Onion plans finalized

We will have onion starts available in bunches starting March 11th.  The varieties will be the same as last year: Ailsa Craig, Copra, Red River, Red Torpedo, and, of course, Walla Walla.  All of these perform well in local gardens and are highly recommended.  You can read more about them on the varieties page.

Peppers

The list of pepper plant varieties has been finalized for 2016, and contrary to expectation, it is longer than last year. Primarily this is because some of this seed needs to be grown out and saved, so some of these will have limited availability. Some of these are also being grown out for assessment, comparison, and breeding projects. Let me know if there’s something unusual on here that you want to reserve. Coming next: cold weather and early spring planting.

Aji Amarillo
Aji Dulce
Anaheim TMR
Ancho San Luis
Cherry Pick F1
Chiltepin
Chinese Giant
Fish
Fooled You
Ghost Pepper
Giant Aconcagua
Habanero
Jalapeno M
Jimmy Nardello
Liebesapfel
Mareko Fana
Moringa Pepper
Orange Sun
Ozark Giant
Pasilla Bajio
Peacework
Poblano L
Purple Beauty
Purple Jalapeño
Quad Giallo
Quad Rosso
Ta Tong
Tepin
Trinidad Perfume
Yellow Monster

New Year, New Plans

Fermenting tomato seeds, 12/2015With the growing season well behind us and the new one still a bit off, December is a month of reviewing what went wrong and right in the old year (and end-of-the-year accounting and taxes).

To the right you can see some of my tomato seed fermenting in my kitchen window in order to clean it and prime it for germination.  This is from one of my tomato breeding projects, and I’m hopeful that within these jars lie exactly the combination of genes I’ve been looking for.  It’s a stinking pile out of which clean seeds arrive with new possibilities.  Tomorrow, I’ll rinse them off and lay the seeds out to dry so that I can plant them in the new year.

To be honest, 2015 wasn’t the best year for Mid Columbia Gardens.  Yet another plan to put up a new greenhouse fell through, leaving me with hard choices to make about what I could start in the spring.  The lack of a proper winter confused my perennials and led to large losses in my perennial propagation stock.  The strange weather also threw off people’s planting and buying habits, which was probably the main contributor to record low plant start sales.  These slow sales in turn backed up the seed start/greenhouse/hardening off/transport chain and left me short of funds and space to start the later plants.  By mid-summer I had to cancel all planned late summer and autumn vegetable and flower sales.

I made a lot of mistakes, too.  I moved most of my communication to Facebook, where I was getting the most questions and messages, and I missed various people who tried to contact me here on the website (sorry to those of you I didn’t get back to!).  I spent so much time dealing with greenhouse trials that I didn’t get down to the Hub to communicate with buyers and volunteers or to put in place proper signage and explanatory materials.  I failed to put together the oft-requested multi-plant packages for those who just want “a bunch of sauce tomatoes” or “a combination of plants to grow for salsa.”  And I failed to ensure that the plants were getting watered after hours enough, rotated often enough, and sheltered enough for our unusually hot and windy weather.

Sorting through all of this, with my limited time and health, it looks like a big pile of mess.  It’s clear that I will have to scale down next year, and shift my focus a bit.  In debt, still short a greenhouse (primarily for lack of a place to put it), and without a predictable market, it’s tempting to overhaul the business entirely and shift my focus elsewhere.  Instead of flushing everything out, though, I find myself sorting through the ugly to find the seeds of possibility for next year.  It’s not going to be easy, and I’m going to have to try some new and untested things, but I suppose that’s what winter is for.  In the dark of winter we clear away the old and make everything ready again, trusting that new life, still too far away to hope for, will come forth in its own time and with its own gifts, yet unimagined.

Learning Opportunities

Large tanks for aquaponics are expensive.  Constructing tanks for fish is a lot of work and the lining is pricey.  Plastic tanks over a hundred gallons or so get expensive fast.  I started collecting large stock tanks off Craigslist, and even managed to buy a few of the IBC containers that are so popular on the Aquaponics websites.

