Further Adventures with “Perennializing” Brassicas

This week’s post continues a story that we first posted June 10, 2021. Here is a link to that story. (You will need to scroll down on that page to the June 10 posting.)

Our author is again Sequoia Ferrel, of Gaia Rising Farm on Guemes Island.

Further adventures with “perennializing” brassicas

By Sequoia Ferrel

posted September 10, 2021

  1. After you have harvested your brassicas — broccoli, cabbage, kale, etc. — if you don’t pull it up, it will often try to regrow. Even if you cut it down to a stump but leave it in the ground, like this kale plant, it may make new shoots. For this kale plant I would cut it down to one shoot.

Picture 1 (above): Kale sprouting

2. Another kale plant that was completely cut off but you can see it really wants to come back.

Picture 2 (above): coming back!

  1. This is a cauliflower with old seed heads at the left and multiple new shoots coming up. I have had this plant for three or four years now giving me early cauliflower.

Picture 3 (above): multiple new shoots

  1. This is the same cauliflower after I cut out most of the shoots. I decided to leave four shoots for now, but I could have left just one or two. I can decide to cut some of these out later. It is good to keep checking on these things because they are likely to keep adding new shoots. You don’t want too many or you will get lots of tiny cauliflower heads instead of a few bigger ones.

Picture 4 (above): pruned

  1. I don’t remember if this is a broccoli or a cabbage that went to seed. In the same spirit of experimentation I will wait to see what happens.

Picture 5 (above): what to do with this?

  1. Here is what I did with that one. I just cut out several stems. I’ll probably take another look at it in a while and choose the strongest shoots and cut out some more.

Picture 6 (above): after…

So if you like to experiment and don’t immediately need the space, try growing some of your brassicas as perennials. Their roots are established, and they are hardy. You don’t have to fuss with seeds and small tender seedlings that can get chomped by slugs. And they will reward you with an earlier harvest than you would otherwise get.

How NOT to grow a garden

by Jack Hartt

posted August 26, 2021

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

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

Siting:

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

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

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

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

Digging:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Planting:

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

Caring:

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

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

Harvesting:

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

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

Below: the daily harvest in early summer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Ongoing:

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Crops

by Julia Frisbie

posted August 19, 2021

Mid to late August is the time to plant overwintering cover crops. Also known as living mulches and green manures, the goal when planting a cover crop is to cover the soil between main crops. By now you know that I’m really into mulching, and always try to keep my soil covered. Cover crops have lots of benefits, especially over the winter season:

  • They prevent erosion.
  • They suppress weeds (like bittercress, the winter germination specialist).
  • They feed the “underground herd” (a term borrowed from Gabe Brown’s book Dirt to Soil) of microbes and mycorrhizae by keeping living roots in the ground year-round.
  • They provide habitat and food for above-ground critters who share space with us in winter.
  • They add organic matter to the soil.

As if all this weren’t enough of a gift, many species offer additional benefits. Some are insectaries. Some can help break up compacted soil (especially brassicas, like mustards and daikon radishes). Some are really amazing dynamic accumulators, which means they’re especially efficient at building biomass. Many of the most popular cover crop species can add nitrogen to the soil (like legumes). Cover crops teach us that each individual has a role to play in supporting the health of the whole. 

To compare common cover crop species, check out Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway. It’s another book that I finally purchased after borrowing from our local library three times… so I know the library has it! I love the author’s way of describing plant functions in tables. Here’s the one on winter cover crops:

 

 

So, what works best on Fidalgo island? I haven’t experimented with grasses and grains, but I’ve tried several types of clover (all clovers fix nitrogen!) and lots of wildflowers. Here are a few favorites.

