Drip Irrigation

by Julia Frisbie

posted June 3, 2021

Every year when my family asks me what I’d like for Mother’s Day, my answer is the same: to finish setting up this year’s drip irrigation system. By mid-May I begin to think ahead to summer drought, and I also get tired of hand watering all the transplants. Finishing the drip irrigation is a big task, but a fun one (we call it the adult equivalent of LEGOs) and it brings me great satisfaction.

By using drip irrigation, we:  

  • Waste less water by delivering it only where needed
  • Cut down on weed pressure by reducing the surface area that gets wet
  • Avoid fungal infections by keeping leaves dry
  • Put it on “autopilot” when we travel, get sick, or get busy

If you’re worried you might forget or be unable to water, an automatic timer that can be programmed to run every morning is a good investment. Having your system on autopilot all the time isn’t optimal, but it’s better than NOT watering! 

There are lots of good ways to set a drip irrigation system up. I’m going to explain my process step by step. Please know that it’s not the only “right” way. 

First we bought a hose splitter, a backflow preventer, a pressure regulator, a timer, and a filter, and screwed them all together between the spigot and the adapter that connected it to the ½ distribution tubing: 

That’s a lot of stuff! But it’s important for the usability, safety, and longevity of the system. Start up costs (both money and time) probably prevent a lot of people from installing drip irrigation. What’s worse, a lot of the supplies are plastic. In a class I took at Polyface Farms, another student asked Joel Salatin how he justifies the use of materials made from fossil fuels like plastic and gasoline. His answer was that for each situation, he asks himself: is there a less energy-intensive way to do this? That’s why he digs ponds to catch and store rainwater rather than relying on the aquifer, and places his ponds upslope of his fields so that gravity can move the water rather than a pump. But when it comes to actually delivering water to plants, he uses poly tubing, because it allows him to do more with less. He told our class, “there are virtuous and unvirtuous uses for everything. Drip irrigation seems like a virtuous use of plastic because it keeps us from wasting water.” Salatin’s not a perfect person, but I think his reasoning makes sense in this case. 

  1. Following the instructions in Curtis Stone’s The Urban Farmer, we outlined each of our main annual beds with a closed loop of ½ inch distribution tubing:












  1. Then we ran two ¼ inch drip lines down the middle of each bed, attaching them on either end to the ½ inch distribution tubing. We inherited our drip lines from my grandfather, and they have an emitter every 12 inches. You can get lines with different spacing, or lines that are spongy like a soaker hose instead. That’s the backbone of the system. If you have a single garden area, it’s all you have to do! The couplers are easier to work if the tubing is warm, so I either do this on a hot sunny day, or I carry a thermos of hot water with me to soak the ends of the drip line in before I try to work with them. 

  1. Because our garden tends toward complexity (a polite word for chaos), we also ran ¼ inch tubing from the ½ inch distribution lines to any areas outside the plot that we knew would need extra water. This allows us to place emitters at the base of perennials that are just getting established, and mini-sprinklers in our raised beds. 

  1. At the end of each growing season, the ½ inch distribution tubing stays in place, but everything else is subject to change. If I need to temporarily remove ¼ inch tubing to prep a bed, I do so without a second thought, because it’s easy to put back. And on Mother’s Day each year, I double-check to make sure things are as they should be for the coming summer drought. 

If you set a timer to operate your drip irrigation system automatically, I recommend setting it for as early in morning as you can stand to hear the water start running through the pipes. From Chan and Gill’s excellent book Better Vegetable Gardens the Chinese Way, page 67: “For as long as the Chinese vegetable growers can remember, they have always been getting up early in the morning to water their plants. They do not do this just because they like to, but because the way they understand the plants tells them that this is when the water is needed most.” They note that the plants need water to begin their day’s work of photosynthesis, and also that a blast of cold water can wash the leaves clean of bugs, and even of a light frost in early fall. (Your drip lines won’t be blasting any leaves with water, but that’s still good to remember for supplemental hand watering or fertigation.)

