Saving Seeds and Summer … by Julia and Sequoia

by Julia Frisbie, with Sequoia Ferrel

posted July 27, 2022

Ahhh, July! Finally we’re getting the heat that our corn, beans, and squash crave. They’re shooting up towards the sun. Other plants, like peas and many biennials, have quit putting on new growth and are instead focused on making seeds.

Home gardeners have a unique capacity to breed resilient vegetables. I’ve written before about why saving seed is important, and how to start. If it’s a project that appeals to you, this is a good time to keep an eye out for seeds that are ready to collect. Here are some that Sequoia Ferrel and I are noticing and saving this month.

 

PEAS

The photo above shows Schweitzer Riesen snow peas. Sequoia writes: “I had plenty to harvest and am now letting them make seed as the plants are dying back. The peas have filled out in the pods and will be ready to pick when they start drying up. Peas are self pollinating so I’m not worried about cross pollination with my snap peas. The seed for these came from seed saved on my farm a few years back so this is the second time they have been selected for my growing conditions.”

As Sequoia noted, peas are mostly self-fertile, which makes them a great beginner seed saving crop. Suzanne Ainsworth, in her book Seed to Seed, recommends isolating different pea varieties from each other by 10 feet in order to maintain varietal purity. I laid my garden out with this in mind so that I could save three different pea varieties this year. As I noticed any off-type plants (a snow pea making fat pods, or a snap pea making flat ones, for example) I pulled them out to remove their genes from the gene pool. Here’s a look at a seed crop of peas called Waverex:

You can see that the plants are drying up, which is on purpose! I’ve quit watering them so that they can dry out before I try to store them. The pea pods’ texture needs to change from green and crunchy… to leathery… to brown and brittle before the seed harvest. Dry peas are hard as rocks. You can test if they’re dry enough by hitting them with a hammer; they should shatter rather than squish. In this variety, dried seed also gets wrinkly:

Shelling dried peas is a fun activity for kiddos. If you’re growing peas this year, and you can stand to watch them get dry and withered, try saving the seed!

 

LEAFY GREENS

If there are any green, leafy plants left in your garden from last year, check to see if they’re making seeds. My Red Russian kale has already done the deed, feeding songbirds and no doubt sowing its next generation all over my yard.

Beware of saving seed from broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collards, European kales, and any other plant in the Brassica oleracea species. They are insect pollinated and readily cross with each other, producing offspring that may be edible, but probably won’t be recognizable.

Sequoia writes: “Here is a Swiss chard plant going to seed. I decided to save this because it was a strong productive plant I was able to harvest throughout fall and winter and it survived without problems through our cold snap. It is a biennial so this is its second growing season. You can see in the closeup that the seeds aren’t developed yet.”

Sequoia continues: “This one [swiss chard] plant will make tons of seed! While it’s been flowering I made sure there weren’t other types of chard or any beets (which are the same species and will cross pollinate) flowering at the same time. I also have good isolation from other gardens in the larger area.”


Sequoia writes: “This is some mizuna that I have let make seed. I love mizuna in salads and it is sometimes hard to find the seeds. However these plants weren’t super vigorous and went to seed way too soon so it may not actually be a good idea to collect and plant these out. I have some new starts coming up so I will evaluate how those plants perform and maybe collect their seed if they do better. I can always spread undesirable seeds in any bare spots in the pasture because my sheep love plants in the brassica family.”

Sequoia writes: “These two lettuce plants would be good candidates for seed saving because they are both vigorous and flavorful plants that have held well as the weather warms without developing a seed stalk.” The varieties pictured are Merlot and Red Sails. Lettuce is mainly self-fertile, but because these two are planted so closely together, the resulting seed would likely be a cross. But it would probably be a good cross, so why not try it?!

Here is some of Sequoia’s fall lettuce that survived through the winter:

The capacity to survive through winter is “something I definitely want to select for,” writes Sequoia. “The flowers aren’t open yet so I will have to wait a while to collect the seed.”

Both of us are noticing lamb’s quarters going to seed in our gardens right now:

This spring/summer weed is in the spinach family, and Sequoia and I both agree that it’s delicious raw or cooked. In fact, it’s Sequoia’s favorite green. Neither of us actually collect the seeds; rather, we let this plant drop its seeds right where it stands, and trust that it will come up next spring without any interference from us.

 

UMBELLIFERS

Many plants in this family, with their characteristic umbrella-shaped seed clusters, are biennials. What you planted last year may be going to seed now.

Sequoia writes: “This is some red celery that was hardy and performed well although I have never been able to grow juicy celery. It will produce a lot of seed.”

If you planted parsley last year, check it for seed heads that look like this now:

But leave carrot seed alone; it readily crosses with wild Queen Anne’s Lace, and will not reproduce true to type.

I’m noticing seed clusters on my lovage plants, which I could save if I wanted more lovage, but I don’t:

 

HERBS

Below is a row of cilantro that’s bolted, flowered, and is now going to seed. (It doesn’t cope well with warm weather.) But if your cilantro looks like this, don’t pull it out. Wait and observe, and when the delicate flowers turn into seeds, collect them so that you won’t have to buy seed next year.

