Fall’s Insta-Garden

Late fall’s the time when straw bales abound, the castoffs of every Harvest Festival and Apple Tasting. While others are busy celebrating the harvest, the astute gardener  still thinks about planting and celebrates that what others cast off can become an instant garden treasure.


Drop bales in desired location. Add soil top. Plant.  Yes, it’s that easy!


To the modern person, who wouldn’t recognize a hay baler if it ran over him or her, the straw bale is a mere objet d’art, a nod to the landed past, a platform for stacking decorative gourds, and perhaps a temporary bench, yet it is something to be disposed of after the party or the season.  A gardener with access to a pickup is thus in an ideal position to contact any and all organizations likely to celebrate the harvest and make a substantial garden swoop in late fall.

The idea of using straw bales as garden beds was recently popularized by Joel Karsten in his book Straw Bale Gardens (also see his website: http://strawbalegardens.com/).  He recommends a ten day conditioning period for the bale in which a composting chain reaction is set off by periodic watering and nitrogen fertilization, after which the bale will continue to release its nutrients to veggies planted within it.  Bales must be placed with the tubular ends of the stalks up for maximum water absorption.  For the fall bale garden, I place the bales similarly, but I skip the conditioning.

My aim in snagging fall bales is to have a place to plant garlic, so I’m not worried about bale activation so much as just getting that garlic up and going.  As such, I’m initially using the bale as a kind of raised bed, and so I’ll add an inch or two of garden soil to the top of the bales, then plant my garlic cloves in that.  Given that I live in the Pacific Northwest, with its famed abundance of rain in the winter, I’m not worried about the bales being dry. If they start that way, they won’t stay dry for long.  As for the nitrogen, cool winter soils don’t give up much nitrogen anyway, so I’ll be following my regular garlic program of applying liquid fish fertilizer in late winter and early spring.  Any nitrogen that drips below the garlic root zone will help the straw start to compost.  With this fall planting approach, I’ll get the garlic growth I’m used to in soil beds, but I’ll also be getting that bale ready for something to follow that garlic (like kale for next winter!), at which point the straw will have really begun to break down and will be forming a very rich, crumbly compost, yielding benefits for the garden seasons to come.



Fall garlic already shoots skyward.  It’s been a warmer-than-average fall.


A couple bale pointers: dry bales are ridiculously easy to toss around, and wet bales are leaden, disc-busting disasters.  Places that are giving away their bales may have used them outside and thus they may be wet, so if you are collecting, bring a helper so you don’t wind up mobility-impaired later.  Also the thin plastic cording used to bale the bales concentrates a lot of weight on a very small portion of your hand when lifting, usually resulting in a peculiar straw-bale pain.  Bring sturdy gloves and save yourself from martyrdom.  Finally, straw’s main utility on the farm is as animal bedding; the air in the tubular stalks acts as insulation, and the straws suck up urine and hold it away from the animal.  If straw gets wet accidentally, it is farm-useless, so places like horse stables and feed stores may occasionally have some accidentally ruined bales year-round.

So this fall, as you frequent those harvest festivals where straw bales are more part of the decor than part of a land-based lifestyle, take advantage of modernity’s disconnect from its rural past, see those bales as precious garden resources, and come back after the festival’s over for a late fall garden score!

Don’t Forget to Harvest Wisdom


The blogger’s current garden notebook.  It’s actually a 2016 calendar which I got cheap by buying it in February.  I can make entries on particular dates, which is good for noting things like plantings and the weather, and I can write long, rhapsodic reflections on the lined pages in the back.


While you’re saucing tomatoes, pickling beans, doing whatever you do with all that squash, and enjoying the last lettuce, there’s yet another thing to be harvested from the garden in the fall: your wisdom.  When the garden is still in its September and October glory, it’s the right time to wander around with a notebook (date the page, please) and record your impressions on how things grew.  In fact write down everything you think is relevant to the success or failure of the garden.  Did you trellis the peas earlier than ever this year and thus experience greater productivity ?  Put that down.  Did you put your own compost out a bit under-finished and then see a direct seeding of mustard greens never sprout?  Put that down.  Did the lettuces do fine with half as much water as you gave them last year?  Put it down.  Did the tomato starts that crazy old guy up the street sells go gangbusters?  Write that down.  Did you get excited about a new compost tea and then become horrified when you realized it went anaerobic, spilled on you, and no amount of soap would remove the last vestige of the awful scent?  Hey, that’s really worth writing down!

