Notes from Windward: #71


Spring Garden Reports


March 29, 2011

Planting Pecans

     Every year we try to add another edible perennial to our mix. This year, we wanted to focus on pecans. Pecans, native to the forests of the south-eastern U.S., are well known for their delicious buttery flavor. Like most nuts, pecans are a good source of healthy fatty acids, though their protein content is less than other tree nuts. While most pecan varieties are not quite hardy enough to make it through our winters up here on the plateau, there are a few varieties that have proven themselves to be cold hardy.

some of the pecans in the nursery

     Recently, I planted several of these hardy trees into the nursery where they will spend a few years growing before they are transplanted and incorporated into the greater landscape of edible perennials. The varieties we decided on are Osage, Starking Hardy, and a native hardy seedling. The native hardy seedlings are not a cultivated variety and so the quality of the nuts is unknown, but will add genetic diversity to the beginnings of our pecan orchard.

March 30:

Starting on the Spring Garden

     Not too long ago, the quiet winter nights were overcome by the sound of frogs. The frogs' call down by the creek is one of the first signs that warm weather is really here. Unlike the leafing out of trees which respond to more regular cues such a day length, the frogs only seem to come out when it has been consistently warm. So when I hear the frogs, I let myself be convinced that winter has passed and spring is actually here. To accompany the frogs, the first of the spring lilies are appearing and the daffodils are soon to follow.

soon to flower daffodils

     The garden has been slow to start this year because of the cool weather. However, starting in mid March, the temperatures were finally consistently warm enough to start direct seeding cold hardy plants such as spinach and arugula, carrots and radishes, beets and leeks. The cotyledons are beginning to poke their way through the damp soil now and I can already taste the fresh green salads that will become a constant at the lunch table in a few weeks. We have started the succession planting of peas as well, and are trying to help warm the soil and thereby increase the rates of germination by placing black plastic over the newly planted pea seeds.

     The garlic, planted in the fall, has made it through the winter and its perky green tops give some life to an otherwise barren early spring garden. The Chesnok Red, a new variety for us, is doing particularly well, as are the Susanville and Walla Walla varieties. Every year, we always seem to miss a few heads of garlic during the harvest, and this past harvest was no exception. So, in last year's garlic bed, there were a few heads that had begun to sprout. I have taken to gently digging these up and separating out the cloves and planting them as a boarder in the raised beds. The strong smell seems to help keep away the pests quite well and then we have a couple dozen extra heads of garlic come harvest time.

the garlic bed

     Now is also the time for planting out onion starts. In order to bulb well, onions need as much daylight before the summer solstice as possible. Andrew and I spent some time yesterday afternoon lining the beds with onions (again, interplanting these strong smelling veggies with other plants helps to deter harmful insects). And thanks to Ruben, who picked up several hundred additional Walla Walla Onion starts the other day while in town, we will be we well endowed with onions this year.

Walla Walla onions nestled in between mulch

     It seems the colorful veggies steal the show in a meal, but its the onions and garlic that so often give a dish its depth of flavor. Early spring is when these too often forgotten foundations of the meal practically have the whole garden to themselves.

     We are in the process of expanding our lavender patch as well. The lavender is well adapted to our Mediterranean summers, provides great food for the bees, and is fabulous for all sorts of craft projects. Last fall I took lavender cuttings and rooted them in rooting medium (a light mixture of peat moss and vermiculite) and kept them inside all winter. For many months they sat there, doing nothing, not all that unexpected as rooting lavender in the fall is not the most common practice.

     However, in February, something kicked into the gear, perhaps the increasing daylight, and the lavender cuttings started to grow. A few of them were growing very quickly, a few inches in a week! But as a result, they were becoming rather leggy. So, I decided to pinch them back, in hopes that removing the terminal bud would send signals to the axial buds to start growing, and the plants would become a little more bushy. So far, it seems to be working.

lavender cuttings

April 5:

Working with Walnuts

     About 100 years ago, some of the homesteaders in the area planted black walnut trees down in the Klickitat Valley. Now these trees stand tall and are abundant producers of walnuts each fall. Black walnuts are prized particularly for their wood, but also as a baking nut because of their exceptional flavor. However, black walnuts are smaller than the cultivated English walnut, which is the more common eating walnut. Both kinds of trees are an important part of transforming the forest into a landscape that can produce for our needs.

