Category Archives: springtime

Potatoes, Making Beds, and Snails and Slugs

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted April 5, 2021

Potato Planting

With the unsettled weather of late, my low-lying, lakeside garden plot is still a bit too wet to plant potatoes. The winter ground cover of annual rye has been tilled twice during the sunny days in between the bouts of rain. Once the soil is somewhat drier, and the last of the rye has decomposed, the tubers can go in. To avoid having to cut large potato sets into smaller pieces, I try to select egg-sized starts. I think of laying the small ovals into the deep furrow, and carefully covering them up with soil, as a post-Easter hiding-the-eggs ritual.

Later on, the harvest of all the full-sized spuds is a delayed treasure hunt. The hope is to dig up good-sized potatoes with as little disease as possible, either black scab on the outer skin or soft brown rot inside.

Planting Potatoes (Video Guide) - BBC Gardeners' World ...

Given our relatively mild, wet winters, potato diseases tend to linger on in the soil. To prevent buildup of disease, it’s especially important to plant disease-free seed, to rotate plantings each year, and to promptly remove any potentially diseased seedlings that may sprout from unharvested tubers, missed by the potato fork in the fall. Potatoes are the one carbohydrate reliably grown in the home garden, so guard the crop each year against the spread of disease.

 

Remaking the Beds

One of the few dry spots in the spring garden are the raised beds of the over-wintered leeks. Once the last of the alliums are harvested, the soil on the high mounds dries out quickly and can be worked up easily with a fork. The soft, white leek roots will dissolve easily back into the soil, maintaining the airy tilth of the ground. Since I grow various brassicas year-round, I have to make sure there are beds opening up that were not previously planted with any member of the cabbage family. Thus, my leek beds become the first place for starts of early cabbage and broccoli. At the opposite end of the cycle, the last of the over-wintered cabbages are just being used up. The cut stalks left in the ground are pushing out small side sprouts that are perfect for stir-fries, late additions to soups, or eaten fresh.

Brassicas are easily grown in each season, but they do require protection from insects in the spring. The cabbage root maggot fly appears early in the year and it will decimate seedlings. The only protection is to cover the plants completely with floating row material such as Agribon, carefully sealing all the edges on the ground with boards, metal fence posts, or soil. The plants must be kept isolated from the small fly, which lays its eggs near the stalk of any young brassica. The maggots then migrate through the soil to feed on the soft roots, causing seemingly healthy six-inch starts to suddenly keel over.

Factsheet - Brassica club root (283)

As the brassicas grow under the protective tent, the white material can be supported by metal or plastic hoops and secured in the wind by clamps. You can water plants through the row cover, but you will need to lift the cover to remove weeds, which thrive under the slightly warmer temperatures under the small hoop house. Once the brassica plant is full-sized, and the stalk is thick, the plant is relatively safe and the cover can be taken off.

But, the next insect soon appears, the white cabbage butterfly, dancing over the leaves, looking for a mate. As long as the throng of butterflies is not too thick, I don’t mind a small number of green caterpillars that will show up later on. If it’s a problem, keep the maturing plants under the row cover until it is time to harvest.

Actually, it’s quite a thrill to finally remove the row cover and reveal mature, healthy broccolis or cabbages underneath. Almost like magic.

 

Snails and Slugs

Snails and slugs are an important part of the natural composting cycle in nature. Think of them as digesters of the plant or organic material that accumulates on the ground. In the garden, however, if you have too many, they can become a problem. They’re especially attracted to young vegetable starts, so it’s important to start removing the initial spring buildup of these creatures. I find the easiest method is to lay boards by the side of the garden beds, or near any particularly wet spot. After their nighttime forays, the snails and slugs will hide out under the boards during the day. Flip the boards over, remove or squish the critters and replace the flat traps for the next accumulation. Also, keep an eye out for any nest of small, pea-sized, translucent slug eggs in your garden soil, most likely in an undisturbed spot, hidden just under the surface. Squish again, to prevent a new wave. With the advent of dry summer weather, the population of slugs and snails diminishes.

Pin by Sandy Camp on Yard | Snail, Photo, Ipm

But it’s wise to keep the numbers in check all season long.

Snails will also gather on the large stalks of over-wintering cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts, hidden by the thick layer of leaves and protected by their hard shells. My understanding is that the local population, which arrived here as an invasive species a few decades ago, are Asian land snails, not the edible variety consumed in Europe. Nor are they the small, but tasty Turk’s Head snails served along with sushi in Japan. A flock of free-range ducks would gladly eat the snails in your garden, but that involves another level of animal husbandry.