The great thing about going around with pen and paper for a few minutes during various parts of the gardening season is that you’ve preserved the wisdom crop right there and then.  No toiling over hot-water canning baths or buying a bigger chest freezer for the basement.  If you keep all your garden notes from year to year together in the same place and read them from time to time, you will start to really benefit from this collected record of successes and failures, which would be all too easy to otherwise forget (except for the anaerobic compost tea spilling on you, right?!)  then, as is the nature of wisdom, you can act more effectively as a gardener in the future, repeating your successes and trying to avoid failure.

There’s other reason to have a notebook and pencil or pen at hand in the garden.  Every once in a while a blinding flash of inspiration about some improvement will come tearing through the mental firmament, and, like a lightning bolt, it will illuminate only oh-so-briefly unless we are poised to capture it with a few words or a sketch.  In your mind’s eye you may see a new arrangement for the garden or your may remember that you wanted to try a new product that you saw in a nursery.  Now is the time to write that stuff down, because unless you reinforce that little neural moment, it’s gone!


My sketches for a new type of elevated planting platform.  This inspiration came during a work meeting.  Because it was done on the most lose-able of  substances – loose-leaf paper – I immediately glued it into a garden sketchbook when I got home.  How many loose-leaf inspirations have I lost or inadvertently recycled over the years?  Legion!  Hence the hammering home of the garden NOTEBOOK in this post.


Wisdom is everywhere in the garden waiting to be harvested….tucked into the beans, on the trellises, even in the potting shed.  It is easy to preserve in perpetuity and tasty each time it is sampled thereafter.  So sharpen your pencils, open your notebooks, and go get it!


Gotta love those volunteers!

There’s barely an organinzation out there that doesn’t benefit from some good volunteers; you know, the folks who come in, ask little or nothing from you, roll up their sleeves, and get to work doing what you’d have to do yourself.  Well, same goes in the garden, though here I’m not talking about the people.  Sure, they’re appreciated, but I’m referring to crops that “volunteer” or self-sow.  You plant them once, and after that they keep coming back on their own, essentially doing your work for you.

Here are four that I’m really appreciating on the roof this year:


Red Shiso (Perilla frutescens).  This is a show-stopper, with its deep burgundy coloration and its sharply dentated leaf margins.  When it pops up in a desired location, I take full advantage of its ornamental beauty.  Shiso’s flavor is spicy and complex: is it cinnamon….clove…anise that you taste?  Try it and get back to me!


Then there’s the nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), a heraldic burst of floral color ready to amaze in any salad and to pepper the tongue following the visual feast.  Now that they’ve naturalized in the roof garden, I have to fairly beat back their long, trailing stems so that they don’t utterly take over the bed where they sprout.  There are bush varieties that are a little more polite…a range of colors, too.


Less welcome at the restaurant (too pedestrian???) but still a volunteer success in my book is Goldberger purslane (Portulaca oleracea).  It’s paddle-shaped leaves, considerably bigger than those of its garden-weed cousin, are crisp and succulent (uhhh, I guess because it’s considered a succulent!).  Although they are not very flavorful, I think they make a great textural contribution to the salad plate.  Plus they kick buttocks (both!) in the nutrition department, serving up many vitamins and the highest amounts of good-for-you Omega-3 fatty acids in the plant world.


Finally, my newest favorite volunteer is holy basil (Ocimum sanctum).  Last year was the first year we had it in the garden, and this year I was tickled to see it coming back on its own…the only basil I have seen do this.  This basil, with the faintest touch, releases invisible clouds of its blueberry spice scent, which I find intoxicating.  I so love that it’s in the garden to stay!

