Category Archives: Organic Vegetable Gardening

Garden Update: March 26, 2013

About a month ago, my dad built me a cold frame for the garden. Not sure how well it is warming yet, but I’m trying it out by starting cool season seeds in it. My first batch of seeds was decimated by snails about a week after they sprouted. After that, I sprinkled the bottom with sluggo. The wet climate here means the slug and snails are out of control! Yesterday I planted a flat full of cool season greens. If all goes well, I will transplant them out into the mulched garden beds in a few weeks.

  • Arugula-Sylvetta
  • Mixed Kale
  • Chard
  • curley cress
  • southern giant mustard
  • broccoli
  • 2 six packs mixed lettuce

I also decided to try a pea planting experiment. I bought a six pack of sugar sprint peas at the nursery along with a 1 oz packet of the same sugar sprint peas in the southwest bed of the garden. We will see if the transplants are ready for harvest sooner than the seeds. I also planted a test spot of old seed – simpson lettuce and brocollini. The soil very heavy clay in that corner, but with lots of redworms in the hay/mulch. Sprinkled sluggo again in that area. The last thing I want is to lose those pea sprouts to hungry slugs.

I moved the strawberries from the front to the northwest bed and the north-central bed. They seem to be adjusting well. The north-central bed is also sprouting volunteer potatoes. Kale overwintered in the northeastern bed and is now starting to flower. The flowers look like mini heads of broccoli. I might try snipping and eating them.

 

Growing Tomatoes in the Cool Pacific NorthWest

To the left you will see the star of my tomato garden last summer, a variety called Stupice. Every time I tell someone about this tomato, I have to repeat myself because the name is so weird. Believe me, this variety is worth growing, especially if you live in a climate with a long cool spring or a short growing season. Stupice was by far the earliest tomato in my garden and really stood out in terms of taste. It is the only tomato I grew last year that I plan to plant year after year.

I went a bit crazy growing tomatoes last summer. My thought was, you can never have too many home grown tomatoes. I was testing a number of different varieties.

 

2012 Tomato Varieties

  • Stupice
  • Large Red Cherry
  • Oregon Spring
  • Martian Giant
  • Porter Improved
  • Early Girl VF
  • Fantastic
  • Principe Borghese
  • Mortgage Lifter

Source: tried-and-true.com viaPerri on Pinterest

The other outstanding variety was Mortgage Lifter. This is a big pink beefsteak tomato. It is an heirloom and tastes delicious. It was much later to ripen than most of the rest of the varieties, but it was worth it. So yummy! This year I’m going to make sure to steak these so that they don’t get damaged from laying on the wet ground. The skin of these was thin and they were soft enough to be easily damaged. They also tended to crack in the fall went heavy rains started up, but so what? Did I say how yummy they were?

Last summer the tomatoes grew well despite the sheet mulching and heavy soil, so I will probably plant them again this year in newly mulched areas. This year, I have some new varieties to try. I got these from the seed swap, so we will see how they do. I still might buy a few specific varieties that I want to try or just buy a few plants.

Tomato Varieties 2013

  • Stupice
  • Large Red Cherry
  • Oregon Spring
  • Early Girl VF
  • Fantastic
  • Principe Borghese
  • Beefsteak
  • Rutgers
  • Sunsets Red Horizon
  • Rio Grande
  • Rutgers
  • Gypsy

The Gypsy and the Sunsets Red Horizon are both heirloom varieties from Russia, so I’m hoping that they will produce well in cool weather. Gypsy is looks pink and black from the pictures I have seen and according to one grower at least, prefers cool summers. Sunsets Red Horizon is also said to produce well in cool summers and to have excellent flavor, so I’m excited about that one!

