Category Archives: Urban Permaculture

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

Summer has Finally Arrived in the Northwest

strawberry plant

A ripe strawberry growing at the community garden plot. Yum!

Strawberries are ripe at my community garden plot. This week I harvested about 1 1/2 pounds along with several bunches of radishes, a huge head of leaf lettuce, and a few baby potatoes. The strawberry plants had been on in the patio garden, but despite growing quite happily there, produced very few actual berries. It was just too shady for them. So I moved them to the sunny community garden and decided to focus on herbs and greens on the patio.

The patio garden is under the shade of some lovely douglas fir trees, and so only gets sun early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Most edible plants are annuals that need full sun or close to it. However, plants that are grown for their edible leaves are the most likely to do well in partial shade. For example, in areas with hot summers it works well to grow lettuce and other salad greens under some shade to prevent bolting. (Lettuce, of course, prefers cool weather and will “bolt” or go to seed quickly in the heat of summer. This means that the lettuce leaves get bitter. Shade and lots of water can help a bit with this if you want to grow lettuce in August.

Red leaf lettuce

Red leaf lettuce and garden cress growing in a container on the patio.

As you can see, my garden is having the opposite problem. Even leafy plants like this red lettuce and garden cress are becoming “leggy” because of lack of light. They also grow much more slowly on the shaded patio than they would in a sunny spot. Still, I have gotten several salads from the patio this spring, despite the cool and rainy weather. Rather than harvesting the entire head of lettuce, I cut off the largest individual leaves and let the plant continue growing. There really is nothing to be done about legginess other than moving the plant to a sunnier spot. Still, the leaves will grow, if somewhat slowly. To speed things up, I’m doing my best to provide plenty of nutrients by watering weekly with fertilizer.

What challenges are you facing in your garden this year? How are you handling them? I want to hear from other gardeners!

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.

Spring Patio Garden Happenings

I have been a busy graduate student with little time for gardening or garden blogging. This winter I passed my qualifying exams and now the only thing between me and a PhD is my dissertation. Last month I won a plot in a community garden, so I will soon write some posts about my adventures there. So far spring in the Pacific Northwest has been cool and rainy. I’m still getting used to gardening in this climate. Today is the last frost date here, but it was still cool and overcast today.

Portsmouth fuschias
Creative Commons License photo credit: Muffet

I had a busy weekend, so didn’t get to the community garden plot to start planting out warm weather crops today. Instead I puttered around my patio garden. Since my garden is mostly under the high shade of some douglas firs, I have given up on growing any sun loving crops. The strawberries have been replanted in the CG plot, making space for lots of greens and herbs.

This week I harvested one salad and tonight we had stirfry with chinese broccoli. I replanted those spaces with arugula and calendula. I have a batch of seedlings growing, including some chard, dill, and lettuce. Today I planted more seeds: asian greens, Italian parsley, cilantro, simpson curly green lettuce, rouge d’hiver lettuce, and speckled trout romaine.

I also planted a fuschia in a hanging basket and hung it up outside the back door. It makes me happy.

An Early Spring

I haven’t been garden much over the last couple of weeks. Two weeks ago I planted some peas and some fava beans in my yardshare garden, but assumed they would stay underground for a while until things warmed up. Then last week I notice the crocuses coming up.

Spring
Creative Commons License photo credit: audreyjm529

Ok, I thought, it’s pretty early, but when I lived in Ohio the crocuses lived through occasional late spring snowfall. No problem. But this week the magnolias started dropping the fuzzy shells that cover their buds. In a few days they will be in full bloom.

bloom
Creative Commons License photo credit: emdot

The problem is that once these processes are triggered by weather changes they don’t stop. The blooms can’t stop growing once they start. The weather here in Eugene will turn cold again and it will start raining, and raining hard. If it rains or turns cold while all the fruit trees are blooming then we can look forward to a very bad year for fruit. We will have few apricots, plums, cherries, or peaches.

I don’t want to harp on climate change again, but I have to say something. One period of exceptionally cold or warm weather doesn’t mean anything, but if you are a gardener you can record these signals. Keep a garden journal and record when the crocuses come out every year. This is actually invaluable information for you in terms of keeping track of your planting dates and also for scientists to understand how climate change is impacting different areas. You can understand climate change. You can see it happen if you pay attention.

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.

