Field Notes: Our Family Garden – Metuchen, New Jersey
Our spur to plant a garden was the May 11, 2019 Metuchen Spring Street Fair. At the fair we were introduced to several varieties of plants by one of the vendors on Main Street, near Brewed Awakening and The Greek restaurant. We hurriedly brought these home and improvised a container garden in our side yard, made entirely from found materials. At first we had no barrier and the deer munched a few plants whole. So we put a barrier up with some scrap lumber that we had sitting around.
Everything about 2020 was a challenge. We spent the first two months of the year renovating our nearly hundred year old house on McCoy Ave and our family moved in on March 6. Starting the seeds had to wait until a few weeks after we settled in.
We found two varieties with seeds that we liked from Good Stead Farm at the Midland Farmers Market in Midland, Michigan, on August 29, 2018. This included the red heirloom and the yellow and green heirloom pictured below. Seeds were stored and grown from seed for the first time in the 2020 planting season. By mid-April some of the seedlings started indoors were moved to our cold frames. Frequently when temperatures allowed we would lift the windows to give the plants some fresh air. An added benefit of this format is it kept critters from eating our seedlings (we learnt that lesson the hard way in May 2019 when several new seedlings were eaten whole before the fence was put up).
For several weeks we would transfer plants from inside the house to outside each day. This was especially important for the tomatoes started indoors. They needed to “harden” by short exposure to indirect sunlight over several days. One day we mistakenly let them get too much direct sunlight causing several of the seedlings to fail. Another lesson learnt.
After the temperatures consistently approached 50 degrees or above, all the plants made it outside. One of the unique features of our garden is that it was exclusively grown in containers. At present the containers we have follow:
The categories of plants for our garden in 2020 included wildflowers, herbs, cabbage and lettuce, and tomatoes. We enjoyed the experience of collecting seeds and learning about germination and planting. Some of our most prized seeds were tomato plants from Good Stead Farm in Hope, Michigan. This was an organic farm and we were introduced to their vegetables at the farmer’s market in Midland, Michigan when passing through in 2018. The flavor was so outstanding and the shape and coloration of the heirloom tomatoes so unique, that we saved some seeds for planting in future years.
- Round 20”
- Round 29”
- Round 22”
- Round 22”
- Square 16” – Rosemary
- Square 16”
- Pallet planter rectangle – two levels 32″ – Mint
- Pallet planter rectangle “32” – Mint
- Cold frame / bean house X 2 rectangle
- Cold frame X 2
Our first year on McCoy we experimented with a plant share. Given we were late starting our seeds the distribution did not work out quite as well as we had hoped and expected. One of our great surprises, however, was a local artist in Metuchen who also took an interest in seeds and who we swapped tomato seedlings for seeds of several other varieties and neatly packaged. Given it was already several months into the growing season, however, we were not prepared to fully explore all the possibilities in 2020. That’s a good thing because we had an overcrowding issue that became apparent by August 2020. My wife gave the to space the containers giving clear aisles and limit the number of plants in each container. That should hopefully help to improve our yield.
Tomatoes were moved outdoors on May 16, 2020. They got established fairly quickly. Some innovations were very successful like the “bean house” to give space for beans to climb. Others like the trellis for tomatoes were not proportioned to give the small plants an opportunity to reach higher, as did the trellis from the Jonesdale garden in 2019.
Two more variations on a favorite meal, August 2020.
Like any gardener the perfect 2020 Christmas present was gardening gear. Actually, two items.
- EZORKAS 9 Dimmable Levels Grow Light with 3 Modes Timing Function for Indoor Plants
- Amazon.com: Gardzen 5-Set Garden Propagator Set, Seed Tray Kits with 200-Cell, Seed Starter Tray with Dome and Base 15″ x 9″ (40-Cell Per Tray): Kitchen & Dining
Winter temperatures will be above normal, on average, with the coldest periods in mid-December and early and mid-January. Precipitation will be near normal, with mostly below-normal snowfall. The snowiest periods will occur in mid-December and early March. April and May will be warmer and drier than normal, with an early hot spell in early to mid-April. Summer will be hotter than normal, with the hottest periods in early and mid-June, early to mid-July, and early to mid-August. Rainfall will be near normal, especially in the south. Watch for a hurricane in early August. September and October will be cooler and mostly rainier than normal. Watch for a tropical storm threat in early to mid-September.Old Farmer’s Almanac
We started the year planning in January and February 2021 for the season ahead. Significant thought went into a new garden layout with dedicated areas for different plants that were planned. A new formulation of potting soil was sourced and shipped in January 2021.
- Foxfarm FX14053 Ocean Forest Plant Garden PH Adjusted 12 Quarts Potting Soil Blend Mix for Containerized Plants, 11.9 Pound Bag (2 Pack)
Our projected start for tomato seeds was March 10 (Modern Farmer). We couldn’t hold out that long and got the tomato seeds started just before a torrential snowstorm dumped 19 inches. Wasn’t sure if the seedlings would make it (even though they were inside under a grow light). Of the other plants we sought to grow – dill (April 10), New York Early onion (April 15), pumpkin (April 29) – we were either unable to start or the seeds never grew. The average last frost was projected for between May 11 and May 20. The prior year we had put plants outdoors permanently on May 16, 2020.
In June we projected to start green bean and Chinese long bean in the ground on June 15 and all hot weather plants on June 27. This included hot weather veggies like beans, cowpeas, corn, squashes, pumpkins, cucumbers, watermelons, gourds and sunflowers (When to Plant Vegetables: The Garden Planting Calendar – Garden.org).
Our first heirloom tomato was harvested July 1, 2021. A week later numerous plants were taking off just in time for the first-ever Metuchen Garden Tour on July 11, 2021. For the tour we sliced cherry tomatoes, and placed these on top of a cracker with cream cheese. For the more adventurous eaters we dusted these with magma powder made from capacian chiles and produced locally.
Highlights from the garden around July 7, 2021.
The 2022 growing season brought with it an entirely new configuration. We made a concerted effort starting in February to carefully organize and track multiple varieties of tomato plants that we started from seed. Plants first went out on May 2, 2022. We used the technique of wrapping the planters with movers plastic to protect from animals, birds, and the cold. Gradually this was pulled back as temperatures warmed and the plants got established.
Our harvests on July 3 and 11, 2022.
For the year ahead we have carefully cataloged all varieties of seeds that we have to plant. This will help guide us on what to plant. We’ve added several new varieties found while traveling. In July 2022 Chrissy found a “Sunsugar” orange cherry tomato, and a black and red “Midnight Snack” cherry tomato. I brought several varieties from a summer vacation to Isle La Motte, Vermont, that also took us through Massachusetts. Excited to introduce several new varieties to our regulars. Another change this year will be to phase the start time of planting seeds approximately 14 days apart. This is intended to also extend the peak production by having plants mature at different rates of time. The schedule will go as follows:
- Sunday, February 26
- Sunday, March 12
- Sunday, March 26