Breeding Resilient Vegetables

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 15, 2021

Some people manage to plant, weed, fertilize, water, mulch, trellis, and prune each of their vegetables at the appropriate time. 

Meanwhile, if you’re a plant in my jungle/garden, watch out. If the chickens don’t get you, the aphids might. If I give myself salmonella poisoning, I will forget to water for a week. Hope you like living next to curly dock, because I do not have time to dig it out. Oh, you wanted a taller trellis? The best I can do for you is stick 4 more bamboo posts into the ground and hope you don’t fall on my head. Et cetera. 

But when you’re breeding vegetables, being a laissez-faire gardener is a superpower. I’m serious! Ideal growing conditions are not favored by climate chaos. Think about it: will a displaced population facing major drought and supply chain interruptions be able to provide ideal conditions for each and every domestic plant? No. 

So why are we breeding domestic plants under these conditions?! Because we’ve relegated plant breeding to professionals, that’s why. This is insane. Not only do the professionals not live here on Fidalgo Island, but most of their fields are far more intensively managed than our gardens. In other words, they’re breeding for different growing conditions than we require. 

Many professional plant breeders have goals like increased yield, uniformity, and transportability, but before they ever select for those traits, the environment in which they grow their parent stock has made its own selection: it favors performance under ideal conditions. These ideal conditions essentially hide whatever genetic advantages individual plants might carry against disease, drought, or other hardships, so those advantages can’t be selected for.

In contrast, Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed in Oregon subjected his lettuce to a three-year trial that he called “Hell’s Half Acre,” in which he gave them the worst possible conditions, inoculated them with diseases, and tried to kill them, just to see who would survive. Using survivor parents as breeding stock allowed him to develop new disease- and disaster-resistant varieties of lettuce. 

Let me give you another example. I like dahlias and tomatoes, and I also like to eat beans, but I like dahlias and tomatoes more. The beans never rank high enough to get their own dedicated bed. I grow them underneath the dahlias and tomatoes. Most of them limp along looking resentful and succumb to mildew or aphids before their seed is ready to harvest. But a small proportion of the total bean population manages to dry down its pods in full shade. I save those seeds, and replant them under the dahlias and tomatoes again the next season. Since all of the genes are from plants that “made it” the first year, a bigger proportion of my second-generation beans survive to reproduce. And on and on it goes. I’m breeding towards beans that are happy playing at the feet of dahlias and tomatoes.

 

Can you spy the bean? Also pictured above is the great-great granddaughter of the first Russian Kale I ever planted in Anacortes. I’ve encouraged it to naturalize, and it now feeds us year-round with zero effort on my part. I’m sure it will outlast us on this plot. That’s the sort of vegetable I want to bet on during the climate crisis. 

If you’re like me and you grow most of your veggies in less-than-ideal conditions, I challenge you to claim your superpower. Start to save seed. Different plants have different life cycles and different pollination patterns, so if this is new to you, start with a legume like peas or beans. They’re very forgiving. For further reading, check out: 

Once you’ve begun to develop your own hyper-local, diverse, resilient varieties, share them with friends and neighbors! Transition Fidalgo is working to set up a local seed bank. Email info@transitionfidalgo.org to get connected. What better legacy could each of us leave for the gardeners who will tend this soil after us? 

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok.

Garden Journaling for Climate Resilience

By Julia Frisbie

posted April 8, 2021

Our garden journals deserve more attention, not just as logs of previous activity, but as climate resilience tools.

As last frosts come earlier, first frosts come later, and seasonal drought intensifies, we’ll either adapt the way we grow food, abdicate this responsibility to the private sector, or go hungry. Even with careful study and observation, our climate is changing faster than our information. What will we do as traditional planting dates become less useful? My garden is my antidote to climate despair, and it gives me a sense of resilience… but that feeling is misplaced if I am not actively adapting my practices to our changing climate.

The wild plants around us are adapting, too, and they’re doing it based on better information. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes waiting for the sap to rise during a New England winter: “The fact is, Maples have a far more sophisticated system for detecting spring than we do. There are photosensors by the hundreds in every single bud, packed with light-absorbing pigments called phytochromes. Their job is to take the measure of light every day… We who lack such sophisticated sensors look for other signs. When hollows appear in the snow around the tree bases, I start to think it’s tapping time,” (Braiding Sweetgrass, page 65).

What if, instead of logging our garden activity by date, we logged it by phenological cues? Like, “Big uptick in birdsong, robins everywhere. Transplanted sweet peas.” Or, “Wild blackberry buds with southern exposure opening. Pre-soaked and sowed corn.” Dates are fine to log, too, as long as we’re aware that they’ll be less and less useful as climate chaos intensifies. But you can bet that the buffleheads and snow geese will still come and go, and the wild heuchera at ship harbor will bloom right on time.

Actually, maybe you can’t bet on it. Not all of our wild neighbors will make it. So let’s record phenological cues that are richly layered, not relying on any single species but reflecting snapshots of an ecosystem in motion. Let’s get curious every time we walk outside– whether it’s for a hike in the forestlands, or a drive to Safeway– about what’s happening with our more-than-human neighbors.

If you’ve never kept a garden journal before, I’d encourage you to set it up in whatever way will make it a pleasure, not a chore, to write in. I like to use small notebooks with blank, graph, or dot paper so that I have the option of drawing. The thing I draw most often are maps to show where each type of vegetable or flower was planted. Looking back on my maps helps me decide on crop rotations for the following seasons. I number the pages of my garden journal as I fill them, and gradually fill out a bullet-journal-style index on the first page to help me find things later.

 

There are big gaps in my journals, and I try to forgive myself for that. I’m not a machine, and my own body goes through cycles and seasons just like our plant neighbors do. When I can, I try to put in a “retrospective” page to capture important events from the gap, but it’s not a must-do. Whatever I get written down is a gift to my future self (seriously, I refer to entries from past years often) and also, hopefully, to whoever will tend this soil after I’m gone.

