Monday, October 24, 2011

The Gardener's Shadow

Gardening in the PNW - Brown Bag Series

(Tips, tricks & lessons learned from new gardeners.)
Jack Compere
Marvel Vigil
October 26-27, 2011

The Gardener’s Shadow - Intro
June, 2008:
- 3/4 acre lot
- 1 hose
- 75% black plastic
- 100% clay
November, 2011:
- 10 raised beds w/ irrigation
- 1 greenhouse
- Two 100% happy gardeners
- Lots of veggies, year-round

The Gardener’s Shadow - Raised Beds


- Half-sized cinderblocks: long-lasting, economical

- 4 x 14 foot beds (52 blocks)

-Customize/contain soil
-Weed/pest control
- Convenient work level
-Warmer soil in Spring
- Base for row-covers

- 4-foot aisles (allows carts, wheelbarrows, etc.) 

The Gardener’s Shadow - Row Covers

- PVC poles; diagonal & top
- Tie-wraps at junctions
- Tennis ball bumper
- Fabric in Spring/Summer
- 6-mil poly in Winter
- Fabric covers -  control flying insects
- Poly covers -   add/hold warmth & keep out rain

The Gardener’s Shadow - Soil & Amendments
Local v. Homemade Soil:
 - Our soil = CLAY
- Fill raised beds w/ SFG mix
- Excavate/fill in-ground beds
- Top-up all beds in Spring
Square Foot Garden (SFG) soil formula:
- 1/3 compost    - 1/3 peat    - 1/3 perlite*
Complete  Organic Fertilizer (seed & seedling-safe):
- 8 parts cotton seed meal   - 2 parts lime (dolomite) 
- 1 part bone meal   - 1 part kelp meal

The Gardener’s Shadow - Soil/Bed Rebuilding
After harvest/before planting:
- Remove spent plants
- Fine-tooth weeding
- Add leaf/mint mulch
- Add decomposed manure/compost
- Mix it up!
Cover crop between plantings:
Custom mix (wheat, rye, clover)
Single crop (Tyfon, legume, vetch)
Cut/work it back into the soil before it forms seeds.

The Gardener’s Shadow - Journal/Planning
Garden Journal:
- What was planted, when?
- Fertilizer?  Pesticide?  (What/when?)
- Good/bad harvest?  (How much/when?)
Garden Plan: 
- Families = similar pests/depletion
- Rotation by families every 2-3 years
- Storage conditions v. harvest dates
Seasonal Succession Planting/Planning:

Fall/Winter veggies are planted mid- & late Summer…

The Gardener’s Shadow - The Green House

- Snap-together kit; 8 x 16

- Automatic & manual vents

- Automatic irrigation

- Thermostat-driven heater & fan


- Raised bed (above hardware cloth)

- Shelves (w/heat mats) for seedlings

- Pots for heat-loving plants in heavy
   rotation. e.g., tomatoes & peppers

- Over-wintered Bonsai

The Gardener’s Shadow - Compost & Mulch

EZ Composting

- Progressive compost bins (1-2-3)

- Green stuff, brown stuff, H2O

- Hot versus cold composting

Leaf Mulch

- Plenty of material

- Electric mulcher

- Store in bags and wire bins

- Red oak decomposes slowly

- Black walnut = bad for growth

The Gardener’s Shadow - Slugs & Bugz

Bugs & Insects:

- Each year, a new enemy (2011 = imported cabbageworm)

- Determine whether or not the bug is doing damage

Identify bad bugs and treat per PNW Insect ‘site.

- Indiscriminate destroyer
- Slug traps, BIG traps
- Eternal vigilance - really
- Beer trap ineffective for us
- Marvel likes Sluggo (so does 
  our dog)

The Gardener’s Shadow - Weeds

Weeds in the garden beds:
- Use up valuable moisture & nutrients
- Pluck ‘em out - every last one
- Mulch around plants (not w/ sawdust)

Weeds in the yard:
- Decapitate w/sharpened flat hoe
- Water-permeable garden cloth (garden)
- Lasagna (cardboard) mulch grass (yard)
- Pollinator-friendly groundcovers & plants
- Learn to love ‘em
- Herbicide = last resort

The Gardener’s Shadow -- Tools

Essential tools:

- Digging shovel

- Scooping shovel

- Hoe

- Hand clippers

- Long-handled cultivator

- Iron rake

- Bench grinder

Keep ‘em clean & sharp

The Gardener’s Shadow -- Share The Bounty

Big yard/small table:

- Over-built & over-planted

- Some crops = total loss

- Some crops = amazing haul

- Happy friends & neighbors

- Plant-a-Row (PAR)

The Gardener’s Shadow -- REALLY

Best defense:

- The gardeners shadow!

