What we’ve learned from our trial-and-error vegetable gardening in the Pacific Northwest: The veggies that grow easily without a lot of upkeep, the veggies to not bother with, and how to grow them with less maintenance
When we moved out of our first Seattle apartment and into our rental house back in 2007, our new landlord was encouraging us to do some vegetable gardening. In the spring of 2008, we thought we’d give it a shot. There was a small pile of broken up chunks of concrete in the corner of the property that our landlord hadn’t disposed of yet, so being on a tight budget, we dug up a small section of yard and made a perimeter with the concrete chunks. We bought a couple bags of garden soil and a couple bags of compost, mixed them together in the garden bed, and called it good.
Not having the patience to read any gardening books, we did some light Googling and bought some seeds, glancing over the directions on the back of the packets before planting them. I made potato seeds myself by buying organic potatoes and keeping them in a paper bag for a couple weeks until they grew eyes. Our garden bed was small, and I planted everything way too close together.
I attempted to grow tomatoes from seed, and quickly found that this was a bad idea. I got a few little sprouts, but the weather wasn’t warm enough to really get them going. I bought some pre-grown tomato starts and planted them in pots, and they did just fine in full sun against our light-reflecting white garage. (I think a greenhouse is key to growing tomato starts from seed in the Pacific Northwest).
Of all the things we planted from seed, the zucchini and the potatoes proved to be the heartiest winners in the bunch. The cucumbers spent the whole summer growing one tiny nubby little cucumber the size of a grape, and the pumpkin extended a vine out of the bed into the yard, growing pumpkins and aborting them before they could begin to turn orange. The watermelon didn’t even make an appearance (honestly, I wasn’t super optimistic about that one, but it was worth a shot).
Not knowing anything about growing potatoes, I panicked when all my beautiful, lush, green potato plants dried up and died in late July. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. When I dug into the soil, I figured out that is the natural progression of potatoes, once the plant dies they are ready to harvest. We had a bunch of delicious little potatoes and their flavor was so much more intense than the potatoes at the grocery store.
Building a raised bed:
The next summer, excited to try vegetable gardening again, we asked our landlord if we could build a raised bed in the yard. She generously offered to supply the dirt for us (our landlord really is the best landlord ever).
With a little help from my parents, we constructed a large raised bed out of boards next to our little concrete-chunk lined bed. We lined the inside of the boards with black plastic to help protect them from the dirt (for awhile at least).
We have outdoor cats, and so do our neighbors. We knew we had a problem when our cat Finnigan jumped into the raised garden bed, dug a hole, and copped a squat as we were loading in the dirt. I yelled at him and shooed him away before he could drop his load. He was confused–he had been sure that this was a giant luxury bathroom just for him. Knowing we couldn’t completely keep the cats out, we added four posts on the corners of the raised bed and wrapped it with chicken wire. We could climb over it when we needed to tend to the garden, and it added an extra obstacle that our lazy cats weren’t always into jumping over.
Now we had lots of space to plant. We put up some chicken wire on posts on the side of the old garden bed and planted sugar snap peas and green beans. The main part of the bed we filled with potatoes. All three of these grew very well with little maintenance.
In the large bed, we planted zucchini and yellow squash, lettuce, broccoli, carrots, dill, cilantro, and strawberries.
I dug the strawberries out after I realized that the strawberry has a dual identity as a noxious weed; it had began shooting out vines over the other vegetables and sprouting new roots. We now know why strawberries are often grown in pots.
The dill and cilantro grew nicely, but when we didn’t use them right away, they shot up tall and flowered in the summer sun, producing more flowers than leaves. The broccoli did the same thing, and didn’t produce any edible flowers. I think it might have been too warm for the broccoli, it may be better to plant towards the end of summer and into fall.
As for the zucchini and yellow squash–they did just fine. Too fine. If there is one huge piece of advice I’d give anyone who is vegetable gardening for the first time, it is:
Resist the urge to plant the entire packs of zucchini and yellow squash.
There were so many seeds in the pack, and we had so much space to grow zucchinis. They grow so easily and are good for you. However, they produced so many zucchinis and squashes that after that summer, we didn’t want to eat any more zucchini for the next two years. We ate stuffed zucchinis, sauteed zucchini, chocolate zucchini cake, Thai curry with zucchini, etc. etc. We ate zucchini every way we could think of, and they just kept growing. If you don’t harvest them when they are a reasonable size, they just keep growing as well. In September, the zucchini plants had finally slowed down and I was finding less and less zucchinis in the garden. I must have missed one, however, because when we returned from a week long vacation I found a zucchini the size of our cats that had been hiding under the leaves. Neither of us wanted to eat any more zucchini, so I left it on my boss’s desk on Monday.
The peas and green beans did great climbing the chicken wire in the side of the old garden. Peas have a short growing season, and ended up being the first to grow and the first to be done growing. They were delicious. The green beans had a longer growing season, and we got a pretty good crop of those. We also had a great little crop of potatoes, all of which I grew from growing eyes on organic potatoes from the grocery store.
**Note: Don’t buy non-organic potatoes to make potato seeds from when vegetable gardening. They are treated with pesticides and I read that they can cause diseases in the soil. Always use certified seed potatoes from the garden section, or organic potatoes.
As for the carrots, they grew all summer and were ready to harvest in the fall. The seed packet told me to thin out the carrot sprouts after they grew to a certain height, but I didn’t really know how to thin them so I didn’t do anything. When we harvested the carrots, I understood the importance of thinning as the carrots were all grown together in twisty spirals and funny shapes. They were still edible and very tasty, but they weren’t the long classic carrots we were hoping for.
