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Archive for September, 2011

Last week I wrote about easy edibles for beginners, but the post didn’t include much about the importance of the right variety of a plant. Not all tomato or lettuce seeds are equal, and growing varieties that fit our climate, taste good, and look good is key to having fun in the garden. Here’s the scoop on some of the varieties I grew this year:

Winners:

Sun Gold tomatoes. Seattle gardeners love these orange, early ripening cherry tomatoes, which is especially evident in the P-patch, where every other plot has a Sun Gold plant.

Yellow Perfection tomatoes. Tangy, juicy, firm, prodigious, and pretty. These delicious lemon-yellow 1 1/2 inch tomatoes ripened about two weeks after the Sun Golds.

Thai Dragon peppers. I have maybe a dozen of these tiny hot peppers on one plant. They’re still green, but I have hope that they’ll ripen up to red in the next month. Even if they don’t, the great thing about peppers is that they can be harvested green.

Bibb lettuce. This lettuce makes it to the winners list because it germinated well even in warm weather and because it has a nice taste that’s not too bitter. My plants bolted before I got full size heads, but almost all the lettuce heads I saw at the p-patch were bolting at the same time, so I won’t hold it against this variety. Bibb also didn’t wilt in hot weather, possibly because I watered the plants at least twice a week and they got only morning and mid-day sun, with shade in the afternoon.

“Volunteer” pumpkins. In my pumpkin patch, I don’t weed out seedlings that come from pumpkin seeds in the compost. The named varieties I planted (this year and every year) are mostly disappointments, but several of the volunteer plants have pumpkins that are almost ripe. Pumpkin and squash plants easily cross-pollinate with other varieties, which means that there’s a reasonable chance that these pumpkins won’t make great pies or soups. That’s OK- I’ll use them as decorations or Jack O’ Lanterns. The success of the volunteers helps me believe that the pumpkin patch wasn’t a total waste of space, time, and water.

Losers:

Cinderella pumpkin loses the prize

Beaverlodge tomato. Mushy. Need I say more?

Early butternut squash. These vines were the first to succumb to powdery mildew, and don’t even have any green squash on them. This was strike three for the early butternut variety- the only ripe squash I’ve ever gotten from it was about the size of those apples in school lunches.

Cinderella pumpkin. These vines grew big and luscious, but the female fruits all withered and fell off before ripening, except for one that spontaneously split down the middle. I can’t blame poor pollination, either, because the flowers were covered with bees and I hand pollinated a few of the female flowers. This year is strike two for the cinderella pumpkin.

Sweet Meat Heirloom squash. I have four plants and only one golf ball size squash. If I’m lucky I’ll get one little green decorative squash by harvest time, while I was hoping for four to eight big, meaty squashes for eating. I should have planted tomatoes, peppers, or pretty flowers in that row instead.

Lettuce mixes. Each year I somehow get suckered into buying a packet of lettuce mix, and every time I’m disappointed at what grows. Someday I’ll learn my lesson. Lettuce mixes generally include both bitter and sweet greens, which is too bad because I don’t like the bitter ones. “Lettuce” mixes often include kale or chard that’s meant to be harvested young to use in salads, but in my opinion both kale and chard are too bitter for salads, and are much more suitable as braising greens.

Middle of the road:

Legend tomato. Legend has a bountiful yield for a slicer grown in Seattle, but the texture is just OK and the flavor is milder than I like. I’d rather grow something with half the yield but twice the flavor.

Gypsy pepper and Little Bells pepper. Every year I get about two ripe 2 inch peppers from each of these plants. This is a little pathetic, but it’s better than the zero or one ripe peppers that I usually get off other sweet pepper plants. I’ve accepted that the maritime Northwest isn’t a great place to grow sweet peppers, but at least the plants don’t take up much room and can handle a fair bit of neglect.

Joe’s Best pie pumpkin. I have three of these plants, and have one almost ripe pumpkin. Like the peppers, this yield is pathetic, but even one ripe pumpkin is a success compared to the other named varieties of winter squash and pumpkin I tried.

Blue Lake pole bean. These tender green beans were easy to germinate and are good producers with no disease or pest problems. They’re on the maybe list because they’re so sweet they’re almost fruity tasting, which isn’t the flavor I’m looking for in a green bean.

What varieties were the winners and losers in your garden this year?

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La Nina in the garden

Long-term weather forecasting is difficult to do and carries lots of uncertainties, but according to Cliff Mass, some of the more reliable models are pointing to a La Nina year in 2012 (i.e., starting Jan. 1, 2012). The models that aren’t predicting La Nina are predicting a neutral year, which means it’s quite unlikely that we’ll have a El Nino year. The main effects Seattleites see during La Nina years are colder and wetter winters than average. 2011 was also a La Nina year, for reference. On the flip side, El Nino years bring the Northwest warmer and drier winters than average.

