Guerilla Gardening on the Summer Solstice

Here is something to think about:

“Do what you can, with what you have, right where you are.” 

Theodore Roosevelt

That statement has always spoken to me, to not make excuses but to make an effort to move in the direction I want to go, in whatever aspect and capacity of life to which I wish to apply it. 

There was a film director that I met one time, and she made her mark in films way back when she was getting started by loading up her van with her camera and limited equipment, a skeleton crew and a very few actors, and heading off down the road.  When she saw a likely spot, they all got out and proceeded to shoot some scenes for a film, right where they were at.  She ended up with some good films.  She eventually was asked to direct a well-know television series as a guest director, and they wanted her to do her “guerilla directing” thing with the big show, but she couldn’t be spontaneous when it took 4 semi-truck loads of equipment to shoot one little scene for that big show.

But I digress.  Roosevelt’s statement also applies to gardening.

After spending a spring wishing and hoping for warm weather and that the rain would cease to fall in excessive amounts, I think I am finally past it.  I can wish and hope all I want, but the fact is it appears that this growing season is going to be quite similar to last year’s growing season, which was short and cold. 

This is a not a bad combination for my flowers, which are doing great and growing well.  It could spell disaster, however, for my vegetable garden. 

But, what I have going into this, and to my advantage, is the knowledge of the growing season last year.  This will help me to get into what I have been calling “guerilla gardening” mode, to help me get some kind of a reasonable vegetable crop from my garden this year.  Here are some tips that I am using with my vegetables this year, and I hope that they might help you as well in your gardening pursuits.

Get-real gardening.

  • Grow warm-season plants under plastic.  Let’s face the facts, shall we?  Where I live in SW Washington state, it has not reliably hit 50 degrees air temperature at night yet, on June 21st.  On and off, but not consistently.  It needs to be at least 50 degrees, and preferably 55 degrees overnight, before tomatoes will ripen–their ability to ripen, mature and turn red is based much more on the nighttime temperatures than the daytime.  What this means is that I am looking for ways to increase the nighttime temperature around my tomatoes.  I have planted my tomatoes, and placed tomato cages over them, then I put clear plastic over the top and sides of the cages, holding down the edges with rocks.   This plastic will raise the nighttime temperature by 3-4 degrees, which will help bump it up to at least 50 degrees, if not a bit more.  This will help your tomatoes ripen a lot faster than if they were uncovered.  Last year, I asked most of the farmers who had ripe tomatoes at the farmers’ market how they got their tomatoes to ripen, and nearly all of them, with farms located in this area, said that they had to cover them with plastic to get them to ripen, so that is what the professionals are doing.   Rain and any kind of water falling on the fruits is also another big enemy of a perfectly ripe tomato.  You want to keep rainfall off the tomato fruits as much as possible, or they rot very quickly and have lots of blemishes.  Plastic is very good for this purpose as well.  I also pretty much gave up growing the tomatoes that are late-season varieties–only one ‘Brandywine’ plant this year, for example, and more of the quicker cherry tomatoes.
  • It gets worse if you want to try to grow cucumbers, eggplant and peppers, or any of the melons.  These plants need 60 degree temperatures at night in order to mature.  For these, put hoop houses over your planting beds.    If you use PVC plastic pipe, found at a hardware store, and push it into the ground over your plants, it will form a half-circle, or a hoop.  On these hoops you can place clear plastic and hold it down with rocks at the corners, and clothes pins on top of the hoops.  The idea is that you don’t want the plastic to touch the plants.  Water condenses under the plastic, which helps to keep things moist under there.  Unfortunately, this will be high maintenance, because eventually July will roll around, and we will get some days that will be in the 80s and 90s.  On those hot days, you will need to open the plastic in the morning, make sure everything has enough water so they don’t dry out, and then cover them at night.  You will have to decide how much you love cukes, peppers and eggplant, and how much time you have to spend babying these plants, because they will take more work than some of the other things that are easier to grow.  Nearly every local grower at the farmers’ market last year who had ripe peppers for sale had to cover them with plastic to get them to turn red.  Just sayin’.   And every variety of eggplant, pepper and cuke that I grow are suited to short growing seasons, because those that need a long growing season will never ripen before we start getting colder autumn weather.  This is pretty hard with cukes, because I want to get as much growth as possible under plastic, to increase the temperature to improve growth, but eventually they get too big, and you have to put a trellis up for them to grow upon, so eventually (I wait until the last possible minute), you will not be able to cover the cukes any longer.  Then they have to be big enough to hopefully swim and not sink on their own with whatever the weather hands out.  The eggplant and peppers stay covered throughout the entire growing season until they die in the fall.  I have never had good luck with melons, so I wish you well if you want to give it a go–just be sure to plant short-season melons, and you might fare better than I.
  • To give them a headstart, I also cover my corn bed, as well as the pumpkin and squash bed, to warm it up for them to get a good start.  After the plants get too big, I end up uncovering them, but not until partway through July.

