November Tasks: Slow Gardening

Grab that sliver of sunlight between showers and get out into the garden. Fleece up and tidy the shed on a rainy day. Scratch out some thoughts on next year, with notes on this year’s successes and duds.Garlic and favas

There are some November tasks for us Maritime Northwest gardeners. But this season is also a time to take it easy and practice “slow gardening.” Moving at slug speed on these chilly wet days seems most appropriate.

Granted a glorious Sunday afternoon last weekend, I rallied to rake out the last open space in my vegetable beds and plant garlic. Three varieties, six rows, 48 cloves. That should keep us in spicy sautés for most of next year.

The rest of the open space got filled up with favas. I had a box full of the thumbnail-sized beans saved from last spring’s harvest. They sat for six months waiting for this occasion, so I could no longer deny them their special purpose: Get under the soil and send up next year’s crop!

Favas are one of the few vegetables whose seed will sprout in our chilly November soil. Garlic, of course, needs a little chilling to trigger its emergence. I’ll see the fava shoots in a few weeks, but the garlic won’t poke through the straw mulch until January. It always warms my heart to see it during that coldest month, just as I am starting to notice the days lengthening beyond the solstice. Another season beginning.

A few more tasks that are getting some slow action on these short November days:

Sorting the bees. Yes, you read that right. I’ve had a box of Orchard Mason bees wrapped loosely in a mesh bag on my basement shelf since I brought them in in early fall. Now it is time for them to be transferred to the refrigerator for the winter.

Bees in tubes

Orchard Mason bees are in their cocoons. I’ve removed them from their paper sleeves to clean and store the cocoons in the refrigerator for winter.

Bee cocoons

The mites have mostly been cleaned off these Orchard Mason bee cocoons.

The task is simple and rewarding. First, I open the stacked grid that holds the bee nesting tubes, paper sleeves in which they laid their eggs and mudded up the holes. I pull out the paper tubes and carefully peel them open to reveal the bees in their cocoons. (Since the eggs were laid in the spring, the eggs have hatched, the bee larvae have eaten the pollen deposits left with their eggs, and the larvae spun their little cocoons.)

Along with the bees in those tubes are a couple of interlopers that need to be removed. Spiders have laid their eggs in some of the tubes. No big deal, except I don’t really want those hatching on my basement shelves.

More concerning are the mites: hundreds of mites have glommed on to the bee cocoons. If left with the cocoons, they would attack the bees when they emerged, and decimate the population.

Fortunately, right now the mites and the bees are pretty dormant, so as I pull the cocoons away from the paper tubes, I brush off all the mites.

The clean cocoons are then counted and stored in a plastic bottle inside a plastic bag in my refrigerator. The bottle has some vents cut in the lid, and the plastic bag contains a damp paper towel that I’ll refresh from time to time. Refrigerators are low-humidity places, and my bee cocoons need a bit of moisture to survive.

Weeding the beds. Winter weeds grow more slowly, but so do your vegetable plants. And with less nutrition available in the soil, your winter vegetables don’t want the competition from weed roots. I clear a space at least a few inches around the base of each winter veggie. I also run the fork along the edges of the raised beds and pull out any grass that is encroaching. It seems to really spread if left to take hold over the winter.

Some of the less harmful, more beautiful weeds like viola tricolor (Johnny Jump-up) get left in the beds between the plants. They can be good filler to shield the bed from winter rains, and I can use the flowers to brighten up my winter salads.

Mulching the fall and overwintering veggies. After I weed, I try to tuck in some straw or other light mulch around the base of the plants.

This provides a number of benefits:

  • keeps heavy rains from compacting the soil
  • prevents wind from drying out any partially exposed roots
  • prevents the soil from becoming too dry if we don’t get rain
  • prevents weeds from sprouting.

And it looks nice!

Broccoli mulched

Servicing the watering devices. I garden in a mostly mild winter climate, but sometimes we’ll get a hard freeze or a week of snow, so I need to protect against freeze damage.