You can see in these photos that I’ve also experimented with de-colonizing my timekeeping, logging by moons instead of months. I had a hard time letting go of dates. So now I live with one foot in each world, recording both side-by-side.

Inspired by her Anishnaabe heritage, my seed-saving mentor Rowen White keeps a garden journal as part of her commitment to be a good ancestor: “I only wish I could read the garden journal of one of my ancestors, whose love of the earth still runs like wild rivers in my veins… I make a commitment to jot down my garden reflections in hope that some future descendent might glean some inspiration and hope from my ramblings and adventures with the earth.”

You don’t have to be genetically related to someone to be a good ancestor. You can leave a legacy of wisdom and reverent curiosity to whoever tends the same patch of soil after you. Make a plan for your journal, or at least a copy of its most relevant parts, to stay connected with this place. Excerpts from mine will stay with the house, and with any interested neighbors, long after I’m gone.

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok.

Potatoes, Making Beds, and Snails and Slugs

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted April 5, 2021

Potato Planting

With the unsettled weather of late, my low-lying, lakeside garden plot is still a bit too wet to plant potatoes. The winter ground cover of annual rye has been tilled twice during the sunny days in between the bouts of rain. Once the soil is somewhat drier, and the last of the rye has decomposed, the tubers can go in. To avoid having to cut large potato sets into smaller pieces, I try to select egg-sized starts. I think of laying the small ovals into the deep furrow, and carefully covering them up with soil, as a post-Easter hiding-the-eggs ritual.

Later on, the harvest of all the full-sized spuds is a delayed treasure hunt. The hope is to dig up good-sized potatoes with as little disease as possible, either black scab on the outer skin or soft brown rot inside.

Planting Potatoes (Video Guide) - BBC Gardeners' World ...

Given our relatively mild, wet winters, potato diseases tend to linger on in the soil. To prevent buildup of disease, it’s especially important to plant disease-free seed, to rotate plantings each year, and to promptly remove any potentially diseased seedlings that may sprout from unharvested tubers, missed by the potato fork in the fall. Potatoes are the one carbohydrate reliably grown in the home garden, so guard the crop each year against the spread of disease.

 

Remaking the Beds

One of the few dry spots in the spring garden are the raised beds of the over-wintered leeks. Once the last of the alliums are harvested, the soil on the high mounds dries out quickly and can be worked up easily with a fork. The soft, white leek roots will dissolve easily back into the soil, maintaining the airy tilth of the ground. Since I grow various brassicas year-round, I have to make sure there are beds opening up that were not previously planted with any member of the cabbage family. Thus, my leek beds become the first place for starts of early cabbage and broccoli. At the opposite end of the cycle, the last of the over-wintered cabbages are just being used up. The cut stalks left in the ground are pushing out small side sprouts that are perfect for stir-fries, late additions to soups, or eaten fresh.

Brassicas are easily grown in each season, but they do require protection from insects in the spring. The cabbage root maggot fly appears early in the year and it will decimate seedlings. The only protection is to cover the plants completely with floating row material such as Agribon, carefully sealing all the edges on the ground with boards, metal fence posts, or soil. The plants must be kept isolated from the small fly, which lays its eggs near the stalk of any young brassica. The maggots then migrate through the soil to feed on the soft roots, causing seemingly healthy six-inch starts to suddenly keel over.

Factsheet - Brassica club root (283)

As the brassicas grow under the protective tent, the white material can be supported by metal or plastic hoops and secured in the wind by clamps. You can water plants through the row cover, but you will need to lift the cover to remove weeds, which thrive under the slightly warmer temperatures under the small hoop house. Once the brassica plant is full-sized, and the stalk is thick, the plant is relatively safe and the cover can be taken off.

But, the next insect soon appears, the white cabbage butterfly, dancing over the leaves, looking for a mate. As long as the throng of butterflies is not too thick, I don’t mind a small number of green caterpillars that will show up later on. If it’s a problem, keep the maturing plants under the row cover until it is time to harvest.

Actually, it’s quite a thrill to finally remove the row cover and reveal mature, healthy broccolis or cabbages underneath. Almost like magic.

 

Snails and Slugs

Snails and slugs are an important part of the natural composting cycle in nature. Think of them as digesters of the plant or organic material that accumulates on the ground. In the garden, however, if you have too many, they can become a problem. They’re especially attracted to young vegetable starts, so it’s important to start removing the initial spring buildup of these creatures. I find the easiest method is to lay boards by the side of the garden beds, or near any particularly wet spot. After their nighttime forays, the snails and slugs will hide out under the boards during the day. Flip the boards over, remove or squish the critters and replace the flat traps for the next accumulation. Also, keep an eye out for any nest of small, pea-sized, translucent slug eggs in your garden soil, most likely in an undisturbed spot, hidden just under the surface. Squish again, to prevent a new wave. With the advent of dry summer weather, the population of slugs and snails diminishes.

Pin by Sandy Camp on Yard | Snail, Photo, Ipm

But it’s wise to keep the numbers in check all season long.

Snails will also gather on the large stalks of over-wintering cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts, hidden by the thick layer of leaves and protected by their hard shells. My understanding is that the local population, which arrived here as an invasive species a few decades ago, are Asian land snails, not the edible variety consumed in Europe. Nor are they the small, but tasty Turk’s Head snails served along with sushi in Japan. A flock of free-range ducks would gladly eat the snails in your garden, but that involves another level of animal husbandry.

Note: I use Sluggo pellets in small amounts only when necessary to protect small starts during very wet weather. Any paste or liquid snail bait can be fatal to birds, who pick up the chemical on their feet.

Things Deer Eat Less of

By Julia Frisbie

posted April 1, 2021

Just because your yard isn’t fenced doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give up on growing things other than grass. There are lots of things you can plant that our local deer will (mostly) leave alone. 