Rutgers and Rio Grande are both determinate tomatoes for making sauce, but are suppose to have good flavor for eating fresh as well. Rutgers says 55-60 days, which would make it an early tomato. Rio Grande says 75-80 days, which is a later tomato, but it is reputed to be tasty and thrive even in extreme temperatures. I’m hoping to grow a lot more tomatoes for sauce and canning this year. Last year we bought two boxes of roma tomatoes in September for processing. I think I would have to grow about 20 plants just for canning if we wanted to get enough sauce to last all winter and I just can’t see making space for that. Eventually we will be settled in a town long term and then I will convert most or all of the lawn to garden.  Gardening in grad school can be a hassle sometimes. I have so many plans, but can’t invest too much in this place.

Other tomato plans for this summer:

  1. Plastic mulch for warming the soil and increasing the harvest.
  2. Staking to keep tomatoes off the ground.
  3. Plastic bag greenhouses. (I bought these last year, but couldn’t figure out how to use them without a tomato cage.)

I’m tempted by the wall-o-water and other expensive season extension devices, but I don’t want to spend too much. Two summers ago I tried grafted tomato plants. They were very expensive! I didn’t find that they grew much better than regular tomatoes. The vines themselves were very vigorous and I had trouble staking them. At some point the wooden stakes started to bend and have trouble supporting the plants, but the number of tomatoes didn’t seem to be that amazing. I didn’t actually weigh and measure the harvest, so I have no scientific proof, but in my home garden, I figure if the difference isn’t significant enough that I notice it without measuring, it probably isn’t worth the trouble. For example, I didn’t do a formal tomato taste test last year, I just noticed that the Stupice and Mortgage Lifter tomatoes tasted really good. All the rest were fine, but none of them stood out.

How about you? What are your favorite tomato varieties? Do you swear by any specific growing techniques?

Growing Tomatillos

See this stuff? It doesn’t look like much, but boy is it delicious. I was mighty sad when our supply ran out in late fall.

Last summer I grew three tomatillo plants and got an amazing amount of the little green fruits. My sweetie made batch after batch of roasted tomatillo salsa. It was so much better than any tomatillo based salsa I have had a restaurants or from the grocery store. The perfect combination of sweet, tart, and spicy!

I grew the tomatillo plants from seed, just like tomato seedlings. The got a bit leggy under my kitchen lights, but recovered remarkably well. The produced many fruits and continued to grow late into the fall, long after the tomatoes and peppers had been given up in the cold and the rain.

If you haven’t ever grown tomatillos, I highly recommend it. They are an easy plant to succeed with and the harvest is delicious. The fruits look like little green tomatoes, but with a papery outer covering. When you take off the covering, the fruit inside is sort of sticky. You don’t eat them raw, you blanch or roast them before eating, which gets rid of that weird stickiness.

 

The tomatillo plants did well even with the cold spring and the sheet mulched garden. I’m planning on expanding my garden again this year by sheet mulching and will likely use tomatillos as one of the plants in the newly mulched areas. I plan to double the number of tomatillo plants I grow. Six or eight plants should provide enough tomatillos to try canning or freezing some tomatillo salsa this year. Maybe we can simply freeze the roasted tomatillos and then put together the salsa one batch at a time during the winter. I don’t have a pressure canner and if you are going to can salsas in a boiling water bath, you have to make sure they are very acidic.

Anyone have other recipes they love for tomatillos?

Growing Peppers and Chilies in Cool Climates

Last year was our first garden at this house, so there were successes and failures in the garden. I started the garden using sheet mulching and the underlying soil was heavy clay. The chilies and bell peppers did not like it. Their roots never really went deep and because the soil was so heavy, I suspect that they were slightly waterlogged and deficient in nutrients. It was a particularly cold and damp spring and we never got any nice big bell peppers. The chili plants did pretty well despite all of this, producing enough chilies on about six plants for many batches of salsa fresca.

Oregon’s mild summers aren’t exactly ideal for growing chilies and peppers, but I still have to try. Last summer I grew Gourmet sweet peppers and two varieties of chilies and liked them both, Jalapenos and Peruvian Purple. Of the two, the Peruvian Purple seemed to tolerate the heavy clay soils somewhat better and produced many small purple chilies.