Planting a Fall Vegetable Garden

One of the strange things about gardening is that everyone plants in a brief period in the spring and harvests in the summer and fall, no matter what kind of climate we live in. I live in a the Northwest and yet it’s still difficult for me to remember to plant fall garden. This is my first year gardening in Oregon, so I’m still getting use to the climate here. I couldn’t believe how long my peas lasted. I was still eating peas from my yardshare garden in July.

This week my mom visited from California and we spent some time weeding the garden. Sadly, the garden is overrun by bind weed. It’s nasty stuff. We pulled up the peas and potatoes, making room for some fall crops. Then we planted carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, arugula and bulbing fennel. I’m trying to use up all my older seeds so I’m not sure whether or not everything will sprout. So far the radishes and arugula have come up.

Another challenging element of planting a fall garden is getting seeds to germinate during the heat of July and August. I laid down some row cover, flat against the ground to help keep the soil moist. Carrots are the especially slow to start, so I’m hoping that I manage to get some to come up.
Cabbage
Creative Commons License photo credit: net_efekt

How is the garden growing? The patio garden

I have been so busy with my graduate studies, I have barely had time to garden, let alone blog about gardening. I’m not sure how you all do it!

I have been enjoying patio garden. I planted a bunch of strawberries. They haven’t produced a lot of large berries, but the plants are attractive and they seem to be doing well in the high shade under the doug firs. I also planted some herbs and greens. In general the herbs are doing well. The sage seems to not be getting enough light. I have lots of oregano, chives, parsley, cilantro, thyme, lemon balm, mint, and rosemary. My attempts to grow vegetables though has been largely thwarted. I have managed a little lettuce, but it hasn’t looked healthy. The chard has been looking good, but I can’t produce much, even with us two of us.

There are lots of blogs and articles online the discuss growing vegetables in small spaces, but  frankly I doubt whether it’s really possible to grow much on an apartment balcony or patio. I think a patio is a great place to grow some herbs to enrich your boring menu, but I don’t think you can harvest much in such as smal space. Also, even larger containers require a lot more work than the same amount of actual garden soil.  You have to water and fertilize a lot more and the soil costs a lot more. Has anyone else had luck growing one thing or another on a patio?

Cool Season Planting

Since securing my new garden I have been busily pulling weeds and loosening the soil to get ready for planting. I have had several beautiful days out in the garden, marred only by the constant swearing coming from the alley behind the yard. The Whitaker is an interesting neighborhood, with a strange mix of early 20th century cottages with beautiful gardens, warehouses, artist studios, and hipster food places. The neighborhood also has a surprising number of people who seem to on drugs and/or drunk, including the folks who live behind my garden.

peaspeaspeas
Creative Commons License photo credit: Aunt Owwee

Since this spot has been an organic vegetable garden for many years, the soil is good. I’m limiting the amount of digging and turning of the soil I’m doing, since the soils seems to have nice structure already. I bought a fork and I’m simply loosening the soil with the fork and then pulling up all the weeds.  Organic vegetable gardening can be a hassle some days, whoever was gardening before me didn’t spend much time weeding. The grass was already 6-8 inches high when I first saw the garden. I managed to clear two beds, about 3.5ft wide and 20 ft long. Discovering in the process that they are both filled with bind weed. ACK! But I wanted to plant several things that are better direct seeded, rather than transplanted, so I cleared the bed rather than sheet mulching.

Here’s what I have planted so far:

  • broccoli
  • red cabbage
  • soft neck garlic
  • russet burbank potatoes
  • red pontiac potatoes
  • yellow granex-sweet vidalia type onion (short day)
  • red candy apple onion (intermediate day)
  • super star onion (intermediate day)
  • red wethersfield onion (long day)
  • texas supersweet onion (short day)
  • cascadia peas (bush snap peas)
  • sugar pod II (bush snow peas)
  • sugar daddy (bush snap peas)
  • yellow rock onion
  • white ebenezer onion
  • arugula
  • lettuce

This spring, since I’m gardening in a new place (and I’m a little behind schedule because I had to find a space) I stuck with varieties I could find at local nurseries, hoping that the nurseries were doing a good job of choosing varieties. Frankly, I don’t trust nurseries to do a good job of only selling what will grow well in their locale. Already I’m a little worried because it seems that some of the onions sets I bought are short and intermediate day when Eugene is a long day area. This doesn’t bode well for my onions. I also managed to save some garlic chives that I discovered there. I love all sorts of onion family plants and peas, I love peas. I may have overdone it planting peas and onions, but there is no way to have too many peas, and I’m planning to thin the onions for greens as they grow. Yum, I can’t wait!