Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012's results, 2013's hopes

I hope you'll forgive the all too common trick that's used by just about every media outlet to fill page space at a time of year when there isn't a whole lot to talk about, except maybe the weather or possibly about cliffs that are fiscal in nature.

I'm of course referring to all the articles recapping the year in review.  I did it at the end of 2011, looking at all of the seeds I had ordered and reviewing how well they did in my garden that year.  It's one of the most read posts I've done, so I suppose it'd be silly of me not to do it again.

And this year is significant in that it is ending much better than it started.  Last year at this time Gita was on her second chemo treatment, hair falling out, future in question, our family under a lot of stress-- life really was not good.  This blog was one of my few outlets, and I poured myself into it, and appreciated those who read and responded.

But life has significantly improved since that dark period in our family's story.  Gita is doing fantastically well- so much so that you never know that she was seriously ill only a year ago by looking at her.  She is an incredibly resilient woman and I'm lucky to still have her.  I have new respect for her strength, and appreciation for her as well as for my own health and the health of our kids. I am grateful that this year is ending on a high note.  It could have been otherwise.

So far as my garden goes- 2012 was a really challenging year.  Between taking care of my kids and wife, in the garden I battled Japanese beetles and the swings in the temperature and moisture levels.   The spring started with a bizarre ice storm, followed by warmth that came weirdly early, followed by an April freeze that killed off most stone fruits.  Then summer was unbelievably hot and wet, then hot and dry, continuing into a fall of severe drought.

This has been yet another difficult year for gardening in Minnesota.  It's unfortunate, but this is probably going to continue for a while.  The  record Arctic ice melt means that the jet stream over North America is going to fluctuate more wildly than it normally would, meaning more weirdness in the weather.  Minnesota being near the center of the North American continent, we are due to have more weirdness than most.  Adaptation to climate change is no longer a fashion- it has become a necessity if you are a gardener.

So that will color all of my reviews of the seeds I ordered.  This has been a bad garden year, but I am going into next year expecting more of the same.  I can't waste time and money on plants that promise the largest and tastiest vegetables- I need to focus on drought and heat tolerance.

That said- here I have reviewed my garden plants as best as I can remember them.  If you disagree with me, please comment.  I love a good debate.

Provider Bush Green Bean-
Said to be a reliable producer, and it was.  I planted this in the dry, alkaline, low organic soil of our brand new community garden plot that was little more than crabgrass and compacted gravel parking lot before we started.  Yes, I worked in some compost but it wasn't nearly enough.  I interplanted these with some potato starts, and though I'd be lying if I said I had a bumper crop of beans, these did well given the conditions.  I'm hoping they fixed a bit of nitrogen for next year too.  Taste was average, but I don't expect a whole lot from a green  bean.

Windsor Fava Beans-
Reliable as a Toyota- or as reliable as ours at least.  We get a nice crop of tasty fava beans every spring with these, which wither and die back in the July heat.  In a cooler summer climate, they'll produce a 2nd crop in the fall with no extra work from the gardener.  We had that happen once.  Doubt it will again.  Favas, by the way, are much tastier and bigger than other beans if you've never grown them.  Definitely worth trying. 

Red Noodle Yard Long Bean-
Did I plant this or not?  We never got any.  I can't remember planting it, so maybe not.  If I did, it was a total flop.

Oregon Giant Snow Pea-
A good crop of peas again despite the crappy weather.  Sweet too- a real keeper.

Telegraph Imperial European Cucumber-
These did really well in the rich organic soil of our community garden plot of 2011.  Not so much in the tough soil of our new plot.  I think I got a couple cukes.  Borers took the vine out mid-summer if I remember.  I'd try it again anyway.  The cukes are firm and nutty- not at all like a typical grocery store cucumber.

Long Bitter Melon-
Fedco was actually sold out of these, so we didn't try this variety.  Gita got some bitter melon seeds saved by a Nepali friend, however, and we had great luck with just planting them in a neglected corner of the yard.  They trailed through the strawberries and dropped a few melons here and there in the strawberry patch.  They are a true survivor- I gave them no special care aside from an occasional watering, and they did really well.  The flavor is an acquired taste to say the least.  They're really bitter.  Gita says they're a natural anti-diabetic  and anti-cancer agent, so she eats them regularly- even drying them and powdering them to take as a supplement.  So far so good.