These plants are beautiful and if I grow them again, I might try keeping them in containers. The container could be placed against a south or west facing wall to capture the reflected light and heat. Some people even bring them inside for the winter.

This year I’m definitely going to try some new things to increase my success growing peppers in the cool Pacific NorthWest.

1. Dig the soil and loosen the soil.
2. Add a lot of organic matter to the bed.
3. Mulch with black plastic.
4. Add row covers to help keep them warm.

Last year I started all my pepper plants from seed. Peppers are easy to start from seed if you can keep them warm and give them enough light. I would recommend a seedling heat mat if you can afford it. This is like a little waterproof electric heating pad, that is just the right temperature to keep your pepper seedlings nice and warm. Ideally peppers like to sprout in soil that is around 75 degrees. My house isn’t usually that warm during a cool Oregon spring, so my peppers were a bit slow to sprout. Just about the time I start to give up on them, that is when I see the little seedlings start to poke up through the soil. This can take up to two weeks, so don’t give up on them! Make sure to keep the soil moistened so the seedlings don’t have to break through a dry crust.

I have seeds of four varieties to try. I got most of them from the seed swap, so we will see how they do. Unfortunately, one envelope is simply labelled “sweet peppers”, so I will just have to see how they do. I also have California Wonder, Paprika, and Marconi Red.

Source: rareseeds.com viaM on Pinterest

 

The Marconi Red sounds great. It is an heirloom Italian sweet pepper. Reputed to be sweet and thick walled. Sounds delicious. California Wonder is a classic big bell pepper. Maybe I can make smoked paprika out of the paprika chilies? Smoked paprika is the most delicious thing. Love it on deviled eggs.

My Favorite Vegetable Seed Catalogs

It is January. Here in the Willamette Valley the freezing fog has settled in and shows no signs of lifting. But now is the time for gardeners to dream of summer. Snuggling into a warm blanket on your couch with a cup of tea and this year’s seed catalogs, imagining the possibilities can be one of the most enjoyable parts of gardening. On the other hand, it can lead to going way overboard in buying seeds and ending up with a lot more seeds than you can plant in one or even several years. (Seeds of most vegetables will stay viable for 2-5 years if kept in cool, dry conditions.) Erica, over at Northwest Edible Life, recently wrote a great post on how to pick your vegetable seeds without going crazy. It is a really great guide, so check it out if you feel like your seed buying might get out of control.

That post got me thinking about a couple of additional tips and my favorite places to buy seeds. Continue reading

Four Ways to Prevent Dampening Off

One of the many reasons I haven’t been blogging is that whenever I started writing about gardening I found myself on another rant about climate change. There is nothing like paying close attention to the weather to make one notice strange patterns. So rather than going on another rant, I will simply reference this Sac Bee article on the changes in the jet stream that has made this winter-spring so cold in much of the West.

A mixed bunch of seedlings (with the names in notes, roll your mouse over ...)
Creative Commons License photo credit: hardworkinghippy

Here in the Williamette Valley temperatures are still below normal. I lost some basil to dampening off. When conditions are cold and damp they stress tiny seedlings and promote the growth of fungus. If this happens seedlings will suddenly just fall over and die. So sad.

So here are four things to do to prevent dampening off.

1. Clean your containers. Recycling old containers is very environmentally friendly, but without a good cleaning they can harbor diseases. Before reusing your containers, wash them with very hot water and a biodegradable soap. If you still have trouble, you can mix a small amount of bleach in to help sterilize things.

2. Sterilize your seed starting mix. If you are reusing old potting mix it also could be hiding diseases. Commercial mixes aren’t always sterile either. You can bake your potting soil in the oven at 200 degrees for about 30 minutes. However this process does involve a smell that some might not enjoy. Another option is to cook your seed starting mix in the microwave. Cover and cook for about 8-10 minutes until steaming. Allow to cool.

