15 August 2010


After a century-old apple tree came down in my backyard, there was enough sun to plant a garden. 

The tree was good and its apples won medals in pies. It endured a variety of pruning theories that left it with a combination mullet, crew cut and perm. Eventually the bugs ate enough so that when I could put my arm through it, we knew it was over. 

Sunlight was a new dimension in that back yard, which abutted a ravine off the Willamette River. Years ago, salmon ran in the stream....

I write this for casual gardeners, students with little time, and those who never gardened before. There is nothing like gardening. 

In our valley, in just a few weeks is an ideal time to plant a winter garden. The beauty of the Willamette Valley is that we can garden nearly year-round. In the past, I grew all my vegetables 11 months out of the year on a small plot, and half the fruits for a family of four. 

Recently my wife urged me to plant a raised bed, which I'm now hooked on. A neighbor generously donated his yard to a community garden after his tree big came down (from ill-advised 'professional' pruning). I've not bought any vegetables since spring, even though it's just a 4x8' bed:

I was first influenced by the 'French Intensive' method, which advocates close planting in deeply dug beds. The density makes for a jungle-like canopy that conserves water and gives great yields. The first year is difficult making double-dug planting beds, but well-worth it after that. This year we made double-high raised beds, using untreated thick cedar. We trucked in garden soil for all the beds, also adding compost from my yard. Trucking in dirt may be cheating, but it helps kick start the process --just once. 

I was then taken with 'square foot gardening', which undoes the linear traditional American garden. This link sees it as a way to eradicate hunger. 

Whichever style you use, you can't do it wrong. It's like the vaunted Schools of Acupuncture that way.... From now to mid-September in our region, a winter garden awaits your hands. I like to wait until it is a little cooler, around Labor Day. You can pick up 'six-packs' of organic veggies at food and garden stores. A few go a long way. I've done the raise from seeds with timed lights in the basement on a hot mat with a fan thing, enough to know those six-packs at the store are a real gift. Brassicas family--known for their anti-cancer effects--are perfect: broccoli, kale, possibly brussels sprouts. Choose a variety of lettuces, and in a few weeks, you've got salad.

From seed, beets always work. Their greens are perfect. Garlic can be planted any time of year. I like Elephant Garlic. Take any garlic from the grocery store and plant the cloves tip up, maybe an inch deep. A six inch sprout will overwinter. You can plant more in the spring. The greens and flower are great to eat. 

Kale will go down to 20 degrees. Brussels sprouts taste better after a hard frost or two. I've done cloches and mini-greenhouses, but didn't like them. They gave maybe an extra week or two, but removed me from the plants. 

I'll do the same thing over during Spring break, and then put in a summer garden in May: tomatoes, beans, and squash. I've done corn, but it depletes soil after a year. 

The Hopis grow corn on 2-3 inches or rain a year. They say to talk to the plants like they are people. I'm not there yet. But I do love to come out and see what's come up overnight. 

In our community garden, it's interesting to see the different approaches. My jungle is looking a little ragged now. A young woman named Zoe made large crescents with carrots and beets that are now coming into their own. Her sunflower grows, but mine does not. 
Another neighbor planted brussels sprouts that I just didn't think would be so great in the hot weather, but they are glorious now. 

Slugs and aphids are a sign of the wrong plant for the soil. The problem is not on the leaves: it's the roots. Chinese medicine takes the same view, using more roots in herb formulas than anything. The ancient Chinese saw the human energy system as a plant, with the legs as roots. Aging starts in the roots, it is said. This is why walking, foot reflexology and the like are so helpful. 
If there are bugs, take it out or cut it back. A healthy broccoli or lettuce can give multiple harvests in one season. 

My chickens love the garden greens better than anything. I'll throw a broccoli leaf into a smoothie. The 8 year-old girl I live with will eat broccoli and kale flowers out of a garden like candy, but not many other veggies.   

A garden gets me out, even in the rain. I know my neighbors better because of it. 

A century ago, much of Portland just west of downtown (around what is now I-405) were Chinese veggie gardens. I liked the book Better Gardens the Chinese Way by Peter Chan, but never went for his non-organic options. He made a beautiful garden in Gresham. It turned out my qigong teacher bought his house and garden--which looked so familiar to me. 

Gardens unite us.  

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