    'Ruby Red' Swiss Chard is a winner

  • So, what can you grow that will not be a pain in the neck for the gardener?  Here are some plants that I had good luck with last year, even though it was a very cold summer:  Lettuce, arugula, beets and beet greens, tatsoi, mustard greens, swiss chard, green beans, both bush and runner bean types, sugar snap peas.  It also appears that we are going to have a bumper crop of blackberries, raspberries and marionberries this year as well, without much work on my part.  (The bees have been very busy, on the other hand,  polinating all those flowers for me.)  If you want a garden that you don’t have to cover with plastic, you might want to focus on these crops that will grow just fine in cooler temperatures.  And that is totally an okay thing to do–why fight nature?  It is a fight very difficult to win, so why not go with what gets handed out and make it easy on yourself?  I have no problems with that.  It is just that I love, absolutely live for, home-grown tomatoes, and so I am willing to take the extra steps in order to get some of our own.  (I am also someone who monkeys around with fussy delphinium plants that need to be protected from slug attacks and need to have each bloom stem individually staked–you love what you love, what can I say.)  Another option is to purchase those warm-weather crops from farmers that are coming over from sunny and dry Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon to the farmers’ markets to sell their wares, and then you grow what is easier to grow in your garden–this works very well, too. 

    'Purple Queen' bush beans and sunflowers in containers

  • In addition to colder weather, you might also have a lot of shade on your property due to large trees.  Vegetables need sun, so one solution is to go in for large container gardening.  You can grow all sorts of vegetables successfully in large containers.  I’ve grown tomatoes, peppers , eggplant, corn, sunflowers, lettuce, beans, peas and cukes in big containers.  The plants will not produce as much as they would if growing in the ground, but you can place the containers anywhere you have a sun spot, so you will likely have much more success in growing vegetables in this manner.  You will discover that the garden hose and fertilizer are your friends if you take this route, which is high maintenance.

    Corn and salad greens in containers

“Do what you can, with what you have, right where you are.”   If you want to vegetable garden this year, then don’t let the weather stop you.  Just know what you’re in for, so you can decide how you want to spend your time and energy.  And garden smart, like a guerilla gardener would, and you’ll have some success. 

Do enjoy the first day of summer, the Summer Solstice, today, and visit the Garden Party.

Seasonal Cookbooks

It has been so rainy and I’ve been working on other things, thus I have curtailed garden activities for a while.  (Although I do have more seeds to start–I may have to gird my loins and get on with it even in the rain.)  But at this time of year, I am looking for seasonal recipes.  It annoys me to pick up a February-issue magazine and look through the recipes to find that they use all kinds of summer-grown ingredients.  Instead, I have been trying to find some new recipes and cookbooks that feature season-friendly recipes.  I have to say that I’ve been eating a lot of coleslaw, and would like to find something else that would be tasty and not break the bank.

Here is a list of some cookbooks that I have found that offer winter-friendly recipes:

Bartley, Jennifer.  The Kitchen Gardener’s Handbook.  Portland:  Timber Press, 2010.  This is a fun book–it includes garden design plans, seasonal checklists, fresh recipes, plant profiles and growing tips, as well as flowers for the table, all based on a seasonal approach.

Chesman, Andrea.  Recipes From The Root Cellar:  270 Fresh Ways To Enjoy Winter Vegetables.  North Adama, MA:  Storey, 2010.  Another cool cookbook that offers ways to cook vegetables that you will often not find in stores except in the winter, such as salsify, and with a focus on root vegetables, greens and brassicas.  There are a lot of easy to make recipes that don’t call for a lot of ingredients, which is appealing.  Chesman has written a couple of other cookbooks that I look forward to reading, including Serving Up The Harvest and The Vegetarian Grill.

