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.

Everyone a Gardener

This business was started for you, dear gardener, with the hope of someday convincing everyone that they hold within themselves the capacity to grow their own food.  As a member of humanity, you have inherited the need and the ability to nurture living things.  This instinct will guide you whether you grew up on a farm or have never tried to care for a plant before.

There is no such thing as a green or black thumb.  No magic or special touch or secret knowledge will aid or hinder you in gardening.  You can operate by instinct or rigidly follow the scientific method, achieving success either way, as long as you respect your indispensable tools of knowledge, patience, work, and a tolerance for failure.  You will, in fact, fail along the way, and that’s okay–those who best succeed are often those who have best overcome failure.  Losing plants or failing to get food from them doesn’t mean that you can’t do it.  It means that you will be more experienced next year.

The formula for gardening is simple.  Understand the nature and needs of your plants.  Provide them the home and nutrition that they need.  Watch them and pay attention when they behave in unexpected ways.  Keep notes on your successes and failures, and the conditions under which they occurred.  Then do it all again.

Most importantly, realize that gardening is about providing an environment for desirable growth, not making that growth happen.  The magic is in the plants, the soil, and the marvellous ecosystem to which they are adapted.  It is a remarkably short step from the wild stand of plants from which your ancient ancestor harvested, to the garden in your backyard.  Most of your efforts need only be directed at bridging the difference.

Preliminary Pepper Plant Prospectus

Here’s the pepper plant list for 2013.  There are a few more varieties pending, but we’re about out of time to get pepper plants started this year:

Aji Dulce: A very mild habanero type pepper
Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Chile): Hottest pepper in the world.  ‘Nuff said.
Gamba: Squat red bell pepper, recommended for cooking.
Giant Aconcagua: Very long sweet pepper which we always eat before it turns red.
Habanero: Very hot wrinkled orange pepper with a unique, citrusy flavor.
Jalapeno M: A very mild jalapeno variety
Jimmy Nardello: Very sweet long frying pepper, good eaten fresh, too.
Kevin’s Early Orange: Early orange bell pepper
Milord: Flavorful red bell pepper
Orange Sun: Sweet orange bell pepper
Red Cherry: Sweet, thick-walled small pepper that I grow mainly to snack on.
Super Heavyweight: Large yellow bell pepper
Super Shepherd: Very sweet red italian pepper

As always, let me know if there’s something you’re looking for.  The last wave of late peppers will be planted very soon.

2013 Varieties, Preliminary

With the first two waves of seeds planted already, I’m well behind in updating lists and ordering information.  Pending crop failure, here are the tomato plant varieties that are confirmed for availability this spring.  If you’re looking for something which is not on this list, now is the time to ask for it.

Tomatoes

Pepper will be listed in a forthcoming post.

So Many Varieties!

Planning which seeds to plant next spring is, in some ways, the most enjoyable activity of the year.  I get to review all of my records and relive biting into each flavor and texture.  I get to reread what my customers have told me and feel good about helping them.  And I get to dream about new experiences and flavors to try next year.  On the other hand, disposing of plants that didn’t sell because I misjudged the market is easily the least enjoyable activity of the year.  I use a few different strategies to mitigate this issue, but experience and customer feedback are my most valuable assets.

I’m only going to discuss tomatoes today, since I expect to be long winded enough without adding the complexities of peppers, herbs, and perennials.  Don’t worry, though–peppers will have their own post, and I have exciting news about herbs coming up, too.

Having a broad selection of varieties is not only one of the core value propositions of the nursery, from a business standpoint (that is, I attract and retain customers partly by offering a broad selection including varieties no one else has), but it is also one of the core missions for which the nursery was started.  I wanted to give people options that they didn’t otherwise have, to grow varieties that they didn’t otherwise have access to, untreated by chemicals.