  • Crimson clover. It’s fuzzy and soft with lovely, deep magenta booms. The only downside is that it doesn’t suppress weeds as readily as other clovers because it’s tall and skinny rather than spreading.
  • Microclover. It’s adorable and very low-growing, but it takes a long time to establish because it’s so small.
  • New Zealand White clover. This is my clover of choice for weed suppression. It out-competes weeds and becomes a perennial, standing up to foot traffic in my yard year after year.
  • Phacelia. Its common name is “bees’ friend” for a reason. It can grow four feet tall and gives me a rash when I brush against it, so I don’t plant it next to paths. This plant is an annual, but if you let it go to seed once, you’ll have it forever.
  • Poppies. I love looking at a sea of bright color. They require so little care, and seed is so cheap, that if you have a big blank spot in your yard you have nothing to lose by throwing poppy seeds at it. I’ve grown both Eschscholzia californica and Papaver rhoeas with good success. Like phacelia, poppies are annuals, but they reseed themselves freely.

I’d encourage you to plant as diverse a cover crop mix as you can stand to look at, because different species fill different ecological niches. For example, in my last article I noted that Jean-Martin Fortier of The Market Gardener plants an oat/pea mix as green manure in late August and early September. Peas fix the nitrogen, but can be a bit slow to start. Oats grow quickly to suppress weeds, creating a perfect environment for the peas to do their thing. These two offer a greater benefit together than they do apart. Gabe Brown takes it farther by planting dozens of species at once in the same place. Cover crops teach us that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. 

Cover crops can enrich existing garden beds, but they can also be used to help prepare new ones. Fall is the best time to start new garden beds, so if you’re thinking of sheet mulching your grass into oblivion, now is the time to start planning. A lush cover crop is a wonderful way to tuck all your new compost/soil into place over the winter months.

Whatever you choose, mix the seeds together in a substrate like sand before broadcasting onto damp soil and tamping down. Then, just let nature do its thing. Some, like the clover, will germinate right away. Some, like the poppies, will wait until spring to get started. Not every plant will thrive in every spot… but by sowing a diverse mix, you will have hedged against some of them failing, so you’ll still end up with your soil covered and enriched over the winter months. Cover crops teach us that we can’t afford monocultures. Variety is protective against an unknowable future.

Make the Most of Tomato Time!

by Jan Hersey

posted August 12, 2021 (fertilizer ratio updated on August 23)

Is there a rule about how many times you can look at your tomatoes each day, hoping to catch sight of that first blush of color, some sign—any sign—that you’ll finally be savoring that first Caprese salad or BLT after months of TLC?

After a lifetime of growing tomatoes and vegetables, my variable successes seem to have had more to do with luck than knowledgeable care.

But it was dwindling success with tomatoes that was the tipping point: the soil in one of three growing areas we’d rotated among was pumping out increasingly spindly and yellowed plants; the second had questionable soil health in some areas; and the third was just too small. Though a larger project than neither my garden partner nor I wanted, it was time for a new hoop house: he built the frame, we hoisted on the plastic covering, and I am putting to use new-found knowledge, filling it with 18 lush plants, many with catalog-worthy tomatoes among a jungle of stems.

My transition from haphazard gardener to knowledgeable tomato caregiver didn’t happen without help. The convergence of the need to build healthy soil in the new hoop house, making use of the sunny location of the abandoned tomato locations, and my desire for the “real,” chin-dripping tomatoes of my past was the tipping point I needed, in January, to sign up for an online, self-directed and interactive class, Growing Epic Tomatoes https://organicgardeningacademy.com/p/growing-epic-tomatoes. I’ve admittedly gone a bit overboard trying to stick to all the guidance, but so far (can you see my crossed fingers?), it’s paying off in spades.

The class has taught me to truly pay attention to what’s happening to the plants at every stage—including the seeds I started for the first time on March 10!—so the plants and I have, by now, had a relatively long relationship. The class also has pushed me to experiment and then pay attention—to various seed-starting mediums (watch out for coir); amount of sunshine; hoop house, raised bed, grow bags, and sundry pots. Also, pruning and trellising techniques, and soils.