El Nino and La Nina weather patterns have  lots of interesting consequences, including affecting the summer water supply, the probability and severity of wildfires, and whether city officials get fired over snow still on the streets during the morning commute. This is a garden blog, though, so what do gardeners need to know about La Nina?

September is the big month for fall perennial sales in Seattle, but colder winter temperatures mean that you should be careful about what you plant this fall. USDA zones are based on the average annual minimum temperature between 1974 and 1986. There were roughly the same number of El Nino and La Nina years during that period, so it’s not an unreasonable sample period. Seattle is in USDA hardiness zone 7b, which means that our average minimum temperature is 5-10 F. Higher zones mean warmer minimum temperatures (California, Florida), and lower zones mean colder temperatures (Minnesota, North Dakota).

Many Seattle gardeners sneak a few plants that are listed as hardy to zone 8 into their gardens, and get away with it for awhile. The fall before a La Nina year is a bad time to buy plants that are pushing our hardiness range. Last fall I made the rookie error of not checking the hardiness zone of some ferns before I bought them. They died back during the winter and didn’t return in the spring. Hebes are another example of a plant that many Seattleites try to grow, despite the fact that they’re listed as being hardy to zone 8. For many people the Hebes did fine for a few years, and then last winter they either died outright, or half the plant died back, which ruins the nice mounded form that makes hebes attractive in the first place.

Northwest gardeners also like to push the hardiness range of bulbs. Many of us roll the dice and leave canna and dahlia bulbs in the ground over the winter because some years they survive. I consider lifting the bulbs and storing them in my basement during the winter risky in a different way. If they’re not stored properly, in the spring they’ll be moldy, mushy masses fit only for the trash or compost pile. If you do choose to overwinter your tender bulbs in the ground, make sure they’re planted deeply or else are well-mulched, which will provide a bit of insulation. If you leave tender bulbs in pots outside over the winter, they’re pretty much doomed.

As I mentioned in my fall chores post, plants in pots are more susceptible to cold, so put plants in the ground or bring the pots inside. If neither of those options is practical, pay close attention to where the sun is during the winter in your garden- it’s not necessarily the same place as in the summer. The changing sun position means that fences or houses may cast shadows in different places, and also spots under deciduous trees are sunny during the winter. Leaving pots in the shade can mean that the soil will stay frozen all day, which deprives plants of water. Letting pots warm up in the sun will give the soil a chance to unfreeze. That same freeze-thaw cycle can cause pots to crack, though.

Don't let your sedums drown- pull them under the eaves or put them on the porch (but only if you'll remember to water them now and then).

Don’t forget about the additional precipitation coming our way. It affects more than the ski season- additional precipitation can lead to more erosion. I know much more about plants than I do about erosion, so I won’t pretend to give any expert advice here- I’ll just tell you about what’s going on in my garden.

In the front of my house, I have a retaining wall that’s not as tall as the garden it’s holding up. This means that my garden slopes sharply downwards for the last few feet before the retaining wall. When we moved in to the house, this wall was covered in English ivy, which hid the fact that my garden had been losing dirt for awhile, while my parking strip (no sidewalks in our neighborhood) and the storm drain had been gaining dirt. We removed the ivy, which saved some trees and shrubs from being smothered, but it didn’t fix our erosion problem. In the long term, we will need to replace the retaining wall, but that wasn’t in the time or money budget for this year. There are a few trees and shrubs on that slope that I’m planning on replacing with better looking or less disease-prone species, but evergreen trees and shrubs can slow erosion, so I’m going to wait until next spring to swap the big shrubs for their younger and smaller replacements. My long term plan also includes cramming that area of the garden with evergreen ferns and other perennials, but since that’s also not in the time or money budget for this fall, I’m going to mulch the area with wood chips or bark mulch.

The other important aspect of long-term weather forecasting is that it reminds us that this beautiful weather won’t last forever- stop browsing your blog reader, and go outside!

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Easy edibles for beginners

These days many of my friends are either buying their first home or settling into rental houses for longer than a nine-month lease, and I get lots of questions about which edibles I’d recommend for gardeners who are just starting out.