Ultimately I want to build a large system and capitalize on the stability of larger bodies of water and the economies of scale.  I would like to combine this with my other greenhouse work, reaching out the community and providing unusual opportunities and crops.  But first I needed to know what I’m doing.

2'x3' media beds filled with 3/4" expanded shale.  Lettuce direct seeded into the near bed.

2’x3′ media beds filled with 3/4″ expanded shale. Lettuce direct seeded into the near bed.

Distractions and false starts aside, I finally built a small closed system in my indoor office in 2013 so that I could study the dynamics of the system.  I incorporated NFT (nutrient film technique, utilizing water running down narrow channels to feed small net pots of plants) and two flood and drain grow beds.  These lived on two shelves of a large wire shelving unit, with grow lights above them and the 40 gallon fish tank on the bottom.  A couple dozen small koi were stocked and I’ve tried growing various things in the system with mixed success.  Which is great, because I learned a lot from every failure.

koi in a small aquarium

Aquaponic filtration allowed me to raise an unbelievable number of koi in a small aquarium.

This system was still running while I setup my new system last year.  The fish were up to 12″ long, and they went into a greenhouse sump for the winter.  They will grace an outdoor display pond in the coming months.  Meanwhile, I’ve been operating test aquaponics system two, a slightly larger 700 gallon setup in the dome greenhouse.

Sunchokes

Sunchokes for sale at the Mid-Columbia Market at the Hub

Sunchokes for sale at the Mid-Columbia Market at the Hub

Sunchokes are also known as Jerusalem artichokes, but they have nothing to do with Jerusalem or artichokes.  I’ve played around with them in my propagation beds and eaten a few.  They might taste a little bit like an artichoke in flavor, sweet and a bit crunchy when raw.  They are better stewed or roasted for long periods to convert the inulin (soluble fiber which can cause gas).

A couple years ago I started selling the “Supernova” variety from Oikos.  I put one or two small tubers in each gallon pot, and people purchased them after they started to get pretty big.  One of these I transplanted into my garden, where it shot up like sunflowers and produced beautiful yellow flowers.  They made nice bouquets on the kitchen table from mid-summer until late fall.

Sunchoke flowerSunchokes are quite hardy in our area, but ought to be lifted every year to harvest and thin them.  In some parts of the country they can be invasive (too dry here, I suspect).  I was busy, however, and never managed to get around to it that year.  Last spring I was delighted to see a dense patch of them sprouting up in the same spot, and the display was even more spectacular than the previous year, although they tended to fall over on top of everything around them.

Digging sunchoke tubersFinally, early this spring I managed to get out there with a small tray to dig up the tubers.  The clump had remained only three to four square feet in size, but the tubers were stacked on top of each other almost twelve inches underground, and so densely packed that it would be more accurate to say that I picked them apart, rather than dug them up.

I soon had to go get a larger container.  When all was said and done, I had 25 pounds of tubers, all from that one small pot.  Although I have had sunchokes in controlled propagation beds, I’ve never stopped to look at just how rapidly these can reproduce in the ground.  I’m going to have to take another look at different ways to prepare them for eating.

In the meantime, if you would like to try growing this unique edible/ornamental yourself, I’ll have tubers and eventually potted plants available for sale at the Mid-Columbia Market at the Hub.

Sunchoke tubers

Anybody want a peanut?

I remember growing peanuts in my grandmother’s garden as a kid.  They grew like little pea plants but had nothing to show for themselves except a few small flowers, low to the ground.  In the fall, though, we’d pull up the plants, and like magic, peanuts would be in amongst the roots.  It seemed to me that someone must have buried them there when I wasn’t looking.

Purple striped peanutsThese days I like to start them early before transplanting them out when the weather warms up.  They are a long season crop, and although we have sufficient summer for them, I get a better harvest by starting them early.