Dahl, Sophie.  Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights:  Recipes For Every Season, Mood and Appetite.  New York:  William Morrow, 2009.  The recipes in this book focus on four-season cooking and using fresh ingredients. 

Webb, Robyn.  Flavorful Seasons Cookbook:  Great-Tasting Recipes For Winte,r Spring, Summer and Fall.  Alexandria, VA:  American Diabetes Association, 1996.  For those looking for some healthy options in winter recipes, this is a good place to start.  Each recipe lists preparation time, as well as a complete nutritional analysis. 

Weir, Joanne.  Winter:  Recipes Inspired By Nature’s Bounty.  San Francisco:  Weldon Owen, Inc., 1997.  This volume is part of the Williams Sonoma Seasonal Celebration line of cookbooks, and the photographs of each recipe are just gorgeous.  It offers tips for selecting winter ingredients, has pictures and detailed descriptions of winter vegetables, herbs, fruits, as well as winter ingredient preparation techniques.

I hope to preserve more food for next winter this gardening season.  I always do some, but I want to try to do more in this regard.

What are you cooking now in the winter?  Leave a comment, and also check out the Tuesday Garden Party.


An Update On Garden-Related Topics For The Beginning Of August

It’s been a pretty hectic couple of weeks around here, but I wanted to fill you in on how the garden is doing, and a fun upcoming gardening event or two.

First of all, I harvested our first ‘Yukon Gold’ potato  this  week!  After you heard about my travails with with potato plants this year–flea beetles=1, Minerva’s Garden=0–I thought I’d better share this little victory with you as well. Nice and smooth and not damaged, so hopefully there will be more like this from the hills later in the season.

My yellow begonnia started to bloom after two years of waiting–I was pretty excited to finally get to see the result:

Everything vegetable-wise is growing, but not much is producing at the moment, which is not surprising due to the cold spring and most of summer we’ve had thus far.  We should have a fantastic autumn harvest, however!

Yesterday we u-picked 5 pounds of raspberries (not a good time for picking raspberries–the June-bearing ones are about done, and the fall-bearing ones haven’t started, so there wasn’t much to pick) and 11 pounds of blueberries (this was an excellent time for picking blueberries here–the bushes were loaded with fruit, and the picking went pretty quickly.)  I made two pints of Cranberry-Raspberry Jam, and 2 pints of sugar-free Raspberry Preserves.  I so far have individually quick frozen a one-gallon freezer bag of blueberries, and today I’ll freeze more and make some Spiced Blueberry Marmalade–all of these are freezer jams.

There are a couple of fun gardening events coming up that I want to let you know about.  About four years ago, I took a class at the Home Orchard Society to learn how to graft fruit trees.  It was inexpensive, a lot of fun, and I learned a great new gardening skill.  I also took a fruit tree pruning class that they offered as well.  August is when they offer a Summer Budding Workshop, which is a method of grafting new fruit trees in the summer months (fruit tree grafting usually happens in March, not summertime, with this one exception.)  By learning how to graft, you can build new mini-dwarf fruit trees that only reach 4-6 feet tall at maturity, a much better size than standard fruit trees that reach 22 feet tall for modern gardens, and you can learn how to prune and train fruit trees into different shapes.  I have an espaliered Belgian Fence in my backyard that is growing, and allows me to grow 8 mini-dwarf fruit trees in only 15 feet of space.  Try that with standard fruit trees, and you see the advantages of using the mini-dwarfs.  Also, you don’t need to get out ladders to pick the fruit or prune, either, with the smaller trees, but they produce a substantial amount of fruit.   You will pay around $22 or more for a grafted mini-dwarf fruit tree at a nursery, but you can build your own for only $5, so there is a substantial savings.

If you want to get t started with this, here is what I would suggest.  Start by going to the All About Fruit Show in October.  Here you will find samples of all the different kinds of fruits that will grow here–you can taste, and make a list of the specific varieties that you’d like to grow. You can also ask the fruit tree experts there your questions.   Then in February the following year, take the grafting class.  They take you through the process step-by-step, with people helping you, and you actually graft a fruit tree to take home with you.  Then in March attend the Rootstock Sale and Scion Exchange, where you can purchase mini-dwarf rootstocks and get free scionwood of hundreds of different varieties of apples, pears, plums,and more, like grapes and figs.  (The grapevine growing up my pergola is an ‘Einset,’ and I started it from a free cutting I got at the Scion Exchange!)  Than you go home and graft your trees and plant them in March.  (If you prefer, you can order trees to be grafted for you, and pick them up at the Sale–they cost around $10 or so for each tree.  You tell them what rootstock you want used and what tree varieties you want grafted onto the rootstock and they do the work for you.)  The trees will take about 4 years to reach a mature height and before you should let them produce fruit, so you have to be a little patient, but you’ll end up with beautiful trees for a fraction of the cost of buying them retail, and with heirloom varieties that you can’t find at the nurseries.  I highly recommend this–it’s been fun for me.

