Suzanne Dalton & Clyde Foles
|Clyde's View of the Garden||Suzanne's Garden View|
We garden in the north, our story has to begin with that. The information I have to share may be of most use to gardeners who face similar climate challenges. I always remind myself that the Potawatomies had enough sense to do their farming much further south in Michigan. Suzanne and I don't have the option of seasonal migration.
We are in the northwest section of Michigan's lower peninsular just a quarter of a mile from the big lake, Lake Michigan. That lake, of course, has a great effect on our climate all year. We are in Zone 5 but if you look at the zone map of the USA you will see a sliver of Zone 6 running up the west "coast" of lower Michigan. That's Michigan's fruit growing region, mostly cherries and apples. We are at the northern tip of that region. I think there is only one cherry orchard north of us. We cheat our zone a bit and have been reasonably successful. One book I read, written by a respected authority, said you are not gardening if you are not killing some plants. We kill a few plants.
It is hilly in our region, glacial leftovers. Most people built on the hilltops for the view of the lake but our place is low in a valley between two moraines, protected from winds but exposed to late frosts. The house faces north and the garden extends off the south side of the house. The house creates two micro climates; the north side shady and damp, and the south side much warmer and much dryer. We are in an open meadow of about seven acres surrounded by tall second growth forest, mostly maple/beech changing to cedar swamp at the southern tip.
Our soil in this part of northern Michigan is good because this was an area of deciduous forests, unlike most of Michigan's north which was covered with White Pine. Our soil is very predictable once you are far enough removed from the damage created by the builders around the house, 18" of sandy loam covering 8" to 10" of gravel and rocks (glacier droppings) and then sand. Drainage is not a problem.
We are in a rural area dominated by orchards, dairy farms and remnants of forest. Some of the forest is second growth but much of it is boreal wetlands. In other words there is plenty of cover for wildlife. Deer are a plague in our area, as are raccoons. There are a few black bears but they are not a problem unless you are trying to keep bees. We have possums. I feel a certain affinity to the possums, I'm an immigrant from Louisiana myself. We have rabbits and an ungodly number of rodents. The deer and rodents do most of the damage.
We live in an open meadow and the hawks and owls seem to control the rabbits. Suzanne shoots the ones the hawks miss. We have numerous and large hawks and eagles around here, quite a variety of owls also. The first season I lived in the north I was startled one night by the sound of a rabbit being killed by an owl. Yes, the death screech of a rabbit does sound near enough human to stand your hair on end.
The tourists love the deer (until one gets planted in the grille of their Oldsmobile). Us gardeners don't see Bambi when we see deer, we see a hungry animal whose appetite favors the tender shoots of our beloved trees, shrubs and perennials. Expensive tulips carefully planted the previous fall and greatly anticipated after along winter are but a tasty spring treat to deer. There are all sorts of "solutions" to control deer, some of them quite strange. Sprinkling tiger urine around my garden was not something I wanted to try. I am a simple man--I built a fence. It works. But never underestimate the ability of a deer to squeeze through small openings. Deer look fairly substantial in side view but look carefully at them in front view. They are very narrow and can squeeze through unbelievably narrow spaces between fence slats.
Rodents are harder to deal with. Maybe cats can handle them but we are not cat owners. We tried poison before we became dog owners. I couldn't see that the poison worked. The raccoons seemed to treat the so-called poison much the same way we humans treat chocolate. They loved it. Once I killed a medium sized rodent by the direct method of making a direct hit with a large rock from about 15 feet. A good shot. But Suzanne ended up cleaning up the mess and asked me to refrain from that particular method in the future. The realities of country living!
I place little faith in "averages". So many things in life are presented to us as averages, so many decisions are based on such fictions represented as averages, it has been good for gardening to confirm my suspicions about averages. Average frost dates, average growth season, average rainfall, average snowfall, etc.; believe none of them. I have gardened in the north for seven seasons and every season has been different. The range is surprisingly radical. The first season we naively planted okra, and it just as naively grew and matured. It grew to six feet and produced its beautiful hibiscus-like flowers and a fair number of pods. Though even it was a particularly hot summer for our area many of the blossoms didn't set because temperatures would fall below fifty degrees some nights. The next year we planted okra again. It struggled to reach ten inches before shriveling and succumbing to the cool summer, but the nasturtiums and Polar Star annual chrysanthemums grew into shrubs. The Polar Stars into very substantial shrubs. They made quite a bio-mass come fall cleanup.
