You may have noticed that we use quite a bit of rock/gravel in our landscaping.  This  trick helps with drainage and reduces the number of insects that we get around the house.

Your garden roses can be used for natural skincare and culinary purposes

Your garden roses can be used for natural skincare and culinary purposes

There are three large rosebushes in the front garden. The rose petals are collected every few days and dried.  You can tell that rose petals are ready for collecting by running your hand gently over the flower. The petals will come free with no resistance when they are ready. We use the rose petals for making rose petal jelly, soap, rose water and we even throw some into the chickens nesting boxes. In the late fall, after first frost, we collect the rose hips for jam. This year we will be making a batch of rose hip wine. If you collect rose petals be sure they have not been treated with chemicals.

This is a large 12FT x 5FT lavender patch growing in zone 4a

This is a large 12FT x 5FT lavender patch growing in zone 4a

We use lavender for soaps, lotions, and culinary purposes (baking, cocktails, lemonade.) There is a lot of dried lavender in the house, in sachets tucked in drawers and even just bunches of flowers hanging from rafters. Lavender is very calming, relaxing.  The one place I don’t use it is on our vehicle: it can make you sleepy.

herb garden boxes

Rather than buying annuals we planted herbs in the porch garden boxes

There are six large garden boxes on our porch and they are filled with herbs. Most of the herbs are grown from seed and what we don’t use fresh will get dried for winter use. The current lineup; tarragon, rosemary, basil, thyme, oregano, dill, parsley, mint, fennel, lovage, chervil and Vietnamese coriander.

kiwi trellised on pergola

This pergola acts as a support for the kiwi vines and provides a shaded sitting area

There are hardy kiwi vines growing in the back yard. They have never flowered for us. There’s been plenty of troubleshooting and research done on the subject. More fertilizer and mulch will get added to the soil in the spring. At this point all we can do is keep the vines healthy and properly pruned.

apples

Our orchard is very young but we also have access to wild apples in the woods around our property

There are thirteen newly planted apple trees on the property.  Three are hybrid varieties, grafted with six types of apples: Cortland, Gala, Golden Delicious, Macintosh, Mutsu and Red Delicious.  There is also a grove of two each of five standard apple trees planted in a grove along the driveway; Paula Red, Spartan, Honey Crisp, Yellow Transparent Skin and Macintosh.

bird houses

Grape vines trellised create a beautiful green wall along the vegetable garden fence.

In the back garden we have a large pink rose bush, a good 10FT x 8FT.  Plenty of wild flowers and wild strawberries surround this area.  This area is wild and untamed and we would like to grow more perennial edibles here. The birds are helpful in keeping down the grasshopper population so we put in a bird bath and a few houses. In the background is the vegetable garden fence. The grape vines are trellised above it creating a vibrant green wall. The entire fence is lined with chicken wire to keep critters out.

perennial edible garden patch

Perennial edibles including horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes and rhubarb

As you walk along the garden fence towards the greenhouse, there is an oddly placed patch of perennial edibles by the gate. This contains horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes and rhubarb.

raised bed garden

A mixture of flowers including nasturtiums and sunflowers mingle with the vegetables in raised beds.

The main vegetable garden consists of raised beds. Most are filled with a heavy mix of compost, peat and loamy soil. Some of the beds are new this year and are experimental hybrid Hugelkultur beds. They are filled old wood and twigs covered with a heavy layer of compost. A few other beds are filled with straw and covered with a heavy layer of compost.   The onions and beets growing in the straw filled beds are doing quite well. This technique is showing promising potential.

organic gardening netting

Netting and row cover protects delicate plants without the use of chemicals

Due to the mild winter, the summer has been particularly bad for bugs. This has been the most challenging gardening year for us yet.  The garden is strictly organic and chemical free. To prevent pest damage we have been experimenting with netting. The standard garden row cover (see bottom left corner) was not working for us. It becomes heavy when wet from the rain and you can’t see or water the plants without removing the cover.  I purchased a large bolt of tulle (the wedding decor stuff 64″ wide) and I am glad I did. Tulle solves all of the aforementioned problems. The effect is far more attractive. It has been successful at keeping out even the tiniest of bugs and we have bought more bolts to cover the remaining garden.

zucchini in a potato barrel

Zucchini growing in a potato barrel, covered with tulle

Here is an example of where I used the tulle to protect a plant.  This zucchini is planted in a potato barrel that is filled 3/4 with straw and then a thick layer of compost above that. The zucchini seems to favor these conditions. The tulle has protected the young plant perfectly.  You should remove the cover for at least part of the day when blossoming occurs so that pollinators have access to the plants. Morning and evening are busy with bee activity so we leave it off during those times.

striped cucumber beetle

This is the dreaded striped cucumber beetle. This plant was left untreated/uncovered as a sacrifice plant.