However, there are definitely favorites among my customers, both in specific varieties and specific types of tomatoes people are always looking for.  People want sweet cherry tomatoes, old fashioned, “tomatoey” cherry tomatoes, and grape tomatoes similar to the ones they find in stores.  They want big beefsteaks, high producing slicers, and drier Roma types for saucing and canning.  Many people ask for tomatoes with “old-fashioned” or acid flavor. Red is the runaway favorite color.  Often they’ll pick up one or two oddballs with stripes or unusual coloration.  And everyone wants to know my own favorite varieties, as if I could choose absolute favorites among the thousand or two varieties that I have tried over the years.

So I put together a small list of main line varieties that I grow in greater numbers than the rest.  These will be my go to varieties, to fill such requests and recommend to those who are timid about trying anything too strange, or just to hand to those who are completely overwhelmed by the selection.  These tomatoes have proven themselves in different local gardens across many years in the area and can be counted on to produce.  Old standbys on this list include Kelloggs Breakfast (or KBX), Cherokee Purple, Sioux, Sungold, Chadwick Cherry, Marianna’s Peace, and Opalka.  Newer additions to the list include Kosovo, Aunt Gertie’s Gold, Gardener’s Delight, and Beauty King.

After I’ve filled all of the basic tomato types, colors, shapes, and ripening seasons in the main line, I’ll fill shadow varieties into the second line.  These are varieties that fill almost the same spaces as the mainline, and even could be substituted for them in many cases.  This includes Amana Orange, JD’s C-Tex, Traveler, Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, German Johnson, and others.

Third, I add in all of the types that I’m personally excited by, usually because of their potential to unseat the mainliners or fill a niche that wasn’t previously well covered.  This year I’m particularly impressed by San Marzano, Santorini, Heidi, and the new dwarf indeterminates that have recently become available in every size and color from the Cross Hemisphere Dwarf project that I’ve been participating in.

Finally, I fill out all of the minor niches with greens, whites, blues, currants, hearts, etc.  I also grow a number for my own trials, and often make the extras available.  I’m very responsive to special requests, because either I’ve grown them, and therefore have seed already, or I haven’t, and want to know what they’re like.

Drop me a line and let me know what you’re looking for this year.  We can grow it together.

Life Begins with Death

Life, it seems, begins with death, as the old is cleared to make way for the new.  This is especially true in the seasonal garden.  That’s where we’re going to begin this blog again, with the death of last year’s garden.

After the many false warnings, we actually had a hard freeze last night, and the temperature warning alarm in the greenhouse went off at 3am.  I closed up the back vent, temporarily, and doubled the electric heat input to its regular winter level of about 5000 btu/hr.  Then I loaded in all of the potted plants that were still outside because they had some frost hardiness, but were still in need of heavy frost protection.

Thankfully, all of the sweet potatoes have been dug, the carrots pulled, the most important tomato seeds saved.  In the coming week I will collect up more frozen and rotting tomatoes for seed, dig the oca, check for surviving pea pods and Cole crops.  Then I will heap up the squash vines in one pile and the tomato vines in another, interspersed each with brown needles, wood chips, and well aged pine needles so that they can begin producing next year’s soil.

I will collect potted perennials in one place to over winter, and potted annuals in another to collect seed and compost the plants and media.  I will collect up any remaining tender perennials and woody plants that need minor protection and huddle them together under protection.  And the massive winter long cleanup and soil top dressing and amendment project will begin.

With the onset of winter managed, and the seasonal projects begun, it will finally be time to collate plant production data, cross-reference the popularity and sale of different plants and varietials, and close out the books on 2012.  It has been a good year.  Any year in which I learn something and benefit a few more people is a good year.  It has not been the year that I planned for, or the year that I wanted.  New and unexpected setbacks this spring spoiled the quality of the plants worse than in any of the last five years that Mid Columbia Gardens has been in business.

It is a foundation to build on, though, as each year before it.

I dread the winter and the long months without my garden, when everything is huddled under ground, under the pond ice, behind the grey bark.  I have a tiny island of greenhouse against the wildly fluctuating conditions of our desert winter, and there the only growing things huddle in the short day lengths and cold, though not deadly temperatures.  I, too, huddle in my island of warmth, warding off the short, dreary days and cold daily journeys into the outside world.

