When to Plant Which Winter Vegetables

by Julia Frisbie

posted July 29, 2021

If you’ve stashed your seed packets away for the year, you’ve done it too soon. There’s still time to plant lots of winter vegetable varieties here on Fidalgo Island. To be successful, you need to be aware of the way that decreasing daylight slows and stops plant growth over winter.

Elliot Coleman writes in The Winter Harvest Handbook, “As the story goes, the earth goddess Demeter had a daughter, Persephone, who was abducted by Hades to live with him as his wife in the netherworld. Demeter would have nothing to do with this and threatened to shut down all plant growth. Zeus intervened and brokered a deal whereby Persephone would spend only the winter months with her husband, Hades. Demeter, saddened by her daughter’s absence, made the earth barren during that time. On our farm we refer to the period when the days are less than ten hours long as the Persephone months.”

Daylight hours depend on latitude. Coleman notes how, on his farm at 44 degrees north, the Persephone season coincides with two of the holidays of the pagan agricultural calendar of the ancient British Isles, beginning around Samhain (early November), and ending around Imbolc (early February). Most of us don’t celebrate holidays by those names anymore, but we are aware of their modern counterparts: Halloween and Valentine’s Day. We’re at 48 degrees north, so our Persephone season is just slightly longer than Coleman’s, and lines up almost perfectly year-to-year with the modern holidays. Here’s a graph of our 2021 daylight hours from timeanddate.com:

Hours of daylight per 24 hour period are on the Y axis of this graph, so you can see that we have more than 10 hours of daylight per day from mid-February until late October. Those are the times when plants can do enough photosynthesis to put on significant new growth. With less than 10 hours of daylight, I notice that most of my frost-hardy plants are in a sort of suspended animation: they’re not suffering, they’re not shrinking, but they’re not growing much.

Despite having a slightly longer Persephone season, our winter gardens have one major advantage over Eliot Coleman’s: mild temperatures. Surrounded on every side by the approximately 50-degree water of the Salish Sea, our gardens stay warm(ish) and aren’t blanketed in snow for more than a week or two each winter. They may get a touch of frost overnight, but not too much for the sunshine to thaw out by midday. Most of the time, our outdoor winter temperatures are similar to the inside of your fridge.

What that means is, if you grow frost-hardy plants to a harvestable stage before the Persephone season starts and they go into suspended animation, you can treat your garden as a “living refrigerator” all winter long. I am borrowing this term from Mother of a Hubbard, one of my favorite garden bloggers. She has built low tunnels in her garden, and covered them with a frost blanket. I’ve tried that, but no matter how well I secure the fabric, our winter storms always blow it away. Many plants do fine even after the fabric has escaped and wrapped itself around the next door neighbor’s mailbox, so unless you’re a true infrastructure genius, I’m not sure the fabric is worth bothering with.

The seed packets in your collection should note frost hardiness, along with days to maturity. The latter can be used to calculate whether or not there’s still time to plant it before the Persephone season. Note that growth slows down before it stops, so I always try to give fall-maturing plants an extra 30 days in the ground beyond what their seed packet indicates.

Here’s the calculation I use:

DATE GROWING DAYS LEFT THERE’S STILL TIME FOR…
Jul 1 120 days until October 31, minus 30 extra days to compensate for slow growth in the fall, equals  90. I can plant anything that takes less than 90 days until maturity, such as root veggies and overwintering brassicas like kale and sprouting broccoli.
Aug 1 90-30 = 60 Quick brassicas (pac choi, broccolini, etc)
Sep 1 60-30 = 30 Radishes, anything you eat as a baby leaf (spinach, kale, etc)
Oct 1 30-30 = 0

(too late to plant seeds)

Plant bulbs instead of seeds: garlic, tulips, daffodils, et cetera

Next week I’ll write more about the veggies that feed my family all winter. I’m eager to hear what’s worked for you, too! Leave a comment with your best winter veggie varieties, and I’ll include your recommendation in next week’s post.

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.

Salad Confetti

by Julia Frisbie

July 15, 2021

I’ve found that, in order to coax a four-year-old to eat lots of salad, it helps to make it look like a party. So in the summertime, I’m in the habit of making “salad confetti” by gathering edible blooms, pulling them apart, and sprinkling their petals all over the top of a finished salad. Sometimes I even delegate this task to the four-year-old! 

