Category Archives: Soil

A Garden Homemaker: Lupine

by Julia Frisbie

posted June 27, 2021

It’s lupine season! This plant will always remind me of the happy summer weeks I spent in the mountains of northeastern Oregon as a child. I love seeing her by the roadside. I held her purple/blue spires in my arms on my wedding day. I’ve slipped her seed pods into my pockets for years, and like Ms. Rumphius in a favorite children’s book, scattered them when we found a place to call our own.

Like all legumes, she works with a symbiotic bacteria to fix nitrogen in the soil, enough to meet her own needs and also share with neighbors. She has a long taproot that breaks up compacted earth. She can collect moisture from the air, with leaves shaped like tiny hands that cradle a single dewdrop in their palms. She makes a huge mass of greenery each year, only to lay it all down on the ground after the first frost, protecting soil from winter runoff and feeding the microbial community below. Her nectar feeds bees and her seeds feed birds.

In other words, she is a homemaker, showing up to disrupted or neglected soil and creating beauty and fertility. She can make something from almost nothing.

I’ve invited lupine to my yard as an early succession plant. Right after I mulched over most of the lawn in our front yard, I scattered lupine seeds. For several years, a long hedge of lupine has lived alongside what’s left of the grass:

As I add longer-lived plants to the landscape, I’m gradually pruning/removing the lupine to make space. Many perennials take years to get established and come into their own, and lupine fills out the garden around them while they bide their time. Lupine self-sows readily, but she’s easy enough to remove, so as long as I’m paying attention she doesn’t choke other plants out. Here’s a first-year peony growing in the shelter of lupine:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I often call on lupine as a companion plant for young trees. Planting a nitrogen-fixer in the same hole as a baby tree is something my partner learned while volunteering at the Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead on Orcas Island. I dig up the lupine, taproot and all, and plop it right in there among the roots of the sapling. Abundant nitrogen allows the sapling to make lots of new greenery (and, I think, helps it feel less lonely and more at home). Here’s a little plum tree hiding from deer among the lupine:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can sow lupine any time of year, but my favorite way is to take my cue from the plant herself, and spread her seeds right after they pop from her wonderful fuzzy seed pods in July. I cut the seed heads when they get dry and begin to rattle, and then I pile them into a washtub basin and invite my four-year-old to thresh them by jumping up and down on the pods until the seeds are released. Then we winnow by pouring seeds back and forth between buckets in the middle of our street on a windy day. This ritual yields a quart of seed from our couple dozen plants. If you’d like some for your garden, I’d be delighted to give them to you. That’s part of how I respond with reciprocity to lupine: by finding good homes for her seeds. They’ll be part of Transition Fidalgo’s seed bank. Email info@transitionfidalgo.org to get connected!

Monoculture lawns to Polyculture garden beds

By Julia Frisbie

posted May 6, 2021

We buried our lawn five years ago under a layer of cardboard and then compost, planted a living mulch the first season, and have been mulching with arborist chips and rotating poultry through it, and growing a happy riot of annuals and perennials in it ever since. You can see the difference in this picture between our backyard soil (front right) and the soil in the adjacent easement (back left), but now after a soil test we have quantitative data. Using this data to estimate how much carbon we’ve sequestered was the most fun I’ve had with math in months!

We sent in two soil tests to the University of Massachusetts, with the city easement functioning as a control because it’s all in grass, and our yard was all in grass before we moved in five years ago. (It would have been better if I’d tested the same spot 5 years ago, but I didn’t, so the easement is our best point of reference for a comparison.) The backyard had 22.4% soil organic matter (measured by LOI, or “lost on incineration”… basically, how much of its mass can burn up) and the easement soil had 10.6%. So the backyard’s soil is 11.8 percentage points higher than our control plot.

I based my calculations on research by R. Lal of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center. His article “Abating climate change and feeding the world through soil carbon sequestration” was published 2013 in an anthology called Soil as World Heritage. Lal estimates that 21 tons of carbon are sequestered per additional 1% of soil organic matter per hectare.

Our backyard measures 74 feet x 40 feet, which is 2,960 square feet. There are 107,639 square feet in one hectare, so our backyard = 0.0275 hectares. Multiply 21 tons by 0.0275 = 0.5775 tons of carbon sequestered in our yard per added 1% of organic matter. Multiply that by our 11.8, and we get 6.8145 tons (x 2,000 = 13,629 pounds) of carbon sequestered within our backyard in the past 5 years.

For reference, a mature tree absorbs about 48 pounds of carbon per year (Source: European Environment Agency), so our backyard activity has sequestered about 284 tree-years of carbon. Also for reference, nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced from burning one gallon of non-ethanol gasoline (source: US Energy Information Administration), so our backyard activity has offset about 681.45 gallons of gasoline. (With a 12 gallon tank, that’s 57 fill-ups.)

