Winter in the Garden

It rarely snows in Portland. When it does, the city goes into hibernation, which is good because it keeps people off the roads. It is beautiful to see snow in the landscape. Snow on trees and shrubs really highlight a plant’s form and structure. This Northwest Oregon grape looks beautiful covered in snow.

Oregon grape is one of my favorite Northwest natives. It is hardy, drought tolerant and looks great in the garden year-round. It is one of the first native shrubs to flower, which is a favorite food of hummingbirds.

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My main focus in the garden in winter is providing food for birds. I always hang a bird feeder, which is frequented by black-capped chickadees. Today, I saw an Anna’s hummingbird in the garden. I think he was trying to figure out why the sugar water in the hummingbird feeder was frozen. Poor thing, he will have a wait until it thaws.

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Hummingbird photo taken by Craig Tumer

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What Gardeners do in Winter

Gardening is my favorite hobby so people always ask, “What do you do in the winter?” In addition to a countdown to Spring, I have compiled a list of monthly gardening ideas to help get through the cold, gray days of winter.

December
* Plant a winter interest container garden to liven up the front porch. Plant a dwarf conifer, a winter flowering hellebore, an Oregon grape, and a weepy grass in a decorative pot.

* Repot indoor house plants and feed them with either an organic plant food or an herbal nettle & comfrey tea. Over time, plants deplete nutrients in the soil and because they are indoor plants and have no help from worms or other creatures in the garden, they need a little help. Particularly, flowering house plants need sufficient amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous. To make the herbal tea, fill a pot of water and bring to a boil, turn off the heat, add the mineral rich herbs, let the tea steep for about 30 minutes, strain out the plant, let cool, and water.

January
* Make a New Year’s resolution to plant more native plants, edibles, and herbs in your garden this year. A favorite native plant no garden should be without is red flowering current. This beautiful flowering shrub will attract hummingbirds to your garden. Other great berry producing natives to attract birds and other wildlife include: oceanspray, black twinberry, Douglas hawthorn, Oregon grape, squashberry, and highbush cranberry. Great easy to grow edibles include blueberry, raspberry, and honeyberry shrubs.  Herbs that should have a place in every garden include: rosemary, oregano, lemon thyme, lavender, lemon verbena, and chamomile (just to name a few).

* Visit local nurseries to purchase winter interest garden plants such as; conifers, red osier dogwood, hellebore, witch hazel, daphne, evergreen huckleberry, wax myrtle, Oregon grape, ferns, and native sedum.

* Sign up for plant-related seminars around town. Visit the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon web site to see what upcoming classes, seminars, and plant sales are planned for 2014.

February

* Plan a day trip to Seattle for the annual Northwest Flower and Garden Show to view dozens of garden displays, attend gardening seminars, buy plants and gardening related items. This one of a kind garden show is well worth the road trip.

* Harvest stinging nettles and make tea, nettle miso soup, a nettle stir fry, or nettle/spinach pie. These prickly plants are packed with vitamins and minerals and have a delicious earthy taste. They can be harvested from February through April (they must be harvested before flowering).

* Buy bare root plants.  They are less expensive than container plants and are only available during the cold winter months.  Perfect bare root plants to buy: native shrubs, blueberries, grape vines, and raspberries.

* Check out local native plant sales. In Portland, my favorite is the Backyard Habitat Program plant sale. 

March
* Dream of warm, sunny days ahead and begin planning your garden. Order seed catalogs, check out gardening books from the library, spend some time in Powell’s Books garden section. Below are some of my favorite garden books:

This Organic Life – Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader, Joan Gussow

In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan

Bringing Nature Home, Doug Tallamy

Last Child in the Woods – Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv

The Wild Braid, Stanley Kunitz

The Householders Guide to the Universe, Harriet Fasenfast

* Start sweet pea seeds inside the house. Place seeds on a paper towel on a plate and add water (daily) until they sprout. This should take just a few days. Plant sweet pea sprouts in the ground when they are about 1-2 inches tall. They need to go into the ground during the cooler months of Spring.

* Put on your boots and rain jackets and visit natural areas and parks where you live to see how nature designs gardens.

* Look for the first native plants to bloom such as: Oregon grape, Indian plum, black twinberry, and red flowering current. These beautiful, flowering native shrubs are the first signs that spring has arrived.

*Celebrate the first day of Spring on March 20th. Be thankful the days are getting longer!

Summer Garden 2013

The garden this summer is in full bloom. The raised beds built three years ago are bursting with flowers, herbs and veggies. Every summer, I stand in the garden and reflect upon my plant choices and wonder “am I not growing enough of … or too much of… ” (fill in the blank). It is always clear to me I wish I had more flowers. Next summer, I will make sure there are plenty of flowers in the garden.

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What is also clear to me is how I always plant my tomatoes too close together. They seem fine, but, I want to make sure they have enough space between them to receive the air circulation they need. To make sure my tomatoes don’t get blossom end rot, I only water them in the morning and only water the roots and not the aerial parts of the plants.

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The squash and zucchini plants always grow way bigger than you remember the year before. I think I may try to grow them on a trellis next summer to save space and make harvesting easier. We have all been there when you see a ripe squash or zucchini and think, I will pick that one tomorrow because it will be the perfect size only to forget and a week later it weighs 25 pounds.

This year, I experimented with planting borage and calendula as cover crops in the empty spaces along my perennial shrub and berry border. These two herbs need little water or attention, they deter weeds,  attract pollinators, fill in a space quickly without being invasive, are beautiful, bloom all summer and into early fall, and are edible.