Here are some of our favorite species for making salad confetti: 

  • Chive blossoms
  • Calendula
  • Dandelion (just make sure you harvest early enough that it’s not too fuzzy yet)
  • Nasturtiums (too big for confetti, but perfect for pretend dragon faces) 
  • Basil flowers
  • Dill flowers
  • Lavender (but only the culinary type; the others taste like soap)
  • Bachelor’s buttons

 

If you use your imagination, the party can continue even beyond salad…

  • Sprinkle chive blossoms over the top of a quiche or frittata before baking for a classy look and delicious flavor
  • Decorate roasted meat or veggies with calendula and dandelion petals after cooking
  • Use a sprig of lavender to stir iced tea or lemonade and feel fancy

What are your favorite flowers to eat? How do you prepare them? We’ve yet to fry squash blossoms, but I’ve heard it’s wonderful! 

Plan Ahead for Winter Brassicas

by Julia Frisbie

posted July 6, 2021

If you left any kale plants in your garden over winter, and neglected to pull them out this spring, you probably noticed the wonderful tall spray of yellow flowers, followed by loads of tiny purple/green seed pods. In my garden, the birds have been eagerly checking these seeds for ripeness.

Birds and kale work together in wonderful ways to support each other’s next generations. Right as baby birds are leaving the nest, kale spreads her arms open wide and offers several weeks worth of high-protein food, packaged neatly so only birds can get it, and stored on perches high enough to offer protection from ground predators. The fledglings visit again and again as they learn their way around the neighborhood, and as they go, they disperse whatever seed they don’t metabolize in an ever-widening radius. They leave it in warm, moist bundles of fertilizer under every appealing perch, often along hedgerows and under trees. Kale seedlings spring up in apparent delight. Baby birds and baby kale both get off to a good start. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “all flourishing is mutual.”

Following kale’s lead, we know that late-June to mid-July is a good time to plant her seeds. I learned from Linda Gilkeson’s Backyard Bounty that the same holds true for many frost tolerant biennials in the brassica family: broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, raab, and cabbage. If you plant them in June or July, they become the backbone of your winter garden. It’s hard to think of winter just as our temperatures begin to climb… unless you notice the dance happening between birds and kale.

Once you watch the dance long enough, you learn the steps and get to join in. Last year I cut down a few of the seed stalks (leaving plenty behind for the birds) and let them dry on my shady front porch until they were light brown and rattling. Then I wrapped them up in a big cotton sheet and jumped on them for a while. After unwrapping them, I grabbed the sticks and the empty pods up by the handful for mulch, and was left with a slick pile of perfectly black, spherical seeds in the bottom of the sheet. I tipped them out into a pint jar.

All summer I scattered pinches of seed in city easements and along our favorite walking routes, but I still had too much left over. I thought to myself: what would the birds do? So I packed them up into little coin envelopes and mailed them all across the country as Christmas gifts to my far-flung loved ones. (If you got one of those, this is your reminder: scatter your kale seeds now!) I put the rest in Transition Fidalgo’s seed bank. Email info@transitionfidalgo.org if you’d like some. You have nothing to lose; only leafy greens and songbirds to gain.

A Garden Homemaker: Lupine

by Julia Frisbie

posted June 27, 2021

It’s lupine season! This plant will always remind me of the happy summer weeks I spent in the mountains of northeastern Oregon as a child. I love seeing her by the roadside. I held her purple/blue spires in my arms on my wedding day. I’ve slipped her seed pods into my pockets for years, and like Ms. Rumphius in a favorite children’s book, scattered them when we found a place to call our own.

Like all legumes, she works with a symbiotic bacteria to fix nitrogen in the soil, enough to meet her own needs and also share with neighbors. She has a long taproot that breaks up compacted earth. She can collect moisture from the air, with leaves shaped like tiny hands that cradle a single dewdrop in their palms. She makes a huge mass of greenery each year, only to lay it all down on the ground after the first frost, protecting soil from winter runoff and feeding the microbial community below. Her nectar feeds bees and her seeds feed birds.

In other words, she is a homemaker, showing up to disrupted or neglected soil and creating beauty and fertility. She can make something from almost nothing.

I’ve invited lupine to my yard as an early succession plant. Right after I mulched over most of the lawn in our front yard, I scattered lupine seeds. For several years, a long hedge of lupine has lived alongside what’s left of the grass:

As I add longer-lived plants to the landscape, I’m gradually pruning/removing the lupine to make space. Many perennials take years to get established and come into their own, and lupine fills out the garden around them while they bide their time. Lupine self-sows readily, but she’s easy enough to remove, so as long as I’m paying attention she doesn’t choke other plants out. Here’s a first-year peony growing in the shelter of lupine:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I often call on lupine as a companion plant for young trees. Planting a nitrogen-fixer in the same hole as a baby tree is something my partner learned while volunteering at the Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead on Orcas Island. I dig up the lupine, taproot and all, and plop it right in there among the roots of the sapling. Abundant nitrogen allows the sapling to make lots of new greenery (and, I think, helps it feel less lonely and more at home). Here’s a little plum tree hiding from deer among the lupine:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can sow lupine any time of year, but my favorite way is to take my cue from the plant herself, and spread her seeds right after they pop from her wonderful fuzzy seed pods in July. I cut the seed heads when they get dry and begin to rattle, and then I pile them into a washtub basin and invite my four-year-old to thresh them by jumping up and down on the pods until the seeds are released. Then we winnow by pouring seeds back and forth between buckets in the middle of our street on a windy day. This ritual yields a quart of seed from our couple dozen plants. If you’d like some for your garden, I’d be delighted to give them to you. That’s part of how I respond with reciprocity to lupine: by finding good homes for her seeds. They’ll be part of Transition Fidalgo’s seed bank. Email info@transitionfidalgo.org to get connected!

Gardening Barefoot

by Julia Frisbie

posted June 17, 2021

This time of year you may see me stepping slowly and gingerly through the world without shoes on. I’m working on my “summer feet.” Lots of us remember being barefoot most of the summer as kids, but I never grew out of this habit. In the spring, I am rebuilding my calluses so that in the summer I can be barefoot as much as possible. I like feeling the temperatures and textures of the world around me. 

Being barefoot in the garden is especially useful. Because I mulch with arborist wood chips, I have to walk carefully to avoid splinters and puncture wounds, and this forces me to slow down and notice things. 

My feet take the temperature of the soil daily. At first it’s mostly information of the cold and muddy variety, which tempers my over-enthusiasm to get seeds in the ground. If I’m barefoot, I don’t get fooled by a warm day in late March. The soil has a longer memory than the air, and my feet can tell that it’s still too cold for tender annuals. When it’s finally warm enough to be comfortable, I know I can plant my corn and beans. 

In the height of summer, my feet tell me when to water, and where. The arborist chips can be dry even when the soil is moist below– they feel spongy and cool. But if the arborist chips get crunchy or warm, I know it’s time to water. 

I’m more aware of critters when I’m barefoot, because I don’t want to step on a bee, a slug, or a squishy caterpillar. It still happens from time to time, and it’s unpleasant, but at least I’m aware of it. If I had shoes on, I’d be snuffing out that life without even knowing. My bare feet let me know where rodents are tunneling, because they’re sensitive to the contours of tiny underground passages as they cave in under my weight. 

In essence, being barefoot is a useful tool for focused attention. 

If you want to start experiencing the world through your feet, and you’re not in the habit, you may need to build up your tolerance on gentle surfaces like grass, moss, sand, or patio pavers. 

Once that’s comfortable and you start trying other surfaces, try the following mental substitutions for “pain” or “discomfort”: 

  • Scratchy
  • Rough
  • Intense
  • Like a foot massage
  • Warm or cold
  • Wet or dry

The more you do it, the more I think you’ll enjoy it, and the more receptive you’ll be to information from below. In the privacy of your garden, you don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks. If you have questions, the Society for Barefoot Living has answers

Your gait may change based on the texture of the ground. When you’re barefoot, it’s often less comfortable to lead with a hard heel-strike, so the first part of each step becomes a gentle embrace of the earth by the wide pads on the ball of your foot. You may find your toes spreading out and unclenching as you use them to feel your way. Some people say it’s good for you. All I know is that it feels good. 

You know what never feels good, no matter how many miles you walk on it? Asphalt. It’s the only surface that’s ever given me blisters. Walk barefoot on it sometimes anyway. Imagine what it would feel like under hoof, or claw, or delicate webbing. Paving over the world has consequences. 

Once your bare feet have acclimated to your garden, take them to the forest. Watch out for the easily accessible trails in the ACFL near parking areas– there’s often broken glass in the summer from ne’er-do-wells. (There’s a special place in hell for people who break glass in the forest.) Take the less-traveled trails. The duff under a cedar grove is so spongy as to be intoxicating. At the end of the summer, when your feet are leathery, try running through the forest barefoot. Almost nothing makes me feel more alive. The world is a basket of gifts, an endless sensory adventure. Fall in love with it, feet first. 

 

Floricanes

by Julia Frisbie

posted June 10, 2021

Some raspberries and blackberries fruit on first-year canes. Those are primocanes. You plant them, eat berries the first summer, and then cut them to the ground in the winter. The next year and every year thereafter they return and make more berries, and then you cut them down afterwards. Simple. 

Other raspberries and blackberries fruit only on second-year canes. Those are floricanes. You plant them, they make lovely leaves, but there are NO flowers and NO fruit and you think, “what did I do wrong?!” If you prune them back, you won’t get berries the next year, either. I think a lot of people get frustrated and give up on floricanes. But I’m here to tell you that they’re worth the fuss, and I’ll explain the management system that’s worked for me. 

I grew up in berry country (Oregon’s Willamette Valley). My great-grandparents had a berry farm, and my dad remembers being nestled in the backs of pickup trucks among flats of marionberries. He got in trouble for pelting the speed limit signs with them. When my husband and I transplanted ourselves up north to Anacortes, we brought berries with us. They now cover about 80 feet of our fence line. All this is to say I’m marginally qualified to explain floricanes. 

Raspberry and blackberry plants have a root underground and a crown right at the soil surface where new growth comes from, both of which are perennial, meaning they live for years. From the crown, canes are produced each year, and each cane is biennial, meaning it lives for two years before dying back. The canes create leaves, flowers, and berries. There’s a lot of genetic variation in the fruiting habits of wild berries, because the plants have a better chance of attracting berry-eaters to distribute their seeds if they don’t all make berries at once. Selective breeding by humans has taken domestic berries in two directions: one that favors production of berries over a long period in the fall of each cane’s first year (primocanes), and one that favors production of berries over a short period in the summer of each cane’s second year (floricanes). For example, my red fall raspberries are primocanes. My golden summer raspberries are floricanes. The best known floricanes are probably domestic blackberries like marionberries and loganberries. If you’re not sure which sort you have, just ask yourself: does the bigger crop come in summer (floricane), or in fall (primocane)? 

This time of year, a properly managed floricane has one set of tall, leafy canes about to burst into bloom, and one set of shinier, more red-tinged new growth near the foot of the taller canes that will bear NEXT year’s berries. (That red tinge is caused by anthocyanins, which are like built-in chemical sunscreens for tender new leaves.) You tend floricanes with one foot in the present, and one foot in the future. You never trample that tender new growth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With canes like raspberries that hold themselves mostly upright, I just corral them with a single waist-high wire on each side of the row. Berry-laden second year canes are heavier, and more likely to bend and nod over the sides of the wire, making for easy picking. First year canes don’t carry the weight of berries, and are likely to grow straight up in the middle, not interfering much with the harvest. At the end of the season it’s easy to see which canes have already fruited– they look more tattered and tired– and remove them from the edges of the row. 

But with trailing or semi-erect canes, you need to plan carefully or you have a tangled mess at the end of the season. The idea is to make the second-year canes accessible for picking, while giving the first-year canes lots of space to do their thing. 

Some people string two horizontal wires to a trellis a few feet apart. They train the second-year canes to one and the first-year canes to another. Each year, they pick from one of the two wires, with the position of the fruiting cane alternating from year to year. A variation on this theme is to use v-shaped posts and train canes to the right one year, and to the left the next year, picking on alternating sides from year to year. 

