Classic ‘Primer’ revised for today’s veggie grower

  • By Debra Smith Herald Columnist
  • Wednesday, April 30, 2008 5:39pm
  • Life

When Barbara Damrosch published the first edition of “The Garden Primer” two decades ago, most people thought vegetables when they thought gardening. A lot has changed.

We got busier and our yards got smaller. Homegrown veggies yielded the throne to supermarket foods. And ornamentals became queen of the garden.

Vegetables are back, Damrosch said, and so too is the book thousands of gardeners lugged dog-eared and dirty around their gardens. Damrosch was in Seattle recently signing copies of a revised edition of the gardening classic, which includes chapters on soil, tools, landscape planning, buying plants and a dictionary of some of the best plants for the home garden. She intended the original to be a how-to guide and the second edition delivers advice in the same plain, practical language.

In the past two decades, Damrosch, now 65, evolved from a landscaper to a vegetable farmer, and her new speciality is growing vegetables year-round. She and her husband tend 40 acres in Maine. On just an acre and a half they grow $120,000 worth of produce annually, all in raised 30-inch beds. They incorporate tons of organic matter and grow vegetables in 20-below Maine winters using a combination of unheated greenhouses and floating row covers.

The second edition includes plants she now considers indispensable and she ditched plants that could become invasive. Readers will see more native plants, more seed saving and a more ecologically enlightened approach. This edition is “100 percent” organic — it says so right on the cover — but Damrosch said she has always felt pesticides were harmful.

When she learned millions of microscopic organisms lived in an inch of soil and that those organisms play an important role in plant health, she realized “soil is precious and fragile.” Worried about soil compaction, she rototills less and steps more carefully. And no chemical fertilizers.

“There is a growing awareness that anything that reduces the life of the soil is just poor gardening,” she said.

More people are returning to vegetables because of concerns about the safety of the industrial food system, but she said the trend got its start with mindful cooks looking for the freshest and best produce for their kitchens. There’s more to it than that. People have lost touch with the good basic things in life like sitting down with family and eating together, she said. Food has been devalued.

She hopes her book inspires more people to incorporate vegetables into their yards. It doesn’t take much space to grow a significant amount of food, she said. A 10-by-12-foot sunny plot can yield tomatoes, squash, salad greens and beans. Even a container can support a nice mix of greens or herbs.

“I’d like to see people get into serious gardening and even community gardens where you can rent a space,” she said.

It’s not all about the vegetables. She also wants people to do something more interesting with their yards, something more than “muffin-shaped topiary plants” and a respectable lawn.

“People have been browbeaten into a certain aesthetic,” she said. “People should wake up a little bit. I have this tiny piece of earth I have use of. What could I do to make it more interesting? More useful? More fruitful?”

Rita Moore became interested in native plants when she bought a 1/2 acre in Seattle with woods, Douglas firs, a meadow and a stream. Now, after plenty of native plant education, she consults with homeowners on how they can incorporate natives into their landscapes. A bit of her wisdom she shared at a recent talk: Use deadwood as garden art, including logs, stumps and snags. Don’t be afraid to use big native trees; when they get too big, cut them down. Western red cedars can make a nice native hedge, but they must be trimmed regularly. I’ll post more native plants resources at my blog at If you’re interested in buying some native plants, a sale is set for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 10 at the Bellevue Botanical Garden.

Speaking of sales, we are in prime plant sale season. If you’ve never been to a plant sale, you are missing out on fabulous, reasonably priced plants grown by your neighbors. Check out the calendar listing of this section and try one.

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or Visit her blog at

A few of Rita Moore’s favorite native plants

For the flower garden: fringecup, columbine, deer fern, foam flower, red huckleberry, salal, Pacific bleeding heart, sword fern

Edge of a garden bed: maidenhair fern, star-flowered false Solomon’s seal, wild ginger

Trees: mountain hemlock, Western red cedar, big leaf maple, Pacific dogwood, vine maples, Pacific crapabble

Shrubs: beaked hazelnut, red elderberry, Indian plum, red osier dogwood, snowberry, salmonberry, thimbleberry, oceanspray

Roses: Nootka, swamp, baldhip

For fall color: highbush cranberry or mooseberry

Vines: Honeysuckle vines red trumpet and California

Ground covers: low Oregon grape, salal, kinnikinnick, native blackberry, Western trillium, red columbine, Siberian miner’s lettuce, Pacific bleeding heart, yellow monkey flower, pink monkey flower, Cusick’s speedwell, camus, nodding onion, lupines, fireweed, tiger lily, penstemons, queen’s cup, Pacific iris, blue-eyed grass, goat’s beard, piggyback plant, inside-out flower, pearly everlasting, white fawn lily

Sedge: stone crop

More information: Washington Native Plant Society online at or call 206-527-3210.

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