Garden posts February to March 15
By Peter Heffelfinger
Posted March 15, 2021
After a winter of being cooped up during the pandemic, I’m sure gardeners are anxious to get started growing things once again. Before jumping into spring planting, I thought I’d start this year’s edition of weekly updates with a look back over what survived this past winter. Spring will arrive soon enough, if not already here.
The heavy foot of snow that fell on South Fidalgo in February served as a layer of insulation, protected the ground from freezing very deeply and kept the hardy over-wintering plants from exposure to wind. With the rapid melt of the snowfall, and the change to warm and dry weather in early March, we’re experiencing a much earlier spring, as has been happening more and more the past few years.
Basic to any system of year-round gardening are vegetables that reappear on their own each spring. Although they may initially take up to several years to reach full production, they’re certainly worth the time and effort. The main concern is finding a permanent place in the garden, safely removed from any ongoing system of crop rotation. Once established, perennials take a minimum of care, mostly a little regular weeding, some watering in summer, and regular pruning or cleanup as needed. A layer of well-cured manure or other form of fertilizer applied in the fall serves a source of slow-release nutrition. The appearance each year of a reliable crop is a welcome relief from the usual spring rush to get seeds or transplants in the ground.
Rhubarb will supply a few leaves the first year, depending on the size of the start, particularly if you are able to find a mature root ball divided from a well-established bed. I found a large rhubarb root at the very first Transition Seed Swap years ago. It is still producing and has filled out a small bed of its own in a corner of the garden, right next to a permanent stand of thornless blackberries. Note: rhubarb leaves get gradually smaller and thinner after 4-5 years and the root needs to be sub-divided to maintain vigorous growth. Rhubarb is one of the earliest crops to be harvested, with the appearance of the bright red stalks serving as a spring tonic visually, as well as for their tart taste, which mixes well with the standard local perennial, strawberries. I am always amazed at the elephantine leaves bursting out of the ground. If large skunk cabbage leaves are a first sign of spring in the woodlands, then rhubarb is the starting flag for the garden.
Artichoke plants will offer an edible head or two the first year, but will start to take off the following season, once the roots are well-established. The key is to harvest the buds when they are tender, before the outer leaves get stiff, since these plants are an edible form of thistles. If you do allow a bud to open up, the flower is a deep blue, and a boon to bees. The fully mature blossom, cut with a long stem and hung upside down to dry, also becomes a distinctive dried flower. I always think of artichokes as welcome visitors to our cool coastal clime from the sunny and warm Mediterranean.
During that week of 20F-degree weather in February of this year, I took the added precaution of putting a temporary covering of floating row cover over the still-standing stalks of artichokes, mostly as a barrier against the wind. They seem to have survived so far, particularly the purple variety Violetta de Provence, which is more susceptible to cold than the standard Green Globe, the variety commonly available locally. The Violetta has smaller, more conical heads, but a much finer taste and more tender leaves.
Of all the typical perennial vegetables, asparagus takes the longest to develop a good harvest, usually reaching that stage in the third year as the roots mature. But, to compensate for the long wait, the taste of the fresh-cut spears is extraordinarily sweet in comparison to the commercial bunches that have been shipped in from elsewhere. Resist the temptation to cut more than a few stalks the first two years and make sure the plot has a good supply of manure and compost, especially over the winter. I grow mostly a standard green variety; the purple type has not done as well so far.
Like artichokes, fresh asparagus is one of those vegetables that is a particular luxury. Maybe it is because they both are enjoyed with lots of melted butter. My asparagus bed is entering its fourth year and I am anticipating a steady supply. Finally, do let a good number of late-appearing stalks leaf to bushy maturity during the summer. The vegetation is needed to continue the cycle, allowing the roots to develop next year’s crop.
Cooking Note: if a few stalks do get too large and the bottom parts get a bit woody, use a vegetable peeler to remove the thick lower skin. The white inner pith will still be soft and edible, but just not that distinctive bright green of the more delicate upper spears.
