Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Garden Update: A Banner Year

Things are warming up here in Seattle and the flowers are blooming.  I just planted my first crops of the year-- potatoes and strawberries.

2013 was a banner year for my 500-square-foot urban vegetable garden, including my first experience growing and processing a grain.  I never got around to posting about it last year-- so here it is.

Interbay mulch technique

The bed on the right has been mulched with leaves, spent coffee
grounds, and burlap sacks ($1/sack at the local hardware store).
The beds on the left were planted with a rye-clover-vetch-pea
cover crop.  Paths are mulched with wood chips.
In the fall of 2012, I tried a new technique for improving the soil called "Interbay mulching".  This is a variation on sheet mulching, which involves placing uncomposted organic matter directly onto the garden soil in fall and letting it compost until the next growing season.  To Interbay mulch, you simply cover your sheet mulch with burlap.  This keeps everything moist, protects earthworms from bird predation so they can munch freely, and suppresses weeds.  I used leaves (carbon) and spent coffee grounds from a local coffee shop (nitrogen) for my organic matter.

When I pulled back the burlap last spring, I was initially disappointed.  The coffee grounds had disappeared completely, but there was still a lot of leaf matter left on the soil, indicating that it had only partially composted.  However, I later decided that it had worked well, because the soil structure underneath was improved and it seemed to be enriched with significant organic matter as well as a large population of fat earthworms.  The mulch suppressed weeds remarkably well, and the beds remained mostly clean for the rest of the season.

Those observations, combined with huge yields from the mulched beds, convinced me that it was worthwhile.

New tools

Vashon broadfork in 3 sizes from the
Meadow Creature website.
Another new addition to the garden was my Vashon broadfork, locally made here on Vashon island.  A broadfork is a large, two-handled garden fork that allows you to loosen the soil deeply (14") while maintaining good ergonomics (as opposed to loosening the soil with a regular garden fork or shovel, which is hard on the back).

The broadfork was expensive, but I really like it.  It loosens and deeply aerates the soil without turning it or substantially disturbing soil life.  This allows plant roots to access water and nutrients that are deeper in the soil.  The soil structure is improved in the beds that I broadforked, and it goes much faster and easier than loosening or turning with a regular fork, shovel, or hoe.

The Vashon broadfork is, in my opinion, the highest quality fork on the market right now, mostly because it's virtually indestructible and can therefore be used to loosen dense or rocky soils without fear of damaging the tool.  I've cranked on it pretty hard and it hasn't complained yet.  The shape of the tines also improves its ability to cut into hard soil.  It's an expensive tool that may be worth it for serious gardeners who have a large garden space dedicated to annual crops.

Rogue Hoes "60S" scuffle hoe,
an efficient general-purpose weeder.
Photo is from the Rogue Hoes site.
One of my greatest gardening revelations happened years ago when I discovered that the weeding methods most people use are pathetic.  For years, I weeded my garden by hand and using low-quality hoes from the hardware store.  Then I bought an inexpensive scuffle hoe from Rogue Hoes, and everything changed.  If you keep this thing sharp-ish using a common mill file, and run it just underneath the surface of the soil, it zips through weeds almost effortlessly.  Suddenly I could weed all my beds in about an hour with minimal bending.  I supplement it with a nice little Japanese carbon steel hand hoe.  The steel on the hand hoe is extremely hard and it stays sharp a for long time (in fact, it's so hard my mill file won't sharpen it-- I have to use a diamond stone).

Grape hoe from the Easy Digging website.
2013 saw two more additions to the weed-dispatching arsenal: a grape hoe and a grub hoe from Easy Digging.  These are wonderful for heavier weeding tasks (grape hoe), and chopping in cover crops and digging (grub hoe).  They are inexpensive tools, will last a lifetime if properly cared for, and you could probably do most of your gardening with just one of them if you had to.  I got the idea of using a grape hoe from Carol Deppe's book The Resilient Gardener, which is an interesting read.


