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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.


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.

Onion Plants

Garden Onions

As in previous years, we will have onion sets at the Mid-Columbia Market at the Hub/NW Food Hub on the corner of Goethals and Gillespie in Richland, starting Thursday, March 13th.  They will be bundled in groups of 30+ for $2. This year we have three old favorites, and a new red which is recommended as a replacement for the discontinued Mars variety that was so popular.

Ailsa Craig
Said to be one of the largest growing varieties available, this is an open pollinated sweet onion.
Hybrid yellow storage onion.  Not as sweet as a sweet onion, but sweeter than most storage onions.
Red River
Hybrid, sweet red onion. Should size up quickly and keep well for a non-storage onion.
Walla Walla
Large, open pollinated sweet onion.  This one needs no introduction.

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.


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.

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.