A Potato Problem; and a Perennial Brassica

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted May 25, 2020
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I’ve grown potatoes successfully for many years, always making sure to rotate my plantings each year, and to avoid disease using new potato seed instead of the last of my stored potatoes. I try to get mostly egg-sized seed potatoes to plant whole, and cut any larger ones into separate pieces with at least 2-3 eyes. I dry the cut ones for a day, to let the cut surface dry out.

This year, however, whole sections of the rows never sprouted, particularly the favorite Yukon Golds, with failure also in parts of the Cal Whites and a few of the Red Lasodas. When unearthed, the affected seed potatoes were all rotted, with no sprouts, particularly the ones that had been cut. Was the problem in the seed itself or in the soil? Or did the cutting open them to fungi? The area had been in pole beans and winter squash last year, and corn the year before, so soil rotation should not have been a concern. Plus, I had grown potatoes there in prior years. Very disappointing, since potatoes are as an easy and usually reliable crop.

Although there would be plenty of time to replant, the supply of seed potatoes is long gone, given this year’s surge in gardening interest. When a garden setback occurs, the best thing is to fill the gap quickly. So I planted winter squash starts to cover the bare soil: Cinderella‘s Coach, Kabocha, and Sweetmeat. Hopefully the fact that winter squash and pumpkins had been planted in the same area last year will not be an issue. Plus, the plot had a winter cover crop of annual rye that had been tilled in. Gardens are always an experiment and often an exercise in overcoming adversity.

Note: if anyone else had problems with their seed potatoes this year, please let me know. As in past years, my seed came from the hardware store in town.

A Perennial Brassica

Many years ago I received a gift packet of seeds from a pair of pilgrims who had walked the Camino and then returned the next year to serve as hostel hosts on the Path. The seed was an extremely frost-resistant variety of Kale, with large flat leaves like collards, and commonly grown in gardens in Galicia, thriving in the rainy winter coastal climate similar to the Maritime Northwest. Most unusual for a brassica, it was a perennial, not dying back after going to seed the second season. Each year the plant gets larger and bushier, makes flowers for seed, and surrounds itself with multitudes of seedlings. Fittingly, the tall, thick stalks are fashioned by local craftsmen along the Camino into lightweight walking sticks for the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella. Holy Brassica.

Sadly, the couple who had originally brought me the seed have now both passed on. So, in their memory I maintained several of these everlasting Spanish kales, until finally the plants got too large and had to be removed to make space. But the original plants left behind a store of viable seed in the soil. Even after several years, I found numerous seedlings sprouting up where the parent plants had been. So, as a way of perpetuating the variety, I transplanted them this year into super-sized pots meant for small trees and installed them as mementos in my non-vegetable backyard, hoping they will survive the deer who graze there each evening. I look forward to seeing the large green leaves, as emblematic to me of the Camino as the mileposts there marked with the sign of the pilgrim’s scallop shell.

Note: the variety is officially known as Cabbage-Kale, and originated in the Isle of Jersey.

 

Garden Structures

With Betty Carteret and Anna and Torgy Torgersen

 

“The raised beds that Eric built me are not only great looking but are a great relief for a gardener with arthritic knees. We repurposed leftover siding from the house to build the raised beds, which match the house too. It’s easy to create a little hoop house with netting to deter deer (shown in photo) or floating row cover for heat and weather protection.  
 

“I use cold frames, plastic sheeting, and water in 2 liter plastic bottles to warm up those heat-loving tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.  These techniques have worked well for me in the past.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To keep their ten spaghetti squash vines up off the ground, and growing toward the sunny south, Anna asked Torgy to build two, flat, lath frameworks that had 6 x 6-inch spaces for the squashes to hang through. As the vines grew and flowered, Anna wove them in and out of the lath strips. Developing  squashes were tucked down through the holes, but stayed high enough not to touch the soil. When the vines died, 27 squashes were ripe and ready to harvest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because hungry deer are a constant problem in our backyard, Torgy constructed an easy-to-remove, hoop house over the raised bed to protect low-growing vegetables like lettuce and greens. He took 1 x 4 lumber, and made a frame that fit over the top of the raised bed. Then he fastened sheep fencing (wire) to one of the long sides of the frame and arched it over to the other side, creating a tunnel. Next, he closed both ends of the tunnel with more fencing. He bent lath strips and attached them to the inside of the tunnel to reinforce it. By placing a stake in the middle of one of the sides of the structure, the hoop house can be tipped to allow the gardener to weed or harvest. In the early spring, Reemay or plastic film could be stretched over the wire to create a cold frame.

