Monoculture lawns to Polyculture garden beds

By Julia Frisbie

posted May 6, 2021

We buried our lawn five years ago under a layer of cardboard and then compost, planted a living mulch the first season, and have been mulching with arborist chips and rotating poultry through it, and growing a happy riot of annuals and perennials in it ever since. You can see the difference in this picture between our backyard soil (front right) and the soil in the adjacent easement (back left), but now after a soil test we have quantitative data. Using this data to estimate how much carbon we’ve sequestered was the most fun I’ve had with math in months!

We sent in two soil tests to the University of Massachusetts, with the city easement functioning as a control because it’s all in grass, and our yard was all in grass before we moved in five years ago. (It would have been better if I’d tested the same spot 5 years ago, but I didn’t, so the easement is our best point of reference for a comparison.) The backyard had 22.4% soil organic matter (measured by LOI, or “lost on incineration”… basically, how much of its mass can burn up) and the easement soil had 10.6%. So the backyard’s soil is 11.8 percentage points higher than our control plot.

I based my calculations on research by R. Lal of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center. His article “Abating climate change and feeding the world through soil carbon sequestration” was published 2013 in an anthology called Soil as World Heritage. Lal estimates that 21 tons of carbon are sequestered per additional 1% of soil organic matter per hectare.

Our backyard measures 74 feet x 40 feet, which is 2,960 square feet. There are 107,639 square feet in one hectare, so our backyard = 0.0275 hectares. Multiply 21 tons by 0.0275 = 0.5775 tons of carbon sequestered in our yard per added 1% of organic matter. Multiply that by our 11.8, and we get 6.8145 tons (x 2,000 = 13,629 pounds) of carbon sequestered within our backyard in the past 5 years.

For reference, a mature tree absorbs about 48 pounds of carbon per year (Source: European Environment Agency), so our backyard activity has sequestered about 284 tree-years of carbon. Also for reference, nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced from burning one gallon of non-ethanol gasoline (source: US Energy Information Administration), so our backyard activity has offset about 681.45 gallons of gasoline. (With a 12 gallon tank, that’s 57 fill-ups.)

On the one hand, it’s a drop in the bucket. On the other… in this little place… it makes a world of difference. And it’s profoundly do-able for anyone who wants to sequester carbon in their yard. A movement for “Climate Victory Gardens” has published some helpful ideas for backyard-scale carbon sequestration.

Gabe Brown is a second-generation rancher in North Dakota, and since 1991, he’s seen an increase in soil organic matter from 1.9% to 6.1%. In his excellent book Dirt to Soil, he identifies five principles for soil health that he uses to manage his 5,000 acres:

  1. Limit disturbance. Tillage releases soil carbon into the atmosphere and causes topsoil to erode away. Don’t do it. Chemical disturbances such as synthetic fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides also qualify as a type of disturbance.
  2. Keep the soil covered. Bare soil is an emergency. Covering your soil prevents erosion and provides habitat for microorganisms.
  3. Diversity. Grow as many different types of plants (and host as many different types of animals!) as you possibly can. Brown sows cover crop mixes with up to 70 different species!
  4. Living Roots. Include perennials and cover crops in your garden plans so that there are living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible.
  5. Integrated animals. Intermittent predation by animals stimulates flushes of plant growth which pulse more carbon into the soil. Gabe uses cattle to rotationally graze his cover-cropped acres.

In conversation with these principles is emerging research from ecologists on the Intermittent Disturbance Hypothesis. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her less-well-known book Gathering Moss, explains “diversity of species is highest when the disturbance occurs at an interval between the extremes. Ecologists have shown that in the complete absence of disturbance, superior competitors… slowly encroach upon other species and eliminate them by competitive dominance. Where disturbance is very frequent, only the very hardiest species can survive the tumult. But in between, at intermediate frequency, there seems to be a balance that permits a great variety of species to flourish.” As more research is published on regenerative agriculture practices, I bet we’ll learn that the disturbance caused by Gabe Brown’s cattle herd moving across the landscape actually supports the increased diversity of each acre they graze.

