Using Cardboard for Compost? by Julia Frisbie

By Julia Frisbie-

posted May 3, 2022.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 26, 2022

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW to Save Seeds — by Julia Frisbie

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 19, 2022

Last week I shared my “why” for saving seed: I do it because it deepens my relationships with the plants that feed my family, and becoming a midwife for their next generation is the most powerful act of reciprocity I can muster. Just in case that resonates with you, today I’d like to share a little bit about the “how.” 

Plants choose their families and usher in the new generation in many diverse and beautiful ways. (So, too, with humans, but plants manage it with a whole lot less judgment, which we’d do well to emulate. As Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us, “They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.”) If you want to save seeds, you need to know who you’re working with and how they usually do things. 

So, if the first step is to love plants, the next step is to learn about them. I made the following flowchart about what questions to ask. Humans and the plants who provide us food and medicine have been doing this reciprocal seed-saving dance since time immemorial, so if this feels overwhelming, rest assured: the answers are out there! Google works great, but if you share my passion for reference books, here are some of my favorites on the topic: 

This sixth item is an especially interesting point to consider. Any breeding project is a process of selection over many generations. You can do this selection by hand– for example, by removing heads of lettuce that bolt early before their pollen is added to your lettuce gene pool, thus selecting over time for slower-bolting lettuce. If you breed for taste, you have to sample many individuals before deciding which ones to keep in the gene pool. (My friend Jay works for a seed company and gets paid to travel all over the place pulling up carrots and biting off the bottom part of the root! If they taste good, he puts the rest of the carrot back into the ground so that it can make seed.) It’s always a good policy to remove sick-looking plants, or plants displaying any undesirable characteristic, by hand. 

You can also select by simply creating the conditions that you want to breed towards, planting a bunch of individuals, and saving seeds only from the individuals who survive those conditions. To give a few examples of this strategy, I’m breeding towards dry bush beans that are happy playing in the shade at the feet of my tomatoes and dahlias, because it’s unlikely in my very small space that they’ll ever get their own dedicated plot. I’m also breeding towards drought-tolerant tomatoes, because my ancestors practiced dryland farming, and as we see more and more summer droughts I think it’s important to waste as little water as possible. (Plus, dryland tomatoes taste sweeter!) To do this, I leave the tomatoes off the drip irrigation system and only water them a little by hand when it seems like they might die otherwise. Both of these projects lead to lower yields in the short run, because I’m not creating ideal conditions for my beans or tomatoes. But they’ll lead to increased yields over the long run in the conditions I’m working with.

Of course, I’m always breeding towards resilience to suboptimal conditions, because… well… I’m not a perfect gardener! But I think that’s a superpower that all less-than-perfect gardeners should embrace. In this time of climate chaos, we need resilience more than perfect uniformity in our plants, our gardens, our bodies and minds, our families, and our communities. Because of their brilliant diversity, plants are the first healers to arrive on wounded soil and start the restoration process. “Bring me with you!” I want to say. “Let me sit at your feet and watch you work. I need to learn how.” This intimacy is captured within the word midwife, which has roots in Old English meaning with woman. Becoming a midwife to plants is a good way to spend time with them. As we learn how they live, we learn more about how we should live, too.

Beginning to Save Seed — by Julia Frisbie

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 12, 2022

I try new vegetable varieties every year, because I am quite susceptible to seed catalog madness in January. But there are also some varieties I grow every year, no matter what, because we love them so much that our garden would not be complete without them: red russian kale, Jaune Flammée tomatoes, Schweizer Reisen peas, Vorgebirgstrauben cucumbers, Costata Romanesco zucchini… the list could go on, but these are the first who spring to mind.

Above, Jaune Flamée and Vorgebirgstrauben grow side-by-side up a string trellis. I tried red plastic mulch one year to heat up the soil for tomatoes. The results were not impressive, and I now grow without plastic mulch, since I’m breeding towards vegetable varieties that thrive without so much coddling. 

When I’m planning to plant a particular variety for, say, the third consecutive year, that’s a trigger for me to think about saving seed for it. Here’s why:

  • What if seed producers stop growing this and I can’t find it some year in the future? My garden would not be complete.
  • If it does well enough that I want to grow it year after year, it’s probably pretty well adapted to our conditions… but growing the same variety for multiple generations in the same place presents a great opportunity to breed toward it becoming even better adapted to our specific microclimate. Plus, as a laissez-faire gardener, I’ve got a seed-saving superpower, which is the ability to breed towards greater resilience. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity.
  • Look how many wonderful meals these plants have provided to us. What gift can I give in return? Plants want to make seeds. Allowing the completion of their life-cycle, and even acting as midwife to the next generation, is one of the most powerful acts of reciprocity that I can imagine.

My seed-saving mentor, Rowen White, describes the beginning of a long-term relationship with a new vegetable variety this way:

“This season I’ve fallen for this amazing Turkish cucumber variety called Çengelköy from Istanbul. It might seem odd, but I’ve asked them if they would adopt me, and I promised to care for them in the seasons ahead. Being a seed steward is all about initiating and sustaining relationships with our seeds and food… While I’ve grown a number of cucumber varieties over the years, the way these make me smile indicates that these are going to join the long-term family collection here on our farm.”

I love the image of asking a plant to adopt me. It speaks to the way healthy relationships change and deepen over time. My partner and I started out as acquaintances, then became good friends, and then significant others, before making a lifelong commitment to each other. Our commitment deepened when we became co-parents of the next generation. This progression expresses the joy we share, and the care we have for each other. If so with people, then why not with plants? Why are our relationships with the foods that feed us stuck in suspended animation? Or, to borrow language from the dating scene, why are our plants getting “friend zoned”?!

