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HOW to Save Seeds — by Julia Frisbie

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 19, 2022

Last week I shared my “why” for saving seed: I do it because it deepens my relationships with the plants that feed my family, and becoming a midwife for their next generation is the most powerful act of reciprocity I can muster. Just in case that resonates with you, today I’d like to share a little bit about the “how.” 

Plants choose their families and usher in the new generation in many diverse and beautiful ways. (So, too, with humans, but plants manage it with a whole lot less judgment, which we’d do well to emulate. As Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us, “They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.”) If you want to save seeds, you need to know who you’re working with and how they usually do things. 

So, if the first step is to love plants, the next step is to learn about them. I made the following flowchart about what questions to ask. Humans and the plants who provide us food and medicine have been doing this reciprocal seed-saving dance since time immemorial, so if this feels overwhelming, rest assured: the answers are out there! Google works great, but if you share my passion for reference books, here are some of my favorites on the topic: 

This sixth item is an especially interesting point to consider. Any breeding project is a process of selection over many generations. You can do this selection by hand– for example, by removing heads of lettuce that bolt early before their pollen is added to your lettuce gene pool, thus selecting over time for slower-bolting lettuce. If you breed for taste, you have to sample many individuals before deciding which ones to keep in the gene pool. (My friend Jay works for a seed company and gets paid to travel all over the place pulling up carrots and biting off the bottom part of the root! If they taste good, he puts the rest of the carrot back into the ground so that it can make seed.) It’s always a good policy to remove sick-looking plants, or plants displaying any undesirable characteristic, by hand. 

You can also select by simply creating the conditions that you want to breed towards, planting a bunch of individuals, and saving seeds only from the individuals who survive those conditions. To give a few examples of this strategy, I’m breeding towards dry bush beans that are happy playing in the shade at the feet of my tomatoes and dahlias, because it’s unlikely in my very small space that they’ll ever get their own dedicated plot. I’m also breeding towards drought-tolerant tomatoes, because my ancestors practiced dryland farming, and as we see more and more summer droughts I think it’s important to waste as little water as possible. (Plus, dryland tomatoes taste sweeter!) To do this, I leave the tomatoes off the drip irrigation system and only water them a little by hand when it seems like they might die otherwise. Both of these projects lead to lower yields in the short run, because I’m not creating ideal conditions for my beans or tomatoes. But they’ll lead to increased yields over the long run in the conditions I’m working with.

Of course, I’m always breeding towards resilience to suboptimal conditions, because… well… I’m not a perfect gardener! But I think that’s a superpower that all less-than-perfect gardeners should embrace. In this time of climate chaos, we need resilience more than perfect uniformity in our plants, our gardens, our bodies and minds, our families, and our communities. Because of their brilliant diversity, plants are the first healers to arrive on wounded soil and start the restoration process. “Bring me with you!” I want to say. “Let me sit at your feet and watch you work. I need to learn how.” This intimacy is captured within the word midwife, which has roots in Old English meaning with woman. Becoming a midwife to plants is a good way to spend time with them. As we learn how they live, we learn more about how we should live, too.

Beginning to Save Seed — by Julia Frisbie

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 12, 2022

I try new vegetable varieties every year, because I am quite susceptible to seed catalog madness in January. But there are also some varieties I grow every year, no matter what, because we love them so much that our garden would not be complete without them: red russian kale, Jaune Flammée tomatoes, Schweizer Reisen peas, Vorgebirgstrauben cucumbers, Costata Romanesco zucchini… the list could go on, but these are the first who spring to mind.

Above, Jaune Flamée and Vorgebirgstrauben grow side-by-side up a string trellis. I tried red plastic mulch one year to heat up the soil for tomatoes. The results were not impressive, and I now grow without plastic mulch, since I’m breeding towards vegetable varieties that thrive without so much coddling. 