On the one hand, it’s a drop in the bucket. On the other… in this little place… it makes a world of difference. And it’s profoundly do-able for anyone who wants to sequester carbon in their yard. A movement for “Climate Victory Gardens” has published some helpful ideas for backyard-scale carbon sequestration.

Gabe Brown is a second-generation rancher in North Dakota, and since 1991, he’s seen an increase in soil organic matter from 1.9% to 6.1%. In his excellent book Dirt to Soil, he identifies five principles for soil health that he uses to manage his 5,000 acres:

  1. Limit disturbance. Tillage releases soil carbon into the atmosphere and causes topsoil to erode away. Don’t do it. Chemical disturbances such as synthetic fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides also qualify as a type of disturbance.
  2. Keep the soil covered. Bare soil is an emergency. Covering your soil prevents erosion and provides habitat for microorganisms.
  3. Diversity. Grow as many different types of plants (and host as many different types of animals!) as you possibly can. Brown sows cover crop mixes with up to 70 different species!
  4. Living Roots. Include perennials and cover crops in your garden plans so that there are living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible.
  5. Integrated animals. Intermittent predation by animals stimulates flushes of plant growth which pulse more carbon into the soil. Gabe uses cattle to rotationally graze his cover-cropped acres.

In conversation with these principles is emerging research from ecologists on the Intermittent Disturbance Hypothesis. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her less-well-known book Gathering Moss, explains “diversity of species is highest when the disturbance occurs at an interval between the extremes. Ecologists have shown that in the complete absence of disturbance, superior competitors… slowly encroach upon other species and eliminate them by competitive dominance. Where disturbance is very frequent, only the very hardiest species can survive the tumult. But in between, at intermediate frequency, there seems to be a balance that permits a great variety of species to flourish.” As more research is published on regenerative agriculture practices, I bet we’ll learn that the disturbance caused by Gabe Brown’s cattle herd moving across the landscape actually supports the increased diversity of each acre they graze.

What I like about Brown is that he comes from a pretty standard (extractive, damaging) American farming perspective, and ends up becoming a champion of regenerative agriculture. We can do the same in our yards. We can convert monoculture lawns to polyculture garden beds, keep soil covered, plan for living roots in the soil year-round, provide gentle intermittent disturbance with animals, and cultivate maximum diversity.

Below, you can see many of these principles at work in my backyard: I’ve got plastic mulch I scavenged at The Predecessors under my zucchinis. I’ve removed the mulch from under my cabbages, kale, and tomatoes, and undersown a diverse cover crop mix, which is just beginning to germinate. Nearby in a temporary enclosure, the chickens are busy making compost and appropriate-scale disturbance in a bed that’s about ready to turn over to the next crop. Flowers peek out around the edges. Carbon sequestration is a joy!


Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok.

Listening to My Weeds – Julia’s Garden

By Julia Frisbie

Posted April 30, 2021

Weeds are inevitable. When you notice them, you can choose to get grouchy or get curious. I do some of each. When I pay attention to my weeds, I learn a lot about my soil. What follows is a “who’s who” of common weeds in my garden, categorized by what I think they’re trying to tell me. 

I’m sure there are other weeds in your garden (and in mine) who didn’t make the list. Grab a field guide and try to identify them and learn about their preferred habitats. Sometimes if you have a great diversity of weeds in a single area, they may send you mixed messages, so you’ve got to interpret them loosely. There’s not a perfect 1:1 ratio between weeds and the clues they give us about soil health. Plant communities are incredibly complex. But I hope that the things I’m learning from my weeds will spark your own curiosity about the weeds you live with! 

 

Weeds that say, “PLEASE MOVE THE CHICKENS AWAY”


Dock (genus Rumex) thrives with low calcium and extremely high magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. A big patch of dock tells me that the area is over-fertilized and I need to give it a rest from chickens. Dock loves heavy soils, and tries to be a good neighbor by breaking up compacted soil via a long taproot. If you want to address compaction, tillage is only a temporary fix– and in the long run, it compacts the subsoil even worse. A gentle broad-forking or a rotation of long-rooted daikons left to decompose in place is a better solution. Or, if you’re a laissez-faire gardener like me, just keep cutting down the dock greens and leave the roots in place. I’ve read that dock is edible and medicinal, but it’s high in oxalic acid and quite bitter, so I tend to chop-and-drop it (like many permaculturists do with comfrey) instead of eating it. The leaves and stems make great mulch.

Cleavers (Galium aparine) give me a rash, so I’m pretty vigilant about pulling them out. They flourish in high-nitrogen soils, so they tell me to give that spot a rest from the chickens. This herb has a long history of use in folk medicine, but I have not experimented with it. Too itchy. I have no pictures to share, because it’s out of season right now. 