We’ve been plotting against grass since the day we bought our first home. We mulched the backyard in early spring (see previous blog post). The following fall, while spreading arborist chips in the backyard, we did this in the front yard: 

Then we had another 17 cubic yards of compost delivered. Somehow there are no pictures, but it was epic. 

After spreading the compost, I planted a few rhubarb and artichoke plants through the paper layer, and then threw wildflower seeds everywhere else. Fall and winter are the best times to scatter wildflower seeds. The scientific reason is that many of them need the winter cycles of wet/dry and freeze/thaw to break down their tough seed coats and really get their groove on. It’s called scarification. The cultural reason is that this type of parenting makes them feel right at home. Think of wildflower seed heads getting blown around in fall and winter wind storms (and then getting opened by hungry birds at the tail end of winter, who eat the seeds for fast energy right before egg-laying time, and then poop out whichever ones they don’t digest in new places). Whichever line of reasoning you’re more compelled by, sowing wildflowers in the fall and winter makes for a glorious spring and summer: 

We try to grow as much of our food as we can. Here are some edible things I’ve planted in the front yard that deer haven’t bothered: 

  • Artichokes
  • Rhubarb
  • Asparagus
  • Alliums (onions, garlic, shallots, and leeks)
  • Mediterranean herbs (lavender, oregano, thyme, marjoram, sage, rosemary)
  • Mint (beware, it wanders)
  • Calendula (it’s like confetti, but for salads)
  • Tomatoes (deer nibble the edges, and would probably eat more of them if tomatoes were available in the hungry season, but in the heat of summer there are many things they’d rather munch on, like my arborvitae hedge. Caveat: I plant cherry or grape tomatoes in the front yard by the dozen, so a nibble here or there doesn’t bother me as much as it would if I only had three prize brandywines). 

I like to make bouquets, and my front yard pulls its weight in that department as well. Here are some favorite flowers from my cutting garden that I grow in the front yard because the deer don’t bother them:

  • Snapdragons
  • Zinnias
  • Cosmos
  • Poppies
  • Rudbeckia
  • Lupine
  • Peonies
  • Echinacea
  • Yarrow
  • Narcissus (if you’re not into bright yellow and trumpet-shaped, check out my favorite fancy double-petaled cream-and-apricot variety called “Replete”) 

Believe it or not, the SLUGS AND SNAILS were the ones who ate my narcissus in the front yard last year! I tried beer traps, sluggo, egg shells… forget it. If you mulch as much as I do, slow motion predation by mollusks seems inevitable. This year I’ve called in the special forces. So far they’ve captured our hearts and turned everything to mud. I’ll keep you posted as things develop. 

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok.

Onions, and spring greens Pesto

By Peter Heffelfinger

posted March 29, 2021

 

Onions

With the calendar arrival of spring, the official opening of the garden season has begun. Of course there are early cool-weather plants that benefit from getting into the ground before March 21st, especially peas, lettuce, and radishes. But the really important ones to set out early are onions, whose bulb formation is triggered early by the extended day-length of late spring and early summer. It is vital to get onion sets, young plants, or even seed in as early as possible in order for the initial onion plant to size up adequately before the bulb starts to form below ground. We live in the very northern part of the continent, close to Canada, essentially halfway to the pole. Days get longer quickly up here, even now at the end of March. Once April and May roll in, the day-length really starts to stretch out.

growing onions

Image courtesy of This is My Garden

Late-planted onions tend to form thick stalks and thin bulbs, with premature seed-heads appearing on the central, slightly stiffer stalk.

As a rule, any seed-buds should be snipped off as soon as they appear in order to keep the plant’s energy going to the bulb. It’s essentially a race against the expanding hours of light, especially with the ever-earlier sunrises. Photosynthesis starts at the crack of dawn, which means the plants will have been active hours before the gardener usually arrives in the morning. So, get your onions in early, to beat the sun-clock.

My yellow and red storage onion sets were planted in their raised bed several weeks ago, while the Walla Walla plants were set out a few days ago. The Wallas, large and sweet, are for immediate summertime eating, as they go soft quickly when stored. There is still a seedling flat of large-size storage onions to transplant, though it may already be a bit late. They may not get as big as advertised, but hopefully the bulbs will be worth storing.

In the spring garden, however, the leeks planted last year in mid-summer are just now sizing up for harvest, just as the last of any stored onions in the pantry have been used up. Leeks are dependable, hardy, and stay fresh in the ground all winter. The leek cycle begins again soon with the initial set of transplants put out in middle or late spring for a late summer or early fall harvest. Be sure to water leeks regularly during the summer drought to keep them from bolting due to stress. But, like garlic scapes, the firm leek seed stalks can be sliced thin for soups or stir-fries. Never let a good stalk go to waste.

 

Spring Greens Pesto

(Recipe adapted from Megan Barone, of Mixtape Pasta)

In the garden the over-wintered bitter greens, including the arugula, Mizuna mustard, broccoli Raab, and the hardy bok toy, are madly forming buds. As the plants go to seed the leaves develop a much sharper bite, which I, as a medium-level chili aficionado, appreciate for an early foretaste of the hot peppers to come in summer. To use at least a small portion of the burgeoning crop of hardy greens, make a tangy pesto. No need to wait for warm weather basil.

Combine until smooth in a food processor: two handfuls of mixed bitter greens, 4-6 (or more) garlic cloves, a few walnuts, salt, black pepper, cumin, and the juice of a lemon. For a true Mediterranean kick, include half a tin of anchovies, or substitute a few dashes of Thai fish sauce.

(A non-fishy alternative is soy sauce.) Scrape down the sides. With machine running slowly add olive oil, plus freshly ground Parmesan to reduce the bite and give it that creamy pesto mouth feel. But l also like it straight, without Parmesan, on a cracker or a toasted baguette slice. Top with a few capers, a fresh leaf of hardy Greek oregano from the herb garden, and maybe some goat cheese or feta. A leafy spring tonic with a Hellenic snap to it.

Note: Stored in a jar with a surface layer of olive oil, pesto will keep for several weeks in the fridge, or frozen for up to 2 months.