When I’m planning to plant a particular variety for, say, the third consecutive year, that’s a trigger for me to think about saving seed for it. Here’s why:

  • What if seed producers stop growing this and I can’t find it some year in the future? My garden would not be complete.
  • If it does well enough that I want to grow it year after year, it’s probably pretty well adapted to our conditions… but growing the same variety for multiple generations in the same place presents a great opportunity to breed toward it becoming even better adapted to our specific microclimate. Plus, as a laissez-faire gardener, I’ve got a seed-saving superpower, which is the ability to breed towards greater resilience. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity.
  • Look how many wonderful meals these plants have provided to us. What gift can I give in return? Plants want to make seeds. Allowing the completion of their life-cycle, and even acting as midwife to the next generation, is one of the most powerful acts of reciprocity that I can imagine.

My seed-saving mentor, Rowen White, describes the beginning of a long-term relationship with a new vegetable variety this way:

“This season I’ve fallen for this amazing Turkish cucumber variety called Çengelköy from Istanbul. It might seem odd, but I’ve asked them if they would adopt me, and I promised to care for them in the seasons ahead. Being a seed steward is all about initiating and sustaining relationships with our seeds and food… While I’ve grown a number of cucumber varieties over the years, the way these make me smile indicates that these are going to join the long-term family collection here on our farm.”

I love the image of asking a plant to adopt me. It speaks to the way healthy relationships change and deepen over time. My partner and I started out as acquaintances, then became good friends, and then significant others, before making a lifelong commitment to each other. Our commitment deepened when we became co-parents of the next generation. This progression expresses the joy we share, and the care we have for each other. If so with people, then why not with plants? Why are our relationships with the foods that feed us stuck in suspended animation? Or, to borrow language from the dating scene, why are our plants getting “friend zoned”?!

Well for one thing, capitalism depends on our willingness to buy and sell stuff, including food and seeds. We’ve sacrificed much of our natural ability to be producers rather than consumers on the altar of “economies of scale.” It’s true that nobody can do it all alone. A certain amount of cooperation and commerce is beneficial. But becoming too far removed from the plants who keep us alive, I think, has not made humans any happier or healthier.

Nobody can do everything, but we can each do what we love. If you love food, you can grow it, and you can deepen your relationship with the plants who feed you by saving their seeds. Learning how to save seed in general is complicated, because plants can be annuals or biennials; self-fertile or promiscuous; pollinated by insects or wind. But learning how to save one particular type of seed for one particular type of vegetable is do-able for just about anyone.

Jaune Flammée seed 

Which varieties do you grow year after year? Which little sprouts feel like old friends when they pop up in the springtime? Which foods stir deep memories when you bite into them? What can you learn about the life cycles of those particular plants?

You don’t have to be an expert, and you don’t have to do it all at once. Just start with the easiest one. My first year saving seed, I only did Red Russian Kale. The next year, I added Schweizer Reisen peas and Jaune Flammée tomatoes, both of which are self-fertile. In 2022, I’ll try to save seeds from my Vorgebirgstrauben cucumbers. This will be my first insect-pollinated seed crop, and I admit, I am nervous! But I am going to try it anyway, because I love these little cucumbers, who are so prickly I have to wear gloves to pick them, but never bitter. I want to show them my gratitude, and count them among my extended family.

Gardening for Beginners

by Julia Frisbie

posted March 9, 2022
Also shared with the readers of the Anacortes American for the March 9, 2022 edition

Growing plants is like anything else: the more you learn and pay attention, the more complexity emerges. People have lived alongside food crops since time immemorial, and there are a lot of different ideas about how to do it. But it doesn’t HAVE to be complicated. This article describes how beginners can get started with a new garden.

First, choose a site that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. More sunlight is better. If there are lots of deer in your neighborhood, you’ll need to fence your garden, because they like edible plants just as much as we do! Err on the side of making your garden too small rather than too big. It’s better to be itching for more than it is to get overwhelmed. The closer your garden is to your door, the easier it will be to notice and take care of. As Adrienne Marie Brown writes, “What we pay attention to grows.”

