I can almost taste spring. Can’t you? When a warm wind casts across the yard like a fishing line tossed into a lazy stream, I cast my eyes toward the ground, seeking shoots and sprouts. When they appear, my spirit soars.
Another way to get that feeling is to visit the giant Northwest Flower & Garden Show–excuse me–Garden Festival being held this week at the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle (blog, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest).
Over the weekend I was in the cavernous show garden area helping set up the Arboretum Foundation’s always-enticing garden, so I’ll give you a tip: brave the crowds, traffic and parking, and come on down. It looks like it is going to be a blooming success.
Here’s another tip: buy your tickets online before 11:55 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 21 and get the early-bird price, $5 off.
I’ve mined my garden journal for cultivation and harvest tips throughout the year. You’ll be surprised what can be done in the doldrums of winter, and what needs to be done in the sweetest swell of summer if you want to eat from your yard year round. A book signing follows, and I look forward to personalizing a book for you.
Then on Saturday at 11:45 a.m., I employ my journalism chops by interviewing Seattle’s star restaurateur Tom Douglas and his business partner, wife and chief farmer in the family Jackie Cross. In “The Learning Curve,” we’ll discuss their quest to generate perfect produce for their many restaurants.
If you’ve eaten at Etta’s, Dahlia Lounge, Seatown, Serious Pie, Tanaka San or one of Tom’s other great restaurants in the last few years, you’ve probably eaten produce from Prosser Farm. Six years after breaking ground in the hills west of Prosser, they have learned much (I’ll ask about the rascally rabbits!) and now deliver a significant amount of vegetables for the restaurants from their farm, taking the farm-to-table concept to a wild new level.
Tom will sign copies of his excellent cookbooks after the talk, and I’ll head up to the University Book Store’s booth (#211) to meet and greet and sign my own books for an hour, 1-2 p.m.
You might also find me at my publisher’s booth. The Mountaineers Books and their green living imprint Skipstone will have their books on display and for sale (booth #2354) and will have lots of authors as well as staff to visit with. Learn about recent and upcoming titles, including my next cycling book, Cycling the Pacific Coast: A Complete Guide, Canada to Mexico, which will be out this fall.
I hope you’ll consider attending one or both of my events, but do you realize how much there is to do at the show?
This is the second largest garden festival in the U.S., so plan enough time to enjoy it fully. It’s a great way to get spring underway, even while waiting for those first buds to break.
Sunny, cold days have been the norm in Seattle for a number of weeks, which is “unseasonal” for us here in the Maritime Northwest. And it’s having a punishing effect on my overwintering edibles.
Starting with a snowstorm the second week of December, we’ve had what I’d call a hard winter, as “hard” relates to frost and freeze, that is. Many nights in the low 20s or even teens, and days when the thermometer barely tops 32. Freezing.
The effect has been mixed, according to today’s survey, done in balmy 42-degree sunshine. I opened the zippered front of the long plastic cloche, expecting to find slimy messes where my lettuce and radicchio starts were living, along with a seeded bed of mustard greens. Across the path, floating row cover blanketed a bed seeded with corn salad (mache). All had been alive after that December snowstorm, but I hadn’t uncovered these areas in weeks. Here is my delightful find:
You’re looking at Winter Density lettuce and Palla Rossa radicchio under the cloche, and Vit corn salad sprouted densely on the right, where the corner of the floating row cover has been removed. Definitely winners in a harsh environment. The existing leaves probably wouldn’t be desirable, but they provide a good base for new growth, which will find its way into late winter salads.
The cloche, which doesn’t look like it would provide much protection, is also a winner. It’s sitting on a raised bed made of stone, which helps radiate heat back into the bed, and I’ve placed stones in bare spots within the cloche to add to that effect.
However, a trek to the back 40 brought down my mood a bit. The purple sprouting broccoli has been shivering with just a smattering of straw mulch around its stems. It had bounced back after the snow melted in mid-December, but since then it’s been in severe retreat due to the cold nights. I should have covered it, but went away for Christmas, when the first cold nights really set in, and by the time I returned I figured it was too late. The cold has continued, with a brief letup, and I hope for the best. But here’s what it looks like right now:
Behind the broccoli, though, are two A-frame cloches, one covering carrots and the other beets. Although the edges of the cloches are frozen into the crusty soil, I can see green leaves through both of them, giving me hope that these two root crops are hanging in there.
Speaking of the crusty ground, it needs to be pried open like a stuck car-door in order to rescue a parsnip or two. But it’s worth the effort, as those roots have been nice and sweet.
