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A View from Afar

By Peter Heffelfinger

posted April 21, 2021

Oftentimes it takes a commentator from far away to remind us of the Pacific Northwest’s unique place in the world of gardening. A recent New York Times article interviewed the founders of a specialty nursery, Issima, which breeds new cultivars of rare ornamentals. What caught my eye immediately was that the nursery is located in Little Compton, a tiny settlement at the far tip of Rhode Island’s easternmost peninsula, which juts out southward into the North Atlantic. Given its high percentage of coastline, bays, and access to the sea, Rhode Island aptly calls itself the Ocean State.

Before I migrated west, I lived for a year in Little Compton in a cottage near the outermost beach. After enduring many of Boston’s harsh winters, the climate of Rhode Island, only a short drive south, felt almost tropical in comparison. What would be heavy snow and freezing temperatures a bit further north were only squalls of rain and wind on the south coast. In late fall there were ripe quinces in the yard, and a flock of swans overwintered on the unfrozen salt ponds behind the sand dunes. In summer there were local tomatoes from a farm stand, fresh seafood at a small fish market, and of course a nearby fried clam shack. The climatological key was the warmth of the Gulf Stream, which hooks around the base of New England, creating a local pod of temperate warmth.

The owners of Issima detailed their careful, often years-long breeding program at their nursery sheltered by the maritime climate. One project involves Meadow Rue, or Thalictrum, a standard variety of which, “Queen of the Meadow,” has naturalized in my shady back yard, growing 5 to 6 feet tall each year. Issima, however, has created a new cultivar, “Super Tall,” topping out at 15 feet, which certainly would be just the right size at the base of my much taller Red Cedars and Doug firs.

But the link to the Maritime Northwest jumped out when Issima’s partners listed other favorite specialty nurseries, such as Far Reaches Farm in Port Townsend, which they cite as “arguably the best nursery in the country for cool-climate perennials.” Or, the “woodland treasures” at Keeping it Green Nursery in Stanwood; as well as Sequim Rare Plants for unusual succulents; and Windcliff Nursery in Indianola. Further afield, they mention Cistus Nursery in Portland for Mediterranean-climate plants and hardy tropicals. Suddenly you see our Northwest Maritime area in a new horticultural light, as an ideal locale for cultivating rare plants, as well as for cool-weather, coastal gardening in general.

On the northwestern side of the continent the Japanese Current keeps our weather mild, while the Olympic Mountains supply rain shadow protection to Fidalgo Island, the San Juans, and the northern part of Puget Sound. When it does snow locally, as it did this past winter with a sudden foot-deep accumulation, the drifts disappear almost as fast as they came in. In my small woodland meadow, the hellebores hardly noticed the thick blanket of white and a few weeks later produced their usual Lenten display.

Decades ago, when I first arrived in this more temperate corner of the country, I missed the four distinct seasons of New England, especially the fall foliage, as well as the hot, humid summers that pumped out fully ripe tomatoes. And even the blizzards, instead of the Northwest’s long season of winter rains. Now, looking back I realize that my short stay in the unique climatological niche of Rhode Island turned out to be a foretaste of the Maritime Pacific Northwest, complete with overwintering swans.

Fidalgo Grows is Alive!

April 17, 2020

Welcome to Fidalgo Grows, where experienced local gardeners will help your garden be the best it can. We look forward to your comments and questions.  

We’re happy to begin the blog with Fidalgo’s own beloved Peter Heffelfinger, who has gardened in the Fidalgo Island/Skagit Valley area for over 40 years. A Master Gardener, he has taught classes for the Eat Your Yard program, the Know & Grow series at the WSU Extension, the Anacortes Senior College, and Christianson’s Nursery. A former garden writer for Fidalgo Magazine, his column currently appears in the Whatcom Watch newsletter.

Introduction to Four Season Vegetable Gardening  

by Peter Heffelfinger

Fidalgo Island has been rated by Seattle Tilth as the best site in the Maritime Northwest for growing vegetables year-round. With low rainfall due to the Olympic rain shadow, and cool temperatures moderated by the Salish Sea, one can plant a wide variety of crops starting in March and continuing on a monthly basis right through October. Early peas and lettuces in the spring; classic tomatoes, corn and beans for summer; hardy greens in the fall; and overwintering brassicas and leeks for harvest during the chill of winter. Not to forget potatoes, onions and winter squash for storage. And finally garlic, the fall-planted bulb that, like the tulips, appears in the spring. 

It is best to think of gardening here not as a one-time rush to get everything in at once, but rather a steady monthly rhythm of “what do I plant today to harvest during the next succeeding season?”  

Since the garden will be in use on a continual basis, it is important to rotate crops to avoid disease, maintain fertility with added organic matter and amendments, and sow winter cover crops to avoid erosion. Endemic pests and diseases come with our moderate climate, but there are strategies and tools to deal with them organically.

Climate change is now an added challenge that is expanding our main growing season at both ends, early and late. With warmer, drier summers and less winter snow-pack, water supply will be the critical issue.

All in all, gardening takes a watchful eye as well as flexibility when things go a bit awry. Given our fortunate locale, there’s always time to replant.