Gardeners’ Question Time

I’m not Bob Flowerdew, but tomorrow I get to play him on the radio.

You’ll get that reference if you’re a fan of the British radio gardening show Gardeners’ Question Time. I get the BBC 4 show via podcast, and greatly enjoy the experience of listening, learning and laughing along with their panel of witty experts.

And tomorrow, I get to channel a little bit of Mr. Flowerdew (yes, his actual name) on the KIRO radio show of Ciscoe Morris, Seattle’s own version of a beloved expert radio gardener. Gardening with Ciscoe is on at 11 a.m. every Saturday on 97.3 FM.

Ciscoe Morris

Ciscoe Morris

Ciscoe’s program can also be heard via podcast, in case you’re not near a radio on Saturday mornings or not within range of KIRO’s towers.

Interestingly, many of the gardening questions posed to Ciscoe and his guests could be lifted (minus the lilting British accents) from GQT. Our Maritime Northwest climate has a lot in common with the mild climes of the British Isles. I often hear advice on that show that is applicable to my own yard–another reason to listen, if I needed one. For example, the British grow familiar vegetables on a similar timetable in their “allotments” as we do in our P-Patches.

GQT has been educating and entertaining gardeners since 1947, inspired by the country’s postwar “Dig for Victory” campaign, similar to the “Victory Garden” program in the U.S. that urged people to grow food as a method of self-sustainability during wartime. Its amazing longevity can be attributed to the British love of gardening, although you could say that it has contributed to their perennial plant fever.

As proof of my GQT fandom, I even have attended a live taping. Amazingly, the GQT’s website provides the proof. Two summers ago, my wife and I took a walking trip in England, and after strolling the farms and gardens of the Cotswolds, we ventured to Wales for a weekend to attend GQT’s Summer Garden Party at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales.

In this photo on their website, you can clearly see me in my green shirt (and Susie next to me) to the left of the sign, waiting for the taping to begin. We were present for the taping of two shows, but alas did not get any of our questions chosen for consideration by the panel.

And what an amazing panel of experts on their stage. Flowerdew, Bunny Guinness (which reminds me, Happy Easter!), Pippa Greenwood (you can’t make these names up!), Toby Buckland, Chris Beardshaw, James Wong and other panelists are certainly pedigreed.

Guinness is a landscape designer who has won six gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show (and is the niece of rose breeder David Austin). Beardshaw is a landscape architect, BBC television garden program host, and was a judge at this year’s Northwest Flower & Garden Show (also presenting some delightful seminars). Wong is a botanist, and Greenwood is a plant pathologist. Buckland heads London’s oldest plant nursery. Flowerdew is one of England’s leading organic gardeners whose family has been farming in East Anglia since the Tudors ruled the land in the 1500s. All of which makes me realize that I should study more and work on my credentials.

Although I can’t hope to match either the panel’s expertise or their wit (a recent edible gardening discussion devolved into testing the soil temperature by getting naked in the garden to decide whether it is warm enough to plant), I will try to pass on my vegetable-growing tips and inject levity where possible in with Ciscoe’s banter. He’s a great host, an expert in just about everything green, and a fun person to chat with, and I always look forward to the show.

So listen if you can, call in if you’d like, and don’t worry about the weeding. As they say on GQT, “you’ll be back to the garden in 45 minutes.”

Here are a few photos from the National Botanic Garden in Wales, which is about an hour north of Swansea. It’s an amazing place you should visit if you ever get the chance.

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 saut├ęs 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.

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.

Hummingbird, Meet Broccoli

This is exactly why you let the purple sprouting broccoli go to flower.

hummingbird

Hummingbird

hummingbird

hummingbird

hummingbird

hummingbird

hummingbird

hummingbird

This is an Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna), one of the most common (and yet, not at all “common”) hummingbirds in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve seen them in my garden year-round.

“No larger than a ping-pong ball and no heavier than a nickel,” says the uber-informative All About Birds, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

They share more fascinating hummingbird facts:

  • Mostly green and grey, the male’s “gorget,” or throat patch, can shine with iridescent pink colors in the right sunlight. The color can extend over the bird’s entire head.
  • The males have a characteristic small white spot behind the eye.
  • During mating season, the males have a “dive display” in which they rise to 130 feet, then plummet down in a matter of seconds, stopping to hover a few feet in front of the object of their display.
  • Sometimes a bee or wasp will get impaled on the sharp beak of the bird, causing it to starve to death.
  • Their normal body temperature is about 107 degrees, but when it’s cold, they can go into “torpor” where their breathing and heart rate slows, and their temperature drops to 48.
  • They have tiny legs and can’t really walk or hop, but they can sort of scoot sideways when perched.

 

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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