Harvest Festival 2016

This has been an interesting year in the garden. In looking at the Harvest Festival 2015 post, I see a year that offered me what I would call the standard garden items. Not so this year. The problems began with a late frost that wiped out my grapes and pears. In fact, it nearly wiped out my apples as well, but I learned a curious lesson with the fruit this year because of the apples. All the outer apple trees had no fruit, but those in the center of the orchard did have some fruit. In other words, the trees on the outside protected those on the inside. I didn’t get a lot of fruit this year, but it isn’t a big deal because my larder is setup to provide multiple years’ worth of any particular item. The lesson I learned was not to prune too heavily when the weather is uncertain (as it was this year). In fact, the reason the apples survived as they did was because I didn’t have time to prune them much at all.

The garden also behaved quite oddly this year due to the weather. The Wisconsin winter was semi-mild this year without nearly as much snow as normal, so different bugs survived than normal. In addition, the weather was either hot or cold, without a lot of in between this summer. It has also been the fourth wettest summer on record. All these changes produced prodigious amounts of some insects that I don’t normally see and the vegetables didn’t produce as expected.

As an example of odd behavior, I normally have a hard time growing cauliflower. This year I grew huge cauliflower and one plant is attempting to grow a second head, which is something that never happens here. On the other hand, broccoli, a plant that always does well, didn’t even produce a head this year. All I got were some spikes that didn’t taste good (they were quite bitter). The rabbits didn’t even like them all that well. The cauliflower is usually plagued by all sorts of insects, but this year there was nary a bug to be seen. The point is that you need to grow a variety of vegetables because you can’t assume that old standbys will always produce as expected.

Two other examples of odd behavior are okra (which normally grows acceptably, but not great) and peppers (which often produce too well for their own good). This year I’m literally drowning in beautiful okra that gets pretty large without ever getting tough, but the peppers are literally rotting on the plant before they get large enough to pick. I’m not talking about a few peppers in just one location in the garden either—every pepper plant completely failed this year.

Location can be important and planting in multiple locations can help you get a crop even if other people are having problems (and I didn’t talk to a single gardener this year who didn’t have problems of one sort or another). One example in my case were potatoes. I planted six different varieties in six completely different locations in the garden. Five of those locations ended up not producing much of value. A combination of insects destroyed the plants and tubers. All I got for my efforts were rotting corpses where the potatoes should have been. The last area, with Pontiac Red potatoes, out produced any potato I’ve ever grown. The smallest potato I took out of this patch was a half pound and the largest was 1 ¼ pounds. I didn’t even find any of the usual smallish potatoes that I love to add to soup. The potatoes were incredibly crisp and flavorful. The odd thing is that this patch was in an area of the garden that doesn’t usually grow potatoes very well.

A few of my garden plantings didn’t seem to mind the weather or the bugs in the least. My peas did well, as did my carrots. I grew the carnival carrots again because the colors are so delightful and even canned, they come out multiple colors of orange, which dresses up the shelves. I also grew of mix of yellow wax and green beans this year. The two beans work well together canned. They have a nicer appearance than just yellow or just green beans in a can. However, because the two beans have slightly different tastes, you also get more flavorful meals out of the combination.

I still stand by the statement I made long ago when starting this blog, every year is both a good and a bad year. Because I planted a wide range of vegetables and ensured I didn’t plant all the vegetables in a single location in the garden, I ended up with more than enough vegetables to can or freeze. No, I didn’t get all of the vegetables that I had hoped to get, but I definitely won’t starve either. My larder is quite full at this point. Let me know your thoughts on ensuring a garden has a significant variety of items in it to ensure success at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Colorful Carrots

The carrots go by many different names, but the main idea is that they’re quite colorful. I have now tried two different kinds, Carnival and Rainbow. Both kinds produced yellow, orange, red, and purple carrots. The Carnival variety pictured below also produced white and, oddly enough, one green carrot. I’m pretty sure the green carrot was due to some oddity in the seeds (or possibly it was introduced to sunlight in some manner). They both produced tasty carrots where the color definitely affected carrot taste. Of the two packages, I obtained the largest carrots from the Rainbow packet, but a single season doesn’t truly provide enough testing time to say that this would always be the case. I may simply have had an exceptional year. I plan to buy one packet of each sometime and plant them in the same area of the garden in the same year so I can perform side-by-side comparisons.

Colorful carrots make for exceptional meals.
A Colorful Array of Carrots

The carrots weren’t just colored on the outside. Cutting the carrots showed that the white, yellow, and orange carrots were the same color all the way through. The red carrots were red on the outside and orange in the inside. The purple carrots proved the most interesting, with bands of purple, orange, and yellow. Eating the carrots raw proved to be a real joy because you got different flavors with each bite and adding a dip (such as ranch or blue cheese dressing) simply added to the variety.

