My Edible Seattle Column Debuts

It’s all about edibles in my garden. And in my writing. And on this site. So I was delighted to be offered the task of writing a new column for Edible Seattle called (you probably guessed it) The Edible Garden.Edible Seattle cover

Now on newsstands and in subscribers’ hands is the excellent first issue of 2016, which includes the column’s debut, and a lot of other great stories.

My first topic covers something of perennial amazement to me: why our winter vegetables get sweeter after a frost. I dug into this topic during the cold, rainy days of early winter.

I’d love for you to buy the issue–or better yet, subscribe to the magazine–and read the entire thing for yourself. But I’ll give you a hint as to what I found: the plants are making sugar as a defensive mechanism against the cold. There’s a lot more to it than that, and I hope you’ll find it as fascinating as I did.

Only one problem: we haven’t yet had a frost in my garden. It’s been relatively warm and wet. But hope springs eternal. Mind you, I only want a little hoar frost, not the killing deep-freeze kind. But I think that we’re safely beyond that.

If you’re hankering for some photos of frosty vegetables like the one below, see my post from exactly three years ago when we had a nice, sweet cooling spell.

Broccoli

This frost-kissed broccoli is ready for eating!

Event alert

Here’s a warming event to spice up a winter weekend: Edible Seattle and Metropolitan Market are sponsoring a Whiskey and Chowder Festival. Coming to Fremont on Feb. 4, it will showcase 7 local distilleries and 16 restaurants, who promise a variety of chowders and soups, but also other tasty treats. A unique event that looks like a winner.

Early Winter in My Outdoor Refrigerator

A good rule of thumb for winter edibles is to have your vegetables large enough for harvest by mid-December, which I achieved with some of my plantings. Carrots, beets and kohlrabi are ready anytime.

The goal is to use the garden as an outdoor refrigerator, planting crops that will store well in situ and can be harvested as needed. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kale are on that list.

With leafy greens, I have some ready now, and some smaller plants under good protection that will hopefully give me a very early harvest when the days begin to get noticeably longer a month from now, well after the solstice.

Here are some images of my garden right now.

cold frame open

Airing out the lettuce, spinach and mustards growing in one cold frame.

Cold frame greens

Greens in a cold frame: two types of lettuce ready for picking, spinach on the right, and a row of seedlings in front that promises a future harvest.

Beets

A winter beet harvest is just what the doctor ordered.

Carrots

The soil for these carrots could have been lighter. Heavy soil with rocks can lead to deformed roots. Still, how sweet they are!

In the foreground is my carrot bed, protected by floating row cover.

In the foreground is my carrot bed, protected by floating row cover and straw mulch.

Kohlrabi and turnips

A kohlrabi ready for harvest sits between a glass cloche in the foreground and a window A-frame in the back that is covering Japanese turnips.

Parsley

Parsley makes a thick cover crop — and of course we can eat it!

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.

SummerSeedbed

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.

Practicing Patience in Planting

I can feel the vibe from here: when can we set out our tomatoes? A neighbor already has done it. Gangly plants in gallon-size pots are front-and-center in the stores. The questions go beyond tomatoes, though: how will you get your vegetables off to their best start? And what’s the right timing for planting the summer garden?

How? Season Extension

I’m on the verge of being a nag on this topic, but a great way to ensure a better start is to shelter your spring plantings with season extension devices.

  • Tomatoes and other hot crop transplants will benefit from added warmth
  • Spring greens will also welcome the warmth, especially when sprouting from seed
  • Seedlings susceptible to pests and diseases will gain strength when protected
  • Small plants can be spared the pounding from occasional heavy rains or strong winds (or even hail — we had some a couple of weeks ago)

This Sunday, April 12, 1-2 p.m., I’ll be showing and telling all about season extension at the West Seattle Nursery & Garden Center. I will explain in more detail why these devices help, and then I’ll show off a few of my designs and things sold by the nursery. You can “kick the tires,” so to speak, and think about what might work for you.

Tomatoes in cloche

Putting a cloche over your tomatoes can give them an extra warm start. This is especially important if planting out now. Even though our weather has warmed early, there is still potential for many weeks of cool spring days and chilly nights.

When? Be Conservative

It’s tempting to march out to the garden, clear away last year’s detritus, and just plop everything in the ground — seeds, starts, trellises, cloches. One big afternoon of work and you can just sit back and wait for the harvest, right? Well, maybe. Go ahead and try it. I would counsel patience.

I like to take a couple of steps at a time, slowly building my garden throughout the spring. I do it this way partly because I enjoy the process, and also because things will grow better if planted at the right time. As with so many things, timing is everything.

Right now, my spring greens, root crops and peas are up and growing nicely. I’m still a couple of weeks away from fresh salads, but we’re just finishing the last of the winter salad greens.

Also, I’m clearing and prepping the beds for my hot summer crops. The cover crop and flowering brassicas are coming out, lime is being dug into the soil where needed, and all the old stuff is being chopped up to make compost.

Cover crop being chopped

Cover crop has been chopped down with a hoe (right) and is being dug in with a garden fork (left). This natural fertilizer (green manure) needs two weeks to decompose before planting into it.

Soon I’ll dig in compost and fertilizers, as needed, based on the planting plan.

I continue to plant small quantities of root crops and greens, so that I’ll have a longer continuous harvest of these crops. I eat a lot of them.

What’s Next?

The green manure provided by chopped-in cover crops, and the lime, have to settle into the soil for a week or two before planting. That will bring me to the end of April, which is just about right timing to shake out the bean seeds. Then I’ll think about getting warm-season transplants like tomatoes and peppers in the ground.

By mid-May, those will all be planted, and then I’ll do the last of the summer plantings: squash.

Meanwhile, I am also planning my fall and winter garden. Yes, well before summer has come! By early June, I’ll be planting fall brassicas, and by July, most of my winter and overwintering crops will be in the ground.

All that will be left to plant are short-season fall crops, which will go in after the heat of our summer has dissipated, around late August.

Practice Patience

Mason bee house

Mason bee house

Right now I’m enjoying watching the orchard mason bees. They have emerged from their cocoons and are busy pollinating my fruit trees. Soon they’ll start laying eggs in the holes in my wooden bee house.

If I want to really see all this activity, I need to slow down, and stand or sit near the bee box for a while. (Don’t worry, they’re not aggressive.) My eyes need to adjust to their erratic activity, to see their patterns.

The bees are not working on my schedule. In order to learn from them, I must accustom myself to their ways.

Observance of the natural world takes time. I must take it on its own terms. Growing a vegetable garden also requires relinquishing my own concept of schedules and needs, replacing those with a studied observance of the weather, growth habits of plants, and messages from nature.

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