 

Giving Chicks to a Brooding Hen

by Julia Frisbie

posted March 25, 2021

Here’s how it happens to most chicken people: you go to the feed store for a 40lb bag of layer pellets. You forget that it’s March. You walk in the door and hear CHEEPING. Oh. My. God. You decide to peek at the day-old-chicks just for fun. An hour later you find yourself back home hauling the brooder out of the garage, rigging it up in your guest room, and wondering how to tell your spouse that you bought more chicks. Within two days, the guest room smells like a barn. Back out to the garage you go with the brooder. Within a week you are sick of fiddling with that ridiculous tiny waterer and scooping up that nasty bedding, but now you’re committed. You have one to two more months of twice-daily care to perform for an increasingly disgruntled and cramped group of teenage mutant ninja chickens.

There is an easier way: giving day-old chicks to a broody hen. All you provide is water, a little food, and a safe outdoor foraging area. The hen provides warmth, comfort, protection, sanitation, and an education. The chicks develop healthier immune systems and communication, and have lots of fun bouncing through the garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you want to try this, do not go into the feed store this month or next. DON’T DO IT. Get curbside pickup. It’s still too cold outside for babies, and your hens know it: they’re not broody yet. Bide your time. Wait for a hen to go broody.

You’ll know she’s serious when:

  1. She sits on the nest instead of roosting at night.
  2. She doubles in volume and makes scary dinosaur noises every time you look at her.
  3. She poops only once a day, and it’s ENORMOUS and EXTRA STINKY.

Broodiness can be encouraged by lackadaisical egg collection on your part. There’s nothing more tempting than a nice pile of eggs. However, if you keep only the modern egg-laying breeds, the mothering instinct may have been selected against for so many generations that it doesn’t happen anymore. Never fear. If nobody in your coop has gone broody by late June, check Craigslist. Ask around. Some people get fed up with their broody hens and practically give them away. Other people– like me!– see a broody hen as a gift not to be wasted, and will gladly loan one out and help you through the process.

If you’ve got a choice between several broody hens, put chicks under the friendliest one who’s closest to the top of the pecking order. A friendly mother hen will teach her chicks to literally eat out of your hand, and they’ll grow into friendly adults. A dominant mother hen will beat up any flock mate who looks at her babies the wrong way, so the chicks will feel safe and grow up to be confident. On the other hand, chicks raised by a hen at the bottom of the pecking order will get picked on more, so they’re more likely to grow up flighty and nervous.

Once you have a broody hen, count forward twenty-one days, and then start calling feed stores. Ask them when they’ll get their next batch of day-old chicks. If breed matters to you, ask about that, too. What you’re looking for is a delivery of day-old chicks that’s due somewhere around your hen’s twenty-first day of sitting (she can’t count, so you can fudge up to a week in either direction).

In the meantime, set up your nursery. I use a big dog crate filled with straw and nestled under the thornless blackberry vines. This area is adjacent to, but outside of, my normal chicken run. You can use anything that might feel cozy to a chicken. Put the chick waterer and feeder nearby. Then one night after dark, traipse outside and carry your broody hen from the coop to the nursery. Put as many eggs back under her as you plan to purchase chicks. (I’ve never done more than five, but I’ve heard that a standard size hen can take up to twelve.) She may protest, but chickens are out-of-it at night, so she won’t be able to put up much of a fight. If in the morning she’s still sitting on the new nest, you’re in the clear.

Around day 21, you can finally go buy chicks. You want them as young as possible– that’s why you call ahead and plan to arrive right after they’re delivered to the store by the post office. You want them 24-36 hours old. I’ve been known to drive as far south as Seattle to get chicks the right age for a broody hen! If you have a long drive home, you’ll need to either crank up the heat in the car, or stick them under your shirt to keep them warm. There’s no cozier way to travel.

Once you’re home, make sure every chick eats and drinks, and then enjoy them! They’re so soft at first, aren’t they? Let them climb all over you, watch them sleep, keep them in a cardboard box in the kitchen, et cetera. You only get them until nightfall.

After dark, you’ll give them to your hen while she is drowsy and only partially aware, creating a new family via minor deception. You’ll fill your coat pockets with those sweet little baby chicks and traipse back out to the nursery. Put the palm of your hand against one chick’s back and gently close your fingers so it can’t squirm away. Slide that closed hand under your broody hen among the eggs. Open your fingers. The chick will scramble out. Now close your fingers around an egg, slide it out from under the hen, and put it in your pocket.

Wait and listen. Fierce dinosaur noises are a bad sign. Silence or very soft clucking is a good sign. In the worst case scenario, if a hen attacks the chicks, you may have to raise them inside after all… but this has never happened to me. By doing the switch at night, and using very young chicks, you’re stacking the odds in favor of a successful adoption. If after a few minutes there are no signs of violence, repeat the process with the other chicks, until your pockets are full of eggs and all the chicks are under the broody hen. The chicks and the hen will talk softly with each other in their sleep, and begin to learn each other’s voices, before they’re even fully aware that they’ve become a family.

In the morning, your hen will be holding quite still. If you sit quietly and watch, tiny faces will begin to appear and disappear from between her feathers. Chicks will emerge, eat and drink, explore, climb all over the hen, and burrow back under her when they get chilly. They’re ready for action! But her hormones are telling her to sit tight, because not all eggs hatch at the same time. She’ll wait about 24 more hours before leaving the nest. And it’s a good thing, because those 24 hours come right at the end of the chicks’ brief window for imprinting. While she’s sitting, they’re learning: “this creature is big and warm and doesn’t hurt me. She must be my mom.”