What I like about Brown is that he comes from a pretty standard (extractive, damaging) American farming perspective, and ends up becoming a champion of regenerative agriculture. We can do the same in our yards. We can convert monoculture lawns to polyculture garden beds, keep soil covered, plan for living roots in the soil year-round, provide gentle intermittent disturbance with animals, and cultivate maximum diversity.

Below, you can see many of these principles at work in my backyard: I’ve got plastic mulch I scavenged at The Predecessors under my zucchinis. I’ve removed the mulch from under my cabbages, kale, and tomatoes, and undersown a diverse cover crop mix, which is just beginning to germinate. Nearby in a temporary enclosure, the chickens are busy making compost and appropriate-scale disturbance in a bed that’s about ready to turn over to the next crop. Flowers peek out around the edges. Carbon sequestration is a joy!


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.

Listening to My Weeds – Julia’s Garden

By Julia Frisbie

Posted April 30, 2021

Weeds are inevitable. When you notice them, you can choose to get grouchy or get curious. I do some of each. When I pay attention to my weeds, I learn a lot about my soil. What follows is a “who’s who” of common weeds in my garden, categorized by what I think they’re trying to tell me. 

I’m sure there are other weeds in your garden (and in mine) who didn’t make the list. Grab a field guide and try to identify them and learn about their preferred habitats. Sometimes if you have a great diversity of weeds in a single area, they may send you mixed messages, so you’ve got to interpret them loosely. There’s not a perfect 1:1 ratio between weeds and the clues they give us about soil health. Plant communities are incredibly complex. But I hope that the things I’m learning from my weeds will spark your own curiosity about the weeds you live with! 

 

Weeds that say, “PLEASE MOVE THE CHICKENS AWAY”


Dock (genus Rumex) thrives with low calcium and extremely high magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. A big patch of dock tells me that the area is over-fertilized and I need to give it a rest from chickens. Dock loves heavy soils, and tries to be a good neighbor by breaking up compacted soil via a long taproot. If you want to address compaction, tillage is only a temporary fix– and in the long run, it compacts the subsoil even worse. A gentle broad-forking or a rotation of long-rooted daikons left to decompose in place is a better solution. Or, if you’re a laissez-faire gardener like me, just keep cutting down the dock greens and leave the roots in place. I’ve read that dock is edible and medicinal, but it’s high in oxalic acid and quite bitter, so I tend to chop-and-drop it (like many permaculturists do with comfrey) instead of eating it. The leaves and stems make great mulch.

Cleavers (Galium aparine) give me a rash, so I’m pretty vigilant about pulling them out. They flourish in high-nitrogen soils, so they tell me to give that spot a rest from the chickens. This herb has a long history of use in folk medicine, but I have not experimented with it. Too itchy. I have no pictures to share, because it’s out of season right now. 

 

Weeds that say, “PLEASE BRING THE CHICKENS OVER”

Vetch (genus Vicia) tells me that the soil has low fertility, and vetch is here to help. It’s a legume, a relative of beans and peas, and a symbiotic relationship with bacteria on its roots allows it to fix nitrogen from the air pockets of the soil. If I see vetch, I add chickens. I think it’s pretty, and don’t usually bother to pull it out. Again, no pictures because it’s out of season, but I look forward to its return in June. 

 

Weeds that say, PLEASE IMPROVE DRAINAGE” 

Buttercups (genus Ranunculus) love wet feet, and show me exactly where my drainage issues are. Thanks to the relentless feedback of buttercups, I’m slowly terracing a soggy slope. Buttercups also prefer acidic soil, so I like to see them at the feet of my blueberries and azaleas, but if I want to grow annual veggies in their spot I may need to add lime. Buttercups tend to form a solid mat of greenery that can choke out other plants, so I try to remove them. On the plus side, their flowers are beautiful, and they always make me sing “Build me Up Buttercup.” 

 

Weeds that say, “PLEASE ADD MORE MULCH”

Quackgrass (Elytrigia repens) thrives in heavy clay soil, and tells me that I need to add more layers of organic material. The more organic material I add, the easier it gets to remove its spaghetti-like rhizomes.


Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) specializes in disturbed soil. It’s a relative of radishes, broccoli, and kale, but unlike its domestic kin, it has an incredibly fast seed-to-seed cycle. By the time other annuals are getting started in the spring, it’s already fully grown and flinging its progeny into the world (which explains the common name “shotweed”). For this reason, it’s one of my son’s favorite early greens to forage. It tastes better than the name suggests! A plant growing here and there is normal, but when I see a big patch of hairy bittercress, it tells me that the soil has been disturbed too often. (Disturbance in my yard is usually caused by chickens or toy tractors, but in other places it can be caused by tillage or by repeated herbicide application.) This place needs a deep blanket of mulch and a long rest.

 

Weeds that say, “PLEASE KEEP DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING”

Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) tells me that I have a neutral pH and relatively fertile soil. Hooray! They’re another favorite for spring foraging, for us and for the bees, with their fuzzy, mild-flavored leaves and their tubular purple flowers. They’re actually more closely related to mint than nettle (the square stems are a dead giveaway), and I control them similarly to mint, by simply pulling or cutting them wherever they look like they’re about to swallow up their neighbors. 

 

Dandelion (genus Taraxacum): Dandelions aren’t picky; they’ll live just about anywhere. They’re edible and medicinal, and important for the bees. I tend to let them be. I think their flowers are beautiful, ESPECIALLY UNDER A MICROSCOPE!

Look at all those pollen grains, sparkling like geometric love notes to an unknowable future.

 

Tomatoes

by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted April 27, 2021

One of the benefits of going through the freezer at the end of the stored food season is finding bits of the high summer harvest preserved in ice. I recently spent a day buying tomato plants at the various greenhouse sales in the Valley, and then carefully putting them in a protected spot to harden off. Later that evening I found two frozen containers, one of ratatouille prepared last year and the other an all-purpose blend of puréed roma and beefsteak tomatoes. Once the eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes were bubbling on the stove, it felt like a breath of August warmth, a fortuitous reminder and hopefully a foretaste of what this year’s starts will also become in a few month’s time. It was as if all the heady, descriptive prose of the seed catalogs was being brought to life, even before this year’s plants were in the ground. Home-grown tomatoes do that to gardeners.

30 Organic Tomato CUORE DI BUE Oxheart Coeur de Boeuf ...

This year I’m planting a mix of modern and heirloom tomato varieties; some are standards I grow each year and others I am trying out, looking for new tastes as well as successful plants. (Note: all my tomatoes and peppers are grown in a large hoop house for added heat.) The one tomato I was particularly searching for was the Italian heirloom, Cuore Di Bue (Oxheart), which I had grown once before, but have been unable to find for several years. A very large, slightly orange tomato shaped like a pouch with a gathered top, it is listed as a sauce type. I find it also delicious when served sliced, interleaved with thick slivers of fresh mozzarella, then drizzled with olive oil and topped with sprigs of basil. Aromatic Italy on an antipasto platter.

On my search I also found another heirloom beefsteak tomato, Chianti Rose (perhaps also Italian?), to try out and compare to the Cuore Di Bue. It will be my own, homegrown tomato-tasting research project.

Heirlooms are less disease-resistant and usually don’t produce as abundantly as modern types, so I also plant the standard Big Beef, which reliably produces lots of large fruit each year in our relatively cool growing season. In any case, I look forward to a summer of large, tasty slicers.

Buy Grape Tomato Seeds

My favorite red cherry tomato is the grape type that grows its fruit on a multi-stemmed cluster, as if it were a vegetable version of a phasmid (an order of insects, like a walking stick, disguised as a botanical form). I have a mature arbor of Thompson Seedless grapes growing next to my tomato house, so the resemblance between the grape bunches and the grape tomatoes, particularly when they are both immature and green, is striking. Although ultimately the deception never fools the hungry birds that flock to the arbor when the greenish-yellow grapes are just starting to ripen, while inside the hoop house the grape tomato plants are covered with red clusters.