Here are some dried-out chive blossoms. Look carefully and you will see little black seeds tucked inside them:

It’s a great time to cut these blossoms, tuck them into a brown paper bag, and put them someplace dark and dry until they’re completely crunchy. When they’re ready, shake and crush the bag vigorously to loosen the seeds, and then remove the fluffy flower remnants. The heavy black seed will fall to the bottom of the bag and be easy to collect.

If you’re interested in saving seed but not sure what you’ll do with it all, email fidalgoseedshare@transitionfidalgo.org. We’ve got some big dreams of a local seed bank, and we’d love for you to be part of it!

 

PS: For those who are keeping track, I’ve been quiet on the blog lately. Two months ago I went into labor in my garden while squatting down to transplant some oregano and chives. We welcomed a furry, redheaded baby boy into the world six hours later. It’s too early to tell what his favorite plants are, but he smiles when the corn leaves tickle his feet, and he turns his head to catch the scent of tomato vines as we brush past them. We buried the placenta under the apple tree to say thank you to the soil. All is well.

Summer Heat, Summer Cuisine … by Peter Heffelfinger

By Peter Heffelfinger

posted July 22, 2022

Purple flowers on red potatoes

 

With the arrival of hot weather the early spring crops are ending their run. The snow and sugar snap pea vines are turning yellow as the last of the pods swell with starchy seeds. The early Romaine and Bibb lettuces are getting bitter as they mature, even with regular watering. The last-planted rows of potatoes are finally flowering while the rest of the patch holds on to the green foliage for a short time before shriveling away. You can sneak a few potatoes to sample early, especially the delicate red or ‘new’ potatoes, but it is best to leave them in the ground for two weeks after the stalks have fully died down in order for the skins to harden up for storage.

 

Bulb Fennel

The bulb fennel, after sitting through the early weeks of cold and wet, is now filling out at the base, while also sending up a central cluster of foliage for future seed. The white, anise-flavored bulbs are one of my favorite crunchy vegetables. For a Mediterranean style appetizer, dip slices of fennel in olive oil flavored with mashed anchovies. I also like to use the cup-shaped ends, either whole or sliced in half, as vegetable scoops for hummus, tabouleh, or whatever salsa is available.

Fennel can also be roasted with sliced onions and large sweet Italian peppers such as Bull’s Horn or Green Marconi. Plus, the fronds make a slightly fragrant covering atop baked salmon.

 

Basil Buds & Pistou

While the green tomatoes are just starting to size up in the hoop house, the clumps of basil, transplanted at the same time as the tomatoes, have been in full leaf now for several weeks. To keep the basil producing the rest of the summer it is important to remove the flower buds at an early stage. Snip off the young buds and the immediately adjacent leaves on the same stem every 3-4 days to keep the plant bushy. Do not let any buds develop into white flower stalks, which will quickly happen in the heat; the plant then starts to die back as it shifts to seed formation.

Remember to keep the soil moist around the basil plants to maintain steady leaf growth and be available for use soon with ripe tomatoes.

To maintain its bright green color fresh basil must be processed immediately in a blender with olive or other oil, a bit of salt and a little lemon juice before it wilts and turns black. This becomes pistou (pesto without cheese), to be used as a salad dressing, mixed into soup, or as a general purpose table sauce. I use chopped walnuts in place of expensive pine nuts for the base. At first I was mixing the basil with garlic scapes, or early cloves of garlic; lately I’ve been adding tender grape leaves and even a few tomato leaves; cilantro also works well, along with garlic chives, and parsley of course. Any tender greens mixed with the basil will be good on toast, poached eggs, crackers, as well as pasta or noodles. The pistou can be frozen in pint jars for a taste of summer next winter. And you can always add the Parmesan at any time for traditional pesto.

 

Artichokes: Steamed, not Boiled

Summer has also brought the rush of artichokes, both the small purple Violetta de Provence variety, and the standard Green Globe. In the past I boiled the heads for 30-40 minutes, until the leaves pull off the base easily, but now I prefer to steam them, to prevent the heads from getting waterlogged and mushy. I use a large metal Oriental steamer to do up to six at a time, removing the smaller, more tender purple ones first, and letting the larger and stiffer green ones steam longer. I find that with steaming the leaves remain separate, and not clumped together, and more of the taste stays in the leaves since they haven’t been boiled. And of course you can use your basil sauce of the day as a dip, as an alternative to the traditional butter.

 

Garlic Setback

Unfortunately my garlic crop developed serious black mold with all the rain. Some of the heads may be saved, but the stalks are still green, having never fully dried out enough. Luckily it’s ordinary black fungus not the dreaded white root rot. So I am hoping the small percentage of undamaged heads will dry sufficiently to last in storage. I did process some of the rescued garlic cloves with olive oil and canning salt, to store in the fridge, where it will keep for up to a year, though the bite will become slightly sweet. But the luxury of having bags of solid heads of garlic all winter will be missed.

In any case, the garlic strains I have been maintaining for over a decade will have to be restarted with untainted seed stock and fresh ground, hopefully free of black mold. Growing garlic in the Northwest can be a challenge.

