Saturday, July 30, 2011

Garden tour part 2: Backyard

The backyard has been substantially altered in the past year. We had one large old apple tree removed, several small trees and large shrubs removed, a fence put in around the back and side, a big chunk of lawn removed, and six sloped beds double-dug on the west side for a vegetable garden. Our property borders on a bike path/public easement with a lot of trees, so the back fence is heavily shaded in the summer. Since we removed some trees, it's a bit of a test this year to see what areas are still too shady for most vegetables and what areas could be utilized for more beds.

From the left out of the back door: potted eggplant, lemon, lime; tomatillos and a large climbing rose in the back.

Around the corner, new raspberries and grapes (in the corner) training up to a trellis on the fence. Plus an embarassing amount of weeds.

Tomatoes and a two-year-old fig tree, with a semi-bush ("semi"?) winter squash. The fig has put on a ton a growth this spring, so I'll probably give a it a lot more space next year.
Tomatoes on the left, garbanzo beans on the right, intensively planted apple trees in the back.

Back behind the garbanzos and tomatoes, some pot projects. Lettuce that is *done,* "wonderberry" solanum, sad dill plants, shiso starting up.

Camillia senensis, real tea plants! These guys are on the border of the shade line and may need more sun.

Back corner, tough area to plant. Shady and dry in summer, sun and very wet in spring. We've got some evergreen huckleberry, bunchberry, miner's lettuce, monkey flower, and some ornamental shrubs. A sad Goji berry in the pot. The tarps are there to kill off the last bits of sod.

Back fence, shady, needs some thought and work.

Compost corner

Herb and brassica bed. Drying mustard (for seed), epazote, basil, fennel, and some fall cabbages.

Little bed under a window. This was supposed to be a new perennial kitchen herb area, but the reseeding calendula have taken over!

Overview of the newly-dug out vegetable beds on the side of the house

Quinoa. Plants on the right were seeded earlier and less close together than the plants on the left. Everything flowered at the same time, though, indicating the importance of getting growth on the plants as early as possible.

Multicolor sweet corn. This variety ("Festivity") was supposed to be bred for low fertility situations, so far so good without fertilizer!

Potatoes from true potato seed in foreground, some root veggies in back. I'm totally psyched for the Peruvian/Bolivian TPS potatoes. One of the plants has grown to about 3 foot diameter, I hope it produces a decent tuber!

Leeks, bunching onions, zucchini; lentils in back. Empty space was some spring-sown favas, finally finished up a couple of weeks ago.

Tons of beans! Pole beans need more, more, more climbing space.

One nice big Long Island Cheese squash, with beans in back.

Arbor at end of the side yard, with preexisting irises and roses. Maybe a climbing edible can be incorporated along the fence or arbor?

Garden tour part 1: Front yard

Most of the focus of my gardening energies for the past year have gone to the backyard -- putting in the new fence, digging out six new beds and planting a greatly expanded veggie garden. The front yard has been comparatively neglected. We've shaved space out of the front lawn for strawberries and planted many young perennial edibles among the ornamental shrubs, but the basic structure of the front garden is roughly the same as when we moved in. My goal for next fall in to greatly reduce or eliminate the front lawn and restructure the garden, with an emphasis on perennials and dwarf fruit and nut trees. Ultimately I'd like the front to be largely perennials (although possibly with some attractive beds for patches of annuals) in order to reduce the amount of active rotational planting that needs to be done in the up there. I want the front yard to be attractive, but I also want to reduce the amount of time spent on this area, because it is tough to watch my mobile toddlers and garden at the same time outside of the fence.

Front of the house -- cute eh?

Front lawn. Our house is on a corner lot, and the front lawn is framed by a berm of established shrubs and trees. As you can see, there's a lot nice sunny area to work with once the lawn is removed.

Front walkway with a lot of bulbs. There's a new weeping mulberry hidden back there too.

Old azaleas in the back, some sad peppers in front. There's also some flax flowers going to seed, which didn't work appearance-wise as well as I'd hoped. To the right are three young cherries trees planted "backyard orchardist" style, planted close together on the same rootstock.

A four-way Asian pear, with bulbs, annual flowers and a blueberry in the background. There's also a bunch of died-back camassia in this area. Camassia is a spring-flowering native bulb that was an important food source for Native Americans in the Willamette Valley.

An area where we removed the sod last year. It was meant to be planted with Brussels sprouts but cabbage aphids got them a couple of weeks ago. Left is some basil, a not-so-healthy squash, and some flowers.