On the second day, she’ll be ready to stretch her legs, and she’ll start parading the chicks around the yard. If they’ve imprinted successfully, they’ll follow. She’ll show them how to scratch up bugs, pointing them out with her beak and saying, “took took took!” That’s chicken lingo for “good stuff over here!” Every few minutes she’ll squat down and warm them up. She won’t let you near the chicks, but she will appreciate it if you remark on their health and vigor, and on the impressive number of them she has managed to hatch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A hen’s mothering ability depends both on her breed and her individual personality. I’ve had Welsummers and Dominiques play at broodiness, but the only ones in my flock who’ve been serious enough about it to raise chicks have been Speckled Sussex. Of those, the worst mother lost half her chicks in the backyard just from not keeping them close enough. The best one was so protective that she fought off an owl who tried to raid the nest one night! By the time I got out there in my bathrobe, she literally had it cornered and was making every attempt to kill it, despite being unable to see in the dark. She didn’t lose a single chick.

The more a hen proves herself as a reliable mother, the more you can bend the rules by giving her older chicks, daytime switcheroos, or even different species. Once my hen Blue got so broody that she stole her sister’s three-week-old chicks out from under her and raised them as her own! I now switch Blue’s eggs for chicks in broad daylight; deceiving her seems unnecessary and disrespectful, since I trust that she’ll accept them. As soon as I bring chicks home from the feed store, I say, “Look, Blue, it’s your babies!” and stick them under her, and she’s satisfied. Maybe she thinks this is how all babies are born… or maybe she understands that, in the absence of a rooster, this is the best either of us can do.

Another time, I brought home three adolescent ducklings and told Blue, “listen, I know it’s not what you’ve been hoping for, but these little things need a mom. Can you help?” She gave me a serious side-eye, but rose to the occasion. That brood always had communication issues. The ducklings never figured out what “took took took” meant, and Blue was alarmed every time they went into the water. They were too old to totally imprint on her, but they still learned to rely on her for warmth and protection.


Once the new family is established, there’s little to do but sit back and appreciate the miracle. Think about it: your mama hen was probably hatched in an incubator, shipped in a box, unpacked under fluorescent lights in a feed store, and then raised under a heat lamp. She didn’t have a mother. She didn’t hear “took took took.” But she still knows how to say it. She knows how to squat down and fluff her feathers to make it easier for babies to warm themselves under her. She knows how to get into that bizarre protective posture with her wings hovering over the chicks, her tail fanned, and her neck feathers puffed out. She carries the intergenerational trauma of an extractive system that treated her ancestors like commodities; but she also carries the genetic memory for how to build a family. Next time she poops on the porch or scratches up a freshly-sown raised bed, remember all that.

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok.

Spring Weather

By Peter Heffelfinger

posted March 22, 2021

With the recent clear, cool nights and sunny days, spring has arrived several weeks early. The key difference is the relative absence of sustained rainfall. We’ve had a few sudden downpours, and even a bit of sleety hail, but not the sodden, extended weather that is expected around the spring equinox in the Pacific Maritime Northwest. The usual signs of spring are here: the red flowering currant bush is blooming and the Lenten hellebores are in full display, with the overwintering hummingbirds buzzing around both sets of blossoms. And, atop the highest fir tree the local pair of bald eagles have been making incessant calls to each other, as if to get the nesting season started early.

Last year at this time the ground was too soggy to plant potatoes, which didn’t go into the garden until April 17th. This year, the ground at my South Fidalgo garden is fluffy and workable, and the winter rye cover crop is being tilled in; the potatoes will be planted in a week or so, as soon as the rye roots and leaves decompose a bit. With the start of daylight saving, the garden weather clock seems to have moved ahead as well. The jump start may seem a boon to gardeners, hoping to get things in the ground soon, but the real message is the early drop off of the winter rains. The summer drought seems to be creeping in ahead of time.

Out on the Flats, where I have a large plot of garlic, the dry weather has caused the clay soil of the Valley to harden into a solid cake. Last year I applied a layer of woody compost to both deter the weeds and lighten up the ground, but the garlic crop suffered with a high percentage of moldy bulbs, approaching 30% in some beds. So, this winter I kept the beds bare, applying the usual mid-February fertilizer to jump start the garlic growth in the cool winter soil. (Note: I just use my standard, all-round organic fertilizer mix, not the blood meal or high nitrogen application often recommended.)

Of course, the ever present weed seeds also appreciated the sudden nutritional boost, forming a thick carpet of shot weed and other common occupiers of open soil. I’ve had to spend long hours using my stainless steel Japanese hand weeder, with a very sharp cutting edge and an offset blade, to cut through both the hard surface of clay as well as the already tough weed roots. Unfortunately, unless I am very careful, the sharp blade occasionally nicks off a soft garlic shoot. Hopefully the few plants sacrificed now will be less in number than the many that had to be thrown away last summer. Thankfully the mold last year was just common botrytis, not the feared white root rot that permanently affects garlic plots. Ultimately the cleaned garlic from last summer stored well, with the cloves just now starting to sprout or turn soft.

To preserve the remaining surplus of stored garlic I peel the good cloves, process them with a bit of olive oil and canning salt, and pack the rough mixture into pint jars for freezing. The mix can also be safely stored for a few months in the fridge, with the garlic bite turning very sweet. Be sure to keep a thin layer of oil on the surface to keep the garlic ‘refrigerator jam’ from drying out. You can also do a quick pickle of garlic. Whatever method you chose will serve to bridge the fresh garlic gap between now and the appearance of the first scapes in June.

I’ve also been making a traditional Spanish garlic soup: lots of sliced garlic sautéed with olive oil, paprika, cayenne and cumin, then mixed with chopped ham and chunks of day-old baguettes. Heat with stock or water, add whatever chopped spring green available and garnish with some newly-sprouted garlic chives. A proper spring tonic at the end of the garlic cycle.

