Notes from Windward: #70


Garden Notes for April

Lindsay: April 2nd, and Nature can still trick the fool

     Lest we forget, nature too has a sense of humor. This morning on the plateau, we all became some of April's fools, as eight inches of snow blanketed us in a few short hours covering everything from wildflowers to the wooly backs of very pregnant sheep.

a surprising snowfall

     Snow can catch us by surprise up here on the plateau as the closest weather forecast is for a location 1500' lower in elevation, a place that often receives rain when we get snow. While the nights have been still cool, dipping down to freezing, the days have been consistently in the 50's and even 60's over the past few weeks. So to wake up this morning, with April Fools Day already behind us, to the quiet that only comes with the snowy mornings of winter, we were reminded that we are indeed still all fools in this game that nature plays.

damage caused by a late snow in '96

[Walt:   In the spring of '96, we had a late snow that quickly dumped over a foot and a half of snow. It then switched to rain which the snow soaked up like a sponge, building up weight to the point where the metal arches in our largest greenhouse gave way, and the structure collapsed. As the snow absorbed more and more water, it eventually reached a saturation point and collapsed into a fluid mush that cascade down the slopes of the canyon 1,200' into the Klickitat. The river quickly went into flood stage, and by the time the water went down, more than five miles of state Highway 142 had been washed away.

the brown 4x4 on the right is a hoop support post

     One of the lessons we learned from that storm is to support the metal hoops with vertical poles that can take the snow weight, and can then be removed once the snow danger is past.]

Lindsay writes:

     It is remarkable how quickly the forest here can be transformed into a wonderland. Most frequently it happens in the mornings or in the late afternoon when the light is angled and vegetation moist from a recent rain, when the lichens glisten and the bark of both the Ponderosa pines and Oregon oaks is somehow red. That forest is quite animated, filled with the twittering of birds and the scampering of squirrels and the wildflowers that poke through the leaf litter with their burst of yellow and purple, as if to say, "there is more here than even the closest observer will ever see."

a budding plum blanketed in snow

      But the forest during a snow is a quiet haven that at the same time deafens all sounds and betrays the whereabouts of its inhabitants. It is a forest of secret doorways that appear only when the weight of the snow bends the boughs of the trees and the forest floor is all a continuous blanket inviting you to sit and ponder how there is no horizon and everything in between earth and sky seems to just blend together.

daffodils in the snow

     This morning's snow was wet and heavy, and so we fell into the routine of clearing off all the hoop structures that can collapse under such a weight. Wet snow also means great snow for making large snow creatures that can live in the woods for a few short hours along with the deer and coyotes.

garlic peeking above the snow

     The snow is melting quickly now and we will likely be able to assess tomorrow to what degree this snow has damaged our spring crops. Fortunately, snow is less problematic for plants than a dry, hard freeze. And fortunately, Dolly (the sheep) did not decide to give birth in the midst of this snow storm.

snow blankets the High Prarie

April 4: An End to the Winter Rest


     Many temperate trees and bushes require stratification, a period of cold dormancy, before they will germinate. Sometimes they even need to go through two cold cycles before they germinate. This has evolved as a strategy that will make it more likely for the seed to germinate in favorable conditions (e.g. the spring following the cold of winter).

     So when propagating temperate plants from seed, stratification is a key step. The length of time varies between species, and the specifics are readily available on the internet. But many nut and fruit trees require 90-120 days of cold conditions before they will germinate.

germinating quinces

     So among the seeds I set to rest in the cool of the fridge this past fall were the native Beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) and the domesticated Quince (Cydonia oblonga). The hazelnut grows wild around here and produces a small nut (about the size of a dime) that has a good flavor, but is smaller than the hazelnuts grown commercially that have been highly selected for larger nut size.

     The hazelnut seed can either be grown into full sized plants and transplanted closer to home for both our consumption and/or for wildlife, or after a few years' growth can be used as rootstock onto which we could graft a cultivar that produces a larger nut. I gathered the hazelnut seed in August and began stratification in November.

germinating hazelnuts

     The Quince is native to temperate Asia and is a tart fruit that was once popular for making jams and pies. Sadly, with the growth of the fruit industry in the U.S., quince has quickly fallen off the radar, and can now only really be found at farmers markets and in select regions where it is still produced.

     Since quince seeds are a hybrid, similar to apple seeds, they will grow into trees that give fruit that will be different from the fruit from which you gathered the seed. We can take advantage of this to maintain genetic diversity and perhaps find a variety that is even better, or more disease or drought resistant. Other options for the quince seedlings are to grow them for a few years and use them as rootstock onto which we could graft known cultivars of quince.