3. Provide ventilation. Seeds need to stay moist in order to germinate, but there can be too much of a good thing. Providing a little fan for your seedlings can help them grow strong and stocky as well.

4. Avoid overwatering. You don’t need to water unless you see the top of the soil is starting to get dry, especially once the seeds have germinated. I find that even tiny seedlings without their first “true leaves” often have roots going right down to the bottom of the container.

Truthfully most of the time I find I can just buy some seed starting mix, pop it in a container, water, add seeds, water again, and presto! Baby plants! However, if you are starting seeds when it is cold and wet, dampening off can be a problem. Depending on what seeds you are starting, you might need to provide a seedling heating mat to avoid stressing your little darlings. In general, the more ideal the conditions, the less you have to worry. So give them lots of warmth and light too!

Hopefully warm, sunny weather will be on the way soon and we can forget all about the dreaded dampening off.

Improving Your Soil with Cover Crops

When I planted my peas a couple of weeks ago I also planted some fava beans. Now fava beans are a sort of Italian delicacy, but I’m too lazy to eat and grow fava beans because they need a lot of shelling. The reason I planted fava beans is to use them as a cover crop or “green manure” crop. When the fava beans grow up a bit and I’m ready to plant something else I will turn the not yet fully grown bean plants into the soil where they will break down and enrich it.

Broad beans
Creative Commons License photo credit: net_efekt

Cover crops can be particularly important if you have a small garden or weed problems. I have a terrible problem with crab grass so I’m hoping that by planting fava beans I will be reducing the growth of the crab grass because the fava beans will grow up and compete for light. If you have a small garden like I do you can never get too many organic fertilizers. I make compost for my garden, but I don’t have a lot of time or money to spend collecting or buy soil additives for my garden. A “green manure” crops enrich the soil in a similar way to animal manures.

If you have the time and the space I would highly recommend keeping some small animals to produce manure for your garden. Rabbits or chickens can be good sources of manure. Even if you just have a child with a small animal pet like a guinea pig or a hamster you can add that bedding to your compost pile. However, if you are like me and live in an apartment or don’t have the time to commit to keeping animals, green manure crops are a great option for improving your soil.

Five Tips for Planting Peas

Row of peas
Creative Commons License photo credit: lobo235

Update: It looks like lots of people are wanting to know when to plant peas, so I am going to cover that right now, before I get to how to plant them.

  1. Plant by soil temperature, not date! Pea seeds can germinate in temperatures as low as 40 degrees but it will take forever and the seeds may rot, so plant them as soon as the soil temperatures is consistently above 50 degrees.
  2. Peas like cool weather, so don’t wait too long! Once those warm summer days start coming, your pea plants will not be happy.
  3.  If possible, you have prepare the soil in the fall and have everything ready for planting as soon as the soil warms up just a bit.
  4. If you want an extra early harvest, experiment with transplanting. In the comments below, Jay mentions he has good luck starting his peas inside and transplanting the seedlings. I never bother with transplanting for two reasons. First, I want to plant hundreds of peas and I don’t have a greenhouse. Second, transplanting can slow the growth of the little plants if not done carefully, sometimes transplants never manage to grow strong roots which makes for stunted plants. To see if you are getting a benefiting from transplanting, start some seeds inside on the same day you plant some outside, then compare their growth and harvest dates.

Saturday was one of those rare sunny days here in Eugene, a perfect day for planting peas. Back in the day, by which I mean when I was running the community garden at my tiny college in Ohio, Saint Patrick’s Day was the favored day for planting peas. Here in Eugene I’m still experimenting to find the ideal time to plant peas.I was reading the Seed Ambassadors planting calendar for the Southern Willamette Valley last week and was excited to see the peas could be seeded here even in early February.  Last year I didn’t get started in my yardshare garden until April, but the first thing I planted was peas and they were one of my most successful crops. So Saturday I spent the afternoon hoeing down the tiny weeds that had started and planted a whole bed of peas. Peas are one of my favorite vegetables and definitely worth planting because they are expensive in the stores and tastiest when eaten fresh from the garden! Now here are a few tips for getting started when planting peas:

1. Always coat your pea seeds with inoculant. Peas, beans, and other legumes form a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in the soil that helps them get the nitrogen they need to grow. They can only do this if there is a nice community of rhizobial bacteria already living in the soil. The inoculant is a black powder made of these live beneficial bacteria. Before planting your peas get them a bit wet and then roll them around in the powder to coat them.