     Fortunately, black walnuts germinate very easily. Over the past few years, walnuts gathered down along the river in the fall have been placed in a tub, with some straw on top and come springtime, many have germinated and have been transplanted. It seems that these walnuts have about a 50% germination rate, which may not seem that high, but if you collect 100 nuts one fall which takes little time under a mature, well producing tree, then you have 50 seedlings the following year.These saplings, however, are beginning to outgrow their location‒a 55 gallon barrel cut in half length wise‒and needed a new location where they could continue to grow before being transplanted to their final destination.

The Half Barrel Beds

     So, I prepared a new walnut nursery. Walnuts produce an allelopathic compound called juglone which effectively acts as an herbicide, stunting or disrupting the growth of a wide variety of annual and perennial species. So, it is important to plant walnuts only near other plants that are tolerant of juglone. Since the existing nursery space is used for a variety of plants, many of which are not tolerant of juglone, it was necessary to create yet another space where the walnut saplings would do little damage.

     In creating the new walnut beds, I decided to utilize a variation on a technique that drylanders have used for decades and that somebody has termed hugelkultur. Taking advantage of the property of woody matter to retain moisture for longer than soil, hugelkultur practices increase a plants access to ground moisture through a long dry season. An added benefit is that as the woody matter decomposes it adds organic matter and its accompanying nutrients to the soil. Basically, it boils down to building a bed the base of which is dead wood.

the walnut bed in progress

     So, I dug out a trench deep enough to accommodate several inches of woody matter, with soil and compost on top and still be below the original surface of the ground. I then filled the trench with wood I gathered from the forest, filled in the spaces with soil and compost and added soil to about 6 inches above the level of the dead wood. Yesterday during a light morning rain, I finished planting the trees. They are much relieved to have more space to grow.

Walnuts with a dusting of April snow

April 21:

Planting Potatoes

     This spring has been a chilly one. We have had a few dustings of snow this April and when the nights are clear, the night time temperatures regularly drop below freezing. While the days have been comfortably warm and many of the wildflowers think its Spring enough to emerge from their winter rest, but the soil has been slow to warm. Peas, planted in mid March, have just recently germinated, even with black plastic covering the soil to increase heat absorption.

     Turnips and radishes, arugula, broccoli raab and spinach have all germinated but are growing slowly. Even the cool-loving kale and swiss chard, broccoli and kohlrabi now transplanted into the main garden are being stunted by the cold. Some years the greens growing in Vermadise grow just as quickly as those seeded outside, however that is not the case this year. Vermadise greens are well ahead, just a few degrees warmer each night can make a huge difference.


     Its the time of year when you make guesses and gamble, hedging your bets between killing frosts and taking advantage of spring moisture.Two days ago, Sarah, Kotomi and Desire helped to plant potatoes‒a primary piece of our spring and summer garden. Potatoes are a crop that uses the spring rains to turn sunlight and soil into food, but that is sensitive to the frosts that may still be with us once the potatoes emerge from the soil.

     Potatoes continue to yield abundantly for us, so much so that I may consider planting less next year. For two years in a row, we have yet to be able to eat all the potatoes produced from the 180 feet of bed space dedicated to the well known tuber. But I want to try one more year with this bed footage to see if our eating habits can better reflect what the land here can grow.


May 6:

Spring in the Garden

     Well, we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. The night time temperatures have been above freezing for about a week now and freezing temperatures are not forecasted for anytime soon. Its still too soon to plant out frost senstive crops, as even if we don't experience another frost, the night time lows are barely getting above 40F. But, the plants have been noticing the warmer weather, as germination rates have increased and growth rates are increasing as well. And all this means we finally get to enjoy the fruits are our labors. I know at least my body is most welcoming of the addition of the spring harvests after the long winter of stored and dried foods.


     The salad harvest has begun, though we are yet to be graced with the inundatation of fresh greens. Vermadise is supplying us with most of the greens so far, with a few additions from the main garden of over-wintered spinach (which I will be saving for seed, as these plants survived single digit temperatures without protection) and the forest. The rhubarb is growing quite nicely this spring as are the walking onoins.