Well for one thing, capitalism depends on our willingness to buy and sell stuff, including food and seeds. We’ve sacrificed much of our natural ability to be producers rather than consumers on the altar of “economies of scale.” It’s true that nobody can do it all alone. A certain amount of cooperation and commerce is beneficial. But becoming too far removed from the plants who keep us alive, I think, has not made humans any happier or healthier.

Nobody can do everything, but we can each do what we love. If you love food, you can grow it, and you can deepen your relationship with the plants who feed you by saving their seeds. Learning how to save seed in general is complicated, because plants can be annuals or biennials; self-fertile or promiscuous; pollinated by insects or wind. But learning how to save one particular type of seed for one particular type of vegetable is do-able for just about anyone.

Jaune Flammée seed 

Which varieties do you grow year after year? Which little sprouts feel like old friends when they pop up in the springtime? Which foods stir deep memories when you bite into them? What can you learn about the life cycles of those particular plants?

You don’t have to be an expert, and you don’t have to do it all at once. Just start with the easiest one. My first year saving seed, I only did Red Russian Kale. The next year, I added Schweizer Reisen peas and Jaune Flammée tomatoes, both of which are self-fertile. In 2022, I’ll try to save seeds from my Vorgebirgstrauben cucumbers. This will be my first insect-pollinated seed crop, and I admit, I am nervous! But I am going to try it anyway, because I love these little cucumbers, who are so prickly I have to wear gloves to pick them, but never bitter. I want to show them my gratitude, and count them among my extended family.

Time to Plant Salad? by Julia Frisbie

by Julia Frisbie

April 5, 2022

First, an unrelated note: “It Starts with a Seed” Seed Share!

Is the April 9th farmer’s market on your calendar? Transition Fidalgo will have a booth where we will be GIVING AWAY seeds and perennial divisions! If you’ve been following the garden blog, you know that the only veggies I’ve planted so far in 2022 are peas, so it’s not too late to pick out seeds for your garden. And as long as you’re willing to irrigate, it’s NEVER too late to plant some golden raspberries, red raspberries, or thornless blackberries… all of which I am bringing to share. We’ll have activities for kids, Sequoia will be teaching two  short classes, I’ll demonstrate soil blocking, and it’ll be a good time.

Saturday, April 9, from 9 – 2, with classes during this time
Anacortes Farmer’s Market, at the Depot at 7th and R

Time to Plant Salad?

Okay! Now for some information about growing salad! In April on Fidalgo Island, I start watching the ten-day weather forecast for a week of warm, gentle rain. Direct-sowing salad greens and radishes at the beginning of such a rainy period usually yields good results for me.

The seeds for lettuce, arugula, spinach, and radishes are tiny, and it’s hard to get them spaced out properly. If you’re an overachiever, you can start these veggies in soil blocks or 72-cell trays and then transplant them at whatever spacing your heart desires. If you’re… more like me… you can broadcast them thickly, with plans to thin and eat lots of them at the baby-leaf stage.

I like to plant my salad at the feet of peas, because I find as the weather gets hotter, the peas benefit from the weed suppression of the leafy greens, and the lettuce benefits from the shade of the peas.

I don’t have much else to say about this because, to be honest, I think harvesting and washing homegrown salad is a pain in the butt. So I don’t plant much of it. Maybe Anna Torgeson will drop some wisdom in the comments section; she grows the best spinach I’ve ever eaten!

Time to Plant Peas! by Julia Frisbie

by Julia Frisbie

posted March 27, 2022 (two days early)

Several friends have texted me this month: “Is it time to plant vegetable seeds yet?” I respond, “Not unless they’re peas!” It’s not a totally comprehensive answer, because it’s also a perfectly reasonable time to sow fava beans… the thing is, most people don’t grow favas. Almost everyone grows peas. And why not?! Is there any green face more welcome in the spring than a row of peas, with their charismatic tendrils reaching out as if to hug your little finger?

March is the month when I start looking for signs that the soil would like some peas tucked into it. The weather’s different every year, and as the climate crisis intensifies our calendars will become less useful, so rather than doing it by a certain date I am looking for phenological clues among our wild neighbors. Last week the big leaf maples bloomed, and so I knew it was time to plant peas.

Peas can germinate at a variety of soil temperatures, from about 40 degrees on up, so I don’t bother starting them indoors or on my propagation table in trays. And there’s usually plenty of rain around pea planting time, so I don’t worry much about water, either. The big risk factor in successfully starting peas is that wild birds will pluck them right out of the soil and eat them as soon as they sprout. They’re big, starchy, delicious seeds, and the birds are extra hungry right now because they’re busy laying eggs. Linda Gilkeson, in her book Backyard Bounty, recommends pre-sprouting peas indoors in shallow trays of vermiculite for that reason. I’ve had great success with this method in the past, and if you only plan to grow a few dozen pea plants, it’s well worth the effort.

At this point in my life, I have a kid who thinks fresh peas are as good as candy, so if I want to eat any myself I have to plant them by the hundred, not the dozen. The vermiculite method is less practical at that scale. I use other strategies to try and protect my peas from birds.