More about Trenching-in Tomatoes

By Jan Hersey

Regarding Peter’s TWIG post on planting tomatoes, here’s what I did with tomatillos (same technique for tomatoes).

Remove lower leaves from tomato plant.

Dig about a 14-in trench, 6-8” deep on the end where root ball will go, sloping the trench up to original soil level at opposite (stem/leaf) end. Place tom as shown below, gently bending up leaf end, supporting it with and securing it to a small stick.

Cover root ball and stem with soil, then create a moat around the former trench. Trim off more leaves if needed. Ultimately, you’ll want a foot of leafless stem (helps prevent getting water on leaves) before allowing plant to branch into 1-3 stems).

Weight down an empty gallon plastic pot with some stones and place it on the soil between the root ball and growing stem. Throughout the season, water into the pot, which will slowly release the water into the trench.

Spring Update, and Brassicas

by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted May 18, 2020
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Crops planted earlier in April are starting to take off. The first potato leaves are pushing up at the bottom of their trench and will need repeated hilling around the stalks to make more spuds and less foliage. The bush snap and tall snow peas are knee-high and starting to flower as they climb their trellises. The storage onion seedlings and the onion sets are 6-8 inches high, while the first beds of leek transplants are being installed.

In the hoop house all the tomato and pepper plants are finally in, the cucumber transplants are adding leaves, and the direct seeded cukes are starting to pop up. I have a few eggplants, but I do them in large pots filled with commercial soil to avoid the verticillium wilt disease that has built up in the garden soil over the years.

Finally, the early cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower starts, as well as the long-term Brussels Sprouts, are starting to push up against the floating row covers.

A Note on Brassicas: the 4-Season Crop

In the coastal Pacific Northwest’s moderate maritime climate vegetable gardeners are able to a grow one or more variety of brassicas year-round.

Broccoli
Photo by Betty Carteret

Cabbages start in the spring with a variety such as Early Jersey Wakefield, continue on through the summer with large heading varieties for slaw and sauerkraut, while long-standing red cabbage matures slowly over 100 growing days. Hardy Fall/Winter green cabbage such as January King, planted in mid-to-late summer, keep sprouting through our mild winters. Other cabbage varieties include the crinkly Savoy, as well as the various types of Oriental cabbage.

Broccoli is much the same, with early, mid-summer and fall crops. There are also two purple over-wintering varieties: the Valentine broccoli that heads up in late February or March, even amidst brief snowfalls, and the Purple Sprouting broccoli that slowly develops as a leafy bush all the winter and then produces masses of small edible buds in early spring.

Cauliflower I find is usually just one crop in summer, with both the standard white variety and the green Romanesco with its circular pattern of pointed buds. Brussels Sprouts, started in the spring, start to mature in late fall, and stand tall all winter.

Red Cabbage
Photo by Betty Carteret

With all these possibilities to fill up the garden space it is vital to rotate your cabbage crops to avoid build up of soil disease. Do not plant brassicas where they were grown the prior year. There are also endemic insect threats, especially the cabbage root maggot fly, which will destroy the roots of young brassica seedlings. The cabbage butterfly, the familiar white floater, produces caterpillars deep inside the cabbage head, but the damage is usually minimal. And aphids will hide in the soft tops of Brussels Sprouts in both summer and winter, but can be deterred by spraying with a mild solution of detergent and water.

Protect all brassicas initially against insects with floating row cover, well-sealed on the ground on all sides, and held up by wire hoops over the beds. I leave the cloth protection on until the plants are at least half grown or more and can survive on their own. Check often under the cloth to remove weeds, snails or slugs. The final reward is when you remove the cover to reveal the luxurious maturing crop. Almost like magic.

Beans

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted May 11, 2020
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With the warm weather in May, once the soil temperature is above 60 degrees, it is time to plant beans. At the large vegetable garden I share with another family, we plant three 8-foot long rows of Blue Lake pole beans, a reliable northwest variety that is good both fresh and frozen. In the past we used tall metal fence posts supporting string or netting to hold the vines. This year to make it easier to do the initial set up, and the removal of the dead vines in the fall, we are using galvanized 4×8 metal cattle guard fencing set on end. Once the beanstalks get to the top, and want to keep on growing out of easy reach,  I redirect them laterally on horizontal sticks laid between the the tops of the bean walls. The result is a covered arbor; the beans hanging down over the inner walkways, easily picked like overhanging fruit.

I like pole beans because they can be harvested continuously over a long period of time. The trick is to keep them picked while they are still tender, before the beans swell inside the pods and become inedible. Unless you want to save seed for next year, be sure to remove any bean pods at the bottom of the stalk that start to turn brown, to keep the plant producing new beans at the growing tips at the top.

