Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Winter Gardening Isn't for Wimps

Last summer when lettuce came up abundantly, I vowed to start a fall garden. I'd been considering it long before Michelle Obama's White House garden. But it didn't help much that the First Lady made it look so easy there wasn't even a trace of garden dirt on her pink pants and matching cardigan.

I knew fall would be a little cooler, but with less insects, it was the perfect time to start a garden, or so I thought. We tested our soil and I tilled in lime and compost. Then I planted seedlings and waited for my fall abundance. Pacific Northwest rain and gray fall days were the farthest thing from my mind and when the rain started my tiny spinach simply quit growing. It dawned on me that low levels of light and cold weather could be a problem.

“Take the starts out of containers and put them in the garden,” my gardening coach told me. But it seemed like too much trouble, so I didn’t follow her advice. Soon everything I'd planted in containers was stunted and waterlogged. Container plants, I learned were actually in a zone colder than regular garden soil, but still I left them. There's probably a time for pure optimism without action, but this wasn't one of them.

The frisée (above) also looked spindly, but it's weed-like appearance didn't prepare me for the super-bitter, rubbery leaves that seemed resistant to breaking down when chewed. I couldn't imagine inflicting this unfortunate salad green on dinner guests. And my Osaka mustard greens I'd been so excited about had attracted a tiny breed of cold weather slugs that chewed big holes in the baby leaves.

“Beer traps,” Wade Bennett of Rockridge Orchards told me when I showed him a chewed up leaf. “That’s the best thing for the slugs.”

Okay, if growing our own food supply was as easy as donning a coordinated pink pants outfit, we'd all probably be doing it.

It's about time to review a few books, and here are two that I’m gleaning gardening advice from this fall:

Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades by Steve Soloman (Sasquatch Books, 6th edition 2007)

This is a regional gardening classic gives essential advice about what grows here, plant growth rates, weeds, fertilizers and containers (a section I hadn't consulted). Soloman talks about maritime micro climates and the problems with winter gardening. Mulching, composting, dry gardening and drip systems are also covered. In chapter 9, "How to Grow It," Soloman takes gardening readers through the variety of vegetables, when to plant the seeds, set out seedlings and how to deal with insects and diseases. The book's approach is organic using compost and building healthy soil with organic matter.

Check Soloman's book out at your favorite bookseller or library, and as I've learned, it's best to read this before you plan your garden, not when you suddenly need help. On Amazon, look below the reviews and you'll find gardening forums, that will help answer common Northwest garden questions. The only drawback is that the book doesn't cover fruit, but the next book does.

Fresh Food From Small Spaces: The Square Inch Gardener's Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting and Sprouting, by R.J. Ruppenthal (2008, Chelsea Green)

I recently ordered this book from Real Goods and was surprised that the book contained more than gardening basics and tips. It's also a primer on fruit and vegetable gardening with some urban food survivalist strategies like how to make yogurt, kiefer and fermented foods, food foraging, cultivating mushrooms and raising honeybees and chickens. The last chapter is called "Survival During Resource Shortages." In this post Katrina world, it's worth it to look at all of our food alternatives when it comes to our immediate food supply. Much of the Northwest is in a natural disaster zone and it's prudent to prepare for disruptions in our food or water supply. This book also has a resource list of where to get tools, soil amendments and various supplies.

My plan is to read more about Northwest gardening before planting in the spring.

From my fall garden, these tiny magenta lettuce heads looked stunning in in our salad bowls, but they didn't have any tenderness because they were nothing but old vegetables that never reached their full potential.

Overwatering, cold weather and container gardening produced these stunted lettuce heads from my beginner's garden in the Pacific Northwest. The roots clung feriously to the earth and the leaves were tough enough to resist the cold.

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