First, I soak them overnight so that they’re rehydrated and ready to wake up. This helps them germinate all at the same time, which is more likely to overwhelm the birds so that they leave some peas for me rather than systematically eating every seedling as soon as it sprouts. I don’t mind sharing some peas with the birds, but I don’t want to share them all! When the seeds get plump rather than wrinkly, and when their little “tails” (that’s the place where the rootlet will emerge) are barely starting to untuck and become visible, I know they’ve soaked long enough. I don’t soak them longer than 12 hours, because I don’t want to drown them.

Then I dig a little trench, no more than an inch deep, and drop them in. Two- to four-inch spacing is fine. If I’m ambitious, I cover them with vermiculite to hold moisture next to them while they germinate even if we get a dry day. If not, I just pinch the soil closed over them. Then I water them in.

Three days after pre-soaking and planting into a shallow trench of vermiculite down the middle of my garden beds, all of my 2022 peas look like this, with a little rootlet reaching down for the soil:

Some pea varieties need support, and some don’t. Read your seed packet to know how tall your peas will want to climb, and then install an appropriate trellis at planting time so there’s no risk of disturbing the little roots once they’re established. If you don’t want to trellis them, choose a dwarf variety. Two thirds of my peas– Sugar Snap for early snacking, and Waverex for making peas-and-new-potatoes– grow only knee-high and need no support, which makes them easier for my kiddo to harvest. One third of my peas– Schweizer Reisen, which I grow for fresh eating and stir-fries over a longer harvest window– like to grow 6+ feet, which is a lot more work to get ready for, but I wouldn’t skip it for anything. The peas are just that good!

This year I’m experimenting with laying remay fabric over the tops of the pea rows. This should give them even more protection from birds… I just have to make sure I remove it soon enough so that the little pea shoots don’t get squished underneath it once they emerge!

Another strategy I’ve tried is to allow my mostly-indoor cat periodic access to the fenced backyard when the peas are about to germinate. She’s good at chasing off the birds, but she’s also likely to dig up the freshly-prepared soil and poop in it, so it’s not a perfect solution. Plus, I don’t really want to harm the birds, and I would be upset if she caught one. And, unlike birds, she doesn’t operate in the rain.

Meat Birds in the Easement — by Julia Frisbie

By Julia Frisbie

posted March 22, 2022

Our family is omnivorous, but we have serious concerns about both the ethics and the carbon footprint of conventionally raised meat. The more time we spend with our animals, the harder it is to imagine that they don’t have feelings, and the harder it is to eat meat raised on factory farms. I’ll never forget being passed by a flatbed semi on I-5, and glancing up to try and figure out why there was all this white fluff hitting my windshield… before realizing that the truck was stacked high with cages full of live chickens. After my initial bout of nausea, I wondered: why are we trucking chickens around on I-5, when they’re small enough to raise in any backyard?!

That was when I got motivated to raise my own meat chickens someday. I read books about the process. I took a weeklong class from Joel Salatin, a famous permaculturist who raises pastured poultry this way in Virginia. I learned that birds bred for meat production are basically defenseless against predators, and don’t fatten up if they get too much exercise. Rather than giving them a large area to roam, people who raise them on pasture do it in small pens which they move to fresh grass every day. This has the added benefit of stimulating extra carbon sequestration, just like any other rotational grazing plan but in miniature.

I even cleared it with the city planning department; they told me that as long as I didn’t erect any permanent structures, we could do whatever we wanted in the easement next to our house, including raising meat birds in a moveable pen. I asked, what about briefly exceeding the number of chickens allowed in the city code? Was that a problem? As long as it was temporary, and the adjacent neighbors didn’t complain, they weren’t too worried.

The only problem is, to raise chickens this way, you have to be at home every day for several consecutive months in order to move them daily so that they have access to fresh pasture. As two young professionals, we sometimes traveled for business, and we also visited family in Oregon several times a year. We couldn’t figure out how to make all that work with meat chickens, so we tabled the idea.

COVID-19 gave us the opening we needed. In March of 2020, as soon as it became clear that we’d be staying home for eleventy-bajillion days, we brought home 25 day-old “Freedom Ranger” chicks from the feed store. We set them up in a traditional brooder (okay, it was just a big cardboard box) with bedding, food, water, and a heat lamp. Usually we delegate the raising of chicks to a broody mama hen, but 25 is too many, even for a very good mama. This time, the raising would be up to us.


The very next day, we moved them and their food, water, and heat lamp into what we called our “outdoor brooder”: the bottom rung of an empty stacking compost barrel that was windproof and easy to clip the heat lamp to. Even tiny chicks can tolerate cold temperatures–  and quite enjoy the fresh air and sunshine– as long as they’ve got access to a 90-degree heat zone where they can warm up intermittently.


We moved this simple setup every day so that they had constant access to fresh grass. For two weeks, they commuted between their daytime outdoor brooder and their nighttime indoor brooder via bushel basket. Helping move the chicks was a favorite activity for our preschooler! They all looked the same, so he named them all Marshmallow.


Construction of a “chicken tractor” began. We built a three foot wide, ten foot long, two foot tall box with a slide-open door on each end. We attached steel roofing panels to one of the long sides and two thirds of the top so they’d get a nice balance of sunshine and shelter. Where we didn’t put roofing panels, we put hardware cloth. We left the bottom open. It was heavy enough not to blow away or get knocked over by a curious predator, but light enough that two adults could easily lift it a few inches off the ground and move it to a new spot.

On April 7, we put the chicken tractor in the easement, loaded all the chicks into a wheelbarrow (because they didn’t fit in the bushel basket anymore) and moved them into their new home. They immediately started running around, scratching, and sunbathing. They would still need a heat lamp on at night for a few weeks until they were fully feathered, but after watching their happy behavior, we had no doubt: the chicken tractor was a good habitat. They quickly learned to move along the ground inside their new home each day when we carefully lifted it to fresh grass.


