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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.