 

Day Lily buds

Day lilies are now in full bloom, offering a chance to graze in the flower garden, along with the local deer. As first noted in the classic foraging book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons back in 1960’s, unopened day lily buds can be lightly stir fried in butter, his usual treatment of most wild greens, including milkweed broccoli. Any vegetable oil will also work. The day lily buds can also be included in vegetable soups as a thickener, adding a decorative touch as they open slightly while simmering in the broth. I prefer the smaller, thinner buds of standard day lilies as opposed to the larger pods of a newer variety such as ‘Stella D’Oro.’ Note: dried day lily buds are also a traditional ingredient in Szechuan hot and sour soup.

Garlic scapes, Leeks, and Container Plantings — by Peter Heffelfinger

By Peter Heffelfinger

posted June 28, 2022

Garlic Scape Season

As my garlic crop begins to mature, the central seed head stalks, or scapes, emerge. There is considerable debate in the garlic world whether to remove the scapes as soon as they appear, in order to increase bulb size, or to let them stay on the plant until harvest as a way to extend storage life. I have evolved a compromise of sorts, perhaps acknowledging both sides of the issue.

garlic scapes

I always remove the scape stalks to focus the remaining plant energy on the bulbs. Since I grow all hard stem varieties, when I clean and dry the garlic for storage I leave 2-3 inches of dried stem on each bulb, thinking that the upright stalk will serve as a wick to remove any moisture from deep inside the bulb interior during the winter months. I also make sure, when cleaning the air-dried bulbs, to closely cut off the roots to remove any soil fungus, to rub off the loose sheaths around the bulbs, and finally to make sure there is an open space between the top of the remaining two tight sheaths around the bulbs and the exposed stem. The aim is to vent any trapped moisture that might develop mold or fungus. It seems to work well so far, since I am usually able to store garlic into March/April, depending on the variety.

The best part about scapes is that they are an edible allium crop in themselves. I process smaller ones into a paste, with oil, a bit of lemon juice and salt, for use as a simple garlic spread, or add canned white beans for a zesty bean dip. Adding tahini and garbanzo beans to ground scapes makes for a chunky green hummus. Scapes can also be stir-fried, steamed, or grilled, as well as added to a vegetable soup stock. I freeze some, especially the large ones, by chopping and blanching the solid stalks, omitting the soft buds and thin upper leaf-ends, then quickly chilling them in a cold water bath before placing in freezer bags. Very useful addition to winter soups.

Harvesting all the scapes can be a challenge since they appear over an extended period of time, depending on the variety. They can be hard to see amidst all the leaves, even after you have walked around the patch multiple times. There always seem to be a few that you miss unless you check once more. Plus they seem to pop up instantaneously behind you as soon as you have moved down the row. This year as an experiment, aiming to get a higher percentage of good-sized bulbs to improve my seed stock after last year’s drought, I am snipping off the seed-heads just as soon as they appear just above the leaves. Make sure you get the complete inch-long bud, so as to completely stop the seed formation process. It makes for shorter scape stalks, so there is less to cook. Longer, fully extended scapes, which quickly develop in a day or two, will give you more vegetable to work with. It’s a trade off, but in any case, use what size scapes you have while they are here.

Leeks

Leek transplants about to be covered by pots before the heat of the day

Coinciding with scape harvest, I am planting leeks for fall and winter use as part of my alliums all year round plan. Since the summer heat has arrived, I protect the young transplant seedlings by placing them deeply in a throughly wet, ‘puddled in’ trench, having removed the top 2-3 inches of leaf stems to ease the initial demand on the roots. I also work fertilizer into the bottom of the trench beforehand. Make sure the roots extend straight down, not ‘j-rooted’, turned upward at the ends. I immediately cover the plants with half gallon pots to protect them from the sun for 4-5 days until they can stand up on their own. As the seedlings grow, the sides of the trench are gradually filled in around the stalks, leaving the roots well below the surface as a protection against summer drought and then frost in winter.

Note: this year instead of commercial pre-mixed garden fertilizer I am using a homemade mix of 4 parts soybean meal, 1 part kelp meal, 1 part alfalfa pellets, and 1 part lime. I omit the lime for potatoes, while adding a bit of bone meal for tomatoes and peppers. All the ingredients were bought in bulk in order to reduce costs.

Container Plantings

Blue potato plants coming up in tubs

Growing spuds in bags, large pots, cardboard boxes, or even plastic laundry baskets seems to be the latest thing in online gardening advice. I found some very well-sprouted blue seed potatoes, the last variety available this late in the season, and planted them in old recycling bins, having drilled extra drainage holes. I filled them 2/3 full with a mix of worm castings, commercial organic compost, and soil, with a bit of fertilizer mix stirred in. The tubs are lined up by the one sunny, south-facing wall in my continuing expansion of mini-gardening at a house mostly surrounded by tall trees. The first leaves quickly appeared above the soil mix and I can tell, as with any container planting, they will need regular watering during the hot weather. As the plants grow I will fill in the top 1/3 space with added compost around the stems as a way of hilling.

Nearby I have an assortment of plants in pots on the high stump of a newly cut down cedar, well-exposed now to the sun: trailing rosemary, cilantro, and Romaine lettuce.

