When I set out to write this post, my outline looked something like this: ok Sophia, just summarize what we did, how it went and what we have in mind for next year. Well, that didn’t quite work out. Turns out I could type up a whole novel on growing kale alone (it’s unclear who would want to read it – think of this more as an indication of my garden enthusiasm), so it’s taken a good portion of self-control (and – ehm – Mike telling me to stop) to get this post ready for publishing. I might have to write a little series instead, because there are just so many things I want to share! Above all, I think, I want to spread the word on exactly how small of a space you can have and still get a decent harvest. On how gratifying and self-fulfilling growing your own food can be. On how easy (some) vegetables are to get going. And how much good you’ll do for this world if you dare sticking your fingers into some dirt and watch the magic happen. This recap will take you from us setting up the garden in August 2017 and planting our first seeds in April 2018 all the way to harvesting snow-covered kale for dinner just this past evening. 2018 has been the best year of my life, in many ways – and in all honesty, I have a little group of plants to thank for a lot of it. And I know Mike agrees with me, even though he thought I turned into a crazy plant lady for a few months there. I hope you’re curled up on the couch, enjoying some precious days off work or school, with a tea cup or piece of chocolate within an arm’s reach. Happy reading!
So. In late summer/early fall of 2017, we cleared a piece of land with the intention of turning into a vegetable garden. Knowing how hungry (and bold) our local deer population is, we knew from the start we had to go big on the fence. So we did. After an endless number of hours digging up giant rocks, taking down trees and removing roots (boy, I understand why you would hire someone to do that for you), we had a semi-flat patch measuring approx. 6×8 meters in front of us. Some cursing later, we had created a 2 m tall fence around it, using a legit type of fencing material (https://www.stangselbutiken.se/sv/naet-stolpar-tillbehoer-Naet/viltstaengselnaet-vridknutsnaet-hjl-200-25-15.php) and sturdy fencing poles made out of wood. We left an open space for where the gate would be, and made this opening wide enough for our wheelbarrow to fit. Needless to say, we went all in here, wanting the whole setup to last us a long time. Now, our soil isn’t the best around here, and the ground is jam-packed with rocks ranging from large to extra large to enormous, so we decided some form of raised beds would be the best bet for the actual plants. Mike took it from there, and designed a planter box measuring 1.6×0.9×0.5 m (the height being 0.5 m). Eight of these would fit in the garden, and we would still be able to walk and mow around all of them. It was a deal. Together, these boxes would give us 11.5 m² of plantable space. To some, that will sound little. To others, it’ll seem like a lot. We… were really just happy. It took a few weeks before all the boxes had been built, but come late October, they were all stored away underneath a tarp. We knew we had a potato patch and two herb gardens to dig somewhere on the outside of the fence, but we decided those were projects for the spring. So, we rolled up our sleeves and renovated our house over the coming few months instead, not thinking too much about vegetables and different types of soil but instead dry wall, primers and crown molding.
Preparation of the garden at different stages – August 2017 to April 2018
One snowy day in February, we scooted our couch to right in front of the fireplace and took out a big notebook, printed images of all the boxes and a pen. And a computer (who am I kidding?). Over the next few hours, we planned what to grow, where to grow it and what specific kinds we wanted. We read our garden books, googled a lot, jotted down notes on spacing, companion growing, germination times and expected yields and tried really hard to not feel overwhelmed by the amount of accessible information out there (in retrospect, I want to ask: why in the world does the internet make vegetable growing seem so difficult? It’s not!). Eventually, we had a long list of seeds to order, printouts full of arrows and letter combinations, a few question marks and endless eagerness to get going. We bought all the seeds online (all organic), and primarily used Runåbergs Fröer (Runåberg’s Seeds) as our provider. We also chose three different kinds of potatoes and bought 1 kg of each as well. The kinds we selected were: Maria, a super early one that we planned on harvesting before the end of June, Charlotte, a slightly later kind, and Queen Anne, an August potato. And as we were spending money here anyway, we went ahead and placed an order for 5 tons of organic soil (like, actually 5 tons). Ah, things were starting to come together. But before we move on, these were the plants we wanted to grow: green kale, dino kale (Swedish: svartkål), sweetheart cabbage (Swedish: spetskål), broccoli, rainbow chard, spinach, radishes (two kinds), scallions, red onion, white onion, bush tomatoes, pearl tomatoes, pointed sweet peppers (Swedish: spetspaprika), cucumber, zucchini, winter squash, sugar snaps, pole beans, string beans, potatoes, dill, parsley, basil, oregano, mint, rosemary, thyme, sage and cilantro. Below, you’ll see the sheets we had drawn up at the end of that fireplace-planning session.
