Friday, 6 November 2015
Pushing the Boundaries Part 1
We live in a cold climate which means our winters are long, frigid and snow filled. We typically only have 3 "guaranteed" frost free growing months, but we can and do experience up to 4 months of frost free gardening (in a good year).
To balance out that harsh reality, we are very fortunate to have LONG summer days filled with many hours of daylight and bright sunshine. In June, it finally gets dark at 11pm and the sun rises again around 4am! Those long daylight hours translate to more growing time which compensates beautifully for the low number of frost free days.
In recent years, I've experimented with microclimates on our property. These little pockets of growing space (where various factors combine to create unique growing conditions) are GOLD MINES of opportunity in our short growing season. It can take a few years to really know where those places are on your land or on your city lot, so I encourage you to walk your property slowly in every season to find them. Pay close attention to temperature and wind protection and really NOTICE what's going on in those unique areas. Look for both sides of the spectrum - the cold, exposed (windy) places, the damp, wet hollows, the warm protected pockets and the searingly dry "dead zones". Every one of those places offers you an opportunity for a yield.
Growing crops in location appropriate places means more food with a LOT less work. So often, we plan our gardens based only on crop rotation or convenience (growing all veggies together in a rectangular beds somewhere in the back yard). By working with the natural microclimates all over our properties, we can grow abundant gardens in those highly specific areas simply by matching up plant needs to those specific microclimates.
In my case, I have a protected growing area (facing SE) which is a natural place to grow heat and sun loving plants. Here in this bed (photo below taken in summer), I have grapes, tomatoes, peppers and heat loving herbs such as rosemary, basil and sage (and giant hyssop for the bees and as a companion for the grapes). All around the edge, I planted strawberries and onions (which grow VERY well together). This warm, wind protected place is one of the first growing spaces where the snow melts in Spring so those strawberries get a nice early start to the growing season.
Speaking to wind protection, our prevailing winds are NW. The house is angled slightly to face SE, so our home blocks the west wind and the front stairs (combined with the distant trees) helps to keep the cold north wind out. Below (now in Autumn and looking very bleak indeed), you can see how the reflective heat from the gravel driveway (and the concrete) adds further warmth to the garden (which contributes greatly to this site's microclimate). The thermal mass of the concrete is excellent for ripening those strawberries early in our growing season! The concrete captures and stores heat all day then slowly radiates it out overnight to help ripen and protect those precious juicy jewels from late Spring frosts (which is why I planted them right at the edge of the garden).
The "soil" in that area was dreadful when we moved in. It was crusty, dry, cement-like clay with ZERO organic matter. Water literally ran off it instead of soaking into it. By building the soil through winter cover cropping with rye, green spring manures (buckwheat), mulching (wood chips and straw) and adding rich compost made from the hen house bedding, we now have prime, first class soil in this area. This soil is sweet and loamy, bursting with organic matter, rich in mycelium and teeming with microbial life. It holds thousands of gallons water and even through our driest summer, we didn't have to water beyond the seedling stage. The scant rainfall we had twas enough to sustain this garden. All the work we had to do was a little bit of occasional weeding (the mulch kept most of the weeds away), harvesting and eating!
Thinking outside the traditional "box" of planting only ornamentals at the front of the house has netted us a strong yields of delicious produce for VERY little time and work. This relatively small patch of earth was among the most productive spaces on our land this year thanks to a little bit of planning and planting to suit the natural conditions here. Had I planted lettuce, spinach and peas, they would have wilted, bolted and tasted very bitter (they like cool soil and some protection from the searing afternoon sun). I would have been fighting the conditions all season which is SO much work! This garden and the tremendously successful yield from it this year is a prime example of working WITH nature not fighting it. It took me YEARS to figure this out, but our ongoing learning has proven that we can do things in a better way.