Stump with rosemary pot

Romaine lettuce, cilantro, rosemary plants on cedar stump

I also need to find a spot for two new pots of bunching onion starts and some transplanted purple mustard seedlings that appeared as volunteers in the main garden. The kitchen garden keeps expanding, filling up old pots with new edibles. The snow peas are also producing, planted in early March in large nursery tubs down amongst the now waist high weeds from all the recent rain. The two deer who go through the yard twice a day have missed the peas so far, having so much other lush wild growth to nibble on. Let’s hope they don’t notice all the recently added plantings in containers.

Peas in the Valley of Weeds

The -New- Garden Plan — by Peter Heffelfinger

By Peter Heffelfinger

posted June 14, 2022
We’re happy to welcome back long-time gardener and blogger Peter Heffelfinger!

For 2022 I am changing my overall garden strategy, reducing my large-scale production workload a bit and relying more on an expanded kitchen garden close to the house for quick year-round access to leafy greens, hardy alliums, and herbs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Purple Artichokes with beehives in the background

At the main garden, a few miles away from the house, I’m increasing the basic crops that I rely on: potatoes, onions, leeks, as well as early and late varieties of cabbages and broccoli. I’m also adding to the existing perennial beds of asparagus and artichokes as well as the hardy Portuguese flat-leaf kale that lasts several years.

As much as I like having them in the winter, I’ve decided to forego Brussels Sprouts since they inevitably harbor aphid infestations over the summer and appear again during warm spells in the winter. It’s easier to grow fall-planted January King winter cabbages for a brassica less impacted by insects and sweetened by frost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GARLIC

Since my usual garlic plot near Edison was flooded last fall I planted about #800 cloves of selected hardneck varieties in one large raised bed at my Campbell Lake site. I’m hoping the garlic will not be affected by the white root rot that I had there a decade ago. It’s looking healthy so far, and is benefiting from the steady rain and cool spring weather.

Last year the summer drought arrived a month early and my garlic was parched in the heavy clay soil of the Flats, with a loss of 30% of the crop. Over the years I’ve built up a collection of hardneck varieties including Music, Deja Vue, Korean Red, Russian Red, and recently added an unnamed purple-skinned variety from a nearby gardener.

At the big garden, I’m reducing my usual large plantings of Oriental snow and sugar snap peas, as well as cucumbers, since I had a surplus of frozen peas and pickles from last year. A few bulb fennel and snow pea starts went in early, but I’m leaving the snap peas, pole beans, zucchini, corn, and winter squash plantings to my garden partner. I’ll rely on the local farmers market for small items like radishes, Japanese white turnips, radicchio, and bok choy, and the food co-op for carrots and celery.

 

Portuguese flat leaved kale

At the house, which is too shady for main crop vegetables, I have pots and large containers of arugula, parsley, lettuces, regular and garlic chives, bulb fennel for greens, rosemary, winter savory, several thymes, a culinary bay bush, and a perennial bed of Greek oregano. The slugs got to my first cilantro starts, so I’ll try again. I also transplanted some of the perennial kale into a bed on a trial basis, and have a few snow peas in large tubs with a wire fencing to hopefully ward off the deer that come through each day.

I’m also trying to grow potatoes (Purple) in a few large tubs lined up against a south facing wall. My nearby bed of horseradish was set back by the cold winter; I’m hoping it will recover for some home-grown wasabi-like heat this fall.

The Hoop House

Hoop house with peppers and tomatoes

The 40×20 hoop house at the main garden has been moved to new ground, with a more efficient system of raising the sides for ventilation after last summer’s heat wave. I have Sungold and Sweet Million cherry tomatoes, plus an assortment of Romas for sauce, heirloom varieties of Beefsteak and Old German Striped, a Borghese Italian for traditional sun drying, and a new Japanese slicing variety Momotaro. There’s a Yellow Pear as well as Juliet, a larger grape-type cherry tomato that is also good for drying.

My hoop house pepper collection includes the standard green/red sweets, plus Anaheim, Padron, Shishito, Early Habanero, Bull’s Horn and Green Marconi for roasting, Italian Sweet Yellow, as well as a Hungarian Black, a Yellow Cayenne and several hot Asian varieties. Finally, there’s a single tomatillo for salsa and a stand of early basil for both pesto and to adorn the first ripe tomato slices.

Ants & Aphids

While I knew that ants and aphids have a symbiotic relationship, with ants harvesting the nectar that the aphids secrete as they suck out the juices of young plants, my garden had never really been impacted by it until now. I first noticed single ants on my young pepper plant leaves, but saw no real damage other than a suspicious sprinkling of tiny white flakes on the upper surfaces. I found the ant colonies next to punky wood in the greenhouse sills, removed as much as I could of the nests, and placed ant traps by the peppers. But the ants persisted, some moving their activity to the cucumber bed, while the scout ants were still showing up on the pepper plants.

Then I found the aphids: patches of young aphids on the undersides of the large lower leaves, and sprinklings of new activity on the upper buds and new leaves. I had to carefully spray the underside of each leaf with a mild solution of dish detergent and water as well as douse the buds at the top. I also rubbed off any soaped aphids as best I could without damaging the leaves. The soap dissolves the exoskeleton of the aphids. Hopefully I caught the infestation in time, and will spray again to make sure.

The hoop house was moved this spring to an area of the garden where I had previously grown Brussels Sprouts, as well as overwintering kale, which would have allowed the aphid population to build up over several seasons. Lesson learned.