The chicks in the easement turned out to be a great conversation starter. Of course, everyone who lives on our block is used to our antics by now, and they didn’t bat an eye. But kids, exercisers, and dog-walkers from the larger neighborhood often stopped to look at the chicks and chat. People wanted to know how they got there, why they were in a different place every day, and what we were going to do with that many chickens. Responses upon learning that we planned to eat them ranged from polite to enthusiastic. Helpful neighbors alerted us when a teenage chicken tunneled out between two big tufts of grass, and when coyotes were seen and heard nearby. Several people volunteered to help move the tractor, visit on butcher day to learn how it was done, or even buy meat from us!

We didn’t grow enough chickens to sell, but I certainly understood the appeal. That spring, amid supply chain uncertainty and slaughterhouse shutdowns, the factory farming poultry company Tyson made headlines by “depopulating” millions of birds. That meant pumping toxic white foam into warehouses full of caged chickens until every bird asphyxiated. People were justifiably horrified… and scared about food security. Getting to watch meat being raised a different way in their own neighborhood was exciting.


Only one person reacted negatively. She knocked on our door to accuse us of animal cruelty because the cage was too small. I tried to explain that if meat birds have too much space, they don’t reach slaughter weight before they start to crow. She was unmoved. I told her they have access to fresh pasture daily when we moved the tractor. She was unimpressed. I asked her if she ate chicken, and she said yes, but she only ate organic chicken. She couldn’t tell me where her chicken came from, but she was 100% sure it was “running around outside.”

That’s not actually what the “organic” label means. Organic meat chickens in the USA have to be able to “access the outdoors,” but usually a covered screened-in porch is all they get. There is no requirement for square feet of space per bird, or access to pasture, sunlight, or soil. The USDA’s “free range” label also doesn’t guarantee a minimum amount of space… or even full-body access to the outdoors. On balance, I think a life with sunlight and fresh grass in a moveable tractor is preferable; one of the main reasons we embarked on this whole project was to avoid animal cruelty.

But, it was true, the chicken tractor was getting a bit crowded.


In honor of the organic chicken lady’s discomfort, I slaughtered the birds who were obviously boys so that there would be no crowing and everyone else would have more elbow room. This was not the solution she had in mind. She called the cops on us. We got an apologetic visit from a young officer who said, “They’re meat birds? And you’re slaughtering the rest soon? Umm, okay, I’m just going to write a note in the report that says they look healthy and they have everything they need.”


And that was that. A few weeks later, our calendar read “CHICKENMAGEDDON.” One by one I lured them out of the tractor with handfuls of treats, held them in my arms, thanked them for their lives and the nourishment they would provide to our family… and then chopped their heads off. I’m not going to lie: it was a hard day. We scalded, plucked, and eviscerated them (Harvey Ussery’s book The Small Scale Poultry Flock was a huge help). We packaged, labeled, and froze them. We gave one to each of the adjacent neighbors to thank them for not complaining to the city, and packed the rest into the chest freezer. 

We ate homegrown chicken, and drank homegrown chickenfoot broth, for more than a year. Meanwhile, the easement changed colors. Monoculture gave way to polyculture. The chickens’ grazing pressure created intermittent disturbance, their manure added fertility, and their spilled grain seeded oats, wheat, peas, mustards, and who knows what else out there. From a person’s perspective, it’s a bit untidy. For deer, bunnies, and birds, it looks like a complete meal. From a bug’s eye view it must be a jungle. Carbon was sequestered, just as surely as our freezer was filled. 

Would we do it again? We didn’t last year, and won’t this year. The cost-benefit analysis of our time and effort didn’t pencil out; we might as well buy expensive free range chicken at the farmer’s market. If our family had more free time and less disposable income, that calculation might work out differently. Or if we could do it cooperatively and on a slightly larger scale– for example, with one other family to share the labor, and 50 chickens instead of 25– that might tip the scales in favor of homegrown chicken. But I’m glad we did it once. It helped us imagine and experiment with a different relationship to meat. 

What if neighbors teamed up to raise chickens in easements? Or herd goats along the alleyways to keep the blackberries down? Or keep rabbit hutches along the shady edges of the forest? What if backyard hens became neighborhood hens, and each street had a dairy cow rotating through its front lawns? I know I’m every HOA’s worst nightmare, but… how much food could we raise right here? How would it change the way we eat, the way we landscape, and the way we interact with each other? 

The only way to know is to get creative, try it out, and see what happens. 

Being a Mama Duck (by Julia Frisbie)

by Julia Frisbie

posted March 15, 2022


Snails and slugs are a menace… until you have ducks. Then they’re a resource! Free food!! Ducks are our favorite type of small livestock, and they have been very helpful at de-slugging our garden (and even the gardens of our neighbors). Male ducks are quiet and there’s no city ordinance against them, so it’s possible to keep a self-perpetuating flock. Their dirty water is great for fertigation, and their behavior makes us smile.

There are simpler and more complex ways to do anything, and the more time and attention you give something, the more complexity emerges. I give my garden a lot of attention. I rotate my animals through the landscape, pull weeds alongside them, and throw them bugs. My first set of ducks was very hard to manage this way, because they were three weeks old when we got them and they truly believed that I was a murderer. Ducks are herd animals and they all move together, which means that if even one is afraid of you, they’ll all run away. That’s not a big deal if they’re staying in a permanent duck run, but it’s hard if you want them to move alongside you through the environment you share.

