This appeared in the Saturday, May 14 , 2015 issue of the Register-Guard.
With the arrival of spring comes a whole new set of challenges and opportunities in the garden.
Now is the right time to get a kitchen herb garden and some cold-hardy plants started in containers, which are easy to move inside should frost return.
“We’re having an early spring, which is great in so many ways because we’re getting all these plants out early and everything is blooming, but we aren’t past the last frost date yet,” says Amy Doherty, a Master Gardener in Eugene whose interest is in adaptive and urban gardening.
Doherty gardens in containers on her second-floor apartment balcony that is blessed with a south-facing sliding glass door that turns a few feet of her living room into a mini-greenhouse.
“We can get frost until mid-May, generally speaking,” Doherty says. “So depending on what plants you are willing to risk you can go ahead and start planting now.”
For example, she says, “I’ve got some things like peas and lettuces but should we get a frost I’m only going to be out about $2 in seeds, so it’s not going to be a big loss. If you found some fabulous plants or you invested in a bunch of plants in 4-inch pots, keep those inside on your windowsill a little bit longer.”
Unfortunately, most of the soil in our valley is heavy clay, which is the primary issue that gardeners struggle with.
“Clay soil is heavy and when it’s saturated, water just sits in it,” Doherty says. “If you’re trying to figure out if you can plant something, if there is obviously water when you go out and dig a hole that area is not ready yet.”
You can get the soil ready by adding a lot of organic matter and compost to build soil quality.
Overcome drainage issues by using containers or creating a raised bed. “You will be able to plant earlier if you’re container planting so that’s a good way to start,” Doherty says. “You can move containers into someplace warmer if you get that freezing weather and you won’t have drainage issues.”
If you’re picking a new garden site, choose the spot to meet the needs of the plants you want.
“Think about sunlight. Think about soil. Think about irrigation. Veggies need a minimum of six hours (of sunlight),” says Brooke Edmunds, Oregon State University Extension community horticulturist for Linn, Benton and Lane counties. “Do you need to amend with organic matter to help break up a heavy clay soil? Now is the time to plan for putting in a drip irrigation system, which is so much less labor intensive than hand watering and uses much less water.”
Marty Gascoyne, co-owner of The Country Gardener in Eugene, says the most important thing about kitchen gardens is placement.
“What most people don’t think about is relationship to the kitchen,” he says.
“We see so many people with kitchen gardens with the garden way out in the back. Getting dressed up to go outside to get a handful of herbs isn’t something you want to do, so placement is the first crucial thing to think about.”
The kitchen garden doesn’t have to be in a typical kitchen garden, either.
“One of the new concepts is the edible landscape,” Gascoyne says. “So you can put rosemary, thyme, oregano, tarragon and even dill anywhere. If you plant them near the kitchen, when it’s time to go pick your herbs you just step out the back door with your scissors instead of going out to the back 40.”
Over Gascoyne’s 35 years in the landscape business, he has observed the conversation shifting in a few key ways.
“We talk a lot about the urban forest,” he says, referring to the concept of including natural ecosystems in city areas, “but the thing about the urban forests is that it screens out that wonderful light that gardens need.”
Also, in decades past people were more interested in softscapes — plants and lawns — but in the past 10 to 15 years homeowners became more interested in patios, outdoor living areas and a landscape full of edibles.
“This is the reemergence of that back-to-the-roots movement that we had in the late 1960s and ’70s,” he says. “People are growing their own. We’re more concerned about where our food comes from and, boy, you really know where it comes from when it comes from your own backyard.”
Gascoyne’s garden designs regularly incorporate edibles and the “urban farm” aesthetic that his customers are increasingly requesting. “That’s where people are going now,” he says. “They’re thinking about chickens, they’re thinking about bees. So they’re thinking about designing landscapes with all of these things included.”
When planning your kitchen herb garden, choose herbs you will use regularly. Doherty also suggests interspersing your herbs throughout the rest of your garden to attract pollinators for the other plants you wish to grow.
“If you’ve got rosemary, lavender and sage and you’re letting them bloom those are things that bees love so those are good things to have in your garden,” Doherty says. “If you want convenience you can put five or six herbs in a 10-inch pot and keep those by the kitchen.”
Annuals like parsley and cilantro are easy to grow from seed. Buy pots of perennials such as lavender, sage and chives. Try to select varieties that are suited to our growing region. “There are many varieties that do really well in the Willamette Valley,” says Edmunds, who recommends a few proven varieties with great flavor:
Peas may be sown as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. Sugar Snap is a snap pea that needs a trellis. Cascadia and Sugar Daddy are good snap-type, bush-type peas that could do well in a container. Oregon Giant is a recommended snow pea type. Oregon Trail and Oregon Pioneer are good shelling peas.
Seed potatoes can be planted up to three weeks before last frost date. French Fingerling is a good fingerling (small and stubby in shape) potato. Yellow Finn is recommended for its creamy texture and pale yellow flesh. Choose Kennebec (white) or Norland (red). Edmunds recommends buying certified seed potatoes to avoid virus problems.
Most lettuces can be planted as early as the soil can be worked and will germinate at temperatures as low as 40° F. Try looseleaf types for cooler season plantings such as Red Sails (crinkly burgundy leaves), Salad Bowl (large, lime-green rosettes), Oaky Red Splash (green-tinged red leaves).
Many annual flowers can be direct-sowed as soon as danger of frost has passed. Good annual flowers to start from seed indoors are petunia, impatiens, salvia, statice, snapdragons and celosia. The same planning and ground prep guidelines apply to flowers.
The Oregon State Extension offers a PDF guide to Oregon gardening called “Growing Your Own: A Practical Guide To Gardening In Oregon, Featuring Vegetable Varieties, Planting Dates, Insect Control, Soil Preparation and More.” To access online: https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/files/project/pdf/em9027.pdf .
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