Danvers Carrot-
Can't go wrong with this one.  Huge, but not woody, tasty carrots without a lot of work.  Really, truly delicious and sweet.  I usually harvest them after frost, and they're fantastic. 

Chioggia Beet-
Eh.  I wasn't very impressed.  We ate some of the greens, so they weren't a total loss, but we only had a few beets at the end of the season, after giving over a whole row to them.  The beets were sweet, yes, but a waste of space for the number of them we actually got.

Easter Egg Radish-
Again, not that impressive.  Nice shape and size, but not that many for the space we gave them.  Our garden may have a problem with radishes, as daikons have been a complete bust, with the exception of the very first year.  Not sure if I'll plant radishes again.

Harris Model Parsnip-
These were pretty good.  I don't know if I'd plant these in my yard again, since they made me itch like crazy whenever I weeded around them.  I might put them at the edge of my community garden plot in the future, so the squash and tomato thieves can get a rash as well.  Wankers.  Maybe I'll plant parsnips right behind the tomatoes, so they hide in them and get dermatitis all over their faces.  That'll make them easy to spot.
The parsnips themselves are sweet and tasty.  I have 5 gallons of them in my root cellar, so I need to get busy eating them.  They're fantastic in a lamb stew, by the way if you like that sort of thing.

Gold Ball Turnip-
Again, a good producer.  I'm not sure I like the flavor all that much- they're more bitter than other turnips I think, though I'm not a turnip connoisseur.  These I may have trouble finding a use for, because the kids just won't eat them, and they're not very high on my list either.  I planted them this year because Gita said they're good for cancer survivors- I can't remember exactly why.  The leaves make me itch almost as much as the parsnips, so if I do these again, they're going in the community garden next year.

Space spinach-
Same as any other spinach.  Maybe two weeks and gone.  I wish I had remembered to plant a late summer crop, because that seems to last forever.  This year it was early and soon gone.

Verte de Cambrai Mache-
This one is disappointing.  I read Eliot Coleman's "Four Season Harvest" more than 10 years ago and always remembered how glowingly he talked about mache, and about how fantastic of a season extender it was.  Hasn't been for me. I can hardly find the stuff after I plant it.  What little I get does taste good, but there's so little as to not make it worthwhile.  I probably pull a lot out by accident because it looks like a weed.

Pung Pop mustard/ Joi Choi Pac Choi-
These are two Asian greens I planted for Gita.  I planted them together in the same row, and both worked out pretty well.   The Pac Choi started early and was soft and succulent, then the mustard filled in the  gaps in mid-summer.  the Pung Pop is pungent- the description fits it well- but it's exactly what my wife wants.  Mustard greens are a staple in Nepal, and people there like them spicy and slightly bitter.  They taste really good when cooked- at least they do when Gita makes them.  Probably not everyone's cup of tea, but they taste like the essence of healthy, wholesome food when you eat them with some brown rice and lentils.

 Rainbow Lacinato Kale-
Not bad- a cross between Nero di Tuscana and a red Russian Kale.  I still like Nero better, but the red color added a little zing to the garden.  No extra zing in flavor though.

Nero di Tuscana Kale-
As always, the hardiest thing  we plant in our garden.  We were still getting kale up to two weeks ago- that is, mid-December in Minnesota.  And it tastes really good in my opinion- but only when cooked.  Raw kale is awful.  Cooked kale is like spinach that doesn't get mushy or slimy.  Like mustard greens, these just exude health and goodness.

Kolibri Kohlrabi-
I didn't get around  to planting this one.  I still have the seeds and will next spring.

Quarantina Raab-
I guess this is the last time I'll plant Raab broccoli.  I had it work well once, when we had a cool, wet summer.  I've tried to replicate that success and fail each time.  This isn't a survivor.  I understand it can be a good fall crop, but I'm not a good  fall planter.  Even though I love the flavor of this stuff, I think I'm giving up on it.

Cajun Jewel Okra-
Interestingly, this didn't do as well as I thought it would through the hot, hot summer.  It may have been the drought, or the poor soil in the community garden, but the plants got no taller than two feet, all summer.  They were weird, little dwarf plants that put out a pod ever here and there.  I'm not sure it was the seeds' fault, but it was kind of strange.  If I had known the summer was going to be so hot and dry, I might have ordered a Texas-grown strain of okra.  Maybe I should next year.