Because I enjoy complexity and want to be able to pet my ducks and herd them calmly around my block, I now keep only imprinted ducks. Imprinted? No, we haven’t run them through our printer. What we’ve done is assumed the role of their parents. We are the first big creatures they see when they’re born, so they follow us and look to us for food, shelter, and warmth.

The following is an overview of how to raise ducklings… both the simple way, and the complex way. The simple way is based on how most humans do it. The complex way is what I’ve learned to do from experience and from everything I can find about how actual mother ducks behave with their young. I present both strategies so that, if you ever raise ducklings, you can choose your own adventure.


The simple way: outsource it. Buy day-old ducklings from a local breeder, a feed store, or a mail-order service (Metzer Farms ships sexed day-olds from California). Whatever time of year you order them, they’ll arrive fluffy and ready to eat, drink, and run around.

The complex way: a few years ago my son asked me, “Mommy, how do eggs work?” So we got an incubator and learned how to hatch fertile eggs ourselves. It takes 28 days. Robert’s Farm has published this great resource about small-scale incubation. Real mama ducks hatch eggs in the spring, and so do I. Because I want to spend as much time outside with the ducklings as possible, and it’s more pleasant for all of us if the weather’s warmer, I aim to hatch them in May/June. My son and I talk to the eggs every day when we cool them– the babies can hear us and begin to recognize our voices even before they hatch!

As soon as the duckies emerge, I scoop them out of the incubator and stuff them into my shirt for a few hours until they’re dry and fluffy. If they’ve still got egg residue on them after fluffing up, I wipe it off with a warm damp washcloth. For the first twenty-four hours after hatching, they just want to sleep and cuddle. They are still being nourished by their egg yolk, so they haven’t started eating. This is the time when a real mama duck would sit on her nest for one more day, talking softly to her brood and waiting for any late hatchers to emerge. For us, it’s a magical opportunity for maximum snuggling with minimum poop. We clear our calendar and spend an entire day holding ducklings. They spend their first night in a laundry basket with a heating plate on my bedside table.



The simple way: put them in a brooder with safe bedding like straw or pine shavings and a heat source. Heat lamps are cheaper, but heat plates are safer and allow for darkness at night. Ducklings grow faster than baby chickens, so don’t need as much heat for as long. Their habitat should have warmer and cooler zones with the heat source on one end, and the warmer zone should decrease from about 90 degrees on day 1 to about 83 degrees on day 7 to about 76 degrees on day 14. Increase the heat if they’re huddling together and peeping loudly, and decrease it if they’re spreading out and panting.

In the brooder they need continuous access to drinking water (enough to dip their bills in and clear their nostrils, but not enough to bathe in). They need access to unmedicated chick feed with 20-22% protein whenever their brooder is light inside (all the time if you’re using a heat lamp, or just during the day if you’re using a heat plate). You should mix nutritional yeast into the feed so that they get enough B-complex vitamins. Take them out of the brooder for 5-10 minute supervised activities, like snuggles, garden visits if it’s warm outside, and shallow warm baths. The brooder will need cleaning twice a day.

The complex way: This is the time when a real mama duck would leave the nest and start teaching her babies to forage. Tiny ducklings can tolerate cool temperatures as long as they can warm up intermittently. When they get cold, they start peeping loudly, and the mama duck knows to squat down and sit on them for a while to warm them. My equivalent behavior is scooping them up and stuffing them into my shirt. My mama duck uniform is a tight-fitting t-shirt to protect me from little toenails, with a loose flannel over the top. I tie the flannel shirt tight around the waist so that I can put ducklings inside of it without them falling out the bottom. It’s how I warm them up, and it’s also how I travel faster than their little legs can go when needed– including short car trips!

24 hours after the ducklings have hatched, the nourishment from their yolk sac is mostly used up, and they’re thirsty and hungry. I make sure they know how to drink water before we offer any food. My son (the self-appointed “duck daddy”) and I take them outside into the sunshine with a pie plate full of warm water, and poke the water with our fingertips until they get the idea to poke it with their bills. Once they figure that out, they also start sampling grass and soil from the garden, which helps inoculate their guts with good microbes. I offer finely-chopped scrambled eggs as an official first food. After that, I provide a mixture of unmedicated chick feed and nutritional yeast, sprinkled with tiny bits of whatever the humans in the household are eating. I rip up garden weeds into tiny pieces and sprinkle them into the water dish; ducks love to eat their salad in the bath. The bigger variety of food they’re exposed to early in life, the less they’ll be picky eaters as adults.

During their first week, choking is a real risk, so I chop their food very finely and moisten it to the consistency of oatmeal. During weeks two and three, I introduce dry food, bigger chunks of stuff, and whatever treats I’ll feed them by hand later in life (peas, cheerios, and dried mealworms or grubs). I also start weeding the garden with them, and pointing out bugs and worms as we unearth them. Again, they always need access to water, so I scoot the pie pan around with us as we move through the garden.



