Two Years of Lopez Island Kitchen Gardens

Two years ago this month I started writing Lopez Island Kitchen Gardens blog.  Thank you all for your enthusiasm and encouragement as I’ve posted stories and pictures about what I’ve been doing in the garden and the kitchen.  Your responses online and in person have been one of the biggest pleasures of writing this blog.

When I began this blog I wasn’t sure where it would take me.  What would it be like to write regularly about gardening and cooking, two activities that have been constant pleasures in my life for years?  I’m pleased to say that this blog has turned out to be a very satisfying way both to stop and think about what I’m doing and to figure out how to share my experiences and discoveries.

Many of the posts I’ve written have given me the opportunity to focus on growing, harvesting and cooking a single vegetable.  Having an excuse to pull out gardening books and seed catalogs, old article files and new Internet resources has been a wonderful way to review and build on years of lessons taught by trial and error.  The pleasures have been the same in the kitchen, revisiting favorite recipes, techniques and cookbooks, experimenting with new ways to prepare vegetables, often inspired by current ideas from favorite cookbook authors and food columnists.  There are so many engaging food and garden writers.  It’s been a treat to make the time to read them regularly.

In addition to vegetables I’ve written about garden planning and about the infrastructure that underlies the garden.  Seed ordering, planting calendars and seed starting begin each gardening year and irrigation, mulch, bean and pea structures, bug and bird barriers and protection from cold, heat and wind all help the plants thrive.

Figuring out how to share what I’ve learned from experience and research has been satisfying too.  The question “What do I want people to learn?” is left over from my years as a teacher but it continues to help me focus, to select what’s important and let the rest go. Writing a first draft and revising and revising again until I’ve found what I really want to say are processes I deeply enjoy.  And then there are the photographs! WordPress makes it so easy to insert images into the text, color photographs to illustrate stories about a beautiful vegetable, delicious meal or piece of garden infrastructure.  From the beginning of this blog, my husband Scott has provided exquisite photos.  And yes, we do get to eat all the food he photographs.

Finally, I’ve discovered that writing this blog has been a way to think more about what it’s like to be in the kitchen garden and at the table in all of the seasons of the gardening year. As I reread two years of posts, I noticed how often I referred to light, to the gradually lengthening days of spring, the long days of summer sun, the early dark of fall and winter as background to the vegetables I was planting, harvesting or cooking.  Kale buds, asparagus spears, early lettuce welcome the growing light of spring, dinner plates full of fresh green and the beginning of a new planting season.  Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, green beans highlight long, warm days and evenings, summer dinners of sliced tomatoes, crisp peppers, caponata, sweet beans.  Root vegetables mark shortening days, harvesting in nearly dark late afternoons and sharing hearty dinners indoors, blinds drawn and candles illuminating the table. Looking back on these posts I’m also struck by how quickly the year in vegetables goes by.  But writing this blog has also slowed down the garden year, giving me the chance to notice and enjoy the vegetable markers of each subtle change.  I hope I’ve given you the same experience.

P.S.

To make it easier to find posts on different topics, I’ve created new categories on the right hand side of the blog under the heading Browse by Subject.  Just click on Spring Vegetables, Summer Vegetables, Fall/Winter Vegetables, or Garden Planning and Infrastructure to find the posts on each of these topics.  WordPress also makes it easy to search the entire blog for specific topics.  Just type a topic into the Search box on the upper right hand side of the page above the garden photo and click the Return key.  Or just browse the blog by month.

In Praise of Reemay

My friend Molly emailed this happy news a few days ago: “My beans all popped up under the Reemay, yours must have too.”  Yes, mine did too.  Whew!  We’d both planted bean seeds in less than ideal conditions, cool soil and forecasts for rain, but we’d covered the rows with Reemay, gambling as gardeners often do that this floating row cover would provide the warmth needed to make the seeds germinate instead of rot.  We won!  And now sturdy seedlings have shouldered up through the soil, ready to start adding leaves whenever the weather really warms up.  Germination was so good I’ll even have to do some thinning.