Hot Portugal Hot Pepper/Jaluv an Attitude-
My biggest disappointment of the summer was my total lack of hot peppers.  Jaluv an Attitude did well in weird weather last summer, but was in better soil.  This year, both varieties simply refused to grow.  Both were still about 3 inches tall in August, and were swallowed up by the tomatoes and squash vines.  It was sad to see.  I blame the soil.   I am composting copiously now, and probably will not plant these in a no-till area again.  I was pretty excited about the Hot Portugal, and got skunked.  There's always next year.

Opalka paste tomato-
This is my second time failing with Opalka.  To be fair, all the tomatoes I started indoors failed, as I probably started them too late, then direct seeded too late as well.  Opalka put out some thin, but tasty tomates by late September, but that was just too late.  The frost got in October what blight hadn't already taken.  I want to like this tomato.  The description in the Fedco catalog makes it sound like the holy grail of tomatodom, but I'm afraid that our  climate may just be too harsh for it.  Maybe it needs the cooler, wetter summers of Maine, or its native Poland to thrive.  Minnesota may not be its place.

Orange Banana paste tomato-
Same as above except I don't think I got a single  tomato off of these.

Sacred Basil-
Skunked on this one too- and I've never known basil not to grow.  I bought some generic basil from the hardware store too, and neither one grew.  WTF?

Caribe cilantro-
Total flop, and see above, cilantro has always grown like a weed for me.  I guess I'll blame the weather- but this is supposed to be a Caribbean variety.  You'd think it could take the heat.  Apparently not.

A no-show.  See above.

Winter Luxury pumpkin-
Now THIS knew how to grow in crappy soil, and it survived the borers too.  It sprawled all over the garden and even with the pumpkin theft that clearly happened at the new community garden, we still ended up with 8 nice 6-8" pumpkins at season's end.  Good flavor  too.  We just took the last one out of the cellar  for a pumpkin pie, and it was smooth and tasty.  Kept well in 50-60 degree storage for 3 months.

Some sort of yellow potato-
This was a seed potato from Egg/Plant, our local urban farm supply store.  I got the last two bags of ratty looking, already sprouting seed potatoes in mid-June.  I like Egg/Plant but they charged me full price for some pretty questionable potatoes.  I bought them anyway.  Surprisingly, they did pretty well.  I knew potatoes liked crappy soil, so I wasn't too shocked that they did well in sandy, infertile soil.  I was surprised that they grew so late in the season, after sprouting in the bag.  We got about 30 pounds of potatoes from 10 pounds  of starts, so they weren't exactly prolific, but I was planting them for the biomass and soil aeration as well as the food, so given that, they did alright.

Red Calabash tomato-
This was the champion of the summer.  William Hunter Duncan of Off The Grid in Minneapolis left six starts on my doorstep unannounced, and I planted them.  They absolutely thrived in bad soil and bad weather, giving me bucketloads of little pumpkin-shaped tomatoes that tasted surprisingly good.  While my other tomatoes struggled to survive, these thrived.  Many thanks, Hunter.  I should have saved the seeds, but didn't.  I will be ordering these for next year.  Truly a survivor plant in the garden. 


That's all I can think of now.  There were probably a few others- random seeds I picked up at the hardware store, but that I can't recall the name of now, because they didn't do well.  All but the last three were ordered from Fedco, the pumpkins being from Jung, the potatoes from Egg/Plant and the calabash being a mystery to me, but a very good one.

If you are moved to do so, please tell me about your own successes and failures of 2012 in the comment section.  If there were more failures than successes, don't feel too bad.  You had a lot of company this year.


  1. I presume if you didn't specify, you planted it in your home garden? I ask because I'm particularly interested in plants that do well in poor soil, like the Winter Luxury pumpkin.

    I love the comments about the parsnips and turnips. Using itch inducing properties to protect your crops, I love it! That's a great example of permaculture thinking.

    I loved mache the years I've had it, but you have to get the timing right. It's one you plant in the fall and harvest first thing in the spring, around the time crocuses bloom. Yields still aren't great, but having something truly fresh at that time of the year is wonderful.

    I had a lot of successes and a lot of failures, too many to list here. The big surprise though was my hard red winter wheat, that I harvested about 6 - 8 weeks after I planted it, instead of the 8 - 12 months I was expecting.

  2. First off Jeff, could you tell me exactly what you do to prepare and eat your favas? I was told once you need to blanche and boil and peel and...and... it sounded super hard, so I have never tried to eat them. I have grown them as a nitrogen fixer and aphid trap, but never for food.

