Dazed & Confused – Gardening in the Northwest and An Argument for Polyculture

2010 male corn flower buds (tassel)

In all honesty, I’m just not quite sure what to make of gardening in the Pacific Northwest so far.  I am in my third year here and each year has been staggeringly different.

In 2008, we closed on the house in early June, and I immediately proceeded to leave the house in a shambles, boxes everywhere, and dash outside to dig up an arbitrary patch of dirt, haphazardly amend the soil, fence out the rabbits with little more than some sticks, bailing wire and twine, and stick in the ground some random hybrid vegetable starts and seeds from my nearest big box store nursery – not exactly what I had in mind, but hey, I was in a hurry.  It was a total success.  I happily snipped cut-and-come-again lettuce all season long from a single sowing; it was delicious and sweet and tender and never bolted from June until the first frost in November.  I picked sweet heirloom carrots, strong and straight and vigorous, sown from seed.  From a single, sad start from the store, I ended up with more acorn squash than we could eat all winter.  Another sad big-box start provided enough yellow crookneck summer squash to feed an army.  Three hybrid tomato plants grew right before my eyes and provided fruit through December, believe it or not.  They weren’t my favorite varieties, but they were fresh summer garden tomatoes nonetheless.  I got gigantic red cabbages, a few ears of sweet corn, a decent crop of runner beans, and my beloved Mara Des Bois strawberries recovered from their trip through the Rocky Mountains in the back of my truck to produce a delicate berries from August through December.  My pumpkins, however, grew slowly and pathetically and six vines produced a total of two, tiny, misshapen fruit.  And my peas grew tall without setting a single pea.

2008 impromptu garden

2009 held all kinds of promise as we had spent the whole winter planning and building six raised beds of cedar, filled with special organic vegetable garden soil.  I also started all of my plants from seed, indoors or direct-sown – my favorite heirloom varieties.  That year, I got a bumper crop of peas of all kinds, that kept coming for months.  I harvested pounds of green beans from a few small plants, and I got huge red and green cabbages.  My Mara Des Bois gave me bowls full of fruit starting in June, but petered out by early fall.  I was positively swimming in cucumbers and I grew various, glorious melons successfully for the first time in my life.  But my tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, chard, and carrots were stricken by “tiny-plant disease” (in retrospect, I think perhaps symphylans were my problem) and hardly grew an inch until August.  I didn’t harvest any fruit until September and then we were hit by early frost at the end of that month and the brief party came to an end.  I never got any chard or carrots at all, and my lettuce was pathetic, bitter, and bolted early.  My pumpkins started slowly and then exploded late into huge, rambling vines full of swelling fruit – only to be hit by that early frost and end my dreams of a pumpkin-filled Halloween.  It was our first year with our fruit trees and because I couldn’t bring myself to remove the young fruits, I harvested a blissful handful of Morello cherries and a single, Indian Blood peach.  My onions, shallots and garlic were total failures – they didn’t grow at all.

2009's Mara Des Bois strawberries

Which brings us to 2010.  This year is everything the other years were not.  The raised beds had a season of peas and beans under their belts to add fixed nitrogen to the soil, and they were amended in the fall with our own compost and chicken manure.  I carefully selected all of my fruit and veggie varieties based on previous years’ successes and failures and recommendations for our extraordinarily temperate climate.  For the first time, I started my warm-weather, long-season plants indoors with the aid of soil blocks, germination heat mats, and grow lights (instead of just in a window).  I was rewarded with large, strong, vigorous seedlings that promised to trump the root-nibbling of overly-zealous symphs.  I carefully weeded and mulched like I never had before.  I researched regional last frost dates and watched the weather forecasts like a hawk, and I planted my seedlings out when I was confident that they would be safe and warm.  They were hit by frost the next day.  The garden and I picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and kept going.  For our daring and perseverance, we have been rewarded with the biggest, healthiest tomato plants I’ve had up here, and the earliest fruit set.

almost-ripe sungold cherry tomatoes, today

That’s right, my friends – I am going to pick my first ripe tomato of 2010 in the month of July!  This is weeks earlier than the other years.  I would say the biggest drawback of that late frost is that the recovered tomato plants have sent out a bajillion huge main stems each.  They are sprawling out of control, despite my feeble attempts to prune them (what if I cut off the most important, most productive stem??  Did you think of that??  HUH???  Can’t do it.).  It’s a tad ridiculous.

that's one tomato plant - Pork Chop

again, one single plant. you get the point.

The three plants that did not survive the frost and were replaced with later transplants are much smaller and much more well-behaved.

