Spring Growing

One of many trays of seedlings being transplanted

The propagation greenhouses are full, and production of baby plants is at full capacity.  Orders have been closed on the shop since we no longer have time to grow out custom orders before it is time to plant them in your garden.  There will be plants available for retail sale in April and May, though, including some things that didn’t make it into the catalog.

Between the new shop (300 entries added to the catalog this winter!) and the weekly newsletters, I’ve been neglecting the main website, which makes it hard for anyone new to see what’s going on.  I’ll be working on back-loading the newsletter content into this site, though, and going forward the newsletter content should appear here within a week or so of being emailed out.

On the tomato front we have around 200 varieties in production for either sales or seed production.  We have another 50 or so that are new to us and under evaluation.  And, of course, we have the dwarf breeding project lines both old and new that we’re working on, as well as a pink cherry tomato that I’m really hoping to find a good selection of this year.  At F7 the “easter egg” line still shows far more variability than expected, so it’s hard to say when this one will finally get nailed down.

Peppers sit at 45 varieties being grown for sale, seed, and testing, plus two dehybridizing lines that I’m investigating.

More interesting things (and pictures!) soon…

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.

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.

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.

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.