But amid this death and quiet, the seeds of next year take root.  Wonderful things are stirring underneath, preparing for the chance to spring forth into a world new and clean.  Next week, when I have finished clearing the work of death to make way, I will tell you about some of them.

Onions are here!

We’re a week or two before I normally plant onions here in the Tri Cities, and once again I have onion plants for sale from Dixondale Farms.  These healthy starts have worked very well for me in previous years, which is why I offer them to you.

As last year, they are $2 for a bunch of 30, or $3 for a bunch of 60.  I have lots of the Walla Walla sweets, of course, but I also have a few others that have been recommended to me.

Walla Walla sweet onions in July

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 Zeppelin

Hybrid, full flavored red storage onion. These were early and very good quality in my garden last year.

Redwing

Sharp red storage onion, highly recommended, but new to me.

Walla Walla

Large, open pollinated sweet onion.  This one needs no introduction.

Email at onions@midcolumbiagardens.com to request delivery in Richland (Friday afternoon or Saturday evening this week) or to arrange to pick them up in South Richland.  Or, you may call (509) 713-2010 and leave a message.

Seeds

The first wave of 850 seeds for the new year were sown yesterday.  Many exciting things coming.  Here’s how things are shaping up:

  • Dwarf Varieties AvailableI’m planting the indeterminate dwarf tomatoes early this year in order to sell them at a more mature size.  I was very impressed by these little plants last year, which do well in pots, standard tomato cages, or square foot gardens.  Unlike determinate tomato plants which remain small and deliver all of their crop at once, these continue to produce tomatoes all season, while remaining small and manageable.  I have all of the varieties released by the Cross Hemisphere Dwarf Project that I could get my hands on, plus a few heirlooms like New Big Dwarf, Dwarf Champion Improved, and the diminutive, determinate cherry Tiny Tim, which has been a regular customer favorite.
  • I’m also planting the peppers earlier and growing them hotter to give them more size than the puny things I grew last year.  I’m changing the tagging, using red tags for hot peppers and green tags for sweet.  Hopefully that will clear up some of the confusion.  I have
    • red, orange, and yellow bells
    • a sweet cherry pepper
    • Giant Aconcagua, which is one of my children’s favorites
    • Jimmy Nardello, a very sweet frying pepper
    • Jalapeño M, a very mild, though not heatless jalapeño.
    • Aji Dulce, a very mild habanero that ripens red
    • Habanero, the classic orange flamethrower
    • Bhut Jolokia, the Ghost Chile, currently the Guiness record holder for heat.
    • a beautiful, variegated Fish pepper plant, often planted as an ornamental, though edible (and hot).
Red Zeppelin onion culls, excellent in salads early in the season.
  • I’ve committed to providing the following onions, starting March 3rd until sold out.  As last year, $2/30 and $3/60.  The bundles were very generously packed last year, with up to 80 plants in a 60 plant bundle.
    • Walla Walla Sweet, of course
    • Ailsa Craig, a very large sweet heirloom
    • Copra, which was quite popular last year
    • Red Zeppelin, a big sweet red
    • Redwing, totally new to me
  • There are 120 varieties of tomato on the grow list this year, which I’ll publish as soon as it’s finalized.  With a new hoophouse to provide better spring weather protection, and several process improvements, we’re on track to have over 3000 plants for sale at the end of April, with a final production wave showing up mid-May.  Larger, stronger, healthier plants than last year is the goal.  And everything tagged and separated ahead of time, thanks to a change in the transplant process.  Still no chemicals, no pesticides, no substances that are not organic.
  • More exciting announcements to come!  Stay tuned, and let me know if you have any feedback from last year, or there’s anything you’re looking for.  I’m paul@midcolumbiagardens.com.

