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Organic Gardening in Central Oregon

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Chapter Five - Fruits and Vegetables

The most common form of vegetable garden is the row garden, where each vegetable is planted in a row and there is a path between each row. This can work well for those who use mechanized weeding, such as a rototiller which is run between the rows.

Broad row gardens are a similar approach, except that the rows are about 10 to 12 inches wide, the seed is scattered over this space, and the plants are grown close together. This is a space saver because you do not have as many paths between the rows.

Growing plants in raised beds is increasing in popularity and saves even more space. The deep bed methods are derived from age old techniques used by the French and Chinese. They are hyper-fertilized, excellent for deep root development, and can grow the plants closer together. The claim is that you will get four times the yield for the same space.

Whatever form you want for your garden to take, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. The closer your food garden is to your kitchen, the easier it is to get the food from the garden to the table. So locate your vegetable garden close in.

Planning your garden on paper is an important first step. To get the most from your space and stretch the harvest, allow for succession planting. Plan for the perennial to be at one end of the garden so they are not disturbed during spring planting. If you have a choice, it is recommended that the rows run from north to south to avoid the plants shading each other.

A south slope warms up earlier in the spring, which can be an advantage for some vegetables. Fruit trees on a south slope blossom earlier, but in this climate that is not necessarily good because we have so many late frosts. Locating your fruit trees on a north slope may be a better choice.

An area protected from the winds and frosts, but that receives plenty of sunshine, preferable eight hours a day is best. Locate your garden a reasonable distance from trees. Trees not only shade the garden, but the massive root systems take the water and nutrients from the soil, depriving the plants. If you do plant under trees, the plants usually need extra water and fertilizer.

Raised Beds

Raised beds are easy to organize and control. They are an efficient use of space, in that there are not so many paths. You can eliminate two out of three walkways and double your growing space.

The initial work to build the raised bed is intensive. After they are established, however, they are exceedingly easy to care for. I like to do the majority of my work with hand tools, and this works well with raised beds.

A raised bed can have retaining walls or simply have the soil raked to an angle. The width should not be more than you can reach from either side, the idea being to never walk on the soil. This avoids compaction, and makes it easier for the roots to spread. The length is a matter of personal choice. I find about 12 feet ideal, much longer and I get impatient about walking around.

The bio-dynamic/French intensive method of raised beds recommends that you double dig your plot, and to 100 square feet add: 1 to 3 cubic yards of compost, 2 to 4 pounds of bonemeal, 2 to 4 pounds of wood ashes, and 2 to 4 cubic feet of aged manure. The first beds I made were by this formula, minus the wood ashes. It was extremely work intensive, but the results were good.

My later beds were built with suggestions from "Organic Gardening" magazine. This method can be used if your soil is already fertile, and it is much less work. Fertilize your entire garden with manure or compost, and then rototill it into the soil. Mark off your beds with string, then shovel the dirt from the pathways onto what is to be the bed. Rake the top smooth and make the sides a slope.

Once the beds are established, spring preparation consists of a wheelbarrow each of compost and manure, which are then dug into the bed. Cottonseed and kelp meals or other organic fertilizers are then raked into the top of the bed. In less than an hour, the bed is ready to plant.

Planting can be done by the broadcasting method or in rows. The plants can be close together, the spacing need only be as far apart on all sides as the plant needs for growth. Plants that grow close together shade the soil, keep it cool, and keep down weed growth, creating a living mulch.

Mulching raised beds with hay can be of value, particularly in a hot dry climate like Central Oregon. It helps to hold in moisture, and to keep weeds controlled, especially on the sides of the beds.

Planting Dates

The old timers advice is to plant your garden when the snow is gone from Black Butte, usually sometime in late May. As far as I have observed, this is good advice.

The best solution I have found for timing my garden planting is to plant different things at different times. The weather varies from year to year, so there is no definite rule. I have planted onion plants, peas and spinach as early as March, but April is more appropriate. I have had the spinach freeze out this early on an occasional year.

Hardy plants such as lettuce, carrots and beets can be planted from early May on. Setting out plants like those in the cabbage family can be done from mid-May on. The very tender plants like beans and squash are planted around Memorial Day and into early June.

Whenever you decide to plant, be prepared to protect your garden if frost threatens, even young sets of plants that are hardy must be protected. Those plants like cabbage, broccoli and petunias are tender when first transplanted, so beware.