     Also, quince rootstock is often used as a rootstock to help dwarf pear trees--so we could graft a beloved pear variety onto the quince rootstock. The quince seed came from a few pieces of fruit that Katie brought from street trees in Portland in mid November.

     Clearly, there are a variety of options that we have once we have quince and hazelnut saplings. So, I was quite excited to find that both the hazelnut and the quince seeds I had set in the fridge to stratify this past November had germinated.

     Now, most stratification requires cool and moist conditions. However, I found a USDA report indicating that hazelnut germinates best if soaked for 48 hours and then placed in perlite (a medium that does not hold moisture well) and stored in the fridge for 90-120 days.

     I was surprised to hear this worked, and intrigued, but it conflicted with my understanding of the conditions required for most seed germination. So, naturally, I experimented a little. I soaked one batch for 48 hours and then placed them in perlite in the fridge; the other batch I placed in moist sphagnum moss gathered from our woods and placed them next to the perlite batch in the fridge.

     As of March 31st, none of the hazelnut seeds in the perlite had germinated while 50% of those in the moist sphagnum moss germinated. I planted all the seeds in soil just in case there are any late bloomers that decide to germinate.

     I had placed the quince seed in moist sphagnum moss as well, and they had close to a 100% germination rate. They actually looked like they spent too long in the fridge (they were long and leggy and some of the cotyledons had begun to rot), and could have benefited from being potted up earlier. So I potted up those that looked healthy, and now it is once again time to wait, as they all grow.

April 12th: Planting Potatoes


      Farming is always a bit of a gamble. One could argue that there is more certainty in planting a crop than in gathering one, but there is never anything that is 100% certain about the weather. The year of 1916 was known as the "Year Without a Summer" as there were climate abnormalities caused by a volcanic eruption and New England suffered from frosts every month of the year, destroying most crops.

      In many things, as in gardening, we base decisions off of trends rather than facts--in this part of Washington it tends to not freeze between May 15th and October 15th (known as the frost free dates) and much of the schedule for crop planting is dependent on these dates. However forest ecologists in the Pacific Northwest are finding that sometimes there is no "normal" when it comes to weather--for example there is such a fluctuation in climate particularly in the higher elevation forests that the mean of some variables, such as precipitation, is not a relevant measurement.

fingerling and purple potatoes

      Crops can be divided into 3 general categories: cold hardy, frost tolerant, frost sensitive. The first category includes plants such as mature collards or kale; swiss chard and cilantro are generally thought to be frost tolerant but cannot withstand extended cold periods (though we have had some chard survive single digit temperatures); frost sensitive plants include many of the warm-loving crops such as basil, tomatoes and beans.

     Once potatoes have germinated and have green growth above ground they are frost sensitive and can be killed by freezing temperatures. However, when they are still below the ground, they can withstand temperatures that dip down below 32°F.

      Our mild winter has turned into a more chaotic April. With 60 degree temperatures one day, and a foot of snow the next, followed by a bit more sun, and of course hail and sleet, we never know quite what to expect. However, as far as trends go, the temperatures are generally getting warming, and the night-time lows are infrequently dipping below freezing.

     Last year, we didn't plant potatoes until towards the end of April (and then we had a frost in mid to late May). But since this year is generally more mild than last, I decided to gamble a bit and plant a portion of the potato crop earlier. It's important for the potatoes to get as much growth in while the spring rains and snowmelt are still feeding the soil moisture, so it is a tradeoff between security of no frost and water availability.

potato trenches and watering lines

      The trench system still is working well for us, so we are sticking it (in contrast to many farmers who plant their potatoes in mounds). We added two new varieties--all Blue and Fingerlings--to the mix this year, which will give us more diversity of taste, texture, shape as well as color.

      In other news from the garden--we have already enjoyed the first few salads of this spring season. Around here, we tend to use most anything we can find as a plant container--from yogurt cups to orange juice containers--and so it was exciting to find that perhaps the best thing to do with those big plastic boxes that salad greens are now available in the store is to use them to grow salad.

salad growing in a salad container

     I thought it would be fun to try to grow salad greens in a salad container, so I just poked a few holes in the bottom for drainage, mixed in some potting soil (for which I use a combination of our compost, our clay rich soil and perlite), and sprinkled in some seeds. It worked marvelously, and now that the daylight hours are longer and the temperatures are rising, the plants are growing quite quickly--I have already harvest twice from these containers in less than a week.

fresh greens for our lunch salads

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 70