Next, prepare the soil. The islands of Puget Sound are what’s left after a glacier scraped the rest away, so we’re short on topsoil. For this reason, I recommend adding compost on top of the existing soil at your site rather than trying to till. You can mound it up if your site is large, or make a raised bed if your site is small. A fluffy, six-inch-deep layer of compost will turn almost any site into a garden.

Choose what to grow based on what you like to eat or look at. For example, I am in love with tomatoes and dahlias, so those two are the queens of my garden and everything else has to fit in around the edges. Some easy and delicious choices for beginners are peas and beans. Herbs are expensive in the grocery store, but most are easy to grow, so that’s a good way to get a lot of bang for your buck. You can either plant seeds or buy small plants called “starts” from a nursery. All seeds need moisture to germinate, but beyond that, their requirements are as diverse as the plants that made them; if in doubt, buy starts.

With our arid summers, we have to irrigate rather than relying on rain to water our gardens. In a small plot, you can water by hand. In a larger plot, it’s worth setting up drip irrigation. First thing in the morning is the best time to water your plants, because that’s when they begin photosynthesizing, and they need water for that process. It’s best to pull out weeds as soon as you notice them, and it’s easiest to do this when the soil is damp, so I like to do my weed patrol and my watering at the same time.

Fertilization depends. If you start in a place with very rich soil– for example, a spot where a chicken coop or a compost pile used to be– you might not need to fertilize during the growing season. But if you start on a place that used to be a lawn, you’ll need to fertilize. Sprinkling slow-release fertilizer pellets over the soil might be easiest, but I think plants absorb fertilizer best and fastest in liquid form. My favorite is a concentrated solution called “liquid fish” or “liquid kelp”, which I dilute with water and spray directly onto the plant leaves first thing in the morning. I keep backyard ducks, and a basin of dirty duck water dumped over the plants has a similar effect. Another low-cost nitrogen source is your own urine, which can be diluted 1:10 with water and poured over any plants whose leaves you don’t plan to eat. (My preschooler knows he’s always welcome to pee in the corn patch, because corn is an especially hungry plant.) When should you fertilize? With average soil, I aim for once every two weeks, or anytime my plants begin to look yellowish.

Finally, after all this preparing, planting, watering, and weeding, and fertilizing, it’s time to harvest and enjoy! You can get very creative with recipes, but my favorite way to eat homegrown veggies is raw, sun-warmed, and immediately after picking. A relationship between people and plants allows both partners to be fed. This type of reciprocity has lured wild plants closer to human settlements, and children into gardens, for millennia. We co-evolved to care for each other. The memory is right there, just under the surface, ready to germinate.

How to Build a Heated Propagation Table

By Julia Frisbie

posted March 1, 2022

I used to start heat-loving seeds on my kitchen counter in soil blocks under shop lights, but when covid hit, that same countertop became my husband’s background for zoom church. He’s the pastor, so we can’t have him backlit. My seed-starting habit needed a new location.

We didn’t have room for a greenhouse, so we built an outdoor heated propagation bench instead. Think of it like a tabletop greenhouse. I got the idea from my market gardener friends Tony and JP of Green Heart Gardens in Portland, Oregon, who start all the seeds for their CSA in a similar setup. It works great for them and for me. If you’ve outgrown your indoor grow-light setup, but can’t commit to a greenhouse, it might work for you, too.