A roundup of Over-wintering Hardy Vegetables
The January King cabbages offered small but tasty heads all winter, and are now sending up fresh side-sprouts from the cut stalks left in the ground. Two large collard plants did well all winter, sporting large healthy leaves seemingly impervious to frost. A sure sign of spring, the lacinato kale plants, like most hardy brassicas, are putting out multiple florets, an early version of broccoli. Keep the top-most buds trimmed off; they’ll be a steady supply of greens for fresh stir-fries. Other plants that did well included Mizuna and Purple mustard, Tat Tsoi bok choy, broccoli Raab, as well as Miner’s lettuce and a bushy form of arugula. Hiding under the leaves for a spring treat were Purple Top turnips, the roots unaffected by frost.
The brussels sprouts, however, suffered from the lack of winter cold, developing brown mold on the lower buds early on, and colonies of aphids on the topmost growing tips during any warm spell. What used to be a reliable crop now seems to be an extended challenge. I can understand a quote from a local farmer saying they are difficult to grow. Makes one appreciate the vast acres of purple and green brussels sprouts that are harvested in the valley just before Thanksgiving. Commercial sprouts would likely be non-organically grown, and unsweetened as yet by any touch of serious frost. I may stick to hardy cabbages as a more reliable winter brassica.
Leeks are the standard fresh allium in the winter garden. The main plot of leeks was harvested regularly, while two small beds of late-summer planted leeks are just now coming to maturity in March. The last of the leeks will develop a hard pith in the center as the temperature warms up, but the outer sheaths are still edible. As the green sprouts of the regular chives and garlic chives emerge in their pots in the kitchen garden, the fresh onion cycle begins again.
By Julia Frisbie
Posted Wednesday, March 10, 2021
In January 2016, we became homeowners rather than renters for the first time, so naturally, we set out to destroy our newly-purchased lawn.
So boring. So unproductive. It had to go. Here’s what we did, and how it turned out!
We decided to use sheet mulch. First, we flattened and peeled the tape off all our moving boxes and laid them out on the lawn as a weed barrier, and watered them so they wouldn’t blow away.
(We used straw bales for raised beds during our first growing season, because we knew there wouldn’t be time for all this cardboard to break down and let plant roots through before summer. It’s better to start the sheet mulch process in the fall if you have time.)
Then we brought in 17 cubic yards of compost. The ground was wet, and the truck sank into the backyard and almost got stuck. Total disaster. We like to live life on the edge.
17 cubic yards is a lot of mulch. But for the record, you can use this same technique on a smaller scale: you could build the frame of a raised bed directly on top of your grass, line the bottom with cardboard, and then fill it with bagged compost. We used a dump truck load because we essentially wanted to turn the ENTIRE YARD into a raised bed.
Anyway, we spread that stuff all over, laying down more cardboard mulch underneath as we went. Extended family members who had come to see the new house were quickly drafted.
After we ran out of moving boxes, we used wide rolls of extra-thick kraft paper. Sometimes we had to lie down on the paper to keep it from blowing away before the next wheelbarrow load was in place. Large-scale mulching is a team sport.
We planted perennials like herbs and blueberry bushes by cutting through the mulch and paper layers and putting their roots directly into what used to be the sod. Because it was the beginning of the growing season, we also transplanted some shallow-rooted annuals like onions and lettuces right on top of the compost. We planted our deep-rooted annuals (like nightshades, squashes, and brassicas) on the straw bales that year, because we knew their roots wouldn’t be able to break through the cardboard and paper layer until after at least one rainy season’s worth of decomposition.
Then, because we didn’t have mulch to spread over the fresh compost, we broadcasted wildflower and clover seed all over the place as a cover crop.
Our cover crop helped build more soil while (mostly) crowding out weeds. The wild birds loved it, and they came and pooped new weed seeds everywhere. Oh well! Still, we had a glorious first summer in the new place, with a few veggies, a lot of flowers, and very little mowing.