As soon as they start drinking and eating, they start pooping in earnest. So. Much. Poop. But there is a rhythm to it:

  • Eat and drink (and poop)
  • Explore and swim (and poop)
  • Preen
  • Sleep
  • Get a little squirmy in their sleep, and then wake themselves up by pooping, and then feel hungry again

After a swim, while they’re preening and sleeping, you can snuggle and hold them with minimal risk of being pooped on. The rest of the time, spending time outside helps me manage, or at least disburse, the poop. I set up a lawn chair and a little table for my laptop, and do almost all my work from the backyard. But there are inevitably times when I need to do other things (like preparing food for my HUMAN child) so I make a small brooder to contain the poop and drag it around the house with me. This is because if the ducklings can’t see me, they get very noisy. Reasonable, right? A wild duckling calls out for its mama duck if it gets separated from her as a survival mechanism. My portable brooder contains safe bedding, a heat plate, food, and water.

The ducklings sleep overnight in this same portable brooder. At night, a real mama duck doesn’t provide continuous access to food and water. She creates a warm, dark, boring environment to encourage rest… and maintains this for as long as the sun is down. I do the same. I take away the food and the water at dusk, and return it at dawn. This keeps the brooder slightly less disgusting. The brooder stays in the house for the first week, and then moves to the garage for the second week. Because they’re not in it 24/7, I only clean it once a day, right before they go to bed for the night.

Ducklings who grow up with real mama ducks get the waterproofing oils from her feathers on them every time they snuggle up, so they’re more resistant to wet and cold than ducklings raised by people. Still, ducklings raised by people are amazing swimmers… they just need supervision, a way to get out of the water when they’re tired, and somebody to patiently towel them off afterwards. I love letting the ducklings swim in a bathtub or a washtub basin. As they grow, I gradually decrease the temperature of the water and increase the duration of their swim time.

A normal, healthy fear of new things kicks in halfway through the ducklings’ first week of life, so I make it my business to desensitize them as early as possible to whatever I think they might encounter later:

  • New people (including kids)
  • Lots of different kinds of food
  • Hoses
  • Our whole yard, and any other places we might visit together, like neighbors’ yards, the lake, or the beach
  • Transportation (I teach them to independently enter a travel carrier by putting treats inside, and then show them that car and stroller trips are something to look forward to by only taking them places they’re bound to enjoy. By happy coincidence, ducklings and human kids tend to enjoy the same sorts of places.)
  • Verbal cues (“c’mon ducks!” to get them to follow me, “good stuff” for what to eat, and “WATCH OUT” for danger)












I never worry about them getting away from us when we’re out and about, because they follow us as if their little lives depended on it. That’s the magic of imprinting. The only thing I worry about is off-leash dogs, so my son and I are always on high alert in public places, ready to scoop the ducklings up at a moment’s notice… and then I’d have to scoop him up, too, because off-leash dogs terrify him. (Please keep your dogs on leashes unless you’re at the dog park. It’s the law and it’s polite.)

One thing I do NOT expose them to is being chased. Any kids who meet them get a handful of treats to distribute and strict instructions to sit still. I explain how ducks prefer interacting with people who are down on the ground at their level. We talk about how friendly hands reaching from below to offer a treat or pet their fluffy tummies feel safe, while hands swooping down from above feel like scary predators.


The simple way: move the ducklings to a bigger brooder. Put the brooder in the garage because the smell has become unbearable. Switch to 16% protein feed, and keep including nutritional yeast. Wonder why they’re becoming unfriendly and always running away when you try to pet them. At some point, notice that they don’t seem to need the heat lamp/plate anymore… and agonize over when to remove it. Mutter swear words under your breath as you continue to clean the brooder twice a day.

The complex way: when I feel their first new feathers starting to grow in around week 3, we stop picking the ducklings up. These pinfeathers are TENDER as they’re emerging from the skin. We still get down on the ground near the ducklings, let them eat from our hands, and let them jump onto our laps, but we don’t try to pet or hold them, because we don’t want them to associate our hands with pain.

It’s nearly impossible to transfer ducklings in and out of a brooder without picking them up, so this is the time when I let them start sleeping outside. I’ve found that as long as they can still get out of the wind and rain and under their heat plate, they’re fine. As they grow new feathers, the ducklings become more and more weatherproof, and use the heat plate less and less. They’re still vulnerable to predators, so their outdoor enclosure has to be secure. I now give them access to water, but not food, overnight.

My son and I develop a daily routine of letting them out of their enclosure to swim, play, and forage every morning when we come outside. That way they look forward to seeing us, and associate us with deliciousness and freedom. If I need to be away during the day, I put them back into their safe enclosure with access to water, chopped greens, and 16% protein feed mixed with nutritional yeast. I make sure that anyone who visits them comes with a handful of treats. We continue the desensitization routine as much as we can without picking them up, including car trips to local bodies of water for swimming practice, and I no longer towel them off after a swim.



Because this stage involves less handling, it’s a great time to go on vacation and let a neighbor duck-sit by delivering meals twice a day.


The simple way: They finally have all their feathers, thank heavens! Move the ducklings outside, if you haven’t caved and done so already. Hose the brooder out and resolve never to do this again.

The complex way: wild ducklings stop following their mama ducks and become independent between 7-9 weeks of age. What that means is:

They no longer need supplemental heat, so I can take the heat plate away.

We can once again pet and hold them without hurting them, and

They don’t want to be petted or held, because they’re feeling independent.

So, between 7 and 9 weeks, we double down on our people-are-fun routine. Other keepers of friendly ducks recommend feeding by hand on a schedule, and forced cuddling and treat routines. I like these ideas. We aim to spend at least an hour of quality time with the ducks every day where they get to come out of their run and forage while we play outside or work in the garden.



We go on as many fun swimming outings as I can manage. And we feed them lots of treats from our hands, especially while moving across the landscape and calling “c’mon ducks!” This teaches them to keep following us even though they’re no longer babies.