- Get out there

- Get nosy

- Get to know what works

- Clean & tidy

- Our goal: 1 hour a day

Don’t believe all you hear - we ALL have opinions

Text As Delivered:


In 2007 as we neared retirement we decided that we wanted to fulfill a “back to the Earth” dream, after having spent our careers in high-tech jobs, and in large cities.  The ideal place to retire seemed to be a small town, with a big garden.

We had a very good friend who’d moved to Corvallis and had a blueberry farm, so we researched the area and decided to look for places here – so we conducted weeks of web-searches around the area.

We were fortunate to find a fairly ideal place, 3/4 acre, close to town, so things would still be reachable if we wanted to walk or bicycle, with large areas to put raised beds, and so forth.

So we moved, and straightaway we began to learn that a big garden wasn’t only about having a lovely homegrown salad.


Depending on where you land in the Willamette Valley your odds of having your soil be mostly clay are quite high. The soil at our new place seemed to be pretty good, but after some months, during which we had to dig a number of holes, we realized that only a little of our soil was good. About an inch or two. On top.  Any deeper and you ran into black plastic. Below the black plastic? 99% clay.

We’ve had enough experience with the property to put it together that at one time in the past all the property was (a) covered in black plastic, then (b) God knows how many truckloads of soil was purchased and spread over it all, to a depth of not much.

Most of our stuff is grown in the greenhouse or in raised beds, for which we provide the soil. For things planted outside the beds or greenhouse, the routine is to first sharpen the shovel, hack out the black plastic, dig a bed-sized hole a couple of feet deep, fill the hole with good dirt, and move on.

Our other fairly constant battle is with grass – we have an overgrown grass field to our West, and the predominate wind is out of the West, so the truth is if we had to leave for a month we couldn’t find our house when we returned, we would find instead a grassy mound.

Although we had read all about gardening, and Marvel had some experience, I found myself on day one with a seed packet in my hand, beginning to realize I had no idea how to plant a seed. Just poke it in? Dig a hole, then cover it? Maybe first a little fertilizer, then the seed? I had a very serious lack of knowledge, and I realized the truth was I couldn’t trace the origin of my food any further back than Safeway. So we set out to get smart.

Our most helpful resources have been:

1.    Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, by Steve Solomon
2.    Master Gardening class
3.    The OSU Extension guides (Plant Disease, Insect Management, Weed Management), at
4.    Friends, stuff we read in the Extension newsletter, things overheard.


We used 1/2-size cinderblocks – they’re easier than the full-sized blocks to haul around and work with -- these cost about a buck apiece. Each bed has 6 blocks on each end, 20 on each side, so that’s 52 blocks total for beds this size, which are about 4’ wide and 14’ long.  The cinder blocks beds cost more than wood-based beds, but we chose to use these because they’ll last longer than wood (and we REALLY hated the idea of doing a wholesale bed-rebuilding project in our seventies).

The beds are 4’ wide because that’s a comfortable reach from each side. The lanes between beds are made wide enough for a good-sized wheelbarrow or garden cart (or a wheelchair, just in case we grow old).

One of the big advantages of using cinderblocks is that you can easily build the framework for a row-cover canopy over the beds by slipping the ends of PVC pipes into the holes and bending them cross-wise along the length of the bed.  We keep the beds covered most of the year:  in the winter and spring, covering them with 6 millimeter plastic to increase the air-and soil temperature, as well as to protect the plants and beds from frost and drenching rain;  and in warmer weather, we use a fabric (“Agrobon”) cover material, which allows sun and water penetration while excluding most bugs. 


Of course a raised bed allows you to control the growing area, keep it weed and slug-free, and you can customize growing medium fairly easily.  All our beds start out with homemade soil:  we use the “square foot gardening” formula, which is one part compost, one part perlite, and one part peat moss.

