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Some Background

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What This Site Is About

Its philosophy, if that is not too pompous a term, you can and should read on the Apologia page: it is linked at the bottom of this introductory page (though we do present some of it here).


The Basics

What it's about depends to some extent on your focus. In the narrow focus, if you are a home vegetable grower living in the Columbia River basin region of southeastern Washington and northeast Oregon, this is a large amount of very direct information on gardening in your--and our--area: what cultivars of each vegetable, herb, and fruit are likely to do best here, and how best to grow them.

But, in a wider focus, the information here is probably applicable, and thus of interest and use, to home gardeners in a very much larger region--or, more properly, set of regions. That's because our conditions here are probably not so very different from those of much of North America. We will go into great detail about what those conditions are a little later on, but broadly speaking this is a region with four distinct seasons and no really gross extremes of summer high or winter low temperatures.

Our USDA "Zone" is 6a, very nearly 5b; but it is important to avoid worshipping at the altar of "Zone", because a Zone number does not tell anyone much of anything about a place save the typical coldest winter temperature; places with the same USDA Zone number can have seriously different climates. Our climate is, we think, pretty representative--as to temperatures, anyway, even if not necessarily rainfall--of a great many places in the United States. We imagine that the information on this site is useful, with only minor common-sense modification, to anyone living from Zone 4 to Zone 7, inclusive, and that sure takes in a lot of territory.

In truth, we are probably colder than the standard Zone maps show, because our exact situation is in a "frost pocket"--a slight depression in the general land level such that cold air tends to accumulate in it; we may well be Zone 5a or even 4; in any event, we get lots of cold snaps even in late spring and early fall, and so have a really abbreviated growing season. What grows well here should grow well almost anywhere in the U.S. outside (perhaps) of the deep south or the frozen far-north midwest, and maybe even in those places.

We want to make clear from the outset that we are not and do not claim to be highly experienced "master gardeners"--anything but. Indeed, we're a sort of litmus test: if we can grow it, anyone can. So why did we build this site, and why should you pay attention to anything on it? Because it only passingly represents our own "wisdom" about gardening. It is, rather, a mass of information culled, with immense--and we do not use the word lightly-- amounts of time and labor, from a wide pool of sources, mainly but by no means exclusively the internet. But it is not a simple paste-up of everything we could find. If this site has any value--and we hope and think that it does--it will be because of selectivity in assigning credibility weight to the many, many sources we consulted, who often disagree, sometimes sharply, on many matters, and because of a consequent smooth blending of all those sources' information into one pool.

Anybody can type an entry into a search engine and be deluged with "information". But, as the computer world says, GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. The degree to which a gardener ought to believe this or that source depends on many things, notably the source's credentials, the extent to which her or his or their pronouncements do or do not comport with what other "experts" say, and the likelihood that that source has a bias of some sort. We have tried to sift, weigh, and cull, and present here the results of that lengthy, tedious (and on-going) process.

Such a task, rightly undertaken, is never-ending: As Hippocrates famously observed, "Life is short, the art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult" (which is often compressed into the Latin Ars longa, vita brevis). But we feel we have achieved enough to justify this site's existence. It's up to you to decide for yourself if that is so.


A Little History

We moved to our present locale in the depths of the winter of 1997-1998. We had vegetable gardened before, but in an utterly different climate, so very little of our experience of vegetable varieties, or even of certain basic gardening techniques, was transferable.

We did not start a new vegetable garden directly after moving because we were then living in what we considered "temporary" quarters while looking for a piece of land to buy on which to build our dream (and, we hope, final) home. "Temporary" turned into two years, but in April of 2000 we finally moved in to that new home. Since we built from scratch on open land, there was nothing in place for gardening. With our just moving in so late in the gardening season, and with much else to do, we got virtually nothing useful done toward a garden in 2000.

But as we began working on plans for our new vegetable garden--which, our being vegetarians, would be very important to us--we discovered that the seeming wealth of information available on the internet and in gardening books has some major gaps. The first of those gaps is information specific to our location, which is the northwest "inter-mountain" area between the Rockies and the coastal Cascades, more particularly the Columbia River Basin; that location is in the Pacific Northwest, but virtually all references to "the Pacific Northwest" in a gardening context will turn out to apply exclusively to the coastal rim, which has a maritime climate strikingly different from that east of the Cascades.

The second lack we perceived is more general and of importance to every vegetable gardener. It is a lack of extensive, reliable information on the various varieties of each vegetable--their flavor differences, climate-related performance differences, and so on. Such minimal discussion as there was focussed solely on productivity--as if, say, all peas are exactly equal in merit, and only their productivity (or perhaps their disease resistance) mattered at all.