Other above-ground plants have not fared well. A bed of parsley in an open cold frame is matted against the soil, although might recover. Slimy mounds that once were ruby chard hold less hope. Onions and celery root look OK, but haven’t been pulled yet. Kale, usually a staple in our winter garden, is suffering.
Taking stock of the successes and failures, I can see things I should have done: more mulch around the broccoli, maybe a floating row cover or cloche over it. Definitely much more protection over the poor chard. But just keeping myself warmly clothed on my rare forays out into the crisp weather has been enough of a challenge. I’ll chalk it up to experience and hope the broccoli will finally bounce back. Warmer weather is on the way; this week’s forecast is for high 40s daytime, and mid-30s overnight. I’m ready.
In my Seattle garden, fallen leaves are drifting up around the edges of my vegetable beds like Technicolor waves lapping at the shore. Time to deploy the season extension.
This time of year, nature is getting ready to go dormant. Despite the occasional warm, sunny day, the weather pattern is changing. Shorter days (and longer nights), cooler temperatures, glorious rain, from drizzle to downpour, all signal the change in plants. Growth slows down. Cell walls begin to thicken in the plants, mirroring our defensive layers of fleece and wool.
Stave off the inevitable decline in your vegetable garden by covering those plants that are actively growing. The ones that will feed you salad this fall can be nursed along for a few more weeks if covered with a cloche or a cold frame.
The root crops that are going to be overwintered will be aided by a blanket of garden fleece, also known as floating row cover. Later this fall, you can pull off the FRC and cover those beets and carrots with a cloche, giving them more protection during our coldest time.
The kale, cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts will benefit from a top-dressing of compost and straw mulch, between the rows and around the plants. This step can be taken for all the fall and winter veggie plants, but isn’t as necessary for those under a cloche or cold frame until the weather really reaches our daytime winter temperatures of 45 degrees. Still, I often do this now around my salad greens too, just since I’m out in the garden with the straw at hand. It’s often more pleasant to do it on a nice fall day than try to wait for a break in the winter rains that will take hold in November.
The main reason to do this season extension and mulching work is to protect our plants from the colder temperatures, pounding rains and desiccating wind.
A few weeks ago I put in a late batch of lettuces and raddichio into a long hoop-house cloche. With the unseasonably warm weather, I’ve been able to take that off for days at a time, and the veggies are nearing harvest. Now that rains and cooler weather are predicted, I’ve put it back on again.
Often at this time of year I’ll set up the cold frame over a bed with starts. It’s amazing to check the soil temperature inside the cold frame and in the bed next to it. Inside the bed, the temperature of the soil will be well above 60, while in the open garden the soil temperature is inching down toward the mid-50s. Capturing that warmer soil temp, keeping it from dropping so fast, is a key benefit to season extension.
Also this week we’ve had a couple of days of significant rain. At times, it’s come down pretty hard. A soft rain is great for watering the beds, and I open the season extension devices for a few hours in early afternoon if a light rain is coming down. The best situation is a nice soft rain for an hour or two, followed by a clearing and light breeze, so the plants dry out. Regular moisture on the leaves and stems of fall veggies can promote rot. If I can’t get the timing right to open the season extension during a light rain, I hand-water the beds as needed.
And I always keep the devices closed during a heavy rain. Over time, heavy rains will compact the soil, leach out the nutrients, and reduce those soil temps — all things I’m trying to avoid. Score another benefit for season extension.
The winds are also gusting this time of year. Combined with cooler temperatures and rain, the wind can be hard on tender vegetable crops. The worst effect is when it blows the top layer of
mulch away from the base of the plant, exposing the plant’s fine root system. Those roots will dry up, making it tough for the plant to survive, much less grow. Such stress will invite pests, and can trigger the plant’s desire to bolt and go to seed.
One final idea concerning season extension: what’s good for the plants is also good for the pests. In this sense: the pests love the warmer, drier location too. I’m picking a lot of slugs and snails out of my season extension devices right now, and off the plants. I need to be diligent about this, because they’re all drawn to the warm place with plentiful food. As the temperatures continue to drop they’ll become less of a problem, but right now, I need to pay attention if I want to keep those fall crops around for my autumn dinners, and not just be feeding the pests.
Fall in the maritime garden is a time to appreciate our weather. The change is usually not abrupt, giving me a chance to also adjust my own pace to the slowing rhythm of nature. But the decline into winter is inevitable, which is another lesson. At this pace, it seems more possible to stay in the moment, enjoying the color and patterns of those fall leaves as they naturally mulch the margins of my garden.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.