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Photo Credit: Boise Guardian


It’s been a long time since I last posted. As it so happens, I’ve been in grueling contract negotiations with the State of Oregon over the weather situation here this year. Today, I’m delighted to announce that we have reached an agreement on the terms of weather service provided in the Portland metro area and we’ll be partnering with warmth and sunshine for the rest of summer. Although I can’t disclose the financial details of this deal, I think everyone can agree it’s about high time we reached agreement. With this deal, I feel as though we’ve paved the way for bigger deals, like extending the US debt ceiling.

Although all of my time has been tied up in the New Weather Deal 2011, my favorite garden employee, Mother Nature, has been hard at work. Since I last checked in, a lot has happened. Here are a few highlights:

  • The arugula exploded! Seriously, though perhaps not in a fireball like you’re thinking. I couldn’t pick it fast enough. Next year, I think I’ll only go with one or two rows instead of 3. With the weather heating up now, I’m going to take what’s left and make an arugula pesto out of it before it starts to bolt.
  • The broccoli became the jolly green giant! I had no idea how big the broccoli plants could get. They’re actually crowding out the romaine and green lettuce behind it. That’s after I removed two of the plants from the row. Can’t wait to try some!
  • The peas are reaching for the stars! They just started blossoming last week and they are incredibly vibrant and healthy. Probably gonna use the snap peas for snacking, but need some ideas for what to use the Dakota peas for. Any suggestions?
  • The potatoes are eating the children! Here’s another plant that I had no idea could get so big. I’ve already hilled them three times and they keep getting bigger. I’m going to need another load of dirt to keep burying them.
  • Currant tomatoes are blowing up! OK, that’s an exaggeration, there are only 3 growing right now… However, there’s plenty of blossoms that will soon turn to wonderful tomato fruit, so excited about that :)

There’s a lot of other things going on, but those are some of the highlights. There’s also been some challenges, notably the peppers. They are the last remaining plant that I have indoors and they are struggling. Fortunately, the time to plant is nearly upon us and I will start hardening them off this week for planting the following weekend.

That’s it for now, more pics and stories to come soon. Remember to vote Austen for Chief Weather Maker Awesomer in 2012!

Companion planting

Apart from deciding what fruits and vegetables I was going to buy for this year’s garden, the challenge of laying out the garden proved to be the one of the most time consuming tasks. I knew beforehand that certain vegetables and fruits play nicely together and others spit at all of the other kids on the playground. For instance, fennel has no friends. Awww, poor fennel….

There are several great sites out there with companion planting info, but I ended up using this Golden Harvest Organic’s companion planting guide. Sure, it’s not going to win a Webby for outstanding design, but content is king.

I have a lot to plant for only having three beds, so I have tried to pack as much as I can in without starving any of the plants of sunlight. The beds are north-south in orientation, so I tried to plant the taller stuff at the back with the shorter stuff in the front while maintaining symbiosis. Here’s what I came up with:

Far right raised bed

Far right raised bed

Far left raised bed

Far left raised bed

Center raised bed

Center raised bed

Used Excel to draw the plans, but if you don’t mind springing the cash, Territorial just came out with a new Flex app that is pretty cool. Potatoes and artichokes went outside the bed. My melons and a few of my squashes will as well. Hopefully next year there will be more beds for those things!

Last night we got the first taste of the garden and it was delicious! It took about four of the sylvetta wild arugula plants to make a salad, but man was it good. I loved the peppery smell of the arugula on my fingers as I picked it and enjoyed the flavor even more.

Arugula harvest

All cleaned up and ready to eat

I ended up pulling all the leaves on the plants I harvested, but after reading an article on DIY, I think I’ll just harvest the outer leaves so the plant has more of an opportunity to grow back for another harvest.

As for the salad? Arugula, pear, candied pecans and balsamic vinagrette. Simple, classic and incredible!

As I alluded to in my last post, planting outside prior to the safe last frost date for your area can get you in trouble, especially if you haven’t enacted appropriate fallback measures if the weather turns sour. My tomato plants were getting crowded indoors and some of the plants were getting yellow or black spotted leaves, so I made the decision to plant about half of them outdoors mid-April.

For the Portland area, safe last frost date is April 26th, so I wasn’t too far off the mark when I went for it. My fatal mistake was trusting the 10 day forecast, which looked pretty good when I planted. They might as well not give a weather forecast for the Portland area, because about the time they are right is when they are reporting on weather history. Here’s a photo of a tomato that has made somewhat of a recovery:

Frost damaged tomato

Aww, sad tomato plant :(

Yeah, sad panda… :( Note that it’s almost as small as the day I planted it, perhaps even smaller. Now contrast that with the plants that I kept inside for 3 more weeks and transplanted to larger pots:

Healthy tomatoes

Happy tomatoes!

Needless to say, the healthy plants will be going out to replace the losers in the upcoming days, once they are fully hardened off :) If you’re looking for some helpful advice about when to plant tomatoes, I recommend consulting this website.