While a few particularly popular vegetables, notably tomatoes and corn, have a fair literature on their varieties, collecting that information still takes tedious scouring of the available sources; for most of the rest, information is thin indeed. That is not a casual opinion: we have spent many and many a weary online hour combing through thousands of search hits in reaching it. Consider, as just an example, broccoli: it is reported to be America's most popular vegetable, yet where are discussions of which variety--of the many, many available--tastes best?

The home gardener famously has radically different concerns from the commercial grower. One fellow, who works in plant biology, recounted that he was told--even he said it might be folklore, but it's what he heard--that experimental new onion cultivars once were "tested" by being thrown hard at a concrete wall: the ones that didn't smash were selected for further testing and development. Home gardeners are looking for many things, which differ in importance from gardener to gardener, but which certainly always include good flavor in their crops. Yet reliable flavor evaluations are what is notably lacking from all vegetable discussions.

Unreliable evaluations abound--every single vegetable in every single seed catalogue is invariably the very best ever of that sort. Personal-experience (which is to say "personal taste") reports are what scientists call "anecdotal": one-off data. Many "expert" resources, from university home-gardening centers to magazines and newspapers just recycle the same few long-outdated type lists (though a precious few universities really do keep up). So that mass of data is really just--in the raw form in which one finds it--useless noise: it requires extensive combing, sorting, and cross-comparing before it can begin to be useful, and there is little or no such cross-compared data out there. Attempts to remedy that lack were the seed from which this site has sprouted--but it has gone on to, we hope, much more.


Please, then, anything you read here that does not seem to comport with your own experience or knowledge--tell us! This site reflects what we are doing and planning to do, so both we and everyone who might read it will benefit from any emendations. (You can email us direct from the top and the bottom of nearly every page on this site.)


A Summary Overview Of Our Region and Situation

We are in a cool USDA zone 6 area (6a)--or maybe lower (colder)--with real winters, relatively short but pretty hot summers, and little rainfall. We are not seriously space-constrained. The terrain is level and clear. The soil is just a few feet deep (2 to 4 feet) over a basalt layer; it is decent but not great soil. Wheat has been grown very close by and perhaps, at one time, even on the space where our garden now is; the unamended soil is pretty low in nitrogen, high in pH, but very high in potassium and phosphorus (possibly from the ash layers that settled after the famous Mt. St. Helen's volcanic eruption a few years ago--this area was very, very heavily covered by it and you see it plainly in the soil even today).

We are vegetarians (but not vegans) and we really, really value taste in our vegetables. We are not "gourmet cooks" (whatever those are) but both of us cook and enjoy it, and we try to include both comfort food and elegant dishes in our diets.

We believe strongly in using open-pollinated seeds and saving seed. (Some day Real Soon Now, we'll expand that remark onto a page of its own, because the matter seems to us important in a large societal sense as well as in the personal, individual gardener's concerns.) The exceptions to the no-hybrids rule would be corn--some day we'll trial some OP, but that's down the line--and asparagus, which one plants once and virtually for ever; the exceptions to the seed-saving rule would be potatoes (for disease-related reasons), all brassicas (it being our understanding that saving brassica seed is, for the amateur, fraught with serious disease-related pitfalls and snares), and perhaps the squashes (owing to cross-pollination problems).

We also believe very strongly in the deep-bed gardening methods, especially as set forth by John Jeavons in his famous book with the memorable title How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine.

That book and John Seymour's classic, The Self-Sufficient Gardener, overlap a little but complement each other quite nicely (the later editions of Seymour's book also include and recommend deep-bed gardening methods). Reading Jeavons is like attending a seminar in California--charts, tables, worksheets galore, a "get with it" attitude, all enthusiasm and zip and energy; reading Englishman Seymour is like having a quiet, over-the-fence chat with a wise and friendly old gardener living up the road. Both books are of great value, both are good reading and good information: they're just interestingly different styles. Of the many gardening books we have read or looked into (by no means, however, has our perusing been an exhaustive survey), those two clearly stand out.

(Another invaluable book for the vegetable gardener, in our opinion, is the century-old, 620-page manual The Vegetable Garden, compiled by the Vilmorin seed company of France in 1885. Fortunately, it is available in a modern reprint--now out of print but readily available used--and is still extraordinarily useful for clear, accurate information, including discussions of most of the open-pollinated varieties available today.)

Blatantly self-serving commercial:
You can buy those books, and a few others we have found useful, by way of The Book Depository from this site;
here is the link to our bookshop page.