So volunteers are awesome, right?  Well, if you go back to that organizational mindset,  you probably all know of one or two volunteers who talked your ear off or who were a little too overeager to achieve and  messed with something they shouldn’t have.  In the human realm, we have to gently let these people know that they may be doing us too much good, and that they have to redirect their energies or go eleswhere.  In the plant world, it’s much less complicated.  Too much shiso, basil, naturtium, or purslane?  Just pull and compost!

Garlic Rust – A Fight to the Finish

This year I have decided to take on garlic rust, a very formidable foe that levelled my rooftop garlic crop completely last year.  Funny thing about these diseases, they can have the most lyrical Latin names.  Garlic rust is alternatively called Puccinia allii and Puccinia porri, either of which I could imagine coming off the lips of Pavarotti at La Scala.  Well, the poetry all vanishes when you listen to the description of the disease from a website like the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management Program (http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/r584101211.html).  It says that garlic rust causes “dull orange, oval-shaped pustules to develop on the leaf blades” and then says that “reddish airborne urediospores are copiously produced within the lesions.”  Anybody see anything operatic now?  Not with a libretto full of pustules and lesions.

garlic 2

Witness the awful, orange pustules of garlic rust!


So last year this garlic rust blasted through our rooftop garlic crop, causing leaves to yellow fast and the whole garlic stalk to just wither, leaving a bulb about the size of the initial, fall-planted clove.  In other words, nothing gained after 9 months of growth.  Needless to say, I was a little caught in my tracks by the severity of the attack, and by the time I got around to researching, it was too late.  I did get some helpful information from the popular garden blog Garden Betty (http://www.gardenbetty.com/2011/07/grrr-garlic-rust-and-how-to-deal/) , but she seems entirely too sanguine about this disease.  Whereas even her infected plants seemed to produce something, mine just withered and pretty much gave up the ghost.


garlic 3

This is what fighting back looks like.  Garlic is definitely affected, but still standing and, hopefully, clove-forming.


This year I saw the symptoms coming early and, less stunned than last year, decided to punch back.  Luckily we’ve had a warm spring, with many periods of sunny weather.  I used each of those sun breaks to level a blast of dilute neem oil at the dreaded pustules.  Neem, a fast-growing tree in the mahogany family found in India, has many beneficial gardening uses, not the least of which is serving as a broad spectrum organic antifungal.  My experience is that it really did hold the rust at bay, which is not to say that it really reversed anything.  My garlic has grown, but the rust has continued to encroach until such time as  I was able to re-neem.  I have no doubt, however, that without the neem, those nascent cloves of garlic would have been lost, given the ferocity of the rust as witnessed last season, and I shudder to think that if it had been a more typical, rainy spring, I probably wouldn’t have been able to spray as frequently, with the equally probably result of premature garlic death.

More than once this season, I contemplated whether so much spraying was worth it.  Since I haven’t yet seen the cloves I am hoping for, I still can’t weigh in fully on that.  Are there any other alternatives?  Many websites recommend  a strict allium diet for the garden – no onion family members at all for three years (no leeks, no chives, no bunching onions, no bulbing onions, and, of course, no garlic), because apparently garlic rust can take lodging in other related species, even though it may not produce symptoms.  That would be a hard discipline to subject oneself to, and yet I may find myself hemmed in thus by the pernicious, persistent rust.  Fortunately there are other gardens that I tend where the spores have not fallen or blown, and where it is still possible to grow a spray-free crop.  But for how long….who knows?


garlic 1

My home garden garlic, where garlic rust has not yet raised its pustule-filled head nor gnashed its lesionous teeth!  May it stay away!


Meet, greet, nosh, drink, tour, learn!

Novak_Rooftop Growing Guide

Annie Novak is one of the hot-shots of urban agriculture, and she’s written a great new book on a subject near and dear to my heart: rooftop agriculture.  On Sunday, April 10th from 2-4 pm, if you happen to be in Portland, OR,  you should make it your aim to come to Noble Rot, the restaurant where I run the rooftop garden, and MEET Annie in person, where she will surely GREET you, because it will be a small, personal affair.  You will hear her speak, all the while NOSHING and DRINKING courtesy of the Noble Rot kitchen, which will certainly be employing some of its rooftop produce in the menu.  If weather permits you will TOUR the rooftop with me as your guide following Annie’s talk.  Finally, if you are even barely conscious, you will LEARN something important about how to grow food and how to grow it in unused spaces in our cities.  All this for $25.  And if  you opt for the slightly higher $35 ticket, you will get Annie’s new book The Rooftop Growing Guide.  The book retails for $23, so do the math to see that this option makes the meet/greet/nosh/drink/tour part cheaper!