Rotation, Interplanting and Companions

It is important for the health of your garden to rotate your plants. The recommendation is that the soil rest three years between growing the same crop. Each plant takes different nutrients out of the soil and often insect or disease will winter over in the soil in the spot where the host plant was grown. One suggestion for rotation is as follows:

  1. potatoes
  2. light feeders, as carrots, beets and root crops
  3. heavy feeders such as cabbages, squash, spinach, lettuce, corn and tomatoes
  4. legumes such as as beans and peas.

Interplanting is the mixing of different plants that give an efficient use of space because of their size difference or their harvest time difference. Some examples of interplanting that work well in Central Oregon are radishes planted in the carrot row. Carrots are slow to germinate and radishes very quick, so radishes will mark the carrot row so you don't lose it. The radishes are then ready to eat and out of the ground before the carrots need the space. Lettuce planted in between cabbage plants is another efficient use of space, as the lettuce is out of the ground before the cabbage spreads to use all of the space. Peas and spinach are another good pair, the spinach is gone before the peas need all of their space.

Interplanting can cause insect confusion also. Many insects find their plants by scent, and when they are interplanted with other plants the scent is not as strong. Monoculture encourages insects, because when there are large groups of one kind of plant the insects only have to move a short distance to get to the next plant. This brings us to companion planting.

Companion planting is the growing of plants together that are mutually beneficial to one another. Some plants serve as insect traps and protect the main crop by luring insects away. Strong smelling plants, particularly herbs, can mask the smell of the insects host plant, and make it harder to find. Some plants have other plants that they just like to have as neighbors.

Much of the companion planting information is based on folk lore and backyard research. Formal research is taking place that will put this on more of a scientific basis. One generalization that usually works is that vegetables whose flavor and texture harmonize on the table make good companions. Some examples of this are:

  • beans and savory
  • tomatoes and basil
  • succotash which is beans and corn.

Succession planing is the following of one crop with another. This stretches the season, growing as many crops as possible on the available space. This can be very effective in longer growing seasons, but has limited application in Central Oregon where our growing season is quite short. Short crops such as radishes and spinach can be out of the garden early enough to followed by another crop. You might try late lettuce, peas, greens and turnips. I often follow my peas with the fall planted garlic.

It is important to fertilize between crops. The first crops will have used up many of the nutrients and they will need to be replenished. You can use compost, well rotted manure or one of the meals such as cottonseed meal.

It can be difficult in the hot weather to get plants to germinate. It helps to sow the seed a little deeper and thicker. Keep the seeds damp constantly and cover the row with some sawdust or peat moss to keep in moisture. You can cover the seed rows with boards also to keep them cool and moist. Be sure to lift the boards to check often and remove them as soon as plants start to germinate.