Reemay pulled aside

Reemay is the brand name of the original floating row cover, a lightweight spun polyester fabric gardeners can spread out over newly seeded beds or drape over transplants or growing plants and then secure with rocks or soil.  Agribon is another brand available today.  Reemay is typically about six feet wide and is sold on rolls of 20, 50 or 250 feet.  The six-foot width is perfect for my five-by-eighteen foot garden beds because the additional width gives plants room to grow up under the cover.  I buy a 250-foot roll and cut off eighteen-foot lengths for a whole bed and shorter lengths for sections of beds.  Each piece lasts at least three seasons before beginning to break down, so a 250-foot roll lasts me for years.  I’ve bought it at Stueber Distributing Company in Snohomish, Washington.  Territorial Seeds also sells it mail order as do many other seed and garden supply companies. Row covers also come in lighter and heavier weights though I haven’t tried either yet.

Reemay over bean bedReemay closeup

During this past rainy week, as we anxiously monitored our bean rows, Molly and I both periodically slipped our hands under the Reemay to see how much warmer the soil felt.  Even on a cloudy day, the soil under the row cover felt decidedly warmer than soil exposed to the air.  On the few sunny days, the covered soil was almost hot.  Row covers let rain through so the soil stayed moist but they also let light through and trap and hold heat, the key to our germination success.

While we use Reemay to warm the soil for seed germination and also use it to protect early spring and fall/winter crops from cold and frost, it has another valuable use in the garden: as a barrier to bugs, birds and cats.  I use it over carrots to prevent carrot rust fly, over beets and chard to prevent leaf miner, over turnips and cabbages to prevent root maggot.  I’ll often leave it on carrots, beets and spring turnips until harvest and on cabbage crops until the plants are well enough established to withstand bugs. If the days get really hot, I’ll loosen the row cover or even remove it temporarily but our cool marine climate rarely makes this necessary.  Row covers also prevent birds from pulling up newly sprouted seeds and cats from using the garden bed as a giant cat box. As any photo of my garden reveals, there’s always Reemay covering something somewhere.  It looks a bit ghostly, but I don’t think I could garden without it.

Trimming the Kitchen Garden Hedge

Hedge, long viewOne of the distinguishing features of our kitchen garden is the eleven-foot tall Leyland Cypress hedge that surrounds it on three sides.  We planted the hedge in 1994 as a windbreak for the new 120 by 110 foot garden, setting out gallon pot sized trees four feet on center.  In its nearly twenty years, the hedge has tempered the prevailing winds, as we’d hoped, but it has also grown to define the garden space, setting it apart from the surrounding fields and enclosing fruit trees and vegetable beds in a green-walled room.  It’s created a wonderfully private, protected space.

But of course there is a catch. Leyland cypress grows vigorously up and out; there’s a forest lurking in this hedge.  To tame it, we trim it once a year.  About this time every spring Scott tunes up his electric trimmer, a Black & Decker 24” hedge trimmer, strings out power cords and brings in a ladder for reaching the top of the hedge.  As he shears along the inside walls and up onto the top, I spread out tarps to collect the trimmings as they fall then load them in a cart and move them to a compost pile.  When the inside and top are done we move to the outside walls, repeating the shearing and the trimming collection.

Hedge Scott ladder

Hedge Scott side viewOnce we get started, what seems like a big chore isn’t so bad, and in three or four afternoons we’re done.  Sunny days with no wind are the most pleasant for this task.  Cloudy days with breezes are more common.  In either weather, it’s a great excuse to be outside early in the season, transforming the kitchen garden’s shaggy winter walls into velvety green spring surfaces.

Hedge north gate

New Seeds for 2013

This year’s seed orders have all arrived, the results of catalog study and online ordering that satisfy my gardening desires every January.  Before I opened the many seed catalogs that piled up on my desk at the turn of the year, I inventoried my seeds from the previous year, decided what long-time favorites needed reordering and thought about the new additions to last year’s kitchen garden that did well and those that didn’t.  I could have simply reordered the favorites and successes and been done, but catalog descriptions of superior flavor, greater hardiness or a rare heirloom variety always tempt me and each year I order lots of new varieties, just to try.  Sometimes I discover gems, other times duds but even one gem makes the experiments worthwhile.