Hope to see you there.

Get your ticket at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/your-garden-is-looking-up-how-to-grow-vegetables-on-a-roof-tickets-21002223215

Smashing Misconceptions


With this post I start a new occasional subline within the blog, similar to Tool Drool, this one about ideas or experiments that somehow remove a mental gardening barrier and open the way for innovation, which as a gardener may mean a longer season, earlier crops, a more bountiful way of growing an old favorite…you get the idea. So many times, I find, our own ideas get in the way of really seeing what is there. Just because you read something in a gardening book DOES NOT mean it’s an immutable law of nature which your plants must obey. Consider the alterative: Maybe the book’s claim was baloney; you bought the claim, and then that became a distorting lens through which you viewed your own gardening. Clearly a large part of any human life is believing what others tell us via history, chit-chat, and news, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do some of our own truth experiments from time to time and field-test what we’ve been given.
I hope you are also picking up the intentional duplicity in the “Smashing Misconceptions” title. If you aren’t then you need to read a column by linguist Richard Lederer: http://www.jewishworldreview.com/0103/lederer012303.asp, which besides its application to this blog’s title will also help you write a recommendation for a colleague or student about whom you are not 100% enthusiastic. While it’s true that we need to smash old paradigms to create the new, it may also be equally true that some of what we think are revolutionary ideas are just unsubstantiated whoppers. So is “Smashing Misconceptions” about my stunning gardening breakthroughs or is it just a catalog of some really excellent feeble-mindedness? You be the judge.
As Lederer closes his column, so I do mine: ” For many months I’ve wanted to write this column very badly. And now I have.”

Why I Love Chefs….Follow Up to the Edible Lawn


The other day I was discussing the edible lawn/Buckhorn Plantain with one of the Noble Rot chefs, and he was saying that the kitchen staff didn’t feel that the greens were as tasty this year as last, perhaps, he mused, for want of cold.  I wondered back to him if they had tried them cooked, and he said they hadn’t.  I returned to my planting, and he shortly disappeared down the hatch with some harvest, then not a minute later bounded back up with a plateful of sautéed lawn.  Chefs are great that way; they don’t sit around just wondering about food – they make it!

So here’s the verdict.  First of all, the plantain was sautéed in nice olive oil with garlic and lemon, so it took all of those flavors wonderfully.  It was tasty, chewy, maybe a bit fibrous, but not unpleasantly so.  My chef friend Patrick commented that it was chlorophilly, but that doesn’t mean much to my middle-school palette, so I’ll leave that one for the cognoscenti.  I do think the greens would be just perfect as a bed for a couple over-easy fried eggs, providing an appropriate bit of resistance to an otherwise too-soft egginess, and the plantain’s luscious deep green,  a delicious color counterpoint to white and yellow.

So there you have it from, not a Michelin-starred chef but from a humble tiller of the earth, who likes his greens toothy and a bit textured.  Let me  know if you find other ways you like this crop.

A Temporary, Edible Lawn

What if rather than trying to get the weeds out of your lawn, you could make a lawn out of weeds.  Well, wead on, dear weader, and you shall see how.

Besides its well-known medicinal properties, the common weed Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major) is a nutrient powerhouse, and thus gardeners everywhere should incline their eye toward it.  It apparently came to North America with the Pilgrims, and its ubiquity across the disturbed landscapes brought on by European colonization earned it the nickname “white man’s footprint.” Yet despite its generous nutrient package and non-necessity of cultivation, it is described as bitter and fibrous, and one website calls its preparation for eating “tedious”, which right there, in my opinion, is a death knell to a wider circulation among cooks (http://www.ediblewildfood.com/broadleaf-plantain.aspxi).  But what if we could take the weedy nature of broadleaf plantain, its hardy, no-help-needed attitude toward growing, and what if we could thin out and tenderize its leaves.  What if we could make, in essence, a super-nutritious grass-lookalike  which at least for part of the year could approximate a lawn.  What if nothing……it’s already out there!