     The fresh onoins are noticably more potent that stored onions and the greens can be used like chives. I harvested some rhubarb today and used part of the harvest to make a rhubarb, blackberry, apple crisp, using frozen blackberries and dried apples from last year. As I write this, I am somewhat chilled by my rain-dampened clothing and so the warmed crisp sounds especially enticing. Rhubarb leaves make a great mulch layer, so I used some the leaves from this harvest to mulch an adjacent blueberry plant.

rhubarb leaf mulch

     The asparagus is poking up above ground, and this year will mark the third year since it was planted, which means we can harvest and eat it! It still needs a little more time to grow, but I am getting excited for our first asparagus harvest. We still have some parsnips growing from last year, which have stored quite well over the winter. I am letting some go to seed, but am delightfully harvesting a few parsnpis each week for the cooks to add to our meals.

parsnips for the eating

     I am quite pleased that many of the beneficial flowers have overwintered or re-seeded themselves. The colombine, hollyhock and shasta daisies are all perennials and they survived easily. But I was surprised the other day to see that the calendula is resprouting from the roots and that the borage, an annual, has successfully reseeded itself in the flower bed.

Calendua sprouting from the roots

self-seeded borage germinating

     The wild sunflower relative that grows on not much more than 10 inches of rain a year also appears to be germinating where I scattered the seed last fall. The california poppies that Andrew seeded earlier this spring have also germinated and are growing nicely.

California poppies

     It is now time to begin hardening off the tomatoes and peppers. They have migrated from the warmth of the kitchen down to prop-house where they get more direct sunlight, but are exposed to less moderated temperatures.

Sweet and hot peppers

      One of the issues we have had with tomatoes in recent years is consistent end rot on a few varieties. Some say this is due to a lack of calcium in the soil, so I have some bone meal that I am planning on adding to the tomato bed before planting. The bones are primarily from the goat harvests from this past year, which Andrew ground up using the hammer-mill. Thank you Mikey, Beaner and Raffy.


May 12:

Of Seeds, Buds and Blossoms

     We have added a few more fruit varieties to the efforts to grow our own climate specific rootstock. This past summer, I collected peach, apricot and plum seeds from either heritage varieties well adapted to droughty conditions or from trees that had naturalized from homestead plantings 100 years ago. I then stratified the seeds overwinter, in the fridge, and just recently planted them out. Many of the seeds had already begun to germinate, and we placed them in a container bed made from part of an IBC, with holes drilled in the bottom‒this way they will be more likely to get sufficient water as their tender roots and shoots grow.

a bud graft beginning to leaf out
     The peach comes from a friend who lives in eastern Oregon whose peach trees are used to temperature extremes and minimal moisture; the apricot and plums from trees planted on homesteads nearby‒the plums in the particular thrive on their own, growing into a thicket that produces an abundance of deliciously juicy golden plums. Now it is time to wait and see. The grafts from this winter are beginning to show signs of life. And so are the buds below the graft. So in order to encourage the plant to direct its energy towards the graft, I have been pinching off the other buds. They are persistent though, so every few days I make my way into the nursery to nip a few leaves in the bud.

     The stone fruit‒primarily plums and apricots‒are blossoming and it is a delight to walk by them. Apricots and plums blossom before they leaf out, whereas apples and pears, leaf out and then blossom. This is in part why stone fruits are more likely to be damaged by spring frosts than pome fruits (apples and pears). A few of the young plum trees have branches full of blossoms. While this is encouraging as a sign that the trees are doing well, I need to intervene for a few reasons.

a young plum in full blossom
     First, the trees are still quite young, they were transplanted into their current location just this last spring, and likely do not yet have a very strong root structure established. At this point in their growth, it is better for the trees to invest in deep and prolific roots rather than fruit. Also, the tree branches are still rather weak and flimsy and would easily break under the weight of a full load of fruit.

     Finally, even if the tree's roots and shoots could support such a fruit load, the fruit itself will not ripen to optimal size if the branch is too crowded. Trees will often self-thin, as the blossoms that are not pollinated will fall off, and then even immature fruit can fall off if the tree doesn't think it can support that volume.

     With plums, each blossom produces one fruit so you can thin the blossoms and or the fruit. With apples, however, each blossom produces a cluster of fruit so you want to wait until the fruit sets and then thin out the clusters for optimal fruit ripening. So, I have been thinning out the blossoms on the plums, and will probably need to thin fruit as well because I have not been too aggressive in the blossom thinning.