Peas, Spring & Fall

For me, spring means fresh peas. It’s been many years since I grew traditional shelling or English peas. I now prefer Snap peas for quick eating or cooking in the shell, while my overall favorite is the Oriental Snow pea, particularly the variety Mammoth Melting Sugar. I find other varieties of snow peas to be not as large, sweet or tender.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In order to avoid spotty germination in the cool soil of early March, I bought starts of Super Snap peas and transplanted them in a raised bed lined with cedar boards. I kept the plants covered with large pots for a few days to shield them from the sun and wind while they develop their root systems. After I removed the pots, and the peas were standing 4 inches tall, I unfortunately forgot to cover them with my usual low arch of chicken wire to fend off any rabbits that might make it through the outer fencing. When a large gate was left open one night, the pesky critters trooped in and neatly trimmed off the tops and most leaves of the peas. There’s always a chink in the armor. So, once again giving thanks to local nursery suppliers, I replanted with fresh starts, which should still provide a slightly delayed, mid-spring taste of fresh peas.

The Mammoth Melting snow peas, which I dote on for stir-fries, have not been available locally as starts for several years. So this spring I soaked the seed overnight and planted it in the relatively dry soil of the same raised bed as the Sugar Snaps. To support the 6-8 foot tall pea plants of both varieties I’ll be using 4×8-foot cattle panels instead of makeshift arrangements of tall poles and twine. Not quite as homespun, but effective. I also bought extra snow pea seed for a late summer planting, which will supply a second crop, given the increasingly warm and dry autumn growing season. As the climate changes, fill the gaps.

Peter Heffelfinger

Starting Seeds in Soil Blocks

By Julia Frisbie

Posted March 18, 2021

In an effort to reduce my garden’s reliance on single-use plastics, I use a soil blocker instead of plastic 72-cell trays to start my seeds. This method was popularized by Eliot Coleman, and you can find lots of good information about it online. But the actual tool that you use to make the blocks ishttps://www.theseasonalhomestead.com/homemade-soil-blocking-mix/prohibitively expensive upfront if you just want to start a few trays of tender annuals. I have a stand-up 35-blocker because I’m a garden tool junkie, and it seems silly to keep it all to myself. You’re welcome to come use it on my front porch. Text me at 503-975-3778 and we’ll work it out. Bring your own trays and soil.

The benefits of soil blocks are:

  • Seedling roots run into air at the edges of the block rather than plastic, so they don’t wind around and around. They just stop growing (this is called “air pruning”) and wait to be plopped in the ground, which means they do better after transplanting.
  • You can fit more seedlings on a tray. For people with indoor setups, space on the heating mat and under the grow lights is often at a premium.
  • I can fill trays faster with my soil blocker than I could if I were hand-packing damp substrate into plastic 72-cell trays.
  • No more throwing away cracked and nasty 72-cell trays at the end of the season!

Here’s how it works:

  1. Dump substrate in a flat-bottomed bin. Some people use complicated recipes, but I just use the Black Gold potting mix with the orange label. Unfortunately, it comes encased in single-use plastic. Even the complicated recipes involve bagged ingredients like peat moss. A locally-sourced recipe that uses zero bagged ingredients would take a lot of experimentation. Sounds like a fun project for a retired master gardener, but I have a full time job and a four-year-old and escaped ducks running all over the neighborhood and a sink full of dirty dishes, so I’m not investing in research and development at this point.
  2. Add water, mixing as you go, until it’s slightly less wet than brownie batter, but wet enough that when you pick up a handful and squeeze, a little water runs out between your fingers.
  3. Push the soil blocker down into the substrate while doing a little twist-and-shimmy until you can hear and feel it scraping against the bottom of the bin.
  4. Lift it up and set it down into the tray where you want the blocks, and squeeze the two handles while gently lifting to release them.
  5. Repeat two more times, and you’ve got a full tray! My blocker makes blocks that measure 1.125” square, and 105 of them fit in a standard 1020 tray.

Newly planted seeds should never be allowed to dry out before they germinate. Soil blocks are best watered from below, since there’s no plastic holding them together. I pack my blocks into mesh-bottomed trays, and then I set them into a solid-bottomed tray with water in it for a few seconds, letting moisture wick up from below. I’ve also put soil blocks on aluminum pans and plastic lunch trays and poured water in from the sides, tilting the lunch tray so that every block has a chance to wick it up.

You don’t need soil blocks for everything. Many vegetables do just fine direct-seeded into your garden. Some even prefer it! Others– especially the ones with big starchy seeds– I like to pre-soak indoors and then plop directly into the ground. The ones I raise in the soil blocks are the real divas, the long-season veggies that can’t handle a frost. Here’s a simplified, non-exhaustive list of who gets what treatment in my garden:

TRANSPLANTS (VIA SOIL BLOCKS)

  • Nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants)
  • Cucumber family (cucumbers and melons)
  • Squash family (including zucchini and summer squash)
  • Sunflowers
  • Zinnias
  • Cosmos

PRE-SOAK

  • Peas
  • Beans
  • Corn
  • Nasturtiums

DIRECT SOW

  • Root veggies
  • Leafy greens
  • Herbs
  • Wildflowers

Another thing I think about when I start my seeds is whether or not each type of seed has a belly-button. The belly button is the point or the little mark where it was once attached to its mother plant. Think about the little mark on the middle of a bean, or the pointy end of a squash seed. If I can see a belly button, I plant it facing down or sideways, never facing up. That’s the place where the seed’s first rootlet will emerge from, and the rootlet has to find its way downward before it can push its cotyledons out of the soil. I learned this from the book Better Vegetable Gardens the Chinese Way by Chan and Gill, and from my seed-saving mentor Rowen White.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’ve never started veggies inside before, it bears mentioning that setting them next to a window really doesn’t provide enough light. You need a fluorescent shop light, and you need to hang it so it’s inches (not feet) above the top of the plants, adjusting it upwards as they grow. And most of the veggie divas who need to start life indoors germinate fastest when the soil is around 77 degrees, so stick them and their light in a warm place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It also bears mentioning that indoor- or greenhouse-grown seedlings need to be “hardened off” before planting them out into the garden. Basically you carry them to and fro for a while. It’s a hassle. Actually, this whole seed-starting process is a huge hassle. But can I stop myself? No! Because springtime is too exciting!!! While unearthing supplies in the shed this afternoon, I caught myself humming, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok

This Week in Gardening (TWIG) — First One of 2021!