My ducks don’t need their mama anymore, but they still want to be with me because they associate me with food and fun.


The simple way: Accept that ducks are naturally skittish creatures that always run away from you. Still enjoy watching them. Designate a permanent run and allow them to turn it into mud. Eventually offload your extra drakes to hapless strangers on Craigslist. Enjoy an abundance of duck eggs and a reduction of slug damage to your plants.

The complex way: Because our ducks willingly follow us, we use moveable fencing and rotate them through the landscape. We give them seasonal access to the entire yard so they can root out slug eggs and break the pest cycle; move them through each garden bed before we plant it to maximize fertility; and allow them to cohabitate with the chickens outside of breeding season. Mud still happens, but it’s not forever. I’m not comfortable with the idea of a permanent sacrifice zone.

Robin Wall Kimmerer describes a continuum of relationships to land in the chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass called Collateral Damage. First is “LAND AS CAPITAL” with the sole purpose of generating a profit. This is the relationship that leads to sacrifice zones– the example she uses is the Solvay waste beds of industrial sludge at Onondaga Lake. Here on Fidalgo Island, we have March Point and the contaminated waters of Padilla Bay as our own living example of a sacrifice zone. If that’s unacceptable to me on a large scale, why would I allow it on a small scale in my own backyard?

The next relationship she describes is “LAND AS PROPERTY: If land is just private property, a mine of ‘resources,’ then you can do whatever you want with it and move on.” You spray chemicals in your yard, and I’ll keep my ducks in mine. But we know it doesn’t really work that way, because all borders are imagined. Poison will trickle downhill, and slugs will scale fences. It’s not enough to only care for what “belongs” to each of us.

So we de-slug the whole neighborhood, wandering through easements and alleyways at dawn and dusk because that’s when the hunting is best and the sky is prettiest. We talk to the neighbors about fertilizer and herbicide runoff in the ditch that drains to Puget Sound. We invite neighborhood kids to feed the ducks by hand (tickly, hilarious) and pet them (silky on the outside, and so soft if you gently dig your fingers into the downy layer).

Because we handle them often, we can provide basic vet care to the ducks without stressing them out… and yes, it’s easier to catch and butcher the extra boys. Every duck feeds us, one way or another. We find that keeping both ducks and chickens gives us a near-constant supply of homegrown eggs. Each species takes an annual break from laying, but they do it at different times: ducks rest in the summer through early fall, and chickens rest in the late fall through winter. In the spring, everyone lays, and we have our pick between chicken and duck eggs. We almost always choose duck, because they’re richer and tastier. We store the surplus in the bellies of our friends and neighbors.

Kimmerer goes on to describe “LAND AS MACHINE” (where plants and animals are treated as solutions to engineering problems); “LAND AS TEACHER, LAND AS HEALER” (where plants and animals are given space to lead the way to wholeness); “LAND AS RESPONSIBILITY” (where people prioritize caretaking of their nonhuman relatives); “LAND AS SACRED, LAND AS COMMUNITY” (where the place itself has rights, honored with ceremony and legal status). At first the ducks were just a solution to my slug problem, but the more time I spend with them, the more they lead me into deeper relationships with the place where we live.

Is raising ducks the complex way worth the extra effort? Maybe not for everyone, but for me, yes. It’s part of how I show love for this place and all the more-than-human neighbors we share it with. I hope that if my son recognizes ducks, dahlias, trees, and lakes as extended family, he will never be lonely. So we pull on our wetsuits in the summer and take the ducks to Little Cranberry lake, because who doesn’t want to go swimming with ducks?! How can you not fall in love with a world in which this is possible?



For me it’s a small step towards the final relationship Kimmerer describes, the one still in the making. The one where a once-contaminated lake has been restored, and transformed from collateral damage into a place where kids are swimming and families are picnicking. They take care of it because they love it. “LAND AS HOME.”

Gardening for Beginners

by Julia Frisbie

posted March 9, 2022
Also shared with the readers of the Anacortes American for the March 9, 2022 edition

Growing plants is like anything else: the more you learn and pay attention, the more complexity emerges. People have lived alongside food crops since time immemorial, and there are a lot of different ideas about how to do it. But it doesn’t HAVE to be complicated. This article describes how beginners can get started with a new garden.

First, choose a site that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. More sunlight is better. If there are lots of deer in your neighborhood, you’ll need to fence your garden, because they like edible plants just as much as we do! Err on the side of making your garden too small rather than too big. It’s better to be itching for more than it is to get overwhelmed. The closer your garden is to your door, the easier it will be to notice and take care of. As Adrienne Marie Brown writes, “What we pay attention to grows.”

Next, prepare the soil. The islands of Puget Sound are what’s left after a glacier scraped the rest away, so we’re short on topsoil. For this reason, I recommend adding compost on top of the existing soil at your site rather than trying to till. You can mound it up if your site is large, or make a raised bed if your site is small. A fluffy, six-inch-deep layer of compost will turn almost any site into a garden.

Choose what to grow based on what you like to eat or look at. For example, I am in love with tomatoes and dahlias, so those two are the queens of my garden and everything else has to fit in around the edges. Some easy and delicious choices for beginners are peas and beans. Herbs are expensive in the grocery store, but most are easy to grow, so that’s a good way to get a lot of bang for your buck. You can either plant seeds or buy small plants called “starts” from a nursery. All seeds need moisture to germinate, but beyond that, their requirements are as diverse as the plants that made them; if in doubt, buy starts.