 

The Atmospheric River

The heavy rainfalls so far this year have certainly been good for the trees and the mountain snow pack. It’s a reminder that we do live in a temperate rain forest.

Early potatoes

I bought all my seed potatoes early on, including Chieftain Red for new potatoes, Yukon Gold, Cal White, and a Clearwater Russet. But I could only plant one or two rows at a time, waiting for the rare sunny day when the soil was dry enough to work. The first section benefited from the all the rain, with just enough dry breaks to prevent the seed potatoes from rotting out. Given the intense irrigation from the skies, it has been a race to keep the zooming plants adequately hilled up. The second and third sections of potatoes will hopefully benefit from the latest river from the sky. Sometimes you catch the wave, and hopefully the wave will recede by July.

Peter H.

Julia’s last pre-partum post!

by Julia Frisbie

posted May 24, 2022

It’s been a wonderful week in the garden. This post is shorter than usual because I spent all my free time outside digging rather than inside typing. Here’s what I’ve been working on:

  • Preparing beds by mounding up the soil, and adding mulch to the trenches between beds to create paths
  • Transplanting ALLLLLLL the tomatoes and the summer squash, plus the first successions of corn and cucumbers
  • Transplanting tender flowers like marigolds and sunflowers
  • Direct sowing the first beans (after several hours of pre-soaking in warm water)
  • Starting seeds for my second successions of corn, cucumbers, and herbs
  • Hand watering while I continue to work on this year’s drip irrigation layout
  • Pulling/digging/torching weeds
  • Pulling tent caterpillars off the apple tree (before drowning them and feeding them to the ducks… this is a delicacy)
  • Building a bean tipi (otherwise known by my star-wars-loving kiddo as “the Jedi Temple”) and other trellises
  • Watching the red russian kale finish flowering and start setting its seed pods
  • Watching the songbirds collect fallen duck down with which to line their nests
  • Watching the fringe cups (Tellima grandiflora) come into their full glory at Ship Harbor
  • Watching my “Desert King” fig tree finally put out its first leaves of the season

I’m not sure how many more posts I will be able to share with you this summer, because I am nine months pregnant, with all “optional” things soon to be swept off my plate. However, gardening is NOT optional. It’s life-giving. There will still be a garden. So if you want to know how it’s growing, you’ll just have to come visit.

Editor’s note:
Transition Fidalgo and, we’re sure, all of Julia’s readers, are grateful to her for so enthusiastically sharing her garden adventures with us. While she pulls away from posting for a while, we’d like to invite others to send articles about their gardens to us at info@transitionfidalgo.org. May we all continue to grow together!

Tender Annuals: Is it time yet? — by Julia Frisbie

by Julia Frisbie

posted May 10, 2022

I’ve only been growing here for six seasons, but still, I can’t remember ever waiting so long to transplant my tender annuals. I’m on a tight schedule this spring, and getting very antsy. But the dang weather forecast is still showing temps in the 40s and 50s for the next week! What to do? To guide my plantings, I’m considering recent garden records, phenological cues, historic temperature data, and the way the soil feels.

RECENT GARDEN RECORDS

Having access to this information is one great reason to keep a garden journal. As I read through old entries, I found myself wishing that I’d recorded soil temps along with dates, so I’ll do that from now on. These are the notes I’ve taken about transplanting my heat-loving annuals over the past 6 years, along with some information that Peter Heffelfinger has shared right here on the Fidalgo Grows blog. Note: both of us grow with Southern exposure in raised mounds that allow our soil to dry out reasonably early, my garden has good wind protection, and he has a small hoop house.

  • 2016: I planted heat-lovers in mid April. (We’d just moved, and didn’t have any proper garden beds yet, so I did most of my tender annuals in straw bales that year. They heat up faster than the ground.)

  • 2017: The soil was 55 degrees by April 11. It felt like I started heat-loving seed both too early (April 25) and too late (May 10), so we purchased starts from Christianson’s and planted them around Mother’s Day. But… we still didn’t get many tomatoes. I had a new baby that year, and my garden journal sadly admits: “Anything that needed special attention suffered.”
  • 2018: I planted tomatoes and cucumbers into holes in plastic mulch on April 28 and May 5. I covered them with a remay frost blanket when I first transplanted them, and took the remay off on May 11. This led to my first tomato ripening on July 7, and great harvests into late summer and fall.
  • 2019: we got a week of gentle rain and mild temps, so in a fit of enthusiasm, I started transplanting tender annuals into raised mounds of soil warmed by plastic mulch during the first week of April. I finished planting dahlias by April 27, the first red poppy bloomed on May 8, and of course we finished the drip irrigation system over Mother’s Day weekend.
  • 2020: I planted out my dahlias and heat-loving veggies from May 1-6 (most were transplanted, beans and corn were direct sown). Peter wrote that early May was the time to transplant tomatoes, once the soil is warm and nighttime temperatures are above 50 degrees.
  • 2021: I planted dahlias (and got my inaugural sunburn of the year) on April 14 because the lilacs were already budding and I could comfortably walk barefoot on the soil. The first heat-lovers got transplanted into plastic mulch on April 18, dahlias had emerged by the 27th, and I transplanted the last cucumbers on May 19th. Peter bought his tomato starts and began hardening them off around April 27.