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted March 15, 2021

After a winter of being cooped up during the pandemic, I’m sure gardeners are anxious to get started growing things once again. Before jumping into spring planting, I thought I’d start this year’s edition of weekly updates with a look back over what survived this past winter. Spring will arrive soon enough, if not already here.

The heavy foot of snow that fell on South Fidalgo in February served as a layer of insulation, protected the ground from freezing very deeply and kept the hardy over-wintering plants from exposure to wind. With the rapid melt of the snowfall, and the change to warm and dry weather in early March, we’re experiencing a much earlier spring, as has been happening more and more the past few years.

Perennial Vegetables

Basic to any system of year-round gardening are vegetables that reappear on their own each spring. Although they may initially take up to several years to reach full production, they’re certainly worth the time and effort. The main concern is finding a permanent place in the garden, safely removed from any ongoing system of crop rotation. Once established, perennials take a minimum of care, mostly a little regular weeding, some watering in summer, and regular pruning or cleanup as needed. A layer of well-cured manure or other form of fertilizer applied in the fall serves a source of slow-release nutrition. The appearance each year of a reliable crop is a welcome relief from the usual spring rush to get seeds or transplants in the ground.


Rhubarb

Rhubarb will supply a few leaves the first year, depending on the size of the start, particularly if you are able to find a mature root ball divided from a well-established bed. I found a large rhubarb root at the very first Transition Seed Swap years ago. It is still producing and has filled out a small bed of its own in a corner of the garden, right next to a permanent stand of thornless blackberries. Note: rhubarb leaves get gradually smaller and thinner after 4-5 years and the root needs to be sub-divided to maintain vigorous growth. Rhubarb is one of the earliest crops to be harvested, with the appearance of the bright red stalks serving as a spring tonic visually, as well as for their tart taste, which mixes well with the standard local perennial, strawberries. I am always amazed at the elephantine leaves bursting out of the ground. If large skunk cabbage leaves are a first sign of spring in the woodlands, then rhubarb is the starting flag for the garden.

Artichokes

Artichoke plants will offer an edible head or two the first year, but will start to take off the following season, once the roots are well-established. The key is to harvest the buds when they are tender, before the outer leaves get stiff, since these plants are an edible form of thistles. If you do allow a bud to open up, the flower is a deep blue, and a boon to bees. The fully mature blossom, cut with a long stem and hung upside down to dry, also becomes a distinctive dried flower. I always think of artichokes as welcome visitors to our cool coastal clime from the sunny and warm Mediterranean.

During that week of 20F-degree weather in February of this year, I took the added precaution of putting a temporary covering of floating row cover over the still-standing stalks of artichokes, mostly as a barrier against the wind. They seem to have survived so far, particularly the purple variety Violetta de Provence, which is more susceptible to cold than the standard Green Globe, the variety commonly available locally. The Violetta has smaller, more conical heads, but a much finer taste and more tender leaves.

Asparagus

Of all the typical perennial vegetables, asparagus takes the longest to develop a good harvest, usually reaching that stage in the third year as the roots mature. But, to compensate for the long wait, the taste of the fresh-cut spears is extraordinarily sweet in comparison to the commercial bunches that have been shipped in from elsewhere. Resist the temptation to cut more than a few stalks the first two years and make sure the plot has a good supply of manure and compost, especially over the winter. I grow mostly a standard green variety; the purple type has not done as well so far.

Like artichokes, fresh asparagus is one of those vegetables that is a particular luxury. Maybe it is because they both are enjoyed with lots of melted butter. My asparagus bed is entering its fourth year and I am anticipating a steady supply. Finally, do let a good number of late-appearing stalks leaf to bushy maturity during the summer. The vegetation is needed to continue the cycle, allowing the roots to develop next year’s crop.

Cooking Note: if a few stalks do get too large and the bottom parts get a bit woody, use a vegetable peeler to remove the thick lower skin. The white inner pith will still be soft and edible, but just not that distinctive bright green of the more delicate upper spears.

A roundup of Over-wintering Hardy Vegetables

The January King cabbages offered small but tasty heads all winter, and are now sending up fresh side-sprouts from the cut stalks left in the ground. Two large collard plants did well all winter, sporting large healthy leaves seemingly impervious to frost. A sure sign of spring, the lacinato kale plants, like most hardy brassicas, are putting out multiple florets, an early version of broccoli. Keep the top-most buds trimmed off; they’ll be a steady supply of greens for fresh stir-fries. Other plants that did well included Mizuna and Purple mustard, Tat Tsoi bok choy, broccoli Raab, as well as Miner’s lettuce and a bushy form of arugula. Hiding under the leaves for a spring treat were Purple Top turnips, the roots unaffected by frost.

The brussels sprouts, however, suffered from the lack of winter cold, developing brown mold on the lower buds early on, and colonies of aphids on the topmost growing tips during any warm spell. What used to be a reliable crop now seems to be an extended challenge. I can understand a quote from a local farmer saying they are difficult to grow. Makes one appreciate the vast acres of purple and green brussels sprouts that are harvested in the valley just before Thanksgiving. Commercial sprouts would likely be non-organically grown, and unsweetened as yet by any touch of serious frost. I may stick to hardy cabbages as a more reliable winter brassica.

Leeks are the standard fresh allium in the winter garden. The main plot of leeks was harvested regularly, while two small beds of late-summer planted leeks are just now coming to maturity in March. The last of the leeks will develop a hard pith in the center as the temperature warms up, but the outer sheaths are still edible. As the green sprouts of the regular chives and garlic chives emerge in their pots in the kitchen garden, the fresh onion cycle begins again.

Peter Heffelfinger

Turning a Lawn into More Planting Space

By Julia Frisbie

Posted Wednesday, March 10, 2021

In January 2016, we became homeowners rather than renters for the first time, so naturally, we set out to destroy our newly-purchased lawn.