Seed packets tomatoes

I was tempted by a lot of new tomato varieties this year and the pile of packets makes me wonder how I’ll find space for them next to all my old favorites.  From Seed Savers Exchange, there’s Dester, a “luscious pink beefsteak,” winner of SSE’s 2011 Tomato Tasting; Ukrainian Purple (aka Purple Russian), a purple-tinged plum shaped tomato that I’m hoping will be as flavorful as Pruden’s Purple and Cherokee Purple, two of my favorites in the purple realm; and Velvet Red, a one-inch cherry tomato with “striking silvery gray dusty miller-type foliage and excellent flavor” that’s this year’s entry in my search for the perfect red cherry tomato.  Last year’s Gardener’s Delight was a disappointment.  From Adaptive Seeds there’s Sungella, “1 ½ -2” orange globes with deliciously sweet flesh, bigger and more split resistant than Sungold.” What could be better than a bigger Sungold?  From my friend Carol who ordered from Tomato Growers Supply, there’s Stump of the World.  How could I resist that name and its comparison to my old standard Brandywine?  It’s a dark pink beefsteak, “a bit smaller and more productive than Brandywine but, like Brandywine, offers outstandingly rich, complex flavor.” And finally my sister Sarah and I ordered another delightfully named tomato, Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, “a port wine colored beefsteak with metallic green stripes,” from Wild Boar Farms.  The name and the claim that 10 out of 10 people preferred its “sweet, rich, dark tomato flavor” to Cherokee Purple, our favorite tomato, made it one we had to try.

Seed packets pepper, eggplant

I was more restrained with peppers and eggplant, ordering only two new varieties of each.  Looking for a yellow horn-shaped pepper to go with Johnny’s wonderful red bull’s horn Carmen, I ordered Golden Treasure, an Italian heirloom from Seed Saver’s Exchange, nine-inch peppers that “ripen from green to shiny yellow,” “excellent for frying, roasting and fresh eating,” and Superette Sweet Banana Pepper from Fedco, similar to Golden Treasure so I’ll have to do a taste-off.  Wanting to try some mini-eggplant, I ordered two from Johnny’s, Hansel, a 3-4 inch dark purple eggplant “non-bitter and perfect for grilling or slicing thin on pizza” and Fairy Tale, a purple and white mini-eggplant with “wonderful flavor, no bitterness and very few seeds.”

Seed packets, roots

For roots, I ordered new varieties of celeriac, rutabaga and turnip and returned to an old beet favorite.  From Adaptive Seeds, there’s Tellus, “a great old-fashioned celeriac from England, darker inside and out with reddish stalks.”  The packet claims it has “real celeriac flavor because it has not had the flavor bred out of it.”  From Territorial there’s Joan rutabaga. I’m hoping it will be sweeter and more complex-flavored than Laurentian, a variety I tried last year and probably won’t grow again.  From Johnny’s there’s a new red salad turnip, Scarlet Queen Red Stems.  A red turnip I tried last year, Red Round turnip from Fedco, was disappointingly tough and thick-skinned.  I hoping Scarlet Queen will live up to its description: “sweet, crisp, white flesh with spicy, red skin.”  Finally, I was happy to find Kestrel beet at West Coast Seeds, a sweet, dark red beet Territorial used to carry but dropped several years ago.

For other winter vegetables, I ordered White Russian Kale from Territorial. Bred by Frank Morton, it’s “a sister variety of Winter Red.”  Even if the flavor isn’t noticeably different from Winter Red it will still be a pretty color contrast in salads.  From Johnny’s I ordered two new leeks, Bandit and Lexton with the hope of finding a leek that will stand up to leek rust.

Seed packet corn Finally, from West Coast Seeds I ordered Seneca Horizon sweet corn, dropped several years ago by Territorial but still my favorite corn.  I’m happy to return to after disappointing seasons with Golden Bantam and Spring Treat.

I’ve already started seeds of fennel, radicchio, broccoli and cauliflower in cell packs; they are up and starting to grow.  In the next day or two, I’ll plant flats of onions, shallots and sugar snap peas.  I’ll also plant small pots of tomatoes and in a couple of weeks, small pots of the other heat lovers, peppers and eggplant.  In late March I’ll start seeds of celery root.  And when the weather settles, I’ll leave the seed trays and potting soil for the big garden and start planting there. Seed packets ready, my new planting year begins.