I’ve grown a German grape type tomato in the past, but this year I’m trying a new variety, Juliet. Grape cherry tomatoes have a slightly thicker skin that resists bursting when very ripe. Standard red cherry varieties such as Sweet 100 often crack open and start to mold if left too long on the vine, particularly if over-watered. In contrast, the grape types maintain their shape and flavor deep into the fall season.

For a round cherry tomato I rely on Sungold, always a welcome bright spot of yellow, ripening very early, usually before the first of the standard-sized tomatoes.

San Marzano Heirloom Tomato Seeds | Terroir Seeds

For pear-shaped sauce tomatoes I rely on the San Marzanos as well as Granadero, a modern roma type that is prolific. This year I’m also trying out Opalka, a 6-inch long, banana-shaped variety that resembles the red pepper Italian Thunderblot, a sweet type for roasting that I always plant. For another trial, I’m growing both the classic heirloom, Brandywine, as well as a modern hybrid, Croatian Brandywine, which is designed to be more productive, while maintaining the traditional deep flavor. Finally, I’m experimenting with the Russian variety Moskvich, a very early indeterminate, which I hope will do better and hold up longer than the usual Northwest standard Early Girl.

And of course I’ll also add a few of Joe’s Best, an unspecified, rebranded tomato variety from the nursery grower in Bellingham, and one that always lives up to its name. If you want to claim immortality, having a superior tomato named after you is a sure way of entering the home gardener’s idea of Heaven.

Don’t Let Your Dahlias be Lonely – thoughts for non-dahlia gardeners too

By Julia Frisbie

posted April 22, 2021 — Earth Day!

Dahlias are ridiculously popular, and it’s easy to find information about how to grow them in a conventional way: plant, stake, and label them eighteen inches apart from each other in a straight row at the same time as tomatoes; set up automatic irrigation to water the soil rather than the leaves, but don’t start watering until they’ve emerged; pinch them once they have 3 or 4 sets of leaves. It’s good advice, but I’m not into monocultures. It seems too lonely. 

So I’ve been experimenting with companions. Here are some good ones for dahlias: 

  • “Wrinkled crinkled” cress is tall and skinny, taking up almost no space, and I like to plant it between two rows of dahlias because it makes these delicate wand-like seed heads that look good next to fluffy dahlia blooms. This year I’ll experiment with other tall and skinny companions like dill.
  • Nasturtiums sprawl over the ground and don’t compete too much with dahlias, making a lush carpet under them. In early summer they make our salads more interesting, and in late summer they seem to draw aphids away from the dahlias. 
  • Salad greens can function as a “quick crop” at the base of dahlia plants in early spring, ready for harvest around the same time as dahlias want a hard pinch. After the pinch, when the dahlias really start to bulk up, the greens are starting to think of bolting, so I cut them off at the soil level and feed them to the chickens. 
  • I like to grow bush beans at the base of each dahlia plant. Two reasons: 1) it saves space, and 2) beans have these little nodes on their roots where symbiotic bacteria live, and they fix the nitrogen in the air pockets of the soil into a form that’s available to the plant roots. Basically, having a living carpet of beans or clover is like a mild, constant fertilizer. It’s a pain to harvest beans under all the dahlia leaves, so I grow shelly beans rather than green beans that I’d have to pick several times a week. When they dry down in September, I cut the bean plants off at the soil line and leave their roots down there with the dahlia tubers while I hang their tops upside down in the garage until I’m ready to shell them. Many dry beans don’t mature reliably in our climate, but I’ve had good luck with “Rockwell” and “Ireland Creek Annie.” 
  • Ducks love slugs more than anything, and slugs are a dahlia’s number one enemy. You can’t leave the ducks with the dahlias 24/7, but supervised daily visits are beneficial to all involved. Plus, a basin of dirty duck water dumped on a dahlia’s leaves once a week seems to really float their boat. I do this first thing in the morning because that’s when the plants’ stomata are most able to absorb water and nutrients. Stomata are microscopic holes in plant tissue that open when photosynthesis starts each morning to let them take up carbon dioxide, and close at night and also when the weather gets hot to prevent too much moisture from being lost. So the morning– when the sun has just started shining, but it’s not too hot yet– is when you get the most bang for your buck in terms of foliar feeding. 