In the middle of March, we put our potatoes to sprout. On April 5th, we started our first round of seeds. As naive as we were, we thought a south facing window would do as far as light, but we were definitely mistaken. The first plants to pop their heads up quickly turned into flimsy, leggy little buddies and made no one all that happy. Off to the store we went, and returned home with a number of lose pieces that some Mike-time later had been turned into what resembled a space ship more than anything else. Ingenious as Mike is, we now had grow lights mounted to a wood plank that was resting on two trestles (Swedish: träbockar), allowing us to place the seed/plant cups underneath. Referred to as “the moon landing” going forward, we could get started for real. I have the desire to tell you about all the seeds now – when what was planted and all the steps we went through, but I doubt it’ll be fun reading. So I’ll do my best summarizing it all. Basically, we started all vegetables inside, with a few exceptions. We sowed chard seeds directly in the boxes as soon as we deemed it warm enough (although we could have done it much sooner – a beginner’s mistake), and we also sowed green beans and dill directly. Some seem to have a problem with birds locating and eating up the bean seeds, but we were lucky there – all seeds germinated and developed into plants. With that in mind – that we only sowed three without pre-starting them inside – you can easily imagine the number of cups we juggled. Mike quickly took to calling them “the plant parade” once days got warm and sunny, because I would carry all the gazillion trays with baby plants outside first thing in the morning, and then move them with the sunlight throughout the day. It seems obvious, but yes, it took a lot of time. Yet, it was worth every second of it. Those mornings are some of my happiest memories.
From seedlings to first harvest
We planted the 3 kg of sprouted potatoes on April 25th. The earliest kind got to go in boxes, where they would be replaced by other plants come mid to end of June, and the rest got to go in our freshly dug potato patch, measuring approx. 2×3 m. The location ended up being a tad too shady (something to work on for next year), but we got a decent yield anyway. We covered the potatoes with garden fabric (Swedish: fiberduk) in order to protect from any late frost nights, but could remove them just a week later, when warm and sunny weather settled in. On April 30th, we took to the inaugural planting seedlings in the boxes. This felt like such a big day! We realized quickly someone (you get one guess) had been a little too eager seed-starting. We had waaaayyy too many ‘teenage’ plants of pretty much everything! Naturally, we had to figure out what the heck to do with all these (good-looking) kales, broccolis, cabbages, bell peppers, tomatoes – the list goes on – and ended up putting them in large (approx. size: 8-10 liters) black buckets we had laying around. And you know what? It worked perfectly! The bucket-veggies turned out more or less equal to their box-planted counterparts, which was great to both see then and now know for the future. At the end of the day on April 30th, we had green stuff growing everywhere we looked. Our little greenhouse, no more than 1.5×2.5 m but perfectly fine to walk into and move around, was yet to be filled with tomato, bell pepper and cucumber plants (they got to stay inside a little while longer), but the rest of the plants were in their designated spots, ready to grow big. Well… not all the squashes either. Or the two kinds of beans. They also got to hang out inside for another month, because their spots had been taken by the potatoes already. See, in order to maximize our plantable space as much as possible, we were trying to get more than one round of harvest out of every single square centimeter of our soil. Going for an early potato variety and starting up the bean seeds simultaneously, we would get potatoes in June and beans the month after. We tried to apply this method everywhere, and will definitely try to streamline that system for next year. We also tried to stagger a lot, so that we would end up with plants at a few different stages and not have one massive yield at the same time. For example, we sowed spinach seeds directly in the boxes the same day we planted out a bunch from inside, in order to prolong the harvesting season.