Preparing for 2012

December is the month of seed preparation and orders.  I’ve reviewed the information I collected in 2011 on which varieties did well and what kind of feedback I got from people who grew them out.  Despite the bad weather and poor condition of some of my inventory, there were some good success stories:

Kosovo was the most productive variety in the gardens of many people that I spoke to.  It had beautiful, large, flavorful tomatoes and really made a place for itself in my standard lineup.  I was very impressed by this large heart shaped pink.

Opalka continues to impress.  I also grew several other paste tomatoes, including Heidi and Sarnowski Polish Plum, but Opalka was the one I heard about from new customers.  All three of these will be in the standard varieties again for 2012.

Sungold is always a winner for cherry tomatoes.  Nothing beats this unique, fruity, sweet sensation.  Everyone ought to try this one.  It will convert even non-tomato lovers.

Dwarf Tomatoes from the Cross-Hemisphere Dwarf breeding project proved to be very robust.  Tasmanian Chocolate, Rosella Purple, and Dwarf Beryl Beauty were strong growers that produced large sized tomatoes in containers, with a little support.  I’ve pulled in seed from all of the new dwarf releases from the project for 2012 and hope to do some comparison.

Peppers, especially the sweet ones, were very popular with customers, despite the small size of the plants I had available.  For 2012 I will have more varieties of sweets, but more importantly I will be starting them earlier, with more heat, to hopefully get better size on them.  Although I’ve been growing large numbers of tomato plants for over ten years, I had never grown so many pepper plants, and 2011 was a terrible year to start with its record cold spring.  I’ll also be back with more Bhut Jolokia Ghost Chiles, for the most adventurous heat loving fools (like me).

Onions, which I brought in on a whim, flew out the door so fast they were mostly spoken for on the day I announced them!  I can get them in again, at $3-4/bunch of 50, but I need to get a quantity order in soon.  Most of the varieties performed great for me, but I’d like to hear more from those who bought them.  I’m also going to take another run at seeding onions, on the advice of a couple local growers I spoke to.

Was there anything that did particularly well for you, or that you’d like to see me offer this year?  Let me know, here in the comments, or at feedback@midcolumbiagardens.com.  I’m looking forward to a great garden in 2012!

Winter heating

Last night was the coldest we’ve had this year, and it tripped my greenhouse temperature alarm. I run about 5000 BTU/h of electric heat in the geodesic greenhouse during the winter. Together with about 2000 BTU/h added to the water tanks, that suffices for most nights and all but the coldest days in our climate. This year I had to strip away the inner plastic lining because it was deteriorating, which has left me with less insulation that normal, so I expect to be using supplemental heating more. Not the most economical way to run it, I’m afraid, but sometimes I don’t have a choice.

I haven’t set up the water heating yet this year, and that is hurting things as well. So last night I fired up the supplemental propane heater. It’s capable of 18,000 BTU/h in three segments, and each segment adds about ~10F differential to the temperature inside the greenhouse versus outside, normally. With less insulation this year I expect it to be less effective, but still hoping it can pull me through our coldest nights. I checked all of the fuel line connections and the venting and fired up each segment for a good, long burn to make sure they burned safely and completely after its long time shutdown since last winter.

Unlike the electric, which is all thermostatically controlled, the supplemental heating is all manual. And that suits me fine. I’m a pessimist when it comes to automated systems. I expect water pumps to clog and cut out, fans to die, and auto shutoff mechanisms to fail. And I don’t trust the propane completely in a location with no one present to monitor it, so I feel better when I have complete control over it. I’d rather forget to handle something and have the greenhouse freeze over, than have it burn down because I wasn’t forced to go out there every time it turned on, off, or fired up another burner.

After the test I walked around inside a bit. The Angel’s Trumpets are still blooming like crazy. Fuschias and some runaway nasturtiums add dashes of bright color here and there. I’ve overwintered the habanero family peppers (heatless, full heat, and ghost chiles) to see how they do through the winter and how they perform in their second year. Everywhere the greenhouse is crammed full of plants, arranged for maximum light exposure while still allowing air circulation and access for watering. It’s a bit of a mess, really, arranged for plants rather than people. And I love it.