Here is an example of what happened when I didn’t cover the young plant. Damage like this can happen in a single day.  Those little yellow and black cucumber beetles are a menace. The cucumbers are usually my pride and joy in the garden but not not this year. The bugs were killed by hand and then the tulle netting was placed over them. The plants have recovered. They are a lovely dark green and are growing steadily.

raised bed garden

Beets, Carrots (early) with onions, beets, carrots (fall) & hard neck garlic. Heirloom varieties planted here include: Bull’s Blood, Chiogga & Crosby’s Egyptian Beets & Danvers Half Long Carrots.

In this bed there are beets and carrots with a strip of onions planted down the center. These were planted just before last Frost and are ready for harvest now. Another section of this bed is growing a younger set of beets and carrots. Hard neck garlic with onions inter planted in the spaces grows at the far end of the box. The garlic will be harvested this week and something new planted in its place.

the garden

Potatoes, strawberries, tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil & coriander. A bit of everything all in one row.

There are a few potato plants growing in the potato barrel. They were planted in a mix of straw and compost and have just flowered.  Behind the barrel is a large patch of strawberries covered by a net. Last year a critter took a single bite out of every strawberry which was quite upsetting.  We also have wild strawberries growing on the ground around some of the boxes. Under the teepee trellis on the right I have sunflowers, cucumbers. beans and gourds planted. These are all behind in development as a result of the cold weather.

mustard seed in flower

Mustard seed in flower

The yellow flowers you see are mustard. The mustard plants have just recently flowered, which should last a few weeks and then they should develop seed pods. Once these pods turn from green to brown they are ready to harvest. I am looking forward to preparing our first batch of homegrown mustard.

nasturtiums

Easy to grow nasturtiums. The flowers and leaves are edible.

There are plenty of nasturtiums growing out of the corners of the garden beds both inside and outside of the greenhouse. Both the flowers and the leaves are edible and delicious. The colorful flowers look beautiful on a plate and the peppery leaves add a nice flavor boost to your meal. Nasturtiums are high in vitamin A, C & D and are known for their antibacterial antiviral properties.

cabbage protected by netting

Our cabbage is protected by tulle netting and it has worked wonders to keep the plants healthy, vibrant and free of holes and bugs.

After planting, the cabbage was immediately covered with tulle netting. This box is somewhat shaded by the blackberry and raspberry bushes as well as the greenhouse. These conditions have been very favorable for growth and pest control. I am eager to make some fermented sauerkraut.

pottager garden

July 5th Garden. The cold spring has everything behind schedule but the beds are starting to fill out.

Each garden bed contains a fairly diverse assortment of vegetables and flowers. This is an effort to imitate a more natural ecosystem in the garden. There are sometimes five different vegetables in the same box and multiple varieties of the same species as well.  This year we are growing about nine varieties of tomatoes, four of beets and five of carrots.

Currently in the garden:  eggplant, pumpkin, zucchini, turnip, parsnip, kale, garlic, asparagus, peas, beans, onions,  peppers, squash & tomatoes. For perennial edibles there are: strawberries, rhubarb, horseradish & Jerusalem artichokes. We’ve even got a few tobacco and peanut plants in there somewhere, for fun.  The garden is surrounded by raspberry & blackberry bushes and grape vines.

Greenhouse tomatoes

Many varieties of tomatoes growing in the garden including: Amethyst Cream Cherry, Green Zebra, Amish Paste, Black Cherry Tomato, Bloody Butcher, Glacier & Silvery Fir Tree.

The greenhouse has two large raised beds that run the length of the structure. We have it filled with tomatoes that are in full flower and starting to fruit.  We have about 30 tomato plants growing in the greenhouse with onions and carrots interplanted in some of the larger gaps. Of all the tomatoes that we grow, the Green Zebra tomatoes are my favorite. They are bright and packed with flavor.  The greenhouse is also growing ginger root and some other experimental plants including peanuts.

Greenhouse Herbs

Perennial greenhouse herbs seems to respond extremely well to their environment.

There are herbs planted in the greenhouse and we have been successful in fooling them into thinking they are in a warmer zone. Unlike the herbs that were planted outside, these have all come back (oregano, thyme & basil).