 

So boring. So unproductive. It had to go. Here’s what we did, and how it turned out!

 

 

 

We decided to use sheet mulch. First, we flattened and peeled the tape off all our moving boxes and laid them out on the lawn as a weed barrier, and watered them so they wouldn’t blow away.

 

 

(We used straw bales for raised beds during our first growing season, because we knew there wouldn’t be time for all this cardboard to break down and let plant roots through before summer. It’s better to start the sheet mulch process in the fall if you have time.)

Then we brought in 17 cubic yards of compost. The ground was wet, and the truck sank into the backyard and almost got stuck. Total disaster. We like to live life on the edge.

17 cubic yards is a lot of mulch. But for the record, you can use this same technique on a smaller scale: you could build the frame of a raised bed directly on top of your grass, line the bottom with cardboard, and then fill it with bagged compost. We used a dump truck load because we essentially wanted to turn the ENTIRE YARD into a raised bed.

Anyway, we spread that stuff all over, laying down more cardboard mulch underneath as we went. Extended family members who had come to see the new house were quickly drafted.

After we ran out of moving boxes, we used wide rolls of extra-thick kraft paper. Sometimes we had to lie down on the paper to keep it from blowing away before the next wheelbarrow load was in place. Large-scale mulching is a team sport.

 

We planted perennials like herbs and blueberry bushes by cutting through the mulch and paper layers and putting their roots directly into what used to be the sod. Because it was the beginning of the growing season, we also transplanted some shallow-rooted annuals like onions and lettuces right on top of the compost. We planted our deep-rooted annuals (like nightshades, squashes, and brassicas) on the straw bales that year, because we knew their roots wouldn’t be able to break through the cardboard and paper layer until after at least one rainy season’s worth of decomposition.

Then, because we didn’t have mulch to spread over the fresh compost, we broadcasted wildflower and clover seed all over the place as a cover crop.

Our cover crop helped build more soil while (mostly) crowding out weeds. The wild birds loved it, and they came and pooped new weed seeds everywhere. Oh well! Still, we had a glorious first summer in the new place, with a few veggies, a lot of flowers, and very little mowing.

 

Our big break came months later when I heard a chainsaw and a chipper in the neighborhood. I literally chased the truck down the street barefoot, begging the arborist to drop his load of chips for us to use. He did– JACKPOT!!!– and our neighbor yelled at us about it, so the first thing we had to do was shovel the entire load (about 10 cubic yards) out of the easement and into the backyard in one evening. We didn’t have time to mow the cover crop first– we didn’t even have any houseguests to recruit. We just laid down a deep layer of arborist chips over everything. There are no pictures, because it was pitch dark by the time we finished. But it was time and energy well-spent. In the short run, it smothered the cover crop, suppressed weeds, and looked nice. In the long run, it composted in place and fed the soil, because arborist chips contain both green material (shredded leaves) and brown material (chipped wood). Five years and three additional truckloads of arborist chips later, this space is still feeding us and the wildlife with glorious abandon!

Why should you mulch your lawn into oblivion, rather than sod cutting, rolling it up, and hauling it away? Because of geology. Our island is what’s left after the rest got scraped away by a giant glacier. We’re pretty short on topsoil. Losing even two inches of organic matter was a price I wasn’t willing to pay– and besides, it composted in place in less than a year. Soil organic matter feeds microbes and absorbs water, cutting down on long-term water needs. And it’s like compounding interest; the longer you do it, the better it gets.

Fall is the ideal time to make new garden beds, but in a pinch, you can pull it off in early spring. As with other gardening topics, there are many good ways to do something, but no single “right way.” That said, here’s what I can recommend because it’s worked for us:

  1. Lay down a compostable cardboard or paper barrier on top of your grass.
  2. Get the barrier all wet.
  3. Dump a bunch of compost on it, and spread it at least 4 inches thick.
  4. Broadcast seeds for a cover crop. American Meadows is a decent source if you want to buy wildflower and clover seeds by the pound rather than the packet.
  5. Make holes in the barrier and plant perennials straight through. Plant shallow-rooted annuals right on top during the first season. Remember to water well, because plant roots probably won’t make it through the cardboard and paper layer until next season.
  6. Cover with at least a four-inch layer of arborist chips no later than the following fall. You can request arborist chips from local companies on getchipdrop.com and they’re FREE!
  7. The next spring, gently rake the arborist chips out of the way and plant your annuals directly into the compost below.
  8. Follow up with additional applications of arborist mulch on an ongoing basis every fall, or whenever things get weedy, or when you need a good workout, or whenever you feel like things are getting too peaceful with the neighbors.

Now, for a few warnings:

DON’T STOMP AROUND IN YOUR NEWLY PURCHASED PILE OF COMPOST BAREFOOT because it might contain silverware. Somehow this happens to us every time, no matter which of the two local suppliers we order compost from. I have a slight preference for Skagit Soils, but no compost you purchase by the dump truck load is going to be perfect.

DON’T PAY FOR FANCY WOOD CHIPS. They’re all brown material, rather than a mix of green and brown, so they won’t compost in place and they won’t be as good for your soil. Just get the free stuff from your local arborists.

DON’T MIX THE ARBORIST CHIPS INTO THE SOIL. That will tie up all the nitrogen, which will starve the plants. Just lay the chips on top like a blanket.

DON’T FREAK OUT WHEN WILD MUSHROOMS POP UP. They mean your soil is happy. They don’t compete with your plants, and they can’t poison you if you don’t eat them. Treat them as honored guests who bring good news and let them live their lives.

THERE WILL BE WEEDS. Why? Because the polyculture you’re creating is more attractive to wild birds than your boring old lawn used to be, and bird poop is full of weed seeds. The time you used to spend mowing, you will now spend weeding. But the more years you spread arborist chips, the easier it gets to pull the weeds, because the soil gets so spongy-soft. I’d rather be down on my hands in the duff than pushing some stinky old mower any day.

 

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok