Summer Planting, Round One

The weather here in Cascadia has turned cold and soggy, quite a change from the unseasonably summery 80+ degree temperatures and blue sunny skies we had in the earlier part of May.  I guess as lovely as those days were, we did not escape the wetter parts of late spring and are paying now for the warmth we were given earlier on.

During the latter of those warm days, while cooler but still sunny, my husband and I got the summer garden started.

Employing our rotation in our three front yard raised bed garden boxes of nightshades, curcurbits, and roots & aromatics, we planted and seeded up a couple of those categories into their respective beds.  The nightshade garden consists of six tomato starts from our greenhouse, and seed potatoes from a local farm.  The tomatoes are my husband’s babies and he made sure to give them a good start by planting them about a foot deep and snipping off foliage low on the stem to that point.  The idea is that the hairs on the stems will turn into roots when in contact with the soil, thereby giving the tomato plants a strong support system as they grow, both for structural needs as well as optimal nourishment.  He included extra lime he had already limed the gardens when he tilled them) and some organic fertilizer in each planting hole, made a dish around each stem to hold in water, and ringed each dished area with oyster shell in hopes of foiling slugs (they don’t like crawling along the sharp edges).  He decided to include one Yellow Pear tomato, for snacking on, one Silvery Fir Tree for extra early fruit, one Cherokee Purple for late fruit of fun color, and three Legend tomatoes, his favorite for midseason, meaty dense fruits.  As an experiment, he also potted up an Everlast in its own container to test out their touted ability to keep well over winter.  We needed a way to separate the plant from those we would usually harvest from, as we tend to throw the large fruits we don’t eat outright into a pot to sauce and can them.  I’ll report back late in the year as to how well those Everlast have kept.  I’ll keep a few other fruits alongside, as a comparison.

Also in the nightshade box are my favorite potatoes, Yukon Golds.  These buttery tubers with silky texture have fine delicate skins which don’t need removing during cooking and eating.  I love them boiled, roasted, fried, grilled, and mashed.  I especially love them as wee babies before they get too starchy.  I cut up the seed potatoes into their individual eyes and then used a standing bulb auger to make holes to drop them into.  After filling the holes I dusted the tops with a but of organic fertilizer.  We like the Whitney Farms products for that.

In the roots & aromatics box I seeded parsnips, leeks, and carrots.  Due to our tendency to clay soil, even in the raised beds, I like Nelson carrots from Territorial Seeds because they penetrate clay well and grow to good form.  The parsnips and leeks will be my experiment in winter ground storage, as I hear this is the best way to keep these crops.  I want to see how well they stay fresh and dig up as I want to use them (and how much I like digging them up in the dark, cold, and rain).  Last year’s storage in the refrigerator was unsatisfactory as many of them molded and rotted after a month or two.  I also put in my (purchased) celery starts, to be part of the same experiment (after I find out how well they will grow for me- the summer experiment!).  I’ll report on those experiments, too.  Lastly, I planted the four basil starts from our greenhouse, and a purchased lemon-basil start, because it sounded like fun.

On the advice given in my favorite gardening book, In the French Kitchen Garden by Georgeanne Brennan, I plant my seeds in wide rows.  She says she learned this from old-time gardeners gardening in the traditional country style of northern France.  The advantages of wide rows are that more plants fit into the space, their dense growth holds down weeds, and thinnings throughout the growing season can be plucked and eaten and cooked with.  I have enjoyed this technique and have had great yields from it.  I rake in a dusting of organic fertilizer first and then plant my seeds.  I give this same dusting treatment to wide rows in which I put in starts.

In addition to the vegetables, I added a few new herbs to the side herb patch: new thyme and lemon thyme plants (they get woody and unproductive after a time and are good to replace every few years), a winter savory, which I’ve not used or grown before, and a sweet marjoram, which I especially like with our eggs.  I also added some sweet alyssum to our mini-orchard, in between the bordering chive plants, to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects, and Corsican Mint, a ground cover, beneath the fruit trees, to both keep down weeds and stave off destructive insects.  I hope they spread fast!  We’re tired of weeding.

Well, one thing I don’t have to do in this weather is water, so I peek outside each day and see how everything is getting along.  The new plants all  look healthy enough, but also like they could use some sun and heat.  I know how they feel.


So, I was too early in declaring defeat over the aphid infestation; turns out, it just takes more time to work.  About two weeks after I hosed down my lettuces, I began to notice new growth coming back on.  I looked at the backs of the leaves again and noticed that, while I did still see aphids there, they were -dead- aphids.  Victory!

The lettuces have put on a lot of nice new growth now, growth that isn’t covered in dead insect carcasses.  The recent rains probably helped clean them off, too.  But the heat wave we had prior to the rain has sent them to bolt.  I thinned out a few of the taller ones but plan to make a final harvest or two of dinner salads from what remains.  Happily, the spring-planted salad patch is maturing enough to eat from now!

The heat wave also sent the spinach into a tizzy and they’ve shriveled up from sunburn.  Mid- to high 80s is not normal for this time of year in Cascadia!  We’ve cooled off now to the upper 60s and the oppressive humidity has left the air.  So, with the spinach removed, I have a spot for a summer planting of…something.  Still mulling over what I might like to tuck in there for a wee summer crop.

I’ve decided I’m not crazy about this particular mesclun mix from Territorial Seeds that I bought for my salad patch.  Too much tatsoi and kale and mustard for my liking, and they don’t mature at the same rate the lettuces do.  While the lettuces are still tiny, the kale has grown huge, and the mustards have run to seed already.  I also noticed that my spinach patch matured before my lettuces were big enough to share a salad bowl with them, so I don’t think I’ll be repeating that combination either.  If I want spice with my lettuces I might as well throw the dandelion weed greens in the salad bowl with them; those all grow at the same rate, and in the same places too!  But I also have french sorrel and chives I can include from the potager.

And those Paris Market carrots, well, they are still small, but some of the greens have grown larger and…appear to be chamomile.  I had some in that spot years ago and those seeds never go away!  The leaves are very similar to carrots, until they begin to form one solid, discernible stem, and then it is apparent that this is not a carrot.  Now that I think about it, it is also possible that they might be wild carrot, Queen Anne’s Lace.  Out of curiosity to see what’s what as they develop, I’m going to leave them all in and see which each ends up being.

With rains coming I’ll still not be getting my summer garden in as soon as I’d hoped, but perhaps we’ll have more clouds and less precipitation tomorrow, my best day of the week for garden work.  I have celery and her starts to put in, potatoes to cut up and plant, and flowers to set in around the fruit trees.  My husband’s tomato babies are so big now, just gorgeous!  Can’t wait to get those in.  So much to do!  Think non-rainy thoughts for me, at least until I get the planting done; then I’m happy to let Ma Nature do all the watering. 😉

Still Bugged

Well, the aphid remedy I had hoped would work has failed to rid my lettuces of their infestation.  I mixed up a spray bottle of water with a bit of Dr. Bronner’s lavender liquid soap, a bit more of garlic oil and bits, and still more mouthwash with tea tree and thymol oils.  I saturated the leaves for two days and have not noticed a reduction in bugs.  It is possible that in order to be most effective, I need to somehow spray all the undersides, rather than the tops, where the aphids hang out, but I can’t get the bottle to spray upside down, and I can’t get down under the plants as they are in a cold frame.  I guess my husband and I could lift the lid off so I could do that, but we haven’t tried that yet.  My next idea, though, takes advantage of the lid, but I am waiting for the weather to cool down a bit before I try it.  Cascadia has been blessed with beautiful, warm spring weather, blue skies, twittering birdsong, leafing trees, and budding shrubs.  The bustling and glory of spring always thrills me!  So, what I want to try next is purchasing a bundle of ladybugs, which I hope to find at my local feed store, to release inside the cold frame, in hopes that I can get the lid down fast enough before they all fly away.  As ladybugs love aphids, the idea is that introducing a natural predator to the mono-cropped box will bring some balance to the mini-ecosystem therein and take care of my bug problem, turning it into a bug feast for the wee red ones.  This is a technique often employed in organic and permaculture gardens, in which the key is discovering and maintaining a balance within the garden, so that the balanced system can self-manage.  I like that idea a lot.  I want to wait for cooler weather, though, because the cold frame’s glass lid will cook the lettuces in the sun on warm days.  Happily, I won’t need to try this on the chive plant in the back herb patch which had its own aphid infestation, as the bugs seem to have mysteriously and completely departed from it.  I have no idea why, but I am glad they chose to vacate!  Perhaps, though, they migrated to the lettuces…

Last week’s warm weather propelled my husband and I out to the garden to at last get the front garden beds tilled up for spring planting.  We are about a month late getting this done this year.  Either March is getting wetter, or we are getting older!   We shoveled up and dumped on a wagon’s load  of compost for each raised bed from the bottom end of the hen yard out back, where all their scratched-up, mixed-in poo, straw, and food scraps collect and cook down together.  It’s the best stuff ever.  There had also been the same compost, with extra straw placed on the beds back at the last harvest as a winter mulch.  We added in peat moss, which helps break up the clay in the soil, and lime, for the plants’ calcium needs.  Lime is especially important for preventing blossom end rot in tomatoes, my man’s favorite crop.  Then the whole mess got tilled together to fluff up the soil.  I’m planning to get carrots, parsnips, and leeks started out there right away, and to put in celery starts I’ll need to purchase.  My celery starts didn’t make it.  I had no success either with the fennel bulb or the parsley, all of which are notoriously hard to grow from seed.  The tomatoes and basil look great though!

The tomato plants are nearly a foot tall- I can’t believe how fast they grow once they’re potted up!  The basils have big fat leaves and wonderful aroma.  Those will go in one of the front raised beds.  I use another bed for root crops and legumes, and the third bed for curcurbits- cucumbers, pumpkins, cantaloupe, and honey dew.  I also plan to have some potatoes in the tomato box, to keep the nightshades together.  Each year we rotate the plantings by sliding them all down a box, so each plant returns to its starting spot every three years.  This is meant to confuse the bugs that prey on them, and use different nutrients from the soil, depending on what each type of crop needs.  Pretty smart, eh?  Another genius organic gardening technique.  If there were a temple to organic gardening, the script over its door would read, “Know Thy Soil.”  I plan to sow some annual candytuft, bachelor’s buttons, and nasturtium seeds beneath the fruit trees, and must dig up the lemon balm invaders from the side herb patch so I can try some summer savory seeds in there.

I am enjoying more spring delights in the kitchen now.  My peas are growing and winding around their climbing posts, and as I thinned them the other night, I added some of the pea tendrils to a stir-fry I made for dinner.  Another night I had fresh asparagus purchased from the local farm store that has just reopened for the season.  It arrived from Yakima, east of here over the Cascade Mountains.  Much of our produce comes from this warmer, heavily-irrigated farm land, and I count it as part of my local foodshed.  I like my asparagus drizzled with olive oil, seasoned with celery salt, black pepper and herbs, and placed under the broiler until bright green and roasted.  I found I like it finished with a white balsamic salad dressing, ever so lightly dressed.  Mmmmm!  I have also collected chives for cooking and french sorrel for salads.

My native elder has set bud and is about to open into full bloom, bringing in the May.  May Day begins my summer season here in Cascadia.  Hooray…Summer is coming!

April Showers and Aphids

April has certainly brought her showers with her!  After a drier-than-usual start to the year, Mother Nature seems to want to redress the imbalance by soaking us with intermittent downpours.  At least we have the respite of sun-breaks between the storms!  This combination of rain and sunshine has continued to perk up my springtime potager.

My Paris Market carrots are finally beginning to sprout!  This is telling me that no matter how early I prepare the beds and seed them, those seeds are going to wake up on their own time anyway.  Seed packets recommend sowing carrots as early as April, and I had hoped to jump-start the process by seeding in March, but again, Mother Nature is in charge, and I am not.  Carrots like April in Cascadia.  I’m just happy to witness their arrival at last.

My orchard is budding out, the apple and pear trees dressed in their pale pink organza of blooms.  More tulips are up, and the violets continue to appear.  The lawn is growing thick and fast and my husband has been occupied with its mowing and edging.  Dandelions have been removed from strawberry patches, with still more needing to be removed from the hedgerows.  My elder bushes are leafing out in fluffy waves of green, and my maple tree is opening its clusters of yellow-green buds, set off by burgundy sepals.

In the greenhouse, tomato plants are potted up now and growing nicely.  The basils are coming along, as is the parsley.  But, the finicky celery is just not thriving.  The fennel bulb doesn’t look good, either.  We haven’t gotten the potager beds in the front yard prepped yet, but when we do, I’ll probably be shopping for celery starts to plant.

On another note, aphids have discovered my lettuces in the cold frame.  Ugh!  These critters suck the life out of plants, and can leave behind sticky dew that attracts ants too.  One way to remove them is to spray them with a strong jet of water, but I always feel this is too harsh on my delicate lettuces.  In the past I have planted marigolds with them to deter aphids and do not recall seeing them when I did that.  For now, I am planning to make a spray-bottle mix of garlic oil, dish soap, and water to drench the leaves with, as an aphid deterrent.  As the cold frame has a lid, I could also buy a container of ladybugs, which feed on aphids, and release them into the frame and close them in to work.  If the spray isn’t successful that may be my next step.  I’ll give a report in my next post as to what worked or what didn’t.  Marigold use falls into the companion planting strategy, which sometimes works well, and sometimes doesn’t have any noticeable effect.  Strong herbs are recommended for deterring aphids, but they have also infested one of my chive plants.  Some gardeners report success with marigolds and others with ‘herb walls’ between patches of greens, to slow down any potential arrival and spread of aphids.  I suspect part of the key is in knowing what the best deterrent-to-crop planting ratios are. Another companion planting strategy is to use trap-plants which are meant to attract pests so as to keep them away from crops.  I use nasturtiums in my orchard beneath my fruit trees in this way.  I don’t mind the nasturtiums getting buggy, since they are annuals and I’ll be clearing them out at the end of the growing season anyway.

Off I go to do battle with aphids.  Wish me luck!

Cold Frame Victory!

One of the gardening tools I have is a cold frame, a box with a glass lid, in which I can sow seeds very early, and keep crops very late in the season, because the glass protects the seeds and plants from frost.  My handy husband made it for me with a large piece of glass gleaned from a friend’s old sliding door (thanks again, Janet! :grin:).  The glass is tilted at an angle facing the sun to take best advantage of its light and heat, and a handle has been installed on the edge of the lid to lift it.  Inside there are divots on the inner edges of both lid and box, and a piece of rebar for inserting into them, to prop up the lid.  On warm days the plants need ventilation and respite from the heat lest they cook inside, and as it has been warm lately, the lid has been propped up for a couple weeks now.

Inside the cold frame, some leftover lettuces from the fall spent the winter, checking their minimal growth during the cold.  With the onset of warm spring weather however, they have awoken and begun to grow.  I had been worried that the plants would still be old and bitter, even with the new growth, but I was pleasantly surprised when my husband came in one day, having harvested and eaten a salad from their leaves, that they were sweet and fresh.  Still skeptical, as earlier I had split a leaf and noted its milky white sap and bitter aroma, I tried a bowl of salad myself.  How delightful!  The leaves were indeed delicious!  I am now tickled that, while my fall lettuces don’t seem to grow very satisfactorily, I can overwinter them in my cold frame under glass and look forward to enjoying my own fresh garden salads by late March, while my newly-sewn lettuce seeds in the garden boxes are only just sprouting.  I declare a potager victory!

In other news, the peas and sweet peas have finally appeared, their slender, upright shoots standing to green attention at the feet of their respective climbing apparatuses (apparati?).  And I have seen exactly one carrot shoot; I hope it is a pioneer, announcing to its mates that it is safe to come up now, so I’ll see more followers soon.  The maple tree is opening up its yellow clusters of blossoms, and my first tulip has appeared.  I can’t recall the name of the type just now, but they begin a buttery yellow when they come up, and slowly fade into a sunshiney orange as they open and age.  I even spotted a darling clump of violets beneath my red-flowering currant, which is in bright full bloom, the red and purple playing well off each other.  There are chives and lemon sorrel up in the herb garden to add to my salads and other dishes too.

In the greenhouse, the tomato, celery and herb seedlings continue to thrive.  My romaine lettuces have moved out onto the covered patio, as the temperatures inside the greenhouse were causing them to begin to attract mold.  Outside in the fresh air they are much happier.  In perhaps another week or two I’ll find a garden spot in which to plant them out.

Temperatures here have been in the upper 60s, even up to 70 a couple days, and sunshine has come out from behind steely clouds more often than not.  I’ve had the bicycle out, and the watering can, in the lack of rain.  So far, it’s been a lovely spring!  I hope you’re enjoying yours, too.

Bringing Up Babies

A few weeks after sowing seeds indoors, most are sprouted and on their way.

A few pots of herbs still remain on top of the refrigerator, unsprouted as of yet, with the lid off the container, because the soggy peat pots were beginning to mold.  Mold on pots, and in the soil mix, also called damping off, is death to seedlings.  The mold will get into the seedlings themselves and kill them off.  Ventilation is important, along with warmth and moisture, to prevent this from happening.  So, we removed the clear lid at the first sign of mold, and scraped off the spores from the pots so they wouldn’t spread.

The pots with sprouted seedlings have been moved into the greenhouse.  We set a shop heater, one of those round ones that slowly radiates heat, beneath the shelf, pointed up, beneath the trays of seedlings, for warmth.  The trays are saved salad greens containers from the store.  The lids are left off now. Hanging above them is a light to encourage straight, tall growth in their youth.  It is leftover from a reptile tank we once kept, although proper grow lights might do a better job.  This seems to serve its purpose for us, so we’ve kept it.  We’re fans of using whatever works.

While the seedlings are still young, we give them water, poured into the container, to soak up from the bottom, so as to not disturb the soil and possibly drown the babies.  When they’ve grown enough to have their first set of true leaves, which come after the seedling leaves set, then we begin watering them with a very weak dilution of liquid fish fertilizer.  When they’ve grown a bit more, we’ll start potting them up into larger pots with potting soil and water them with a stronger concentrate of the food.

The seedlings themselves are coming along nicely.  The tomatoes are a bit leggy, but that will be fine for them because so much of the stem can be buried in potting up, which makes the plant stronger, as all those little hairs on their stems will become rootlets in the soil and give the plant a great foundation.  The somewhat romaine lettuces have balanced themselves out, and the basils are a happy bright green.  The celery, fennel, and parsley are still coming along, but less vigorously, so I am wondering if they’ll make it.  I haven’t yet ruled out buying starts of those later if these don’t pan out.

Out in the potager, the greens I seeded a couple weeks ago are up and starting to make a green carpet of their patches.  One box is mixed lettuces, one patch is romaine (the greenhouse counterparts are so far bigger), and one patch is spinach.  The peas, sweet peas, and Paris Market carrots have yet to appear.  I await their arrival daily with anticipation, but so far have not yet been rewarded.  In the herb beds, the perennial bronze fennel, chives, and lemon balm are showing their spring green.  The mint is making an effort as well, as are the hyssops.  The rosemary is set with buds, to open in a glorious blue sometime next month.  The lavenders and sages are looking weather-beaten and scraggly; they’ll need a bit of trimming, and drier days, to perk up.

Around the rest of the homestead, the red flowering currant is decked in spring green and fat pink buds just about to burst.  The bluebell greens are up, and the early weeds are returning- dandelion, dead nettle, and chickweed.  I add dandelion leaves to my salads if I catch them before they flower; after they are too bitter.  And I love munching on cool, green chickweed leaves, even after flowering.  So sweet and bright-tasting!  The fruit trees are in bud, the daylilies are peeking up, the tulips are pushing through, and the daffodils are beginning to bloom.

Elsewhere I see the flowering plum trees in bloom- I love pink tree season!  Bright yellow fosythia is out now, and flowering cherries are billows of while clouds.  Other shrubs are a mist of fresh green.  This color palette does me good!  I am always refreshed and excited to see signs of spring springing.  Summer is on its way!