So much for an overview. A detailed description of our climate is, we think, worth your reviewing; while what appears on this site, including plant recommendations, is based on our precise local conditions, it is doubtless generally applicable, as we said earlier, to a large fraction of the continental United States, and even much of Canada--but you can best decide its relevance to your circumstances only if you know exactly what our circumstances are, hence our recommendation that you read about our climate. (But, with the realization, from running many web sites, that a lot of people want to jump right into the heart of the site, we have put that detailed description on its own page.)


Our Gardening Ideas

Even if you are skipping over--just for the moment, we hope--the detailed description of our climate, there are a few other things about our ideas on gardening that you should know as context for reading the rest of the site.

Beds and Crop Rotation

We believe that a four-year (and thus four-bed) crop-rotation scheme is absolutely vital for prudent long-term success: solanaceae, legumes, crucifers, and corn. (That too we will someday expand into a page of its own here.) One reads over and over that a minimum four-year rotation is required to keep the soil "clean" of potato blight (and other solanaceae diseases)--and potatoes are grown heavily in this region. The same need for rotation applies, with perhaps even greater force, to crucifers and clubroot disease, so they too fit the cycle. Plus there is a good logic to having any one bed get, in succession, legumes to "feed" the soil, then heavy-feeding corn to feast on that wonderful legume nitrogen bonus, then the solanaceae (which like to follow corn), and finally the crucifers.

(The drawback to that rotation scheme, if there is one, is that one needs to be growing roughly equal area-quantities of each of those four classes of vegetable, but for us that happens to work out satisfactorily.)

We also believe firmly in using raised, deep-dug (or "double-dug") beds wherever possible. (That topic, too, deserves and will someday get a page of its own.) The "standard" deep bed is 5 feet wide by 20 feet long, making a nice, easy-to-calculate-from hundred square feet. We don't like it. That five-foot width requires, for our aging and not slim bodies (one of which is 5'1" crown to toe), altogether too much stretching. Moreover, we stayed awake in elementary school--and hence can do arithmetic fairly well--so there is no magical virtue in beds being an even hundred square feet. We prefer beds four feet wide, and of as great a length as possible without making walking around from one side to the other a trek (our own are 4' x 16').

After considering a lot of materials and techniques, and after an unsatisfactory experience our first year with beds constructed from old roofing metal (corrugated "tin"), we opted for using concrete construction blocks, usually called "cinder blocks." We piled them two high, so the bed tops are 16 inches above ground. Owing to the thickness of the blocks, the beds themselves have to be 5'4" wide to achieve 4' of actual soil width, but a compensating benefit is that the two holes in each block can each be used as mini-planters. We tried at first putting vegetables in those block holes, and some--notably onions--did OK, but the soil tended to settle and compact too much, so now we use the cinder-block holes for growing suitably companionate flowers for whatever is in a given bed in a given season. (That looks rather pretty too.)

A note on raised-bed materials: though there is still some debate, we believe that any form of pressure-treated wood (including new or used railroad ties and all the various cheap edging timbers sold in home-supply places) are a terrible idea to hold soil in which you will grow things you will eat. The safety commissions are now telling the public to not even touch such stuff with bare skin, and to keep it well away from children: that is something you want near your food? Rather not, unless you like to spice up your diet with arsenic and copper. And, since untreated wood is useless, warping badly after only a season or two even in dry climates (we know--we tried it at our old place), that leaves only such materials as plastic, stone, or metal for enclosing raised beds. We, at least, could find nothing suitable any less expensive than cinder blocks, but others may have come up with other clever solutions. (There are boards made of what amounts to plastic "wood", but they tend to the expensive.)

Deer are a real problem out here, so we had to put a deer fence all around the garden (and the entire "yard" area: that fence is 4x4 10-foot pressure-treated posts well anchored in the ground (in concrete) about every ten feet, with two bands of 4-foot high large-mesh wire fencing (making an 8-foot fence height, scarcely over the minimum needed to keep deer out). We had tried, being cheapskates, using plastic netting, but that was a total failure: the stuff ripped badly in even mild wind. Because the fence posts are well away from the garden itself (we are enclosing a large area), we have no concerns about seepage from the pressure-treatment chemicals, plus the post ends are set in concrete. We strongly recommend putting in some such fence; it is not cheap, but it's not killer expensive either, and you only do it once. Better to do it soon than late: you're going to anyway, if you have deer or like pests, so why lose one or more seasons' produce before yielding to the inevitable?

(A detailed description of how we have dealt with the issues discussed above in our own garden appears on the page detailing our local climate.)