The first two years we gardened here, we were working with layers of cardboard, mulch, and arborist chips on top of sod. I knew it would take a lot of water to decompose that cardboard, and I knew that my plants would develop relatively shallow roots, so I set the system to water everything every morning. It allowed us to get good results even in marginal soil. I was thankful to put it on autopilot while we were distracted/exhausted by the birth of our son, and while I was busy nursing him and pulling wood chips out of his mouth.

As our soil has gotten deeper and richer in organic matter, it holds water better. For a few years, while our son toddled behind me and learned the names of our plants, I ran the system every other day or every third day. I supplemented the drip irrigation system by fertigating by hand with a diluted fish/kelp mixture by hand about once a week. I would always skip the drip irrigation for a day or two beforehand so that the plants would be ready to absorb as much as possible on “Stinky Fish Day” and get the maximum benefit. (“Stinky Fish Day” earned its name because I would absolutely reek by the time I came inside for breakfast, and be guaranteed time and space to take a shower by myself– a lovely side effect for any working parent.) 

Last year, most parts of the garden only needed water once a week. After several years of rotational grazing by poultry, our soil’s fertility was through the roof, and I didn’t need to fertigate much other than dumping dirty duck water on my dahlias. So, I replaced “Stinky Fish Day” with “Drip Irrigation Day,” and only ran the system once a week. I did my spot watering by hand. (Spot watering is like spot cleaning for people who would rather do garden work than housework.)

How can I tell when to water? In the spring, when seeds are germinating and transplants are just getting established, I water almost every day that it doesn’t rain. In the summer, I usually garden barefoot, and although the top layer of mulch is dry to the touch, my feet can tell by its temperature and texture whether or not the soil beneath needs water. To double-check, I stick a finger in up to the second knuckle. If it’s dry that far down, I water. Some plants absorb a lot more water than others, so just because one area is dry doesn’t mean the whole garden needs a drink. It pays to walk every path every day and feel around. This year, we’re adding ball valves to our irrigation system so that I can toggle different areas on and off, pleasing both my thirsty cucumbers and my drought-tolerant tomatoes. 

The great thing about a homemade drip irrigation system is that it can grow and change with you over time. When you’re starting out, it can be simple. As your soil (and your relationship with plants) becomes deeper and healthier, you can tweak it. Ecosystems get more complicated as they mature. Drip irrigation can support the emergence of complexity gradually and with grace. 

Sweet Mother, Corn

by Julia Frisbie

posted May 27, 2021

My partner grew up on sweet corn in southern Idaho. At community potlucks he was famous for being able to eat about nine ears in a row… as a toddler! Everyone would show up to help pick at the Saitos’ garden, shuck it part way and strip the silks off, re-wrap it in its own husk, soak it in water for a few minutes, and then grill it on a Weber. Then his family would drive to Illinois every summer to visit grandparents, where they’d pick more corn from Uncle Rusty’s garden, shuck it, wrap it in wax paper, and microwave it before rolling its pearly surface around and around in the butter dish.

The point is: fresh sweet corn is not just a food for him. It’s a time machine to the happiest summer evenings of his childhood. There are also those for whom corn is a relative, a sacred ceremony, and a carrier of culture… for whom each ear of seed corn is greeted with a kiss and an incantation: “It’s good to see your mouth, good to see your face, Mother,” (The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic by Martín Prechtel).

I think you have to be that kind of person– or love that kind of person– to grow corn here on Fidalgo Island. Most people will tell you our weather’s too cool; the season’s too short; the soil’s got too much clay; and there are no afternoon thunderstorms to drench the shallow, mop-like roots. But love finds a way.

And so does genetic diversity. Corn and people co-evolved in almost every corner of our continent. There are as many types of corn as there are types of families… or at least, there used to be. The mechanization of farming and the ability to put a patent on genes have driven many varieties extinct. But there are pockets of resistance, with indigenous seed keepers leading the way. There are still so many types of corn that you can’t possibly have tried them all. Don’t let the naysayers scare you off. Look for varieties that take about 80 days or fewer to reach maturity. Last year I grew “Tuxana” and “Candy Mountain.” This year I’m trying “Honey and Cream” at Peter’s recommendation.