To whet you appetite, here is a little video we made over a year ago about grafting and my Belgian fence:

If you want to attend the Budding Workshop information is here, and the All About Fruit Show information is here.  If you don’t live in the Portland, Oregon area, here are two books that talk about grafting and espalier that I recommend:

Toogood, Alan, ed. Plant Propagation. New York: DK Publishing, 1999

Brickell, Christopher and David Joyce. Pruning & Training: A Fully Illustrated Plant-by-Plant Manual. New York: DK Publishing, 1996.

How is your garden growing?  Do you graft fruit trees or other plants?  Do tell in the comments!

Please stop on by the Tuesday Garden Party at An Oregon Cottage for more beautiful gardens!

And try Oh, How My Garden Grow!


Made Strawberry Freezer Jam and Froze Strawberries On This 4th Of July!

Not a traditional way to spend the Fourth, admittedly, but my wonderful husband went to a you-pick farm yesterday and picked 22 pounds of lovely strawberries.  Since we had company over yesterday and I was busy cooking for that, he also washed and hulled all the berries for me–what a sweetie!  Into the refrigerator they went until today, when I turned them into jam and frozen whole berries. 

I just do individually quick frozen berries–place the cleaned berries on a cookie sheet so the berries are not touching one another, and then place the sheet in the freezer.  In an hour or two, they are frozen and can be transferred to a labeled ziplock bag, which is what I did.

I also made sugar-free jam.  I have a neat cookbook called Canning and Preserving Without Sugar by Norma M. MacRae, who is a dietician and nutritionist.  The recipe I used is called “Strawberry Preserves.”  I like my jam fruity and fairly soft set, so I don’t really like to use pectin at all.  The recipe calls for 10 cups cleaned strawberries, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (I also added some rind as well),  concentrated white grape juice (you take 3 cups of white grape juice, put in a pot and boil it down to 1 cup. ) That’s it.  Take 5 cups of the strawberries and put them in a big  nonaluminum pot (I use an 8-quart stainless steel stock pot) with the lemon juice and grape juice.  Bring it to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly, then reduce the heat a bit and continue cooking until it thickens a bit.  It was about 15-20 minutes for me.  (It does set up more as it cools.)  Take the pot off the heat, and stir in the remaining 5 cups of strawberries, which you can dice, slice or leave whole–your preference.  This cools the mixture off quite a bit.  I then decided to freeze it, so I filled my plastic containers, leaving 3/4 of an inch at the top (this is important, because the jam will swell when frozen.)  Put the lid on, and label it.  I also made up 3 pints which I put in the refrigerator to eat up in the next couple of weeks.  One batch makes 10 1/2 cups of jam, or roughly 5 pints.

Total, I made 14 pints of sugar-free jam, and ended up with 1 one-gallon bag full of individually quick frozen whole strawberries.  We paid $1/pound for the berries (!), and about $2.90 for the white grape juice.  I already had some fresh lemons and containers, so this ended up being a fairly inexpensive project that I will be very happy to have come cold winter weather.

Happy 4th of July, everyone!!

Support Local Growers And Stock Your Pantry For The Winter

Now is a great time to purchase the beginnings of the berry harvest here in Clark County.  The Master Gardeners have put together a great list of all the local farmers that have produce and fruits to sell to the public.  Some are u-pick, while others offer produce stands with picked produce.  The listing gives the address and other contact information for each farm, plus a listing of exactly what types of produce and fruit they have available for sale.  Here’s the list.  It’s never too early to put up some jam or freeze some berries–you will be glad you did come next January or February when you are craving strawberry shortcake or lemon blueberry muffins, for example.  Freezer jams are so quick and easy to do, taking a lot less time than canned preserves, so if you are starting out, give those a try.  It is also a great way to fill in any gaps in what you yourself can produce on your property.