Watering the Kitchen Garden

One of the challenges of summer kitchen gardening in the Pacific Northwest is the lack of significant rain from June to September. In New England, where I started gardening, I could count on regular rain all season long.  Not here.  My first northwest garden was small enough that I could reach most if it with a hose and watering wand once I admitted that it really wasn’t going to rain that week or the next or the next. My next garden was bigger and I soon realized that hand watering simply wasn’t going to work.  I needed an irrigation system.  It’s taken a while, but thanks to Scott and a series of experiments we finally have an irrigation setup that works almost better than those New England rains did.

Our first experiments with irrigation systems relied on soaker hoses, those flexible, black, porous hoses made from recycled rubber.  Not only did they provide good irrigation, they were inexpensive and easy to install.  After a few years, the tiny holes that let the water leak out did start to clog up a bit and after a few more years, they didn’t leak much at all, but soaker hoses were still available and not too expensive so we just replaced them.  They were our irrigation choice for nearly two decades.

Several years ago, though, soaker hoses suddenly got harder to find at a reasonable price.  At the same time we started thinking that it would be really nice to have an irrigation system that didn’t require quite so much dragging of water hoses to soaker hoses and coupling and uncoupling of hose fittings.  A timer that shut off the water automatically would be nice too.  And while we were making a wish list, irrigation hoses that lasted longer would be nice and certainly less wasteful.  Fortunately for our growing wish list, we found DripWorks and, specifically, T-Tape irrigation.  I think it will be our irrigation choice for the next two decades and more.

This page from the DripWorks website defines T-Tape and explains how it works: http://www.dripworks.com/category/ttape1.  In addition to low cost and ease of installation, T-Tape pleased us because it operates with low water pressure and the water is still distributed evenly along each tape. And a length of T-Tape lasts up to seven years when covered with mulch.  We also purchased a simple timer that turns off the water automatically.  It is necessary to use a filter at the water source to remove sediment and other particles big enough to clog the T-Tape but it was easy to install the filter.

If you are interested in setting up an irrigation system, visit the DripWorks website, http://www.dripworks.com/, which not only lists their products but also provides very useful print material and videos on how to select and install their irrigation systems.  And read this guide: http://cdn.dripworks.com/downloads/manuals/DripPlanningGuide.pdf. The company also offers phone consultations on irrigations plans.  We drafted a design for our system and then talked with a DripWorks staff person who reviewed our plans and helped with our order.

In our plan, we divided our twenty-one five-by-eighteen foot garden beds into three zones of seven beds each.  This photo shows nearly all of the three zones.  We connected the seven beds in each zone with a supply line, buried just below ground level. At the head of each bed in a zone, there is a tee fitting coming off the supply line and an shut-off valve, and at the end of each of these three supply lines, there is a hose coupler where we attach the water hose.  Now instead of dragging a hose to each of the twenty-one beds, we simply drag it to one of the three zones from the centrally located hose bib where we also installed a water filter, flow restrictor and a timer.  And within each zone, we can use the shut-off valves at each bed to supply irrigation to the beds that need it and avoid watering beds that don’t.

While these supply lines and valves are permanent, we move the T-Tape itself from bed to bed depending on what we’re planting.  Each T-Tape unit consists of a short supply line to which we’ve attached two, three or four lengths of T-Tape. The short supply lines attach to the tee fittings at the head of each bed.  Our beds typically contain two, three or four rows of plants so we figured out how many units of each size we needed and assembled them. At the end of the growing season, we detach the T-Tape units from the supply valve at each bed, screw a cap to the supply valve to keep bugs and dirt from getting in, fold the T-Tape accordion fashion along the supply line and store it until the next year.  From start to finish, it’s a great system.

This photo shows the tee fitting coming off the buried supply line, the shut-off valve, the supply line for the bed, and finally, lengths of T-Tape connected with fittings to the supply line. For this bed of bush dry beans, we spaced three T-Tapes eighteen inches apart along the supply line to the bed.

In this photo, tiny threads of leeks are starting to grow along the four lengths of T-Tape spaced a foot apart.  The photo below shows melon plants I just set out along three lengths of T-Tape.  I’ll lay strips of black plastic in the rows between the beds and set a cloche over this bed to provide the warmth it takes to ripen melons.  And, of course, the T-Tape will provide the water.