Note: I use Sluggo pellets in small amounts only when necessary to protect small starts during very wet weather. Any paste or liquid snail bait can be fatal to birds, who pick up the chemical on their feet.

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

This Week in Gardening (TWIG) — First One of 2021!

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted March 15, 2021

After a winter of being cooped up during the pandemic, I’m sure gardeners are anxious to get started growing things once again. Before jumping into spring planting, I thought I’d start this year’s edition of weekly updates with a look back over what survived this past winter. Spring will arrive soon enough, if not already here.

The heavy foot of snow that fell on South Fidalgo in February served as a layer of insulation, protected the ground from freezing very deeply and kept the hardy over-wintering plants from exposure to wind. With the rapid melt of the snowfall, and the change to warm and dry weather in early March, we’re experiencing a much earlier spring, as has been happening more and more the past few years.

Perennial Vegetables

Basic to any system of year-round gardening are vegetables that reappear on their own each spring. Although they may initially take up to several years to reach full production, they’re certainly worth the time and effort. The main concern is finding a permanent place in the garden, safely removed from any ongoing system of crop rotation. Once established, perennials take a minimum of care, mostly a little regular weeding, some watering in summer, and regular pruning or cleanup as needed. A layer of well-cured manure or other form of fertilizer applied in the fall serves a source of slow-release nutrition. The appearance each year of a reliable crop is a welcome relief from the usual spring rush to get seeds or transplants in the ground.


Rhubarb

Rhubarb will supply a few leaves the first year, depending on the size of the start, particularly if you are able to find a mature root ball divided from a well-established bed. I found a large rhubarb root at the very first Transition Seed Swap years ago. It is still producing and has filled out a small bed of its own in a corner of the garden, right next to a permanent stand of thornless blackberries. Note: rhubarb leaves get gradually smaller and thinner after 4-5 years and the root needs to be sub-divided to maintain vigorous growth. Rhubarb is one of the earliest crops to be harvested, with the appearance of the bright red stalks serving as a spring tonic visually, as well as for their tart taste, which mixes well with the standard local perennial, strawberries. I am always amazed at the elephantine leaves bursting out of the ground. If large skunk cabbage leaves are a first sign of spring in the woodlands, then rhubarb is the starting flag for the garden.

Artichokes

Artichoke plants will offer an edible head or two the first year, but will start to take off the following season, once the roots are well-established. The key is to harvest the buds when they are tender, before the outer leaves get stiff, since these plants are an edible form of thistles. If you do allow a bud to open up, the flower is a deep blue, and a boon to bees. The fully mature blossom, cut with a long stem and hung upside down to dry, also becomes a distinctive dried flower. I always think of artichokes as welcome visitors to our cool coastal clime from the sunny and warm Mediterranean.

During that week of 20F-degree weather in February of this year, I took the added precaution of putting a temporary covering of floating row cover over the still-standing stalks of artichokes, mostly as a barrier against the wind. They seem to have survived so far, particularly the purple variety Violetta de Provence, which is more susceptible to cold than the standard Green Globe, the variety commonly available locally. The Violetta has smaller, more conical heads, but a much finer taste and more tender leaves.

Asparagus

Of all the typical perennial vegetables, asparagus takes the longest to develop a good harvest, usually reaching that stage in the third year as the roots mature. But, to compensate for the long wait, the taste of the fresh-cut spears is extraordinarily sweet in comparison to the commercial bunches that have been shipped in from elsewhere. Resist the temptation to cut more than a few stalks the first two years and make sure the plot has a good supply of manure and compost, especially over the winter. I grow mostly a standard green variety; the purple type has not done as well so far.

Like artichokes, fresh asparagus is one of those vegetables that is a particular luxury. Maybe it is because they both are enjoyed with lots of melted butter. My asparagus bed is entering its fourth year and I am anticipating a steady supply. Finally, do let a good number of late-appearing stalks leaf to bushy maturity during the summer. The vegetation is needed to continue the cycle, allowing the roots to develop next year’s crop.

Cooking Note: if a few stalks do get too large and the bottom parts get a bit woody, use a vegetable peeler to remove the thick lower skin. The white inner pith will still be soft and edible, but just not that distinctive bright green of the more delicate upper spears.