May 20:

As the Garden Grows

     Time can mark its passing in many ways. So much happens in any given day, let alone a week, month or year, it is hard to capture it all for memory. At times, particularly here on this plateau where life unfolds continuously before us and we never walk through the same forest or into the same group of people twice, my body seems to understand deeply that change is the only constant and so forgets to note the passing of time. It is then when something catches the light just right that I pause to reflect on how far a project has come, or how different something is now than it was when I first arrived on this plateau, and I marvel at how much time has passed.

our first asparagus harvest
     It is the perennial plants that, more often than not, give me this pause. Perhaps appropriately so, as they grow and change with the seasons, just as I do. Over the past two weeks, I have been harvesting from my and Windward's first asparagus patch‒an asparagus patch that is now in its a third spring, that I planted with the help of my sister while she was up for a visit.

      I cannot quite wrap my head around these numbers, that I am living through my third spring on this plateau. It all seems to have gone by so quickly, yet everywhere I look I see evidence that time has passed, I see the landscape filling with memories of people and activities as if all time is compressed into a moment. But whatever tricks my eyes or memory play on me, the asparagus provides a calendar that I cannot ignore.

strawberry blossoms

     Plant people seem to find each other, and I have been lucky over the past couple years to have been able to connect with several gardeners of perennial plants who need homes for their beloved plants. They often seem as eager to gift their plants to a loving home, as I am to receive such an investment, as that is what perennial plants are‒an investment in the future.

     It has not yet ceased to amaze me how desire, enthusiasm and appreciation followed by the necessary careful attention to what I am bringing to life can breed ever more opportunity to create a mini world full of what I once only imagined. I am continuously thankful to all those that have helped jump-start the transformation of this hillside into one that abounds with nourishing food and vibrant ecological communities.

mulched concord grapes leaning against arbor post
     The most recent additions to our growing spaces are more strawberries, blueberries and grapes. We inherited a several decade old grape vine that needed a new home. The plan is for it to grow over an arbor at one of the entrances to the main garden. Mike and I dug and placed the posts in the ground that will serve as the frame. And then dug a trench for the roots to be placed in. As usual, the roots were planted in a slight depression with much compost and the soil is heavily mulched.

      We still need to build the arches, but the time-sensitive step was getting the roots in the ground so they didn't dry out. One of the stems is beginning to bud out which is a good sign that it survived transplant.

grape buds
     Kotomi and I just finished creating a new strawberry bed inside the main garden. The sheep and goats can fit their heads through the cattle panel fencing that surrounds all of our growing spaces, which means that a plant near the fence is still a prime snack for a hungry goat.

      But to make optimal use of space, I still want to plant near the fenceline, so Kotomi and I placed chickenwire over the fence adjacent to the new strawberry patch to prevent undesired grazing. Since the garden slopes southward, we levelled the ground to improve water retention and built a small rock retaining wall to keep the soil in place. The weather cooperated nicely and we transplanted just before a late afternoon shower.

strawberry bed with rock retaining wall
     The blueberries were transplanted today. They too are in the main garden along a fenceline, and are ever grateful for being able to extend beyond their root-bound pot. I harvested pine needle mulch from in the forest to add to the holes, as blueberries like acidic soil.

      I also added several inches of woodchips into the bottom of the to-be-planted-in holes, to help increase water retention. Then a healthy dosing of compost. Even with all these layers, the blueberries were still in a depression, as intended to facilitate water retention, and the final layer was a thick layer of manure hay from the goats to serve as mulch.

Newly transplanted blueberries
     I am pleased that the main garden is evolving into a home for perennials and reseeding annuals in addition to the veggies that need to be seeded annually be a human hand. The native sunflowers that I gathered a few years ago and planted in the garden have begun to naturalize and my mind begins to wonder how to produce a sunflower with the drought tolerance of the natives but the seed production of the cultivated varieties.

     Oh, the possibilities seem endless! I hope that one day I will have worked myself out of job, and the gardens will more or less take care of themselves with perhaps a guiding hand. Nature has its own agenda and timeline, but I am finding that if my actions and intentions are well synched with the agenda of any given plant or plant community, the results are obvious and abundant.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71