Growing colorful carrots means seeing color both inside and out.
Carrots Can Vary in Color Inside and Out

Cooking the carrots will change the color of the red and purple carrots to a dark orange. The white carrots do take on an orange cast, but you can still tell they were originally white. The same holds for the yellow carrots—they grow a bit more orange, but are most definitely remain lighter than the orange carrots. Therefore, even when cooked, you end up with a colorful meal, but not quite as colorful as the raw carrots. The colorful carrots even can well. The taste differences between carrots tends to fade a little when cooked and even more when canned. I can still tell the difference between these carrots when canned and other, pure orange, carrots.

Even the canned version of the carrots are colorful.
Canned Carrots Retain Some Color Differences

Unlike many multi-colored vegetable choices, getting multi-color carrots will provide you with enjoyment throughout the year. I now have some colorful choices for a variety of uses this winter. Let me know your thoughts about colorful vegetable choices at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.



Mulching Your Garden

Mulching is an extremely important part of maintaining your garden. Even if you don’t have time to mulch everything or have items that don’t mulch well (such as carrots and beets), anything you can mulch should be mulched. Using mulch has the following benefits:

  • Reduces the need to water
  • Keeps weed at bay
  • Reduces the pathogens that can splash up from the ground onto vegetables
  • Adds nutrients to the soil
  • Helps worms stay nearer to the surface where they benefit the garden
  • Lessens the chance of extreme temperatures damaging vegetables

There are many theories on the proper technique for mulching. This post doesn’t compare them because the bottom line is that any sort of mulching is better than none at all. If you find a technique that works for you, by all means, use it. My technique works well for me because I can get the materials at a very low cost.

Our mulching begins by laying down two sheets of non-advertisement newspaper. There are some things you should consider about the newspaper you use. First, make sure the newsprint is printed with soy or a similar non-toxic ink. Second, never use the glossy advertisements. Even if they aren’t printed with toxic chemicals (they often are), the glossy paper tends to repel water and takes a very long time to break down. Third, make sure the paper is large enough to overlap.

Make sure the newspaper does overlap by about an inch or so as you lay it down. Otherwise, the weeds will immediately spring up through any gaps. In the past, we’ve doused the newspaper in water before laying it down, but it works just as well dry as long as it isn’t windy.

Lay hay or dried grass on top of the newspaper. Make sure the grass is absolutely dry–brown is best. If you want to use this second technique, let your grass get a little long, let the newly mown grass dry a day or two, use a rake to move it about, and then let it dry for several more days before you rake it up to use it as mulch. We allow a full 2-inches of grass or hay on top of the newspaper. Here’s what our small garden looks like with mulch in place.


My uncle supplied us with some square bails of hay. They work quite nicely for mulch. The hay had been rained on, which ruined it for animal fodder. You may be able to find a farmer in your area who has some ruined or third cutting hay that you can buy for a pittance. Notice how the hay covers very square inch of the garden.

There is one addition trick you must employ. The mulch absolutely can’t touch the plants. For example, look at this tomato plant:


The newspaper and hay end in a small circle around the base of the plant. If the mulch touches the plant, it will cause the stem to rot and you’ll lose the plant. Rebecca and I didn’t know about this little problem during our first few years and we lost quite a few plants to mildew or rot.

The small spacing we allowed still provides all of the benefits of mulching. Tomatoes are especially prone to black spots. When it rains, the rain hits the soil, picks up pathogens, and splashes these pathogens onto the tomatoes. The mulch keeps the rain from splashing. The tomatoes can still get spotted from other sources, but it’s less likely.

As I mentioned previously, some vegetables don’t lend themselves to mulching very easily. For example, both carrots and beets are planted so closely as to make it impossible to mulch between the plants. You can mulch around the area in which the carrots and beets are growing though. Potatoes are planted further apart, so they mulch just fine. In fact, unless you plan to take time to hill your potatoes, mulching them is essential to prevent the potatoes from turning green (we don’t hill our potatoesit’s much easier to lift the mulch and the end of the season and almost pick them up off the surface).

Some mulching depends on the season. For example, bush green beans mulch fine during a hot and dry summer. They’re prone to mildew during a cool, wet summer. You need to allow a little more distance between the mulch and the bush green beans (or any other bush-style bean for that matter) to allow air flow. Pole green beans and peas don’t require this spacing because the majority of the plant is on a pole or a fence.

There are a lot of interesting ways to mulch a garden. For example, some people use cardboard for the task, while others use bark. The chocolate smell of cocoa hulls is quite enticing (assuming you can afford the high cost). Some materials provide properties that our hay mulching technique doesn’t provide. However, you have to be careful in choosing a material because some materials, such as bark, will actually leach important nutrients out of the soil (using bark can leach all of the nitrogen and also make the soil acidic). We actually do use bark for our blueberries and grapes because they require an acid soil, but we never use bark in the garden. Let me know your thoughts on mulching at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.