 

Weeds that say, “PLEASE BRING THE CHICKENS OVER”

Vetch (genus Vicia) tells me that the soil has low fertility, and vetch is here to help. It’s a legume, a relative of beans and peas, and a symbiotic relationship with bacteria on its roots allows it to fix nitrogen from the air pockets of the soil. If I see vetch, I add chickens. I think it’s pretty, and don’t usually bother to pull it out. Again, no pictures because it’s out of season, but I look forward to its return in June. 

 

Weeds that say, PLEASE IMPROVE DRAINAGE” 

Buttercups (genus Ranunculus) love wet feet, and show me exactly where my drainage issues are. Thanks to the relentless feedback of buttercups, I’m slowly terracing a soggy slope. Buttercups also prefer acidic soil, so I like to see them at the feet of my blueberries and azaleas, but if I want to grow annual veggies in their spot I may need to add lime. Buttercups tend to form a solid mat of greenery that can choke out other plants, so I try to remove them. On the plus side, their flowers are beautiful, and they always make me sing “Build me Up Buttercup.” 

 

Weeds that say, “PLEASE ADD MORE MULCH”

Quackgrass (Elytrigia repens) thrives in heavy clay soil, and tells me that I need to add more layers of organic material. The more organic material I add, the easier it gets to remove its spaghetti-like rhizomes.


Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) specializes in disturbed soil. It’s a relative of radishes, broccoli, and kale, but unlike its domestic kin, it has an incredibly fast seed-to-seed cycle. By the time other annuals are getting started in the spring, it’s already fully grown and flinging its progeny into the world (which explains the common name “shotweed”). For this reason, it’s one of my son’s favorite early greens to forage. It tastes better than the name suggests! A plant growing here and there is normal, but when I see a big patch of hairy bittercress, it tells me that the soil has been disturbed too often. (Disturbance in my yard is usually caused by chickens or toy tractors, but in other places it can be caused by tillage or by repeated herbicide application.) This place needs a deep blanket of mulch and a long rest.

 

Weeds that say, “PLEASE KEEP DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING”

Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) tells me that I have a neutral pH and relatively fertile soil. Hooray! They’re another favorite for spring foraging, for us and for the bees, with their fuzzy, mild-flavored leaves and their tubular purple flowers. They’re actually more closely related to mint than nettle (the square stems are a dead giveaway), and I control them similarly to mint, by simply pulling or cutting them wherever they look like they’re about to swallow up their neighbors. 

 

Dandelion (genus Taraxacum): Dandelions aren’t picky; they’ll live just about anywhere. They’re edible and medicinal, and important for the bees. I tend to let them be. I think their flowers are beautiful, ESPECIALLY UNDER A MICROSCOPE!

Look at all those pollen grains, sparkling like geometric love notes to an unknowable future.

 

Spring Weather

By Peter Heffelfinger

posted March 22, 2021

With the recent clear, cool nights and sunny days, spring has arrived several weeks early. The key difference is the relative absence of sustained rainfall. We’ve had a few sudden downpours, and even a bit of sleety hail, but not the sodden, extended weather that is expected around the spring equinox in the Pacific Maritime Northwest. The usual signs of spring are here: the red flowering currant bush is blooming and the Lenten hellebores are in full display, with the overwintering hummingbirds buzzing around both sets of blossoms. And, atop the highest fir tree the local pair of bald eagles have been making incessant calls to each other, as if to get the nesting season started early.

Last year at this time the ground was too soggy to plant potatoes, which didn’t go into the garden until April 17th. This year, the ground at my South Fidalgo garden is fluffy and workable, and the winter rye cover crop is being tilled in; the potatoes will be planted in a week or so, as soon as the rye roots and leaves decompose a bit. With the start of daylight saving, the garden weather clock seems to have moved ahead as well. The jump start may seem a boon to gardeners, hoping to get things in the ground soon, but the real message is the early drop off of the winter rains. The summer drought seems to be creeping in ahead of time.

Out on the Flats, where I have a large plot of garlic, the dry weather has caused the clay soil of the Valley to harden into a solid cake. Last year I applied a layer of woody compost to both deter the weeds and lighten up the ground, but the garlic crop suffered with a high percentage of moldy bulbs, approaching 30% in some beds. So, this winter I kept the beds bare, applying the usual mid-February fertilizer to jump start the garlic growth in the cool winter soil. (Note: I just use my standard, all-round organic fertilizer mix, not the blood meal or high nitrogen application often recommended.)