PHENOLOGICAL CUES

My neighbor’s lilacs are now in full rolling bloom. I learned from one of the long-time growers of the Whatcom County Dahlia Society that when the lilacs are budding, it’s safe to plant dahlias in raised beds or mounds, so that was my go-ahead; I finished planting my dahlias last week.

In 1996, the Ahkwesahsne Mohawk Board of Education instructed my seed-saving mentor Rowen White that, “When the leaves of the dogwood are the size of a squirrel’s ear, it’s time to plant corn.” I don’t have any native dogwoods, so I keep track of the blossoms on an ornamental dogwood who has been in this spot longer than we have and knows it better than we do. Blossom development seems right on schedule:

My mentor Rowen suggests another cue to watch for: wild blackberry buds. She says that when they’re swollen and just barely starting to open, it’s time to plant. I encourage you to find the wild blackberries closest to your garden that share a similar orientation (north, south, east, or west) and check on them. Here are the south-facing wild blackberry buds closest to me:

They don’t look like they’re going to open up this week.

HISTORIC VS. CURRENT WEATHER

If you toggle the right settings, the website weatherspark.com will allow you to see current temperature data superimposed over historic averages. Here’s a look at April and May 2022:

Look how much the gray marks are hanging out in the blue rather than the red, and how the trend of the gray marks doesn’t match the upward slope of the average historical trends yet. Compared to past years, this has been a cool spring.

THE WAY THE SOIL FEELS

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I enjoy gardening barefoot. This gives me a lot of sensory information that I wouldn’t have otherwise. But if you want to keep your shoes on, you could get similar information by…

  • Kneeling. How wet do the knees of your pants get?
  • Pulling weeds without gloves on so that your hands are in it.
  • Using a soil thermometer. (Just remember that the results may vary from bed to bed; measure them all!)

At this point, some areas in my garden have reasonably dry, warm soil… and some parts are still cold mud.

The bottom line is: the calendar says it’s time. Phenological cues say maybe. Historic vs. current weather patterns say maybe not. At this point, it all depends on your planting area. Is it raised? Sheltered from wind? Covered in plastic? If so, go for it! If not, better keep touching the soil regularly. There is simply no substitute for sensory input.

Let me know in the comments what your soil feels like and what you’ve planted so far!

Using Cardboard for Compost? by Julia Frisbie

By Julia Frisbie-

posted May 3, 2022.

I got an email this week from Torgy Torgeson, the other half of the dynamic duo whose spinach I so admire. He writes:

Anna and I have had one or more garden plots in the 29th Street Community Garden for 11 or 12 years. Over the past few years we have observed folks with other plots having used corrugated cardboard boxes as a mulch to keep down weed growth. 

In the May 2022 issue of Consumer Reports there is an interesting and edifying article on the occurrence of PFAS chemicals in “paper” food packaging (The Dangerous Chemicals In Your Fast Food Containers, pp. 36-43). More interestingly, among the papers they tested for PFAS, brown paper bags had the highest concentration, at about 192 ppm vs 5.6 ppm in take-out containers!

My forestry background tells me two things in particular: that corrugated cardboard is simply brown paper bag stock that is formed into the well-recognized laminate we call “cardboard”, and secondly, that paper making is NOTHING BUT chemical processing to digest cellulose….. the more chemicals, the merrier!!  

My other readings tell me that PFAS are quickly becoming known pretty universally as being really bad for people! So, here’s the question. Have you heard or read any material that expressly or casually mentions the down-side of using paper or cardboard for garden mulch or composting?

First of all, a cursory search reveals that Torgy’s absolutely right, PFAS are not good for us. The CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry notes that they’re linked to increased cholesterol, testicular and kidney cancer, changes in liver enzymes, pregnancy complications, low infant birth weights, decreased vaccine response in children… and maybe even lower resistance to COVID-19.

To answer Torgy’s question about whether or not I’ve heard or read anything that mentions the potential downside of using paper or cardboard for weed suppression: I haven’t! When I searched, I found a lot of articles about high levels of PFAS being found in purchased compost and mulch (ugh), but nothing about paper or cardboard being used in the garden as mulch. And yet… Torgy’s logic holds up. If we don’t want it in our bodies, we probably don’t want it in our soil. (What more are bodies, anyway, than soil in a temporarily different form? Ash Wednesday’s admonition, “from dust you are made and to dust you shall return” comes to mind.)

But what to do instead? Cardboard is great because it suppresses weeds while slowly breaking down under the soil. One of the first things we did when we bought our first home was to break down our moving boxes and layer the cardboard under mulch to turn our lawn into garden beds. If you took this advice from me, and it was bad advice, I’m so sorry!

One of our wonderful neighbors expanded her garden beds this year by removing sod rather than adding cardboard and compost. I hate to recommend the removal of ANY organic material from our topsoil-poor island, but maybe that’s a safer option. It certainly worked for her, and my ducks were all too delighted to help!