We add a Complete Organic Fertilizer to the beds several times during the growing season.  Most seeds and seedlings get a big scoop of COF in the hole before they’re planted, then, depending on the plants’ needs, we’ll side-dress more in as needed.  For fertilizer we use a friend’s formula (it’s similar to the formula Mr. Solomon recommends):

   8 parts cotton seed meal
   1 part bone meal
   1 part kelp
   2 parts lime (dolomite)

After each growing season, we rebuild the soil by:  (1) removing spent plants; (2) fine-tooth weeding; and (3) working in many buckets of year-old leaf mulch, aged horse manure and homegrown compost.  If there’s time and our planting schedule allows, we’ll grow an off-season covercrop (e.g., crimson clover, tyfon) in the bed until it’s time for us to start veggies again.


While we’ve got veggies growing out back in the Winter, it’s a fairly low-maintenance time for us.  The weeds are easy to manage – they grow very slowly off-season and most of the bugs are gone.   It’s the perfect time to plan next-year’s garden.  We have eight big raised beds, the greenhouse plus a few smaller beds scattered about the place,  Most beds share identical or similar growing environments (e.g., lots of daylight sun, little wind, irrigation automatic or nearby), so the garden layout is mostly dictated by (1) crop rotation requirements and (2) seasonal-succession. 

Crop Rotation: Often plants in the same "family" are susceptible to the same insects and diseases.  Because disease-causing organisms can accumulate in the soil over time, planting same-family plants in the same spot year-after-year may allow these organisms to create a very nasty challenge for each new generation of plant. To prevent this build-up, we don’t plant anything from the same family in a given bed more than two years in a row.  It gets tricky, because some of these plant families are large, and include veggies we plant every year, e.g., the nightshade family includes potatoes, tomatoes and peppers; the mustard family includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, turnip, kale.  We keep a record of what we grow every year and carefully work out the Chinese Puzzle of What Goes Where in the off-season.

Seasonal Succession:  Our Fall and Winter garden plants must be able to put on fairly impressive growth before the days get shorter and the temps drop, so most of them are started during the middle or end of Summer.  That means we’ve got to have a few beds (or major parts of beds) emptied with their soil reconditioned at what is otherwise the height of the normal growing season.  So after we figure out What Can’t Go Where (because of crop rotation), we estimate which early-peaking/early-harvesting veggies will be vacating their prime real estate in time for the newbies.

Oh, and then we try to remember that for the veggies we store (squash, potatoes, onions), the later we harvest them the better (since we don’t have a root cellar).

We haven’t resort to a dart board yet, but we’re open to the possibility.


The green house is 8X16 feet – we originally built/installed an 8 x 12 foot model, but finding that just a bit too small, I ordered and installed an additional two-foot section at the far end. The raised bed (3X8) on the left has one basic problem — I left no room for us to get around to the other side, so naturally the weeds do really well over there. In this case I did put hardware cloth below the raised bed.  The racks on the right often hold vegetable starts (in the Spring) and heat-loving plants in the Summer.  In the off-season, it’s also home to some of our Fall & Winter veggies.

The greenhouse is a kit, made by Rion, an Israeli outfit, the cheapest I could find — approximately $2500 at It’s a snap-together kit, very easy to assemble. I augmented the strength of the structure by inserting many screws at various points. Our greenhouse has 4 top vents using heat-sensing mechanisms to open the vents when the interior temperature is above 70F or so. We also have a louvered window at the end.

There’s drip irrigation all around the interior, and this is on a daily timer.

For Winter plants— things like lettuce and spinach, as well as vegetable starts in the Spring) -- we have a little utility heater that kicks on at 35F, so the interior won’t freeze. The heater plugs into a module that senses approach of 35 — these are called “Termostatic outlets” (20$) — we have one for “on” at 78, “off” at 70, and another for “on” at 35 and “off” at 45. The one for the “on” at 78 we use to power a very small fan, just to keep the air moving around, and this is for Summer plants — various kinds of peppers and basil. The Summer temperature can easily top 100F.  We also use heat mats (brand?) below the pots and starts on the growing racks.

We also have a little thermometer that indicates overall high and low temperatures. This is handy because, for example, if you go out one morning and the recorded “low” temp overnight was in the 20s you know you’ve had a power supply problem. $18, analog.