Recently, I stopped by the wonderful garden that’s emerged from the vacant summer beds at Anacortes Middle School. I wanted to check out about a half dozen tomato plants I’d passed along, a donation of some unusual varieties from Southern Exposure Family Farm in Sedro-Woolley. (20+) Southern Exposure Family Farm | Facebook

While well staked and healthy, the donated plants were a bit out of control, with an over-abundance of foliage and some odd pruning choices. The Wednesday gardeners welcomed my offer to prune, something I’ve been assiduous about since taking the class. When a handful of folks gathered seeking guidance, I gave a brief demo and offered to pull together some pointers.

For them . . . and for you, I’m grateful to share some of my now accumulated knowledge, recognizing that there are many ways people have successfully grown tomatoes for centuries.

Determinate or Indeterminate? Tomatoes have two primary growth habits. Determinate varieties grow only to about 3-4 feet high and wide. They can be allowed to grow without removing any suckers and will be supported by one of those short and otherwise mostly useless tomato cages. They also produce most of their fruit at the same time, making them convenient for canning and preserving.

Indeterminate tomato types continue to grow up and out until tempered by pruning, frost, or disease. All tomatoes can take the cold down into the ‘30s; they won’t survive a freeze.

Spacing Look at the growth habit of the varieties you’ve choosen and find a balance among spacing (36 inches is good if you have the room), number of stems allowed to grow, pruning, fertilizing, and watering. The goal, among other things, is to create good air circulation, expose the plant to maximum light, and allow access to careful watering and feeding that avoids getting water on the leaves.

Mulch A substantial mulch beneth each plant holds in moisture and prevents soil-borne pathogens from splashing onto leaves. I’ve had great luck with both small bark chips and arborists’ chips.

Stems or Suckers? Each of those cute little new shoots that pop out overnight from the crotch of a stem and a leaf is called sucker, but it has the capacity to grow into a major stem! It’s up to you to take control. Determine the initial number of stems to grow based on what your spacing, trellising, and feeding options can support. One-to-five stems is a good range to consider. Don’t get greedy, as many suckers will inevitably escape your pruning snips and become space-grabbing stems.

Sun & Shade Tomato plants need as much sunshine as possible, producing fewer fruits with less light and heat. But individual tomatoes prefer being shaded from harsh sun by the plant’s leaves to avoid sun scald. These light brown, sunburned areas don’t ruin the tomato nor any seeds you might want to save, but you’ll want to cut them out for when eating.

Pruning On all my indeterminate plants (remember, don’t prune determinates, such as Roma and Taxi), I’m constantly pinching and pruning out as many of the little suckers as I find; I’ll even sacrifice some 1-2-foot stem wannabes that are crowding the main stems. It can be hard to make the cuts, especially if they’ve got some flowers. Be brave.

Not sure which are suckers? Go to the uppermost growing tip of each stem; that is what should be allowed to continue growing; to maintain a well-behaved plant, pinch or snip out all suckers growing from the stem-leaf intersections below the growing tip. Beware—the growing tip could be an escaped sucker that might be be better thinned out.

In addition to suckers, it’s also prudent to prune off the lowest leaves up to about a foot, particularly if you’re hand watering, so as not to splash soil-borne disease organisms onto the leaves. To aid good air circulation, also prune out some of those coarse, thick-stemmed leaves with no flowers where they’re fighting each other for space.

Disease Alert! One final and very important pruning tip is to immediately prune off any mottled or discolored leaves that appear on the plant; this usually starts at the bottom. Often, this is early blight and the result of soil-borne pathogens splashing onto the lower leaves. Don’t hold back—a plant can continue to ripen its tomatoes with as little as 20% leaf cover. IMPORTANT: To prevent the spread of disease from one plant to another, keep a small bottle of alcohol handy and spritz your clippers and hands before you move on to tend the next plant. All infected leaves go in the garbage, not the compost pile, to prevent spreading the blight or other spores!

A lush Taxi determinate just before it received a severe haircut—early blight had spread far up the plant. Fingers crossed that the 40 or so tomatoes continue to ripen!