Because I’m not a commercial grower and don’t mind sharing berries with the birds, I only train second year canes. Here’s my process, from the first year of planting onwards: 

  1. New canes are allowed to grow straight up and wander as they will. 
  2. Winter comes and growth stops. I detangle the canes and trellis them in arches downhill and to the right: 

(That’s a springtime picture, but you get the gist.)

  1. Spring comes and the arched second-year canes branch out laterally and blossom. New first-year canes emerge and are allowed to shoot straight up through the tangle. 
  2. The month of August is one long blackberry emergency. We eat them, give them away, cook them, preserve them, give up and toss handfuls of them to the chickens, and thank the wild birds for eating the ones we can’t reach. (This coming summer we’ll take some to Transition Fidalgo’s free “Share the Bounty” produce stands!) Meanwhile, the first year canes are looking like a jungle with a bad hair day at fifteen feet tall. They’re out of the way of the harvest. We wave to them from below. 
  3. When fall comes, the arched canes are looking pretty worn out. Their stems are rough and woody. Their leaves are tattered, bronzed, and falling. I tell them thank you, and then cut them down, often dividing them into many pieces in order to remove them without damaging the younger canes. 
  4. Once last year’s fruiting canes are chopped up in a heap, I can really see the younger canes. They have soft, dark green leaves and smooth stems thicker than a roll of quarters. Some of them are 25 feet long. I detangle them, my whole body becoming a wide-toothed comb. Working from one end to the other, I bend them into a series of arches. Next spring they will become a flower crown around my whole garden. And then in August, a blackberry emergency. And then in December, a stick pile, succeeded by their daughters. And on and on it goes. 

Drip Irrigation

by Julia Frisbie

posted June 3, 2021

Every year when my family asks me what I’d like for Mother’s Day, my answer is the same: to finish setting up this year’s drip irrigation system. By mid-May I begin to think ahead to summer drought, and I also get tired of hand watering all the transplants. Finishing the drip irrigation is a big task, but a fun one (we call it the adult equivalent of LEGOs) and it brings me great satisfaction.

By using drip irrigation, we:  

  • Waste less water by delivering it only where needed
  • Cut down on weed pressure by reducing the surface area that gets wet
  • Avoid fungal infections by keeping leaves dry
  • Put it on “autopilot” when we travel, get sick, or get busy

If you’re worried you might forget or be unable to water, an automatic timer that can be programmed to run every morning is a good investment. Having your system on autopilot all the time isn’t optimal, but it’s better than NOT watering! 

There are lots of good ways to set a drip irrigation system up. I’m going to explain my process step by step. Please know that it’s not the only “right” way. 

First we bought a hose splitter, a backflow preventer, a pressure regulator, a timer, and a filter, and screwed them all together between the spigot and the adapter that connected it to the ½ distribution tubing: 

That’s a lot of stuff! But it’s important for the usability, safety, and longevity of the system. Start up costs (both money and time) probably prevent a lot of people from installing drip irrigation. What’s worse, a lot of the supplies are plastic. In a class I took at Polyface Farms, another student asked Joel Salatin how he justifies the use of materials made from fossil fuels like plastic and gasoline. His answer was that for each situation, he asks himself: is there a less energy-intensive way to do this? That’s why he digs ponds to catch and store rainwater rather than relying on the aquifer, and places his ponds upslope of his fields so that gravity can move the water rather than a pump. But when it comes to actually delivering water to plants, he uses poly tubing, because it allows him to do more with less. He told our class, “there are virtuous and unvirtuous uses for everything. Drip irrigation seems like a virtuous use of plastic because it keeps us from wasting water.” Salatin’s not a perfect person, but I think his reasoning makes sense in this case. 

  1. Following the instructions in Curtis Stone’s The Urban Farmer, we outlined each of our main annual beds with a closed loop of ½ inch distribution tubing:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Then we ran two ¼ inch drip lines down the middle of each bed, attaching them on either end to the ½ inch distribution tubing. We inherited our drip lines from my grandfather, and they have an emitter every 12 inches. You can get lines with different spacing, or lines that are spongy like a soaker hose instead. That’s the backbone of the system. If you have a single garden area, it’s all you have to do! The couplers are easier to work if the tubing is warm, so I either do this on a hot sunny day, or I carry a thermos of hot water with me to soak the ends of the drip line in before I try to work with them. 