When we first started gardening it was late Summer and we rushed around to establish parts of the garden infrastructure, and sometimes we got things wrong. Witness the compost bins – this was a design I got off the web from a university site. I slapped it together (I’m not a carpenter) and numbered each of the bins in order of their use -- #1 on the right is where we dump kitchen scraps and garden greens and brown waste, and after enough accumulate and degrade we more the pile to #2, and then #2 to #3 later, at which point it’s theoretically compost.

It wasn’t until we had quite a mountain in #1 that I discovered the design flaw – even though there’s a removable wall between the bins, it turns out it’s nearly impossible to lean over the top and shovel a great pile of stuff from one bin to the next without spraining your back.

So when I get the time I’m going to somehow get the whole front wall to lower so I can get in using the shovel horizontally, as God intended.

As you’ve undoubtedly heard many times, there’s hot composting and there’s cold composting – hot composting requires patience, learning, understanding of the composting formula, and occasional checks of the core temperature – so we’re doing the cold kind, which takes a year to produce compost. At the end of the first year, of course, you’re set thereafter, because bin #2 is on its way. The disadvantage of cold composting is that if any of your compost material carries a disease, it won’t be burned away.

Although we don’t carefully follow the formula, we follow it generally, trying to achieve a balance of brown material, green material, and moisture.

We also rely on leaf mulch when adding organic matter to our beds.  As it happens, there are a couple of gigantic oaks out front and a few fair-sized maples scattered around our property.  The first year, we raked (and raked and raked) ‘em to the curb for pick-up by the Corvallis Street Maintenance folks.  But after that, we got a small leaf shredder/mulcher, and have collected and composed those tons of leafs (leaves???) for our own use,  We store them in a few bins out back, or in contractor-sized plastic bags.  By the time we’re ready to plow the aged leaf mulch into our beds for their Spring rebuild, the leaves smell like a fruity red wine.  WONDERFUL!

Note:  don’t use leaves from Black Walnut trees for this purpose – they contain a substance that’s unfriendly to many plants.


I. Insects

It seems each growing season brings different insects to prey on our fruits and veggies. One year coddling moth wrecked our apples, the next year we were totally on guard coddling mothwise and we were starring in Us Against The Leaf Hoppers.  Lately?  It’s cabbageworms destroying our cabbage and making a mess of our spinach. So it goes.

Imported cabbageworms come from a delightful white butterfly that dances in the air, usually two by two, fluttering here and there the perfect picture of insectival courting and love. Or at least that’s what we thought before we put two and two together and consulted the PNW Insect Management book and found out they were the origin of all the little green worms that turned our broccoli and cauliflower into mush.

From that point on when the things came delightfully dancing by, we were right behind them, lunging with a net, and if we caught one, stomping it to bits.

This is not the picture we had in mind when we heard Joni Mitchell sing “we’ve got to get back to the garden.”

The key to defend insects is to be right in the garden a lot, closely examining a sample of each type of plant. In so doing, if you find damage and you find an insect remember it might be a coincidence and the bug was just passing through – go to the PNW Insect Management site to look for examples of the particular plant, compare the damage each does to the damage you found, and chances are you’ll figure out the bug causing it.

II. Slugs

This is so far our worst, most persistent, problem, but one that can be handled. This year was particularly bad (perhaps because of a wet Spring?). One theory is that each rain drop contains a tiny slug.  Or ten.

When we constructed out raised beds Marvel brought home (from ReStore, the Habitat for Humanity store on 9th in Corvallis) long pieces of plastic siding that we put between the beds to walk on when things got wet.

Because slugs, during the day, hide under anything under which they can crawl, it turns out that the siding makes perfect slug traps. So every third morning or so I’ll go out of “slug patrol,” turning over the slats one by one and plucking the slugs off and dropping them into a bucket.

Once I’ve gathered the slugs I plop them into a paper sack, twist the top, and drop it into our Allied Waste can, so they can live out their lives in the landfill.

I’ve tried beer traps– these don’t seem to work as well as just going after them by hand.   Marvel swears by Sluggo – the only problem is our dog Sally loves it.  It’s non-poisonous, that’s not the problem.  The problem is, left to her own devices, Sally would happily Hoover every bit of it, so where we use it in a ground-level growing bed, like the strawberry patch, Marvel erects a small fence around it while she’s got the Sluggo in play.

An important thing to remember is that if you have anything close to your garden under which slugs could hide, they will.

