Friday, April 23, 2010

Ruminations on Veggie Gardening in the Banana Belt of Bend

I thought you might enjoy reading about one family’s gardening experiences. Sean shared this with his COCC colleagues last month, and I thank him for agreeing to share it with us. Sean and his family live about a half mile south of Sky View Middle School, in Quail Crossing.

Ruminations on Veggie Gardening in the Banana Belt of Bend

February 10, 2010

By Sean Rule, COCC Math Dept.

I love winter…don’t get me wrong. As the snow falls outside, I’m reminded of one of the many reasons my wife and I moved here. However, something happens to me starting each January…maybe it’s some strange biological clock triggered by the turning of the calendar from one year to the next (or that I grow weary of continually slogging my snow bike up Archie Briggs to COCC), but I begin to think about spring, turning the pond back on, and the wonderful veggie garden we sprout every summer.

Funny…when I lived in Delaware (which gets feet of rain per year, almost no late frosts, and boasts a long growing season), I never had a veggie garden. For that matter, I never aerated my lawn, weeded, nor even watered plants outside. No, I had to move to the high desert, with its short growing season, need for soil amendment, and mandatory irrigation to become a veggie gardener (cue Shawshank Redemption score). At least weeding’s easy in the loose “soil”.

This piece is a totally anecdotal collection of my ideas on gardening at 3200 feet (the NE side of town where we live is the lowest in elevation, and, therefore, is a little warmer than the remainder of town). It’s entirely open for criticism and suggestions; that’s how I learn most of the time. It will also most likely be amended in the future as I learn new tricks. I hope you can find some of it useful!

Where We Plant – Living in the NE side of town, we are blessed with minimal tree coverage on our lot (just a few small junipers), and a nice southern exposure for our garden. In the late spring to early fall, the sun will rise in (roughly) the northeast, swing around to the south in a huge arc, then set in (roughly) the northwest. A southern exposure maximizes warm nourishing sun rays for your veggies. We’ve created some raised beds out of rocks, and run some drip irrigation to the area for watering. Our garden beds are about 30 feet by 10 feet in total area, but I want them bigger. We’ve also amended them with sheep poop (OK, OK…manure). Soil in Bend is notoriously crappy for growing veggies except some root varieties, but, if you can cut the soil with some nutrients, the plants will be fooled into thinking they’re somewhere with lots of sun and good soil. If you need soil amendment, check Craigslist under “free”. Other good things to use for soil amendments nutrients are last year’s crops (tilled under) and sawdust.

What We Plant – Unless you have a greenhouse or cold frame or something that keeps fragile plants happy with artificially warm temperatures at night, you won’t be growing things like melons and peppers in Bend. We plant (with great success) corn, broccoli, zucchini, pumpkin, potatoes, squash, sugar snap peas, tomatoes, and pole beans. I’ve tried carrots and lettuce, but haven’t gotten them to succeed like the other species yet. This year, we’re going to try out asparagus (planting this year, for harvest in following years) and some raspberries.

Make sure that you plan your garden to allow your plants space. Most seed packets will tell you how far apart to place seedlings or seeds. Also remember that certain combinations of crops grow symbiotically; one combination we’re going to explore this year is the native American “three sisters” (corn, pole beans, and squash) planting idea.

When We Plant – A quick Google search will reveal that the “average last frost” in Bend is around July 28th. As a stats guy, I find this a little humorous (and meaningless). Saying Bend’s Average last frost is any date is like saying that Bend gets “300 sunny days a year” (hey…wait a minute!). If I waited until July 28th to plant crops, I’d never be able to grow anything. If you want a planting timeline chart, consider this one from OSU. However, I use the old adage passed down to me from neighbor…”When the snow’s gone from Black Butte, it’s time to plant”. If Bob Shaw predicts a random late frost, run out and put some covers over your plants in the early evening to keep them safe. I’ve also lined the area in between the rows of veggies with black material to absorb sunlight during the hottest part of the day; then, the heat is released at night around the plants’ roots.

How We plant – This part should actually be first, I suppose. I’ve found that many crops (broccoli, squash, corn, beans) can be directly seeded into the ground sometime in June. However, our delicate little tomatoes require a jump start, so we start them from seed inside in March. One lesson I’ve learned…keep the cats away. They seem to love tomato shoots. Also, I keep tomatoes out of the garden proper. Instead, we’ve built knock – off Earth boxes to keep them (and, potentially, other) “fragiles” safe. Make sure you put wheels on them…they get heavy! See, certain crops like broccoli can withstand some frosts safely (we get broccoli well into November), but tomatoes…well, they’re pretty wimpy. So, we plant the tomatoes into the earth boxes in the garage, wheel them out to enjoy the daily sun, then back in the garage to protect them from cold weather (and deer!) at night. We actually got our last heirloom Black Russians off the vine in the garage in mid – November, and had the sauce made from the final Romas with my family at Christmas!

Having your own veggie garden is so rad. Digging in the dirt and finding earthworms, releasing ladybugs to act as natural pesticides, marveling that an 8 – foot cornstalk’s entire genetic code is contained in one kernel…these are truly magnificent things. We save seeds from each year’s harvest to use in the following years; some of our heirloom tomatoes are in their 3rd generation now. Plus, there is nothing gastronomically more wonderful (nor nutritious) than pulling veggies off the vine and eating them minutes later.

I hope, if nothing else, you learned a little about what is possible in the wonderful, albeit challenging, world of Bend veggie gardening.

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