Make your backyard ripe for organic vegetables this spring

A Whidbey gardening educator shares tips on how to grow your own in the Puget Sound climate.

Anza Muenchow

Anza Muenchow

Anza Muenchow knows her way around a garden. As a food growing and Pacific Northwest gardening educator, she wants more people to dig into their own back yards and start planting this spring.

Muenchow has taught food growing for several years: She worked with students at low-income schools and with immigrants and refugees, teaching them how to grow their produce in the cool, wet climate of the Pacific Northwest. She owns Maha Farm and Forest on Whidbey Island along with her husband. The 40-acre, clearcut lot was in bad shape when they first bought it a few decades ago.

“My husband and I believed that we could heal this land,” she said. Over the years, they cleaned out invasive weeds and planted conifers and other trees. In 2002, after clearing out tree stumps and weeds on two acres, Muenchow began her small farm and became involved with South Whidbey Tilth, a nonprofit corporation “whose gardeners and farmers raise crops in the Maritime Northwest,” per the organization.

“Working with immigrants and refugees who come from farming backgrounds mostly, I learned how much you can do in a small space,” Muenchow said. “It’s like I do urban farming, but in a rural setting. It’s intensive. It’s not giant long rows. I know exactly what’s in each area. As soon as something’s out, something else is in. So I’m pretty efficient that way. And now we have a little farm stand.”

She sells her produce at South Whidbey Tilth Farmer’s Market, promotes food growing and the slow food movement, and teaches classes at the South Whidbey Tilth Sustainability Campus.

“With the higher prices of fresh food, we especially repeat the benefits of growing our own produce,” Muenchow said. Plus, fresh-picked usually means better flavor.

“We are fortunate to have such a productive growing season here in northwest Washington,” she said. With long days from May to August, “most of our favorite food crops thrive with all that light and moderate temperatures.”

Muenchow has a Zoom class called the Farmer’s Shadow every first Wednesday of the month.

“It’s called that because the best fertilizer for gardening is the farmer’s shadow,” Muenchow said. “You know, just observing and being there to check on things. There’s so much going on, and you can spot things early that are going to be a problem.”

Muenchow shares a few of her tips with us on the challenges and rewards of growing food in the Puget Sound climate:

Keep it local: Select your seeds and plant starts from local sources that grow in our climate. Finding seeds that are bred to grow well in our cool summers is important for maximizing your harvests.

Summer irrigation: We don’t have summer rains, so we all need to prepare for summer irrigating. Besides careful watering of the soil (not the plants) we can use weed-free mulches like lawn clippings, compost and leaves to keep the soils shaded and moist during the dry months.

When to plant: Plant now for salad greens, but wait till Mother’s Day to set out some tomato or pepper transplants. Plant some squash then also. We’ll go over what you should pay attention to for your warm season crops (during the April 24 class), which is your tomatoes and peppers, and eggplants and squash, summer squash and beans. It’s important to understand how to get ready for planting those around early to mid-May. With basil, you will want to wait until June 1 because this herb hates cool rain.

Dealing with pests: The next big concern is protection from the pests that also like our produce. Fence out the bigger critters like deer and rabbits. For birds and some insects, use a floating row cover, aka garden blankets. These are light weight poly spun fabrics that allow water and light to go through, but keep out the dreaded carrot rust fly, leaf minors and cabbage root flies. Birds and rabbits avoid this also. The fabric is light enough that you don’t stake it, just lay it loosely on top of the plants and anchor it down on the edges with rocks or boards.

For slugs, you will be checking in the evening and picking them off. Slug traps with beer work, which seems more pleasant than cutting the slugs in half with a trowel. Don’t use Sluggo because it kills some of the predators that eat slugs, especially the night feeding ground beetles.

Good luck and have a great fresh food season this summer.

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