Another new area. The chard is "Perpetual Spinach," supposedly a perennial chard. Also some more basil and (unfortunately) fried alpine strawberries.

So ... this is what happens when you plant "Golden Giant" amaranth too early and then fail to water it in June ... it only grows a foot tall! This actually would have been cute on the border, but it's crammed between some roses because it was supposed to be six feet tall.

Street side of the berm. Wow, this area needs some work. *sigh* There's some slow-to-come on dahlias in here, sunflowers, roses in background. In the right corner are a silverberry (which has never flowered/fruited, sadly, but has neat foliage), and a three-year-old aronia.

Row of newly-established blueberries, currants and gooseberries on the street side of the fence. Plus many, many weeds. Planning to put in drip irrigation and a thick layer of mulch to reduce the weed problem.

On the corner of our property, some bulbs and a young contorted quince. This is underneath a mimosa tree, a difficult shady, dry area to plant.

Near the birch tree, patch of Hood and Puget Summer strawberries, and some new artichokes, This area is sunny in the spring but may be too shady in summer to support these plants.

Sunnier area of Albion strawberries, "Charlotte" peach, gaulnettya and Chilean wintergreen berries, and golden bee balm. In back some baby rhubarb, parsley, minutina and sorrel patches.

"Nikita's Gift" Asian/American persimmon cross. Daylilies and blueberries in foreground.

More blueberries, lavender, some perennial flowers

Star magnolia tree behind an herb and succulent garden. I'd like to make this into a xeriscape, no-water area.

Ornamental plum tree on the edge of our property. The fruit produced on this tree is tasty but *tiny.* We're debating whether to keep this tree or replace it with something more productive.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Tomatillo madness

One of the many things to love about summer: There's always at least one plant that goes crazy with wild excess and abundance, gorging on every glorious photon. Oftentimes this plant is an old-fashioned winter squash, and while we've got one of those going to town in the main vegetable garden, this year's clear winner is the tomatillo.

Baby tomatillos June 4 (those little things next to the rose)

Monster six-foot tomatillos July 29

Down in Mexico tomatillos are considered to be a useful weed. They're prolific self sowers that pop up in corn field and on hillsides everywhere. Last year I grew three tomatillo plants in a different location, with a decent harvest of about 8 pints chopped. This year, with only two plants in a spot with radiating heat from the house, they're just going crazy. The bees are loving them too, so we're getting good pollination. May not get many ripe tomatoes this year, but the salsa verde is going to be awesome.

A side note on cultivation of tomatillos: You need two for cross-pollination. They say up to 1000 feet is sufficient for pollination, but that has not been my experience. The first year I tried to grow tomatillos, I asssumed they were self-pollinating like tomatoes, and planted my two plants on either end of a 20-foot row. They flowered their little hearts out, but only a couple of fruit formed. The 1000-foot rule may be useful for separation of varieties for seed-saving, however.

Why interplanting peas and tomatoes wasn't such a hot idea

It sounded like a good idea at the time: Plant peas in the spring, let them climb up the tomato cages a bit, and then cut the peas down when the weather turns hot and the tomatoes really start to put on growth. The main problem with the experiment can be summed up in a picture:

See, summer took for…e...ver… to come on this year. As a result the peas just grew and grew and grew, much taller than the 3-4 foot mark they were advertised as. This had the effect of shading out the poor shivering tomtatoes. By the end of pea season, three weeks after taking that picture, most of the peas were  a foot or two taller than all the tomatoes. Most of the 'maters are now bushy and healthy-looking, except for the poor Stupice which ended up ridiculously leggy for an outdoor plant. So little harm done, but they may have had better fruit set early on with a bit more direct heat.

I still like the idea of using some sort of cover crop or interplanting to shade out weeds underneath my tomato cages. Lentils are a possibility. I planted some lentils in one of the new beds this year, and found that (a) they're tiny plants, maybe 12" tall, but form a dense carpet when planted closely together,  (b) you can use store-bought lentils as the seed, so they're cheap, and (c) yield is miniscule for the area they take up, so devoting space just to lentils probably isn't wise unless you have a whole farm to spare. You only get one lentil seed per itty bitty pod, so the yield is pretty sad compared even to regular bush beans, let alone pole types. It is, however, a spring-sown legume that doesn't mind heat and won't overwhelm even young tomatoes. We'll see in 2012.