Stimulating flowering & fruiting
1) Be prepared to switch up your fertilizers. A high nitrogen fertilizer (the “N” in N-P-K on the label) is great to get the plants growing. Fish emulsion (also blood meal, feather meal, and manures) works well for this, or any fertilizer or amendment with the first NPK number higher than the others.

To flower and fruit, however, tomatoes need increased phosphorous and potassium (the last two numbers on the N-P-K label). Once the plants start flowering, I switched to a fertilizer with higher P and K, like Neptune’s Harvest, which is 2-3-1.
2) Tomato flowers are self pollinating, i.e., the male and female parts needed for fertilization are on the same flower. You can give our winged pollinators a hand by helping to stimulate fertilization by vibrating the flower stems (just as flowers are opening seems best); get your timing right and you’ll see a cloud of pollen. I use an old electric toothbrush to do this, you also can buy a product called a VegiBee, flick the stem cluster with your fingers, or simply tap or shake the support cage to jiggle things around.

If we’re headed for a hot spell, get out there ahead of the high temps and pretend you’re a bee to jump start pollination because high humidity and/or temps 90 degrees and above make the pollen sticky, it doesn’t move around, and fertilization may not occur at that flush of flowers.

Watering Water from the bottom and avoid getting leaves wet—moisture can act like glue to soil- or air-borne pathogens.

Then, whatever you determine is the best watering regime for your plantings, stick to it! Drip irrigation is best if you can manage it. Inconsistent watering is the main cause of blossom end rot (BER). When tomato plants go dry, they can’t take up the phosphorous and potassium essential to flowering and fruiting; adding calcium or eggshells at this point won’t help, it’s the uptake that’s the problem. And, when plants suddenly get a large amount of water (to make up for our absence), they’re more apt to split.

Watering intervals will vary depending on what medium plants are growing in, their exposure to sun, etc. My in-ground, hoop house plants can go 3-4 days between watering; my grow bag tomatoes need water at least every other day, as they’re growing in a lighter, fast-draining medium. I often check moisture levels with an inexpensive (about $15) moisture meter, but then, I’m a detail-oriented Virgo.

Water carefully when a plant’s growth habit, like these Cherokee Purple indeterminates, makes it difficult to keep the bottom leaves pruned off.

Feeding Tomatoes need our help to give us their best show. Feed plants in grow bags and containers every 7-10 days: the relatively small amount of growing medium (I’m using mostly 10-gallon bags) in a container drains quickly and contains little of its own nutrients. However, I feed in-ground plants less often, every 10-14 days, as they have access to soil nutrients and are in slower-draining soil. On days you are feeding, skip the watering.

Harvesting You’ve bought mozzarella, are keeping the basil flourishing, now, beat the critters to your prize fruit for the Caprese salad by picking at what’s called the “breaker stage.” This is when a tomato first starts to “color up.” It will ripen just fine in your house or garage—maybe even faster if you have a tray of tomatoes all giving off ethylene gas. Contrary to expectations, breaker stage tomatoes contain the same amount of flavor as their vine-ripened counterparts. Picking early also gives you more time to choose and use your tomatoes as they ripen instead of suddenly being faced with a basket of ripe tomatoes that need immediate attention.

Regardless of its color (today there’s a rainbow of tomato colors), you’ll know when a tomato is ripe when the flesh gives slightly when pressed. There also can be a slight change in skin color or transparency, but this info is above my pay grade.

Seed saving If you’re into saving seeds for next year’s tomato crop, do so from the first tomatoes to ripen and/or those lowest on the plant. These are the least likely to have been cross pollinated with pollen from another nearby variety.

So, while my classmates from across the country in hotter or sunnier zones are showing off their rainbow-colored trays of heirlooms, I’m watching carefully for those first signs of color on my Black Krims, Cherokee Purples, and San Marzanos!

More winter vegetable varieties

by Julia Frisbie

posted August 5, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four-Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman

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

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

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

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

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!