Garden fresh foodNothing like dinner from the garden!
Well, the moment I had been waiting for all summer finally arrived last week: my first cucumber & tomato salad! :-)  Although we have been regularly harvesting some form of produce from our garden for at least two months now, for me, the REAL harvest doesn't begin until the tomatoes are ripe. This is always a bittersweet moment for me though, for as much as I love garden-fresh ripe tomatoes, it also signifies that the end of summer is drawing near.

This summer has been a perfect example of why I think people find gardening so interesting - and so frustrating,  at times: Every year is different

This summer is completely opposite from the last, at least weather-wise. Last summer our main challenge was keeping our plants from drowning due to the nearly constant rain! Cooler than normal temperatures made the season long and a bit slow, but most of our plants loved all the water.

This year has been okay with rain so far (at least in our neighborhood) - until the last couple of weeks (but really no extra to speak of, and I haven't seen the garden "moat" since May). Now the grass is beginning to turn brown from lack of rain, and I am having to water almost constantly. The long, cold spring delayed many crops from going in the ground until much later than usual, but the consistently hot summer has helped things catch up - particularly the peppers, which have been producing for several weeks now - more than a full month earlier than last year!

Now that the tomatoes are finally starting, the bounty begins in earnest: counters loaded with so many piles of produce it's hard to keep them all straight. Overflowing trays and colanders of ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, zucchini, eggplants, green beans, oh, and did I mention cucumbers? 

We're up to more than 1 colander per day now...
The bounty grows daily!
I exercised some restraint this year in planting cucumbers (I had to, as we still have 6 quarts of pickles left from last summer!), and only planted 4 plants - just the crunchy, juicy, pickling kind that I love. The yield is much more manageable, though still bountiful! (I need to get motivated to pickle this week, as they are really starting to pile up now....)  We are thinking of getting a mini-fridge to store all of our refrigerator pickles! I like them much better than the canned kind, as they are so easy and stay so nice and crisp, but our refrigerator space is limited, so I can't usually make more than just a few jars.

I fear I may have actually underplanted tomatoes, as they don't seem to be so loaded with fruit as last year, and I also planted fewer plants. They are also terribly afflicted by blossom end rot this year, so I have lost a lot of the early ones. We do have a few quarts of canned and frozen tomatoes left from last summer, but not many, so hopefully I can manage to put up what we need for the  year.

The peppers are very much enjoying the hot weather, and we have been picking bags full of banana peppers from our 3 plants - I had no idea they would be so productive! I made 4 jars of pickled banana peppers yesterday, and we have been enjoying them fresh in salads, salsa, etc., as well. The bell peppers and hot peppers are also sizing up nicely, and we have already been harvesting a few.
Just a tiny fraction of our banana peppers...
First batch of refrigerator pickles!
Our squash - both winter and summer - have also done really well this year, except for my bush buttercup, which recently succumbed to stem rot (which seems to be the only problem with growing them in the hay bales). I'm hoping the squash that it made before dying are going to be good, but we'll see... I also grew a small orange variety called Gold Nugget, and an interesting looking French heirloom whose name escapes me right now, but which started off looking rather anemic, but now is attempting to take over the garden!

The melons are loving the bales as usual - numerous honeydew and cantaloupes peek out at me temptingly, getting bigger every day, but are not yet aromatic and ripe. Happily, since a family of milk snakes moved into the compost pile, we have NO mouse problem this year! (Last year, you may recall, the mice devoured at least 1/3 of my cantaloupe crop.) I haven't seen a single mouse yet this summer, and am hoping for a great crop of un-nibbled melons.
3 varieties of winter squash.
Honeydew & cantaloupe!
My heirloom "Moon & Stars" watermelons are very unique looking, but don't have many melons yet, so we'll see how those go.... I also planted pumpkins for the first time - also in hay bales - and in true pumpkin fashion, they are working on world domination! :-)

The garlic that my mom gave me last fall turned out awesome - well, some of it did.... The heads are huge, with giant, fat, crisp cloves, and thick, purple skins. Unfortunately, they seem to have been affected by some kind of little maggot, and some of the heads were entirely rotten by the time I peeled them! It was very disappointing, after the excitement of seeing the great big heads I pulled out of the ground. But we still got a good yield, and I will rotate to a new bed this fall and try again.
Yes, some of the garlic heads are bigger than peaches...
Awesomeness from the garden!
Despite getting a lot of things in late due to the cool spring, most things seem to be growing well, and we are enjoying the wide variety of produce we have this year. We're looking forward to okra, more tomatoes, and the melons, and the corn is starting to set ears now (fingers crossed that the raccoons stay out of it this year). The dry beans were planted late, but are coming along nicely, and I grew black-eyed peas for the first time, which are a beautiful dark green, with long tendrils that are climbing the corn stalks and setting beans already. We definitely have more pests this year, but so far nothing that has been too damaging (knock wood)!

One last thing, as many readers ask about our hay bale gardening experience.... So far the hay bales seem to be doing well again this year, despite the much drier weather. The only real issue we've had with them this year is the stem rot, which seems to only affect the squash plants. Most of them have it to some degree, but are still growing well - except for my one buttercup plant that died. I may try some in the soil beds next year for comparison.
A slightly smaller harvest than last year...
But no scab this time!
We "dug" the potatoes this weekend, and though I had planted more bales this year, the yield was slightly smaller than last year (22 lbs instead of 26), probably due to less water. However, the quality was much improved, after taking advice from my mom last year regarding the scab, and adding lots of coffee grounds on top of the bales after planting to increase the acidity. Almost all of this year's crop was smooth and lovely - barely any had any scab at all! And of course, no mouse chewing this time. :-)  Maybe next year we'll get it right and get a larger crop as well.... Every year is different, so you never know!



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