There are too many variables to predict the character of a particular growing season. It goes way beyond the last frost of spring and first frost of fall, or even rainfall.
As Clyde mentioned, living in the great white north is indeed a challenge, but when summer finally does come it's perfection. The crocuses start coming up in early April as soon as the snow starts disappears (any day now, I hope!) Tulips, especially the species are up by the end of April and last into June. Our last frost day is Memorial Day although Lyndell down at the market loves to tell about the time we had snow on July 4th. I still have a hard time swallowing that one. Because I use raised-beds in the vegetable garden, I'm able to start my lettuces and greens very early. Often I'll do a final planting in late September just in time for the seeds to germinate and start to leaf. They usually winter over and I have a head start as soon as the snow melts. This year I have 15 new lettuces I'm trying, that in addition to the best of the 20 varieties I planted last year.
The north is great for bulbs, tulips, chiniodoxia, lilies, daffodils, crocus etc. We have little of the rot and funguses of the south land and after a long white season they sure look great in the Spring. Mid-July is our full summer bloom although I've planned our gardens to flower and leaf from April until the snow falls. I think the fall garden is especially nice with the cool colors of perennial asters, red peacock kale, roses and their hips, mums and the golden leaves of the fruit trees.
I start the season by planting my seeds inside by the second week of April. I do 9 flats, mostly flowers and some veggies. Last year I used fluorescent lights for the first time and it worked great. I used to do about 13-20 flats, but my survival rate wasn't great, spindly plants due to lack of light, so 9 flats of healthy plants are a better bet. I bought inexpensive 2 bulb shop lights (on sale for $9) and used the inexpensive fluorescent lights (89¢ on sale). My shelves are 4' long and I use two sets of lights per shelf. No need for those very expensive full-spectrum grow lights, since this is only for germination and seedlings versus bringing the plants into bloom.
Most of the seeds I buy are from cold-weather suppliers. Nichols in Oregon is one of my favorites for price and variety although I ordered a quantity from "The Cook's Garden" in Vermont this year. Last year I compared their nasturtium seeds to Shepherd's and had a better germination rate. We'll see how this year goes. As Clyde say, this is our seventh season and I've learned over the years to narrow down to a select few the multitude of seeds catalogs that flood our mail box.
I make a point of growing vegetables and fruits that I can't buy at the local grocery. That excludes cauliflower and broccoli, they take up too much room, are too labor intensive and I have enough green loppers without giving them an open invitation. Greens grow great in cool weather climates. I'm big on greens. I mean reeealllly big. Besides all those lettuces I also grow a number of Japanese and Chinese greens. They're great to eat fresh, but mostly I steam or blanch them and then freeze them for the winter. Clyde reads history books, mostly sailing exploration, and is always talking about getting scurvy. I assure him that a 16 cu. ft. freezer full of greens should allay his fears. Good thing we both have a sense of humor or I'd crown him with a volume or two of Melville. I do successive planting of greens until the first week in July. We have lettuce through the summer since I use sun screens that fit over the raised beds in the heat of the summer. I start planting again the end of August. By the way, Brunia is a great lettuce that resists bolting.
Tomatoes? Yep, I grow about 6-7 varieties. Forget the beefsteaks they take too long to mature, but the early varieties, hand-sized, yellow pears and such are incredible. I'm into drying and freezing. The last thing I want to do in hot weather is can veggies. I'll pass on that one. One of my favorites to dry are cherry tomatoes The little guys are ready by the end of July or beginning of August. I get the Sweet Millions and keep my dehydrator going until the frost hits. Just cut the tomatoes in two, put them cup side up to dry, pack them in plastic baggies or jars. They're great eaten like chips or throw a handful into soups, Ramen, stews or whatever.
Corn is another crop I don't grow. I tried it once. Had the Aztec Blue growing right next to the Silver Queen. Not a good idea. Corn is such a promiscuous slut, I ended up with the weirdest bi-color deformed ears. Besides it takes up too much room and is an invitation for raccoon trouble. Soooo, I barter. My girlfriend's husband grows a 1/4 acre as a macho/farmer kind of thing and I trade her lettuce for corn. Same with some squash.
The north is incredible for roses. I have close to 50 plants, all varieties; ramblers, miniatures, shrubs, floribundas, David Austin's, damask, and even a couple of hybrid teas. The main problem I have is with the darn rose chafers. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Okay, that's enough for now. It's time to start pruning the fruit trees and get the dormant spray out. Please e-mail me with any comments or suggestions. I'll have more as the season progresses.