Debby and Ken Rosenbaum have built their garden from the ground up. Literally. Ken was raised on a farm and is a machinist by trade; Debby’s a city girl. They shared a common love of fresh vegetables and grew what they could while raising a family. After their two daughters left home, Debby found she had more time on her hands. Now she has a full-time summer job growing fruits and vegetables.
Throughout the fall she preserves the bounty in hundreds of jars and freezer bags. During the entire year she decides what she will grow next season – the toughest job and also the most fun. She won’t grow ‘German Johnson’ tomatoes again. “They have such huge cores and not much flavor.”
‘Jersey Giant’ is on her list for this season. She likes a tomato that is meaty and flavorful with very few seeds, and the description in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog ticks all the boxes. Debby’s favorite tomato for canning is ‘Amish Paste’, which is very meaty and large enough for easy processing. So far, her favorite for slicing is ‘Super Sioux’, an improved version of a 1944 variety bred at the University of Nebraska for its tolerance to heat.
‘Oran’s Melon’ will remain the Rosenbaum’s go-to cantaloupe for its flavor and relatively short ripening time. In contrast is ‘Golden Midget’ watermelon, which was “beautiful but flavorless with a ton of seeds.”
While Debby makes the seed list, Ken works up devices to make the mechanics of growing easier and more fun. The most ambitious so far are the 11 raised beds based on a concept developed by Colin Austin, an Australian who established a system called the wicking bed. Essentially underground ponds, the beds are ideal for areas with widely fluctuating rainfall.
One advantage of the wicking bed system is that the plants require no overhead watering. The 4- by 8-foot beds feature two rows of red cedar boards set up over a reservoir that the Rosenbaums fill with water gathered from five rain barrels surrounding the house and garage. When the barrels are full, they fill up a water cart and transfer it to a 550-gallon tank that they use for all of their watering needs.
“The water is clean, contains no salts or extra minerals,” Debby explains. “The plants are healthy because they’re watered from below, using no overhead watering. Ken built the portable tank cart. He made a wooden frame to fit inside the cart and used ratchet straps to hold the tank in place. After mounting a pump on the top, at the rear of the tank, he fit the necessary PVC pieces and hose adapters to enable drawing the water out of, or filling, the tank.”
As there is usually plenty of rain in the spring, the Rosenbaums’ garden has water that sometimes lasts through the season. Each wicking bed is set up with a drainage system in case of excess rain. The beds are numbered, which helps Debby plan second crops and cover crop rotation, planting buckwheat after the final harvest of onions, carrots, strawberries, salad greens and beans.
Another advantage to raised beds is that they provide support for netting and covers. “The netting around the bean bed helps keep the beans from sprawling all over the ground,” says Debby. “And they’re easy to pick by reaching into the top of the enclosure.” The variety Debby grows is ‘Calima’, a French fillet bush bean she prefers to ‘Cantare’.
Two crops of carrots yielded two types of insect challenges, but didn’t result in total loss. The first crop of ‘Kuroda’ met with carrot fly, a problem they prevented in the next crop by using a row cover from planting to harvest. Unfortunately, they had a problem with soil-dwelling nematodes, which caused distorted growth. It took Debra more time to can the carrots, as the gnarly roots were more difficult to peel.
The wicking beds aren’t the only place for plants. Ken devised some heavy-duty tomato cages for the front garden, and potatoes are grown in several large potato grow-bags. The front yard garden started, as many garden projects do, when a huge tree fell. They created raised rows and covered the soil with sheets of 6 ml. clear plastic to help warm it. The area is at the top of a slope and subject to some strong winds. One such wind came through in early August and flattened the ‘Amish Paste’ tomatoes. While Ken shored up the cages and went back to the mental drawing board, the tomatoes kept churning out fruit the rest of the season.
They’ve had great results from potato grow bags, harvesting 80 lbs. of ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes from 14 bags. “We’ve found the Yukon Gold to be the best keepers,” Debby says. She cures them in the garage before storing them, layered between newspaper in cardboard boxes, a method that assures they’ll last until the next spring.
When Debby decided to try eggplant, she chose a variety called ‘Rosita’, which she grew right by their front door. The plant was as decorative as it was productive, its neon pink fruit an eye-catching embellishment to the healthy foliage. According to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, the variety was developed in Puerto Rico in the 1940s.
With so many crops to juggle, Debby sought out a system. She keeps tablets of notes throughout the season and has found Clyde’s Vegetable Planting Chart (clydesvegetableplantingchart.com) to be helpful when determining what, when, and where to plant.
With Ken’s talents for building and Debby’s knack for organizing planting and harvest, they’ll never lack for fresh vegetables. After the crops are stowed away for the winter, they go over successes and failures and decide what to grow the next year. Last year they ended up with 39 flats of plants clamoring for light in early spring. Ken set up rows of grow light fixtures in their basement over any space they could clear. There is always extra, luckily for their two daughters and their children, who they hope will discover the joys of growing.
Last summer they invited their two 12-year-old grandsons to stay for a week. They were kept quite busy and went home with some new skills.
“We called it ‘life-lesson’ week. They learned how to grill, and each of them made a raised bed for their mothers,” said Ken. “They did absolutely every part of it, using a miter saw, drill, measuring tools. They were so proud.”
At a Glance
• Cost for each wicking bed is $250-300 for red cedar 4-by-8 boards, sand, river rock, pond liner, weed-barrier fabric, PVC pipe, shade cloth, and miscellaneous hardware. Each wicking bed is filled with a 50/50 mixture of compost and topsoil.
• Choosing seeds: look for seed companies with websites that offer reviews of each plant. Pay attention to where each reviewer gardens, as many plants will respond to each region differently.
• Tip for ordering seed: Debby recommends ordering in December for the best availability.
• Learn about potential insect or disease problems with the vegetables you grow and how to mitigate the risk if possible.
• Always rotate crops in order to reduce pests and diseases.
• Use the sturdiest stakes or tomato frames you can find and put them in place at planting time.
A. Most water is on or near the surface, which maximizes the evaporate rates (wastes water) and encourages weeds to germinate. B. Tree roots and couch grass can easily invade the bed.
A. Surface soil is drier as it is further away from the water source. B. Water Rises from the bottom up. C. A Liner prevents tree roots & weeds such as couch from getting in to the bed. D. Water reserve only has to be topped occasionally.
A version of this article appeared in print in Chicagoland Gardening Volume XXII, Issue I. Photography by Jean Starr. Illustrations by John Ditchburn (Ditchy) of Urban Food Garden in Austrailia (urbanfoodgarden.org).