What is that grass doing with prongs?  IT’S NOT GRASS!


Last year I wrote about my delightful discovery of a culinary plantain cousin, Buckhorn Plantain (Plantago coronopus).


Though new to me, the gardening community at large has prized it for centuries, especially in Italy under the name erba stella (it is also called minutina, though I do not know why, except, perhaps that its seeds are minute) .  Admittedly mild in the taste department, though neither inoffensive nor fibrous, it merits a try for its boldness in the shape department.  It’s long, shoelace-wide leaves sprout little antler prongs as it elongates, giving it strong visual appeal on the plate and earning it its common name. Watch out for these common names, though….another fibrous and bitter common cousin, the Lanceleaf Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) is also called Buckhorn Plantain, despite the fact that it hasn’t even the slightest hint of a prong.  Thus we must mark a victory for the botanical Latinists, who teach us not to put much stock in common names because they often conflict.

Anyway, this past fall I decided to try a very thick, cover-crop like sowing of erba stella aka buckhorn, and I was rewarded with an edible lawn!  The sheer density of growth keeps the plants small and tender, and it’s easy to just grab some scissors and give it a haircut.  From two years of my own experience, I can say that it appears tough as nails in the NW winter, and blogs and seed catalogs indicate that it is winter hardy with a little protection across the nation.

The website below gives some wonderful culinary uses for this plantain, including as a bed for seafood, cooked vegetables, and meat medallions, as well as the following mouth-watering suggestion:

“…try pan frying a handful of Minutina leaves in a buttered frying pan with fresh snipped chives and a fresh duck egg cracked on top. ”


With a buckhorn “lawn” on some of my raised beds, mowing the “grass” never tasted so good!  Anyone out there have a duck egg?


Little Gem Lettuces Race Out the Gate

photo (10)


Little Gems, meet your new view, the mid-winter Portland cityscape.


Today, under winter’s cloudy skies, but reasonably warm nonetheless (snowless, too; sorry, NY, DC, etc), I planted lettuce starts on the rooftop…the very same that I started a mere 25 days ago in my January 1st ritual seeding to augur in a good new year.  Normally I’m not too selective about what lettuces I plant for New Year’s; I just try to use up last year’s seed before the annual re-order, so it was by lucky chance that I had some extra Little Gem seed available.  Not only is this half-pint Romaine one of the cutest darn little veggies you can grow, it also happens to be one of the fastest.  Thus I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was cruising right along in my grow room last week looking ready for action outdoors, and today I was happy to oblige.


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I like to think of those little leaves as green hands waving good bye, telling me that they’ll be just fine.


Now I’m no greenhorn gardener who thinks that Nature must follow my planting whims, New Year’s ritual or not.  Rather it is I who must bend to its great dictates, and so I am totally prepared to get slapped in the face by a bracing cold, prepared to accept that my dear Little Gems might perish from my hubris to throw them premature into the soil.  I wasn’t a total egomaniac, however, and I did have some thought for their plight…I  gave them a Reemay blanket. Reemay, the lightweight polyethelene garden fabric, is good for a few degrees of frost protection should winter’s chill finger return.


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Reemay is a security blanket for cool-season veggies.  It lets light and water through, so you just set it and forget it.  It’s other name of floating row cover gives a clue that it won’t cramp the lettuces’ style.  They just push it up as they grow.


Still, I am a gambling man, and I have experienced winter shortening and gentling over the years, so I am willing to take a risk with an extra early lettuce plant out.  Plus, if they perish, I have more coming up in the grow room, and eventually they, and I, will prevail!

A Seed-Catalog Gardener’s Education

A friend and I were discussing the demerits of a college education the other night, railing on about the obscene tuition and the likelihood of getting a debt-weighted liberal arts degree only to pull coffee shots or sling pizza dough afterwards…that coupled with the irony that there has never been a an easier time to acquire the information dispensed by our institutions of higher learning.  Between the public library system and a good Wi-Fi connection, you’re pretty much in touch with “All That Is Known”.  Now  this isn’t an education reform blog, so I’ll stop there on the college thing, but I will say that something slimly analogous exists with gardening.