Some excellent edibles for beginners:

  • Snow peas and snap peas. In Seattle, you can plant peas in March, which means they do most of their growing while it’s still rainy out. This means that you don’t have to start watering them until June or July, and the vines will get pulled down in late July or early August. Snow peas and snap peas are delicious raw, so you don’t even need to know how to cook to enjoy these. Pea vines can get quite tall (7 feet), so stapling or nailing string or netting to a frame or a wall is necessary. Pea vines are OK with bit of shade, as long as they get direct sun at least a few hours a day.
  • Green beans. There are reasons that second graders grow beans rather than some other plant- they sprout easily, and grow quickly. Bush beans don’t need a trellis, but pole beans need something to grow up. Beans climb by twining around some sort of structure, but aren’t too picky about the structure, as long as it isn’t too wide. String or netting is fine, tall skinny branches, or slender bamboo poles all work. Beans grow during the warmer months in Seattle, so they do need watering about twice a week.
  • Lettuce (in Spring). Lettuce is easy to sprout from seed during the right time of year, which is around March-May in Seattle. I grow lettuce year-round, but getting lettuce to sprout during the summer or winter takes a bit of work. Lettuce can handle dappled shade, which is a big plus since city gardens are often bordered by tall trees. Lettuce can be grown for baby greens, where you clip out about a third of the leaves each week, and the plants keep producing new baby lettuce leaves. It can also be grown into full-sized heads, which requires a bit more patience. If lettuce gets a lot of sunlight near the summer solstice, or if it is drought stressed, it will bolt, which means that it grows tall and produces flowers, and then the plant dies. Some varieties are more resistant to bolting than others, so look for that attribute when choosing seeds.
  • Tomatoes (from seedlings). Many people say that tomatoes are bad plants for beginners, but I disagree. Tomato plants need water about once a week, and require a bit of patience during the early summer months, but the satisfaction of harvesting a big bowl of tomatoes is worth it. Seattle has a short enough season that beginners should definitely buy seedlings from nurseries instead of growing tomatoes from seed. There’s no need to buy giant plants in gallon pots, though- a 6 inch tall plant in a 3-inch pot is just fine, if you’re buying it in May. Tomatoes do need full sun, which means that they shouldn’t be put right next to a fence or a wall that will shade them. Cherry tomatoes grow well in Seattle, and there are many shorter-season varieties of larger tomatoes bred for similar climates to ours, such as ‘Oregon Spring’. Good local nurseries and plant sales will carry mostly varieties that grow well in our climate. Most gardeners stake indeterminate (vine) varieties to save space, but if you have more sunny garden space than you do time, you can just let the plants grow along the ground.
  • Potatoes. Potatoes seem to thrive with a bit of neglect- they don’t like to be watered too often, they can handle mediocre soil, as long as it isn’t rocky, and I can tell you from experience that the plant part can be repeatedly squished by a stray frisbee and still bounce back. They’re also really fun to dig up.

A few edibles that are more of a challenge, which I don’t recommend to new gardeners:

  • Squash and pumpkins. Squash and pumpkins need lots of heat and direct sunlight, which isn’t usually in abundance in Seattle city gardens. They need warm soil to germinate, which means that they get started a bit later than is ideal here, which increases the risk of having green squash come October. They also take up a lot of space, for an uncertain yield. If I put my green beans someplace too shady, it will be obvious within a few weeks of sowing them, and I’ll just pull them out and replace them with some lettuce. If my squash don’t get enough light, I might not realize it (or admit it) for months, or my plants might get decimated by powdery mildew in August. Despite these issues, I grow squash and pumpkins anyway, but it can be a frustrating crop for the newbie.
  • Carrots. Carrots need loose soil that’s not too acidic or too high in nitrogen. Neither Northwest native soils, typical building site top soils, or compost bought in bags at the hardware store meet these requirements. Carrots also have a widespread pest, the carrot fly, which means that seedlings should be covered with insect netting or floating row covers. Carrots germinate inconsistently, but supposedly don’t transplant well. Carrots are best to save until you have some practice with soil building and deterring pests.
  • Broccoli and cauliflower. This is another plant that should be covered to avoid insect damage, this time from cabbage worms and cabbage moths (broccoli and cauliflower are closely related to cabbage). I’ll be writing more about these beasties soon.

As a side note, for ornamentals, I’d recommend fall-planted bulbs as some of the easiest flowers to grow. Pop some daffodil or tulip bulbs into the ground in October, and in the spring you’ll get flowers. It can be tempting to buy 4 different types of tulips, but bulbs really look best if you buy a bunch of the same ones and plant them near each other. Bulbs can get expensive, so if you’re on a budget, put clumps of daffodils or tulips near the front steps or front gate, or near where you park, so you’ll see them every day while they’re blooming.

If bulbs are a little spendy for your budget, nasturtiums are an easy flower to grow from seed. The flowers and leaves are edible, and they add a nice peppery zing to salads. Nasturtiums germinate easily once the soil’s warmed up a bit, and flourish in poor soils. They need to be watered regularly for the first few weeks after germinating, and then need water at least once every other week. They self sow, so you’ll get volunteer nasturtiums the next year, but they don’t self seed so prolifically that they’re weedy.