Of course, the ever present weed seeds also appreciated the sudden nutritional boost, forming a thick carpet of shot weed and other common occupiers of open soil. I’ve had to spend long hours using my stainless steel Japanese hand weeder, with a very sharp cutting edge and an offset blade, to cut through both the hard surface of clay as well as the already tough weed roots. Unfortunately, unless I am very careful, the sharp blade occasionally nicks off a soft garlic shoot. Hopefully the few plants sacrificed now will be less in number than the many that had to be thrown away last summer. Thankfully the mold last year was just common botrytis, not the feared white root rot that permanently affects garlic plots. Ultimately the cleaned garlic from last summer stored well, with the cloves just now starting to sprout or turn soft.

To preserve the remaining surplus of stored garlic I peel the good cloves, process them with a bit of olive oil and canning salt, and pack the rough mixture into pint jars for freezing. The mix can also be safely stored for a few months in the fridge, with the garlic bite turning very sweet. Be sure to keep a thin layer of oil on the surface to keep the garlic ‘refrigerator jam’ from drying out. You can also do a quick pickle of garlic. Whatever method you chose will serve to bridge the fresh garlic gap between now and the appearance of the first scapes in June.

I’ve also been making a traditional Spanish garlic soup: lots of sliced garlic sautéed with olive oil, paprika, cayenne and cumin, then mixed with chopped ham and chunks of day-old baguettes. Heat with stock or water, add whatever chopped spring green available and garnish with some newly-sprouted garlic chives. A proper spring tonic at the end of the garlic cycle.

Peas, Spring & Fall

For me, spring means fresh peas. It’s been many years since I grew traditional shelling or English peas. I now prefer Snap peas for quick eating or cooking in the shell, while my overall favorite is the Oriental Snow pea, particularly the variety Mammoth Melting Sugar. I find other varieties of snow peas to be not as large, sweet or tender.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In order to avoid spotty germination in the cool soil of early March, I bought starts of Super Snap peas and transplanted them in a raised bed lined with cedar boards. I kept the plants covered with large pots for a few days to shield them from the sun and wind while they develop their root systems. After I removed the pots, and the peas were standing 4 inches tall, I unfortunately forgot to cover them with my usual low arch of chicken wire to fend off any rabbits that might make it through the outer fencing. When a large gate was left open one night, the pesky critters trooped in and neatly trimmed off the tops and most leaves of the peas. There’s always a chink in the armor. So, once again giving thanks to local nursery suppliers, I replanted with fresh starts, which should still provide a slightly delayed, mid-spring taste of fresh peas.

The Mammoth Melting snow peas, which I dote on for stir-fries, have not been available locally as starts for several years. So this spring I soaked the seed overnight and planted it in the relatively dry soil of the same raised bed as the Sugar Snaps. To support the 6-8 foot tall pea plants of both varieties I’ll be using 4×8-foot cattle panels instead of makeshift arrangements of tall poles and twine. Not quite as homespun, but effective. I also bought extra snow pea seed for a late summer planting, which will supply a second crop, given the increasingly warm and dry autumn growing season. As the climate changes, fill the gaps.

Peter Heffelfinger

Starting Seeds in Soil Blocks

By Julia Frisbie

Posted March 18, 2021

In an effort to reduce my garden’s reliance on single-use plastics, I use a soil blocker instead of plastic 72-cell trays to start my seeds. This method was popularized by Eliot Coleman, and you can find lots of good information about it online. But the actual tool that you use to make the blocks ishttps://www.theseasonalhomestead.com/homemade-soil-blocking-mix/prohibitively expensive upfront if you just want to start a few trays of tender annuals. I have a stand-up 35-blocker because I’m a garden tool junkie, and it seems silly to keep it all to myself. You’re welcome to come use it on my front porch. Text me at 503-975-3778 and we’ll work it out. Bring your own trays and soil.

The benefits of soil blocks are:

  • Seedling roots run into air at the edges of the block rather than plastic, so they don’t wind around and around. They just stop growing (this is called “air pruning”) and wait to be plopped in the ground, which means they do better after transplanting.
  • You can fit more seedlings on a tray. For people with indoor setups, space on the heating mat and under the grow lights is often at a premium.
  • I can fill trays faster with my soil blocker than I could if I were hand-packing damp substrate into plastic 72-cell trays.
  • No more throwing away cracked and nasty 72-cell trays at the end of the season!

