Before planning next year’s vegetable garden, it’s a good time to review the past year’s garden
The vegetable garden in full swing in early June, 2023
The end of the growing season always makes me think of a quote from the great 20th Century philosopher, Mister (Fred) Rogers:
“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”
That is true. The garden that was the 2023 growing season has reached its end and the winter garden has already begun. Soon we’ll have lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, celery, peas, and other cool season crops.
But even at its height, winter’s bounty will be a pale comparison to the lushness that was the summer garden, which is why I’m already thinking about next spring. (No doubt the seed catalog companies count on this.)
That said, before I get to planning next year’s garden season, it’s a good time to go back and review the good, the bad, and the ugly of last season’s weather, and which crops met expectations and which didn’t.
2023 Vegetable Garden Summary
The Fourth of July tomatoes were a pleasant surprise
Fourth of July Hybrid tomatoes were an unexpected standout. They started producing in late July (not the 4th like its name says), producing nearly 100 pounds of tomatoes from just four plants.
And, while all the other tomatoes gave up the ghost over a month ago, these guys still have (a few) ripening fruit in early December.
The Bad: Allium rust invaded one of the raised beds, wiping out our garlic and leeks this year. It also made that bed off limits to any type of onion for the next few years. Other onion beds did just fine so I’m hoping the outbreak was limited and the rust fungus isn’t lurking elsewhere in the garden.
The Ugly: The weather. This year was really weird. Rainy and wet, nearly double the freezing nights in winter and frost into April. Then a cloudy spring with almost zero sun until Independence Day weekend. Followed a mild summer with temperatures that rarely went above the 80’s. We plant for dry, desert conditions in summer, so a lot of this year’s selections were misses or otherwise under-performed.
In January we started seedlings in the greenhouse
Warm start to the year. Daytime temperatures hovered in the low 60s and upper 50s. Nighttime temps hovered in the 40’s and there were no below freezing temperatures until the last week of the month.
Although we did get 9-inches of rain, the warm(ish) weather made me bold about getting a jumpstart on spring. In the first week of the month I started seeds in the greenhouse – red onions (Red Burgundy), a looseleaf lettuce mix, dill (Bouquet), and cilantro.
As January progressed, the mild weather emboldened me to start some tomatoes – Carbon, Pruden’s Purple, an unknown beefsteak cross, and one I hadn’t tried before, Fourth of July Hybrid.
2022’s vegetable garden still standing in February
Winter finally arrived in February. It was drier than January and, aside from a weird warm pop on the 9th (82°) and the 10th (78°), average daytime temps matched January’s.
The nighttime temps were a different story.
Here in zone 9, we average around 14 nights of freezing temperatures between December and March. This year, we had 14 in February alone. One night even dropped to 27°, which, as one of my friends likes to say, is “no bueno” for the trays of seedlings growing in my (unheated) greenhouse (as well as all the subtropicals outside).
I lost most of the tomato seedlings and two of the bell pepper plants overwintering in the greenhouse, but miraculously, most all the other plants in there managed to survive — as did the lettuce, cilantro and broccoli in the keyhole garden.
The tropical garden, on the other hand, was freeze-fried and wouldn’t recover for months.
March 2023 – the garden beds cleared and ready for spring planting
In like a lion, out like a grumpy, wet lion.
February’s dry-spell ended with nearly 4-inches of rain on the first of March. The rain would continue for the better part of the month, totaling nearly 12-½-inches by the time the month was over.
12″ of rain made for a muddy March
The good thing was all the rain brought warmer nights – averages in the upper 40’s – which was warm enough for the lettuce, cilantro, spinach and broccoli in the keyhole garden to take off. The greenhouse survivors, as well as some new spring seedlings, also took advantage of the warming weather and longer days.
In between rain storms I cleared the tattered remains of last year from the main vegetable garden and recharged all the raised beds “lasagna garden” style.
Topped back off with compost and soil, I was moving plants out of the greenhouse and into the garden by the end of the month.
The veggie garden in April right after planting
April got off to a slow start. Our traditional last day of frost is around March 15, so I figured when I started planting in the raised beds two weeks later, I was in the clear.
Frost in April! Yikes!!
Then we got more rain, hail and three overnight freezes the first week of April.
The cauliflower, broccoli, and onions didn’t seem to notice, but the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and summer squash were not happy. About half died and I had to start new seeds in the greenhouse (so much for those early tomatoes in May).
A week later it all changed and temperatures went from upper 50s to the upper 60s and low 70s for the rest of the month.
By May of 2023, the garden was finally starting to take root
By May the garden seemed to have its footing and everything was doing well. “May gray” socked us in with clouds most days, but the warmer weather made the cauliflower and broccoli nearly ready to harvest.
The other veggies were lagging, but working hard to catch up.
By June 2023 the vegetable garden was kicking into overdrive
Still gray and overcast, but the days were long and warm. Everything was growing so fast you can almost hear it. Cucumbers were fruiting (yay, pickles!) and we harvested the first round of those and Incredible sweet corn the last week of the month.