Sweet corn gets ripe all at once, so I grow two or three successions, depending on the weather. Corn won’t germinate in cool soil.  When you can walk comfortably on the damp earth barefoot, then you can plant corn. Sometimes it’s warm enough at the tail end of April, especially if you use a plastic tarp or a piece of black landscape fabric to help catch and store heat. If not in April, then certainly in May. I plant my last succession in June.

When it’s time to plant, I prepare the soil in a block-shaped bed, rather than a long skinny row, since corn is wind-pollinated. I soak the seeds for a few hours in a nice warm bath to wake them up. Then I poke them pointy-end-down into the soil. Once they’re a few inches high, I plant a half-high pole bean or a bush bean at the base of each one to provide a nitrogen boost:















I want the little corn plants sown in May to be knee-high by the 4th of July. After that, they can mostly out-compete the weeds, so I lay down some mulch around the base of each stem and quit weeding.








My family of origin doesn’t have a strong corn tradition, so I was flabbergasted the first time her lush, tropical-looking leaves waved at me from head height! I couldn’t believe how quickly all that biomass had arrived. Accordingly, corn needs a lot of nitrogen, so I often plant her in places where the chickens have spent time. I spray diluted urine and “Liquid Fish” fertilizer, and dump dirty duck water in the patch. It’s hypothetically possible to over-fertilize corn, but so far I haven’t been able to, and goodness knows I have tried. I didn’t want her to think I was ungrateful for all that beauty.

Corn needs water especially during tasseling, but you don’t want to rinse the pollen off the flowers, so I try to water from the bottom with a drip line or a carefully-aimed hose. The corn is counting on a little breeze to knock microscopic pollen grains into the air and let them drift downward at a diagonal onto the waiting silks of neighboring corn plants. (This is why we plant in blocks rather than rows!) A corn silk is actually an elongated style that carries pollen to the waiting ovary. When a pollen grain lands on a corn silk, tiny hairs on the end catch it and move it through the hollow tube of the silk. When it meets the ovary, fertilization is complete, and it swells to become a single kernel on the ear of corn. Every kernel has a silk attached. If you’ve ever opened an ear to reveal shrunken kernels, those are the ones who didn’t get pollinated.


The ones who are pollinated will swell with the sweetest milk. When I watch my son tromp out to the corn patch barefoot, shuck an ear, and bite into it raw, I’m flooded with the memory of nursing him. It’s that intimate. He has a need, and she meets it without question. I’m glad he’ll always have a good mother in corn.


Befriending Beans

by Julia Frisbie

posted May 20, 2021

How do you know it’s time to plant your beans? As the climate crisis accelerates, historical planting dates will become less and less useful. I use phenological cues

  • When the dogwood blossom petals are the size of a squirrel’s ear
  • When the wild blackberries bloom
  • Peter waits for the soil to hit 60 degrees
  • When the snow is gone from the face of Cultus Mountain

I grow several different types of beans: 


But none of them get their own dedicated garden space. Instead, I plant them at the feet of heavy feeders like dahlias, tomatoes, and corn. My primary goal with beans is fertility, not food. The fact that we also get to eat beans is a lovely side effect! 


Legumes like peas, beans, and clover have a very cool thing going on underground. All plants need nitrogen, but they can only absorb it from the soil, not from the air where it’s most abundant. Legumes have come up with a creative solution: make homes on the surface of their roots for symbiotic bacteria. These bacteria take the nitrogen in the air pockets of the soil and fix it into a soluble form that plant roots can absorb. These little round nodules are where the magic happens: 


All this is to say that beans make very good neighbors, especially for nitrogen-hungry plants. Indigenous farmers have recognized this since time immemorial, growing beans alongside corn and squash in three sisters plots. Lots of people have written about this. The relationships are beautifully traced in Braiding Sweetgrass, and some exact methods are described in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden

Beans come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and growing habits. Consider the height of each bean variety relative to its neighbors when you plan your garden. Many wonderful combinations are possible. Here’s what I’m growing this season, and where: 