STEP BY STEP INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Measure your seedling trays and decide how big of a table you need! Design it to fit the dimensions of the trays you plan to use. For example, my 3 by 4 foot tabletop can accommodate up to six standard 10” x 20” trays at a time. Tony and JP built a much bigger table because they needed to start way more plants at a time.
  2. Build a table that’s strong enough to hold hundreds of pounds of weight forever. Tony and JP used a sheet of plywood set on top of concrete blocks. I put hefty legs on a shipping pallet.
  3. Build up the edges of the table 4-6 inches, so that the top of the table becomes a shallow box like a raised bed. This shallow box will eventually contain all the following stuff:
  4. Cut a piece of rigid foam insulation to the exact dimensions of the inside of your tabletop box, remove about one square inch from each of the corners to allow for drainage, and cram it in there. This keeps the heat where the plants can use it.
  5. Staple a heavy-duty plastic liner to the inside of the box so that moisture doesn’t sit directly on the foam, and then cut drainage holes through the plastic in all four corners of the table (directly over the cutaway parts of the foam) so that water can escape out the corners of the table and onto the ground.
  6. Put pea gravel into the lined box, 1-2 inches deep. It will act as a heat sink. Tony and JP used sand instead of gravel at first, but it was too dense and held too much water; their seedlings’ roots grew straight through the bottoms of the trays and into the sand. Now they use gravel, because it holds heat but not water, which encourages plant roots to air-prune themselves instead. That gets them off to a better start when it’s time to transplant.
  7. Cut a piece of hardware cloth to the dimensions of the inside of the box. Zip tie a heating cable to it (following the spacing instructions that came with the cable) so that the entire area will be heated.There’s a sweet spot for germinating tender annuals right around 77 degrees; most horticultural heating cables are pre-set to maintain this temperature as long as their heating probe is positioned correctly. Lay the hardware cloth and heating cable into the box, and zip tie the heating probe into place.
  8. Put another layer of pea gravel on top of the cables, 1-2 inches deep. This will increase the thermal mass of the growing area, and allow the radiant heat from the cables to be evenly distributed to the entire tabletop.
  9. Attach flexible PVC hoops to the outside of the tabletop.
  10. Optional: zip tie irrigation tubing to the underside of the hoops. Place emitters where they will create a fine mist over the entire tabletop. If you’ll be home for the entire seed-starting season and you prefer to water by hand, you don’t need to bother with this. (I like to water my seedlings from the bottom by dipping them into trays of dirty duck water and letting them wick it up.)
  11. Clip or tie clear plastic over the hoops. BE CAREFUL to vent this plastic cover on sunny days, or else your plants will cook. Later in the season you might even leave the ends open all the time, or switch it out for a fabric frost blanket.
  12. Plug in the heating cable, stick a timer on the irrigation tubing, and you’re ready to start your seeds!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stacking functions: I also use my propagation table to dry herbs once the weather warms up. Here are some nettles for tea, alongside trays of cucumbers, tomatoes, and squash. In summer and fall, I unplug the heating cable, but I still use this hot/dry spot to dry down seed pods.

How NOT to grow a garden

by Jack Hartt

posted August 26, 2021

Our regular Fidalgo Grows blog writer, Julia Frisbie, is focusing on her day job and other responsibilities this week. And other real gardeners are busy doing their gardening work.

I’m not a real gardener or real busy; so here’s the view from my garden, just over a year old now. Don’t read this for advice. It’s more of a “what not to do” story. But still, my garden feeds me, sometimes. And it’s alive. And sustainable, somewhat. So, for an amateurish, honest, and honestly embarrassing alternative post, I bring to you: my garden.

Siting:

First, I made sure the site was open to the sunshine. That left me only one choice for where to put it. If you only have one choice, that is where it goes. Mine faces the southwest to get the heat of the day but not the early morning sunshine. That way I get to deal with soil that is always dry and plants that have fog sitting on them until well past noon.

And my yard is a place where deer roam or sleep all night and leave their round fertilizer pellets everywhere. This told me two things: I can have free fertilizer any time I wish, and I won’t have any edible vegetables to harvest because that will be their fee for leaving me some fertilizer. Or I can I build a fence. That way, they will come and drool outside the fence, and fertilize outside the fence, but let me harvest my vegetables. Unless I forget to latch the gate one night. Then I got their fertilizer inside my fence. And yes, they took some vegetables as a door prize.

And my site is sloped quite steeply, a pretty good slope so I can start a couple stream beds when I water the garden. Every garden should have a good stream bed or two to demonstrate soil erosion.

Below: the only place my yard has for a garden, just before we started digging.

