2016 gardening report card: arugulification and cucumbering

With Thursday’s hard frost, another year of backyard gardening has come to an end and it’s time once again to take stock of a hobby that makes zero financial sense if you put any value on your time.

(For reference: my 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

arugula-can-be-a-december-crop_30721026823_o Arugula: A+

This incredibly versatile green–beyond using it in place of lettuce, you can also use it as you would chard in soups, stews and risotto and even make pesto out of it–rewarded me with bountiful spring and fall crops. My only regret: I didn’t clear-cut the remaining foliage on Wednesday.

Cucumbers: A

These took off beyond my expectations or intentions–a bunch of cucumber plants volunteered in the other raised bed and random spots around the yard, which makes me wonder if the squirrels or the birds helped redistribute them. Making cucumber salad, cucumber soup, gazpacho, and cucumber salsa–not to mention using them as a sandwich condiment–wasn’t enough to use them all up.

cucumbers_29466424642_oHerbs: A-

The parsley was not as prolific as last year, hence the slightly lower grade. Cilantro did well in the spring, but nothing came of the seeds I planted in September; meanwhile, sage didn’t come around until the fall. Mint, oregano and rosemary were their usual unkillable selves, but basil was yet again nearly a complete bust. Speaking as a quarter-Italian American, that last part really hurts.

Spinach: B

I only rarely had enough of this to use as a major part of a salad, but in the spring and the fall I could count on being able to step outside and grab a few leaves to use in an omelette or whatever.

Lettuce: B-

Its spring performance was matched by its weak showing in the fall. But considering what you pay for lettuce in the grocery store or at the farmers market, this still represents one of the best gardening bargains. It’s just not arugula.

tiny-tomato_29881788191_oGreen beans: C+

This grade would have been higher had all of my travel in May and June not led me to neglect the green beans that had gotten off to a fantastic start.

Tomatoes: C

Mindful of my history of heartbreak here, I limited my efforts to buying a couple of plants at the farmers market and trying to grow a few others from seed. The handful of tomatoes I was able to harvest were utterly delicious, even the tiny specimen in the photo at the right; I just wish I’d had more of them.

Bell pepper: F

At least my sunk cost on them was under $2, the cost of a packet of seeds. And at least these are pretty cheap from the right farmers-market vendors.

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My 2012 gardening report card

You’d think that success at growing a particular vegetable one year would be easily repeated the next. You would be wrong–at least in my case, considering how this year’s harvest from two raised beds and a couple of large pots departed from last year’s.

ArugulaArugula: A

I was sure last year’s plants would reseed themselves, so I foolishly neglected planting seeds until the absence of new growth was obvious. But then I had a good crop in the spring and a fantastic one in the fall. The latter allowed me to go two or three months straight without buying lettuce, and the plants have yet to conk out–that photo is from today.

Herbs: B+

The cilantro, on the other hand, did reseed itself–in massive numbers. I had more of that I knew what to do with for most of this spring. The parsley and oregano were even more invasive aggressive, the sage exceeded expectations, and the mint was its usual reliable self. But the basil struggled to get going, I had two rosemary plants die on me, the thyme didn’t make it through the summer, and it took two tries before dill established itself.

Strawberries: C+

I did a better job of keeping this pot watered, but I also lost a few berries because I didn’t harvest them in time. I may need to rethink my squirrel-defense strategy, now that these plants have grown enough to poke through the netting draped over the pot. I may build a cheap enclosure of some scrap wood, if the results don’t look completely hanky.

Green beans: C

I guess I’m not planting enough of these, because I rarely was able to collect enough beans to make sides for two people. Also, the drought in June hit them pretty hard.

TomatoesTomatoes: C-

The plants that were last year’s biggest disappointment made a late-season comeback after we took down a large, dying tree that kept them in shade for part of each morning. (Having this black locust removed also deprived Hurricane Sandy of a chance to toss its upper canopy onto, and maybe into, our house.) Now that I’ve established that I can grow tomatoes in this spot–I even picked a few small green specimens last week–I need to space them more widely next year. And to remember that these things reseed like crazy.