We try to use the least firepower needed to control pests.  So our first line of defense usual includes me, mano-amano with the bugs.  As with the slugs, I routinely inspect all the beds and pluck/squash insects that are doing damage.  If they outnumber me, I’ll squirt ‘em off with a hose.  We even used friendly, predator insects to control the bad guys (e.g., released hundreds of ladybugs in a row-covered bed to eat a maurading horde of black aphids).  If these techniques fail (or if we’re overpowered early on by the nasties), we’ll use an organic/botanical pesticide.

III. Weeds

Weeds don’t get discouraged. You can clear an area meticulously, even digging out the roots, and new weeds are already sprouting before you go in for dinner. Weed seeds don’t say “hey, these folks won’t let me grow here, I might as well pack it in.” They just know one thing – grow.

Because weeds use up valuable moisture and nutrients in the growing beds, it’s worth the time and effort for us to pluck every one of them out of the soil before they get a good foothold.  We also use a water-permeable garden cloth in the walkways around the raised beds.

For the larger, unproductive areas of our yard, we began the meticulous way, but after awhile w found what is for us the tool of choice – a sharpened flat blade hoe.  Now we just walk around the garden decapitating any weeds we find, and we always find weeds, of course.

Marvel is the restraining factor preventing us from just covering all parts of the yard that is not garden in black plastic, so, if you’ve kept track, we’d have two layers of plastic all around the property.  She’s encouraged the growth of bee-friendly ground covers and flowering plants outside the beds in our garden.  There’s usually something flowering and busy with hovering pollinators from early Spring ‘til late Fall.

IV. Disease

We have so far been very fortunate regarding plant diseases, so we haven’t much to say – rely on the PNW Plant Disease site, is the best advice.


Sometimes you think if you could get the right tool for your gardening jobs then everything would be easier thereafter. As you can see, we’ve done some collecting, some successful, some not.

A few of the absolute essentials would be:

-- A bench grinder. Any tool that works best when sharp (hoe, shovel, hedge clippers, for example) will require a bench grinder – you can use a utility file, but that makes for a harder job.

-- A good shovel (the digging kind and the scooping kind)
-- A good hoe
-- Good clippers
-- Marvel swears by her long-handled cultivator
-- Iron rake

If you have a tool with a long handle, and the handle breaks or wears out, many hardware stores (e.g., Robnett’s) will replace the handle for a small charge.


With the greenhouse and the use of poly- row covers, we grow vegetables most months of the year.  Peas, lettuce and greens in the Spring; the usual suspects (mostly tomatoes, corn, peppers, beans, onions and potatoes) in the Summer; and cold-hearty plants (kale, kohlrabi, spinach, turnips and garlic) in the Fall and Winter.  Because we were new to all this, we didn’t have a clue how much territory we needed to plant to produce a decent amount of food. So we overestimated, by quite a lot and we sometimes produce an overwhelming amount of food. The upside, of course, is that the overproduction goes to friends and Plant A Row For The Hungry (through Benton County MG). 


What gave this presentation its name (“The Gardener’s Shadow”) is an English phrase meaning the best overall advice for a good garden is the gardener’s shadow falling on the whole garden. You have to become very nosy about your plants, often using a loupe but in any case getting right down at the plant itself, turning over leaves and so forth as you search for any anomaly.

This is the great advantage the gardener has over the farmer, who grows so many plants he or she can’t do the overseeing job as completely as the gardener.  On the other hand, the farmer gets to have great big machines and hire crews to do the work, so there’s a trade-off.

The other overall advice to combat garden problems is of course garden hygiene. Everything tidy, no piles of old veggies, no places for enemies to hide.

Don’t believe everything you hear, every gardener we’ve met so far, including us, is quite opinionated about growing stuff, and, what’s worse, will tell you their opinions. The next gardener will likely contradict this advice, and be just as certain.

As an example of how it can go horribly wrong to take bad advice, Marvel and I worked the Master Gardener Advice Desk, a lady brought in a mound of dark material – I had just been reading about fir trees and truffles, and my instant analysis was that “those are truffles.”

“You mean I can eat this?” The lady asked, surprised. Marvel, thankfully, intervened before the lady ate a sample, and after a slightly more detailed analysis we decided that it was a pile of roots and rubbish. So our final bit of advice is don’t take your plant identification questions to Jack. 

No comments:

Post a Comment