There’s been one more unexpected benefit to using T-Tape.  The lengths of T-Tape in each bed define the rows and, just as convenient, the emitters along the tape where the water drips out are spaced eight inches apart and work as a surprisingly handy ruler. I space some plants eight inches apart, others sixteen, and others at twenty-four or thirty-two inches.  The T-Tape emitters have it laid out for me.  That’s something New England rains, welcome as they were, could never do.

Mulch!

Mulching is so much more satisfying than weeding.  It’s not that I don’t like to weed.  Creating dark, weed-free soil between rows of thriving vegetables has its appeal.  But the downsides of weeding are that I need to do it again and again and in the meantime the soil dries out.  Mulching, on the other hand, is something I need to do only once and the thick carpet of mulch suppresses weeds, looks just as pretty as freshly tilled soil and conserves moisture. And most satisfying to me, mulched beds signal that the kitchen garden is on its way for another season.  I’ve prepared the soil and planted the seeds and now whatever sturdy young plant I’ve just tucked in with mulch can begin its serious growing. Squash can spread, onions and tubers swell, roots dig deep, peas and beans climb, cornstalks stretch up, all surrounded by a weed-free carpet of mulch.  Except for regular irrigation, there’s nothing more to do until harvest time.

I mulched for most of an afternoon this week, happy to be covering soil that was still moist from our recent rains. In the past I’ve mulched with wheat or oat straw or lawn clippings that I’d gather while mowing, spread out on a tarp and dry for a day before using.  But here on Lopez it’s possible to get a bale of old haylage, one of those big round bales still wrapped in white plastic but no longer good for feed.  It’s my favorite mulch, “gardener’s gold” my friend Carol calls it.

The best thing about haylage is that the tight plastic wrapping causes the hay to ferment, killing weed seeds.  It does smell pretty strongly of rotting silage at first but the odor’s gone in a few days.  And a single bale is huge, often lasting me for two years.  I just peel off what I need as I need it.  I even reuse it, moving it from a spring bed to a summer bed and on to winter beds where I double up layers for cold protection.  It breaks down a little but not enough to affect its performance.  Eventually, it becomes compost.

Over the years, different farmers in my neighborhood have delivered bales to my kitchen garden.  One asked only for a batch of chocolate chip cookies in return.  Another, with the precision of the heart surgeon he was before taking up sheep farming, deftly placed the bale exactly where we wanted it and, driving away on his tractor, said he was just glad to get rid of this three-year-old rotting bale.  Most recently another kind neighbor has delivered old bales for a small charge.  His supply is limited so I’m always happy to get one.  It’s an amazing resource.

Even if you can’t get your hands on a bale of rotting haylage, give mulching a try. Spreading out straw or grass clippings or old rotten haylage is much more fun than weeding, and think of all the extra time you’ll have this summer!  But if you’re really committed to weeding, check out my favorite garden writer Barbara Damrosch’s Thursday column from the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/home/how-to-rid-a-garden-of-weeds/2012/06/12/gJQAlPeAaV_story.html She says, “weed early, weed often.”  I say mulch once.

Kitchen Garden Structures

There are a lot of structures in my kitchen garden, all designed and built by my husband Scott with some small assists by me.  They stand out this time of year before vines and foliage fill them and the rest of the garden grows up around them.  There are net-covered frames to keep birds out of the blueberries, raspberries and strawberries, plastic-covered cloches to capture heat for tender plants like peppers and eggplant, squash and melons, and trellises to hold up peas and beans.

The fruit structures are permanent, the cloches in use year-round are moveable, but the pea and bean structures get reassembled every spring, a ritual that adds welcome height to the garden landscape.  The sugar snap pea trellis goes up in February, then the fava bean “corral” goes up in late April or early May to surround the floppy stalks of fava beans, and then finally there’s the pole bean trellis, the one that takes the longest to assemble but that is the most beautiful.  It’s the triangles but even more it’s the strings, creating what looks like a large musical instrument, an Aeolian or wind harp.

We assembled the pole bean trellis this past weekend using 2×2 inch 8-foot cedar that we’ve had for nearly twenty years.  The wood is getting pretty worn especially the ends that spend the summer in the dirt, but the pieces are good for one more year.  Scott connects them with screws so that at the end of the season we can unscrew and store them.