Lettuce: D

I barely got enough to accessorize a few sandwiches.

Bell peppers: F

The seeds I planted didn’t do anything, and the plants that grew from the seeds left by last year’s crop–two of which somehow materialized in the other raised bed–didn’t yield anything edible.

Cucumbers: F

I don’t know how last year’s glut of cucumbers could have been followed by this year’s complete absence of cucumber plants, let alone fruit–nothing reseeded itself, and the seeds I planted after that failure was obvious vanished into the dirt.

The 2011 gardening report card

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to garden, and not just for show. Growing my own vegetables provides food that I know is fresh and offers the prospect of saving money. And this year, those efforts took off in a major way, thanks to the effort I sank into building two large raised beds during last summer’s paternity leave.

My growing season isn’t quite over–I picked some arugula earlier today–but it’s time to assess how things went.

Arugula: A+ 

Meet my new favorite crop. I didn’t have to buy lettuce for two months straight in the spring–and I had enough left over to be throwing arugula into risotto and tomato-sauce recipes. I was a little slow to seed a second crop, but as I just wrote, it’s apparently outlasted the first frost here. I’m hoping this reseeded itself, but even if that doesn’t happen I can’t think of a more profitable expenditure of $2 and change on a packet of seeds.

Cucumbers: A

A new crop for me, these were almost as prolific as arugula. The only reason I didn’t wind up pickling a bunch was because I have three or four different cucumber-salad recipes and at least two for cucumber soup. And as I learned from the cuisine at a rest stop on a bike tour, you can make a tremendous sandwich out of cucumbers and tomatoes.

Bell peppers: B+

Another first-time crop, these had a slow start but took off in August and September. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how many of my pepper plants were of the “OMG hot!” variety; there’s only so much you can do with them.

Herbs: B

This is a collective grade, covering basil, parsley, mint, oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary and cilantro. Mint and parsley were the most consistent; although I had to reseed the latter halfway through the summer, those plants still look great. Basil got going slower than in prior years, delaying pesto-sauce season until late August. The sage did a little better than I’m used to; oregano and thyme, a lot better. Part of the rosemary plant died off, but the rest did fine. And for once, I got cilantro to grow in both the spring and fall.

Lettuce: B-

This was good in the spring–especially compared to prior years, which speaks to the benefits of amending dirt with peat moss and compost–but the fall crop has barely yielded enough for two sandwiches.

Green beans: C-

For the amount I planted, you’d think I would have been able to collect more than a single handful of beans each time. But they did taste good, and I know I neglected to pick some once the tomato, pepper and cucumber plants got in the way. In the bargain, my lame legumes fixed nitrogen in the soil for next year’s vegetables… or so I hope.

Strawberries: D

The plants I stuck in a large clay pot (and shielded with plastic netting to avoid providing a banquet for the squirrels) would have done better had I watered them more consistently and checked for new fruit more often. Too bad, since strawberries can be bland at the supermarket and rarely last long from the farmer’s market.

Tomatoes: D-

This pains me: I’m from New Jersey, where we named a whole family of tomatoes after the state, and as an American of Italian ancestry I take great pride in my ability to cook tomato sauce from scratch (not to mention gazpacho). But this is the fourth year in a row of woeful results. Once again, I had far more foliage than fruit. And although I planned to prevent the local squirrels from snacking on half-green tomatoes (they always seem to do this the day before I plan on picking them) by draping plastic netting over the entire bed and anchoring it to its walls, I left enough of a gap for one or two of these varmints to eat half of the single most promising tomato. A dry May and June, followed by a thoroughly soaked August, don’t seem to have helped matters. And by the time these plants mounted a comeback in the fall, they weren’t getting enough sunlight to yield anything bigger than the sad specimen you see at right. Can somebody please tell me what I’m doing wrong here?