There are many types of bush beans, which generally produce a more concentrated crop over a shorter period of time. My personal favorites include Burgundy beans, dark purple beans that turn bright green when cooked, along with tender French filet beans, a gourmet variety that is picked when very thin and delicate. This year I am trying Venus, a white Italian cannellini bean for either fresh use or when dried as the standard dry bean for minestrone soup.

With our longer and warmer summers these days, it is increasingly possible to harvest dry beans in the maritime Northwest. Several pioneer-era varieties of beans that will dry successfully before the fall rains were carefully saved by Puget Sound area gardeners over the years. The short-season varieties have been rediscovered and are now beginning to be available commercially. The WSU Agricultural Research Extension in Mount Vernon is also doing trials on other dry beans for local use. Grow your own vegetable protein.

Finally, there are Scarlet Runner beans, well-known for the red flowers that attract hummingbirds and for the vigorous vines that will easily ascend the tallest pole you can supply. As dry beans, the large, dark purple and black beans are very meaty tasting . A unique trait is that a mature Scarlet Runner bean that falls to the ground and gets buried in the soil will sometimes overwinter and sprout in the spring.

Let’s Save Seeds for Local Food Security

by Sequoia Ferrel

Posted May 6, 2020
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In such uncertain times our thoughts turn to making sure we’re secure in basic necessities such as food and clean water. The best way to achieve food security is to have a robust local system where the majority of our food needs are provided through small farms and home gardens.

As gardeners and farmers we’re dependent on having access to seeds for the plants we want to grow. Since the Covid-19 crisis, there’s been a high demand for seeds and many have sold out. So, in order to work towards developing a strong local food system, it’s imperative that we start with the seed supply.

TF&F hopes to start a seed-saving network in which participants will each be responsible for growing and saving certain seeds based on their experience and preference. Then, before the next growing season (two seasons for biennials) we’ll be able to share the seeds so everyone can have a full garden worth of seeds and more to spare.

What follows is just a basic overview of seed-saving. I’m aware many of you already know all this stuff.

To get high-quality seed involves a little more than just waiting for something to flower and set seed and then  gathering it up. Especially if we’re selecting for food crops, we want to choose seed from the healthiest plants that perform best for us under our growing conditions.

To start, we must be willing to set aside some garden space for our seed crops (if they’re biennials, that will involve this year and next also).

We also have to use open-pollinated seeds and not hybrid seeds (which won’t make new seed true to its parent). Seed catalogs will let you know whether the type of seed you’re buying is a hybrid or not.

Seeds can also be either self-pollinated or cross-pollinated. For those of you new to seed-saving, it’s best to start with self-pollinated crops as they can be grown fairly close to other varieties of the same species without fear of cross-pollination. Some of these are peas, beans, lettuce and tomatoes.

For those of you more experienced or up for a challenge, you can try growing crops that cross-pollinate, which may be pollinated by insects or wind. If you choose this option, you’ll need to know not only to keep other varieties in your garden from flowering at the same time but you’ll need to be aware of other gardens and farms that may be within your isolation distance. Some seed crops just can’t be grown here — for instance carrots will cross with Queen Anne’s Lace — which as far as I know grows everywhere in this area.

There are also 3 other main categories of plants: annuals, biennials and perennials. Annual seeds can be saved the same year they are planted. Biennials, such as the cole crops and root crops, will make their crop the first year and need to be kept alive into the second year, which is when they put their energy into making seed.

I’m willing to head this seed-saving network and if anyone wants to help, you’re more than welcome! My idea is that initially everyone interested will notify me, and the group, as to which seeds we want to save, and then we’ll  make adjustments so that we don’t have, for instance, 10 people saving lettuce and no one saving beets.

Once we decide who grows what, I can send you specific info concerning your seed choices. I’m not an expert but I do have reference materials, including The Organic Seed Grower by John Navazio, which is the definitive reference. I also have a few seed screens and fan, and can help with the seed cleaning when we get to that point.

You can reply to this blog or contact me directly at gaiarisingfarm@gmail.com.  HAPPY GARDENING

Growing Tomatoes 🍅

by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted May 4, 2020
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I plant a mix of cherry tomatoes, beefsteak types for slicing, Italian sauce tomatoes for freezing, and always a few heirlooms to try out for intense flavor or unique coloration. Once the soil has warmed to a toasty 60F inside the hoop house, usually by the end of the first week in May, it’s time to transplant. This year I have an improved metal soil thermometer that looks just like a large meat thermometer from the kitchen, but geared, of course, for much lower temperatures. Well worth the expense to know exactly when the ground is warm enough for heat-loving plants. I put a large pot or a box over all new transplants to shield them for a day or two to reduce shock, especially on the sunny days that have been more prevalent the past few years.