2. Plant your peas close together. Unlike many garden vegetables that have trouble growing if planted too close together, I have never had problems with planting peas too closely. I plant tall peas in a double row on either side of whatever structure I’m planning to let them climb, about one inch apart. I don’t worry too much about spacing the seeds exactly and they always seem to do fine. Dwarf peas I plant in blocks of four rows, each only a few inches apart. This way the little pea plants grab onto each other and help hold each other up. This also makes it more difficult for weeds to grow in between them.

3. Don’t thin your peas. Peas don’t like to have their roots disturbed and pulling out the tiny seedlings weakens the roots of all the seedlings next to them.

4. Put the climbing structure for your peas up at the same time you plant. Again, tiny pea seedlings don’t like it when their roots are disturbed. If you wait until the peas have sprouted to add something for them to climb on you will risk killing some of your tiny seeds.

5. Protect your seedlings from hungry animals. If you have ever gone to a fancy Asian fusion restaurant you know that pea sprouts are very very tasty! Peas are one of the plants that birds, squirrels, and other animals seem to love to munch on. Once your pea seedlings are a bit bigger they toughen up and there is less chance that a hungry animal will come by and eat them all up. A bit of netting or floating row cover will protect your tiny treasures.

Anyone else have tips or tricks for growing peas? Last year I had good luck growing the snow pea “Oregon Sugar Pod II” and the snap pea “Sugar Sprint” but “Sugar Daddy” didn’t come up very thickly. Any favorite varieties?

Eating your Harvest: Sunchokes

Bug Shot in Westboro
Creative Commons License photo credit: m.gifford

One of my favorite fall crops is sunchokes (also known as jerusalem artichokes). The plants are tall with small sunflower like flowers. The part people eat are the tubers, which look a bit like iris or ginger tubers, sort of knobby and white. I use to grow sunchokes when I was gardening in Southern Ohio, but haven’t had a chance to plant any since then. They are native to North America and perennial, so are super easy to grow.

The problem with sunchokes is that they can be invasive, since they spread by growing new tubers. Even if you dig them out in the fall it’s very difficult to get every single piece of root, so you need to be careful about where you plant them.

Ideally, if you have a sunny back fence or narrow side yard where they will be out of the way they will continue to provide you food year after year with little to no effort on your part. Generally you dig the tubers once the tops have started to die back and the weather has gotten cool. The tubers can then be washed and stored in the fridge. If I was digging my own I would pick out the less knobby ones to eat and replant the rest since you are going to have to peel them.

jerusalem artichoke
Creative Commons License photo credit: cuttlefish

Last week I bought some sunchoke tubers from the local farmers market because I don’t have a place of my own to plant them. Tonight we made a delicious sunchoke mash out of them as an alternative to mashed potatoes. Sunchokes have a lot of inulin (a type of fiber)  in them and I believe are better for diabetics (and other folks who need to watch their blood sugar) than potatoes.  Like a lot of healthy vegetables, sunchokes can produce gas when being digested, so be warned. (I haven’t noticed a problem, but everyone is different.)

Sunchoke Mash

Ingredients

  • 1 lb Sunchokes (peeled and chopped)
  • 2 Tbls butter
  • a pinch of salt
  • (or substitute a spoonful of Better Than Bouillon for salt and butter)

Steam the sunchokes for about 15 minutes until tender when poked with a fork. Dump in a food processor with the butter and salt and process until smooth. Alternately you could mash them by hand.

Yum! They do taste a bit like an artichoke I think.