Ok, so now it’s May-June and we’re admiring everything growing as much as we’re starting more seeds, sowing more seeds directly, re-planting certain plants into bigger pots, moving the greenhouse-population from inside into their permanent home etc. etc. Busy times, but oh so happy times. I would say at this point, we were putting in at least an hour of work a day, and a half-day a few times a week. Looking back, I just know that we had garden things on our to do-list all the time, but I can’t really visualize what actually took up the time. I guess, in the end, it adds up – you replant a few baby plants into bigger cups, you weed a little (although we didn’t see much weeds at all), you check for cabbage worms (or eggs), you water, you sow a few seeds, you plant out more seedlings s etc. But the real work started when the big yields started to roll in, and now we’re in mid-July. We had visited Mike’s family in New York the first half of the month, and had my mom and stepdad take care of the watering. Leading up to the trip, we’d gotten into the habit of doing “cabbage check”, as we called it, every afternoon. This meant checking all the leaves of all the members of the cabbage family (all the kale, broccoli and cabbage plants) to make sure no cabbage moths or cabbage butterflies had laid any eggs. Yes, it hurts your neck after a while. Yes, it’s a frustrating task. But you just do it. However, we couldn’t possibly ask our garden-sitters to do the same thing, so we invested in fine-mesh cabbage nets to cover the boxes in question before we left. When we came back, we found a garden that had gone completely bananas. Unusually warm and sunny weather together with diligent watering had made everything grow so much we almost couldn’t take it in. We had 1 m tall dill shooting up through the cabbage nets, flowering broccoli heads left and right… it was a wild sight. Jet-lagged and drowsy, we took to harvesting and cleaning things up almost immediately. Did I mention this is when the real work started? Exactly. Every day for the next week, we carried armfuls of both kale types and chard into the kitchen, where we blanched it and put into freezer bags. I picked through dill for four hours one day. Mike started washing greens in a big plastic tub outside, since we had outgrown our kitchen sink big time. It was, all in all, a magnificent time. Having dinners outside, eating what you’ve grown yourself (with some help from the store), relaxing after a day full of farm work. Nothing quite beats that, to me.
Green kale and rainbow chard bonanza
Yes, speaking of yields and harvesting times – let’s look at what we got! Remember our plantable space? We have 11.5 m² of box space, 6 m² of dug potato patch and then the greenhouse, in which we had approx. 15-20 large (10-20 liters) pots for tomatoes, cucumber and bell peppers. We didn’t weigh any of our herb harvests (all but the dill – which was interspersed with the cabbage plants – grew in separate herb patches), but can conclude we got large amounts of everything except cilantro. It seems the window you have for harvesting cilantro is very small, before it goes into bloom, but we ended up drying the seeds instead (coriander seeds, that is) so we ended up doing something worthwhile there anyway. We also grew carrots and beets in the fall, but we lost direct sunlight fairly early (mid-September) so they didn’t grow all that much – therefore, they’re not included here.
Below, you’ll see the specific kinds we grew and the individual yield for each one:
Green kale (Westland Winter): 14 kg*
Dino kale (Nero di Toscana): 18 kg
Sweetheart cabbage (Filderkraut): 0.7 kg
Broccoli (Waltham): 2.1 kg
Spinach (Bloomsdale Long Standing): 0.9 kg
Rainbow chard (Five colors): 21 kg
Summer squash (Striato di Italia and Dark Fog): 28.5 kg
Wintersquash (Delicata Zeppelin): 3.5 kg
Cucumber (Tanja): 8.2 kg
String beans (Speedy): 2.6 kg
Pole beans (Neckarkönigin): 2.8 kg
Sugar snaps (Sugar Ann): 1.7 kg
Cherry tomato (Red Pearl): 3 kg
Bush tomato (Ida Gold): 7.3 kg
Bell pepper (Ferenc Tender): 1.1 kg
Red onion (Long Red Florence): 0
White onion (Musona): 0
Scallions (Ishikura Long): 0
Radishes (French Breakfast and Plum Purple): 1 kg
Potatoes (Maria, Charlotte and Queen Anne): 12 kg
Total: 128.3 kg worth of glorious food
*We still have 14 more or less untouched kale plants out in the garden, happily enjoying the winter weather. If I’d take a guess as to how much that is in kilograms… I’d say approx. 6-8 kg. These will be used for kale salads (where you want raw kale, not blanched from the freezer) throughout the coming winter months.
