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Oh, my aching muscles...

By Wendy Tweten

Rejoice. Miss Snippy is hip at last. Fifteen years growing vegetables and suddenly our obsession has become the nation’s hobby. Of course, Miss Snippy is hardly alone: we who pimp out our potting sheds rather than our rides, and who prize a heady pile of manure above diamonds always knew that one day the rest of America would recognize the innate suavité of the organically inclined, five-servings-a-day, garden geek.

Even the First Lady is getting into the act. Part of the White House lawn has been ripped out to make way for produce production, and Michelle Obama has been busily shoveling sod for the television cameras. For a moment, let’s cast ourselves in the role of Mrs. Obama’s gardening coach. First, those shiny chic boots have to go. We’ll replace them with something comfortable, waterproof, and entirely unsuited to state dinners. Add a pair of jeans with stained knees and a sun-faded jacket whose pockets bulge with old plant tags and fugitive potting soil. Now we can take her seriously as a gardener.

If Mrs. O had started her garden last fall, we would have suggested she simply smother the South Lawn beneath layers of newspaper at least six sheets deep. The paper would then be buried under several inches of organic mulch and allowed to sit undisturbed for six months or more. When choosing mulch for vegetable gardens, one must be fussy: for instance, Miss Snippy reserves cedar chip based stable waste and tree service wood chips for ornamental beds, and applies compost or aged manure to an impending potager. We doubt the White House will condescend to beg for free mulch—such as stable sweepings and wood chips—as does the unfunded, private-sector gardener. All the more for Miss Snippy.

Practical matters

When it comes to square footage, the First Lady and, indeed, any gardener who employs a grounds crew can build a garden upon which the sun never sets. For the rest of us, however, smaller is better—at least at the outset. Miss Snippy favors mounded beds eight to ten feet long, four feet wide, and six inches high; smaller beds can dry out too quickly. Full-day sun is ideal, especially here in the maritime Northwest, though some crops (lettuce, cabbage, spinach, carrots, potatoes, and broccoli) may get by on as few as six hours of direct sun.

It’s a shame Mrs. Obama’s garden isn’t located in the Pacific Northwest, because we have some first-rate seed companies here that specialize in varieties for our clement climate. Among these are Ed Hume Seeds, Territorial, and Nichols Garden Nursery. For the most part, these companies avoid heat-craving peppers and heirloom squash better adapted to San Antonio than Seattle.

We also have it over the “other Washington” in that our mild winters practically demand we extend our vegetable growing year-round. The president may dine with heads of state in January, but it won’t be on Brussels sprouts, leeks, chard, and parsnips plucked fresh from his wife’s garden. Here on the West Coast, we owe it to ourselves to pursue the joys—and, yes, challenges —of winter gardening. Good references include Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest by Binda Colebrook; Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades by Steve Solomon; The New Organic Grower’s Four-Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman; and Seattle Tilth’s planning calendar, The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide.

Planning ahead

Ah, spring. When the days grow long and warm, it’s time to think about winter crops. Brussels sprouts and broccoli can be started as early as May to be transplanted out in summer and dined upon in fall and winter. Often, the biggest challenge to four-season gardening is remembering to leave space in the beds. Soggy soil is another challenge; once again, raised beds to the rescue. Cold frames are great, but if you—like Miss Snippy—are handier with a hoe than a hammer, row covers are a good substitute: on the plus side, they don’t overheat as do unopened cold frames on suddenly sunny days. On the other hand, wood-framed cold frames don’t blow away. Row cover retains heat for more delicate crops and protects root crops from maggots.

Cool weather crops are bothered by few pests but slugs. Control them by leaving an old piece of untreated lumber on the ground nearby and check beneath it daily. Don’t wait for the last minute to order seed. When possible, look for varieties appropriate to fall and winter gardening. Territorial Seed Company puts out a special winter catalog with good cultural information. Germination can be difficult in the heat of summer; regular watering is one solution. Soft growth is winter tender, so plants mustn’t be overfed: one cup per ten row feet of organic fertilizer at planting and some good compost should do it. Overwintered plants (for spring or summer harvest) can be fed again when growth resumes, usually March. Finally, transplanted seedlings are shocked seedlings and need an extra few weeks to catch up to their direct-seeded brethren. Of course, transplants do have advantages, including better control of watering and insects, as well as allowing time for a garden bed to become available.

In the end, Michelle Obama may wander from her vegetable garden to hobnob with royalty, but she will never know the satisfaction of collecting a basket of homegrown Brussels sprouts on a frosty Christmas morning. Poor Mrs. O.


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