In winter’s darkest days a light comes forth from the mailbox, yes, an actual physical piece of mail in the mailbox – the exalted SEED CATALOG! Image courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds.


Some people think that to learn gardening one should attend a class or buy a few books.  Hey, I don’t discount that such a course may help you, but there is a cheaper way to get all that knowledge and more without even the effort of stepping outside your door: the seed catalog.  Starting around Thanksgiving, I begin to receive some of the true lights of winter….those glossy little magazines brimming with photos of summer tables and bounteous crops.  These act not only to fortify my spirit around the dark winter solstice, but they are also a complete gardener’s education in themselves.  Seed catalogs are not all equal,  but generally here’s what I might hope to mine from any given catalog.

First and invaluably, there are the photos of the crop varieties.  Despite an overall lamentation that we have lost a huge percentage of vegetable varieties that were grown in the early 1900s, there still is an overwhelming amount of choice in what to grow each season. Seeing a photo or two (albeit an often sexed-up version of the crop) can help steer you in a particular direction as can the brief verbal description of the variety.   While some catalogs will promise that every variety will “taste great”, others will try to be a little more honest about the trade-offs that all varieties necessarily make.  For example, one type of sweet corn might germinate well in cool soils, making it ideal for the earliest crop, and I’d be willing to bet that this precocity was bought at the sight expense of sugar, but if you live in upper Michigan, the trade of early (meaning you actually get corn versus just growing very tall grass) versus a bit more sweetness to your corn may be one you’ll gladly make.

Of course the seed catalog is designed to make you want to buy things and is in that sense propagandistic,  so the gardener has to develop an ability to read a little between the lines and guess educatedly about what really is being said beneath all that “great tasting” rah-rah.  Watch out for words like “acceptable”, as in ” This variety ripens tomatoes when nights are 50 degrees, with acceptable taste.”  Chances are you might apply the words “mealy” or “barely better than store bought”.  Evaluative wisdom comes with experience, so try what varieties you think will be good and see if the reality lives up to the description.

Not uncommon to see in seed catalogs are cooking notes and  recipes, and I admit to having been swayed toward a particular crop by a mouth-watering side bar.  We are, for the most part, going to eat the offerings in a seed catalog, and besides herbs, which are sui generis (and so generous) in flavor, we mostly will be looking for ways to combine crops in the kitchen for better effect.  If a catalog tells me that a particular variety of summer squash has a nuttier taste and firmer flesh than its counterparts, I may be swayed toward it, thinking about its performance on the grill.  If I have grown ground cherry in the past and used it only sparingly, I may be motivated to grow it again if I see a photo of it dipped in chocolate….hmmm, never thought of that!

Beyond the particularities of variety, there are also the characteristics of the crop as a whole, as in whether your peppers are red, yellow, orange, skinny or fat, they are still peppers, Capsicum annum, with common needs and preferences.  So usually there are some notes at the head of each section about the generic crop requirements.  While some of these seemed aimed at those with a Twitter-feed attention span, other catalogs take you as a gardener very seriously and provide substantial growing information: everything from when to plant to when to harvest to how to store to what kind of pests and disease you can expect (and what to do about it).  Some catalogs are just-the-facts-ma’am plainspoken, others revel in the rich cultural histories of crops and varieties, and I won’t say that I don’t enjoy these mini-history lessons and digressions.

Finally, don’t ignore the tool and gear section.  Here you will find a parsing-out of the merits of various hoes, a bevy of season-extension equipment, special knives for harvest, non-kinking, lead-free hoses, and maybe some functional garden art.  There is usually also a book section, but if you’ve received a few catalogs in the mail, you can skip that.  You’ve got everything you need in those catalogs…for free!

As a grower, my favorite catalog is that of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which is a virtual Harvard University of growing information.  Access it online at: http://www.johnnyseeds.com/, but I recommend the paper catalog as well.  It’s a day-brightener during the gloom of winter.