Aunt Ruby's German Green - a replacement with a single main stem

But of course, they have no fruit set yet.  I’m really starting to believe in this plant-’em-early-and-protect-the-ever-living-crap-out-of-them philosophy.  The clear winner for plant growth so far is Pork Chop.  The winner for fruit set is Sweet Carneros Pink, which was also the least-harmed by the frost.

green fruit on Sweet Carneros Pink

The green fruit look just like Green Zebra tomatoes, which are their relatives.

female Big Max pumpkin flower

My squash vines are still on the small side, but have suddenly decided to flower, which – again – is much earlier than last year.

male Big Max pumpkin flowers

entire plant

As you’ve seen in previous posts, my lettuce and chard are growing like gangbusters and are utterly delicious (remember 2009 saw zero lettuce and chard harvest), and my carrots are coming along nicely (unlike last year).

So, what can I say?  It’s a whole different game this year.  And all I can think is – how do modern monoculture farmers do it?  And why?  Why put all your eggs in one basket like that?  Sheesh, if I were a pea farmer I would have been living large last year and utterly broke this year.  Where is your security?  Government subsidies, I suppose, but I leave politics out of this blog.  Not only do plants benefit biologically from the company of other species, but if something goes wrong with one, you still have the others to take to market or feed your family.  It seems so perfectly simple and glaringly obvious that it is a complete wonder that we ever moved away from the small mixed farm model.  Nothing else makes any sense.

Anyway… moving on…

Speaking of peas:

second-flush blue-podded blauwschokker pea

There may be hope yet!  My pathetic inability to murder my plants in the face of an onslaught of pea weevils seems to have paid off.  The little bastards hung around for another week or two after I cut back my plants and a couple of timid attempts at setting new peas on the tiny vines proved futile as they were instantly covered in teeny orange eggs.  So, I just plucked those off and kept biding my time.  And now, lo and behold – egg-free peas!  I haven’t seen an adult weevil in a while and a couple of days ago I spotted new baby peas on the recovering vines (both types of shelling peas seem to be coming back.  I don’t have much hope for the snows and sugar snaps, which are still small and crispy).  I have kept a close watch on them and so far, no eggs!  It has been an interesting experiment, but so far it looks like you can beat a pea weevil infestation with close attention to timing and a little patience.  If I plant new seeds this week for a fall crop, I have a feeling those will be fine too.  I waited out the weevils’ breeding season and took away the places for their eggs (peas) and now it’s too late!  MUAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! TAKE THAT, WEEVILS!!!

They’re Baaaaaack

chopped pole bean vine

One thing I haven’t yet outsmarted is the plant-choppers.  All these months, all this chopping, and I still have no clue what the hell is going on.  I hadn’t seen any chopping evidence in weeks as my garden surged forth in mid-summer glory.  As my one- to three-foot-tall corn sent forth tassels, I faced up to the fact that I clearly didn’t plant very tall varieties and that my French Gold pole beans were going to need something taller to climb.  So, last weekend I went to buy more of my favorite bamboo poles only to find that the nursery was out of stock and I was stuck with expensive 8-foot plastic stakes.  I stuck one in the center of each corn-and-bean mound and soon forgot how much I hated the plastic as the delicate vines twined happily up the poles, past the corn, and toward the sky.  I delighted in watching their progress all week; new loops spiraled up a few more inches each day.  And then yesterday one looked a little droopy.  It was no longer reaching for the sky.  CHOPPED.

As you can see, as per usual, it was sliced cleanly through at a random point about a foot up the plant.  Nothing was missing.  The entire top half of the plant still clung sadly to the pole, and the bottom half of the plant sat, dazed and confused, still rooted firmly in the ground and unharmed.  Not a single nibble was taken.  Same as always.  STUPID PLANT CHOPPERS.

a happily-twining, unchopped pole bean

if you look closely, you can see the corn is climbing up these taller corn plants

beans twine up this small corn plant and its neighboring wooden stake

On a happier bean note, some of the French Golds in the Three Sisters’ garden are flowering.

French Gold pole bean flowers

And today I found my first teeny tiny baby bean set on my Dragon Tongue bush beans.

teeny baby Dragon Tongue bean

My tomatillo plant is beautiful and happy and setting fruit.  So glad I planted that one seed.

young tomatillos

And my melon plants in the straw bale garden are alive but growing very slowly.  I don’t know why, but I am guessing it’s all of this cool weather we’ve been having (nights in the 50s, days in the 50/60s, afternoons/evenings in the 70s/80s… lather, rinse, repeat).

banana melon plant

Lastly, my Mara Des Bois plants are still having trouble rebounding from last winter and spring.  I have had exactly one berry so far and the plants are small and tired-looking.  So, in summary… this year is about the opposite of last year in terms of garden successes and failures.  It’s always and interesting ride.  But with this much variability and unpredictability, how could anyone ever just farm one thing?

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One thought on “Dazed & Confused – Gardening in the Northwest and An Argument for Polyculture

  1. my ‘plant choppers’ were pill bugs (potato bugs) what ever they’re called. The ones that when you poke them they roll up into a ball. Who knew something so cute was a plant annihilator!

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