Here’s how it works:

  1. Dump substrate in a flat-bottomed bin. Some people use complicated recipes, but I just use the Black Gold potting mix with the orange label. Unfortunately, it comes encased in single-use plastic. Even the complicated recipes involve bagged ingredients like peat moss. A locally-sourced recipe that uses zero bagged ingredients would take a lot of experimentation. Sounds like a fun project for a retired master gardener, but I have a full time job and a four-year-old and escaped ducks running all over the neighborhood and a sink full of dirty dishes, so I’m not investing in research and development at this point.
  2. Add water, mixing as you go, until it’s slightly less wet than brownie batter, but wet enough that when you pick up a handful and squeeze, a little water runs out between your fingers.
  3. Push the soil blocker down into the substrate while doing a little twist-and-shimmy until you can hear and feel it scraping against the bottom of the bin.
  4. Lift it up and set it down into the tray where you want the blocks, and squeeze the two handles while gently lifting to release them.
  5. Repeat two more times, and you’ve got a full tray! My blocker makes blocks that measure 1.125” square, and 105 of them fit in a standard 1020 tray.

Newly planted seeds should never be allowed to dry out before they germinate. Soil blocks are best watered from below, since there’s no plastic holding them together. I pack my blocks into mesh-bottomed trays, and then I set them into a solid-bottomed tray with water in it for a few seconds, letting moisture wick up from below. I’ve also put soil blocks on aluminum pans and plastic lunch trays and poured water in from the sides, tilting the lunch tray so that every block has a chance to wick it up.

You don’t need soil blocks for everything. Many vegetables do just fine direct-seeded into your garden. Some even prefer it! Others– especially the ones with big starchy seeds– I like to pre-soak indoors and then plop directly into the ground. The ones I raise in the soil blocks are the real divas, the long-season veggies that can’t handle a frost. Here’s a simplified, non-exhaustive list of who gets what treatment in my garden:

TRANSPLANTS (VIA SOIL BLOCKS)

  • Nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants)
  • Cucumber family (cucumbers and melons)
  • Squash family (including zucchini and summer squash)
  • Sunflowers
  • Zinnias
  • Cosmos

PRE-SOAK

  • Peas
  • Beans
  • Corn
  • Nasturtiums

DIRECT SOW

  • Root veggies
  • Leafy greens
  • Herbs
  • Wildflowers

Another thing I think about when I start my seeds is whether or not each type of seed has a belly-button. The belly button is the point or the little mark where it was once attached to its mother plant. Think about the little mark on the middle of a bean, or the pointy end of a squash seed. If I can see a belly button, I plant it facing down or sideways, never facing up. That’s the place where the seed’s first rootlet will emerge from, and the rootlet has to find its way downward before it can push its cotyledons out of the soil. I learned this from the book Better Vegetable Gardens the Chinese Way by Chan and Gill, and from my seed-saving mentor Rowen White.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’ve never started veggies inside before, it bears mentioning that setting them next to a window really doesn’t provide enough light. You need a fluorescent shop light, and you need to hang it so it’s inches (not feet) above the top of the plants, adjusting it upwards as they grow. And most of the veggie divas who need to start life indoors germinate fastest when the soil is around 77 degrees, so stick them and their light in a warm place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It also bears mentioning that indoor- or greenhouse-grown seedlings need to be “hardened off” before planting them out into the garden. Basically you carry them to and fro for a while. It’s a hassle. Actually, this whole seed-starting process is a huge hassle. But can I stop myself? No! Because springtime is too exciting!!! While unearthing supplies in the shed this afternoon, I caught myself humming, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok

Turning a Lawn into More Planting Space

By Julia Frisbie

Posted Wednesday, March 10, 2021

In January 2016, we became homeowners rather than renters for the first time, so naturally, we set out to destroy our newly-purchased lawn.

 

So boring. So unproductive. It had to go. Here’s what we did, and how it turned out!

 

 

 

We decided to use sheet mulch. First, we flattened and peeled the tape off all our moving boxes and laid them out on the lawn as a weed barrier, and watered them so they wouldn’t blow away.

 

 

(We used straw bales for raised beds during our first growing season, because we knew there wouldn’t be time for all this cardboard to break down and let plant roots through before summer. It’s better to start the sheet mulch process in the fall if you have time.)

Then we brought in 17 cubic yards of compost. The ground was wet, and the truck sank into the backyard and almost got stuck. Total disaster. We like to live life on the edge.

17 cubic yards is a lot of mulch. But for the record, you can use this same technique on a smaller scale: you could build the frame of a raised bed directly on top of your grass, line the bottom with cardboard, and then fill it with bagged compost. We used a dump truck load because we essentially wanted to turn the ENTIRE YARD into a raised bed.

Anyway, we spread that stuff all over, laying down more cardboard mulch underneath as we went. Extended family members who had come to see the new house were quickly drafted.

After we ran out of moving boxes, we used wide rolls of extra-thick kraft paper. Sometimes we had to lie down on the paper to keep it from blowing away before the next wheelbarrow load was in place. Large-scale mulching is a team sport.

