Growing Vegetables in Raised Beds (and What’s Going on With This Soil?)

One of my backyard gardens is on the site of a former garage. We removed the one-car garage last summer and replaced it with a larger building to store cars and tools. The site of the former garage is now where I grow vegetables in raised beds and am trying to grow some perennials, shrubs and vines on the extremely poor soil.

The tomato has a fruit, but it’s so small, you can tell its struggling. Photo take July 15.

Raised beds can be a terrific way to grow vegetables, but as I am finding out, your beds are only as good as the soil in them. Witness the photo at left. The bed this sad tomato was planted in was one of two that were filled with a soil mix that was labeled as being specifically for raised beds, including those with vegetables. I planted beans, parsley, tomatoes, squash and marigolds in the two beds—in late May/early June. For weeks, they have sat there. And sat there.

With the exception of marigolds, which seemed to be growing a tiny bit and are flowering, none of the plants were thriving—or even growing much. On many of them, the leaves turned yellow. Nothing has up and died yet, but they sure have been struggling. Witness the photo below, a small raised bed (with less sun than other raised beds) where I used an organic bagged soil mix and some manure. These tomatoes and basil plants were roughly the same size as the ones in the other beds when they were planted a few weeks ago, yet they are growing, producing flowers and fruit and generally doing what a plant should do. (Update: Since I wrote this post a week or so ago, these tomatoes have grown so much I’ve had to lash their trellis to the fence.)

Planted in a bagged soil mix, these tomatoes have grown so much I’ve had to tie them to the trellis. Photo taken July 15.

So what’s up? It could be the plants have gotten too much water, but given the size of the beds and the dryness of the top 3 inches of the soil, I doubt that. I checked out this article on what yellow leaves on plants means and my yellow leaves don’t perfectly match any of the pictures—though they are close on a couple of them.  A couple of weeks ago, in absolute frustration, I decided to add some more nitrogen to see if that helped. One bed got composted manure; the other got liquid fertilizer. The plants have grown more since then—one of the beans has finally latched onto the trellis I want it to climb and a few bean flowers have emerged.

I also sent a sample of the soil to the U of M Soil Testing Lab to find out exactly what kind of soil I’ve got here. (I contacted the landscaping firm that sold me the soil, but have not heard back from them.) The U turned around the soil test results quickly and I found out that while the mix had a good percentage of organic matter (12.5 percent), it had sky-high levels of potassium (that’s the K in the N-P-K ratio on most fertilizer bags.) Potassium’s main role in plant growth is to regulate how other nutrients are taken up by the plant and to regulate certain processes. Too much potassium in the soil will interfere with up-take of nutrients such as calcium and magnesium. The U recommended I add nitrogen but nothing else to the soil to improve plant growth.

One of the main reasons to grow vegetables in raised beds is that you can control the soil better. In my case, the dreadful soil that was already on the site made growing vegetables impossible without raised beds. If the beds are tall (mine are about 14 inches tall), they should be treated like a container, with regular watering and fertilizing to enrich the soil. Needless to say, come fall, I will be adding leaves, compost and manure to all my beds in hopes of getting the soil in better shape for next year.

Do you grow vegetables in raised beds? What’s your favorite soil mix?

Garden Planning: The Questions to Ask

I have a hard time visualizing how drawings on paper will look in three dimensions and in real space, which means my garden beds get done and re-done, sometimes on the fly, as I try to get the look in the ground to match the one in my head. In the past, I’ve had the good fortune of working with a local landscaper who I trusted to take my ideas and give them an appropriate shape that looked good in both two and three dimensions. From there, I would revise the layout and reassess the plants.

The formal garden at Rosenborg Castle gardens in Copenhagen. My garden will not look like this.

With our new house, I paid to have a one-time consultation with a garden designer (something I recommend most gardeners do before starting a larger project) and she reinforced some of the ideas I had and gave me some good suggestions for bed shapes and plant materials. I’m using those ideas to plan my back gardens on my own. Next year, we will re-do some of the sidewalks and stairs in our front, which have drainage issues, and at that point, I’ll probably hire a designer to give shape to the front. For now, I’m on my own.

Before getting too deeply into garden planning, you have to to ask the big questions. Here are some  I’ve been asking myself over the past year, and a few of the answers I’ve come up with.

Here’s the dream: a secluded spot and a nice chair. This was taken in Toronto during a Garden Bloggers Fling in 2015.

How will the landscape be used? Our yard basically has three sections and I see them as having three purposes. The front faces the street and I want it to be welcoming and to fit in with the other landscapes on the block, many of which have big trees and more defined spaces than we have. I don’t see us using that space for sitting outside much, though I’m open to adding a front patio area in the future. For now, I’m adding and subtracting plants from the existing bed and we are putting our bird feeder (and probably a bird bath) on the east-front side of the house. This was a purely practical decision. There’s a small window in the house that I can use to watch the birds, and as my husband says, “where do you want the bird poop?”