A roundup of Over-wintering Hardy Vegetables

The January King cabbages offered small but tasty heads all winter, and are now sending up fresh side-sprouts from the cut stalks left in the ground. Two large collard plants did well all winter, sporting large healthy leaves seemingly impervious to frost. A sure sign of spring, the lacinato kale plants, like most hardy brassicas, are putting out multiple florets, an early version of broccoli. Keep the top-most buds trimmed off; they’ll be a steady supply of greens for fresh stir-fries. Other plants that did well included Mizuna and Purple mustard, Tat Tsoi bok choy, broccoli Raab, as well as Miner’s lettuce and a bushy form of arugula. Hiding under the leaves for a spring treat were Purple Top turnips, the roots unaffected by frost.

The brussels sprouts, however, suffered from the lack of winter cold, developing brown mold on the lower buds early on, and colonies of aphids on the topmost growing tips during any warm spell. What used to be a reliable crop now seems to be an extended challenge. I can understand a quote from a local farmer saying they are difficult to grow. Makes one appreciate the vast acres of purple and green brussels sprouts that are harvested in the valley just before Thanksgiving. Commercial sprouts would likely be non-organically grown, and unsweetened as yet by any touch of serious frost. I may stick to hardy cabbages as a more reliable winter brassica.

Leeks are the standard fresh allium in the winter garden. The main plot of leeks was harvested regularly, while two small beds of late-summer planted leeks are just now coming to maturity in March. The last of the leeks will develop a hard pith in the center as the temperature warms up, but the outer sheaths are still edible. As the green sprouts of the regular chives and garlic chives emerge in their pots in the kitchen garden, the fresh onion cycle begins again.

Peter Heffelfinger

Spring Update, and Brassicas

by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted May 18, 2020
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Crops planted earlier in April are starting to take off. The first potato leaves are pushing up at the bottom of their trench and will need repeated hilling around the stalks to make more spuds and less foliage. The bush snap and tall snow peas are knee-high and starting to flower as they climb their trellises. The storage onion seedlings and the onion sets are 6-8 inches high, while the first beds of leek transplants are being installed.

In the hoop house all the tomato and pepper plants are finally in, the cucumber transplants are adding leaves, and the direct seeded cukes are starting to pop up. I have a few eggplants, but I do them in large pots filled with commercial soil to avoid the verticillium wilt disease that has built up in the garden soil over the years.

Finally, the early cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower starts, as well as the long-term Brussels Sprouts, are starting to push up against the floating row covers.

A Note on Brassicas: the 4-Season Crop

In the coastal Pacific Northwest’s moderate maritime climate vegetable gardeners are able to a grow one or more variety of brassicas year-round.

Broccoli
Photo by Betty Carteret

Cabbages start in the spring with a variety such as Early Jersey Wakefield, continue on through the summer with large heading varieties for slaw and sauerkraut, while long-standing red cabbage matures slowly over 100 growing days. Hardy Fall/Winter green cabbage such as January King, planted in mid-to-late summer, keep sprouting through our mild winters. Other cabbage varieties include the crinkly Savoy, as well as the various types of Oriental cabbage.

Broccoli is much the same, with early, mid-summer and fall crops. There are also two purple over-wintering varieties: the Valentine broccoli that heads up in late February or March, even amidst brief snowfalls, and the Purple Sprouting broccoli that slowly develops as a leafy bush all the winter and then produces masses of small edible buds in early spring.

Cauliflower I find is usually just one crop in summer, with both the standard white variety and the green Romanesco with its circular pattern of pointed buds. Brussels Sprouts, started in the spring, start to mature in late fall, and stand tall all winter.

Red Cabbage
Photo by Betty Carteret

With all these possibilities to fill up the garden space it is vital to rotate your cabbage crops to avoid build up of soil disease. Do not plant brassicas where they were grown the prior year. There are also endemic insect threats, especially the cabbage root maggot fly, which will destroy the roots of young brassica seedlings. The cabbage butterfly, the familiar white floater, produces caterpillars deep inside the cabbage head, but the damage is usually minimal. And aphids will hide in the soft tops of Brussels Sprouts in both summer and winter, but can be deterred by spraying with a mild solution of detergent and water.

Protect all brassicas initially against insects with floating row cover, well-sealed on the ground on all sides, and held up by wire hoops over the beds. I leave the cloth protection on until the plants are at least half grown or more and can survive on their own. Check often under the cloth to remove weeds, snails or slugs. The final reward is when you remove the cover to reveal the luxurious maturing crop. Almost like magic.