2023 Gardening Year In Review – Lauren Mackay

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Signs showing 2023 in the past and 2024 in the future in a sunflower garden.

Editor’s Note: The lateness of this article is due to me, not Lauren. Thank you for reading!

The 2023 gardening season started off very slowly. 

The weather was erratic and unreliable. The frost kept coming late into May, delaying planting, and was remembered into October by the scars on our apples.

Growing food in unusual weather isn’t uncommon for gardeners. We adapt and work through whatever our environments present. Regardless of the circumstances, I approach my gardens with the intention of learning as much as I can, nourishing myself and my loved ones, and trying to leave things a bit better than I found them. Some seasons are more enjoyable than others, but each has its own delights. 

This year did see some fun projects: my first foray into using cold frames, my 3-years-strong, still unsuccessful, ongoing attempt to grow luffa, and a three sisters bed featuring “glass gem” corn.

Dry conditions, tree disease, and pervasive forest fires were some of the difficulties we faced. June brought weeks of smoke thick enough that it was hard to be outside. 

In those kinds of moments, I lean into impermanence. 

Things will change. 

I focus on how gardening is a restorative act: for me, for anyone else who gardens (or wants to), and for our planet. 

And I keep moving, literally. 

Grief is sticky. Moving helps.

You know what else helps? Baby robins.

As a gardener, I am pretty aware of the animals living in our yard. Several times since my sons were born, I have been outside and seen robins start building nests, only to later come face to face with our kids and decide to abandon their work in search of quieter spaces.

This year, our family went away on a weekend trip in the spring. When we returned, we saw a robin’s nest above an outdoor light fixture in the busiest part of our yard.

Even with banning the use of a particular door to outside for a time, these poor robins were clearly alarmed by all the activity but already too committed to move. 

During those smoke-filled weeks, our family watched three robins hatch, and their parents feed them constantly. Beautiful, perfect timing. Nature is resilient. There is always hope.

Some Notes On My Projects

Cold Frames

In late March, I got some cold frames for a few 4×4-foot raised beds with the goal of expanding my winter garden. I decided to install them then and planted spinach, arugula, radishes, lettuce, and kale, which we ate in April. 

Cold frames needed removing in early April for the first heat wave. The peak of 83°F (28°C) broke records set in 1977. 

A week later, I put the cold frames back on the beds when it snowed again. All these plants probably could have withstood the snow, but with such an extreme temperature swing, I decided to play it safe and cover them.

Fast forward through the season. 

The spinach bolted in the heat around the summer solstice (AKA the opening of spinach and strawberry salad season). I planted beets there to follow it. 

We enjoyed everything else all season long, and with the cold frames back on, we are still enjoying eating from our garden on December 13th, 45 minutes north of Toronto.

Main takeaways: we all enjoyed eating from the garden earlier and later. And I am excited to delve deeper into winter gardening!

Glass Gem Corn

In May, I snapped up the last pack of glass gem corn at a local plant nursery. I have been wanting to grow this for a few years. For whatever reason, it hasn’t worked out until this year. 

I made a lasagna bed. I cut open cardboard boxes and laid them flat on top of the sod, careful to overlap the edges to prevent grass growing through. 

A few days later, I layered some finished compost and dried leaves. A few days after that, I added several wheelbarrows of soil and more leaves. The bed ended up being approximately 20×8 feet.

Corn is a heat-loving crop, and this variety takes 110-120 days to mature. 

As the cold persisted well into May, I decided to start it in a plug tray. A few people I shared this with suggested the corn may not transplant well (it was fine). It was the right choice, as I did need those extra days at the end of the season.

3 weeks or so after planting, after watering one morning, I saw the sun lighting up water droplets at the top of the corn seedlings. It wasn’t a lot of water, just a drop per plant, like little jewels in the sun, but I watched these seedlings easily hold onto this water as they were whipped by the wind. 

At that moment, I realized how adept corn is at capturing and holding water, an important feature for a plant that adapted in arid central Mexico, no? 

Nothing is a mistake in nature. Moments like that make my day.

It was still a couple of weeks before the corn finally made its way into the bed, accompanied by acorn squash, scarlet runner, and rattlesnake beans. 

This followed a traditional three-sisters methodology: corn grows tall, providing support for the beans, which fix nitrogen back into the soil to feed the corn and squash, with all the roots shaded and cooled by the covering of the prickly squash vine, which keeps rabbits and small rodents away. 

And this attracted cicadas! I always hear them but only see them when I plant the three sisters.

During the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, my family spent hours picking and peeling back the husks to reveal the most beautiful, colorful corn I have seen in my life. It was truly mesmerizing. 

The cobs are about 6-8 inches and feature all colors of the rainbow. And the kernels do look like glass! 

It is a flint corn and not very sweet; it is best to ground into cornmeal or popped. 

We made some popcorn with it about a month ago. It was great!

Main takeaways: Glass gem corn lives up to years of dreaming about it. So much fun.

However, our neighbors are farmers. If they had planted sweet corn and I had planted this, even one windy day and both stands of corn could have potentially been altered through cross-pollination. I need to chat with the neighbors about this and see what they have to say. Reminder: we are never growing in a vacuum.      

Luffa Gourds Year 3

This year marks the third year I have tried (unsuccessfully) to grow luffa gourds. Mature luffa gourds can be eaten or dried and used as dish scrubbers or skin exfoliators. 

Until a few years ago, I was under the impression they grew in the ocean. Nope! They grow on vines.

Yes, they may be native to India and better suited for growing in zone 7 or higher. Yes, I have struck out on getting these plants even to the flowering stage for three years running, but I will not give up. 

This year, I am starting them inside in January. I will transplant them to a covered bed when it is warm enough. I will grow luffa all the way for at least one year. 

Can plants tell when you roll your eyes at them? If I am judging this based on the amount of success luffa is giving me, the answer is probably yes.

Main takeaways: We do not, as they say, win them all. 

The truth is, even though I started my luffa seeds earlier this year than last, I still need to start them earlier and give the plants whatever they need to thrive. I know that at some point, with persistence, I will understand why I am having a hard time growing this plant. And whatever that understanding is, I will be better for it.

Summing Up The Year

I logged a lot of hours in my garden this year. 

I still received an order of magnitude more than I put in. Even (especially?) when my garden teaches me how much I don’t know, I am profoundly grateful for it.

This year, I most enjoyed growing:

  • Stars and Moon Watermelon
  • China Asters
  • Lettuce
  • Lavender
  • Radishes
  • Nasturtiums
  • Arugula
  • Eucalyptus

I do not need to grow these again:

  • Lemon cucumber
  •  Mini bell peppers
  • The weird giant marigolds

Questions/Ideas/Next year:

  • Are cicadas attracted to corn? Squash?
  • Possibility of using invasive species as dye plants for fiber?
  • Develop a seeding schedule for winter garden during winter; second year, I thought I would have time during the growing season and didn’t.
  • Pepper X seeds, maybe @ Richters?
  • Follow up with neighbors about corn and cross-pollinating
  • Added cumin to salsa verde and it is brownish instead of green. Taste is good but diminished by not being green somehow. Skip cumin when canning salsa verde
  • I like greens with bite; research more of them, mustard greens, etc.?

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