I have a few crops that I always focus on because they yield well in Seattle, they're fun to grow, and I like to eat them.  These are potatoes, summer squash, winter squash (delicata), green beans, and kale/collards.  Everything else is icing on the cake.

A few of the butterballs.
For potatoes, I went to the local farmer's market and picked up a bag of small-sized mixed spuds, including German Butterball, Purple Majesty, and an anonymous pink-fleshed variety.  I don't buy commercial seed potatoes because they're so expensive it's not worthwhile to grow your own.  I also had some Yukon Gold volunteers sprout in another bed, which I didn't have the heart to kill.  In the end, I harvested about 50 lbs of potatoes from about 50 square feet of space.  The German Butterballs and Purple Majesties were extremely productive, despite the fact that the Purples died back weeks before the Butterballs.  Both varieties were quite tasty, particularly the Purples (much better than the All Blue variety that's also popular).  The pink-fleshed variety fizzled, producing annoying clusters of tiny green potatoes right on the surface of the soil.

Potato plants being awesome. Left, purples and pinks;
right, butterballs. Note the straw mulch.
The only pest issue I had with my potatoes were tiny beetles that ate tiny holes in the leaves of the plants.  They didn't do much damage and I made no effort to control them.

For summer squash, we planted two zucchini plants that were extraordinarily productive.  I covered the zucchini bed with green plastic film to warm the soil and suppress weeds.  Each plant produced two zucchini per day, for a total of ~200 lbs over the course of the season.  We ate them every which way, gave them to friends, and dehydrated the rest.  We use the zucchini chips as a healthier alternative to corn chips.  My grandpa used to say that in New Jersey in summertime, you'd have to keep your car doors locked, otherwise your car would be full of zucchini the next time you got in!

From left: lacinato kale, green beans, delicata squash,
more potatoes.  This was early in the season.
For winter squash, we planted Delicata seeds that I saved from the previous year and sprouted briefly before transplanting.  I also covered this bed with green plastic film.  They grew vigorously and I ended up harvesting 30 squash from four plants, which is phenomenal.  They were really delicious and they lasted us several months.

For green beans, I always plant pole beans because they're more productive, they yield over a longer period of time, and they supposedly taste better than bush beans (I wouldn't know because I don't grow bush types).  I planted my usual Blue Lake Pole and Helda flat beans, as well as a newcomer called Monte Cristo, which Territorial Seed states is an improved Blue Lake type.  After a weak start owing to slug predation and local cats digging in my beds, all three varieties produced well.  The Heldas always start earliest, but the Blue Lakes taste better.  The Monte Cristo variety is nice, with long, elegant beans, but the yield just couldn't match my old friend Blue Lake.  We harvested about 30 pounds of beans, some of which we gave away.  In contrast to zucchini, people like it when you give them green beans.

I'm not very enthusiastic about growing tomatoes in this area, because they just don't do that well unless you nurse them along with a greenhouse, which is a lot of work and/or ugly and/or expensive.  I ended up planting a few tomatoes without using a greenhouse, and they confirmed my expectations.

Corn! Strong Start center and right. Painted Mountain are the
smaller plants to the left. One has a colorful stalk. Potatoes in
the background. 
Another fun experiment this year was corn.  Seattle isn't really a corn-growing mecca, but I wanted to try a hardy, short-season variety of grain corn called Painted Mountain.  So I planted a few of those, along with a variety of early sweet corn called Strong Start.  Corn is really fun to grow.  It's a beautiful, unusual plant that gets tall and is topped by lovely tassles.  Painted Mountain plants are scrawny but colorful.

Strong Start corn.
The Strong Start corn grew into large, vigorous plants but the yield was disappointing.  We got about one ear from each plant, although they were delicious.  The yield from Painted Mountain was also sub-par, with one ear from each plant as opposed to the two I expected.  It could be because the plants were selected in Montana rather than Washington, or perhaps because the soil in that bed wasn't ideal.