With our arid summers, we have to irrigate rather than relying on rain to water our gardens. In a small plot, you can water by hand. In a larger plot, it’s worth setting up drip irrigation. First thing in the morning is the best time to water your plants, because that’s when they begin photosynthesizing, and they need water for that process. It’s best to pull out weeds as soon as you notice them, and it’s easiest to do this when the soil is damp, so I like to do my weed patrol and my watering at the same time.

Fertilization depends. If you start in a place with very rich soil– for example, a spot where a chicken coop or a compost pile used to be– you might not need to fertilize during the growing season. But if you start on a place that used to be a lawn, you’ll need to fertilize. Sprinkling slow-release fertilizer pellets over the soil might be easiest, but I think plants absorb fertilizer best and fastest in liquid form. My favorite is a concentrated solution called “liquid fish” or “liquid kelp”, which I dilute with water and spray directly onto the plant leaves first thing in the morning. I keep backyard ducks, and a basin of dirty duck water dumped over the plants has a similar effect. Another low-cost nitrogen source is your own urine, which can be diluted 1:10 with water and poured over any plants whose leaves you don’t plan to eat. (My preschooler knows he’s always welcome to pee in the corn patch, because corn is an especially hungry plant.) When should you fertilize? With average soil, I aim for once every two weeks, or anytime my plants begin to look yellowish.

Finally, after all this preparing, planting, watering, and weeding, and fertilizing, it’s time to harvest and enjoy! You can get very creative with recipes, but my favorite way to eat homegrown veggies is raw, sun-warmed, and immediately after picking. A relationship between people and plants allows both partners to be fed. This type of reciprocity has lured wild plants closer to human settlements, and children into gardens, for millennia. We co-evolved to care for each other. The memory is right there, just under the surface, ready to germinate.

How to Build a Heated Propagation Table

By Julia Frisbie

posted March 1, 2022

I used to start heat-loving seeds on my kitchen counter in soil blocks under shop lights, but when covid hit, that same countertop became my husband’s background for zoom church. He’s the pastor, so we can’t have him backlit. My seed-starting habit needed a new location.

We didn’t have room for a greenhouse, so we built an outdoor heated propagation bench instead. Think of it like a tabletop greenhouse. I got the idea from my market gardener friends Tony and JP of Green Heart Gardens in Portland, Oregon, who start all the seeds for their CSA in a similar setup. It works great for them and for me. If you’ve outgrown your indoor grow-light setup, but can’t commit to a greenhouse, it might work for you, too.


  1. Measure your seedling trays and decide how big of a table you need! Design it to fit the dimensions of the trays you plan to use. For example, my 3 by 4 foot tabletop can accommodate up to six standard 10” x 20” trays at a time. Tony and JP built a much bigger table because they needed to start way more plants at a time.
  2. Build a table that’s strong enough to hold hundreds of pounds of weight forever. Tony and JP used a sheet of plywood set on top of concrete blocks. I put hefty legs on a shipping pallet.
  3. Build up the edges of the table 4-6 inches, so that the top of the table becomes a shallow box like a raised bed. This shallow box will eventually contain all the following stuff:
  4. Cut a piece of rigid foam insulation to the exact dimensions of the inside of your tabletop box, remove about one square inch from each of the corners to allow for drainage, and cram it in there. This keeps the heat where the plants can use it.
  5. Staple a heavy-duty plastic liner to the inside of the box so that moisture doesn’t sit directly on the foam, and then cut drainage holes through the plastic in all four corners of the table (directly over the cutaway parts of the foam) so that water can escape out the corners of the table and onto the ground.
  6. Put pea gravel into the lined box, 1-2 inches deep. It will act as a heat sink. Tony and JP used sand instead of gravel at first, but it was too dense and held too much water; their seedlings’ roots grew straight through the bottoms of the trays and into the sand. Now they use gravel, because it holds heat but not water, which encourages plant roots to air-prune themselves instead. That gets them off to a better start when it’s time to transplant.
  7. Cut a piece of hardware cloth to the dimensions of the inside of the box. Zip tie a heating cable to it (following the spacing instructions that came with the cable) so that the entire area will be heated.There’s a sweet spot for germinating tender annuals right around 77 degrees; most horticultural heating cables are pre-set to maintain this temperature as long as their heating probe is positioned correctly. Lay the hardware cloth and heating cable into the box, and zip tie the heating probe into place.
  8. Put another layer of pea gravel on top of the cables, 1-2 inches deep. This will increase the thermal mass of the growing area, and allow the radiant heat from the cables to be evenly distributed to the entire tabletop.
  9. Attach flexible PVC hoops to the outside of the tabletop.
  10. Optional: zip tie irrigation tubing to the underside of the hoops. Place emitters where they will create a fine mist over the entire tabletop. If you’ll be home for the entire seed-starting season and you prefer to water by hand, you don’t need to bother with this. (I like to water my seedlings from the bottom by dipping them into trays of dirty duck water and letting them wick it up.)
  11. Clip or tie clear plastic over the hoops. BE CAREFUL to vent this plastic cover on sunny days, or else your plants will cook. Later in the season you might even leave the ends open all the time, or switch it out for a fabric frost blanket.
  12. Plug in the heating cable, stick a timer on the irrigation tubing, and you’re ready to start your seeds!










Stacking functions: I also use my propagation table to dry herbs once the weather warms up. Here are some nettles for tea, alongside trays of cucumbers, tomatoes, and squash. In summer and fall, I unplug the heating cable, but I still use this hot/dry spot to dry down seed pods.