“Triangles create stability” is Scott’s mantra and his design is definitely stable, holding up to heavy vines and summer winds.  The three main triangles support both the top and the base pieces.  At the ends of the trellis, more triangles stabilize the central structure. To anchor the trellis to the ground and keep it from blowing over, Scott pounds stakes at an angle into the ground at the base of each pole and screws the stakes to the poles.  When the frame is done, we string the sisal twine from the base pieces to the top, spacing the twine every eight inches, lining it up with the slits in the T-tape irrigation.

In the soil beneath this beautiful bean instrument, I plant seeds of beans that will climb up the twine, filling the frame with leaves, then blossoms and finally pods, some for fresh eating but most for shell and dry beans.  This year for fresh beans I planted Fortex, Gold of Bacau, Rattlesnake and Northeaster and for shell and dry I planted Good Mother Stallard, Aunt Jean’s Pole Bean, Soissons Verte, Pole Cannelini, Golden Lima and Bonds Orcas Lima.

I’m hoping for warm weather for good seed germination and a long, warm summer for maturing beans, but right now I’m simply admiring this beautiful structure that graces our garden each spring.

Starting Seeds Indoors

Starting seeds indoors this time of year provides many of the same pleasures that outdoor planting will provide in another month or so, the feel and smell of damp soil, the size and shape of seeds, the act of pressing a seed into soil, lightly covering it and pressing again, and then the daily excitement of checking to see what sprouts are shouldering their way through the soil to the light.

The little room where I start seeds is the perfect place to go when the desire to experience these pleasures is strong but it’s still cold and blustery outside.  The light-filled space warms quickly on sunny days, creating the illusion of springtime. The windows that form the south wall of this room enclose a nine-by-three foot low shelf and a slightly narrower upper shelf, both perfect for flats of growing plants.

Though the windows let in a lot of light, I’ve found that I still need to supplement the light this time of year to keep plants from getting leggy. I’ve hung four-foot shop lights fitted with one cool white and one warm white fluorescent bulb two inches from the growing plants and have a twenty-four hour timer set to keep the lights on for fourteen hours.  See Steve Solomon’s Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades (6th edition, p. 202-203) for the advice that guided me.

On half of the lower shelf, there is a heating mat for starting seeds.  Once plants are up and growing, I move them to other shelves.  I also have an oscillating fan on the wall opposite these shelves and keep it on low all the time.  The little bit of motion the moving air causes in the growing plants makes them stronger.

In the northeast corner of this room there is a counter where I plant seeds and pot up seedlings.  For years, I mixed my own potting soil but several years ago, during an especially busy time, I tried Black Gold organic potting soil.  It’s great and I’ve kept using it.

I have a collection of one-inch and two-inch cell packs, four-inch pots and trays that I reuse year after year.  Masking tape stuck to packs and pots and labeled with permanent marker pen works well to identify plants. For watering, there’s a coiled hose that stretches out to the length of the counters and makes watering very easy.  All these manipulations of light, heat, air, soil and water are benefits of starting seeds inside and more than make up for being inside instead of outside.

The final great pleasure of starting seeds inside is being able to look closely at the germinating and growing plants. Onions are one of my favorites to watch.  They emerge from the soil folded, like little green paper clips, before springing open to a single strand.

Peas raise a little bump in the soil before breaking through and growing quickly.  The flat I planted on February 29th germinated in five days and was ready to plant in the garden in two weeks.  After hardening them of outdoors for several days, I set them out in the garden March 13th.

Each seed has its distinctive pattern of emergence and growth.  I’ll watch for more of these patterns when I start planting outside in the garden, but for now I’ll enjoy starting seeds in this warm, sheltered place and wait for spring.

Planting Calendars

Last year, I asked several of my gardening friends to share their planting calendars with me so that I could write a column about planting dates for vegetables here on Lopez Island (hardiness zone 7B).  They responded enthusiastically with information enough to fill two columns, one focusing on January through March and a second focusing on April through September.  I’ve posted both columns in the Green Living Columns section of this blog: https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/the-new-planting-year-begins/ and https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/the-new-planting-year-continues/.