This year I planted purple striped peanuts.  I’m sure a few plants will make their way into your hands as well, if you watch for them to go on sale at the Hub, once the ground is warm enough to plant them.

Aquaponics

Elephant ear and other aquatic plants

Elephant ear and other aquatic plants

I’ve been interested in growing plants in water for nearly as long as I’ve been interested in growing plants–that is, most of my life.  Fifteen years ago I was experimenting with various aquatic plant set ups and started raising more and more fish to eat the mosquitoes and provide a healthier aquatic ecosystem.  It just seemed natural to extend the plumbing to the wicking mat benches and into some of the experimental hydroponic setups I had played with.  This allowed the terrestrial plants to benefit from the nutrient rich water, and provided more filtration and stability to the system overall.

Ten years ago, while I was laying the foundations of what would become Mid Columbia Gardens, I stumbled upon the closed loop systems for raising fish and plants that people were beginning to share on the internet.  The name they were giving it was aquaponics, from aquaculture, the raising of fish and aquatic animals, and hydroponics, the raising of plants in water.  I had reservations at the time about the ability of the fish and their food to provide the entire profile of nutrients that the plants required, as well as the ability of the plants to completely eliminate all excess wastes that might build up in the water.

In practice, it turns out that most people are able to supplement and rebalance the water to keep both the plants and fish happy without too much trouble.  It is also common for large systems to export some of the solid waste and turn over small percentages of their water while still retaining primarily “closed loop” recirculating systems.

Temporary greenhouse heating return tank, with fish and young plants

Temporary greenhouse heating return tank, with fish and young plants

These concerns, and sheer lack of time and funds, kept me from looking too deeply into it until someone showed me pictures of Growing Power and their large scale, successful aquaponics operation.  Among other initiatives, they run a large scale fish and plant production greenhouse with unskilled volunteers and a home grown infrastructure.  I can’t do them justice; go check them out at the link above.  Seriously, I’ll wait.

By this time I had cycled hundreds of self-sustaining aquatic systems of all sizes, from 5 gallons to thousands, in saltwater, fresh water, and brackish water.  I was keeping seahorses and koi, snails and shrimp, frogs and crabs.  I also had a good-size non-production greenhouse that had held water systems before the glazing was even on.  I was running radiant heating from the greenhouse ponds through both the air and the soil and using that water as the sole source of watering for all of the plants in there.  The time seemed right to step up to a full aquaponic system.

Onion Plants

Garden Onions

As in previous years, we will have onion sets at the Mid-Columbia Market at the Hub/NW Food Hub on the corner of Goethals and Gillespie in Richland, starting Thursday, March 13th.  They will be bundled in groups of 30+ for $2. This year we have three old favorites, and a new red which is recommended as a replacement for the discontinued Mars variety that was so popular.

Ailsa Craig
Said to be one of the largest growing varieties available, this is an open pollinated sweet onion.
Copra
Hybrid yellow storage onion.  Not as sweet as a sweet onion, but sweeter than most storage onions.
Red River
Hybrid, sweet red onion. Should size up quickly and keep well for a non-storage onion.
Walla Walla
Large, open pollinated sweet onion.  This one needs no introduction.

2014 in Progress

2014 finds us a bit behind where we’d like to be, due to facilities and staffing complications.  The good news is that we’ve finally got a preliminary list of tomato varieties, with more to follow very soon regarding peppers, herbs, and flowers.

This year we’ll be focusing on more solid, tested varieties from previous years, with fewer new and exploratory varieties in the mix.  There should be something for every need in the list, but as usual, feel free to drop us a line, or add your comments below, if there’s something in particular you were hoping to see.

Your feedback is very important to us, as it helps to better assess what you’re looking for, what has worked or not worked well for you in the area, and how we can better help you find success in your garden.  Stay tuned for many more updates in the coming weeks.