Ray's Garden Rows: Turning lawn space into a garden place

Ray Mueller

When relatives moved into an older house in the city of Chilton early in 2015, one of the motivations for choosing that property was the possibility of establishing a garden in the backyard.

Veggies from the garden

That decision has led to many wonderful moments and a few puzzling situations. The magnificent moments are rooted in the best soil in which I've ever tried to grow vegetables and fruits.

Removing the sod

We don't know the history but it's probable that plot of ground on which we've created the garden was a typical city lawn for at least 80 to 90 years. Getting to that point started with the rental of a rugged garden tiller to tear up the existing sod.

The folks at the rental center suggested that we obtain a sod remover or lifter instead. Our choice required four or five trips along the same path with the tiller in order to have a a good seedbed for plants and seeds.

Potato production

Since one of my gardening ventures that tends to succeed every year is the growing of potatoes, I used the new site as another opportunity. I had heard that potatoes do especially well in soil where they have not been grown before.

Well, what happened in this case? The results were amazing good with the approximately 15 Yukon Gold potato hills (two or three eyes or stems per hill) that I grew there in 2015.

I harvested individual tubers weighing 23 and 25 ounces and a few others between 16 and 18 ounces – far larger or heavier than the fairly meager amount of foliage on the plants had suggested. This happened without the application of any fertilizer but there was some irrigation. Had I still been exhibiting at the Calumet County Fair, those two spuds would have taken the top two places in the category for heaviest potato.

Pepper prosperity

In what were still only tilled strips then, the couple living there planted some 96 pepper plants of several varieties. Because of the growing season in 2015, the plants started slowly but by mid to late August they were hanging heavy with fruits and the harvest of a bountiful crop continued into October.

A single cucumber plant grew fairly well and a few watermelon and muskmelon plants promised some nice fruits. But the leaves of those plants were hit by mildew by early August and their fruits did not mature properly.

A couple of cherry tomato plants yielded hundreds of the small fruits. My relatives also grew a patch of leeks which they left in the soil during the winter before harvesting them.

Green beans were also planted in the new garden space. They were very healthy and productive, providing wonderful fresh beans late in the summer plus lots of ripe seeds.

Changes for 2016

Given the success of the project in 2015, we decided to expand the amount of space suitable for gardening – to 1,900 square feet today. That involved tearing up the sod that remained between the strips in which the plants were grown in 2015 and the sod in an adjacent section.

In the latter area, we put in 24 black raspberry plants that were obtained by mail order this spring. A few of them had small clusters of berries this year but most of them should be producing in 2017.

Based on the notion of potatoes faring well where they haven't grown before, I grew Red Norlands, Yukon Gold, German Butterball, and Adirondack Blue (at the request of an area couple). The foliage of the Red Norlands were frosted during the freezing weekend of May 14-15 but by the end of June the vegetative growth had fully recovered.

This year's vines were very impressive on all four of the varieties. The Yukon Gold, which I harvested in late July, provided one spud which weighed 22.4 ounces and many others between 12 and 16 ounces each.

The Red Norland were harvested early. I'd give them no more than a medium grade. The Adirondack Blue had a great yield and they have a wonderful texture and taste. The vines on the German Butterball were still mainly green through the 2nd week of August.

Green bean bonanza

We've done several plantings of beans this summer. The first batch of green beans set a record for me. When I picked on July 31, one of the plants had 30 beans which were of proper size for harvesting at the time. In all the years I've grown green beans, the highest number I can recall for any other time was about 20 beans from one plant at a picking.

After the digging of the first potatoes, there was room again for planting of green beans which emerged within five days and were developing rapidly by mid-August. A specialty planting of beans with white seeds also was done in early August after the removal of the garden pea plants.

One mystery has emerged with the beans. There is one area in the garden where not one of the seeds emerged from both the first and second plantings even though the same batch of seed was used at both locations for the both the spring and summer plantings.

This year's mix of garden variety peas – all from seed I've saved – provided a wonderful crop plus some more saved seeds. The vines were so long that they tangled. A few which attached themselves to temporary fencing to keep out the rabbits reached a height of nearly five feet.

Wonderful vined plants

Thanks to the almost ideal growing conditions this summer, the vined plants have thrived this year. Most impressive are the vine lengths of the autumn spaghetti squash which have reached about 25 feet along with a set of more than 20 squash that were very well advanced for early in August.

Even more satisfying was the appearance of five watermelon in early July. By the start of August, the round fruits were already larger than a human head. The only drawback with those vined plants was the appearance of mildew on leaves of two of the autumn squash plants by early August.

A few groundcherry plants are doing well. The only elderberry plant which survived from a planting of very poor quality stock in the spring of 2015 produced huge blossom clusters which promise a good crop of berries if we protect them from the birds.

Other vegetable species

Because of holdover inventory from last year's peppers, the resident couple cut back significantly this year on what are also proving to be very productive plants of several varieties.

The eggplant – four of the six plants, that is – were really impressive this year. Of all the times I tried to grow eggplant, only once was successful.

Taken in late July, the first eggplant weighed two and one-half pounds. Three of the other plants were loaded with more specimens but the one at the end of the row was barren at the beginning of August and the one next to it had only one fruit – just another example of the unpredictability of gardening.

And yes, eggplant is technically a fruit although most people would consider it to be a vegetable.