Like the planting calendars my friends shared with me, my planting calendar is a product of record keeping. As each new planting year begins, I look back at when I’ve planted in past years.  Each year is a little different, influenced by the weather pattern that year but also by travel plans.  There’s a pretty big window for planting many of the vegetables I like and looking back on planting records, I see that I’ve taken advantage of those windows.  A reassuring guide to planting times is this chart on West Coast Seeds website: http://www.westcoastseeds.com/admin/files/2011PlantingChart.pdf

Last year and the year before, I planted seeds of onions, shallots, sugar snap peas, lettuce, radicchio, fennel, broccoli, and cauliflower indoors in flats in mid-February.  This year I’m delaying any planting until the end of February because I’m traveling a lot this month.  Happily, I can look farther back in my planting records and see that there were years when I planted these crops as late as early March and still had a good growing season.

A week from today I’ll be home for a long stretch and can plant in flats indoors my list of cool weather crops as well as tomatoes.  And with the extra day of this leap year, I’ll be able to record February 29th as the first planting date for 2012!

Seed Exchanges

Seed catalogs are one place to find new seed varieties and to reorder favorites, but another great source for seeds is seed exchanges, organized events where people bring seeds to share and exchange with others.  A big plus of seed exchanges is that the seeds are open-pollinated and heirloom seeds, often saved by local gardeners happy to share seeds of varieties that grow well in their gardens and to give tips on how you too can save seeds.

Last Saturday my friend Carol and I went to the 3rd Annual Heritage Seed Exchange on Orcas Island.  As the poster says, and as Ginger Moore, one of the volunteer organizers told me, everyone was welcome, with or without seeds to share or experience saving seeds.  I was bringing some bean seeds I’d saved and Carol had some unusual herbs and tubers she had potted up. We had high hopes for what we might find in exchange.  On the boat over, we met up with Jeanie and Nancy, two other Lopez seed lovers who shared our anticipation.

In the West Sound Community Hall, long tables were covered with seed packets organized by the degree of experience needed to save each seed variety. Each table also had a sign-in sheet so that people who brought seeds to share could leave the names of the seeds they brought and their name, phone or email so that people who took the seeds could reach them if they needed more information.

In her introductory remarks, Heritage Seed Exchange organizer and Orcas seed saver Ronda Jones emphasized the importance of saving seeds as a way to maintain local stocks of seeds and to counter the consolidation of seed companies and their frightening pattern of dropping old varieties and promoting genetically modified seeds.  She reminded us to plan to save seeds of those we take and plant and bring some to the exchange next year.

Going first to the bean table, Carol and I were delighted to find locally grown seeds of Bonds Orcas white runner bean, a bean we suspect is related to one of my favorite beans, a white runner my late neighbor Frances Kring gave me years ago, telling me that all old-timers grew it.  We also found seeds of a Sicilian Fava bean that Ronda Jones grew from seeds given to her by a friend in Italy.  These are a purple fava and Ronda told me I’d like them even better than the green Broad Windsor.  I can’t wait to try them.  At another table, I found parsnip seeds, described as a fifth generation Orcas seed.  I’m a big parsnip fan so this was another great find.

In addition to locally grown seeds, there were open-pollinated and heirloom seeds donated by the Heritage Seed Exchange sponsors Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, Seed Savers Exchange and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and seeds from Territorial Seeds and Greenheart Gardens, a Lopez Island Seed Company.  The Organic Seed Alliance (http://www.seedalliance.org/Home/), based in Port Townsend, also had a table displaying their literature.

This Orcas Island Heritage Seed Exchange is just one of several local opportunities to share seeds and seed saving experiences with other gardeners.  On Sunday, February 12 in Anacortes, the group Eat Your Yard is offering a seed exchange at the Senior Activities Center at 3:00: http://www.goanacortes.com/calendar/event/3474/.

On Lopez Island, the grand opening of the Lopez Community Land Trust Seed Library will take place February 25th as part of the 2012 Food Charette. “This seed library is committed to providing our community with island appropriate open source seeds, fostering community resilience, self-reliance and a culture of sharing.” (http://www.lopezclt.org/seed-library-2/)  As part of their work, the Seed Library has also offered a workshop on how to save seeds.

I’m not a very experienced seed saver, confident only with those seeds that are easy to save, like beans and peppers, but I’m inspired to gain more experience.  Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners is where I’m going to start.