First, I make sure my drip irrigation system is drained to avoid having the pipes burst. (Water is one of the few things that expands when it freezes.) I also check the downspouts and gutters to make sure there’s nothing clogging up the system that fills my water catchment. I clean and store my ceramic bird bath so it doesn’t crack. Finally, draining the hoses and storing them in the garage each winter will help them last many more years.

I appreciate the slower gardening days of winter. I can review some of these tasks as I peer through a rain-streaked window, looking to the western sky for that actionable opening of blue.

Pest Hunting: A Brassica Task

My many fall and winter Brassicas are sizing up nicely, but the ones not tented with floating row cover are showing a little chewing and some curling leaves. The culprits are cabbage butterfly larvae, snails and aphids.

Predator insects are still plentiful in the fall, but these pests can stunt the growth of young plants at a time when they need to be powering into winter with a strong growth spurt. To ensure robust, healthy plants, I am going hunting.

Cabbage butterfly

The larvae of the cabbage white butterfly or imported cabbageworm (Pieris rapae), often called the cabbage moth, are my first prey. Mostly what I’m finding right now are the slender green worms. They can hide — almost — by stretching out for an afternoon nap in the stem of a young leaf. They are further protected from my predatory grasp by secluding themselves inside the youngest leaves, the curled and furled ones sprouting from the plant’s center.

Cabbage butterfly larva

Cabbage white butterfly larva, on a fingertip.

Cabbage butterfly on leaf

Can you spot the green cabbage butterfly larva on this leaf? Hard to get a good camera focus, but it’s on the lower right edge.

Carefully, so as not to snap the tender growth shoots, I unfurl the rolled green shoots and lightly scoop through the inside with a fingertip.

Then I bend back the plant’s slightly larger leaves and unfold them one at a time, checking the base of the stem for the pale green body. Finally, I flip the leaf over between fingers and eye the back, in case one of them is on the move. (I look also for the elongated eggs, white or yellowish, on the undersides of the leaves. Those get squished too.)

Just the act of inspecting the plant can cause these critters to fall to the soil below, where they would pretty promptly inch under a leave and climb back on the plant, so I scan the soil surface too.

These pests can go through 3 to 5 life cycles per year, and can be in the garden from April through October. The jerky white butterflies with black wing dots flit around from plant to plant. Amazingly, they mate in the air. Their eggs take 4 to 8 days to hatch, and the green worm larvae lives for 3 weeks before pupating, where they cocoon themselves for a couple more weeks before emerging as a butterfly and beginning again.

I think — I hope — they’re on the year’s last life cycle.



Green and grey aphids are a regular presence in my garden, and I’m finding small colonies on the broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kale. They take up residence on a stem or in the folded end of a leaf, and as they suck the juices out of the tender leave edge, it curls, providing them a cozy home.

Ones hiding in the leaves are fairly easy to spot, as the leaves also turn slightly purple on the edges when attacked in this way.

Aphids curling leaf

A colony of aphids on a fall broccoli start has caused the leaf to curl due to their feeding.

predator and aphids

Predator to the rescue! This native bee, just peeking over the leaf edge, happened to be checking out the aphid supply as I took pictures. I did not see him feed on them, but I hope he came back for dinner.

Again, my preferred method is to gently curl back the edges of the leaf and expose them. As they are also soft-bodied insects, they also will get quickly smooshed in between a thumb and forefinger. There is a little inevitable damage to the leaf area that was their home, but it’s much preferable to letting them form a stronghold there and begin to feed farther down the leaf and fill the stem, as they would like to do.

Aphids on Russian Red kale

These aphids crowding the stem of a Russian Red kale are doing plenty of damage.

When the aphids have colonized the base of a set of leaves, or the stem of a plant, a hard spray of water from the hose, straight down into the center of the plant, will wash them all off and drown a lot of them. Most of the rest are too weak to climb back onto the plant. I find that I need to return and do this again in 3 days to make sure I’ve gotten them all.



I used to see a lot more slugs, but the garden ecosystem has evolved to be more hospitable to snails. They are moving from my dying summer plants into my winter beds. It’s happening at a snail’s pace, but that’s fast enough for me to put on my camo gear and start stalking them.

These guys are a lot more visible than the others, as their brown shells stand out on a green leaf, even at a smaller size. They especially come out on a cool or rainy day, or right after dark.