After acquiring the tools needed to set my indoor gardening plan into motion, it was time to start establishing a green stronghold in the garage. I armed my fiber pots with some sterile potting soil, labeled each cell with the plant tag of vegetable I wanted to grow, cast a spell, watered and waited. And waited… Turns out I don’t have magical Harry Potter abilities, so I turned to Territorial Seed Company and shelled out a little cash for some seeds.

Indoor Gardening - The Start

Seeds away!

Here’s what I ended up buying:

If you’re staring at this list and wondering how it can all possibly grow under a 4ft T5 light, you are a smarter human being than I am. Although I’ve struggled with quite a few things, I’ve managed to keep the bulk of the items above alive and well. Checkout how crowded it got underneath the light before I transplanted some things out:

The indoor garden -- getting crowded

The indoor garden starting to get crowded

OK, that doesn’t look so bad, but trust me, it got really crowded, especially with the tomato plants. Speaking of those, it doesn’t feel like it was very clearly communicated that you need to up-pot these suckers once they get to a certain size. Partly out of desperation and partly out of impatience, I made the decision to move some of my tomato plants outside prior to the safe last frost date of April 26th. The results? Not good. Most of the plants suffered severe frost damage and the rest have had their growth stunted to the point where they are well behind the ones I kept indoors.

As for the ones I kept inside, they are doing well, at least the ones that I was smart enough to plant in a larger pot. I couldn’t believe how quickly the roots expanded out once I did move them into a bigger pot. It really does make a huge difference. Prior to translanting, many of my plants were suffering from disease and the leaves were yellowing and wilting. A simple up-potting drastically changed the health and stability of the plants.

Last point about growing indoors — make sure you keep your onions trimmed to three inches in height. This will encourage a strong root system. Although I’m not sure if it helped, I did the same with my leeks and chives. Seems to have achieved the same effect, but that could be the insanity talking.

In the next set of posts, I’ll dive into more detail on specific plants and tell you what I’ve found works, and more importantly, what doesn’t. Stay tuned!

The start of an indoor garden

The start of an indoor garden

You know what grows really well outside in Portland in February? Weeds. OK, actually I don’t think weeds even do all that well, although my yard is certainly full of them right now. In fact, there was a market for noxious weeds, I could probably quit my job and sip margaritas for the rest of my life. Anyhow, back to the topic at hand…

With a fresh copy of Territorial Seed Company’s catalog in my hand, I set to building a schedule of what I should start growing and when to plant. Fortunately, OSU publishes a great garden calendar for this area with tips on what you should start for each region for optimal results. If you’re a noob like me and planning a garden in Oregon, start there.

With gardening schedule in hand and seeds on order, it was time to purchase some of the essentials, namely a seedling heat mat and a grow light. If you live in a shady neighborhood and plan on growing in a garage or really any room where light from your grow operation can be seen, consider some dark plastic for any windows you may have. You don’t want the local miscreants busting out your window and thrashing all your plants in anger when they don’t find your weed stash.

I had just received a $200 gift card for being a special boy at work, so I went ahead and sprung for the biggest seed mat I could find, a digital thermostat and a cheapo 4ft x 4bulb grow light (2×4 version linked) at Amazon. Word to the wise — don’t start you seeds until you have the lights in hand. As it turns out plants really do like that light crap. Like, a lot of it…

My heat mat and thermostat arrived a few days before the light was scheduled to be at the doorstep, so being an ever patient and wise gardener, I immediately went to town planting. Bad idea, brainiac. A few days later, I discovered that they attempted to deliver the light and supposedly no one answered. My father-in-law was at the house all day, so either he’s deaf or they delivered to the wrong house. UPS seems to have a problem with this whole thing they call “doing it right,” so my bet is that they attempted to deliver to our neighbor’s house like they did with our wine shipments.

Anyhow, somewhere along the delivery route the genius breaks the package, so they don’t even attempt delivery the next day. One broken light and they ship the whole thing back to Georgia — a week to ship it back to the distributor and another week to ship back to my house. Meanwhile, all the stuff I’ve planted starts going bananas, sprouting like crazy. In case you’re wondering, heat mats are totally worth the investment and and so is the thermostat. I can tell you – definitively – that the incandescent light bulb 8 feet above your precious sprouts is not enough to sustain life. Everything started limping over and dying on me. As Darth Vader says, NOOOOOoooooo!

So you’d think that after that one screw up, UPS would be coming around with their A-game this time, right? Wrong. After waiting nearly two weeks for my lights to do the cross country dance, the delivery day was drawing nigh. This time, I decided to work from home so I could be there when the guy pulled into the wrong driveway. As it turns out, he made it to the right house. Only, he delivered the wrong box. I was thinking to myself, man this looks small, but I tore open the package anyway. Strangely enough, the box contained hydroponics gear, only not the light I was looking for. Instead, it was a bunch of reflective paper and some pH testing supplies. I’d say what are the odds, but hey, this is Portland…

Fortunately, the delivery kid realized his mistake and came back to deliver me the light, so all was right in the world. My seedling starts thanked him for it. I tried to keep the other box too, but he curled up into the fetal position and started to cry so I gave it back to him.