Growing tomatoes involves some form of staking, wire cages, or a vertical string assembly. When I was a kid back in the hot and humid East Coast, we just let the vines spread out on the ground, with the suckers sprouting laterally in all directions over a wide area, just like a pumpkin patch. With smaller gardens, and tomatoes inside greenhouses or hoop houses in the Northwest, growing them vertically saves space. A support system also helps prevent diseases, such as the blights that come from foliage contact with soil, and of course elevates the clusters of fruit, making them easy to pick.

The big issue is pruning: removing suckers on a regular basis. Otherwise you end up with a tangled mass of too many stems, too much overlapping foliage, and smaller, less numerous fruits. For me, the best advice comes from local NW Garden maven Cisco Morris: select 3-4 main stems and then let them rip. Prune out any additional long skinny stems that start creeping up from the base.

Most importantly, make sure the first set of stems is 4-6 inches above the ground to avoid contamination. Then, as the plant bushes out, trim off any lower branches of leaves that start to touch the ground. No leaf contact is the order of the day, to prevent disease.

As the bushes fill out, it’s also vital to thin the crowded upper areas of leaves for better air circulation and to allow sunlight to penetrate into the central area of the plant to ripen fruit. Be vigilant with your pruning. Remember that this is a rambling, tropical ground vine being reoriented to growing on a vertical support.

I prefer the tall conical tomato cages that allow the branches to drape over the hoops. I tie up a series of cages in a conjoined row so that the bed becomes one long connected tomato hedge. To keep the heavy clusters of ripening tomatoes from breaking their fragile branches, I run lengths of rope along the sides, connected to the wire cages, to hold them up. A bit untidy looking, but I think of it as a seasonal espalier.

A tomato orchard.

Compost at Home: Food Digester Method

by Callie Martin

posted May 2, 2020

Gardens offer us a hopeful perspective. “They give us a way to connect to something immediate here and now and watch it grow,” says Dr. Rupa Marya, a professor at the University of California San Francisco’s Medical School.

One of the best ways to bring your home garden to life is through the creation of healthy soil. Did you know that all the leftover food scraps create conditions conducive for life to grow? They can when you make them into compost.

Since food scraps from the kitchen can attract rodents in the backyard, it’s best to begin using a method specially designed to break down food scraps, rather than tossing them into a traditional, open-air compost pile.

Building a Food Digester

One of the simplest ways to compost food scraps is in a sunken garbage can. The can should have a tight-fitting lid and holes punched into the sides and in the bottom. A galvanized can works well for this project, you can also use a five-gallon bucket. Here is the step-by-step:

  • Drill or punch about 20 drain holes that are one-quarter to three-eighths inch diameter, in the bottom of the can.
  • Drill 20 more holes in the sides of the can, but only in the lower third, which will be covered by soil.
  • In a well-drained spot, dig about 15 inches deep and set the can into the hole. Then, push the soil back around the sides and tamp it down with your foot or a shovel.
  • To get your digester ready for food scraps, gather shredded paper, dry leaves, or other chipped woody debris and layer it on the bottom of your digester, several inches thick.
  • Follow this by sprinkling two to three cups of garden soil onto the brown materials. This “inoculates” your digester with all the oxygen-breathing microorganisms that encourage healthy, odorless decomposition.

Your new digester is ready to use!  Collect food scraps, storing them in a container in your kitchen and once or twice a week, throw them into your food-scrap digester. A good way to keep fruit flies from getting into the bin is to layer the top with a thick piece of cut-out cardboard or newspaper. Placing a handful of shredded paper or dried leaves atop each addition of food scraps will keep mold or odors from developing and help the food scraps break down evenly. No worms need to be added to your digester. They’ll find their way in through the holes and help the composting process. Depending on your household food habits, compost should be ready to harvest in 6-12 months.

Food Waste for Compost

Go for It

  • Fruits, vegetables, tops, and bottoms
  • Rice and grains
  • Eggshells
  • Spent flowers
  • Tea bags
  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Cooked food without oil, dairy, or meat
  • Shredded paper

No-Nos

  • Meat and fish
  • Dairy
  • Bones
  • Oils and butter
  • Cooked food with oil, dairy, or meat

For more information about home composting and recycling please contact Callie Martin, Skagit County Public Works Waste Reduction Recycling Education Specialist at calliem@co.skagit.wa.us or
(360) 416-1575 and visit the website www.skagitcounty.net/compost

Integrated Pest Management Resources for Home Gardeners

Jane Billinghurst, WSU Skagit County Extension Master Gardener volunteer

Posted April 29, 2020
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In a recent post, I outlined the amazing free bulletins WSU Extension provides for people wanting to grow vegetables at home. Here are the two main links where these resources, tailored specifically for growing conditions in western Washington, can be found:

http://gardening.wsu.edu/home/

https://pubs.extension.wsu.edu/general-gardening

After you have planned and planted your garden, the next item on your list is to protect your hard work and keep your vegetables healthy.

