Planning for Change
by Peter Heffelfinger
The fertile flats of the valleys west of the Cascades were formed over geological time by river flows and frequent floods. The clay soils and cool climate of the Skagit Valley, situated at the same latitude as Northern Europe, are eminently suitable to traditional cole crops: Brussels sprouts, hardy kraut cabbages, many varieties of kale, and over-wintered bulbs such as tulips and daffodils. I grow garlic and shallots near Samish Bay, an area just above sea level, first diked by early settlers, some of them drawing on experience farming land reclaimed from the sea in the Low Countries. The drainage systems built years ago now face rising ocean levels on their outer seawalls, as well as increased run-offs in the rivers and sloughs, due to heavier winter rainfall and accelerated snow melt in the summer.
Earlier this year, during the first week of February, the dike on the Samish River broke near the town of Edison. Rushing out to check on the status of my outlying Skagit Valley allium beds, I found the fields north of my garden site completely flooded. Fortunately the nearby crossroad kept the waters at bay from the emerging bulbs. I deepened the small drainage ditches around my raised beds and made sure any standing surface water flowed away from the root zone of the plants. The crop survived, but the message was clear: Be prepared to deal with sudden unexpected events whether due to extreme weather or long-term changes in climate.
Gardening is tenuous enough as it is, dealing with insects and arthropods, fungi and rodents, or hungry avians. Climate change will certainly continue locally as the summers get warmer and the shoulder seasons extend their reach, with spring coming earlier and fall frosts arriving later. And, if you have a grow tunnel or greenhouse for heat-loving tomatoes and peppers, adequate ventilation becomes a necessity when mid-morning temperature readings on a sunny day in July can reach 90 F and above. The basic lesson here is to prepare for changes that go beyond the expected patterns of the recent past. One can be grateful that we are not yet experiencing the ongoing droughts of California and the Upper Midwest, or the late-season Nor’easter snowstorms of New England.
Peas are an illustrative example. When I first moved here in the 1970s, I was amazed that you could plant early garden peas on Washington’s Birthday in February. Back East the ground was still frozen solid. Here in the Pacific Northwest successive plantings of peas would grow easily throughout the cool and grey spring, ripening deep into late June and early July before going to seed in the first warm days of summer. I grew tall Telephone Pole peas that, appropriately, I had to use a stepladder to harvest.
The Skagit Valley was dominated back then by commercial pea crops, low-growing determinate varieties harvested all at once by lumbering pea-viners that combed the fields around the clock. At night the long lines of the combines, slowly following their headlights over the rows, would spookily light up the valley, like giant mechanical locusts feeding in the dark. The whole valley smelled of decomposing pea vines, expelled out the back of the machines, the dark waste like frass left by giant insects. But the local pea industry disappeared when the processors moved to Eastern Washington, for better irrigation control, and less disease problems. Also, the market for canned peas, for which most of the crop was grown, had rapidly diminished in favor of fresh frozen. Gourmet potatoes now grow in the valley where once peas were the top vegetable. A sudden change due to markets, technology and taste.
Now, when I grow peas at home, I find the damp and cold soil of February and March too often rots out the seed. Instead, it is safer to either start one’s own seeds inside with a heat mat and grow-lights or, much easier though more costly, to wait for the nursery starts to appear, bright green and sturdy, and easily transplanted. But even then the nights are still cool, and strong winds play havoc with the frail young stems. So, I protect the initial transplants with a hoop house of floating row cover, which also serves to keep out the little brown birds that love snip off the first pea leaves at ground level.
What I have noticed as well is that the early spring days are warmer and sunnier than in the past, stimulating the peas to go to seed sooner. Since Oriental Snow and Sugar Snap peas are my favorite spring treat, I have to make sure each day that I harvest all the peas right at their sweetest and crunchiest, not letting the peas inside the pods get hard or starchy. This keeps the plants producing more peas instead of dying back prematurely. It is fortunate that both Snow and Snap peas are best eaten when slightly immature, as opposed to shelling peas that need to be fully swollen in the pod. Be sure to pluck off any pods that do escape your eye and have swollen out to full seed ripeness, usually at the base of the stem; they are signaling the plant that it is time to die back. This year I am growing tendril peas for salads, a variety that will avoid pods altogether. A final note: Plant peas where they will be shaded for part of the day to keep them out of the sun during our long northern day-length.
Tomato and Pepper Starts
Given that it is May already and too late to plant spring peas, there is still the opportunity to plant a fall crop if you catch the change from heat to cool at the end of August. The Northwest can still be heaven for growing peas; you just have to watch things a bit closer and adapt to the change. Otherwise, May is the time of plant sales, with tomato and pepper starts everywhere. Get them into warmed soil either in protected spots or grow tunnels for successful early growth. In spite of all the cold-tolerant, short season varieties that have been developed, tomatoes and peppers are still essentially South American semi-tropical plants that, with human help, have migrated north to our temperate clime over the years. These red and green delights need special attention to remind them of their origins: steady heat, adequate fertilizer, and reliable watering.
A more recent expansion of territory is the influx of hummingbirds that now stay year-round in the Northwest, instead of flying south to their usual winter homes in Central America. Recent Northwest winters have had few extended cold spells, and there are perhaps more sugar-water feeders maintained by dedicated birders. The nectar season has also been expanded by winter-flowering plants grown by home gardeners. In my backyard the hummers rely on the bountiful hellebores in bloom throughout the cold months.
And in Paris, a world away yet at approximately a similar latitude to the Pacific Northwest, tropical parrots have escaped captivity and grown into urban flocks that survive outdoors all winter. They are fed in part by humans, perhaps expatriates themselves from warmer climes, who appreciate the flashes of bright green in the trees during the gray days of a French winter. The exotic birds with their long, trailing tail feathers are an avian echo of the colorful and often quirky Parisian fashion shows that liven up the international couture scene. And in this modern era, the feathers stay on the living birds instead of ending up on ladies’ hats.
Peter Heffelfinger, a Washington State University master gardener, has gardened organically on Fidalgo Island and the Skagit Flats for over 40 years. He has given workshops in year-round gardening for Transition Fidalgo/Eat Your Yard, Christianson’s Nursery, and at the Washington State University County Extension Service. He is a Salish Sea Steward, working on the invasive green crab survey.