Digging:

I had a friend help me build the garden out of soil that is mostly rock, gravel, and sand, the remnants of the ice age, the construction age, and perhaps a drunken rage from previous owners or renters because we found fragments of beer bottles, beer caps, a spoon, a wheel from a chair, and potato chip bags. We found these things because this garden space is below the deck of the house, which makes for a great place to throw things out of sight, out of mind.

We dug and double dug this questionable soil to put the crab grass a foot below the ground, and we then moved the rocks out of the garden and into the flower bed, and the glacial till became the home soil for my vegetables. Of course I added good soil before planting veggies! No, I say that, but I didn’t, the first year. Amazing what glacial till will grow. Along with what I planted, I also grew dandelions, daphne, stinky bob, crab grass, and some things that made me wonder if I should just start a weed demonstration plot instead.

I put a trail through the garden in the shape of a heart, and covered it with cardboard and then sawdust to give me a weed-free pathway through the space.

If you are picturing a spacious, fill-the-backyard garden plot, change your picture. I only had eight feet by twelve feet to work with. It’s small. It’s tidy, sometimes. It’s all I have.

Below: the layout as it was early this spring, with broccoli from last year, and lettuce coming up.

 

 

 

Planting:

My friend shared some of her leftover seeds from the year before, and I also went to the local hardware store and grabbed some of what they had off the rack. So I had peas and beans and pumpkins and lettuce, kale and some zucchini and broccoli and things. I also had some strawberry plants from my previous house. I also bought two tomato plants; can’t remember their names but they sounded tasty. It was a trick getting them home in the bike bag on my bike rack. This was the first covid year, remember, so there wasn’t a lot else going on around town. And I wasn’t excited about going to the store very often. So these would hopefully become my vegetable garden for the summer.

Caring:

And then I would water once in a while. I would stand on the deck and just rain down a gentle shower across my little fenced farmlet. And I would weed even less often because every once in a while I would feel guilty if I didn’t. Really, the amount of time I put into the garden could easily be measured in minutes per week. I hesitate to label this paragraph as “care”. It was benign neglect more accurately.

And things grew. And grew. It grew veggies! I had a garden!

Harvesting:

How did the garden do? Well, not bad, considering. Most gardeners would laugh, or snicker, or shake their heads, but hey, I got dozens of heads of broccoli, which are still producing this second year; several dozen pea pods; lots of beans and kale but I found out I don’t like beans or kale much; five tomatoes (one plant didn’t do very well, and one looked like a Christmas tree with five green, then red, ornaments); five strawberries (they didn’t like being under the deck); and several large zucchini that I did the neighborly thing with and gave away. And five pumpkins that became ornaments for Halloween. Oh, and lettuce. They did great. The neighbors said I had a green thumb. It was my turn to laugh!

The amazing thing about this embarrassment of a garden – it gave me food, real food, healthy food, right outside my door, below my deck, local and fresh. At dinner time I would go down into the garden, cut some lettuce, grab a few pea pods, ignore the beans and kale, cut some fresh broccoli, smile at the tomatoes, pick a couple weeds, not in that order, hopefully latch the gate closed behind me even though my hands were overflowing with abundance, and go back inside and create a salad. Right out of my garden. It was revolutionary.

Below: the daily harvest in early summer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I showed my grandkids, and it gave them a place to browse when they were hungry. Except they couldn’t find any cookies, crackers, or candy, so they had to adapt.

Ongoing:

Yes, I added some compost into the soil this winter. I finally did.

And I replanted this spring with some free starts from Transition Fidalgo & Friends and a few more seeds from the hardware store. Once again I had dinner salads right out my back door, below the deck. But no beans this year, by choice. And very few strawberries again. And potatoes that I didn’t plant; that was odd. Where did they come from? And the broccoli kept right on producing all winter and into the spring and is still producing this week.

It’s not much. But it’s what I have. Local, fresh, and flavorful. Small but satisfying.