A couple of weeks ago my husband and I started some summer-crop seeds indoors.  We use those seed kits that come with plastic tray, clear plastic lid, and peat pots.  We also bought a bag of seed starting mix, which is sterile, unlike potting soil.  We mix up some of the starting mix in a small bucket with water until moistened through, and spoon it into the peat pots.

Seed shopping was back in early February, when we were excited to notice the slight lengthening of the days.  We took a drive to a nursery in town that sells my favorite brands of seeds on the rack- Territorial and Botanical Interests.  Both are solid companies with high ethical standards and reputations.  Territorial is out of Oregon as well, and its seeds are tested in test gardens here and so are known to perform well in this region.

Seeds for starting were several kinds of tomatoes (my husband’s favorite!), a few herbs of my choice, romaine lettuce, and celery.  I’ve not yet had luck with celery from seed, but this is only my second year trying, so I am giving it another go to see what happens.  My herb selections are basil, great with all those tomatoes; fennel bulb, with its licorice-y scent and taste; summer savory, which I’ve never tried before; and Italian parsley, with the flat leaves, which I love for its intense flavor that seems to go well with everything.  If I had to give a flavor to the color green, I would say it tastes like flat-leaved parsley!

My husband’s tomato selections this year are all varieties we have grown before.  Last year we grew Legend from Territorial for the first time, and he absolutely loved it!  It is dense inside, meaty and thick, and the fruit is just palm-sized, so our shorter season gives it enough time to mature.  His other favorite he grows every year is yellow pear tomatoes; these are his summer snackers he’ll eat in passing as he weeds and mows, and in the mornings by the handful before leaving for work.  They are also lovely sliced in half on summer salads of sweet lettuce with fresh cucumber chunks.  We have some seeds left from Everlast and Cherokee Purple he is using up.  Cherokee Purple is another dense fruit, with very deep coloring, very pretty on the vine.  It is an heirloom variety and takes longer to mature so is a late-season fruit.  Everlast is a nice mid-season fruit of average size that was fairly reliable.  We are also using up the last of the Brandywine seeds.  This is another heirloom, but one we have found to be finicky.  It tends towards blossom end rot, which we have tried to fend off with even watering and added lime to the planting bed, both of which are suppose to head it off, but to no avail.  Many tomato aficionados swear by Brandywines, but this will probably be our last year growing them.

Over the last week the seeds have been sprouting.  After seeding the pots, we pour water into the container itself, for the pots and mix to soak it up from the bottom, so as to not disturb the wee seeds.  We place the containers on top of our refrigerator, as the heat is enough to promote sprouting.  Once the seeds are up, they need to get moved, else they’ll grow long and lanky searching out light, which makes for weak plants.

The gradual sprouting of the various seeds is like watching popcorn pop in reeaeaallly sllloooowwww mooootiiiooonnn.  First a few pop up one day about half a week after seeding, then each day, one or two more.  As we see enough seeds sprout in a pot, we move them out to our greenhouse.  We put the pots into saved plastic salad containers from the store, with water in the bottom, and place them under a grow light.  The light helps them grow straight and strong.  The romaine lettuces were the first ones up, then some tomatoes, then some herbs and celery.  There are pots left still up on the refrigerator, waiting to fully sprout.

As an experiment, I also seeded romaine lettuce out in a garden bed, to see which would end up doing better, the indoor- or the directly seeded.  Most lettuces I grow I use for cut-and-come-again salad grazing, but the romaine I want to grow into full heads for summer Caesar salads, as this lettuce holds up to hot summer weather, while the more delicate varieties wilt in the baking sun (like I do!).  I’ll let y’all know what my findings are when the data are in.

The day is lovely, warm and mild, with plentiful sunshine peeking out from behind the roaming cloud cover; much nicer than the showery weather that was predicted!  Of course it does mean that I will have to hand water my seeds out in the garden, as it didn’t rain as planned, but it is a pleasant task in the late afternoon light.  The chickens cluster up beside the fence, hoping ‘ll throw them some treats (which I do when I’m weeding or clearing out crops).  It’s exciting to think that it is almost Equinox, and that soon I can seed carrots, parsnips, leeks, and more lettuces!

And I love the smell of sun-warmed soil.