The backyard has two sections, a patio area that faces what will be a mostly edible garden, in raised beds, with some native plants around the beds. This is a spot for entertaining or having morning coffee. It needs some soft screening from the alley and neighbors and a big table with an umbrella. The raised beds are in and planted. The third section is between the house and the garage. It is screened on three sides by buildings and, because we are very close to our neighbors back entry, needs more screening on the fourth side. My hope is to fill this with lots of plants and turn it into a quiet garden for reflection.

The Grand Allee in Monet’s garden in Giverny, France. My garden will not look like this.

How will you get from space to space? We did some work on the paths last year, adding a brick path from the patio to the back gate. We walk that path several times a day and are very happy with how it turned out. We need to create a path from the back steps into the quiet garden and that will likely be done in grass with a brick edging. That’s on my to-do list for later this summer. A path from front yard to back on the east side is also needed and will be done in the future. On the west side, we have a narrow sidewalk and no option to do much about that.

What about water? There are two questions here, really. How will you get hoses from point A to point B to water plants, but more importantly, how will water flow be handled. We have a slightly soggy area in the quiet garden and I need to adjust both the outflow from our sump pump (which runs only during major wet periods, such as last month) and a downspout. This may take some engineering, but I don’t want people to be tripping over hoses and downspouts, so it need attention.

Cool little statue in a formal garden in Toronto. Likely will not be in my garden.

What’s your style? Several years ago, I read a very good garden design book that recommended people name their garden to help them get a feel for their style. Facetiously, I suggested “mole manor” as the name for our former yard, which had its share of critter issues. I have no idea what I would call this garden—Farm in the City? Urban Refuge? Howdy, Neighbor? I’m stumped. Our house is a 1939 bungalow, so something on the cottage-y end of design might work. I also like to use native plants, when possible. This is a question I’m still pondering.

What questions would you ask before designing a new garden?

Cooking from the Garden: Berry-Rhubarb Crisp

I’m a huge fan of crisps. They are quick to put together, endlessly adaptable and feature butter and brown sugar prominently — what’s not to love?

Since we are getting toward the end of the rhubarb season and the weather has cooled off, I wanted to use some rhubarb from the garden and pair it with the delicious strawberries I bought from a local grower. My rhubarb is very red and very tart, so I paired it with two kinds of berries for a delicious dessert.

Berry-Rhubarb Crisp

For the filling: Toss together 4-5 cups mixed fruit, all cleaned and cut to about the same size. I used 1 cup diced rhubarb, 1 cup frozen blueberries and 2 cups strawberries. Mix the fruit with 2/3 cup sugar, 1/4 cup flour, 2 tsp. cinnamon and 2 TBSP cream (optional, but lovely). Place in a 1 quart baking dish. (If you are using all rhubarb, increase the sugar to 1 cup.)

Topping: Melt 3 TBSP butter and mix with 1 cup oats, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 3 TBSP flour and 3 TBSP ground flax seed. (The flax is totally optional, but I used it. You could replace it with wheat germ or a bit more flour.) Mix together, then add salt to taste and 1 tsp cinnamon. Mix, then place on top of the fruit, pressing down on the topping with the back of a spoon so it’s not too crumbly.

Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 1 hour. When the fruit juices are slowly bubbling, it’s done. Let it cool and enjoy with whipped cream, ice cream or have it with yogurt for breakfast!

 

 

Seed Ordering Season

Last year I discovered some inner truths about growing vegetables.

  1. My tomatoes grow better in the sites of former compost piles than they do in containers, and that has everything to do with my watering habits rather than soil.
  2. I grow cucumbers much better than I eat pickles.
  3. Nine raspberry plants — Best. Investment. Ever.
  4. Green beans are great off the plant, but not that good frozen.
I'm not the only one who grows cucumbers better than they eat them.

With these truths in mind, I made my seed order recently. I will be growing several varieties of tomatoes because, if I put them in the ground and water them well, they are a joy to eat fresh and to preserve. At a Garden Writers Association event in September, the nice folks at Botanical Interests gave the attendees lots of seeds, so from that stash I will be growing Principe Borghese, a good tomato for drying. I also have seeds from Renee’s Garden for Mandarin Cross, a orange colored Japanese slicing tomato and Isis Candy, an heirloom cherry tomato. I also ordered Brandywine tomato seeds from Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa to round out the selections. These are the ones I’ll be growing from seeds. Depending on space and enthusiasm, I may pick up a few starts in a reliable variety, such as Early Girl or Celebrity.

On advice from Eric Johnson, a Northern Gardener writer and fellow blogger, I’m going to try growing potatoes in 2012. Eric asserts (in the March/April issue of the magazine) that homegrown potatoes are 10 times more wonderful than homegrown tomatoes — so, I ordered Red Norland and Yellow Finn potatoes Irish Eyes Seeds (love the name!) in Idaho.  I’m looking forward to learning some potato-growing tricks this year and enjoying potato deliciousness in the summer and fall.