Reading Peter and now Julia’s blog posts the past couple years, I am inspired to plant a cover crop soon, to go along with the fall lettuce I just planted, and some more peas that just emerged from the soil for a late summer crop. And find more compost to add.

I have a lot to learn. And this blog (when written by real gardeners) keeps me inspired to keep on growing. And please welcome Julia and our other real gardeners back next week when they share the kind of blog post that helps us to grow healthy and sustainable gardens. The kind I hope most of you have in your yard.

More winter vegetable varieties

by Julia Frisbie

posted August 5, 2021

Last week we identified the beginning and end of our local persephone season and did some basic calculations to figure out what we can still plant. If you haven’t run out of steam for careful garden work yet, you can now make detailed plans for a winter garden. If you’re like me, and overwhelmed at this point by canning projects and zucchini giveaways, you can rip open all your winter veggie seed packets, mix the seed together, broadcast it, water it, and hope for the best. Even the untidiest garden, bejeweled at dawn with dewdrops, is a splendor:

Here’s a mix of swiss chard, carrots, herbs, and several types of kale that I threw at the ground one year in July. We ate it until we were sick of it in late winter, and then turned the chickens into the patch.

Speaking of root vegetables: Roseann Wuebbels grows Jerusalem artichokes here on Fidalgo Island, and recommends them as a healthy starch that can be overwintered and harvested by simply digging tubers up throughout the cold months. She jokes that they’re her “apocalypse food.” I grow them, too, and agree that they’re a good one to bet on in an apocalypse, because they seem unkillable! Indigenous communities are said to have cultivated Jerusalem artichokes as a type of insurance– an alternative starch in case of maize harvest failures– but I can’t find a reputable (i.e. indigenous) source on this.

Whether you’re planting in rows or scattering seed with the wind, it’s helpful to know what the experts do. I am not an expert yet, so I will refer you to some excellent books that cover winter gardening.

Eating Locally and Seasonally: a community food book for Lopez Island (and all those who want to eat well) by Elizabeth Simpson and Henning Sehmsdorf of Transition Lopez

Folks, it doesn’t get more local than this! The overwintering crops that Simpson and Sehmsdorf recommend planting in the summertime are carrots, turnips, parsnips, rutabagas, beets, kale, chard, salad greens, and hardy herbs.

Backyard Bounty: the complete guide to year-round organic gardening in the Pacific Northwest by Linda Gilkeson

After I checked this book out of our local library three times in a year, I decided I needed my own copy to carry around, break the spine at my favorite page, dog ear, and notate to my heart’s content. Gilkeson recommends planting root crops in July along with endive, radicchio, swiss chard, and kohlrabi. In early August, her dizzying to-do list includes: “Sow last of summer lettuce, radishes, summer cauliflower. Sow winter crops: arugula, fall and winter lettuce, leaf turnip/mizuna, collards, kale, daikon and winter radish, leaf mustards, Komatsuna/mustard spinach, Chinese cabbage and other hardy greens, spinach, sweet onions and scallions, and broccoli raab.” In late August and September, she plants corn salad, cilantro, arugula, and winter lettuce, and in October she plants garlic and broad beans.

The Urban Farmer: growing food for profit on leased and borrowed land by Curtis Stone

Based in Kelowana BC, Curtis Stone’s climate is harsher than ours, but I still appreciate his practical approach. He sells his crops to restaurants, so he never recommends stuff that people won’t readily eat: his overwintered crops are spinach, kale, lettuce, and carrots.

Four-Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman

This book is basically the bible of year-round gardening. It’s the standard by which all other books are measured. There’s no way I can summarize all of the good stuff in here, so I’ll just say: if you’re serious about this, check it out from the library.