The following are not great companions for dahlias in my experience: 

  • Chickens. They prefer worms and bugs to slugs, and in pursuit of their favorite prey they will scratch up all the mulch and uproot the tubers.
  • Sunflowers. I thought maybe they’d provide support, but they just shaded the dahlias out. 
  • Tomatoes. They need similar things and don’t mind being side-by-side, but there’s no space savings to be had by planting them on top of each other because they compete. 
  • Root vegetables. Dahlia tuber clumps can get huge. You don’t want any other big-rooted thing down there taking up space. 

Perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing dahlias. Maybe they’re not capable of loneliness. But have you read about mycorrhizal networks?! I think plants are communicating all the time, and we just don’t know how to participate in the conversation yet. I don’t want to live with only members of my own species for company… so why should they? 

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.

A View from Afar

By Peter Heffelfinger

posted April 21, 2021

Oftentimes it takes a commentator from far away to remind us of the Pacific Northwest’s unique place in the world of gardening. A recent New York Times article interviewed the founders of a specialty nursery, Issima, which breeds new cultivars of rare ornamentals. What caught my eye immediately was that the nursery is located in Little Compton, a tiny settlement at the far tip of Rhode Island’s easternmost peninsula, which juts out southward into the North Atlantic. Given its high percentage of coastline, bays, and access to the sea, Rhode Island aptly calls itself the Ocean State.

Before I migrated west, I lived for a year in Little Compton in a cottage near the outermost beach. After enduring many of Boston’s harsh winters, the climate of Rhode Island, only a short drive south, felt almost tropical in comparison. What would be heavy snow and freezing temperatures a bit further north were only squalls of rain and wind on the south coast. In late fall there were ripe quinces in the yard, and a flock of swans overwintered on the unfrozen salt ponds behind the sand dunes. In summer there were local tomatoes from a farm stand, fresh seafood at a small fish market, and of course a nearby fried clam shack. The climatological key was the warmth of the Gulf Stream, which hooks around the base of New England, creating a local pod of temperate warmth.

The owners of Issima detailed their careful, often years-long breeding program at their nursery sheltered by the maritime climate. One project involves Meadow Rue, or Thalictrum, a standard variety of which, “Queen of the Meadow,” has naturalized in my shady back yard, growing 5 to 6 feet tall each year. Issima, however, has created a new cultivar, “Super Tall,” topping out at 15 feet, which certainly would be just the right size at the base of my much taller Red Cedars and Doug firs.

But the link to the Maritime Northwest jumped out when Issima’s partners listed other favorite specialty nurseries, such as Far Reaches Farm in Port Townsend, which they cite as “arguably the best nursery in the country for cool-climate perennials.” Or, the “woodland treasures” at Keeping it Green Nursery in Stanwood; as well as Sequim Rare Plants for unusual succulents; and Windcliff Nursery in Indianola. Further afield, they mention Cistus Nursery in Portland for Mediterranean-climate plants and hardy tropicals. Suddenly you see our Northwest Maritime area in a new horticultural light, as an ideal locale for cultivating rare plants, as well as for cool-weather, coastal gardening in general.

On the northwestern side of the continent the Japanese Current keeps our weather mild, while the Olympic Mountains supply rain shadow protection to Fidalgo Island, the San Juans, and the northern part of Puget Sound. When it does snow locally, as it did this past winter with a sudden foot-deep accumulation, the drifts disappear almost as fast as they came in. In my small woodland meadow, the hellebores hardly noticed the thick blanket of white and a few weeks later produced their usual Lenten display.

Decades ago, when I first arrived in this more temperate corner of the country, I missed the four distinct seasons of New England, especially the fall foliage, as well as the hot, humid summers that pumped out fully ripe tomatoes. And even the blizzards, instead of the Northwest’s long season of winter rains. Now, looking back I realize that my short stay in the unique climatological niche of Rhode Island turned out to be a foretaste of the Maritime Pacific Northwest, complete with overwintering swans.

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.