Of course, tillage is an option, and maybe the benefits of one-time tillage outweigh the risks of compacting subsoil. That’s the approach that my CSA farmer friends took. They tilled the first year, but have subsequently used silage tarps in their off-seasons to keep the weeds down. This approach has been popularized by market gardeners like Curtis Stone and Jean Martin Fortier.

If you plan far enough ahead, silage tarps, landscape fabric, or 6mm black plastic mulch could be useful even without tilling first. They don’t break down into the soil, but if you leave them in place long enough (think MONTHS rather than weeks), they’ll smother grass and weeds enough to create a stale seedbed. With care, they can be used for many seasons. But they represent a higher upfront cost, both in terms of money and petroleum… and I have no idea whether or not they leach chemicals into the soil over time.

What do you think? When it comes to expanding your growing space, are you in camp cardboard, camp sod removal, camp tillage, camp tarp-and-time… or camp something else entirely? I’m not sure what I’ll do next time I run out of space and decide to expand my growing beds. I’ve been thankful to be able to use cardboard up to this point, but when Torgy sounds the alarm, I figure we better listen. He’s an adventurous person, not prone to unreasonable anxieties, who has a proclivity for creating interesting things from scratch. To make the growing space for Anna’s legendary spinach, he built raised beds over the top of the existing soil. If you can source safe, high-quality compost, then raised beds might be a fantastic option. But it’s probably also the most expensive of all the options I’ve mentioned today… unless you can build with foraged materials… which might leach chemicals into your soil! AAACK!

When I’m faced with an ambiguous choice in my garden, I try to learn from the plants themselves. Here’s what I see:

  • Doing something is better than doing nothing. No matter how I’ve prepared the soil, the plants keep showing up. They’re not paralyzed by indecision or imperfection; they try one thing, and if it doesn’t work, they try another. Individuals may sicken or die, but the greater plant population changes and persists.
  • Plan for diversity. Plants always seem to show up with friends; no species wants to live alone. Perennials and annuals are especially delighted to live near each other. As I’ve worked the soil this spring, the most delicious patch of it I’ve found has been under two blueberry bushes who’ve been cohabitating with tomatoes, beans, clover, purple deadnettle, and a prodigious patch of volunteer tansy! The point is that any garden you grow will be happier than pure, lonesome grass.
  • Everything is connected. Plants don’t pay much heed to carefully outlined growing beds, property lines, or categories of who’s a weed and who isn’t. They communicate with smells, and trade sugar for minerals along underground networks. We don’t always understand how, but we know that small actions can have big impacts, both positive and negative. The creation of long-lasting chemicals has consequences at the cellular level within our own bodies. So, too, does the creation of green space.

In summary, please plant a garden, even if you’re not sure which way is the right way. Encourage lots of different plants to grow in it. And then help your neighbors do the same. And then let’s lobby the city to preserve existing green spaces and transform easements into polycultures. And on and on, until every square inch of this island is too beloved to despoil, and our whole system is reoriented away from human laws that allow for the creation of long-lasting chemicals, and towards the laws of the natural world instead. If we think we can supersede these, we are fooling ourselves. By acknowledging that everything we create is part of a living ecosystem, we discover both responsibility and belonging.

Late April: Harvesting, Planting, Working on– by Julia Frisbie

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 26, 2022

We just had a glorious sunny weekend, and I spent almost all of it in the garden. There’s always a lot going on in late April. Rather than doing a deep dive on any particular subject, today I’ll share a birds-eye view of what I’ve been harvesting, planting, and working on.

 

HARVESTING: Eggs, asparagus, rhubarb, kale florets, dandelion, raspberry leaves

Every bird in the garden is now laying eggs like crazy, inspired by increasing day-length to amass clutches in creative hidey-holes where they might be able to brood. The result is that every day in April, we get to go on an Easter Egg hunt in the chicken and duck yard. We feast on egg-heavy recipes– frittata, custard, egg salad– and give thanks.

Fresh, raw asparagus is so sumptuous that I never seem to amass enough of it for cooking. Whatever makes it into the kitchen usually gets sliced thinly and added to a salad. It’s unbelievably sweet!

As for rhubarb, the early growth is the tenderest of the year. I harvest just one or two early stalks from each of my rhubarb plants anytime after they’re longer than a foot and thicker than my thumb. It’s not enough for pie at this point, so I make rhubarb scones.

 

Our red russian kale feeds us year-round, and this is the season for each individual plant’s final offerings before going to seed. In April, the kale mamas get ready to flower, and I cut some of the flower stalks before the buds open and prepare them like broccoli (usually by roasting them in a 400 degree oven for just a few minutes until bright green). As long as the individual plant seems healthy and strong, I cut the central flower stalk in order to encourage lateral branching from the base of the plant, which creates both a longer harvest of florets and a larger eventual harvest of seed. This is also the time of year when I completely remove any less vigorous individuals from my backyard kale population so that their pollen doesn’t get added to the mix and influence the next generation.

Dandelions! I don’t grow them on purpose, but here they are, and I’m not sorry. The humans in the household have yet to develop a taste for them. (Please share your recipes in the comment section; I am always game to try again!) I leave lots for the bees as a source of early pollen, but each day in the spring I try to pull at least one dandelion plant up, rip it into small pieces, float it in clean water, and offer it to my ducks. This “dandelion soup” is extremely nutritious, and as we round the bend into the later half of their mating and egg laying season, their bodies are hungry for it. It’s the equivalent of a daily multivitamin, and they relish it.