  1. Because our garden tends toward complexity (a polite word for chaos), we also ran ¼ inch tubing from the ½ inch distribution lines to any areas outside the plot that we knew would need extra water. This allows us to place emitters at the base of perennials that are just getting established, and mini-sprinklers in our raised beds. 

  1. At the end of each growing season, the ½ inch distribution tubing stays in place, but everything else is subject to change. If I need to temporarily remove ¼ inch tubing to prep a bed, I do so without a second thought, because it’s easy to put back. And on Mother’s Day each year, I double-check to make sure things are as they should be for the coming summer drought. 

If you set a timer to operate your drip irrigation system automatically, I recommend setting it for as early in morning as you can stand to hear the water start running through the pipes. From Chan and Gill’s excellent book Better Vegetable Gardens the Chinese Way, page 67: “For as long as the Chinese vegetable growers can remember, they have always been getting up early in the morning to water their plants. They do not do this just because they like to, but because the way they understand the plants tells them that this is when the water is needed most.” They note that the plants need water to begin their day’s work of photosynthesis, and also that a blast of cold water can wash the leaves clean of bugs, and even of a light frost in early fall. (Your drip lines won’t be blasting any leaves with water, but that’s still good to remember for supplemental hand watering or fertigation.)

The first two years we gardened here, we were working with layers of cardboard, mulch, and arborist chips on top of sod. I knew it would take a lot of water to decompose that cardboard, and I knew that my plants would develop relatively shallow roots, so I set the system to water everything every morning. It allowed us to get good results even in marginal soil. I was thankful to put it on autopilot while we were distracted/exhausted by the birth of our son, and while I was busy nursing him and pulling wood chips out of his mouth.

As our soil has gotten deeper and richer in organic matter, it holds water better. For a few years, while our son toddled behind me and learned the names of our plants, I ran the system every other day or every third day. I supplemented the drip irrigation system by fertigating by hand with a diluted fish/kelp mixture by hand about once a week. I would always skip the drip irrigation for a day or two beforehand so that the plants would be ready to absorb as much as possible on “Stinky Fish Day” and get the maximum benefit. (“Stinky Fish Day” earned its name because I would absolutely reek by the time I came inside for breakfast, and be guaranteed time and space to take a shower by myself– a lovely side effect for any working parent.) 

Last year, most parts of the garden only needed water once a week. After several years of rotational grazing by poultry, our soil’s fertility was through the roof, and I didn’t need to fertigate much other than dumping dirty duck water on my dahlias. So, I replaced “Stinky Fish Day” with “Drip Irrigation Day,” and only ran the system once a week. I did my spot watering by hand. (Spot watering is like spot cleaning for people who would rather do garden work than housework.)

How can I tell when to water? In the spring, when seeds are germinating and transplants are just getting established, I water almost every day that it doesn’t rain. In the summer, I usually garden barefoot, and although the top layer of mulch is dry to the touch, my feet can tell by its temperature and texture whether or not the soil beneath needs water. To double-check, I stick a finger in up to the second knuckle. If it’s dry that far down, I water. Some plants absorb a lot more water than others, so just because one area is dry doesn’t mean the whole garden needs a drink. It pays to walk every path every day and feel around. This year, we’re adding ball valves to our irrigation system so that I can toggle different areas on and off, pleasing both my thirsty cucumbers and my drought-tolerant tomatoes. 

The great thing about a homemade drip irrigation system is that it can grow and change with you over time. When you’re starting out, it can be simple. As your soil (and your relationship with plants) becomes deeper and healthier, you can tweak it. Ecosystems get more complicated as they mature. Drip irrigation can support the emergence of complexity gradually and with grace. 

Sweet Mother, Corn

by Julia Frisbie

posted May 27, 2021

My partner grew up on sweet corn in southern Idaho. At community potlucks he was famous for being able to eat about nine ears in a row… as a toddler! Everyone would show up to help pick at the Saitos’ garden, shuck it part way and strip the silks off, re-wrap it in its own husk, soak it in water for a few minutes, and then grill it on a Weber. Then his family would drive to Illinois every summer to visit grandparents, where they’d pick more corn from Uncle Rusty’s garden, shuck it, wrap it in wax paper, and microwave it before rolling its pearly surface around and around in the butter dish.