“Rockwell” and “Ireland Creek Annie” bush dry beans under dahlias

  • “Provider” and “Empress” bush green beans under tomatoes
  • “Withner’s True Cornfield”, a half-high pole bean which makes flat pods, under corn
  • “Scarlet Runner” against tall fences and among tall blackberry canes

Beans also make a great beginner seed-saving project. All of the above except the scarlet runner belong to a single species, Phaseolus vulgaris, so it’s possible for them to breed with each other and produce unpredictable offspring. But because the flowers are mostly self-fertile, they rarely do. The Seed Garden (published by Seed Savers Exchange) recommends just 10-20 feet of isolation distance between varieties to keep each true to type. 

Saving the seeds is as simple as allowing the pods to dry in place on the vines. When they’re golden-yellow, crispy, and make a slight rattling noise, they’re ready. You can harvest individual pods as they ripen, or cut the whole bean plant at the soil level. Don’t pull its roots up, or you’ll be robbing its companion of a final nitrogen boost before the end of the season. 

To plant beans, I like to wake them up with a pleasant warm bath for a few hours. (An overnight soak seems to be too long, resulting in wrinkled seed coats and splitting seeds as they begin to decompose.) Then I take them outside and push them into the soil at the base of their companions with their belly-buttons facing down or sideways (never up). I give the companion plants a head start, waiting to plant the beans until they’ve got at least few sets of true leaves. 


If you’re only planting a few beans and you can’t afford to lose any to the birds or bugs who are attracted to their fleshy cotyledons, you may want to take extra precautions. In her excellent book Backyard Bounty, Linda Gilkeson recommends pre-sprouting them in trays of vermiculite: “Every seed seems to germinate, and there is little risk of root rot as the vermiculite doesn’t hold excess water. The seedlings can grow for 2-3 weeks (until they are a couple of inches high) on the food stored in the seed, so they don’t need soil.” She recommends poking seeds an inch deep into damp vermiculite inside a plastic container with drainage holes in it, keeping them at room temperature until they germinate, and then giving them strong light in a windowsill or cold frame. When it’s time to plant them, it’s easy to disentangle their roots in the loose vermiculite. 

I used to start my beans that way, but now I direct-sow them because I plant so many that I can afford to share with birds and bugs. Once you befriend beans, there’s no going back. 

I’ll leave you with our family recipe for “Dilly Beans,” i.e. pickled green beans. 

First, load pint jars with the following, in order: 

  • One grape leaf to line the bottom (this helps the beans stay crunchy)
  • Two small cloves garlic
  • One small serrano pepper (we now skip it in deference to our four-year-old, who doesn’t want his beans to be spicy)
  • Half a teaspoon mustard seed
  • Three or four peppercorns
  • A small handful of fresh dill (seeds and leaves)

Then, pack in the beans as far as they’ll go, side by side and pointy-end down, so tightly that they squeak against each other. Cut off the stem end of the beans below the jar neck. 

Last, bring the brine to a boil: 

  • Ten parts vinegar (white and brown mixed)
  • Ten parts water
  • One part canning salt

Ladle the hot brine into the jars on top of the beans. Add lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes. I make these all summer long, and then we wait until Thanksgiving to pop open the first jar. 

Comparisons of Small Livestock

by Julia Frisbie

posted May 13, 2021

True polyculture includes many types of animals in addition to plants. We’ve created forage and shelter for wild critters around our yard, and also introduced several species of small livestock. Since the pandemic is a great time to get more animals (where else you gonna go, what else you gonna do?!) I’m providing a comparison chart of animal co-workers in our garden that you might consider adding to yours. Different species are better at different jobs: 