Processing and Eating Grain Corn

The Painted Mountain ears were gorgeous, boasting many different colors.  We hung them on our wall for a long time to dry and display them.

Painted Mountain corn after harvest and shucking.
When the time came, we removed the kernels and ground them into flour in my Vita-Mix blender.  Painted Mountain is a flour-type grain corn, meaning it grinds easily into a fine starchy flour.

Painted Mountain corn kernels.
We ended up with a pint and a half of flour from four ears (1 ear per plant), which we used to make gluten-free pancakes on two lazy mornings.  They were quite good, with a hearty flavor and texture.  Carol Deppe turns up her nose at Painted Mountain corn, but I have to disagree.  At least in the context of pancakes, it was delicious.

This was my first experience growing, processing and eating a grain from start to finish.  It was really fun and a learning experience.  Corn is the most productive grain and also the easiest to harvest and process in a home gardening context.  Painted Mountain is an extremely hardy variety selected for short growing seasons.  I plan to plant a larger bed of Painted Mountain this year, giving it a nicer bed and wider spacing between plants.  If I have more land in a warmer place someday, I'll plant a larger area of corn.

Although corn is the most productive grain in terms of calories per acre, it still can't touch potatoes in the home garden, particularly here in Seattle.  We feasted on garden potatoes for two months.


The weather was great last summer, but I think what really made the difference was my soil.  I've been improving it gradually over the course of the last four years, and it's getting really fluffy and fertile.  In preparation for the 2013 season, I focused on adding a lot of organic matter to the soil.  I also used cover crops in some beds and loosened the soil deeply with my broadfork.  I've been consistently using Steve Solomon's organic fertilizer blend, which I make using seed meal, bone meal, dolomite lime, agricultural lime, and kelp meal.  Improving the soil is a process that takes time.


2013 was a banner year in the garden, and I'm looking forward to more of the same in 2014.  I eagerly await the day when I have enough space to grow most of my own food.


Uglok said...

Different from your usual posts - but a refreshing read, thank you!

Led to an interesting discussion with my father - an agricultural and mechanical engineer for over 50yrs - about the best composting methods and techniques.

He was very favourable of the mulch idea, that being a more efficient method for commercial growing than farmers actively ploughing fields before/after enriching soil (relatively an extremely expensive process due to fuel consumption!), though he did think there was little benefit to you using the burlap sacks as you will still get the earthworms and moisture will find its way without any help. Did you try the mulching without the burlap?

That said, being a biochemist I did point out to him that it would make the ground both more moist and warmer than the surroundings... so will be interesting to see if there is a noteworthy difference!

glib said...

I commend your wisdom. Growing only temperate crops is key to success. Hot weather crops are just a constant source of frustration here in temperate America (I am in Michigan). Corn, I am afraid to say, will never be a good home garden crop, it is just too unproductive per square foot.

I am a fermentable fiber type of guy (my garden is 2200 soft), and my go to crops are pole beans, winter and summer squash, chard, collard, cabbage, and all manners of roots (beets, Chioggia and red, turnip, parsnip,carrots, daikon), cabbage, lettuce, and small brassica greens (bekana, arugula, and red mustard) . Cabbage is probably the best temperate crop in pounds per square foot, and I also grow cardoon and radicchio, probably for the inulin, though the choices were made long before I knew about inulin. Roots are quite probiotic if you don't wash them too thoroughly.

Robert said...

Thank you for the interesting post, Dr. G. Is there a specific book you recommend for new gardeners - the Resilient Gardener or something else? Thanks.

WGwin said...

Hey Stephan,

I really enjoy your posts about your life/daily activities. I am interested in the various methods you use for your garden. Is there a book that you would recommend describing some of the methods you use? Possibly "The Resilient Gardener?" I'm not sure that I know anyone who uses a broadfork (or even know what one is!).

