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.


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Tme to think about ordering seeds

I do a lot of vegetable gardening, and so I have also devoted some effort into figuring out which seeds work the best for me here in my particular garden. After a few years of trial and error, this is a list of my favorites:

Tomatoes: Costoluto Genovese, San Marzano, Brandywine, Super Sweet 100 cherry tomato, Early Girl

Eggplant: Nadia, Casper

Sweet Peppers: Marconi Sweet Italian pepper, Gypsy pepper

Salad Greens: Arugula, red and green mustards, endive, ‘Ruby Red’ Swiss Chard

Beets: Bull’s Blood, Chiogga

There are lots more, but these were very prolific last year in my vegetable garden.