December to February. Call me crazy, but this is by far the most exciting part of the gardening season for me. My wife and I spend our free moments here and there pouring over all the nursery catalogs, considering all the interesting things we could plant this year. There’s a Nourse Farm catalog on the kitchen table, while Stark Bros is on the bookcase in the kids’ play area in the basement, easily accessible in those rare moments when the kids grasp the concept of self-entertainment. It’s sitting on top of Landscaping with Fruit, by Lee Rich, a phenomenally useful reference for anyone interested in perennial fruits.
Everything feels possible during the off season. Truck Day was almost two weeks ago and the Red Sox are going to win it all this year. Oh, and the Pats too. This is the period of hope and anticipation. Come late summer, the Sox may be out of contention and a quarter of our new fruit trees may not have survived shipping and transplanting. The kid who helps me water will probably have missed the ground cherry bed in front, resulting in the loss of that crop this season. Some things will have come in better, some worse. But in February, they’re all still coming in.
We sat on the floor of the bathroom reading the Territorrial Seeds catalog while the kids took a bath. At one and three, you have to be close enough to catch the younger of two if her head goes under, but mostly she just splashes with the bath toys and annoys her big sister. See previous note about the girls entertaining themselves – bath time is one of the few times when my wife and I can make any progress on decisions that take both of us, such as figuring out what plants to order this year. I always wanted to grow persimmons, but I’m not interested in a 25 foot tree. Too tall for picking. But Territorrial had a 12 foot tree this year. We ordered two. Have you ever had a persimmon? I think I had a couple in high school, but boy am I excited for the 50 pounds of them we’ll have 5 years from now. Again, it’s about anticipation. Those trees may be nothing like my expectation, but as of right now, I’m expecting 50 pounds/year of what was described as tasting like honeyed and spiced apricots.
This is our fourth year doing this, making us relative beginners. When we first started, we were in our one bedroom apartment in Melrose, expecting our first baby. For those of you reading who have children, think back for a moment and try to remember what felt possible before the kids came along, when the only real limitations were space and confidence. That’s the space we were in. We were closing on our first home in the spring, we had a baby due in a month, and we were planning our first garden with the help of heirloom seed catalogs from Baker Creek and Seed Savers. I think we ordered thirty or so different seed packets that winter. We would learn a lot about babies and houses over the next year, and even something about gardens.
We built eight 4’x 8’ raised beds that spring, inspired by Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. We drew up cute little 32 square grids for each bed, mapping out each bed to take advantage of everything we gleaned about companion planting from Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte. If you’re getting the impression that we were terribly naïve and knew nothing about growing food that we hadn’t read in a book, you’re absolutely right.
Our focus was really on annuals that first year, rather than perennials, but I can’t remember why. I guess they are just what you think of until you know better. It’s kind of like asking a 10 year old what he wants to be when he grows up. He’ll probably say fireman, doctor, police officer, or one of the seven other jobs kids know about. Likewise, we went into this knowing about carrots, tomatoes, etc. But those heirloom seed catalogs opened our eyes a little. We ordered yellow watermelon, red carrots, purple beans, etc. We made lots of jokes about how our kids wouldn’t know the ‘proper’ colors for their vegetables when they got to school.
Fortunately, knowing that every year counted, we also got a some perennials into the ground that first year. We ate our first apples off the tree last fall. We’re still waiting on the first elusive pawpaws. But black raspberries turned our gardening world upside down. We planted 20 canes in a row, getting nothing that first year of course. By the next year though, the ‘baby’ was a year and half, and the black raspberry bushes were the most exciting thing in the world. We would lose her out in the garden, then see the canes bouncing as she ripped handfuls of berries off from where she was crouched between the canes and wall of the house.
Every year, we plant fewer seeds and more perennials. Every year we learn about some really neat perennial that we just have to fit into the small nooks and crannies remaining in the yard. I’ll add a page shortly highlighting some of our favorite and perhaps less well known plants to include in the backyard garden. Have you ever grown ground cherries? My wife found them in one of the seed catalogs. The fruits are small, perhaps the size of a marble, and taste a bit like cherry pineapple. We get enough out of a 4×8 bed to make jam and smoothies all winter. Or we freeze them and the girls snack on the frozen fruits.