 

We planted perennials like herbs and blueberry bushes by cutting through the mulch and paper layers and putting their roots directly into what used to be the sod. Because it was the beginning of the growing season, we also transplanted some shallow-rooted annuals like onions and lettuces right on top of the compost. We planted our deep-rooted annuals (like nightshades, squashes, and brassicas) on the straw bales that year, because we knew their roots wouldn’t be able to break through the cardboard and paper layer until after at least one rainy season’s worth of decomposition.

Then, because we didn’t have mulch to spread over the fresh compost, we broadcasted wildflower and clover seed all over the place as a cover crop.

Our cover crop helped build more soil while (mostly) crowding out weeds. The wild birds loved it, and they came and pooped new weed seeds everywhere. Oh well! Still, we had a glorious first summer in the new place, with a few veggies, a lot of flowers, and very little mowing.

 

Our big break came months later when I heard a chainsaw and a chipper in the neighborhood. I literally chased the truck down the street barefoot, begging the arborist to drop his load of chips for us to use. He did– JACKPOT!!!– and our neighbor yelled at us about it, so the first thing we had to do was shovel the entire load (about 10 cubic yards) out of the easement and into the backyard in one evening. We didn’t have time to mow the cover crop first– we didn’t even have any houseguests to recruit. We just laid down a deep layer of arborist chips over everything. There are no pictures, because it was pitch dark by the time we finished. But it was time and energy well-spent. In the short run, it smothered the cover crop, suppressed weeds, and looked nice. In the long run, it composted in place and fed the soil, because arborist chips contain both green material (shredded leaves) and brown material (chipped wood). Five years and three additional truckloads of arborist chips later, this space is still feeding us and the wildlife with glorious abandon!

Why should you mulch your lawn into oblivion, rather than sod cutting, rolling it up, and hauling it away? Because of geology. Our island is what’s left after the rest got scraped away by a giant glacier. We’re pretty short on topsoil. Losing even two inches of organic matter was a price I wasn’t willing to pay– and besides, it composted in place in less than a year. Soil organic matter feeds microbes and absorbs water, cutting down on long-term water needs. And it’s like compounding interest; the longer you do it, the better it gets.

Fall is the ideal time to make new garden beds, but in a pinch, you can pull it off in early spring. As with other gardening topics, there are many good ways to do something, but no single “right way.” That said, here’s what I can recommend because it’s worked for us:

  1. Lay down a compostable cardboard or paper barrier on top of your grass.
  2. Get the barrier all wet.
  3. Dump a bunch of compost on it, and spread it at least 4 inches thick.
  4. Broadcast seeds for a cover crop. American Meadows is a decent source if you want to buy wildflower and clover seeds by the pound rather than the packet.
  5. Make holes in the barrier and plant perennials straight through. Plant shallow-rooted annuals right on top during the first season. Remember to water well, because plant roots probably won’t make it through the cardboard and paper layer until next season.
  6. Cover with at least a four-inch layer of arborist chips no later than the following fall. You can request arborist chips from local companies on getchipdrop.com and they’re FREE!
  7. The next spring, gently rake the arborist chips out of the way and plant your annuals directly into the compost below.
  8. Follow up with additional applications of arborist mulch on an ongoing basis every fall, or whenever things get weedy, or when you need a good workout, or whenever you feel like things are getting too peaceful with the neighbors.

Now, for a few warnings:

DON’T STOMP AROUND IN YOUR NEWLY PURCHASED PILE OF COMPOST BAREFOOT because it might contain silverware. Somehow this happens to us every time, no matter which of the two local suppliers we order compost from. I have a slight preference for Skagit Soils, but no compost you purchase by the dump truck load is going to be perfect.

DON’T PAY FOR FANCY WOOD CHIPS. They’re all brown material, rather than a mix of green and brown, so they won’t compost in place and they won’t be as good for your soil. Just get the free stuff from your local arborists.

DON’T MIX THE ARBORIST CHIPS INTO THE SOIL. That will tie up all the nitrogen, which will starve the plants. Just lay the chips on top like a blanket.

DON’T FREAK OUT WHEN WILD MUSHROOMS POP UP. They mean your soil is happy. They don’t compete with your plants, and they can’t poison you if you don’t eat them. Treat them as honored guests who bring good news and let them live their lives.

THERE WILL BE WEEDS. Why? Because the polyculture you’re creating is more attractive to wild birds than your boring old lawn used to be, and bird poop is full of weed seeds. The time you used to spend mowing, you will now spend weeding. But the more years you spread arborist chips, the easier it gets to pull the weeds, because the soil gets so spongy-soft. I’d rather be down on my hands in the duff than pushing some stinky old mower any day.

