Veggie Gardening at home
Orin Pierson / Petersburg Pilot
Tonna Parker’s compost bins made from pallets and salvaged roofing material where seaweed, chicken manure and garden debris spend a year turning into nutrient rich soil.
Throughout this sunny summer, and thanks in large part to the continued success of The Market, locally grown produce was more available in Petersburg than any time in recent memory. But it begs the question, why hasn’t local produce been more available in town, and what stops people around here from growing their own food?
To examine these questions we visit the gardens of some of this season’s most abundant food growers to talk about techniques they’ve used to overcome the commonly perceived roadblocks to growing food in this climate. We’ll also hear about less well known challenges and their solutions and new growing ideas that can be applied in a garden, greenhouse, lawn, or even on a porch.
The first stop was with Tonna Parker in her Garden on Second Street. Parker has, over the course of four years of work, transformed an average back yard into a robust, little farm.
Mitkof Island, especially those areas in and around Petersburg, are lacking in available fertile soil. Muskeg is not a hospitable gardening environment.
But the sea offers a bounty that can very easily be transformed into rich soil.
By composting the gardener can, in the span of one year, turn organic materials like seaweed, kitchen scraps, crab and shrimp shells, fish, chicken manure and more, into fertile usable soil.
A compost bin needs to have air circulation and needs to be coverable. At the Parker’s Garden the bin is made from pallets with a sheet of salvaged metal roofing to cover. But even a tarp could work as a cover.
“You have to make your soil,” said Parker. “If you are a gardener of your soil, you will have vegetables and flowers.”
“There was a little bit of soil here four years ago. I added sand to it, to get drainage, and added seaweed, then chicken manure. I didn't do it to big areas. I did it just in rows,” said Parker.
The secret to her successful rows has been to amend the rows with fresh nutrients each spring.
“I fill the row with all kinds of good stuff. You layer like lasagna. Put some seaweed, and then some dirt, and some manure, and some dirt, whatever you've got,” said Parker.
“When your baby plants get a little bigger and their roots hit that first layer of goodness, their roots start popping and then hit the next layer and the next,” continued Parker.
In these rows one can plant anything that will grow outside.
“We can grow beets and carrots and Brussels sprouts. In the spring, bok choy, spinach, arugula, all kinds of lettuces, mustards, cabbages, broccoli, beans,” said Parker. “Red Runner Beans grow best here. The regular beans have to be enclosed, because they are more susceptible to the rain.”
Another common misperception of local would-be gardeners is the fear that with so much rain, it’s too wet to grow anything.
In an ordinary year, it’s too wet for basil, tomatoes, zucchini or cucumbers to be outside. Those plants need more heat to grow.
“We’re definitely on the edge to grow some things here. We utilize the raised beds and we can use greenhouses or a cover to help us. Some things will grow fine with just a cover and no sides, just to keep the rain off. Things that love heat need the full enclosure,” said Parker.
To grow a variety of veggies throughout the whole year a greenhouse of some kind is called for. In planning a greenhouse one should remember it needs to be located in the sunniest possible place - in Petersburg that should be the southern or southwest side of the property. Size does matter. The larger the greenhouse, the more heat it holds at night.
“You're after heat when doing a greenhouse,” said Parker. “The little tiny ones work, but they're not that efficient. Bigger is better, but don’t let that stop you, if you don't have space for it, build a lean-to on the sunny side of your house.”
Parker’s greenhouses are constructed from clear sheet plastic stretched over ribs fashioned from electrical conduit. All materials can be purchased at local hardware stores.
Inside the greenhouse, the gardener should plant in raised beds, amended with nutrients, just like the outside beds.
The rain protection and the extra heat naturally created within the greenhouse enable the gardener to grow far more sensitive vegetables like tomatoes, cucumber, squash and pumpkins.
“In the greenhouse I grow year round,” said Parker. “I add no heat, and I’ve been experimenting with different plants.”
“In the winter, I do a double row cover...and I have my greens planted in there. We are able to have salad all year,” said Parker.
On the rows she wants to cultivate through the winter she stretches plastic over ribs built into the rows, creating a mini-greenhouse-within-a-greenhouse, and generates enough heat to keep the food growing.
“One thing you’re always looking for when growing in a greenhouse, you need plants that are aggressive,” said Parker.
This knowledge is very regional and conditionally based and can best be obtained by talking to other gardeners.
Parker explains, “Just because I’m growing what I do here, doesn't necessarily mean you can too. It just depends, if you're down on the water and you have lots of cool wind coming in from the Sound you've got a different growing situation. Once you find something that works well you can share that with fellow gardeners, by collecting the seeds of your successful plant.”
Tonna Parker shies away from hybrid and GMO (genetically modified organism) plants in her garden. Nearly every plant is heirloom. She wants to be able to find the seeds that work here, collect them and keep them going. “Because we know they work here,” added Parker.
One of the greatest challenges the Petersburg gardener will face is slugs. The weapons against these slimy villains are many and imperfect. People use beer traps, line raised beds with copper or plant something as slug bait. Slugs seem drawn to spicy plants.
In Parker’s garden there is a very effective slug weapon. Ducks - five of them. They patrol for slugs and they lay healthy eggs. While they patrol the garden their droppings fertilize the beds. While very effective, the owner will need to watch for predators like eagles, mink and marten.
Given half a chance, deer will eat the fruits of your gardening labors, a problem with a simple solution according to Parker.
“Fence it. Free seine net at the dump. Just go get some. Go get some alder poles, stick them in. Hang it up tight and go for it. If they can see through, then you want it too high for them to jump over it,” said Parker.
Lack of space
If lack of space to garden is what’s holding you back, look no further than Parker’s garden. She has several great examples of salvaged materials turned into lush gardens for the porch or tabletop. In one case she used found plastic water treatment barrels, sawed them in half, drilled holes in the bottom and added rocks for drainage, then filled them with the good stuff: seaweed, compost, manure. Now they grow cucumbers.
“Fill it and plant. Keep it watered,” she said. “You can easily have a garden with just that, if you don’t have dirt.”
Old metal totes also can be used by drilling a hole in the bottom for drainage.
“You can grow a garden here, and if you don't own property, years and years ago, they used to grow their gardens on barges. We've got seaweed and seaweed is huge here. It doesn't take much,” said Parker.
Buillding raised rows of rich amended soil allows proper drainage of rain and is crucial for growing outdoor veggies like carrots, cabbages, and beets.
Gray mold is one of the less obvious obstacles for the Southeast gardener, but it too can be worked around. Low summer temperatures and tremendous moisture create opportunity for fungus and mold to take hold of your plants.
When temperatures drop to the low 50s the mold can grow and little can be done. Try to keep greenhouse temperatures above 55ºF, and walk the fine line between filling the beds with as many plants as will fit and leaving enough between the plants for good air circulation, to fight the buildup of moisture. Keep watch on plants when temperatures drop. If mold appears, harvest the veggies and pull the plants out of the beds. Immature tomatoes ripened in the cellar are preferable to the crop being lost to mold.
Visit neighbors who successfully grow and talk about what works for them. This climate is not an effortless place to grow food, but by working smart and persisting, a garden can overflow with an edible, healthy abundance of food.