The Market Gardener: a successful grower’s handbook for small-scale organic farming by Jean-Martin Fortier 

This farmer is based in Saint-Armand, Quebec, which has much harsher winters than ours but is actually at a lower latitude, so has a slightly shorter persephone season. He’s not shy about using floating row covers, frost blankets, and hoop houses to extend his season. He’s a master at planting things in succession over long periods so he has a constant supply for his CSA customers. The crop rotation plan in the appendix of his book shows that he finishes planting cilantro, dill, lettuce, carrots, beets, snow/snap peas, and beans in August. He finishes transplanting lettuce in September. He finishes direct sowing mesclun mix, arugula, spinach, radishes, turnips, and mustard greens in October, and plants his entire crop of garlic that month. He finishes transplanting seedlings of chinese cabbage, fennel, chicory, kale, parsley, collard greens, swiss chard seedlings until October, too. That’s a lot of activity for October. In our climate, without season extension tools, I’d try to fit everything except the garlic from his October planting list into September.

Fortier also plants an oat/pea mix as green manure in late August and early September. Green manures and living mulches deserve their own post. That’s what I’ll write about next, because it’s time to order seeds if you want to plant them by the end of this month. If you’ve got ideas to share about green manures or living mulches that have worked for you, please leave a comment, and I’ll include it in next week’s article!

July: Time to Plant Winter Root Veggies

by Julia Frisbie

posted July 23, 2021

July is the best month to plant root vegetables. Why? Because winter is the best time to EAT them. Beets, rutabagas, turnips, parsnips, and carrots are all sweeter after a frost. If you plant them now, they’ll be nice and big when the weather turns cold. They hold up just fine in the ground over the winter months, allowing you to dig them up and eat them whenever you like.

To understand why, you need to understand how they live their lives. Many root veggies are biennial, making seeds during their second warm season. A would-be carrot mother wants to grow a nice big root during her first summer. This root is her bank account, full of energy stored as starch and sugar that she’s saving for later. When the first touch of frost hits her feathery leaves, she lets them wilt, pulling down every last bit of sugar into her root to serve as antifreeze. (That’s why the root tastes sweeter in winter!) The carrot mother bides her time until spring comes. Then, all at once, she spends down her bank balance in order to build a seed stalk. The sugar she’s stored in her root funds the next generation of carrots.

The carrots who accidentally overwintered in my garden have just flowered, and they look like this:

If July is a good enough time for carrot mothers to fling their progeny into the world, then it’s a good enough time for me. Another indication that it’s time to plant carrots is when their wild cousins, the Queen Anne’s Lace, are blooming in your neighborhood:

These wild relatives are the reason I buy my carrot seed every year rather than saving it from my garden; they’re the same species (Daucus carota) as domestic carrots, and are insect-pollinated, which means they’ll readily cross unless isolated from each other by half a mile. As in many cases, the wild genes for tough, white, hairy, strong-flavored roots are dominant, and will show up in subsequent generations of crossed seed.

As a side note, while I love foraging for wild foods, I leave wild carrots alone. Many plants in the umbelliferae family look alike, and some are extremely poisonous. Hemlock is an example of a toxic umbellifer that grows on Fidalgo island.

The carrots who have come to live among us have given up a lot of their wildness, and with it, their ability to grow in marginal conditions. Domestic carrots are tricky for several reasons:

  • First of all, they need deep, loose soil. We have clay. So, I either grow them in my raised beds, or else I choose the old-fashioned (slightly less domesticated) chantenay varieties that can make do with heavy soil.
  • Second, they germinate very slowly, and need to be kept moist the whole time. But they can’t be covered too deeply, or they won’t make it. Carrot seeds are tiny. They’re not provisioned for a grueling push of cotyledons through an inch of topsoil the way starchy beans and peas are. They need to be sown just under the surface, and then that surface needs to stay constantly moist until they’re up. But you can’t water them too violently, or they’ll wash away! And you can’t start them in soil blocks or pots where you might have more control over their conditions, because they strongly resent transplanting.
  • Third, did I mention that they’re tiny?! It’s hard to get the spacing right when planting them by hand, and if they’re too crowded, then none of them will reach their true potential.
  • Fourth, if you do get a good crop of winter carrots, you can bet every other creature would also like to eat them once they’re frost-sweetened. Deer will dig them up. Rodents will tunnel underneath and eat them from below. I built my raised beds behind a six foot privacy fence to thwart the deer, and stapled quarter inch hardware cloth across the bottom of the beds before filling them to thwart the rodents. Of course, the problem with raised beds is, they’re hard to keep moist.