I also see a lot of beginner city gardeners tempted by inexpensive wildflower seed mixes, but I really don’t recommend these. Wildflower gardens look messy and weedy in the city, unless you have significant skill in designing and managing them. Flower mixes also make weeding difficult- if you plant a whole swath of poppy seeds, it will become obvious quickly what’s a poppy plant, and what’s not. If it’s not a poppy plant, you can call it a weed. If you sow 20 different flower seeds into one bed, good luck guessing what’s a weed until it’s already taking over the garden. Some wildflowers also spread so rapidly that you’ll decide that they are weeds.

Are there other plants you’d recommend for beginners, or are you wondering about the difficulty of growing certain plants? Let me know!

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Fall garden chores

I’m already getting a crunchy layer of leaves on my lawn, mostly from my katsura tree. My hawthorn trees won’t be far behind. Luckily, my gorgeous japanese maple tree will probably keep its leaves until Thanksgiving. With our early snow last year, I got to enjoy the sight of pretty red leaves fluttering down to rest on a blanket of snow.

Seattle generally enjoys summery weather through September, but trees primarily use the length of daylight to determine when to begin winter dormancy, which is why my katsura tree is losing its leaves already. With that reminder that fall is almost upon us, what’s on my list to get done in the garden?

  • Start any remaining fall and winter crops. Now is the time to sow mache, miner’s lettuce, bok choy, and overwintering peas. I sowed my fall lettuce about a month ago, and tried a first sowing of winter lettuce two weeks ago. It can be hard to get lettuce to germinate evenly in this hot, sunny weather, so I’ll keep sowing lettuce for the next two weeks, to make sure I’m not left with bare spots in my winter lettuce beds. If the weather cooperates, I’ll also get a fall batch of cilantro from sowing some seeds now. If you want to grow overwintering broccoli or cauliflower it’s too late to start seeds, but not too late to buy seedlings.
  • Order bulbs immediately. It’s not yet bulb planting time in Seattle, but you’ll miss out on the best selection if you don’t shop early. Good mail order sites won’t send you bulbs until it’s the right time to plant in your region. In a few weeks, it will be time to plant not only tulip and daffodil bulbs, but also garlic and overwintering onions. I’m excited to grow egyptian walking onions for the first time this year. Remember that garlic and onions planted in the fall won’t be ready until early to mid-summer, so don’t put them in a spot that you’ll want to grow spring peas or even tomatoes. Bush beans are a good succession planting for garlic, or an early-sown fall or winter crop such as chard or sprouting broccoli.
  • Rake up those leaves. Grass and other groundcover plants will weaken or die if they’re covered by a layer of dead leaves for too long. Dead leaves make a nice mulch in areas with lots of bare ground during the winter, and can be left in place or raked off and put into the compost pile in the spring. Some people dig them into the ground in the spring, but digging is hard work and exposes new weed seeds, so I’m not big fan of that method, especially in ornamental beds. Using leaves as mulch does provide good winter slug habitat, so if you have particularly slug-prone plants, like hostas, bark mulch or wood chips may be a better idea in those areas.
  • Get any plants still languishing in nursery pots into the ground. Roots in pots aren’t nearly as well insulated as those in the ground, especially in small pots. Last year I put off planting some of my fall plant sale purchases, and our early freeze killed many of the plants still in nursery pots. Fall plants sales are only good deals if the plants make it through the winter. If you won’t have the time or space to plant it this fall or winter, don’t buy it. Also don’t make the mistake of putting pots against the walls of your house to shelter them, if you have overhanging eaves. It’s unlikely that you’ll remember to water them all winter.
  • Keep pulling up weeds, especially any that have flowers or seeds on them. Just remember the mantra, “This year’s seeds, next year’s weeds.” If the weeds have seed heads, don’t use them to create your own compost- throw them in the city compost bins. Home compost bins in the northwest don’t generally heat up enough to kill weed seeds.
  • There are lots of other chores that could be done this time of year, but could be put off until spring, like cleaning up tired looking plants. Maybe it’s better to just get out there and enjoy the garden instead of doing those chores. This the time of year when you can browse on cherry tomatoes while wandering around the garden spying on bumble bees and checking under big leaves for ripening pumpkins. If you can’t sit down in your garden without thinking of all the things you ought to be doing, get out and enjoy one of the public gardens around, or if you have a friend with a lovely garden, invite yourself over for happy hour on their patio. Sometimes it’s more important to smell the lilies than to turn the compost.

Japanese maple leaves make a pretty mulch for raised beds

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