    Probably my biggest success was cutting 3.5 kg of basil from our new little greenhouse. We got lots of great beans for pickling from our Fortex seeds.

    I also grew several kinds of beans for drying, more for sentimental reasons than nutritional ones--orca beans, goat's eye beans, jacob's cattle beans. Also the Ruckle Bean, which is a West Coast variety from Salt Spring Island.

    I semi-success has been our new meat rabbit concern. We have a great doe that is just textbook, making it easier on us to follow along. We are getting better at the slaughter, and the meat is delicious. We even tanned the last bunch of hides. But a big failure is that I built them lovely runs so they could have grass and room to run around, and I was totally unprepared for the amount of crap they generate. So, they are relentlessly killing all the grass. I don't know how to deal with that.

    I was given a soil blocker this year, and am pretty convinced of its usefulness. We have the .75 and 2" blocker. There are still many things to figure out in the system, but I like it so far. Still my winter veg were not far enough along for a good garden crop. I have a little bit of lettuce, some nice turnips, and some parsley that is good. A little chard. But, I will definitely have early spring veg!

  3. Hi John-

    Our new community garden plot has been a really good place to test out varieties that thrive in poor soil, because it really is very poor soil. I've rarely seen worse, at least in Minnesota. The best performers in that plot were, in order: Red Calabash tomato, Winter Luxury pumpkin, Provider green bean, the random yellow potato, and the Cajun jewel okra. Everything else was pretty marginal. That said, I consider it a successful crop given what we grew it in.
    I may try mache again, but I think our winters may be too harsh for a fall-seeded crop. Your climate may be better suited to it. Nice surprise on the winter wheat by the way!


    Kudos on the rabbit project -sounds like it's really working out. I'd have a hard time butchering rabbits myself. I eat meat, so I guess I should be willing to do what it takes to produce it. If/when we get poultry that job will fall to me, so I'll learn. Maybe if I imagined rabbits as big squirrels it would be easier.

    Fava beans don't need to be peeled twice in my experience. I've seen that recommended as well on recipe sites and whatnot. Seems like a waste of time to me. Maybe if you start with dried beans- but with fresh small ones you can eat them pods and all after they have been cooked. Even the large ones with seeds that have already turned brown can be shelled and cooked and eaten in the jacket. They're tougher than other beans but not unpleasantly so. Gita mixes them into veggie or chicken curry and they're fantastic! Very meaty for a bean, with a unique nutty flavor that I really like.

  4. Jeff,

    That's great to hear about Gita. Blessings to both of you this eve of 2013, and both your beautiful kids.

    As for the Calabash, agreed, PROLIFIC. Tasty and Juicy. Only thing, after washing about the fiftieth one, to arrange for about three quarts saved, I was like, not the base for saving! But nice, for depth of flavor, for sure.

    You say you want a debate: As for Provider Bush Green Bean- I say, I'll stick with my rattlesnake, thanks. Which gave me two, three week periods of harvest, two years ago; and which can't be beat for crisp juciness, I think, when they have sufficient sunlight and fertile soil, of course (which this year I didn't give either patch enough sunlight - but still prolific though.) As for keepin the seed, I found, the seed may look rattlesnake, but the second generation is diluted somehow. If that's all I planted, I'd still have to cover them, for the proximity of my neighbors bean patch, which is all hybrid. I assume the same goes for your fava. Could make for income, going forward, is what I'm sayin. Hydroponics too. Check this out at the Diner: [url][/url]

  5. Copied and pasted that html link language, for the Diner hydroponics link. Anyone out there want to educate me? Would be much appreciated. :)

  6. Hydroponics

    <a href=""> Hydroponics</a>

  7. I don't know much about hydroponics myself, so I wish I could add something to the conversation, but can't. It seems like a kind of high-energy way to provide calories in my not very well informed opinion.

  8. I just wish there was more outlets which sold quality seeds locally rather than cheap plastic fast food or super pricey organic food. I've bought seeds from Lowe's but I'm pretty sure their quality wasn't quite as good as something from paces like Seedsavers or Fedco. If there were more accessible places like the ones mentioned above for getting quality seeds I also think people wouldn't need as much motivation to starting food forests in their front or backyards.

    1. I agree. As economies become more local, of necessity, I think we may see this start to happen. I'm looking forward to seeing a McDonalds converted to a seed bank someday. Of course, saving your own seed is the best way to 'shop local' for seeds, but I can't seem to be able to do that myself, so I shouldn't preach. It's a goal for next year.