Lentil seed pod

Good fences make good neighbors. Or at least corral the children

After having kids, one of the frustrations of our house was the lack of a fence around our backyard. Our now-three year old lacks any sort of self-awareness or sense of danger around roads, and we are lucky enough to be on a corner with two of them running the length of our property, plus a public bike trail in the back. Last March we finally had a fence installed around the back and west side, which meant I could finally expand the vegetable garden without having to watch the oldest every second. The fence was built with edible landscaping in mind (as much as can be done in our shady backyard), with an arbor, trellis, and decorative side to let light in on the west veggie-bed side. It is made of untreated FSC certified cedar, with black locust posts made from a locally felled tree.

Old shady backyard. Bike trail is behind the trees to the left.

New, slightly less shady backyard. Trees from the bike trail still cover a significant part of the back, but now we have exposure from the west.

Old side yard with arbor. The arbor was cute but the only thing beyond here was some overgrown bushes and a couple of small raised beds. Access to this side was also blocked from the back.

New side yard, with new sloping beds dug out of the bark mulch.

New arbor, from the inside. I may plant some sort of climbing edible among the roses to get on top of the arbor.

Side fence pattern lets light into the vegetable garden

Street side of the fence, with young blueberries and currants planted on the slope down to the road

Built-in trellis, with baby grapes and raspberries. Previously this was a strip of lawn

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The site - overview

We bought our house (circa 1967) 3.5 years ago. This was the first time in my adult life with a plot of land at my disposal, so it was very exciting to learn about plant and soil biology and try my hand at a bit of gardening. I was a biology major in college but had focused on neuroscience, and since plants don't have brains Kingdom Plantae was pretty much virgin territory. You might think that a lot would have been accomplished since we bought the house, but two out of three years we've been here I've been massively pregnant during prime planting season, late spring. And my husband is the chop-up-and-compost man, not so much the plant-things-and-make-them-thrive man. So progress has been piecemeal, although I've had a chance to deeply study the yard and it's extant plants, and get some beginners experience at growing annual veggies. This year I am planning a big expansion of the annual garden on the side of the house, and maximizing perennial edibles in the front yard.

Between the two of us we've managed to take out some of lawn and put in a big collection of berry bushes (blueberries, huckleberries, currants, gooseberries, and honeyberries, plus individual specimens of aronia, silverberry, gaulnettya, and Chilean wintergreen.) We've also put in a fig -- which may or may not be getting enough heat, we'll see this year -- an Asian persimmon, and a four-way grafted monstrosity of Asian pears. Last fall we removed some trees and shrubs that weren't doing anything for the yard and eating up significant full sun territory. One of these, a huge, abused, suckering Gravenstein apple tree, will be missed, but the space it was taking up will be put to much better use with several dwarf fruit and nut trees, and extended annual garden space.

Goodbye, you vigorous old geezer of a tree

The front yard was already landscaped when we bought the place, containing about a dozen different roses, an azalea hedge, several decorative trees and a plum tree. I've filled in more of this with a bunch of bulbs (love you, Van Engelen) and some miscellaneous perennial flowers. Some of the trees have been removed to let in light, but the bones of the front yard are in place. We're filling in the space with perennial veggies and fruit (rhubarb, artichokes, strawberry patch, runner beans, perennial greens) and some intensively-planted fruit trees. Since the new trees will be young, we'll fill in with some annual veggies this summer. In order to attract bees and keep everything looking like a landscaped yard and not a food garden, everything will also be interspersed with flowers and herbs. Many of these new plants will be placed in former lawn converted to compost beds using the lasagna method. There's still some grass, but I hope to remove most or all of the rest next fall.

The back yard was more of a mess when we moved in. Most of the south end of the yard is shaded by an urban trail/bike path with a wild mix of Hawthorn and apple trees growing along it. This limits sun to the west side of the house and an area very close to the back of the house that gets some intense southern rays. Most of the back is in part or full shade in the summer, limiting food production. Despite this we are building six double-dug raised beds on the west side for annual veggies, and also have a new arbor to grow grapes and raspberries. Some of the new trees will also be squeezed into the back.


Welcome to the Portland Potager! This blog will chronicle one family's attempt to turn a typical suburban plot into an food production machine, while simultaneously maintaining a respectable-looking yard appropriate to the 'burbs. How much food can be produced on 1/3 acre plot, half of which is in shade? Can we avoid incurring the wrath of the neighbors, who have already expressed their displeasure at the previous owners' habit of growing corn in their front yard? Can this gardening newbie, who habitually kills houseplants through sheer neglect, even keep the dang trees and shrubs and veggie plots alive?