Category Archives: planting times

Tender Annuals: Is it time yet? — by Julia Frisbie

by Julia Frisbie

posted May 10, 2022

I’ve only been growing here for six seasons, but still, I can’t remember ever waiting so long to transplant my tender annuals. I’m on a tight schedule this spring, and getting very antsy. But the dang weather forecast is still showing temps in the 40s and 50s for the next week! What to do? To guide my plantings, I’m considering recent garden records, phenological cues, historic temperature data, and the way the soil feels.

RECENT GARDEN RECORDS

Having access to this information is one great reason to keep a garden journal. As I read through old entries, I found myself wishing that I’d recorded soil temps along with dates, so I’ll do that from now on. These are the notes I’ve taken about transplanting my heat-loving annuals over the past 6 years, along with some information that Peter Heffelfinger has shared right here on the Fidalgo Grows blog. Note: both of us grow with Southern exposure in raised mounds that allow our soil to dry out reasonably early, my garden has good wind protection, and he has a small hoop house.

  • 2016: I planted heat-lovers in mid April. (We’d just moved, and didn’t have any proper garden beds yet, so I did most of my tender annuals in straw bales that year. They heat up faster than the ground.)

  • 2017: The soil was 55 degrees by April 11. It felt like I started heat-loving seed both too early (April 25) and too late (May 10), so we purchased starts from Christianson’s and planted them around Mother’s Day. But… we still didn’t get many tomatoes. I had a new baby that year, and my garden journal sadly admits: “Anything that needed special attention suffered.”
  • 2018: I planted tomatoes and cucumbers into holes in plastic mulch on April 28 and May 5. I covered them with a remay frost blanket when I first transplanted them, and took the remay off on May 11. This led to my first tomato ripening on July 7, and great harvests into late summer and fall.
  • 2019: we got a week of gentle rain and mild temps, so in a fit of enthusiasm, I started transplanting tender annuals into raised mounds of soil warmed by plastic mulch during the first week of April. I finished planting dahlias by April 27, the first red poppy bloomed on May 8, and of course we finished the drip irrigation system over Mother’s Day weekend.
  • 2020: I planted out my dahlias and heat-loving veggies from May 1-6 (most were transplanted, beans and corn were direct sown). Peter wrote that early May was the time to transplant tomatoes, once the soil is warm and nighttime temperatures are above 50 degrees.
  • 2021: I planted dahlias (and got my inaugural sunburn of the year) on April 14 because the lilacs were already budding and I could comfortably walk barefoot on the soil. The first heat-lovers got transplanted into plastic mulch on April 18, dahlias had emerged by the 27th, and I transplanted the last cucumbers on May 19th. Peter bought his tomato starts and began hardening them off around April 27.

PHENOLOGICAL CUES

My neighbor’s lilacs are now in full rolling bloom. I learned from one of the long-time growers of the Whatcom County Dahlia Society that when the lilacs are budding, it’s safe to plant dahlias in raised beds or mounds, so that was my go-ahead; I finished planting my dahlias last week.

In 1996, the Ahkwesahsne Mohawk Board of Education instructed my seed-saving mentor Rowen White that, “When the leaves of the dogwood are the size of a squirrel’s ear, it’s time to plant corn.” I don’t have any native dogwoods, so I keep track of the blossoms on an ornamental dogwood who has been in this spot longer than we have and knows it better than we do. Blossom development seems right on schedule:

My mentor Rowen suggests another cue to watch for: wild blackberry buds. She says that when they’re swollen and just barely starting to open, it’s time to plant. I encourage you to find the wild blackberries closest to your garden that share a similar orientation (north, south, east, or west) and check on them. Here are the south-facing wild blackberry buds closest to me:

They don’t look like they’re going to open up this week.

HISTORIC VS. CURRENT WEATHER

If you toggle the right settings, the website weatherspark.com will allow you to see current temperature data superimposed over historic averages. Here’s a look at April and May 2022:

Look how much the gray marks are hanging out in the blue rather than the red, and how the trend of the gray marks doesn’t match the upward slope of the average historical trends yet. Compared to past years, this has been a cool spring.

