Plunge In Pungent Alliums

To paraphrase an old saying: Give a person garlic and they can ward off vampires once; teach a person how to grow garlic, and they will be free of vampires for a lifetime.

Have you planted your garlic yet? I try to get mine in by Halloween, but given our unseasonably warm fall, I think Maritime Northwest gardeners could still get a crop in the ground, unless your garden is in a cold microclimate.

Spanish Roja garlic

Spanish Roja garlic. I save the biggest heads for replanting.

In my Edible Garden column for Edible Seattle’s Sept/Oct issue, I outlined many of the considerations for planting alliums, the genus that includes garlic, onions and shallots. You may still be able to find some of these alliums in nurseries, and all of them would be well worth a try.

Garlic is my favorite, because it comes in so many types and flavors, far more interesting than the typical white supermarket variety. Look for unique varieties that are spicy or sweet, with cloves striped in red or purple. Learn all about types and varieties from Filaree Garlic Farm.

See my earlier article Cloves in Bed, All is Well on the steps to planting garlic.

The onions you’d find now in the nurseries would be seedlings, small groups of grass-like starts growing in soil. Try Walla Walla Sweet, if you can get it, as they do well in our climate.

Seedlings are different from onion sets or bunches, traditionally sold in the spring. Sets are baby onion bulbs that are sold dry, and will come to life and grow after planting. Bunches are small plants that had been started the previous fall and dug from their bed before being banded together and sold by the dozen in the spring.

As we near the end of the gardening year, consider where in your garden these spicy spikes might go, see if you can find any in the nurseries or buy some from a farmers market stand, and get them in the soil as soon as possible.

Cover the soil with a loose mulch like straw to soften the winter rains, and watch for the little allium spikes to break ground early next year, signifying the start of another gardening season. I guarantee that you’ll be vampire-free.

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.

Rock Springs Eternal

We didn’t have Earth Day when I was growing up. But we had plenty of earth on our North Dakota farm. We called it dirt.

About this time in the spring, as ground would warm and the snow would melt off, we’d start the planting season by picking rocks.

I’d join my many siblings on a walk behind the tractor, which slowly pulled a shallow steel bin. We’d fan out, each grabbing a stone the size of his or her ability, the older kids teaming up to grapple with the larger rocks. We’d toss them into the bin and enjoy the satisfying clang.

Boy and his dog

Fritz and me, on the farm.

When we came across a particularly stubborn or hefty boulder, Dad would stop the tractor, get out the crowbar, and as many as were needed would grab onto it and heave it or roll it into the bin.

When the bin was full enough, Dad would back the bin up to the rock pile at the edge of the field and dump the load. Every year, the rock pile grew as the frost heaved the stones up from the deep.

That the earth spit rocks at us every year, we did not take personally. It was not a metaphor for the hard life of farming, even if it could have been. It was not a hated chore, although it was a difficult one.

This was just something that had to be done in order to grow wheat. You could not subject the cultivator’s tines or the discer’s blades to a soil full of rocks.

Quinoa

Quinoa going to seed.

My two main vegetable beds in the front yard are ready for planting. I’ve cleared the winter vegetables, forked dolomitic lime into the soil to restore a neutral pH, and covered the bed with a wire mesh to keep the cats out. I even cleared a few rocks that had sunk into the dirt, and placed them in a little pile on the edge of the garden.

This year, the larger bed is going into grain. Not wheat, although varieties are being tested for the western Washington climate. Rather, I’ll be planting amaranth and quinoa, two amazing, colorful and very different edible seeds. I saved the seed from my small stand of each last year, so now I can cover the bed.

It will be great to watch it wave in the summer breeze. It will remind me of the visible wind on the prairie, swathing through the amber grain, flowing like a river.

Gently Go Into Autumn

If you’re focused on growing food year round, you might almost forget the idea of putting the garden to bed. But it is still a good concept, for a couple of reasons:

1. You probably won’t have the time or energy or desire to keep your entire garden growing year round.

2. Soil needs to rest periodically, so that nutrient levels do not get entirely depleted.

Mulched lettuces

If you have a fall lettuce crop started, surround the plants with a straw mulch to protect them a bit in cooler fall weather.

As the summer vegetable garden fades, use cover crops and mulch to protect the soil over winter.

Cover crops:

These will help build soil as well as keep the soil well-covered so that winter rains or winds don’t damage it. They also provide a habitat for soil critters.

Mulch:

There are various types (straw, leaves, compost, sheet-mulch layers), and they all will help keep the soil from getting compacted by rain or dried out by wind, and provide a habitat for beneficial soil organisms. As they break down, they add carbon to the soil as well. Caution: You don’t want to provide a habitat for rats or other vermin. If you see signs of that, remove the mulch.

Garlic under leaf mulch

Planting garlic and then covering it with a leaf mulch is an easy fall project. Lay welded wire mesh atop the leaves to hold them in place.