Thanks again for your hard work. Much appreciated.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Uglok,

I've never tried it without the burlap-- I just follow the same technique experienced gardeners in this area have pioneered. I'd imagine it would be less effective at suppressing weeds without the burlap.

Hi glib,

Thanks-- I want to get into cabbage but I haven't grown it much. It should do well here. One limitation of growing cabbage is that it's so cheap in the store and the quality is pretty good.

Hi Robert,

I recommend looking for a book that's relevant to your geographic area. In the Pacific Northwest, Steve Solomon's book "Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades" is great although perhaps a bit overwhelming for a beginner, and Carol Deppe's book "The Resilient Gardener" is also good. Your local agricultural extension service should be able to give you good locale-specific advice.

Basically the things a plant needs are sun, good soil, water, the right temperature, and a lack of significant competition. Most vegetables will require full sun or nearly full sun, meaning there are no major obstructions on the sides facing south, east, and west. Good soil means a deep, loose structure with lots of organic matter (e.g., containing compost) and sufficient levels of mineral nutrients. I recommend focusing on some type of complete fertilizer that is made of whole ingredients (e.g., seed meal, bone meal, and lime) rather than soluble minerals (e.g., Miracle Gro), that way it releases slowly and sticks around. Soluble minerals can have some useful applications in the home garden but I only use them occasionally. Manure is useful in some places, but around here I've found it to be insufficient. Water is self-explanatory although there are some nuances. Temperature mostly just means planting things at the appropriate date for your area. Keeping your plants well weeded is essential because weeds compete for water, nutrients, and sunlight, and they're usually hardier than your vegetables.

That should get you started. An easy way to proceed in most places is to pick a sunny spot, lay down a few inches of compost, some organic fertilizer, and work it into the (moist but not wet) soil as deeply as you're willing to (at least 10 inches). Renting a roto-tiller can be useful the first year, particularly if there is grass or weeds, but be aware that the till is quite shallow. You'll want to go deeper with a shovel or fork. Then plant your vegetables at the appropriate time, protect them from deer, slugs, or whatever is a problem in your area, keep them watered and weeded, and harvest your crops.

Hi WGwin,

Please see my response above.

Emmaclaire said...

My husband is an organic gardener and reading your article was like a discussion across the dinner table on any given day during planting/growing season. We have had much luck with Solomon's fertilizer mix as well, but I've never heard of that mulching process - I'll have to suggest it to my husband. Our yearly top performer has been purple striped hardneck garlic - we usually plant 60-100 a year and have had much success. It's good for pest control as well

Also, being a Midwest girl, I just can't give up on tomatoes! We have tried so many varieties, in pots, in the ground, etc. and finally had some luck last year with Early Girls in a pot. The pleasant surprise came from SunGold cherry tomatoes - they produced beautifully and the tomatoes were sweet and delicious. Hope this summer's weather is as good as last year - happy planting!

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Emmaclaire,

Thanks. We've had good success with hardneck garlic as well. Happy planting to you too.

Robert said...

Thank you for the thorough response, Dr. Guyenet. I'll definitely check out those books.

Viola said...

Curious: given the large amount of anti nutrients in corn, why did you not choose to soak yours or treat it with lime first?

SportsGuy said...

Am interested in a reply to Viola's comment.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Viola and SportsGuy,

It's a matter of quantity. We made two pancake breakfasts out of the corn-- not enough to have a significant impact on our nutritional status. If we ate it regularly, we'd probably nixtamalize it.

Jin said...


I want to heartily thank you for posting about the Rogue 60S.

I had never heard of such a weeding hoe or seen one in anyone's shed. My grandparents were farmers!

Mine arrived in the mail last week. It's brilliant. I don't know how I've lived without one all these many years.


Sanna said...

I keep thinking about this post, for some reason, and about the scuffle hoe. Have you tried an oscillating hoe? It's also called a push-pull-hoe, I think.