Sometimes I’ll find their gelatinous, round white eggs in a cluster on the edge of a bed, usually near a rockery or some other good hiding place.

Snail eggs

These snail or slug eggs were found about six inches down along the inside edge of my stacked-stone raised bed.

But the hatched snails, or slugs, are most often found on the underside of the leaves, and they are quickly transferred to the underside of my foot on the path. Score another one (or ten) for the big guy.

These creatures are fascinating, and are all part of nature’s plan. And I don’t mind sharing a bit of my food with them. But this time of year, when the tastiest things on their menu are the young plants that will comprise my winter dinners, I am in a less permissible mood. Fall is for hunting.


Quinoa, Orach Harvest

What do quinoa and orach have in common? Along with being planted in large patches by me this year, they are both members of the Chenopod (Chenopodiaceae) family. They also both are beautiful, adding striking swaths of color to the garden.

Another thing they had in common is that I recently harvested both of them from my garden for seed.

Quinoa heads

“Brightest Brilliant” quinoa delivers yellow, orange and red seed heads. Purple orach stands behind it.

I planted purple orach and Brightest Brilliant quinoa. It was a two-year plan. Last year I had small quantities of the seed, and wanted more, so I planted both and saved their seed. This year, I could plant a miniature field of them. Felt like I was back on the farm.

When I realized that both plants were part of the same family, I understood better why I was so attracted to them. The Chenopods also include two of my other favorite garden veggies, beets and chard, which also provide striking reds and oranges to the vegetable garden.

I’ve always connected orach with a third Chenopod, spinach. In fact, orach is sometimes called “mountain spinach.” Orach delivers smooth, thick leaves on a long stalk. We plant thickly, then thin the plantings and strip the leaves off the stems. It seems best for salad when the leaves are still young and tender, but the older, larger leaves can be enjoyed if lightly steamed.

It surprised me to find that quinoa is also part of this clan. To my knowledge, it’s the only family member whose seed is part of the plant that we consume. I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in gnawing on a mouthful of spiky, tough beet seeds.

Quinoa’s small, round seed puffs up nicely in hot water to make a pleasant light grain that can be the base of a salad or used in a pilaf-type dish. It pops softly between the teeth. It takes quite a bit to include in a meal — at least a half-cup of seed — so my goal this year was to grow enough to do that.

Drying seeds

Quinoa and orach plants are cut and hung on an improvised drying rack. A sheet beneath will catch the drying seed.

I haven’t yet stripped the seed off the drying quinoa plants. I have a hunch that it’s going to be a challenging job to clean the crop, and I’ve read that it is a bitter seed unless repeatedly washed.

But we did eat a lot of orach this summer, and have enough seed to cover the “back 40” next year. That’s probably the case with the quinoa too. And as beautiful as the two were together, I can always just replant them for the color.

Fall Planting Continues

In my last post, at the height of a summer hot spell, I thought it would be fun to say “Winter Begins Now” and show the garden with snow on it. Well, the heat has abated, and I’m not in any hurry to slip out of summer mode. However, I am still pushing forward on fall planting.

The Japanese turnips — first sowing July 15, second sowing July 27 — are coming along.

Succession planting of turnips

Succession planting of turnips — the ones in front were planted first — will give me a longer harvest.

Japanese turnips

Japanese turnips will be harvested young, when their white bulbous roots are only 1-2 inches around.

A sowing of beets was less successful, as I had some three-year-old seed. But some of them sprouted, as did a nice row of  Rainbow chard.

Rainbow chard starts

Rainbow chard, seeded three weeks ago, is small but healthy.

Rainbow chard

Rainbow chard planted in June, sizing up nicely.

The first sowing of Brussels sprouts got potted up to 4-inch pots about 10 days ago, so they were ready to be planted out. The second batch is still in pots.

Brussels sprouts in pots

Brussels sprouts are starting to size up and be ready for transplanting into their winter home.

So today I sowed in some more beets, transplanted those Brussels sprouts, sowed two rows of Black Spanish radish and two rows of overwintering red onion.