THE WAY THE SOIL FEELS

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I enjoy gardening barefoot. This gives me a lot of sensory information that I wouldn’t have otherwise. But if you want to keep your shoes on, you could get similar information by…

  • Kneeling. How wet do the knees of your pants get?
  • Pulling weeds without gloves on so that your hands are in it.
  • Using a soil thermometer. (Just remember that the results may vary from bed to bed; measure them all!)

At this point, some areas in my garden have reasonably dry, warm soil… and some parts are still cold mud.

The bottom line is: the calendar says it’s time. Phenological cues say maybe. Historic vs. current weather patterns say maybe not. At this point, it all depends on your planting area. Is it raised? Sheltered from wind? Covered in plastic? If so, go for it! If not, better keep touching the soil regularly. There is simply no substitute for sensory input.

Let me know in the comments what your soil feels like and what you’ve planted so far!

Late April: Harvesting, Planting, Working on– by Julia Frisbie

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 26, 2022

We just had a glorious sunny weekend, and I spent almost all of it in the garden. There’s always a lot going on in late April. Rather than doing a deep dive on any particular subject, today I’ll share a birds-eye view of what I’ve been harvesting, planting, and working on.

 

HARVESTING: Eggs, asparagus, rhubarb, kale florets, dandelion, raspberry leaves

Every bird in the garden is now laying eggs like crazy, inspired by increasing day-length to amass clutches in creative hidey-holes where they might be able to brood. The result is that every day in April, we get to go on an Easter Egg hunt in the chicken and duck yard. We feast on egg-heavy recipes– frittata, custard, egg salad– and give thanks.

Fresh, raw asparagus is so sumptuous that I never seem to amass enough of it for cooking. Whatever makes it into the kitchen usually gets sliced thinly and added to a salad. It’s unbelievably sweet!

As for rhubarb, the early growth is the tenderest of the year. I harvest just one or two early stalks from each of my rhubarb plants anytime after they’re longer than a foot and thicker than my thumb. It’s not enough for pie at this point, so I make rhubarb scones.

 

Our red russian kale feeds us year-round, and this is the season for each individual plant’s final offerings before going to seed. In April, the kale mamas get ready to flower, and I cut some of the flower stalks before the buds open and prepare them like broccoli (usually by roasting them in a 400 degree oven for just a few minutes until bright green). As long as the individual plant seems healthy and strong, I cut the central flower stalk in order to encourage lateral branching from the base of the plant, which creates both a longer harvest of florets and a larger eventual harvest of seed. This is also the time of year when I completely remove any less vigorous individuals from my backyard kale population so that their pollen doesn’t get added to the mix and influence the next generation.

Dandelions! I don’t grow them on purpose, but here they are, and I’m not sorry. The humans in the household have yet to develop a taste for them. (Please share your recipes in the comment section; I am always game to try again!) I leave lots for the bees as a source of early pollen, but each day in the spring I try to pull at least one dandelion plant up, rip it into small pieces, float it in clean water, and offer it to my ducks. This “dandelion soup” is extremely nutritious, and as we round the bend into the later half of their mating and egg laying season, their bodies are hungry for it. It’s the equivalent of a daily multivitamin, and they relish it.

My raspberry plants have now sent up hundreds of babies in all the wrong places. With help from friends, I’ve sent dozens off to new homes, but I still have a surplus. I harvest some for greenery in spring bouquets with daffodils and tulips, and cut the rest for red raspberry leaf tea. (If you’ve seen me in person recently, you might have some idea why it’s my new beverage of choice!)

 

PLANTING: Tender annuals under cover, Peas, leafy greens, and the first dahlias

Two weeks ago at the farmer’s market we did a soil blocking demonstration, and I started a tray of corn, a tray of cucumbers, a tray of tomatoes, a tray of herbs, and a tray of tender annual flowers. They’re on my heated propagation table right now, and almost everyone has germinated! Only my cucumbers failed to show up to the party, probably because the seed was packed in 2017, so after five years under mediocre storage conditions, it must have come to the end of its viable life. No problem; there’s still plenty of time. This weekend I started another tray of cucumbers with fresh seed to make up for it.