The point is: fresh sweet corn is not just a food for him. It’s a time machine to the happiest summer evenings of his childhood. There are also those for whom corn is a relative, a sacred ceremony, and a carrier of culture… for whom each ear of seed corn is greeted with a kiss and an incantation: “It’s good to see your mouth, good to see your face, Mother,” (The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic by Martín Prechtel).

I think you have to be that kind of person– or love that kind of person– to grow corn here on Fidalgo Island. Most people will tell you our weather’s too cool; the season’s too short; the soil’s got too much clay; and there are no afternoon thunderstorms to drench the shallow, mop-like roots. But love finds a way.

And so does genetic diversity. Corn and people co-evolved in almost every corner of our continent. There are as many types of corn as there are types of families… or at least, there used to be. The mechanization of farming and the ability to put a patent on genes have driven many varieties extinct. But there are pockets of resistance, with indigenous seed keepers leading the way. There are still so many types of corn that you can’t possibly have tried them all. Don’t let the naysayers scare you off. Look for varieties that take about 80 days or fewer to reach maturity. Last year I grew “Tuxana” and “Candy Mountain.” This year I’m trying “Honey and Cream” at Peter’s recommendation.

Sweet corn gets ripe all at once, so I grow two or three successions, depending on the weather. Corn won’t germinate in cool soil.  When you can walk comfortably on the damp earth barefoot, then you can plant corn. Sometimes it’s warm enough at the tail end of April, especially if you use a plastic tarp or a piece of black landscape fabric to help catch and store heat. If not in April, then certainly in May. I plant my last succession in June.

When it’s time to plant, I prepare the soil in a block-shaped bed, rather than a long skinny row, since corn is wind-pollinated. I soak the seeds for a few hours in a nice warm bath to wake them up. Then I poke them pointy-end-down into the soil. Once they’re a few inches high, I plant a half-high pole bean or a bush bean at the base of each one to provide a nitrogen boost:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I want the little corn plants sown in May to be knee-high by the 4th of July. After that, they can mostly out-compete the weeds, so I lay down some mulch around the base of each stem and quit weeding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My family of origin doesn’t have a strong corn tradition, so I was flabbergasted the first time her lush, tropical-looking leaves waved at me from head height! I couldn’t believe how quickly all that biomass had arrived. Accordingly, corn needs a lot of nitrogen, so I often plant her in places where the chickens have spent time. I spray diluted urine and “Liquid Fish” fertilizer, and dump dirty duck water in the patch. It’s hypothetically possible to over-fertilize corn, but so far I haven’t been able to, and goodness knows I have tried. I didn’t want her to think I was ungrateful for all that beauty.

Corn needs water especially during tasseling, but you don’t want to rinse the pollen off the flowers, so I try to water from the bottom with a drip line or a carefully-aimed hose. The corn is counting on a little breeze to knock microscopic pollen grains into the air and let them drift downward at a diagonal onto the waiting silks of neighboring corn plants. (This is why we plant in blocks rather than rows!) A corn silk is actually an elongated style that carries pollen to the waiting ovary. When a pollen grain lands on a corn silk, tiny hairs on the end catch it and move it through the hollow tube of the silk. When it meets the ovary, fertilization is complete, and it swells to become a single kernel on the ear of corn. Every kernel has a silk attached. If you’ve ever opened an ear to reveal shrunken kernels, those are the ones who didn’t get pollinated.

 

The ones who are pollinated will swell with the sweetest milk. When I watch my son tromp out to the corn patch barefoot, shuck an ear, and bite into it raw, I’m flooded with the memory of nursing him. It’s that intimate. He has a need, and she meets it without question. I’m glad he’ll always have a good mother in corn.

 

Befriending Beans

by Julia Frisbie

posted May 20, 2021

How do you know it’s time to plant your beans? As the climate crisis accelerates, historical planting dates will become less and less useful. I use phenological cues

  • When the dogwood blossom petals are the size of a squirrel’s ear
  • When the wild blackberries bloom
  • Peter waits for the soil to hit 60 degrees
  • When the snow is gone from the face of Cultus Mountain

I grow several different types of beans: 

 

But none of them get their own dedicated garden space. Instead, I plant them at the feet of heavy feeders like dahlias, tomatoes, and corn. My primary goal with beans is fertility, not food. The fact that we also get to eat beans is a lovely side effect! 