Indoors Growing

Even with capacious freezers, there are a few things that we would doubtless all ideally like to have available fresh year round, notably tomatoes and salad greens--which do not freeze usefully--and herbs. Lettuce and other salad greens we think can be grown outdoors right through the winter here (and many places), as detailed on the pages of this site dealing with those vegetables. But for tomatoes and herbs, some sort of indoor growing area is necessary if we are to fulfill our craving for fresh.

Fortunate indeed are those with the space and money for a true greenhouse; if you are among them, you need no further guidance from us. For the rest of us, there are alternatives, many not terribly expensive or cumbersome. We won't here try to detail how to make such an enclosed growing area, nor how to convert existing space--such as a south-facing garage end--into one. We will say, though, that all home gardeners who enjoy eating what they grow should really try to have some sort of protected area to raise, at the least, some herbs during the cold months.

At the worst, one can grow a few pots of the crucial herbs inside one's house, though the average home's air is rather dry, especially when heated for winter, and most herbs like a humid environment. Still, better a few leaves from a scraggly, struggling basil plant than supermarket dried basil.

(Our own indoor-growing circumstances are described on the page detailing our local climatatic conditions.)

Our Tastes

We will go into details later, under each vegetable type, but a few general comments may help clarify some points. We want to grow our own vegetables for a number of reasons, which we think virtually universal.

Many specific vegetables have been grown through history--and many varieties of others selected--almost entirely owing to their suitability for being held in long-term storage in one way or another: drying, pickling, salting, cellaring, and so on. Through almost all of history, that was a, perhaps the, prime requirement for foodstuffs: that they get you through the winter alive.

Today we have the home freezer. There are very few vegetables that cannot be successfully frozen. Of those, in almost every case the problem is not loss of nutrients or even of flavor per se but of texture: certainly no one wants a sandwich with slices of frozen-then-thawed tomato on it. But most of the vegetables that have texture problems from freezing can be cooked in one or another of the ways normal to them and the result quite successfully frozen (as with tomato sauce or eggplant parmigiana). About the only material exceptions that occur to us right off are salad makings, potatoes, melons, and summer squash.

That being so, and we believe that it is, the need for many traditional vegetables is--at least for us--materially reduced; we can select without much regard for "keeping quality". As but one example, consider cabbage. Cabbage has its culinary uses (borscht jumps to mind, as does cole slaw), but--absent a need for vegetables that can be easily stored without a freezer--it becomes a minor item, sort of a novelty vegetable. That is true of many vegetables once quite extensively grown mainly or entirely just because they kept well through winter.

(We should emphasize here that we well understand that individual tastes vary immensely and that we do not suggest that what we are saying is some sort of ex cathedra pronunciamento; it is just how we feel about these matters of, literally, taste.)

Thus, we in our planning look to each vegetable purely for what sort of good things to cook and eat it inherently lends itself to; storage characteristics are irrelevant. When we say inherently lends itself, we mean that the vegetable has in and of itself a fine taste. Consider summer squash: how often don't we see recipes explaining how this bland vegetable can become delicious by being stuffed with [fill in the blank], maybe topped off with some [this one too], then a little grated cheese over it, run it under the broiler, and voila. Well yes, sure, but let's be honest: kraft paper would taste good given that treatment. What does the squash--ding an sich--bring to the deal besides a shell to hold the goodies? That is not to say that we won't want or grow any summer squash; it just means that, as with cabbage, it becomes a minor vegetable.

To us, major vegetables, the ones we want lots and lots and lots of, are those that are wonderful eaten in almost any imaginable way, and are even--or especially--great eaten very simply as and for themselves. As stated, we will explore that world under the individual vegetable headings below, but in short: we believe, along with Nero Wolfe and many others, that corn is the Queen Of Vegetables; shelled green peas are a close second; tomatoes, whether raw in a tomato salad or cooked into a sauce, are a mainstay of life; broccoli, grown to a reasonable (non-woody) size is a treat indeed; mixed-green salads are a gift; and whoever first called the potato "lowly" deserves to roast in Hell (on a potato spit?).

We also really love cooked dry beans--notably kidney, lima, and garbanzo, though they're all great (our household slogan should be "We Love Legumes!"); but they are one of the few things one can get at retail that are perfectly sound (though it's nice to get organically grown ones), so we have little space set aside for dry-bean production (but a good bit for "shelly" beans).

That's the short of it; the long of it is on the pages listed farther below. You can look and pick your next target, but the page Home Vegetable Gardening: an Apologia seems a natural choice.


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