Kale, cabbage, broccoli, spinach and chard
As you can see, we were very successful with some (thank you rainbow chard, kale and zucchini!) but less so with others (hello alliums, where did you go?). I was thinking I’ll attempt going through our main takeaways, without getting way too lengthy. Let’s begin with our two types of kale – both did amazingly, so we’ll basically just try to replicate what we did this year next season. The only thing we’ll switch up is when we’ll start the seeds. We planted our first seeds indoors on April 5th, which appeared early then since we still had patches of snow on the ground, but with the knowledge we’ve acquired throughout this season, we were so late to the game! Next: our sweetheart cabbages – we had 8 of them – got completely destroyed by cabbage worms. Somehow they got to them despite the nets, which was a big disappointment. We’ll see if we give it another try next year. I want to, but I think Mike is a little bit more on defense. Continuing on – as the garden novices as we were, we selected a fall broccoli variety upon buying our seeds, thinking “broccoli in the fall sounds fantastic”. What we didn’t quite understand was that dear Mr. Waltham likes fall just as much as he hates summer – the warm temperatures made him go into bloom before we even had time to realize what was happening. Needless to say, we ended up harvesting many tiny, almost-flowering broccoli heads during this hottest-ever Swedish summer. So next year, we’ll of course get an early summer broccoli for the first half of the season, and then hit up Waltham when it gets cooler. Same thing – or not really, but you’ll understand – goes for spinach. There we were, thinking we’ll have an endless supply of spinach all throughout the season. Nope, re-think that. Spinach doesn’t like the long, warm days of summer either, but will pop into bloom before you know it. Next year, we’ll sow spinach (as if life depended on it!) late winter/early spring and enjoy it before it gets too summer-y, and then do another round come late summer and early fall. In between, we’ll rely on chard for a similar type of green. And speaking of – our chard yield was amazing, so we’ll just do the same thing next year. The only thing for us to remember is that chard grows tall fast once the spring sun really gets working, so you can’t expect much to grow right next to it, unless it’s a really speedy radish or something of the like, which can be harvest-ready within a few weeks.
Sweetheart cabbage (left), broccoli (middle) and dino kale (right)
Zucchini, winter squash and cucumber
What’s next? Let’s go through the squashes. We had been warned about the endless supply of summer squash you can end up with, where you run out of things to make, stomach space to fill and storage options for it all. And we couldn’t wait for it. In a pretty cocky manner, we were kind of like… bring it on. And it was brought on. BUT. Not to the crazy extent we were expecting. We (mom) harvested our first zucchini in the beginning of July and our last one mid-September, and in those 2.5 months, we didn’t have a hard time keeping up. Sure, most of our zucchinis were actually turned into patties for the freezer (a.k.a winter food), so it’s not like we ate all 28.5 kg in the summer. Looking back though, I think both Mike and I are agreed we could have done with even more. We had a total of 9 zucchini plants and will probably not up the actual number for next year, but we’ll start earlier (our first seeds were started April 24th) and be even more diligent with hand pollination. But over to the winter squashes now – we only grew one kind, but it’s our favorite winter squash (without question) so that wasn’t too hard of a decision. For those of you who haven’t tried delicata squash, do it! This one is not to be confused with delica squash, a kind which is growing in popularity in Sweden these days. We had a total of 5 plants, and while these were looking amazing all throughout the season and had so many mini-fruits developing, we ended up with a disappointing yield. Many (more than 50 %) of the fruits scrumped up and died on us, in different stages of growing. Some were more than a decimeter long when they all of a sudden went soft and shriveled up, others were smaller. We know for sure we started the seeds too late, because when these babies were coming out of the flowers, it was already the end of August and nights were getting cooler. So that’s the first thing to change up for next year. Besides that, more diligent hand pollination here as well. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, growing winter squash – because the fruits that we did in fact harvest were beyond delicious. Our 5 cucumber plants did well overall – we had a steady supply for about 2 months – but we didn’t get more than we pretty comfortably could eat. I’d say we feel about the cucumber yield as we feel about the zucchini one – we could have had more, but we don’t have reason to be disappointed (at all).