My purple, pink and white cosmo flowers pictured below in the right hand corner of the photo are not only beautiful, but attract tons of pollinators, including moths, our lesser know nighttime pollinators. Moths are attracted to white or other light-colored flowers and only come out during the wee hours of the night. Next summer, I am going to plant more moth attracting plants such as flowering tobacco, gardenia, and moon flowers.

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Favorite Children’s Garden Books

Gus loves to read books. Since it is summertime, we are reading books about gardening and the farmer’s market. I picked out A Gardener’s Alphabet, by Mary Azarian, which teaches the ABC’s by using a gardening related word for each letter in the alphabet. The drawings on the pages are colorful and charming.  Another fun book is Planting the Wild Garden, written by Kathryn O. Galbraith and illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin. The book is a story about a farmer and her son planting their garden and how nature “plants” the wild meadow garden they play in. It focuses on the role nature plays by blowing seeds in the wind, birds dispersing seeds, and how wildlife helps in planting nature’s garden.

One of our favorites is Planting a Rainbow, by Lois Ehlert. This book is about flowers growing and blooming in many different colors. This summer, many of the flowers in the book were growing in our garden.

One of my favorite Pacific Northwest authors, Nikki McClure, just came out with a book called To Market, To Market.  It is a story about a young boy and his mother shopping at their local farmer’s market. It details the items they buy such as kale, apples, smoked salmon, honey, and blueberry turnovers. The book shares each vendor’s story about growing and raising their products. It is a very sweet depiction of a farmer’s market experience accompanied by the author’s wonderful artistic style.

Chalk Board in the Garden

This spring, TJ remodeled a portion of the house that faces the garden. This small corner of our house needed to be re-sided following a construction project but, instead, TJ hung up some (modified) plywood and painted it with chalk board paint to create a fun play space in the garden.  He built a wood platform to stand on and cover the window well below for safety.

The chalk board is a great place to play when family and friends come to visit. I typically put a pacifier in Gus’ mouth so he doesn’t eat the chalk.

Raised Beds in the Garden

Today, my husband TJ built  the raised beds that will go into our garden.  During construction, they are helping to contain our wild man, kind of like a giant wooden pack-n-play. Once completed and placed in the garden, the beds will be filled with compost and planted with the heirloom seeds we are starting on our sun porch.

The beds are made of untreated cedar and will last for many years.  The beds are 22-inches tall. The following are the many advantages of raised bed gardening;

– Provide good soil drainage

– Allow room for growing root vegetables

– Protect the plants from dogs and toddler predation

– Easier to weed

– Easier on the back when planting

– Provide a nice place for garden visitors to sit

– Toddlers cannot fall into them

The bottom of the beds are open and they will be placed over a commercial grade landscape fabric that will provide a barrier to grass and unwanted weeds. The landscape fabric will be covered with cedar mulch.  Other options for covering the weed barrier and/or planting in between raised beds include grass or gravel. Since grass needs a lot of maintenance and gravel is not very kid-friendly, the cedar mulch seems to be the best option.

The raised beds took TJ an entire weekend to build. We got help from a friend to fill the beds with compost, which took almost a day.   The cost of the wood was around $900, the 10 cubic yards of compost (@$21/cubic yard) to fill the beds was $210. The 6 cubic yards of cedar mulch (@ $35/cubic yard) was $210. There was lots of upfront cost, but, the payoff will come this summer when we are eating fresh, homegrown food from our garden.

In the backyard, there will be four 4×6 beds and four 4×8 beds. TJ built one long raised bed to be placed in our concrete driveway just for “his” pepper plants. Since peppers need lots of hot temperatures to grow and for some species be hot the reflection from the concrete will help to provide some additional heat. In the front yard, there will be two 4×6 beds to grow sprawling plants like melons, cucumbers, pumpkins, zucchini, and squash.  The raised beds will be placed at the top of a little hill we have in our front yard. The plan is to have the creeping plants cascade over the sides of the raised beds so the hill can act as a trellis supporting the plants downslope.

Growing Seeds versus Buying Starts

What should we plant in the garden this summer?

It is February 3rd and the wild man is 9 months old and as you can see from the photo, he is already flipping through heirloom seed catalogs to help plan this year’s garden. Although he is not eating a lot of solid foods just yet, we know we are going to be planting more blueberries and acorn squash as those seem to be his favorites. 

Garden planning is a great way to quell the winter doldrums and get ready for spring and starting seeds. The Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog is my favorite. Their colorful photos and fun, detailed plant descriptions can help pass several hours on a cold, rainy weekend.

Planting Seeds versus Buying Starts

People always ask me, “should I plant seeds or just buy starts.” Both are great ideas.  I love starting plants from seed but, I also love shopping for starts. I typically do both.

Pros and cons:

Seeds – Flip through catalogs on your sofa during winter, when spring comes, buy soil and pots to grow the seeds, find them a warm, sunny spot, water them daily, then transplant into the garden. This process can take about four to six weeks. Cost $ for seeds, starter pots, and soil.

Starts – Leave your house and head to the nursery. Pick out the variety you like, bring them home, pop them into the ground. This process takes one afternoon. Cost $$.

Okay, so for convenience, buy starts. But, for the experience of planning what to grow, buying the seeds, and starting the seeds yourself – it is so rewarding. You can gather seeds from your plants in the fall and grow them the following year to save money. If you have children, have them grow seeds for the garden as a magical learning experience and wonderful way to make a connection with plants and where their food comes from.