The bulletins help here. There is info, for example, on dealing with voles and using row covers to keep insects away from your veggies.

But there’s another way to access info about dealing with pests and diseases that are common in western Washington. If you suspect a particular bug or disease, you can go to Hortsense and check out what the damage caused by those bugs and diseases looks like. The site then describes the biology of the pest or disease, lists non-chemical management options available to you, and provides general links to pesticide information.

WSU Extension also has a bulletin that explains how Integrated Pest Management works—that is, choosing the least invasive way of dealing with pests and diseases and keeping your vegetables healthy. Where and how you plant and your choice of what to plant all make an enormous difference to how healthy your vegetable garden will be. If you understand IPM (both in the planning stages and after you’ve planted your vegetables), you can set yourself up for success and have fewer pests and diseases to deal with in the long run.

WSU Skagit County Extension Master Gardener plant clinics are here to help if you’d like more info about how best to deal with a plant problem. The Master Gardeners (MGs) are not offering in-person plant clinics at the moment, but they’re taking inquiries via email (skagitmgplantclinic@gmail.com). You can also leave a phone message at 360-395-2368. Please provide the location and a detailed description of the problem, plant, or insect. Send digital photos if possible. Also, provide a phone number in case the MGs have more questions. You can find more information here.

Tomato Season Opens!

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted April 21, 2020
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Early May is the time to transplant tomatoes, perhaps the most wished-for home vegetable in the relatively cool Northwest.The raised beds inside my 40-foot long plastic hoop house have been warming up for several weeks. Tomatoes are a tropical vine that needs warm soil to start out as well as a minimum nighttime temperature of 50F degrees in order for the flowers to set fruit. And of course, warm daytime temps to fully ripen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where I garden even on the warmest days of summer the onshore wind starts to roll in every afternoon around 4 pm and the temperatures start to drop. Each evening the hoop house needs to be closed up to maintain a constant overnight warmth. Conversely, the house needs to be opened up early in the morning before it gets above 80-85 F inside, which can happen quite suddenly on a sunny morning with no wind. If it gets too hot, say above 90F, the flowers will drop off. In addition, condensation forms each night on the ceiling; the droplets need to air dry in place instead of falling on the plants and causing disease. And, for watering I let the chilly well water sit in a large tank for a few hours in order to warm up a bit. Warm soil, warm air, and slightly warm water, allows a tropical plant to grow well in the cool maritime Northwest.

What with watering, pruning and staking, and watching the temperature gauge, tomato production is a full time gardening chore. But large, ripe beefsteak tomatoes, Italian Romas for sauce, and handfuls of cherry tomatoes for eating out of hand are worth all the work.

Note on transplanting using the Trench Method:

I use 1-2 foot tall starts (pinch off any flowers that may have appeared). If you dug a 2 foot deep hole in the ground, the roots would be buried in cool soil. To keep the roots close to the warm topsoil, and to propagate additional root growth, make a lateral trench with one end 8-12 inches deep, but with a gradual slope of dirt rising at 45 degrees up to the other end. Gather a small berm of dirt at the far end, rising 1-2 inches above ground level. Add a standard organic fertilizer for vegetables, mixed into the soil at the bottom of the trench.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trim off the lower suckers and branches, leaving intact the top three branches and the main growth bud at the top. Make a small puddle of water at the deep end, put the root ball into a small depression in the mud, lay the bare stem gently on the inclined plane, with the stem of the top 3 branches resting against the berm at the other end. Use a thin bamboo stake to gently secure the exposed top branches in a slightly vertical position. Fill in the trench and continue the berm around the entire root and stem planting area. This is the permanent watering crater.

Make sure you water consistently above where the roots are, not at the stake. Water by can or hose gently onto the soil, without splashing dirt up onto the leaves, which can transmit disease. I place the gallon plastic pots the tomatoes came in, with a few pebbles inside for stability, at the center of the crater and then water directly into the pots to avoid splashing dirt on the leaves. The water also drains out slowly into the crater instead of arriving all at once and possibly breaking through the berm. Never water from above; keep the foliage dry at all times to avoid the dreaded tomato blight.

Happy Tomatoes!