Greenhouse Peas

We have about 15 vines of peas trellised in the greenhouse

Our household has happily been eating the greenhouse peas for a few weeks. It’s best to sow new seeds every two weeks for a continual harvest. These original plants that were sown in early spring are still producing new pods. It really does seem that greenhouses, grow tunnels and other methods of getting an early jump on the season are well worth the investment.

Greenhouse Kale

A nice mix of kale including: Russian Red, Siberian and Scotch kale. 70 days to maturity. Cold hardy.

The greenhouse kale is enormous and we have been eating leaved from these plants for weeks. When you break off stems, more leaves regrow so you can get a lot of mileage out of kale. This is a cold hardy plant that you can sow directly. Our kale seems to handle hot and cold weather alike, it has never bolted on us. Kale is the first thing that we get to eat out of the garden in the spring. It is also the last thing to die off in the autumn.

field and scarecrow

The field has an assortment of organic potatoes, organic sweetcorn, heirloom beans and squash.

This is our first year having a field. It was plowed in the late spring. There is a lot of clay in our soil. It’s been difficult to work this ground, especially when hilling potatoes by hand with hoes. Melons and squash and long rows of potatoes and corn are growing in the field. There are also a few sections dedicated to the three sisters (beans/corn and squash).  I must admit, the heat, the horsefly’s and black flies and mosquitoes and the need for long sleeves and bug jackets has made working the field a miserable chore!

corn in field

Our corn on July 5th 2016. I am trying to be optimistic but …

Five varieties of organic/heirloom corn have been planted including: Bloody Butcher, Hopi Blue,Double Standard Sweet.  I am a bit concerned about the corn. Compared to local corn fields, ours are a couple of weeks behind. That said, some of these varieties are 70 days so we should get some corn (we hope!)

Winter is coming 

Those of us that are attune to the changes in the environment are planning ahead. Going forward we are going increase the amount of short season crops that we plant. It might mean that we don’t invest in seeds like sweet corn or that we only plant only a little bit of the higher risk items. We would like to establish more gardens around the property focusing mostly on hardy perennial edibles. The idea of having resilient wild food that grows without intensive labor is very appealing.

I am already planting and planning the fall garden, and the garlic will be ready for harvest soon. We have started preserving some of the garden bounty in small batches. It seems like our household is always preparing for winter around here.

Discussions have begun around the idea of building a small insulated greenhouse for growing cold weather crops. We would like to take advantage of the heat from our outdoor wood furnace that runs all winter long. I expect we will also build more cold frames for the raised bed garden. The big focus this year has been planning for a better “next year” experience.

I would sincerely love to hear what you are experiencing with your gardens this year, how you are managing pests and what sort of cold weather systems you have in place for growing food!

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7 comments

The Daily Dibber July 15, 2016 - 11:38 am

Great post, here in Suffolk UK, the damage by slugs and snails has been the worst I have ever known. We too grow greenhouse kale and this year all of our chillies and tomato containers will be filled with Spring Onions, brassicas and winter radishes. Our rabbit damage has been greatly reduced by planting rhubarb as nibbling it makes them ill. I will follow your progress with interest. Good luck. Niamh

Reply
Charlotte Walker July 15, 2016 - 11:56 am

Thank you for the tip re: rabbits and rhubarb. We have some planted along the fence but perhaps we will expand this to other areas around the garden. We have rabbits living in the big rosebush. It causes quite to commotion with our dogs but even with the threat the rabbits keep returning to the garden. I forgot to mention that I do have dishes of beer in each garden bed as well. We too have a problem with slugs. The beer has been working wonders, we find quite a few drunken drowned slugs every morning. We made a bad batch of beer in the winter so I have a seemingly endless cheap supply for the garden. Best of luck with your garden!

Reply
Diane July 18, 2016 - 11:22 am

A garden filled with love and beauty !

Reply
Charlotte Walker July 18, 2016 - 11:34 am

Thank you Diane!

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Joyce May 8, 2017 - 9:59 pm

Just watched a video on “tower planting”. Cuts time for harvest. Water tank is in the bottom and circulates with a small pump. May be solution for your short growing season as they produce year-round.

Thank you for your tour made me feel like we were walking your grounds together. Very enjoyable! Best wishes from Florida USA.

Reply
Stef June 10, 2017 - 11:50 am

This is a garden straight from my heart. It is absolutely gorgeous! I am keenly aware of the research, preparation, care, love and physical labour goes into every part! ? Amazing.

Reply
Charlotte Walker June 15, 2017 - 8:13 am

What a lovely thing to say. Thank you! 🙂

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