Sunday, March 6, 2011

March Food Group: Planning Your Kitchen Garden

Our March Food Group was canceled due to a family emergency, however the seed swap will be held during April's meeting, and the outline and resources from the event are shared below. You are invited to chime in down in the comments section for additional discussion, and we'll put out the call for double the homemade treats in April to make up for missing homemade goodies this month!

Planning Your Garden ~ What to Grow & Where to Grow It

{SE Portland front yard kitchen garden circa 2009}

What level of gardener would call yourself?

Your heart's in the right place
But your hands have never been in the soil

Green Thumb
You have dirt under your fingernails
And a few growing seasons under your belt

Garden Graduate
You've been harvesting veggies year after year
Now you're ready for new challenges

{ Food for Thought }

Which vegetables and herbs to you most often purchase at the market?

Think about your favorite recipes and seasonal dishes and the average number of times you grab a particular type of produce and put it in your basket. Would you rather buy New Seasons' organic cilantro imported from California for $1.49 a bunch, week after week, or harvest home grown cilantro all season long for the one-time cost of seed or starts?

What inputs go in to producing those crops?
What types of chemicals, labor, fuel for transportation, etc. are in play?

Do you know where those inputs come from, how they're created and funded? Do you have a sense of the sociological, ecological, and nutritional impacts?

What amount of trade off in time and effort would you be willing to invest for the opportunity to harvest those same foods from your own garden?

Be realistic; be educated. Even if you're not able to daily tend a 40'x40' plot out in the country, ask yourself which few crops would make the biggest impact to your food budget bottom line and which reasonable next step would be right for you. For those crops that you're unable to grow yourself, remember to use your dollars to support sustainable sources (small scale producers, farmers markets, CSAs).

{ What to Grow }

Seed catalogs & nursery sales are calling: what will you cultivate this year?

{Organic garden starts available at the Portland Farmers Market}


Get your fingers dirty for the first time and focus on growing a few easy crops (lettuce, beans, peas, cherry tomatoes, potatoes, onions, zucchini, corn, strawberries) ~ perhaps avoid finicky carrots or overly needy heads of cauliflower.

Reward yourself with the gratification of color: string up a line and grow my favorite, Purple Podded Pole Beans. Plant a patch of edible flowers like borage and nasturtiums and liven up your salads for the rest of the year.

Choose when to buy starts versus seeds. Tip: when you're not bothering with cold frames and greenhouses and basement grow lights, buy hot weather, long season plants as starts to get a jump on Oregon's shorter growing seasons - tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, etc.

A quick kitchen garden jump start: plant your first herb garden to have fresh sprigs on hand and to reduce pricey purchases of minuscule bundles packaged in excess plastic and labels. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme are popular for a reason.

Don't plant too early: remember that crazy Oregon frosts come rolling in long after the calendar says "springtime." Check for the region's last frost date before you set your tender little seeds and starts out to live a life on their own. Mother's Day was always our family's rule of thumb for safe vegetable garden planting in the Willamette Valley.

Green Thumb

Ready to extend the savings and the rewards? Push the growing seasons.

Stop buying starts at the nursery. Consider sowing seeds indoors well before the last frost date so that you're ahead of the game once the springtime weather is ready to place nice. Beware of what not to grow (for example, beans do not transplant well), but be encouraged by the possibility of harvesting your own melons well before the autumn rains kick in.

Add cooler weather crops to your planting mix (greens like kale and chard, garlic, and cover crops like clover to enrich your soil fertility during the slower seasons).

Introduce perennial plants into your garden (rhubarb, asparagus, artichokes, berry vines); these edibles will grow in place year after year and can become foundational elements of your garden's layout and design.

Use companion plantings to aid with pest control, soil fertility, and crop yields. Handy chart.

Garden Graduate

Eliminate the need to purchase seeds
altogether! Plant seeds saved from previous seasons' heirloom varieties which will grow true to type. Build your own seed library and swap with other gardeners. (See notes below for details on the Portland Seed Library.)

Take on new cultivation challenges
: Meyer lemons, limes, blood oranges, kumquats, feijoas, etc. (See a recent Portland foodie's article on growing Mandarin oranges.)

Supplement locavore meals with home grown and home brewed beverages:
Grow your own green tea (Camellia sinensis is available from Territorial Seeds)
Grow your own hops for home brewed beer
Grow your own sweet flowering herbs for making sparkling beverages (try Jessica Prentice's hibiscus and rose hip soda, yarrow ale, or lemon verbena ale from Full Moon Feast)

{ Where to Grow It }

Think about your available space and its proximity to the kitchen, water sources, and sunlight. Pay attention to soil health.

{Vestal Community Garden garden plot circa early 2010}


Just starting? Try a few pots on your balcony, stoop, or windowsill. The larger the better for keeping moisture in the soil and giving ample room for roots.

Balance your potting soil mix with additional compost in order to ensure enough soil density to support strong root growth (especially important for taller, heavier plants like tomatoes). Any friendly neighborhood garden center will point you in the right direction for healthy, organic soils.

Siting tips: if you're surrounded by shade, focus on root vegetables and and leafy greens. If you're blessed with plenty of sun, put in more of the plants that require the sunshine to fully develop large, colorful fruits (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers).

Green Thumb

Ready to move beyond the bounds of pots?

Consider gardening in your yard: remove an area of lawn and build up the soil. Plant edibles among your flower beds (be certain you're using herbicide and pesticide free gardening methods).

Construct raised beds for ease of soil building, of maintenance, and harvesting.

Interested in more growing space and opportunity to rub shoulders with your neighbors? Investigate the Community Garden plots available near you and jump on a waiting list or start a local effort.

Garden Graduate

Ready to take on multi-seasonal planning? With a little strategic forethought and effort, crop rotation zones will push your garden toward optimal soil health and higher yields.

You guide the formation of ecosystems when you plant your garden. To introduce a higher diversity of soil-living microorganisms, balance the populations of beneficial (and non-beneficial!) insects, and build the overall soil structure, move the location of certain types of plants from one growing season to the next.

To learn more, browse Julie Day's Crop Rotation Made Easy and the No Dig Vegetable Garden.

{ What Next? }

Local Seed and Start Sources:

Great Books to Have on Hand:
Maritime Northwest Garden Guide: Planning Calendar for Year-Round Organic Gardening
Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades

Helpful Web Resources:
Planting a Vegetable Garden by Rod Smith
Oregon State University Extension Service Gardening Encyclopedia
OSU Planting Guidelines

Hands On Learning Opportunities:

**Note: Although we weren't able to meet in person for Food Group, Bethany W. provided a few great resources over email to share with the gr0up:

Borrow (and return) Free Seeds from the Portland Seed Library and seed saving project. "We had a seed swap there this past weekend and I can tell you with certainty there is no need for anyone in the Portland area to buy carrot, spinach, chinese cabbage or orach seeds! [There] are plenty of other seeds too but there is an excess of these and some others due to a mammoth donation from a seed company and since they won't last forever we are really trying to get people to take them." See the Seed Ambassadors Project e-zine for more news and updates.**

Remember, gardeners are a friendly bunch - grow something new, ask questions, learn along the way, and celebrate serving up the fruits of your labor...

{Garden Fresh Produce = Joyful Meals}

"If you've never experienced the joy
of accomplishing more than you can imagine,
plant a garden."
~Robert Brault

Again, so sorry to have missed the company and good food for our March Food Group. Hopefully the ideas outlined here will be a helpful jumping off point as we all begin to plan our springtime plantings. Be sure to bring seeds and stories for swapping at our April Food Group ~ and feel free to share discussions below in the meantime...


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