The lettuce grew very easily, but I quickly learned that you shouldn’t plant all the lettuce seeds in the pack at the same time. Suddenly we had more lettuce than we could handle, and it got overgrown and bitter if we didn’t eat it shortly after it was ripe. We ended up letting a lot of it go to waste by not picking it in time.
**Note: April is an ideal time to plant in the Pacific Northwest. You don’t want to wait too long to plant, but you need to be sure that there won’t be any more frost, as it will kill your seedlings.
Maintaining the garden beds
The next spring, grass, weeds, and dandelions had overtaken both gardens. It took a couple weekends of very hard work digging them all out with shovels and trowels. We’ve had to do this every summer since, and it is the part we both loathe. We’ve had a late start in planting many times because every weekend in April was rainy or we were busy every weekend that had sun, and we couldn’t get the garden bed ready early enough.
During the growing season, there was so much space in the garden bed that crab grass and dandelions (the bane of my existence) kept sprouting up in the garden. We hate weeding. It was also hard on our backs to constantly be bending and crouching in the garden.
We are also always super busy in the summer. Summertime in Seattle is a little crazy. There are only so many warm sunny weekends a year in this part of the country, and everyone is in a mad scramble to make the most of it. Concerts, festivals, weddings, block parties, BBQs, camping trips, swimming in Lake Washington, days at the beach, and hiking fill our summers to the brim. This left little time or desire to maintain the garden, and often we forgot to check on our veggies or weed out the dandelions. The fact that the gardens were in the back of the yard behind the garage didn’t help much either, as they were out of sight and easily forgotten.
Watering was easy enough, though. If it didn’t rain we’d water every other day or so, unless we had a heat wave (90 degrees plus) during which we’d water daily. Tip: water in the evening so the hot sun doesn’t evaporate your water during the day.
What we’ve learned for our next garden
We are preparing to buy a house within the next year, which means a fresh start for a new garden. Now that we’ve learned a bit about vegetable gardening, we have determined that:
1. We hate weeding. We REALLY hate weeding.
2. We don’t have time or patience for veggies that need a lot of maintenance
3. Bending over all the time really hurts our backs, and we’re not getting any younger
4. Gardens that are out of site (i.e. tucked behind the garage far from our back door) become out of mind very quickly.
5. We love the taste of home grown vegetables.
The low to the ground raised garden bed that we made on our rental property is great for people who are really into vegetable gardening and plan on growing a lot of vegetables, and have time for weeding and replanting. We’ve decided that our next garden will have smaller, higher raised garden beds and galvanized steel farm trough planters like these:
The raised height on the beds will prevent us from having to bend over so much, make the garden beds moveable, and will make it much more difficult for grass and weeds to invade them. We will plant on a smaller scale, and have the planters near the back door of our house or on the sides of the yard/patio so they are more visible and easier to take care of (preventing the out-of-sight-out-of-mind dilemma). You can buy them online or at farm and feed stores and garden centers. You can also make your own.
Tip: the galvanized steel food troughs are probably going to be a lot cheaper at a farm supply/feed store than at Pottery Barn.
We have also determined the following vegetables to be easy-to-grow winners that we will make a regular part of our summer vegetable gardening routine:
Tomatoes in pots in a spot with full sun all day has always worked very well for us. If you grow tomatoes, be sure to invest in some tomato cages to support the heavy fruits on the branches, and use potting soil that is good for vegetables as well as flowers.
Potatoes are super easy. My Mom has had luck growing potatoes in old tires, adding a stacked tire and more dirt as the plant grows. The potatoes grow in the roots, and the more dirt you add the more roots it will sprout, and in theory produce more potatoes. We have tried this, and haven’t gotten as many potatoes as a large garden bed full of potato plants. We weren’t that diligent about adding more dirt as the plant grew, however. We will probably try this again in planters and see how it goes.
Carrots are pretty low-maintenance, provided that you remember to thin them out when they start to grow so that you have one big carrot per plant instead of five spindly ones all tangled together in weird formations. I think I finally got this down last year.
Sugar Snap Peas and Green Beans
Peas and green beans are very easy and need very little garden space to grow if you get the pole kind (not the bush kind). Just make sure you have chicken wire, poles, or a lattice fence or something for them to climb. Once they start producing, keep an eye on them at least every other day to pick the ripe ones and keep the plants producing. Green beans that get too big get really tough and lose their flavor, so it’s best to make sure you don’t leave them growing too long.
Lettuce and Kale
Lettuce and kale are very simple as well. The trick with these is to only plant a couple seed groupings at the same time, and space out your planting a few weeks at a time so that you don’t end up with a bunch of lettuce at once. You can also pull up a head of lettuce or kale and then re-plant new seeds where the head you just pulled out was. This is a veggie that will do best for us in a raised bed near our back door, so that we can pull and replant often without forgetting about it.
I’ve found that radishes grow extremely fast, and you can replant these and space out your planting time just like the lettuce.
Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash
As mentioned earlier, don’t plant too much zucchini and squash, or you’ll never want to eat zucchini and squash again. These plants need a lot of space and get fairly large. Follow the directions on the seed packet and keep checking the plants daily once they begin to produce…otherwise you’ll wind up with cat-sized zucchinis.
Herbs like basil, cilantro, dill, oregano, and rosemary are easy to grow, but they need to be used as they grow. This is another one to keep near the back door so that we can maintain them and have them readily available to cut for cooking.
Someday we might give broccoli and brussells sprouts another shot in a fall garden. Maybe even artichokes. We’re still learning about vegetable gardening….we’ll let you know how it goes!