Earlier in the summer I came very close to writing a post about a Catch 22 connected to my backyard. For many of my neighbors the only semi-private outdoor area they have access to is a glorified fire escape. When the weather starts to warm they start spending a great deal of time outside. On a given summer evening it isn’t unheard of for two or three families to be hosting friends and neighbors in their limited deck space.
Although humble by suburban standards, for our block we have an enormous outdoor space which we have spent some time, effort, and money to transform into an area with a variety of spaces to sit, relax, eat, drink, and socialize. Apart from the family, we generally host 3 or 4 people 3 or 4 times a summer; and that’s being generous. The emotion I’ve felt quite often in the past is guilt. Guilt when having friends over and having such a large and, again, while modest by some standards, relatively opulent space to entertain. Often though, I’ve felt even worse when we haven’t been using the space and our neighbors have been hosting huge parties on their humble fire escape.
(I took these picture with the essay on guilt in mind earlier in the year)
As this year has gone on things have changed. I’ve dedicated myself much more to maintaining the social spaces in the back; more weeding, more raking, and more frequent straightening up. With that we’ve used it much more as a family; to read, to sleep, to relax, and to unwind. The garden has always inspired the creation of friendships around here, and that has expanded with its more frequent use. We’ve always shared the product of our garden with neighbors, invited them over for food and drink (though not often), and given advice for growing things like tomatoes and peppers downtown. Some friends have known for years that they can sit and enjoy our backyard anytime.
What is new is our increased care, and that has completely washed away the guilt. Perhaps the guilt was never about use or lack thereof, but was strictly about the lack of appreciation I afforded the place. There have been years when I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that 90-95% of the time I spent in the garden was working it with only the remaining 5-10% dedicated to just experiencing it. That started to change last year when I read all of Moby Dick back there. This year I read The Stand and spent a good deal more time just enjoying what our efforts have wrought.
To highlight some of the progress we’ve made and things we’ve learned this year:
Some newspaper and mulch has eliminated the need to weed almost completely and reduced watering to the point that even after going almost 30 days without rain there was plenty in my rain barrels and tote to get us through without using any city water. I actually learned that I had overwatered the beds which we had mulched. What an energy saver it has been.
With winemaking being an enterprise we enjoy we decided last year to move our combination dining table/arbor to a new location so as to maximize grape production. The new vines actually produced a modest number of grapes this year, and the older vines look ready to produce a bumper crop; we still need to do much better at pruning, and I’m sure our grapes fall far below any sommelier’s standards for excellence but my motto is always that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We got 13 bottles last year between the grapes and the excess peaches:
We sowed lettuce, Swiss chard, and kale after we harvested the garlic. It went against everything we’d been told about planting in the heat of mid July. The same shade from the growing fruit trees that made our garlic miniature has made this the best season for leafy greens we’ve had since year one:
This year was the best ever for blueberries and strawberries, and our “ever-bearers” are still producing a handful or two a week:
Cool aside; we gave away some seedlings but still had a few extra. Rather than toss them we stuffed them into a very narrow window box container to keep in case some we planted in the beds died off. I kept watering them. They seem to enjoy density!
Despite my horrible pruning both the early and late peaches seem to be doing really well:
Now for the bad news.
Most of the tomato plants seem sick. At first I thought it was just the early season overwatering given my ignorance regarding the amazing impact of the mulch, but it has continued. It may be that it was the overwatering but there just isn’t any way back, or it’s something else. Either way, most of the plants have produced plenty of fruit but I’m concerned that we won’t get the usual October-November harvest we usually get.
I was hoping that last year’s two apples would mark a turning point in apple production but this year we’re down to one lonely fruit and trees that look terribly bare. It might be a magnesium and iron deficiency in the soil. I’ve used some spikes to add some nutrients to the soil and spread some ash from the wood stove around the trees in hopes that next year might be better. If not we may have to consider taking them out and going in a different direction.
My wife does most of the work on the plants themselves but she doesn’t have the summer off. We’ve divided up our composting between a worm farm Liz manages in the basement, and just leaves and coffee grounds in the old compost barrels. Next year we hope to add a tiny outdoor kitchen where the grill is now, and we hope to use this idea we stole from Boscobel to make the grapes along the back fence easier to care for and harvest.
Feel free to share any tips! We love it, we can see that things are progressing, but we also know that there’s a lot we don’t know.