 

Legumes like peas, beans, and clover have a very cool thing going on underground. All plants need nitrogen, but they can only absorb it from the soil, not from the air where it’s most abundant. Legumes have come up with a creative solution: make homes on the surface of their roots for symbiotic bacteria. These bacteria take the nitrogen in the air pockets of the soil and fix it into a soluble form that plant roots can absorb. These little round nodules are where the magic happens: 

 

All this is to say that beans make very good neighbors, especially for nitrogen-hungry plants. Indigenous farmers have recognized this since time immemorial, growing beans alongside corn and squash in three sisters plots. Lots of people have written about this. The relationships are beautifully traced in Braiding Sweetgrass, and some exact methods are described in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden

Beans come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and growing habits. Consider the height of each bean variety relative to its neighbors when you plan your garden. Many wonderful combinations are possible. Here’s what I’m growing this season, and where: 

“Rockwell” and “Ireland Creek Annie” bush dry beans under dahlias

  • “Provider” and “Empress” bush green beans under tomatoes
  • “Withner’s True Cornfield”, a half-high pole bean which makes flat pods, under corn
  • “Scarlet Runner” against tall fences and among tall blackberry canes

Beans also make a great beginner seed-saving project. All of the above except the scarlet runner belong to a single species, Phaseolus vulgaris, so it’s possible for them to breed with each other and produce unpredictable offspring. But because the flowers are mostly self-fertile, they rarely do. The Seed Garden (published by Seed Savers Exchange) recommends just 10-20 feet of isolation distance between varieties to keep each true to type. 

Saving the seeds is as simple as allowing the pods to dry in place on the vines. When they’re golden-yellow, crispy, and make a slight rattling noise, they’re ready. You can harvest individual pods as they ripen, or cut the whole bean plant at the soil level. Don’t pull its roots up, or you’ll be robbing its companion of a final nitrogen boost before the end of the season. 

To plant beans, I like to wake them up with a pleasant warm bath for a few hours. (An overnight soak seems to be too long, resulting in wrinkled seed coats and splitting seeds as they begin to decompose.) Then I take them outside and push them into the soil at the base of their companions with their belly-buttons facing down or sideways (never up). I give the companion plants a head start, waiting to plant the beans until they’ve got at least few sets of true leaves. 

 

If you’re only planting a few beans and you can’t afford to lose any to the birds or bugs who are attracted to their fleshy cotyledons, you may want to take extra precautions. In her excellent book Backyard Bounty, Linda Gilkeson recommends pre-sprouting them in trays of vermiculite: “Every seed seems to germinate, and there is little risk of root rot as the vermiculite doesn’t hold excess water. The seedlings can grow for 2-3 weeks (until they are a couple of inches high) on the food stored in the seed, so they don’t need soil.” She recommends poking seeds an inch deep into damp vermiculite inside a plastic container with drainage holes in it, keeping them at room temperature until they germinate, and then giving them strong light in a windowsill or cold frame. When it’s time to plant them, it’s easy to disentangle their roots in the loose vermiculite. 

I used to start my beans that way, but now I direct-sow them because I plant so many that I can afford to share with birds and bugs. Once you befriend beans, there’s no going back. 

I’ll leave you with our family recipe for “Dilly Beans,” i.e. pickled green beans. 

First, load pint jars with the following, in order: 

  • One grape leaf to line the bottom (this helps the beans stay crunchy)
  • Two small cloves garlic
  • One small serrano pepper (we now skip it in deference to our four-year-old, who doesn’t want his beans to be spicy)
  • Half a teaspoon mustard seed
  • Three or four peppercorns
  • A small handful of fresh dill (seeds and leaves)

Then, pack in the beans as far as they’ll go, side by side and pointy-end down, so tightly that they squeak against each other. Cut off the stem end of the beans below the jar neck. 

Last, bring the brine to a boil: 

  • Ten parts vinegar (white and brown mixed)
  • Ten parts water
  • One part canning salt

Ladle the hot brine into the jars on top of the beans. Add lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes. I make these all summer long, and then we wait until Thanksgiving to pop open the first jar.