Boxes with zucchini – among other things – (left) and delicata squash on the vine (right)
Peas and beans
The first vegetable that was ready to eat was sugar snaps. Crispy, sweet, not even the slightest bit tough. They were amazing. And judging by the number of flowers and the rate the pods were growing by, we were expecting bucket fulls of snap peas week after week. That didn’t happen. It seemed after about a month that they just closed up shop – the pods that still hung in there came out uneven-looking and tough. Now, we didn’t fertilize the dirt all that much since the day we planted them, but instead thought our brand new, prime soil would do the trick. This was probably a mistake, but late efforts didn’t seem to do anything. Instead the peas got to give way to spinach and fall carrots, as well as fall broccoli. Overall, we saw the same pattern with all of our legumes – besides the snap peas, we also grew pole beans and regular string beans in this category, which both looked fantastic to begin with and generated a good sized first harvest, but when we were expecting to see new flowers and beans form and dangle in front of us, nothing happened. The pole bean leaves turned yellow and fell off, even. Clearly, we have some homework to do in this department. Still, the harvest we got left us wanting more – homegrown beans are one of the most delicious things. Any tips here are more than welcomed!
Sugar snaps (left) and string beans (right)
Onions and scallions
All of the alliums we attempted growing – scallions as well as red and white onion – turned into nothing. We’d heard growing onions from seed is difficult (starting with bulbs is easier) but doable, so we wanted to give it a shot. We got the seeds to germinate and everything, but no onions really ever developed. The scallions came up nicely, but sort of stopped growing beyond chives-size. What could have gone wrong here? Scallions, we thought, were easy to grow, so we have some question marks to straighten out.
Peppers and tomatoes
Pointed peppers, oh pointed peppers – we got quite a few in the end, but it took us moving all the plants inside come mid-September and another few weeks of ripening by our guest room window before we could actually harvest. As I’ve stated above already, we started the seeds for these guys way too late too, so it should be an easy fix for next year. If I’d take a stab at guessing how many fruits we got, I’d say 20-30. They were all roughly 10-15 cm long, but very (very) lightweight and not that ‘meaty’. So while we’ll probably do some next year, I think we’ll also go for a traditional bell pepper – one sturdy enough to stuff and oven bake, for example, or throw on the grill. But I shouldn’t be too harsh – because seeing the flowers turn into teeny, tiny fruits and then patiently watch the little ones grow big, and then take their time before finally turning color, was a very rewarding journey. Next to the peppers, we housed the tomatoes (although it got crowded in the greenhouse once the plants started growing big, so some got to move outside, which was totally fine). Our tomatoes quickly got out of hand growth-wise. They grew tall. They grew wide. The grew unstable. And it wasn’t until our neighbor Valle came by and dropped the following comment “but people, didn’t anyone tell you you need to prune your tomato plants?” that we realized we’d missed an important step. Valle went on to show us how to, only to tell us 30 sec later it was too late anyway (you gotta love him). Anyway. We learned that bush tomatoes you let be, but the tall growing pearl variety we had, for example, is an excellent example of a kind you need to prune if you want a substantial yield. Needless to say, we do. Lesson learned.