No tomatoes or peppers yet, but plenty of young summer squash, zucchini and beans. Also, we harvested the red and brown onions planted last January.
The vegetables in the garden doubled in size between June and July 2023
The clouds finally broke in earnest the weekend before the Independence Day holiday. Most of the tomato plants were now well over 6 feet tall, though they had only begun to flower and fruit.
By the end of the month, temperatures had still yet to reach the 90’s (very unusual), but everything was green and lush. We harvested bush beans, pole beans, Armenian cucumbers, and the last of June’s pickling cucumbers.
We started pinching basil leaves right around the same time the fourth of July tomatoes began ripening en masse.
The garden in August at the height of the growing season
The second round of sweet corn ripened as did most of the tomato varieties. Some of the tomato plants are so large and heavy with fruit they broke their trellis supports. We had to MacGuyver some additional supports using stakes and PVC pipe.
The black stripe Zucchini took a brief break (thankfully – so. much. zucchini.), but the two other varieties kept right on fruiting, as did the basil and pole beans.
The first round of sweet peppers finally ripened, and we swapped out the spent pickling cucumbers for more sweet peppers, hoping to squeeze in one more round before the end of the season.
Spring’s sunflowers were knocked over in tropical storm Hillary, so we replaced them with black beans.
The hanging gourd garden went bonkers and completely roofed in the trellises that support it.
The hanging Gourd garden during the day in August
The hanging Gourd garden at night in August
We jarred a combined 142 pints of tomato sauce, whole tomato, stewed tomato, and pasta sauce. We packaged a gallon of real, old fashioned ketchup as well.
140+ pints of tomato sauce jarred from the garden
By September the vegetable garden was starting to look tired
A lot of the beds were starting to look tired. The stalks from the second batch of sweet corn are still standing, but there’s a third round coming in hot right behind.
Tomato harvest (L-R) Carbon, Fourth of July, Big Mama, Valentine
The Carbon, Fourth of July, Yellow Pear, and Super Beefsteak tomatoes are still going strong, but the “Bigs” (Mama and Boy), have stopped flowering even though it’s only in the 80’s and there’s still plenty of sun. Kind of a disappointment.
The strategy of succession planting pole beans every few weeks is working. The bean trellis has more vines on it now than any time earlier in the year.
The Cayenne peppers we grow for our annual fermented hot sauce finally began to flower in August, two months later than usual. It took until late September though to determine we would have enough to make the hot sauce this year. If it hadn’t happened, it would have been the first time in 23 years these peppers failed us.
October 2023 – most of the garden had run its course
The Rouge Vif D’Entampes pumpkins escaped their patch and covered most of the south end garden except for the fourth (and final) patch of sweet corn.
Rouge Vif D’Etempe’s pumpkins in the pumpkin patch
The fourth and last batch of sweet corn in October
We let the remaining basil go to flower so we (and the wild goldfinches) would have seed to collect for next year’s garden.
Most of the summer squash had played their last, as had the larger (mostly beefsteak variety) tomatoes. Fourth of July tomatoes didn’t seem to get the memo and started flowering again. Curiously, the Valentine tomatoes in the keyhole garden were also flowering again.
The sweet peppers, both the bell and mini corno types, seemed to have woken from their long nap and were also flowering and fruiting again – probably better than any time during the past summer.
Some zinnias gone wild were the last of the bright spots in the November garden
The days were warm, but the lower sun and shortened daylight was telling the plants it was time to wrap things up.
The only things still producing were the cayenne peppers, the mini sweet peppers, and two of the four Fourth of July tomatoes.
For whatever reason, the gourds, most of which were dead and drying, got a second life and started growing again. They even flowered and made some mini-sized gourds. (I may save those seeds.)
Otherwise, it’s all petering out.
Not too much of the summer garden left by December
The Fourth of July is down to its last plant, but there are a few green leaves and some tomatoes still hanging in there. I took cuttings a few weeks ago, so I’ve got four of these riding out the winter in the greenhouse.
As of early December, the mini peppers still have a dozen or so fruit ripening on them, so we’re keeping an eye on them.
The cayenne peppers are flowering again, but I don’t think they’ll last. Overnight temps are dipping into the low 40’s and upper 30’s which usually cause the peppers to drop everything – leaves and all – and go dormant for the season.
The black beans that replaced the sunflowers back in August are done too, so those got pulled.
The rest of the garden is spent, so we made a little room to transplant some cauliflower, broccoli and garlic into one bed where the zucchinis and basil were. But, because the weather is so up and down here this time of year, we won’t start on any major projects outdoors until after the new year.
The celery still going strong in December
The remainder of the gourds in the hanging garden
It’s too early to do any real planning since we don’t know what this winter’s El Nino will bring (lots of rain, or just more than usual? Warmer than average or cooler?). I do know we will be planting those Fourth of July tomatoes again, but the rest of the selection is up in the air.
Fortunately, we’ve got the keyhole garden still growing strong with lots of lettuce (and soon to be joined by cilantro and spinach).
Freckles lettuce in the keyhole garden in December
I guess we’ll wait until the seed catalogs arrive and see what looks good in a month or two.
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