by Peter Heffelfinger
Before plunging into the first plantings of spring, it is useful to look back and consider what survived the bouts of snow and cold temperatures that came down from Canada this winter. Beyond the vegetable garden, under the second-growth cedars and firs, I always marvel at the hardy perennial hellebores that flower in late February, even with chill coatings of hail hanging off the mauve and pale green blossoms.
Over the years these shade tolerant and deer resistant plants have seeded out, gradually replacing what was formerly a small lawn with the requisite swing set. The children have grown up and moved out into the world, the swings are gone, but the meadow is now covered with the jaunty hellebores, a stand of Himalayan honeysuckle just leafing out, hardy fuchsia bushes and Japanese anemones. Other natives are further afield: flowering red currant, elderberry, salmon berry, ocean spray, high-bush cranberry, Oregon grape and salal.
Living in a quasi-wooded suburban neighborhood with manicured lawns, I have attempted to restore some of the forest habitat that once covered Fidalgo Island. There is an old cedar stump a few feet from the front deck that still shows the springboard cuts from the early hand loggers who felled the old growth. A self-seeded red huckleberry bush grows atop the stump, along with a volunteer cedar sapling. I keep both trimmed to a few feet high, a Northwest bonsai garden four feet above the ground.
This past year a modern chainsaw-equipped logger ascended and carefully cut down, round by round, several ailing Grand firs that were threats to fall in high winds. I spent much of the winter splitting the century-plus old wood that was a sapling when Anacortes was founded. As I peeled off large curls of the thick bark, tiny brown Pacific wrens danced in amidst the chips, looking for exposed bugs and worms.
Atop the tallest Douglas fir, its branches wind-sailed by the logger to withstand gusts, the resident bald eagles survey the shoreline, jet white excreta, and get ready to repopulate their nearby nest. Neighbors provide well-stocked birdseed and suet stations, which in turn brings in winter hawks to pick off any unwary juncos. Other households leave food scraps out that attract ravens and dogs by day or coyotes or raccoons by night. In spite of yard and porch lights left on all night, the owls call out in the dark, along with the spring peepers. It is an evolving accommodation between suburbia, forest, and wildlife.
To make up for the general loss of bird habitat, I built head-high brush piles to provide shelter and forage areas for the smaller avian life. The backyard is now a bit shaggy, with my tumuli of forest debris resembling dry land beaver domes. White seed puffs are left atop the tall anemone stems as nest-building materials for the winter-resident and spring-returning hummingbirds.
To tempt the local trio of deer who wander through each day, grazing as they go, I planted black willows as an herbivore treat, hoping they will ignore the nearby herbs in my kitchen garden: pots of rosemary, bay, tarragon, and garlic chives, along with the spreading Greek oregano in the driveway. The herbs in the pots were draped with floating row material to get them through the coldest weather. If one can over-winter such semi-hardy, warm weather herbs then our coastal climate is truly half-Mediterranean and half-Cool. Hardy chives and curly parsley did fine by themselves left in pots and are already popping back up on their own. The recent heavy snow cover in outlying Whatcom County and the Upper Skagit, however, would certainly be more of a challenge; but snow buildup in the Northwest always seems to melt soon.
In the vegetable garden, there are edible winter survivors. Leeks, the onion mainstay that can be grown year-round, are still green in spite of the extended freezes: Beneath the battered outer sheaths are fresh stems for soups, frittatas, or sautés. Over-wintered cabbage and purple sprouting broccoli have new mini-heads. The kales are now large-leaved: Remove the thick stems, roll up the leaves tightly and cut chiffonnade curls as a quick-cooking stir-fry addition or a garnish for soup. The garden in late winter and early spring is still bountiful and takes the edge off the rush to get seeds into the ground.
It’s Time to Plant Potatoes
For a rewarding early crop, try red or “new” potatoes. Seed potatoes suitable for the Northwest are available now in the stores and ready to sprout. No need to deal with germination, seedlings or transplants. I always buy new, disease-free seed potatoes. I don’t use my own potatoes from the previous year, since they may now harbor scab or other malaises. Select seed potatoes the size of a large egg and plant uncut in trenches dug in well dried-out soil that has not had any lime applied to it lately, since potatoes prefer our native acid soil.
If only larger seed tubers are available, cut into pieces with at least three eyes, let the cut surfaces dry overnight, then plant with the cut side down and hope it doesn’t rain too much and rot them out. Work a bit of general vegetable fertilizer into the bottom of the six-inch deep trench beforehand, but not too much since potatoes are self-contained nutrient packets. Mound the soil around the stems as they grow and be prepared to have the first spuds in your neighborhood.
I buy a standard variety, such as Red Lakota; there is also a new one called Mountain Rose that has pinkish flesh inside instead of white. Other longer-season potato varieties can go into the ground all spring long and well into June. Potatoes are the one carbohydrate staple that grows easily in our climate, plus being a favorite comfort food in any form — baked, boiled, or fried.
An Early Weed Note
The first invader of the year is shotweed, also known as little bittercress; it pops up in late winter as small rosettes of green leaves, already sporting a single dainty white flower on a tall stem in the center. The seed pods explode when lightly touched, sending seeds all over the bare soil of spring, beating other weeds to germination sites. Pull the entire plants out now and remove from the garden completely, since they will continue to grow and go to seed even in a discarded pile. If not removed, shotweed will cover an entire bed in no time. But it is an edible green, so graze on the peppery leaves as you weed, thanking them for being additions to the year’s first salad. Feed as you weed.
April weather can be deceptive, warm one week, then chilly and grey the next. When in doubt, wait for the soil to truly warm up. During the hectic spring planting schedule it pays to think of the garden as a year-round source of food. With careful planning, one can harvest crops early and late, in all seasons throughout the year. Quick-growing spring lettuce, mixed greens, and radishes give way to standard summer crops of zucchini and carrots.
Leave space for long-season crops: leeks, winter squash, corn, as well as the warm weather tomatoes and peppers. Plan now to have space open up in July for planting late cabbages and in August for fall greens. Keep a record of your plantings to remember what was planted where, for stakes always disappear, and did I plant cole crops in this bed or that last year? It is a juggling exercise of crop rotation, seasonal timing, soil amendment, and continual harvest. Think of it as creating an edible puzzle, where you get to select each interlocking piece as it goes into the ground and eventually onto your plate.
Peter Heffelfinger, a Washington State University master gardener, has gardened organically on Fidalgo Island and the Skagit Flats for over 40 years. He has given workshops in year-round gardening for Transition Fidalgo/Eat Your Yard, Christianson’s Nursery, and at the Washington State University County Extension Service. He is a Salish Sea Steward, working on the invasive green crab survey.