Peony 'Sarah Bernhardt'

Peony 'Sarah Bernhardt'

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Late Winter Garden

Dear Gardening Friends,

In Portland we are about 2 months into winter with one more month to go! This is the time that we gardeners pour through our seed catalogs dreaming of warmer weather, bright sun, and long days in the garden. It is the time of year many of us get a head start on summer gardening my starting our seeds inside.

Last weekend I went to a Growing Small Fruit Class at Portland Nursery to improve my skills with strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and grapes. This weekend I'll attend the annual Portland Yard Garden & Patio Show at the Oregon Convention Convention Center.

This is the season of planning and dreaming. I myself am daydreaming of the 5 new tomato varieties I am trying this year and the tiny pickling cucumbers I'll grow for canning homemade sweet pickle relish. I am excited for the vegetables I will grow: yellow wax beans, snow peas, carrots, zucchini, patty pan squash, pumpkins, lettuce & salad greens, spinach, swiss chard. I can almost smell the basils waiting to be made into homemade pesto. The bursts of color and joy that come from 6 varieties of sunflowers of all sizes and colors. Delicious strawberries picked and popped directly into your mouth.

In 2008 our Portland weather has fluctuated a lot from low 20s to low 50s, with lots of rain, high winds, sleet, hard frosts, and even a little sprinkling of snow. The weather is unpredictable and after several days well below freezing, once the sun came out and my bird bath water melted from it's ice cube state I am eager to get gardening. However, our average last frost date is April 15, so you cannot get too eager or you risk a late frost ruining all your tender young vegetable plants.

Last year in late March we moved into our rental house in SE Portland. I left behind my established vegetable, herb and flower garden at the duplex I'd lived in for over 3 years. Once settled in our new house a few weeks we quickly set out to remove grass and lay the foundation for 5 raised wooden beds, 2 compost bins, and 3 flower and herb borders. We removed a lot of grass and then I hauled in several truckloads of rich compost (from Mt. Scott Fuel Company conventiently located in my SE neighborhood). By the beginning of May I was already ready to plant my Summer garden. At the duplex during the winter I'd started 100s of plants from seeds to be transplanted into my Summer garden. Unfortunately the majority of them did not survive the trauma of moving into a new home and months of time & energy, not to all the money I spent on seeds was wasted. No worries I just started fresh by planting seeds directly in the ground at the new house. So this Spring I am all ready to go!

My late Winter garden still has some survivors and a little activity. Italian & Curly Parsley, French Sorrel and Cilantro have all survived with the hard frosts and snow with no protective measures on my part. Awesome. A lot of herbs hung in there until the week we had no moisture and temperatures steady in the 20s. That cold snap took the last of my lavender, sage, oregano, nasturtium, violets and alyssum. No worries because now I just cut the herb plants back and they return hardier than ever in the Spring. The flowers re-seed themselves and will be abundant by Summer. I also have overwintering carrots, red onions, yellow onions and garlic which should all be ready for harvest by late Spring/early Summer.

My raised beds with the overwintering vegetables and hardy herbs look pretty sparse this time of year. I clean them out during the fall and again in early winter to minimize hiding pests and disease. It also makes it easier to plant seeds immediately in the beginning Spring. Next weekend and then the first in March I'll begin planting my hardy Spring vegetables, flowers and herbs such as peas, radishes, violets, pansies--but more on that in another post. Heavy feeding vegetables last Summer and a very wet Winter have zapped my raised vegetable beds of essential nutrients. To prepare my raised beds I will be doing a simple soil test and then adding some Whitney Farms Life Link Tomato & Vegetable Food and Life Link All-Purpose Plant Food, depending on the need. I have success with both of these all natural products. You can buy Whitney Farms products all over Portland at Portland Nursery, Fred Meyer, and Wal-Mart. You can find great organic gardening information, particularly around soil amendments, at their website:

Late last Summer my Autumn greens: arugula, lettuce, spinach, were all devoured by slugs or snails-damn them! So this week I'm preventing slug and snail problems with a good dose of Sluggo, which is an all natural, organic gardening approved product containing iron phosphate. It holds up through the rainy springs of Portland and is safe to use around pets and wildlife. Sounds good to me!

Additionally I have 4 flower and herb borders on the east, south, west and north edges of my house. All year round I let the west side border go wild with whatever wants to grow there. There are bearded irises, snapdragons, daffodils, calendula, grass and an abundance of weeds. I let it grow wild as one dedicated space that remains undisturbed to shelter beneficial insects and whatever else decides to live there. My south side border is located in my backyard next to the raised vegetable beds. It is a blending of 3 existing rose bushes (At least 25 years old) and daffodils, plus the annuals and perennials I added last year-parsley, sage, marjoram, calendula, marigolds, dahlias, alyssum, nasturtium, pansies, violets, petunias. By Autumn the alyssum and nasturtium had "won" completely covering the bed and spilling out into the lawn. Both these plants seemed cold-hardy and unaffected as weather dropped into the upper 30s. So for the Winter I did not pluck out dead plants, prune, or clean up. Intentionally, I let everything die and wither where it was. I do this because as an Organic Gardener I am seeking collaboration with beneficial insects. Beneficial insects take care of pesty insects, pollinate my plants, and improve the quality of my soil. I am aiming for a biologically diverse garden with lots of plant variety. I attempt to garden more in tune with nature. For these reasons I resist the urge to clean up all areas of my garden in the Autumn. My messy more natural spaces provide food for wildlife-such as rose hips for birds, seeds for birds and squirrels. And, they serve a very important purpose of sheltering my beneficial insects during the cold wet Winters. I do not disturb the rambling overgrown alyssum plants because they are Winter hideaway of my garden friends. With balance in mind I did let myself clean up and prune the borders on the north and east side of my house because they are at the front and driveway and I look at them every day. I think the bugs are ok with that knowing they have 2 other big spaces to live undisturbed.

That's it for the Late Winter Garden here in SE Portland. I am eager to get started planting in the next few weeks and will post again soon about the early favorite: PEAS!

In health, Miss Jolie Ann

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