A forager’s garden on Camano Island keeps out the deer

Tim Gray bought his Camano Island property more than 25 years ago.

He was young, 23, and needed a place to live while he tried to carve out a career in the landscaping industry.

The Stanwood native immediately planted apple trees, wine grapes and numerous other specimens on the rural 1 1/3-acre parcel with a 1960s-era mobile home.

Gray knew he wanted the property to produce food and wine grapes in addition to a bounty of beauty.

Over the years, the property evolved. He left for eight years to live in California. He later built a large home, put in extensive paver and flagstone patios and remodeled multiple sheds on the property to create an all-out estate.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that Gray — now the co-owner of the well-known Pacific Stone Co. on Rucker Avenue in downtown Everett — decided to add the vegetable garden of his dreams.

How exactly do you do that in an area packed with deer and other plant predators?

You enclose the whole darn thing. You integrate a deluxe chicken coop and, being the co-owner of a stone supply store, you use lots and lots of stone.

Gray’s 35-foot-by-50-foot creation is a showcase for one-of-a-kind slabs of natural stone and numerous concrete blocks to make sophisticated, functional raised vegetable beds.

“Maybe it’s part of recapturing my youth and going back to how I was raised,” said Gray, 50, of his motivation.

In early 2009, Gray set out to build a chicken coop in his large back yard, previously home to nothing more than turf grass and a few fruit trees. He knew a vegetable garden would follow as the perfect complement to his thriving orchard and eggery.

He sketched it all out and started to build with a little help from friends.

His chicken coop features reclaimed windows on all sides and 100 square feet for eight unnamed girls and one rooster named Fred.

Gray’s vegetable garden surrounds the cedar structure, stained a rich golden brown to match the rest of the buildings on the property.

Wire fencing wraps around numerous treated 4-by-4 wooden posts to provide a deer-proof perimeter.

Wooden screen doors, arbors, trellises and metal hardware, including exposed galvanized construction brackets, give the structure a rustic but tidy look.

What makes the garden sing, of course, are Gray’s many edible plants, which are thriving, despite an unseasonably soggy, cool summer.

Hops vines in full flower climb numerous posts for Gray’s fall home-brewing projects. Six-foot-tall tomato plants, started from seed, use the posts too.

Raspberries, ever-bearing varieties that will fruit until frost, are juicy and sweet and come in handfuls rather than buckets, just how Gray likes it.

“As each berry gets ripe, I just eat it,” he said. “If there’s a lemon cucumber that’s ripe, I pick it and eat it.

“It’s a forager’s garden.”

Vertical gardening is a given here: Where there aren’t posts or fencing for support, plants take extra help from 10-foot lengths of rebar.

Sunflowers, for example, soar amid a stand of the metal sticks. Miniature pumpkin vines wind up the same sunflowers’ stalks in their quest for more light.

Sweet peas in a rainbow of colors reach for the sky and perfume the air.

Red-stemmed climbing spinach, also known as Malabar, winds around the fencing, too.

Low-growing crops such as bolt-resistant New Zealand spinach, Swiss chard, beets and strawberries spill out over the edges of the many raised beds.

Artful elements add to the space, including repurposed pots, reclaimed metal door pulls, decorative stone displays, a wine barrel used as a table and a Japanese broom, ideal for sweeping away autumn’s many spiders.

Gray, already excited about next year’s vegetable garden, is relishing not just the fruits of his horticultural labor, but also the satisfaction of having completed a lasting wood, wire and stone structure for an enclosed, edible escape.

“It’s been fun, tasty and has been bringing me a lot of fulfillment,” he said. “And it’s been a challenge, which I like.”

Spinach stars

Tim Gray of Camano Island recommends two interesting spinach varieties for Northwest gardeners.

Neither will bolt, flower or become bitter during periods of hot weather, a common problem with many other varieties.

New Zealand: This variety, though not as sweet as more common spinach types, can be sown in mid-spring after the danger of frost has passed and again in early summer for a steady crop into fall.

“If you pick it, it just keeps growing,” Gray said. “You’ll have spinach all summer, even in the heat.”

See www.humeseeds.com or call 253-435-4414.

Malabar: This heat lover, also known as red stem spinach, features thick, dark green leaves and red-stemmed vines that can climb up to 6 feet tall with support, excellent for space-saving gardens with hot, sunny sites.

Ideally, it should be started indoors from seed and transplanted in late spring after the danger of frost has passed.

See www.parkseeds.com or call 800-213-0076.

Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037; sjackson@heraldnet.com.

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