I covered all the crops except the onions with hoops and floating row cover. This helps shade them a bit if we get another heat wave, but I did it more to keep the pests off the young plants. The white cabbage moth can lay a lot of eggs and wreak havoc on brassicas, and the spinach leaf miner loves to attack the young beets and chard. (Soon I’ll plant fall and overwintering spinach, and will have to cover that too, to thwart the leaf miner.)

Here are some more images from today’s gardening:

Brussels sprouts transplanted

The first batch of Brussels sprouts, sown on 6/24 and potted up on 7/27, got planted in the garden today. I put fiberglass hoops over their bed, then covered that with floating row cover.

Beets planted on July 15 came up sporadically - some old seed. After thinning to proper spacing, I sowed more seed today to fill in the rows. These will be covered by hoops and floating row cover to deter flying pests.

Beets planted on July 15 came up sporadically – some old seed. After thinning to proper spacing, I sowed more seed today to fill in the rows. These will be covered by hoops and floating row cover to deter flying pests.

Beds with floating row cover

Turnips, Brussels sprouts, winter radishes, chard and beets are all under floating row cover to give them a better start.

Flies courting

Uh-oh, what’s going on here? Cue the Barry White music – there’s some colorful fly courting happening.

Mustard seed pods

Seed will be collected from this drying Ruby Streak mustard for next year’s crop.

Little Gem lettuce flowering

Little Gem lettuce has flowered and is going to seed. I’ll collect it for next year.

Kongo kohlrabi

Kongo kohlrabi, ready for harvest.

Winter Begins Now

With the thermometer on Viagra, we should only mention winter to mentally cool ourselves off, right? Well, that’s a good reason, but as year-round gardeners, it’s also good to think winter now, at the height of summer. It will spur you to be most productive in the garden.

cabbage snow cone

How about a frosty cabbage snow cone?

Mostly right now, we are tending our summer crops. I must confess, that’s what has kept me busy, and caused some radio silence on the blogging front. Let me cool you off with these ideas:

  • I have little black boxes of winter sitting on the deck.
  • There are a few stakes of autumn marking a corner of a bed.
  • A large white sheet that reminds me of snow is stretched over more open ground.

With encouragement like that, winter cannot be far away.

Things sprout fast in this weather. I did wait until a respite from the extreme heat of early July, because cool-season crops do not sprout well if the soil is too hot. Plus, it is impossible to keep the seedbed continuously damp during the sprouting period. But with days in the 70s and cool nights, now is a great time for those plants to get started.

Last week I planted fall peas, and they are just starting to push their curvaceous stems through the soil. These will fill in between those “stakes of autumn” in the corner of a front bed, where the spring beets lived.

pea shoot

Brussels sprouts and overwintering broccoli seedlings are cheerily growing in black six-pack pots on a shady patio table. The first-sown seeds from a month ago have progressed to grow sets of true leaves, but my second sowing — again, just over a week ago — sprouted so fast and vigorously that I bet they will catch up.

Another lesson about trying to plant during extreme warmth. I sheltered those pots while the seeds sprouted and hit them daily with water, but still they got a bit stressed. All these plants should be ready for transplanting in early August.

Last weekend I prepared a bed for another sowing of beets and chard. The bed had contained fava beans, which were pulled up in May and shelled and sauted with green garlic. Since then, the bed had sat fallow, covered by the fava stalks. The soil was very dry and clodded, and it took multiple waterings to get it back into usable shape. What a dry time we have had from mid-spring until now.


Finally, a row of collard greens went in on the edge of the now-empty garlic bed. My abundant garlic harvest is now drying in the garage, and the bed is opened up for fall and winter crops. I sometimes start summer-planted crops like collards in flats and transplant, but being covered with floating row cover and watered regularly, these plants can grow just as well in place.

I expect the dry weather to continue into early September, so I am diligently watering all these seedbeds and seedlings. And in those beds that are waiting for fall crops, I’m also continuing with water. I’m hoping to feed the soil foodweb, let the weeds sprout so I can skim those off, and keep the ground the from getting hydrophobic. When I put those fall and winter crops into the soil, I want them to experience the best growth possible.

If this spiking weather pattern continues, they’ll need all the help they can get.

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