As regular readers will know, so far I’ve only direct-sown peas and leafy greens. (I did put in a row of Olympia spinach according to the instructions that Anna Torgeson left as a comment on the post about planting salad– thank you, Anna!) If you haven’t done yours yet, it’s not too late. At this point I’m hand watering lots of pea and salad seedlings because I haven’t gotten the drip irrigation set up for the year yet.

I planted the first dahlia tubers this past weekend. Most spots are still too cold for this, but if you’re working with raised beds in a favorable microclimate, it might be time. The batch of tubers I did this weekend went into a fluffy, newly-prepared bed against the southern eaves of my neighbor’s house. I told her not to worry about watering them until they emerge from the soil line; otherwise, they might get too damp and rot underground. I’ll probably begin to plant my own dahlia tubers into raised mounds of soil next weekend.

 

WORKING ON: soil prep, paths, irrigation, trellises, pest control

The major task in April is bed prep. Any energy you can invest into good infrastructure in your garden at this stage will pay you back with compound interest later in the season.

The first thing, of course, is weeding. Although I often allow them to flourish in perennial beds, deep rooted perennial or biennial weeds have to be dug out of annual beds, because they’ve got so much energy stored in their roots that they will outcompete seedlings. For example, I’ve been digging out dozens and dozens of dock plants. They’re here to help with excess magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus in my soil, and help loosen compacted subsoil. I thank them as I dig them out of my annual beds. Every root I remove leaves behind a deep and narrow hole that will allow water to drain and air to penetrate the soil. I soothe my aching back by telling myself that the dock removal project serves the same purpose as broadforking and is probably almost as effective.

Once a bed is free of deep-rooted weeds, it’s time to deal with all the little tiny seedlings of annual weeds. Getting around to this in April rather than May means that most can be eliminated just by surface disturbance. As I rake the soil into low mounds according to Peter Heffelfinger’s instructions, I create enough disturbance to wipe out weeds that are at the baby-leaf stage. (Once this year’s beds are fully formed, I won’t rake anymore, so I’ll have to rely on timely flame weeding or untimely manual removal. I’ll do that until the soil is warm enough that I feel like I can add a layer of weed-suppressing arborist wood chip mulch without slowing down the tender annuals’ progress, and then I let my plants fend for themselves for the rest of the season.)

A lot of what I’m doing when I form my garden beds is simply moving topsoil from the areas where I plan to have paths into the areas where I plan to have annual garden beds. In other words, I’m digging out the paths in order to build up the beds. But I don’t want to leave bare subsoil in the paths, because that’s an invitation to more weeds, and it also gets compacted by foot traffic and won’t drain well… in other words, not very cozy. So I add a two- to four-inch layer of arborist mulch into the paths I’ve dug out between garden beds. The channels of mulch act like mini-swales which soak up rainwater like sponges and then slowly release it to the beds adjacent.

Above: the bed is on the right, and the woodchipped path through the perennials is to the left.

After I’ve got beds (and paths) formed, it’s a good time for me to double check my drip irrigation lines, because I’ve just uncovered them with all that weeding and raking. I can fine-tune the system later (usually during Mother’s Day weekend when I’ve requested the gift of unpaid garden labor from my family), so at this stage I just want to make sure that I can see the lines and they’re in the right neighborhood.

Once beds are formed and irrigation lines are visible, we drive in t-posts at each end of any bed that will need a trellis this season. You can use loads of different stuff to make trellises, and different plants have different preferences. For climbing peas and beans, I use hortonova netting because their little tendrils seem to appreciate having thin stuff to grab. For tomatoes and cucumbers, I string some wire between two t-posts and then wind individual vines up to the wire on lengths of twine using a string trellis method.

A few years ago, April and May were months when I hunted slugs and snails at dawn and dusk, collecting and dispatching about a pint of them per day, because otherwise they would eat up all my seedlings. Now, all I do is throw a rogue one or two to the ducks when I come across it. Good job, ducks. Thank you for taking this disgusting chore off my to-do list.