Light Tillage Yes No No
Food scrap composting STAR PERFORMERS (we feed them everything, including meat, bones, and eggshells) Very little (they have trouble breaking big pieces into small ones) Very little (they’re choosy vegans)
Fertilization Yes, but their poop is “hot” and needs to age before planting Yes, and their poop is dilute enough to apply directly (plants especially love being ‘fertigated’ by dirty duck water) Yes, and their poop comes in convenient pellets that are “cool” and can be sprinkled directly in the garden
Bug control Yes Yes No
Slug and snail control A little  STAR PERFORMERS, this is their #1 mission No
Eggs Yes Yes (depending on breed) No
Meat Yes, but… old hens are tough, and roosters are illegal within city limits. We raised fast-growing meat birds in a movable pen last year and they were much better.  Yes, but… they’re so hard to pluck STAR PERFORMERS, they’re by far the easiest to butcher, skin, and eviscerate
Self Perpetuation Some broody hens can do a better job raising feed store chicks than you could in a brooder Ducks go broody less often, but it’s legal to have both sexes within the city limits, so if you have an incubator…  STAR PERFORMERS
Fur No No Theoretically, but it’s a pain to process
Down Feathers No Theoretically, but it’s a pain to process No
Ability to rotate/move Yes, but only with major effort to contain them Yes, with little effort. You can herd them like sheep. No

You’ll notice that cuddliness is not on this list. It’s actually a SUPER important consideration for us, because two out of three humans in our family regularly hug the livestock. But we’ve found that cuddliness depends more on each individual’s early and ongoing experience with people (frequent handling makes a calmer critter) and breed (some are more curious and outgoing, while others are more anxious) than it does on the species. If cuddles matter to you, get a friendly breed and handle it a lot. 

Your final consideration is housing. Of course they all make an easy meal for a predator and need secure nighttime housing… but what about letting them out in the day? How easy it is to keep them in one place, and how much damage do they cause if they escape? 

Rabbits are nearly impossible to contain. They dig. The only way to prevent them from destroying the garden is to set aside a permanent warren and bury fencing several feet into the ground all the way around it (not feasible in our rotational system) or keep them in small wire cages. I don’t have the stomach for cages, so we gave our rabbits away. If meat is your priority and you either have space for a warren or determination to cage them, then rabbits might work better for you than they did for us. 

Chickens are a bit easier to contain than rabbits, but they like to squirm under the bottom edge of fences, and if they get really excited they may fly over the top. They can be rotated in different areas as long as you’re willing to drag around and stake wire fencing that’s at least four feet tall… and even then, you may have escapees. When they get out, they scratch the soil up looking for bugs, leaving craters in the mulch and uprooting tender seedlings. These search-and-destroy missions can cost entire crops. We still keep hens, even though they’re naughty, because their ability to compost food scraps is unmatched. 

Ducks like having their bills stroked in cold weather, and they’re the easiest to contain by far. A three-foot fence will do it, and they don’t push out under the bottom. If they do run amok, they tend to do less damage than either rabbits or chickens. The worst they’ll do is trample young plants or take a nibble here or there. They’re also easier to redirect– you can herd them around like sheep. I often release the ducks temporarily so that they can work alongside me in the garden. I pull weeds, and they forage for slugs and snails. The downside of ducks is that they’re the most hydro-intensive, needing a fresh wash tub basin of water daily for the purposes of drinking, frolicking, and making mud. 

Any animal you share your life with will make you laugh. Just wait until you see rabbit binkies, chicken dust baths, or duck yoga. It makes all the fencing worth it. 

What about bees, quail, geese, red wiggler worms, et cetera? We haven’t tried them, but please leave a comment with your experience! What about goats? They’re still illegal to keep within city limits, but it’s high time to change that code (this is actually part of Transition Fidalgo’s Vision 2030). 

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

Monoculture lawns to Polyculture garden beds

By Julia Frisbie

posted May 6, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening to My Weeds – Julia’s Garden

By Julia Frisbie

Posted April 30, 2021

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

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



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

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



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



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


Weeds that say, “PLEASE ADD MORE MULCH”

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

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



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


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

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



by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted April 27, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Grape Tomato Seeds

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

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

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

San Marzano Heirloom Tomato Seeds | Terroir Seeds

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

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

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

By Julia Frisbie

posted April 22, 2021 — Earth Day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A View from Afar

By Peter Heffelfinger

posted April 21, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breeding Resilient Vegetables

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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