Stay tuned for part 2 where all of the blunders and mishaps are mine alone to claim!

First Rasied Bed

The first of three raised beds

Raised beds make a gardener’s life easier in a variety of ways.  In addition to making your fruits and vegetables much more accessible (especially for a tall guy like me), they help your soil reach warmer temperatures faster.  Furthermore, as someone with gopher problems and clay soil, it affords me the opportunity to create an area of rich soil that won’t get annihilated by pesky creatures seeking to devour my crops before I’ve had a chance to sample them.  Well, hopefully…

First step in building the beds was finding a plan.  After a few rounds of debate with my wife, who assumes that despite my lack of tools I am a master carpenter, we settled on a slightly modified version of the Sunset plans found here.  A few notes in case you’re considering these plans yourself:

  1. No one that I found sells 6 ft 4x4s, just buy an 8 ft and divide it up.
  2. I went with 3/4″ PVC tubing instead of 1″ — a much tighter fit with the 1/2″ tubing used for the cold frame.
  3. The 1/4″ garden mesh they call for must be made of gold.  Everywhere I went wanted a fortune for it.  Lowes had a suitable replacement for it on the same aisle for $7 per galvanized mesh for a 3 ft by 8 ft sheet.  Fourteen bucks instead of over forty = win.

I ended up going to the Tualatin Home Depot for everything but the mesh noted above.  The employees at both the Tualatin and Tigard locations are incredibly helpful, and most importantly, you can actually find someone to help out if you have a question.  Not sure what it is about Lowe’s, but it’s almost impossible to find anyone to help in that store.

It is a lot more expensive, but it’s worth it to spring for the cedar instead of some of the cheaper woods like fir.  It will last a lot longer in the ground and cost you less in the long run. For the first bed, I chose a decking cedar. It’s not as high of quality on the finish, but it was much cheaper.  For the second and third beds, Home Depot was running a sale on the 12 ft 2x6s, so I ended up grabbing those and splitting them into an 8ft and 4ft piece. If you don’t have any power tools, another benefit of going to Home Depot is that they’ll give you 10 cuts for free. The only tool that I used in the construction of the beds was a power drill.

The second set of beds
Beds two and three are complete!

As you can see from the pics, I decided to modify the Sunset plans slightly and go with three boards instead of two.  I did this because I’m a) tall and b) we have crappy soil below, so I wanted to make sure that there was a deep bed of rich soil for everything to grow in.  Overkill?  Probably, but they look damn sexy!

After the beds were complete, the next step was installing them.  Good lord, this is way more difficult than building them.  It took about as much time to install and level the beds as it did to build them.  I did this all by myself, but you can probably save yourself some headache by getting a friend to help you out while putting the beds in.  Getting things perfectly level is the hardest part — you might be surprised to find how much incline there is in a surface that appears to be nearly level. Based on what I have read online, it is best to orient beds along a north-south meridian. Fortunately, that’s what worked out best for our yard, so I went with it.

With the beds complete, it was time to grab some soil and fill the suckers up.  Do NOT go to your local garden store and buy a bunch of soil by the bag.  This will cost you way more than buying a load of dirt from one of your local landscaping materials companies.  I ended up going with a 4-way mix from Boring Bark for all of the beds, a recommendation from some local gardeners at a class we took at the Urban Farm Store in Portland.  As it happened, even with the more expensive delivery charge, it was still cheaper than some of the in-town options.

You can see the final product below.  Still have some weeding to do!  That’s on deck for today if I don’t get rained out.

Stay tuned for the next installment when I tell you all about my experiences starting vegetables from seed indoors!

Completed Raised Bed

The first raised bed in the ground!

Going for it…

Spend a few minutes talking to some experienced gardeners about advice for newbies to the gardening world and undoubtedly the first thing they’ll say is “start small.”  This past February, I decided to chuck all that advice out the window and just go for it, building the biggest garden I could afford in terms of space and money in my backyard in the SW hills of Portland, Oregon.  I’m a rebel, what can I say? Some people only learn through trying things on their own and seeing what works and what doesn’t.

Through this blog, I hope to detail my trials and tribulations as I start from the trenches of newbie-dom and rise to peak of master gardner, providing all the vegetables required to sustain my family.  Ultimately, I’d like to do everything organically, but I’ll probably have to take baby steps to get there.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll build this thing from a loyal following of one (thanks, Mom!) and find some other like-minded and more experienced gardeners that can help me from killing everything I plant.

My garden adventure is already 3 months in, so stay tuned for some details on my adventure thus far!

-Austen

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