That’s a snapshot of late April in my garden. Leave a comment and tell me what you’re harvesting, planting, and working on in your garden right now! I’m eager to know!

When to Plant Which Winter Vegetables

by Julia Frisbie

posted July 29, 2021

If you’ve stashed your seed packets away for the year, you’ve done it too soon. There’s still time to plant lots of winter vegetable varieties here on Fidalgo Island. To be successful, you need to be aware of the way that decreasing daylight slows and stops plant growth over winter.

Elliot Coleman writes in The Winter Harvest Handbook, “As the story goes, the earth goddess Demeter had a daughter, Persephone, who was abducted by Hades to live with him as his wife in the netherworld. Demeter would have nothing to do with this and threatened to shut down all plant growth. Zeus intervened and brokered a deal whereby Persephone would spend only the winter months with her husband, Hades. Demeter, saddened by her daughter’s absence, made the earth barren during that time. On our farm we refer to the period when the days are less than ten hours long as the Persephone months.”

Daylight hours depend on latitude. Coleman notes how, on his farm at 44 degrees north, the Persephone season coincides with two of the holidays of the pagan agricultural calendar of the ancient British Isles, beginning around Samhain (early November), and ending around Imbolc (early February). Most of us don’t celebrate holidays by those names anymore, but we are aware of their modern counterparts: Halloween and Valentine’s Day. We’re at 48 degrees north, so our Persephone season is just slightly longer than Coleman’s, and lines up almost perfectly year-to-year with the modern holidays. Here’s a graph of our 2021 daylight hours from timeanddate.com:

Hours of daylight per 24 hour period are on the Y axis of this graph, so you can see that we have more than 10 hours of daylight per day from mid-February until late October. Those are the times when plants can do enough photosynthesis to put on significant new growth. With less than 10 hours of daylight, I notice that most of my frost-hardy plants are in a sort of suspended animation: they’re not suffering, they’re not shrinking, but they’re not growing much.

Despite having a slightly longer Persephone season, our winter gardens have one major advantage over Eliot Coleman’s: mild temperatures. Surrounded on every side by the approximately 50-degree water of the Salish Sea, our gardens stay warm(ish) and aren’t blanketed in snow for more than a week or two each winter. They may get a touch of frost overnight, but not too much for the sunshine to thaw out by midday. Most of the time, our outdoor winter temperatures are similar to the inside of your fridge.

What that means is, if you grow frost-hardy plants to a harvestable stage before the Persephone season starts and they go into suspended animation, you can treat your garden as a “living refrigerator” all winter long. I am borrowing this term from Mother of a Hubbard, one of my favorite garden bloggers. She has built low tunnels in her garden, and covered them with a frost blanket. I’ve tried that, but no matter how well I secure the fabric, our winter storms always blow it away. Many plants do fine even after the fabric has escaped and wrapped itself around the next door neighbor’s mailbox, so unless you’re a true infrastructure genius, I’m not sure the fabric is worth bothering with.

The seed packets in your collection should note frost hardiness, along with days to maturity. The latter can be used to calculate whether or not there’s still time to plant it before the Persephone season. Note that growth slows down before it stops, so I always try to give fall-maturing plants an extra 30 days in the ground beyond what their seed packet indicates.

Here’s the calculation I use:

DATE GROWING DAYS LEFT THERE’S STILL TIME FOR…
Jul 1 120 days until October 31, minus 30 extra days to compensate for slow growth in the fall, equals  90. I can plant anything that takes less than 90 days until maturity, such as root veggies and overwintering brassicas like kale and sprouting broccoli.
Aug 1 90-30 = 60 Quick brassicas (pac choi, broccolini, etc)
Sep 1 60-30 = 30 Radishes, anything you eat as a baby leaf (spinach, kale, etc)
Oct 1 30-30 = 0

(too late to plant seeds)

Plant bulbs instead of seeds: garlic, tulips, daffodils, et cetera

Next week I’ll write more about the veggies that feed my family all winter. I’m eager to hear what’s worked for you, too! Leave a comment with your best winter veggie varieties, and I’ll include your recommendation in next week’s post.