Our first year gardening on clay

It’s nearly the middle of August (how the heck did that happen?!) and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the productivity of our small garden spaces. We planted in clay, with a modest amount of good, rich compost mixed in, and hoped for the best. We mostly transplanted seedlings that we raised from seed indoors, but direct planted a few things from seed as well (carrots, naturally). It’s nice to look back now and realize that we’ve enjoyed more salads than we can count, numerous dishes using kale and chard, and enjoyed our first ever homegrown green beans. We’ve been enjoying ripe tomatoes most days since the very end of July, but most of the toms are still green, so lots to look forward to there.

Small garden next to front door of a house in Eastern Ontario
This flourishing little garden patch next to our front door wouldn't exist if it weren't for my husband. It just didn't occur to me to put veggies there, and I'd have left it empty until we could have afforded or found some nice shrubs and perennials. Am I ever glad I listened to him! This picture is from quite a few weeks ago now, but you get the gist of what's there: two types of kale, three types of beans including a climbing scarlet runner bean, carrots, rainbow chard, herbs and the lettuces (mostly Red Deer Tongue and a few Rouge Grenobloise). I stick my head out the front door most evenings to grab lettuce leaves and see what might be ready. My youngest loves checking religiously for beans and raved tonight over a tiny carrot thinning. No fence here (remember, we're in deer country), but we did install a solar-powered motion sensitive light. So far, so good...

Backyard garden in Eastern Ontario
This small bed is in our back garden and was the main focus of my attention this spring. We want to enlarge it (to the right, beyond the house) and enclose it in a fence with a gate, but for this year we've relied on "cages" over most of the plants to keep the deer away. They do make appearances very near our backdoor and my nearest neighbour has told of finding her entire garden GONE one morning, which deer are renowned for. Not on my watch. The cages aren't the most fun when it's time to weed or harvest, but the inconvenience is well worth it. It will be much easier when we can just fence this patch in and have a gate, but Rome wasn't built in a day, was it? Back here are tomatoes, more kale, peppers (hot and sweet), a couple of lettuces and some cukes. Oh, and a very happy nasturtium which has contributed nicely to our salads. We tried beets, but they just didn't take off.

Red russian kale growing in a tunnel or cage
Here's a close-in shot of kale in a cage. That would be Red Russian, my original favourite of course. Have I said that chard is my new, new favourite this year?

Tomato plants in early July, eastern Ontario
In addition to these tomato plants, we also have a quite a rambling collection in pots underneath our screened in porch (which is elevated, giving us a ten-foot ceiling to work with). I never fully realized until this year how well tomatoes do in partial sun and how much they love a bit of shelter. This part of the house, at the back, is really quite "incomplete" and it's dawning on us that this would be the perfect spot for the greenhouse that we need/want.

In addition to the beds shown here, and the additional tomatoes mentioned above, we also put five or six kale plants in a bed that is about a five-minute walk from the house waaaaayyyy out in a field where we first gardened last year. The soil is richer out there, but being so darn far away we don’t tend the plants out there daily. If they get a look-in once every week or so, they are doing well! Absolutely no supplementary water is available for those plants, so they have to get by on their own reserves. Those kale plants are also caged (they would be gone in a heartbeat otherwise), and I have harvested a decent amount from that bed this year, but it’s succumbing to other pests now. We put one other bed in just below our raspberry bushes (about a one-minute walk from the house) and direct seeded carrots and beets. We’d run out of cages at that point and I said a prayer, knowing deep in my heart what would happen: about two weeks after planting we had lots of darling little seedlings well on their way and I was thrilled to see that we might have carrots in quantity this year (a plant I tend to have trouble growing). The beets were so pretty too. And then, a couple of mornings later, all gone! Did I mention that we have deer?

We’re getting ready to plant some fall crops now, so I’m trying to turn my attention there. We also know that we must get any more beds dug this year, as we do NOT want to find ourselves digging clay in the wet spring months ever again. Tilling compost in before planting is fine, but breaking ground in the spring is absolutely unforgiving on a body, not to mention stressful. So more beds to be dug and fences to be built. Oh, and my husband is absolutely loving this job: scything the grasses, weeds, etc., in a field of several acres solely for the purpose of compost creation. He scythes and I stack it in great piles. If you think I’m joking about my husband’s pleasure in this job, you obviously don’t know us!

3 thoughts on “Our first year gardening on clay

  1. The joy of digging clay… I know it well! I’m constantly amazed at how the clay soil just eats organic matter. It feels like I just throw tons of stuff in there and within a year or so it’s back to a solid block!

    I’m quite impressed with your bountiful garden especially considering the deer and the fact that you’re relying on rainfall for water! Kudos to you!

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