Burlap bags:

These are available from coffee roasting companies and some nurseries or hardware stores. Laying these on the soil helps protect it from pounding rains, and keeps the soil a little warmer for the soil-dwelling critters.

 

Two simple growing steps

If you want to have something growing in the beds that won’t require any work, including harvest, here are two simple things to do:

* Grow some garlic! Plant it in late fall and harvest it mid-summer. Use a light mulch like straw or leaves over the bed after planting.

* Let the flowers be. If wildflowers have grown in around your veggies, don’t remove them when pulling the vegetable plants out. Some will reseed and even sprout this fall, and others will sit dormant until spring. Scatter a light compost mulch over the bed to encourage them.

 

More ideas in class

Want to delve more deeply into ideas about putting some of your garden to bed? Join me this Saturday, Sept. 20 at 10 a.m. at City People’s Garden Store in Seattle’s Madison Valley, for our final class in the Edible Year series, “Preparing Your Edible Garden for Winter” will offer more ideas and techniques to gently ease your garden into another season.

 

Celebrating Soil

This morning, on the first day of spring, I took a walk through my garden, considering how to celebrate the occasion. One look at the planting bed I prepared yesterday gave me the answer: spring starts with the soil.

Garden Bed

The cleared soil is ready for planting if it’s warm enough, properly fertilized, and has no active plant decomposition.

Thsi time of year, much of my garden activity is amending, monitoring and making soil.

When I turn over a new bed, removing the weeds or straw mulch or chopping down the cover crop, I decide whether it needs to be amended. What did my soil test reveal about this bed? What did I plant in it last, and how did those plants do?

  • If the soil test showed the pH was low (meaning acidic, in our rainy maritime climate), I should amend it with agricultural lime.
  • If my last crop of lettuce in this bed did poorly, perhaps the nitrogen level was low, which is easily fixed with chopped cover crop or an organic fertilizer.
  • If my organic matter level was low (again, reading the soil test results) or I’m planning to grow a heavy-feeding crop, perhaps I should amend the soil with my home compost.

    Soil Thermometer

    A key tool for the cool-season gardener is a soil thermometer. This shows the soil in my newly worked bed is in the mid-40s, barely warm enough to sprout seeds.

Dry enough to plant?

If the soil is warm enough and dry enough, it’s ready for seeds.

Here’s an easy test to see how wet your soil is:

  1. Dig up a trowel-full, down to about 6 inches deep.
  2. Make a softball-sized ball with the soil.
  3. Toss that ball up in the air a few feet and let it fall on your open hand.

If the ball of soil breaks open in your hand, it’s ready to plant. If it hits with a plop and stays together with moisture oozing out, it’s still too wet.

Make and use your compost

I churned up the compost bin over the weekend with the first grass clippings.

To the moist, green clippings (rich in nitrogen) I added equal amounts of dry leaves, saved in bags from last fall. I mixed them together, watering well, and piled them in the bin.

Now, just three days later, they’ve heated up.

Compost Thermometer

Compost starts to aerobically decompose at 80 degrees F, which this bin reached in three days after mixing fresh lawn clippings with saved leaves and wetting it.

Home compost decomposes fastest when it’s in an aerobic condition, which means the soil decomposers have colonized the bin in great quantity and they’re busy breaking down the material.

Aerobic decomposition, or “hot composting,” starts at 80 degrees F., and look at what my compost thermometer shows!

When finished, my home compost will provide a valuable soil amendment that I can add to beds when planting.

It will be high in organic matter and contain a wide assortment of soil nutrients that will feed my plants, from macronutrients like N-P-K to the secondary nutrients like calcium to micronutrients like zinc.

What’s more, I’m creating that rich fertilizer for free, or at least for a very low cost of my own sweat equity, a couple of garden tools and a bit of water.

Home Composting

A 50/50 mix of greens (nitrogen) and browns (carbon) will decay into a nutrient-rich soil amendment, seen in the foreground.

The final step in soil building is to visit my worm bin. This is a closed box that contains a colony of “red wigglers,” a type of worm that specializes in decomposing kitchen scraps.

The worms live in bedding like leaves or shredded paper, and they’re fed vegetable and fruit trimmings from my kitchen (no meat, dairy or fats). Bacteria cause those scraps to decay, and the worms eat the bacteria, pooping out a “vermicompost” that’s even richer than the stuff in the home compost bin.

Worm Bin Composting

Partially decaded vegetable matter is wet and slimy. The red wiggler worms (Eisinia foetida) eat the decayed material, and their castings make a soil amendment richer than compost.

It’s another nearly free form of soil amendment that helps me close the loop on my home waste stream and use less externally purchased amendments in my garden.

As I get ready to plant, my prepared garden bed will get a good dose of worm compost or home compost dug into the soil, or sprinkled into the planting hole where the transplants will go.

On this first day of spring, the best thing I can do to honor my garden is to turn my attention to the soil.