As in the past, I’ll be growing sugar snap peas (Amish Snap), pole beans (Climbing French and Ideal Market), winter squash (Walthum Butternut) and Minnesota Midget melons, all from Seed Savers.

I will not be growing cucumbers. Nada. Zip. None.

Fitting all this in may require some expansion into new garden territory or some containers. Either way, it’s hard not to be a little excited about this summer’s vegetable garden — even if it is still months away.

 

The Northern Heartland Kitchen

A Gardener’s Reading, 22 of 30

By Beth Dooley (University of Minnesota Press, 2011)

I mentioned in an earlier review that I was hoping to get a copy of The Northern Heartland Kitchen, a new seasonal, local cookbook from the University of Minnesota. Well, lo and behold, in the most recent batch of books I picked up from the Minnesota State Horticultural Society for review, was a copy of Beth Dooley’s cookbook. Dooley has been writing about food in Minnesota for many years, and if you read Mpls/St. Paul magazine, you are probably familiar with her restaurant reviews.

In this book, Dooley marches through the seasons, creating recipes and meals with ingredients most likely to be local in markets in the North. So fall is filled with delicious ideas for using squash, apples, cranberries, duck and kale, while spring boasts recipes for lamb, arugula and asparagus.  While the ingredients used are local, the recipes span the globe with Dooley offering an Asian-inspired Chicken Noodle Soup, Scandinavian Baked Beans and Spring Vegetable Curry as well as Midwest standards such as Corn Relish, Apple Crisp and Beer-Can Chicken.

The front of the book provides information on how to eat more locally by shopping farmers’ markets and joining a Community-Supported Agriculture farm. I haven’t had a chance to cook from the book yet, but an interested to try her recipe for Ox-Tails in Stout and the recipe below for a winter salad of carrots and parsley:

Carrot and Parsley Salad

For the salad, combine: 7-8 organic carrots, grated (3.5 cups); a large bunch parsley, finely chopped; 1/3 cup dried cranberries. Mix the dressing: 1 large clove garlic, mashed, 2 TBSP raspberry (or other fruit) vinegar, 2-3 TBSP vegetable oil, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 TBSP smashed fennel seeds. Whisk dressing together, combine with carrot mixture. Cover the bowl and let the salad rest in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight so the flavors blend.

Not Exactly News: Home-Grown Tastes Better

A recent survey by the National Restaurant Association reports that restaurant chefs have caught on to something home gardeners have known for a long, long time. Grow-your-own produce tastes best.

According to the survey released today, gardens are the “top trend” identified by more than 2,000 chefs nationwide. While it’s tempting to be a little cynical and note that with Michelle Obama planting a garden and local becoming a branding term,  restaurant gardens may be a fad. But the chefs have realized something home gardeners have also known for awhile: grow-your-own produce is often less expensive than store produce. For many restaurants, planting a garden is cheaper than paying shipping, especially for somewhat high-end ingredients or fragile, but compact plants such as herbs.

As a northern gardener, I know that it requires some technology and investment to grow your own through the winter here–hoophouses and hydroponics, for example. But some of the restaurants mentioned in this article are not from California or other 10-month gardening states. They are from Michigan and Washington, D.C. and New York City — though I doubt the restaurants are saving much money growing vegetables in hydroponic towers in Manhattan. These chefs don’t grow all of their own produce, but they grow enough to affect the quality of what they are cooking, as well as their costs.

I’m not familiar with any Minnesota restaurants that use produce from their own gardens, except for the restaurant at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. (If you know of some others, post a comment — I want to eat there.) But, I know many restaurants get their vegetables from local farmers — which is another great garden and food trend for eaters and growers.

Bruschetta Variations

Bruschetta with Garlic and Goat Cheese

With the tomatoes starting to come in, I made bruschetta and eggs for dinner last night. Bruschetta is toasted Italian bread with a topping, often including tomatoes and olive oil, that is typically served as an appetizer.  Last year, I made Bruschetta a la Julie and Julia after watching a movie about Julia Child and the blogger who cooked every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (The bruschetta scene is positively mouth-watering.) Since then, I’ve seen bruschetta recipes with everything from bacon to peaches in them. The variation I tried last night is not quite traditional, but close

Bruschetta with Garlic and Goat Cheese

For the topping, cut three to four ripe tomatoes in smallish pieces, and mix with 3 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, salt and pepper to taste. You can add a splash of vinegar, if you like things tart. Let this mixture sit out on the counter for a half hour or so to blend the flavors.

Toast slices of Italian bread. We used a whole grain version, but use whatever you like as long as it is sturdy. Rub each slice lightly with a clove of garlic. Spread with chevre or another goat cheese. Top with topping and enjoy!

This was very good, but whoo-boy, the garlic I used was very fresh from our local CSA farm and pungent. After dinner mints required.