Vegetable Varieties

Artichokes (Jerusalem variety)
They are hardy tubers that can be harvested all winter. The plants are tall perennials and are hard to get rid of, so be sure to plant them where you want them to stay.
Plant about June 1 and then be prepared to protect them from a summer frost, as they are very tender. Bush beans are more successful than the tall beans as they have a shorter season. Tendergreen, Burgundy, Romano Blue Lake and wax beans are some favorite choices.
These can be planted early to mid May, they can take a fair amount of frost. Plant several plantings, and beets will take extensive thinning as the seeds are actually pods. Detroit Dark Red, Perfected Detroit, Early Wonder and the cylindrical Forno are all good ones.
Plant the seed indoors about five weeks before setting out in the garden or buy plants. They are planted out in late May, when first planted they are susceptible to frost, but are quite hardy when older. De Cicco, Packman and Green Comet are all good varieties.
Brussels Sprouts
Treat these like broccoli. They will bear late into the fall, I have even had them until December. Jade Cross or Long Island Improved are varieties that have done well for me.
Plant sets in late May, and then be prepared to protect the little plants from frost. They like a fertile soil and benefit from midseason fertilizing. There are many variations of cabbages, my favorites are Jersey Wakefield, Late Flat Dutch, Red Acre, Salarite, and Savoy.
Plant from middle May to middle June for a fall crop. Carrots are a reliable crop in Central Oregon. Try Imperator, Tendersweet, Danvers Half Long, and Short and Sweet.
Success varies with this vegetable. Choose a short season, self-blanching variety. Alert is a variety that worked for me.
The seeds must be started at least twelve weeks before planting out in the garden in late May; sometimes you can find starts at the nurseries. Celery is a marsh plant by origin and like lots of water and rich soil. The plants do not get as large as grocery store celery, but it is nice and can stand light frost. Golden Self-blanching is a good choice.
A good green for Central Oregon, stands frost and heat. Plant mid May, and it will regrow after being cut. Fordhook Giant and Rhubarb do well.
According to the Extension Service, expect your corn crop to freeze one year out of every three. This depends on where you live. Some areas get corn every year and some never get corn. Choose a short season variety, and provide a fertile soil. It needs plenty of moisture and should be planted in blocks of no less than three rows.
Can be seeded in peat pots three or four weeks before planting out by June 1, or seeded directly into the garden. Be prepared to protect them as they freeze easily and like warm nights. The new bush types take less space and can be grown in pots, Pot Luck or Salad Bush are good eating.
Fava Beans
These are sometimes called English Broadbean, they are hardy and can be planted the same time as peas. They are similar to Lima beans.
Fall planted garlic gives you the biggest bulbs. They like a rich soil and plenty of moisture; harvest when the tops fall over. The silver skin varieties do well here.
Plant early to mid May. Kale tastes best after the leaves have been frosted. It will winter over most years giving early spring greens that are mild and delicious salad greens. Dwarf Curled Kale, and Red Russian are good varieties.
These hardy and delicious members of the cabbage family are rarely found in grocery stores. Plant mid May to mid June. Try White or Purple Vienna.
Plant mid-May onward. Leaf lettuces of all varieties do well. My favorite is Green Ice, but Black Seeded Simpson, Ruby and Bibb are also good. Head lettuce does well if you start it inside and set out plants.
Plant April or early May. Sets or plants are generally better than seed. Walla Walla Sweets are a delicious sweet eating onion, Yellow Ebenezer is a reliable winter keeper. Evergreen Hardy White Bunching Onion is a perennial onion that grows well from seed. Egyptian or Top onion is a perennial variety that is absolutely hardy and pest free.
These can go into the garden late April through May, but as early as possible because peas do not like hot weather. It increases the yield to use a pea inoculant which adds the bacteria that fix nitrogen in the roots. Wando, Green Arrow and Little Marvel are good. The sugar snap peas are incredibly delicious and the snow peas, such as Oregon Sugar Pod do well.
Protection is needed at night as peppers grow best with nighttime temperatures of at least 50 degrees. They do well in pots. California Wonder and Yolo Wonder are sweet bell pepper types. The hot peppers such as jalapeno and cayenne can be grown also.
Plant early May to the end of May. Can be dug any time they are big enough, but for storage, they are harvested about three weeks after the tops go down. Early Gem, Norgold, Kennebec and Burbank are good.
These are not successful most places in Central Oregon as they take about four months, warm nights and are frost tender. Small Sugar or Jack O'Lantern are varieties you might try.
Start in mid-May and sow successive plantings ten days apart until mid-June. They grow very quickly and make a successful crop for interplanting with other vegetables. Once the weather gets real hot radishes tend to get wormy and hot flavored. Try French Breakfast, Cherry Bell, Saxa, White Icicle and if you like hot try the Oriental Daikon.
Plant the roots and do not harvest until the second season to give the plants time to get well established. Rhubarb likes rich soil and prefers manures. The red varieties like Canadian Red are the tastiest, you might also try MacDonald and Crimson Wine.
Winter squash are like pumpkins and do not often get to maturity before frost in Central Oregon. Summer varieties are more reliable because they are shorter season growers, try zucchini varieties, Summer Crookneck and Early White Bush Scallops. They like high fertility.
Plant as early as possible, mid-April to early May, as spinach bolts when the days lengthen. It likes a rich soil. Bloomsdale, Melody and Hybrid Olympia are good varieties.
Plant late May and harvest when thoroughly ripe and dry. There is a Black Stripe, Gray Stripe and Russian Mammoth. The birds love them.
These need some protection from frost to get to maturity. The shorter season varieties and the cherry tomatoes do best. Early Girl, Oregon Spring, Santiam are full size varieties; Sweet 100's, Cherry Bell and Yellow Pear are small size.

Perennial Salad Garden

Would you like to plant a salad garden that, once planted, will give you spring salads for years? A garden of tangy, delicious vegetables and herbs that for a minimum of effort, will give you a maximum of results.

The plants are not all perennial, but annuals and biennials, that with little care will self seed so generously they appear perennial. Kale is a favorite. It is a biennial, hardy member of the cabbage family that has a fairly strong taste in the first season and is usually a cooked vegetable. Early spring of the second season, new leaves emerge from the over-wintered plants that are delicate and exquisite in flavor. It is delicious, and makes an excellent salad staple. As the season progresses, it will put up a blossom stalk; this picked in the bud stage is tender and delicious in salads also.