Basically, domestic carrots wouldn’t succeed in the wild unless they were evenly scattered onto a bed of perfectly fine, loose humus, just close enough to the base of a waterfall where they were being constantly misted, and where no animals could find them. It’s almost laughable! But it’s not their fault. This is a direct result of our co-evolutionary dance: the carrots have agreed to be sweet, orange, and tender-crisp in return for our help with germination and growing conditions. Do we remember how to honor our part of the agreement, how to meet our responsibility toward the carrots?

Some years I have better results than others. I console myself during the bad carrot years by supporting our local professionals. Billy at Moondance Farm runs a winter CSA every year that is worth the price for the carrots alone; they’re as sweet as candy. You can also find frost-sweetened carrots at the winter markets. But listen, if we’re serious about food security, we ought to keep trying to grow them ourselves. We’re certainly not going to deepen our relationship with domestic carrots by outsourcing their care.

I’ve tried a lot of tricks to get around the germination difficulties. This is the protocol that’s worked best so far:

  • Soak seed in water until white rootlets barely begin to emerge from the first few of them, which takes 4-5 days. This reduces the amount of time you’ll have to keep the bed perfectly moist. Here’s a picture of a germinated carrot seed under a microscope:

  • While the seeds are soaking, get irrigation set up. A very fine mist needs to be delivered until the soil is well-saturated AT MINIMUM three times a day. A layer of agribon or shade cloth over the bed can prevent some moisture loss.
  • When you see the first signs of germination, mix up a corn starch gel in a ratio of one tablespoon of cornstarch to one cup of water. Whisk it together on the stovetop until it just barely comes to a boil and starts to become translucent, and then stop stirring and let it cool completely.

  • While the gel is cooling, water the heck out of the carrot bed, and make tiny trenches where you’ll put the seed.
  • Gently mix the wet, barely-germinating seed into the cooled cornstarch gel.
  • Put this mixture into some sort of delivery device. I use a squirt bottle, but a plastic bag would work if you snipped off one corner and squeezed it out. In the following photo, you can see seeds suspended in the gel. (You can also see that my gel has a reddish cast, because I added some cinnamon to it as a natural antifungal to try and prevent damping off.)

  • Pipe the gel mix into your prepared rows, just like icing onto a cake. Having the seeds suspended in the gel makes it easier to get decent spacing. (You’ll still have to thin the seedlings, but it won’t be as difficult.) Here’s a happy row of seeds suspended in a line of gel:

And here’s a close up of one seed that I took with my pocket microscope after squirting it onto the soil. You can see that it’s at the perfect stage, just barely beginning to germinate. Note the white mycorrhizal threads surrounding it: that’s happy soil!

  • Barely cover the row of seed with damp soil, and begin the misting regime.
  • Once they have some leaves, thin them to 2-3 inch spacing and reduce your watering to once a day. Keep them well weeded until they’re as tall as your hand.

Even if you do all this, I can’t promise you’ll get perfect carrots. I can only promise you’ll gain a deeper understanding of what a carrot wants (and, potentially, your own insufficiencies in the provision of these desires).

Other winter root vegetables, such as beets, rutabagas, turnips, and parsnips, have never given me this type of trouble. Beets prefer a neutral ph and soil on Fidalgo Island tends to be a bit acidic, so they’re best grown in a raised bed with imported soil, or in a bed prepared with lime. They have big tough seeds that benefit from a warm bath overnight before sowing. Parsnip seed has a short shelf-life and needs to be sourced fresh every year. But I don’t pre-germinate and suspend any other type of seed in a cornstarch gel. I reserve this craziness for carrots alone.

If you consistently grow great carrots without much fuss and bother, please leave a comment and tell me your secrets.

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.