 

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok

 

The Wet and the Dry

By Peter Heffelfinger

June 29, 2020

 

The Wet

It certainly has been a wet month, with hard rains causing germination or mold problems. I am still waiting to see if my third planting of corn will sprout enough to fill in the bare soil in the rows from the first two disappointing seedings. As well, some of the 6-inch high onion plants developed mold around the bulbs and had to be discarded. But the peas soaked up all the rain and kept climbing up what seemed like an endless water spout.

Another sign of the high moisture level was the arrival of aphids, hiding in their usual beginning spot, deep inside the tender central growing tips of brassicas, in this case a bed of young Lacinato kale. An easy treatment is to spray the leaf cluster area with a light solution of detergent and water. The soap attacks the soft exoskeleton of the aphids that are sucking out the juices of the plant. Once aphids are present on a crop, keep a constant watch for their reappearance and keep spraying them at first sight. The soap solution does not affect the plant tissues, and is easily washed off, usually by the next garden watering. Check the site for several days to make sure there are no remaining aphids present, keep an eye out for any re-occurrence, and have the soap spray bottle at hand.

Aphids often spread to other plants, especially inside the top buds of Brussels sprouts. Check the long-standing plants often, carefully unfolding the tightly wrapped central growing cluster of leaves at the top of the stalk. Drench with the soapy solution if there are aphids hiding deep inside, and make sure to check the lower side-buds as well, once they start to form over the summer. In general, if the stems of any plant do get covered with aphids, discard the entire plant, in order to immediately to check the infestation. Aphids are endemic here, and will keep reappearing at intervals; but careful, organic pest management will control them.

There’s a good side to all the rain, though. The early broccoli crop has been abundant, the spring cabbages are already reaching full size, and the first small white crowns of cauliflower are forming. With our extended daylight hours of summer, cauliflower heads may start to sprout or discolor prematurely before getting full-sized. Lightly cover the central area of the plant by cracking, but not completely severing, the stems of a few of the outer cauliflower leaves and then folding them over the emerging heads. Complete the makeshift parasol by adding on top a few large, aged cabbage leaves. Keep the cauliflower heads in the dark. Wait for the head to grow to full size and pick while the curds are still tight. Fresh, homegrown cauliflower eaten straight from the garden is incredibly sweet compared to the commercial product that has been aging in transport.

A note on the garlic harvest. Some gardeners in the Dewey Beach area had to pull their already-mature garlic last week. For my crop out in the Valley, the last of the scapes have just been removed. Hopefully there will be a dry spell of our Mediterranean-style summer to properly mature the plants just before lifting in mid-July. For more information on when to harvest garlic, see the link below to the recent New York Times article on Filaree Garlic Farm, a commercial garlic seed grower in the Okanogan. Nice to know an extensive seed bank of the many types of garlic from all over the world exists on the dry side of our state. (Thanks to Jan Hersey for sending me the link.)

 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/realestate/grow-garlic-garden-organic.html?smid=em-share

[ A subscription to the NY Times is required to read this article]

 

The Dry

Inside the hoop house, the main issue is watering, given the heat buildup that starts each morning as soon as the early sun hits the walls. I try to conserve water since I rely on an Artesian well that slows down in late August. Over the years I’ve tried various mulches, including black plastic and biodegradable paper mulch, to keep the soil moist, but I now prefer to leave the soil open to the warm air. I currently water using the half-gallon black plastic pots the tomato plants came in to make individual mini-cisterns half-buried next to the stems of each plant. The pots create an efficient deep-watering system.

For tomatoes, I cut the bottom off the thin-walled rectangular pots and drive the edges halfway down into a small, excavated area next to the plant and berm up soil around the outer sides of the pot. I fill the pots with a hose, letting the water seep down to the roots, with no leaks off the side of the raised mound. I do water the surface soil around the stem as well, but the pots supply the bulk of the irrigation.

For peppers, which don’t need quite the same volume of water, I use the thicker-walled cylindrical pots as is. The bottom drainage holes are buried 2-3 inches deep; the pot is located in between the plants, which are spaced 18” apart in the row. As with the tomatoes I water the soil surface around the stem of the plant a bit as well, to keep the surface moist, but most of the irrigation filters down to the roots. 

For both the tomatoes and peppers I let the cold well water warm up for a day in a 50-gallon barrel before applying it, via a gravity-fed hose, to what are originally tropical plants now being grown in a northern temperate zone. Keep their feet warm and wait for that first red tomato or full-sized pepper.

A Potato Problem; and a Perennial Brassica

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted May 25, 2020
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I’ve grown potatoes successfully for many years, always making sure to rotate my plantings each year, and to avoid disease using new potato seed instead of the last of my stored potatoes. I try to get mostly egg-sized seed potatoes to plant whole, and cut any larger ones into separate pieces with at least 2-3 eyes. I dry the cut ones for a day, to let the cut surface dry out.