Orach (Atriplex hortensis) sometimes sold under the name of Mountain Spinach, is mild and has an excellent flavor, even when large. It self-seeds with alarming abundance, and you may need to pick it in large quantities just to get it out of the garden. It also makes a good cooked green, milder in flavor than spinach and in our climate, earlier. It stores as well as spinach in the freezer.

Several other tasty salad additions that will self-seed are parsley, chervil and cilantro. Parsley is a biannual that winters over and blossoms the next spring. You will need to see that some young plants get a start every spring to keep a continuous supply. Chervil and cilantro are annuals that are hardy and prolific seeders.

Many of the true perennial are tender and delicious in the spring when they are young, but become tough and unpalatable later in the season. Violets (Viola oderata) emerge early and are very tasty. They are power packed with nutrition and have a long reputation in the herbalist's tradition as a healing herb. The flowers are also a tasty addition to a salad, as well as the flowers of Viola tricolor, the common viola.

Sweet cicely, (Myrrhis oderata) with a mild licorice flavor, is another of the favorite early spring greens. It's ferny growth is as beautiful as it is delicious. Lovage (Levisticum officinale) is tangy and tasty early, but becomes too strong flavored by June unless cooked.

Sorrel (Rumex scutatus) is an early green that adds a tangy, almost lemony note to the salad. It is my children's favorite, they always try to pick it out first from the salad. It is a hardy perennial without peer for flavor and has a high vitamin C content. It makes an excellent soup. Make it like cream of spinach soup, but substitute sorrel for the spinach.

An indispensable onion in the long season garden is Egyptian onion or top onion (Allium cepa viviparum). This clever fellow puts his sets out on the top and when they get heavy enough they fall over and plant themselves. This onion is edible any time in the year when the ground is not frozen and it bridges the gap nicely between winter storage onions and spring scallions. Use the tops and bottom bulbs for a welcome addition to soups, stews and salads. The small top bulbs can be pickled.

Another onion flavor that is good in the spring is chives. Just take your scissors, snip off a handful of the tops and snip them into your salad. The blossoms are also delicious, you will want to include them in your salads also.

To add crunch and texture to your salads, plant jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) in a wayside corner of your garden. These can take over your garden and are difficult to eradicate, so its best not plant anywhere you may not want them next year. They make a good border screen. These tubers can be dug anytime in the winter when the ground is not frozen, although, we have even used a pick and chopped them out when the ground was frozen. They are great.

All of these plants are easily grown, requiring no special care. They can even be tucked into flower beds and will be attractive; some as background plants and some as border plants. Sorrel, sweet cicely, violets, violas, chervil, and parsley will grow in shady spots.

The vitamin and mineral content of these greens is unparalleled by commercial winter lettuce. These wonderfully flavorful salads are a power house of nutritional value.

Edible Flowers

Many of the flowers in your garden can be added to the salads and used as garnishes, and are, in fact, considered quite gourmet. Some of these delicious flowers include:

calendula rose
chive hollyhock
violet nasturtium
viola petunia
English daisy fuchsia
borage pansy
carnation bee balm
daylily impatiens
lavender marigold
sunflower tuberous begonia


Growing fruits in Central Oregon can be disappointing. Again it depends a great deal on where you live and what your particular microclimate is. The biggest problem are the frosty nights that frequently occur when the trees are in blossom. The smaller, miniature and dwarf trees are easier to protect and cover. Espalier, the technique of training your fruit trees to grow up against your house, can also help to protect the fruits from frost, as it is warmer close to the house.

The general probabilities, according to the extension service, for fruit production are as follows:

  • Apples: once every 4 to 5 years
  • Pears: once every 5 to 6 years
  • Pie (sour) Cherries: most years you will get a crop
  • Peaches: occasional partial crop
  • Wild Plum: two out of three years
  • Sweet Cherries: generally unsuccessful
  • Apricot: unsuccessful
  • Nut trees: trees winter kill
  • Strawberries: successful
  • Raspberries: fairly successful
  • Blackberries: fairly successful
  • Blueberries: fairly successful with special soil treatment
  • Currants and Gooseberries: successful

These are only general guidelines, because there are extreme climatic variations within short distances in Central Oregon. Some gardeners have regular fruit production, while others are rarely successful.

Growing peaches present other problems besides blooming too early and frosting. They are a primary host for the green peach aphid which carries a destructive potato disease called leafroll. Aphids can travel and spread disease a surprisingly great distance. A particular problem to certified potato seed growers. Since the production is so unsuccessful, it would be better not to even plant peaches.

Most pears, apples and plums need a pollinator, so more than one variety is needed. These must be varieties that bloom at the same time. The later in the spring the fruit trees bloom, the better your chance of success becomes.

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