Radishes and potatoes
While the alliums were a complete failure with no yield at all, somehow our radishes seem like an even bigger one. I mean, they weren’t a complete failure. Oh no, we ate radish greens until we couldn’t take it anymore, but our so-called actual radishes never delivered beyond either hairy, tough and bitter knobs or toothpick sized little “strings” of pink and purple. Radishes are supposed to be a beginner’s friend – reliable, easy, yielding a lot, fast-growing. Ehm, allow us to question this statement. What in the world did we do wrong? Since radishes were our only ‘down-growing’ plants – with the exception of potatoes – we got it into our heads that we stunk at growing all root-vegetable related things. Thankfully, our late-season experiment with carrots and beets proved that wrong. They didn’t grow big, but they grew. And they tasted great. Last but not least, potatoes. We got 12 kg out of the 3 kg we put in. Calling all potato growers out there – is this a good number? We think the potatoes harvested from the all-too-shady patch could’ve come out bigger, but we were pretty happy with the number of potatoes per plant (roughly 10, ranging from big to tiny). Few things beat digging up some new potatoes and then boiling them with fresh dill in the pot, so we’re definitely going for another round next year. Oh, and ‘Charlotte’ was the tastiest of them all.
That’s that. Wow. In case anyone is interested, we spent about SEK 17 000 (USD 1800) on setting up the garden. That includes all the material for the fence and the boxes, as well as the soil (which cost SEK 5000 alone), all the seeds for the first season (we still have some leftovers though), a few tools and some smaller items, such as stakes, garden fabric, cabbage nets etc. If we’d bought our entire harvest from the store – choosing both organic and locally produced – the same amount of food would have cost us at least SEK 10 000. That means that in just one season, the garden is more than halfway towards paying for itself. That’s just downright amazing.
So what’s in store for 2019? Let’s take a look:
- Take down trees – when the middle of September rolled around this fall, it was like someone turned off the lights for our poor plants. This being our first year growing, we didn’t really know how the sun would hit the garden once past peak-summer. Hint: it didn’t hit at all. Luckily, we’re allowed to take down the trees that primarily block the light despite them not being on our property, so that will be one of this winter’s projects. We ascribe the slow growth of our fall broccoli, carrots and beets to complete lack of direct sunlight, and hope next year will look a lot different.
- Early seed start – the plan is to start in February this year. While our grow lights-setup does go by the name “the moon landing”, it isn’t all that big, so we can’t cram that many plants underneath. An estimated 50 small cups can fit, so we’ll select those carefully – one group will consist of the slow-growers, such as bell pepper, and another of the early yielders, i.e. the ones that will start producing as soon as the temperature stays put above freezing and the sunlight comes back (spinach, for example).
- Expansion – lesson learned from this year: squashes take up A LOT of space. We think we’ll be better off setting up a ‘squash camp’ elsewhere on the property and just build a small type of fence around it (it seems deer aren’t all that crazy about squash anyway, so no fort should be needed), instead of devoting two whole boxes inside the precious fenced off garden to just squashes, which was pretty much the case this year. The expansion chapter also includes making the potato patch larger (Mike doesn’t know any of this, just so you know – it’ll be a happy surprise for him when he proofreads the piece), and potentially digging a whole new patch. Our property has plenty of unused space, but it also holds a record number of big rocks underneath the sward (Swedish: grässvål) – what this all means is that we’ll curse a lot, grow big muscles and be able to grow even more vegetables next year (sorry, my darling Mike).
- Pick seed kinds that will cover the whole season. Early broccoli, late broccoli. Early sweetheart cabbage, late sweetheart cabbage. And so on. Also, I want to try growing beans for drying (such as kidney, black, cranberry etc.).
No words can describe the infinite joy I get from growing vegetables. I love our plants with all my heart, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. They keep me anchored to the ground when I need it the most, they teach me patience, persistence and perseverance, they show me true beauty lies in the smallest of things. And they reinforce, every day, that hard work always pays off… in the end. If I could spend the rest of my life growing vegetables, running through the woods or up a mountain and cooking good food (next to Mike), I’d need nothing else. The simple life. That’s where it’s at for me. And us. Wishing you all a 2019 where all your dreams come true – big and small and all of those in between. Thanks for reading!
PS. Any advice on how to e.g. grow alliums, increase squash yield or keep legumes happy – please share!