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Lessons learned from rain gutter gardening

Five years later, improvements have been made to a local small-space garden

Posted: July 6, 2013 - 11:04pm
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A crop of Black Seeded Simpson lettuce grows above a row of mesclun lettuce below.   Courtesy of Suzanne Forsling
Courtesy of Suzanne Forsling
A crop of Black Seeded Simpson lettuce grows above a row of mesclun lettuce below.

It has been four or five years since I last wrote the article about my rain gutter gardens on the side of my house (http://bit.ly/1b5iR2a) and I have learned a few things since then. I am more selective about which “greens” and lettuces I try to grow in them, I am a lot wiser about fertilizer and have found that big barrels can be used to get much taller produce for some of the varieties. I have also just added a plastic green house to my yard this year to see if I can get those longed for summer vegetables like zucchini, crook neck squash and green or even purple beans to produce here in Juneau.

My favorite rain gutter lettuce is still the variety known as Black Seeded Simpson (another is Simpson Elite). It is an unfailing variety that does not bolt to the flower stage at the first sign of hot weather, like spinach does. It is so pretty and great tasting, too. I also try to grow variety lettuce from the seed packets marked as Mesclun. These packets usually have some Red Salad Bowl lettuce, some Arugula, some fast growing mustard varieties and some of the lighter fair such as Endive and Bull’s Blood Beet, and a variety of Romaine as well as others. It is always fun to see how they turn out. I love having such fresh lettuces to choose from and they take just about five weeks to grow before we start eating them with our dinner each night. I have had to water the gutter garden every day with the heat wave we have been having this summer, but I find this chore to be the most relaxing part of the day.

This year, I tried growing the same lettuce and greens in big barrels along side rain gutters just to see if there was a great improvement with the deeper soil that the barrels provided. So far, I have found that there are indeed a few varieties that are about twice as tall as the same varieties in the rain gutters, but then again there are a few varieties that seem to have no difference at all, particularly the mustards and the red varieties. The Simpson varieties are about a third taller in the barrels. All this means is that the barrels are producing the same greens about ten days sooner in height, but only for some of the varieties.

I have gotten a lot better about using fertilizer with experience. I began to realize that the rain gutters were losing the nutrients faster than I had realized with all the watering in hot weather. So I have been using a liquid fertilizer in the watering can (or attachment to the hose) about every ten days now. This is in addition to the time release fertilizer I put in the fresh soil I use when I plant the seeds. I am also more careful to select fertilizer that is not designed to boost flowers. This might seem like a no-brainer, but with greens you really do not want the plant to go to the flower stage as it stops putting all that good nutrition in the leaves. The results are much more predictable, with bright colored vegetables that are very hardy.

The new experiment in my yard this year is a plastic green house that we got at Home Depot for about $230. It is plenty big with an eight- by 10-foot floor area. I had been missing those big hot weather vegetables, like squash and green beans, so I told my husband that if he could have his expensive snow blower and log splitter, then the plastic green house was for me. He was all for it (he likes to eat all that good food, too). I also bought some very inexpensive, good sized pots from Walmart and fresh dirt where ever I could find it.

I planted lots of squash seeds and four varieties of green beans, as well as Brussels sprouts, Kale, and two kinds of beets, cucumbers, peas, celery, several kinds of herbs, as well as turnips, roses, and Swiss chard, to name a few.

Well, I have to tell you, I am running out of a pathway since everything in the green house is rapidly expanding. We are eating fresh zucchini and yellow summer squash a couple of times a week and I have some very happy beans that are just beginning to set flowers. I guess it will be a few more weeks until they produce. I can’t wait to let you know how they turn out!

I hope that people will try the rain gutter gardens if they have limited space, such as those that live on house boats, or only have a small balcony or a short fence where they can attach the gutters. One might even build a small structure like a four legged A-frame to support the gutters. Just make sure you place the gutters on the south-facing side, if you can. That is where the most light is and the plants use the sunlight to make those delicious leaves for us.

It is such a wonderful joy to be able to grow your own food. The cost is very small, the initial effort and the required attention is very minimal and, in my opinion, easily worth it to be able to go out each evening and select the fresh cuts of the day for a beautiful salad.

• Susan Forsling is a Juneau resident and enjoys gardening in spaces large and small.

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