by Peter Heffelfinger
Over the years I have been fortunate to have the advice and frequent garden visits of a local retired nurseryman, who stays active doing multiple vegetable gardens to supply fresh produce to local churches and nonprofits. We compare notes: his tomatoes are way ahead of mine, my peas are taller already than his, and, by the way, he says, your potatoes are planted way too close together if you are going to hill them up properly. And did you know that there are determinate and indeterminate varieties of potatoes? And his ultimate accolade: boy, your corn looks good.
He also used to own the land out in the Skagit Flats where I now grow garlic and shallots. The hard clay soil there seems to be safe so far from the dreaded white garlic fungus that I got here on Fidalgo Island. But he says that valley land was the poor part of the acreage he sold off, being on a thin bench. The good ground out there is next door, where the fat heifers graze. But the allium bulbs do well there, perhaps because they come with their own in-house packet of nutrients, like the tulips.
He also is the head of the Skagit Men’s Garden Club, which every spring does a big tomato and pepper plant sale, where I faithfully buy at least half of my starts each year. Several years ago, I did a slide presentation on my year-round organic gardening at one of their winter meetings. So, it was not surprising that I was asked recently if the club members could visit my garden one evening to see how I did things, and also I assume to check on how their starts were faring. I should add that the club meets at the WSU Extension Research station, where they pick up on the latest interesting varieties, such as Croatian Brandywine and Granadero Roma tomatoes, or Alyssa Craig onions.
As a long-time gardener, I have often wondered, or perhaps fantasized, what if the Emperor, or the agricultural equivalent of an Inspector General, were to suddenly show up to cast a critical eye over my weedy beds and often struggling crops? Now the fantasy was real, except that it was mostly retired gentlemen gardeners, with a few young acolytes, who would be rolling up to see what they could see.
Bustle of Preparation
In a rush of preparation, I spent a week pulling weeds, cleaning up the beds, and raking the paths. I anticipated that my early kales, broccoli, and cauliflower would be emerging from their now-bulging cocoons of protective row cover just in time for the visitors to admire. The tomatoes and peppers in the hoop house got a shot of fish fertilizer just as the first blossoms appeared, to give them that intense green look of health; plus, I had to make sure that the now 7-foot tall snow and snap pea vines were properly supported on their trellis of twine. The raised beds of onion starts (white, yellow, red, and Walla Walla) were manicured and watered in order to look proper. Such a bustle.
Then there was the nascent infestation of flea beetles that had to be carefully rubbed off each morning from the leaves of the eggplants, and the tall bean poles that had to be set up for the Cascade Giants and the Scarlet Runners. And of course. I had to get in the hills of Spooky Dark Sugar Pumpkins, a combination pie and jack o’lantern pumpkin, at the request of my neighbor’s 7-year-old daughter, who hops over to help out with watering and planting starts. Small fingers can help, as long as they are carefully watched over amidst the nonstop chatter. Note: the decorative Cinderella’s Coach pumpkin I had planted was not approved of: she prefers Mulan, the Disney princess who uses a sword, like the boys do.
As well, this was all happening the first week of June, when I had to get my three varieties of corn in, having learned over the years that my cool soil was never warm enough to successfully sprout corn until Memorial Day weekend. For the past several seasons, I have settled on Bodacious yellow, Peaches and Cream bi-color, and Silver King white, with the white corn being my favorite both for fresh eating and freezing. White corn used to be a long shot, back in the day of short, foggy summers; now, with the extended heat of our current climate, 90-day white corn is a standard crop, as long as you have a reliable source of water. Here’s hoping our artesian well, which is fed by upland lakes nearby, doesn’t go dry in August.
Come the big evening, the dozen or so “boys” (and one lady) rolled in. I gave a preliminary introduction to the garden site: part of an old pasture that I initially covered in the 1980s with a foot-thick over-wintered mulch of straw and horse manure, along with a truckload of eel grass, gathered in the era before the current environmental protections, when park rangers would let you gather all you wanted at the high tide line on the beach. The micronutrients in eel grass, as in kelp, would prove vital to the frost hardiness of future over-wintering crops. With a long-handled English fork (from Smith & Hawken), I turned over large clumps of field grass; I then ran a large tiller over all the decomposing materials to work up the soil into soft, deep beds. The foot and a half thick loam had built up over the eons by the nearby stream flowing year-round off the mountain and into the lake beyond: with no clay or hardpan; few rocks; subirrigated year-round. Except for a period in the 1990s, I have been gardening there gratefully ever since.
The visiting garden inspectors wandered about, checking out the greenhouse tomatoes, which got a bill of sturdy health, although they suggested the plants needed leaf thinning and sucker pruning. Noted as a good idea were the plastic half-gallon nursery pots, with a few small pebbles inside for stability, placed over the tomato plants’ root area, for watering without the risk of splashing up dirt (and blight spores) on the leaves. Also, in the hoop house, amidst the peppers, the female gardener caught the pleasant aroma of the flowering cilantro, a fall-planted herb that I thought had been killed by the winter frost, but which regrew in the spring. Outdoors, the bulb fennel, just coming to harvest size, was praised. Questions were asked about the use of floating row cover as protection versus the dreaded cabbage root maggot fly. And what was the large flowering over-wintered brassica? Collards, to feed both the honey bees from the nearby hives, the wild bumblebees, and the nesting hummingbirds.
Tactfully ignored were the non-successes, such as the neglected old strawberries. A few asked to take home some of the abundant rhubarb, though noting that, given the large number of smaller stalks, the rhizomes could use dividing this fall. But they had never heard of the Waldo berries, a thornless cross of marionberry and blackberry. Pinkie-sized berries, easy for kids to pick since there are no “prickers,” but I find them rather bland in taste compared to local blackberries. Bred by the University of Oregon researcher, Frank Waldo. No relation to the “Where’s Waldo?” kids’ book character in the red-and-white striped shirt and a blue beret, but maybe the plant breeder had kids in mind?
They finally gathered under the grape arbor, wondering if the Thompson seedless grapes got ripe (rarely, if ever, given the hungry birds and the cool Fidalgo Island evening mists), but I noted the young leaves were excellent for Greek dolmas. At the end, I got a quiet round of applause for thanks, which was a blessing from those old hands. Sometimes the feared Emperor is really just a group of fellow devotees.
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.