This year, however, whole sections of the rows never sprouted, particularly the favorite Yukon Golds, with failure also in parts of the Cal Whites and a few of the Red Lasodas. When unearthed, the affected seed potatoes were all rotted, with no sprouts, particularly the ones that had been cut. Was the problem in the seed itself or in the soil? Or did the cutting open them to fungi? The area had been in pole beans and winter squash last year, and corn the year before, so soil rotation should not have been a concern. Plus, I had grown potatoes there in prior years. Very disappointing, since potatoes are as an easy and usually reliable crop.

Although there would be plenty of time to replant, the supply of seed potatoes is long gone, given this year’s surge in gardening interest. When a garden setback occurs, the best thing is to fill the gap quickly. So I planted winter squash starts to cover the bare soil: Cinderella‘s Coach, Kabocha, and Sweetmeat. Hopefully the fact that winter squash and pumpkins had been planted in the same area last year will not be an issue. Plus, the plot had a winter cover crop of annual rye that had been tilled in. Gardens are always an experiment and often an exercise in overcoming adversity.

Note: if anyone else had problems with their seed potatoes this year, please let me know. As in past years, my seed came from the hardware store in town.

A Perennial Brassica

Many years ago I received a gift packet of seeds from a pair of pilgrims who had walked the Camino and then returned the next year to serve as hostel hosts on the Path. The seed was an extremely frost-resistant variety of Kale, with large flat leaves like collards, and commonly grown in gardens in Galicia, thriving in the rainy winter coastal climate similar to the Maritime Northwest. Most unusual for a brassica, it was a perennial, not dying back after going to seed the second season. Each year the plant gets larger and bushier, makes flowers for seed, and surrounds itself with multitudes of seedlings. Fittingly, the tall, thick stalks are fashioned by local craftsmen along the Camino into lightweight walking sticks for the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella. Holy Brassica.

Sadly, the couple who had originally brought me the seed have now both passed on. So, in their memory I maintained several of these everlasting Spanish kales, until finally the plants got too large and had to be removed to make space. But the original plants left behind a store of viable seed in the soil. Even after several years, I found numerous seedlings sprouting up where the parent plants had been. So, as a way of perpetuating the variety, I transplanted them this year into super-sized pots meant for small trees and installed them as mementos in my non-vegetable backyard, hoping they will survive the deer who graze there each evening. I look forward to seeing the large green leaves, as emblematic to me of the Camino as the mileposts there marked with the sign of the pilgrim’s scallop shell.

Note: the variety is officially known as Cabbage-Kale, and originated in the Isle of Jersey.

 

It All Starts with the Soil

TWIG (“This Week In the Garden”) posts will appear weekly, on Mondays, to help you know what to focus on for a successful growing season.

This Week in the Garden (TWIG #1)

April 20, 2020

It all starts with the soil

Peter Heffelfinger

If you are new to gardening this year it is important to remember that everything begins with your soil. While Fidalgo Island is blessed with a moderate climate for year-round vegetable production, there are challenges in finding a good garden site. 

The first few gardens I had here lacked any real layer of topsoil, the healthy, friable layer of dark dirt that is the basic need for growing a crop. Due to the Ice Age glaciers and various former river beds, we have layers of gravel and clay or concrete-like hard pan that can lie right under a layer of regular soil. In the worst scenario, one needs to build an enclosed raised bed filled with new topsoil. It is vital, though, that the hard sub-soil be loosened up first with a spading fork to provide good drainage. Soggy soil means poor growth, more pests, and eventually dried-out unbreakable clods. Note: do not invert the gritty subsoil to the top layer; keep it at the bottom, underneath the topsoil.

I rake up the available dirt into raised beds 6-8 inches high to warm up the soil in spring and to drain better in the winter. It is important to regularly add composted organic matter to keep the soil loose for aeration and good tilth. Note: compost alone does not supply large amounts of balanced nutrition to your plants. Amendments are needed, whether from well-rotted manure or organic commercial mixes. I use a combination of both. In addition, given that our native soil is acidic, a dusting of slow-acting dolomite lime (not fast-acting industrial lime that may burn your plants) is also required (except where you plant potatoes, which prefer acid beds).

Given that we are well into spring, I would concentrate on planting early, cool-weather crops, such as lettuces, radishes, and greens such as spinach and Bok Choy, which will readily go to seed in summer heat. Once the soil heats up in early to mid-May, it is time to plant beans, squash and other warm weather varieties. I hold off on corn until June 1st. For tomatoes, peppers and cukes I use a grow tunnel for added heat during our cool night mists that roll in off the Sound. We are in a maritime climate, even as our summers get warmer and drier.