Our big break came months later when I heard a chainsaw and a chipper in the neighborhood. I literally chased the truck down the street barefoot, begging the arborist to drop his load of chips for us to use. He did– JACKPOT!!!– and our neighbor yelled at us about it, so the first thing we had to do was shovel the entire load (about 10 cubic yards) out of the easement and into the backyard in one evening. We didn’t have time to mow the cover crop first– we didn’t even have any houseguests to recruit. We just laid down a deep layer of arborist chips over everything. There are no pictures, because it was pitch dark by the time we finished. But it was time and energy well-spent. In the short run, it smothered the cover crop, suppressed weeds, and looked nice. In the long run, it composted in place and fed the soil, because arborist chips contain both green material (shredded leaves) and brown material (chipped wood). Five years and three additional truckloads of arborist chips later, this space is still feeding us and the wildlife with glorious abandon!
Why should you mulch your lawn into oblivion, rather than sod cutting, rolling it up, and hauling it away? Because of geology. Our island is what’s left after the rest got scraped away by a giant glacier. We’re pretty short on topsoil. Losing even two inches of organic matter was a price I wasn’t willing to pay– and besides, it composted in place in less than a year. Soil organic matter feeds microbes and absorbs water, cutting down on long-term water needs. And it’s like compounding interest; the longer you do it, the better it gets.
Fall is the ideal time to make new garden beds, but in a pinch, you can pull it off in early spring. As with other gardening topics, there are many good ways to do something, but no single “right way.” That said, here’s what I can recommend because it’s worked for us:
Lay down a compostable cardboard or paper barrier on top of your grass.
Get the barrier all wet.
Dump a bunch of compost on it, and spread it at least 4 inches thick.
Broadcast seeds for a cover crop. American Meadows is a decent source if you want to buy wildflower and clover seeds by the pound rather than the packet.
Make holes in the barrier and plant perennials straight through. Plant shallow-rooted annuals right on top during the first season. Remember to water well, because plant roots probably won’t make it through the cardboard and paper layer until next season.
Cover with at least a four-inch layer of arborist chips no later than the following fall. You can request arborist chips from local companies on getchipdrop.com and they’re FREE!
The next spring, gently rake the arborist chips out of the way and plant your annuals directly into the compost below.
Follow up with additional applications of arborist mulch on an ongoing basis every fall, or whenever things get weedy, or when you need a good workout, or whenever you feel like things are getting too peaceful with the neighbors.
Now, for a few warnings:
DON’T STOMP AROUND IN YOUR NEWLY PURCHASED PILE OF COMPOST BAREFOOT because it might contain silverware. Somehow this happens to us every time, no matter which of the two local suppliers we order compost from. I have a slight preference for Skagit Soils, but no compost you purchase by the dump truck load is going to be perfect.
DON’T PAY FOR FANCY WOOD CHIPS. They’re all brown material, rather than a mix of green and brown, so they won’t compost in place and they won’t be as good for your soil. Just get the free stuff from your local arborists.
DON’T MIX THE ARBORIST CHIPS INTO THE SOIL. That will tie up all the nitrogen, which will starve the plants. Just lay the chips on top like a blanket.
DON’T FREAK OUT WHEN WILD MUSHROOMS POP UP. They mean your soil is happy. They don’t compete with your plants, and they can’t poison you if you don’t eat them. Treat them as honored guests who bring good news and let them live their lives.
THERE WILL BE WEEDS. Why? Because the polyculture you’re creating is more attractive to wild birds than your boring old lawn used to be, and bird poop is full of weed seeds. The time you used to spend mowing, you will now spend weeding. But the more years you spread arborist chips, the easier it gets to pull the weeds, because the soil gets so spongy-soft. I’d rather be down on my hands in the duff than pushing some stinky old mower any day.
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.