My raspberry plants have now sent up hundreds of babies in all the wrong places. With help from friends, I’ve sent dozens off to new homes, but I still have a surplus. I harvest some for greenery in spring bouquets with daffodils and tulips, and cut the rest for red raspberry leaf tea. (If you’ve seen me in person recently, you might have some idea why it’s my new beverage of choice!)

 

PLANTING: Tender annuals under cover, Peas, leafy greens, and the first dahlias

Two weeks ago at the farmer’s market we did a soil blocking demonstration, and I started a tray of corn, a tray of cucumbers, a tray of tomatoes, a tray of herbs, and a tray of tender annual flowers. They’re on my heated propagation table right now, and almost everyone has germinated! Only my cucumbers failed to show up to the party, probably because the seed was packed in 2017, so after five years under mediocre storage conditions, it must have come to the end of its viable life. No problem; there’s still plenty of time. This weekend I started another tray of cucumbers with fresh seed to make up for it.

As regular readers will know, so far I’ve only direct-sown peas and leafy greens. (I did put in a row of Olympia spinach according to the instructions that Anna Torgeson left as a comment on the post about planting salad– thank you, Anna!) If you haven’t done yours yet, it’s not too late. At this point I’m hand watering lots of pea and salad seedlings because I haven’t gotten the drip irrigation set up for the year yet.

I planted the first dahlia tubers this past weekend. Most spots are still too cold for this, but if you’re working with raised beds in a favorable microclimate, it might be time. The batch of tubers I did this weekend went into a fluffy, newly-prepared bed against the southern eaves of my neighbor’s house. I told her not to worry about watering them until they emerge from the soil line; otherwise, they might get too damp and rot underground. I’ll probably begin to plant my own dahlia tubers into raised mounds of soil next weekend.

 

WORKING ON: soil prep, paths, irrigation, trellises, pest control

The major task in April is bed prep. Any energy you can invest into good infrastructure in your garden at this stage will pay you back with compound interest later in the season.

The first thing, of course, is weeding. Although I often allow them to flourish in perennial beds, deep rooted perennial or biennial weeds have to be dug out of annual beds, because they’ve got so much energy stored in their roots that they will outcompete seedlings. For example, I’ve been digging out dozens and dozens of dock plants. They’re here to help with excess magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus in my soil, and help loosen compacted subsoil. I thank them as I dig them out of my annual beds. Every root I remove leaves behind a deep and narrow hole that will allow water to drain and air to penetrate the soil. I soothe my aching back by telling myself that the dock removal project serves the same purpose as broadforking and is probably almost as effective.

Once a bed is free of deep-rooted weeds, it’s time to deal with all the little tiny seedlings of annual weeds. Getting around to this in April rather than May means that most can be eliminated just by surface disturbance. As I rake the soil into low mounds according to Peter Heffelfinger’s instructions, I create enough disturbance to wipe out weeds that are at the baby-leaf stage. (Once this year’s beds are fully formed, I won’t rake anymore, so I’ll have to rely on timely flame weeding or untimely manual removal. I’ll do that until the soil is warm enough that I feel like I can add a layer of weed-suppressing arborist wood chip mulch without slowing down the tender annuals’ progress, and then I let my plants fend for themselves for the rest of the season.)

A lot of what I’m doing when I form my garden beds is simply moving topsoil from the areas where I plan to have paths into the areas where I plan to have annual garden beds. In other words, I’m digging out the paths in order to build up the beds. But I don’t want to leave bare subsoil in the paths, because that’s an invitation to more weeds, and it also gets compacted by foot traffic and won’t drain well… in other words, not very cozy. So I add a two- to four-inch layer of arborist mulch into the paths I’ve dug out between garden beds. The channels of mulch act like mini-swales which soak up rainwater like sponges and then slowly release it to the beds adjacent.

Above: the bed is on the right, and the woodchipped path through the perennials is to the left.

After I’ve got beds (and paths) formed, it’s a good time for me to double check my drip irrigation lines, because I’ve just uncovered them with all that weeding and raking. I can fine-tune the system later (usually during Mother’s Day weekend when I’ve requested the gift of unpaid garden labor from my family), so at this stage I just want to make sure that I can see the lines and they’re in the right neighborhood.

Once beds are formed and irrigation lines are visible, we drive in t-posts at each end of any bed that will need a trellis this season. You can use loads of different stuff to make trellises, and different plants have different preferences. For climbing peas and beans, I use hortonova netting because their little tendrils seem to appreciate having thin stuff to grab. For tomatoes and cucumbers, I string some wire between two t-posts and then wind individual vines up to the wire on lengths of twine using a string trellis method.

A few years ago, April and May were months when I hunted slugs and snails at dawn and dusk, collecting and dispatching about a pint of them per day, because otherwise they would eat up all my seedlings. Now, all I do is throw a rogue one or two to the ducks when I come across it. Good job, ducks. Thank you for taking this disgusting chore off my to-do list.

That’s a snapshot of late April in my garden. Leave a comment and tell me what you’re harvesting, planting, and working on in your garden right now! I’m eager to know!

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.