September 28, 2016

Extending the Season

There’s a gardening axiom in Eastern Massachusetts that says, “if you can make it to the end of September without a frost, you’re good at least until Columbus Day”.  Well, yes, that may be true.  But first you have to make it to the end of September.  Which we didn’t do this year.  The night of September 25 brought a cold front down from Canada and, if you lived in Boston’s western or northern suburbs, it was the end of your annuals and most of your vegetables.
Our raised-bed garden this morning
And, indeed, the following morning our 600-square-foot plot in our town’s community garden was a sad display of tomatoes fallen prematurely from their vines and zucchini cut down in its prime.  All that is left to do is to gather what we can and compost the balance.
But a garden barely a tenth its size at our home is chugging along as though late summer will never end.  It’s our raised bed vegetable garden and, with luck, it will produce food for our table well into autumn.
There's hardware cloth and lots of
rocks at the bottom of the beds.
When we planned our new home we had on-premises vegetable garden in mind, but the site wouldn’t cooperate.  Tall pines on the property of our neighbor to the south block part of the sun we had counted on, leaving us with few choices for a space that had to be both sunny much of the day and not where it stuck out of the landscape.
Then, Betty had a brilliant idea: why not hide it in plain sight along the driveway?  OK, we had a long, narrow strip that was planned for a native perennial border.  The garden could be only four feet wide, but could be as long as we wanted.
Not-so-good soil, amended with
several inches of leaves, came next
We had both also wanted a raised bed garden.  Raised beds warm up earlier in the spring and don’t freeze as easily as in-ground gardens in the fall.  Betty said, if we’re going to build a raised-bed garden, why not make it a really raised bed?  Something you could garden standing up, or sitting on its walls.  Not twelve inches.  Think three feet.
And that’s what we built: two, four-foot-by-eight-foot gardens, each three feet high.  The shell is 2x10 pine which ought to last eight to ten years.  A screen mesh went into the bottom to deter critters from burrowing up from underneath, and the first foot is solid rock.  Anything that comes up through that is very, very determined.  The next nine inches is leaves and so-so soil.  It should improve with time.
The top 15 inches is beautiful,
compost-enriched soil
The top fifteen inches is beautiful, compost-enriched soil.  We screened it to be free of rocks and roots.  It is the happiest home any vegetable could want.  We completed the beds in early May and planted our first crop of lettuce, spinach, basil, chives, and beans.  It became our kitchen garden; the place to which you could run out and get the makings of a salad for dinner.
We discovered in the process that ‘tall’ raised beds confer another benefit: they’re too high for bunnies to hop onto, and squirrels and chipmunks feel like hawk bait.  Our spring and summer crops matured unmolested.
Bamboo 'hoops'
support a row cover
In early September, we pulled everything except the basil, chives, and carrots; and planted a crop of vegetables with short times to maturity.  We’re heavy on lettuce, arugula, beets and spinach.  We’ve added a superstructure of flexible bamboo stakes to support a row cover.  A row cover won’t protect against a hard freeze, but it will keep frost off of out vegetables – with luck – well into October and perhaps longer.

We’re about a week away from picking our first lettuce.  Building it was a labor, but our hope is that we’re picking the fruit of the first of many autumn crops.