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Editor’s note: This article is the third piece in our series on gardening for your specific location. Check back every day this week for a new featured area of the country!
The Pacific Northwest is a gardener’s paradise in many respects. Few areas in the country are as naturally lush and green, and some plants seem to spring up with almost no help from you. On the other hand, if you live in the coastal regions of Northern California, Washington and Oregon, there are a few unique gardening challenges you face.
This region falls in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6 through 8. Summers are mild and cool, with plenty of rain and cloud cover. The warm, sunny growing season is short when compared to other regions. Cool-season crops, such as lettuce, kale, and carrots, thrive here, but growing heat-loving vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers is downright challenging.
Tomatoes, beans, summer squash, peppers, eggplants, and tomatillos need warmth and sunlight to germinate, produce fruit, and mature. In cold, damp soil, seeds rot. During wet weather, bees are less likely to be active, further reducing your chances of success. And, these plants drop their blossoms in cool weather. Finally, if you do get a few fruit, they won’t ripen properly without sunlight and warmth.
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If you’ve got your heart set on a homegrown tomato or pepper, try these tricks: Place red plastic over your soil to warm it and draw sunlight, or plant compact varieties in black plastic buckets, which will attract the sun and retain warmth. Start with large nursery plants to give yourself a head start and choose varieties adapted to the Pacific Northwest’s growing conditions. Install Wall-O-Water plastic cloches over young tomato and pepper plants. These devices act as mini-greenhouses and can keep plants up to ten degrees warmer. Not only can you plant earlier, but plants grow more quickly with these specialized cloches. Remove the cloches during hot, sunny weather, though, or you’ll burn the plants.
Even with all these precautions, success with warm-season crops can be unpredictable. To hedge your bets, fill most of your garden with cool-season vegetables. The first plants you’ll likely plant in the spring include peas, lettuce, broccoli, kale, and collards. Plant these crops in late March and again in July for a fall crop. In April, plant the root vegetables, including radishes, carrots, turnips, parsnips, and beets. Make another planting in July or August. These crops thrive in the cool, damp conditions of the Pacific Northwest, but they need soil temperatures of at least 60 degrees to germinate. Wait a few weeks if you’re experiencing an especially cold, wet spring. By using cold frames, hoop tunnels, and floating row covers, you can grow leafy greens and root crops almost year-round.
Add herbs, perennial vegetables and fruit crops to your gardening plan. All bramble berries, including raspberries and blackberries, thrive here. You can also grow blueberries, apples, pears, asparagus, and rhubarb.
The soil throughout the Pacific Northwest ranges from sand to clay. A few lucky gardeners have loam. More importantly, though, the soil’s pH is fairly acidic. Before you plant a single seed, take a pH test yourself or take a soil sample to a university extension office. Most vegetables prefer a soil pH around 6.5. If your soil pH is lower than 6.0, dig some lime into the soil to make it more alkaline. How much to add? The general rule is to add five to ten pounds of dolomitic limestone for each 100 square feet of soil to raise the pH by one scale interval. This amount varies, depending on your soil type. Add more limestone to clay soils, less to sandy soils. If you’ve conducted a soil analysis through the extension department, you’ll receive instructions on exactly how much to add.
In addition to limestone, add at least two to four inches of compost or manure to your soil. Avoid adding peat moss, which will make your soil even more acidic. If your soil is heavy clay, consider building raised beds and filling them with garden soil from a landscaping firm. The heavy clay soils in the Pacific Northwest are very hard to improve.
Gardeners in the Pacific Northwest face more problems with disease and pests than those in dryer regions. Snails and slugs are probably your number-one enemy. Hand pick and destroy them or install snail baits and traps. Place floating row covers over newly planted greens to thwart flea beetles. To reduce the risk of fungal diseases, plant disease-resistant varieties and space them so air circulates freely.
Tomatoes: To get the most from your tomatoes, plant determinate, fast-maturing varieties, such as grape tomatoes or cherry tomatoes. During cloudy weather, hand-pollinate the tomatoes by shaking the branches gently a few times each day. The Oregon State University Extension has developed a few tomato varieties that don’t require pollination to produce fruit. These include Oregon Spring, Oregon Star, Gold Nugget, Legend, and Siletz. These varieties are less dependent on good weather to develop and ripen fruit.
Summer squash and zucchini: Like tomatoes, summer squash and zucchini need warm weather to germinate. Tomatoes are germinated by wind, but squash are germinated by bees. When bees aren’t active, hand germinate them by brushing pollen from a male flower with a soft paint brush and transferring it to female flowers. The female flowers are identified by a bump at the base of the flower. Try fast-maturing varieties, such as Early Prolific Straightneck, Early Summer Crookneck, and Gold Rush, a compact, upright variety that grows well in containers.
Eggplant: Every gardener should grow eggplant at least once. This tropical plant has beautiful foliage, flowers, and ripening fruit. It also has the same growing requirements as tomatoes. Choose varieties that ripen quickly, such as Dusky Hybrid, Burpee Hybrid, and Early Beauty Hybrid.
Beans: Shell beans need a very long growing season and aren’t appropriate for the Northwest. Try snap green bean varieties, including Kentucky Wonder or Blue Lake.
Corn: Corn is hard to grow in the Pacific Northwest, but if you’d like to try it, plant it in blocks of at least four rows to ensure better germination. Try early varieties, including Golden Jubilee, Northern Xtra-Sweet, or Golden Midget.
Carrots: Almost any carrot variety will thrive here, but if you have heavy, clay soils, try Danvers Half-Long, a small, baby carrot variety.
Brassicas: When it comes to broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, and turnips, any variety you plant in the Pacific Northwest will likely grow. The same goes for leafy greens. Experiment with a new variety each year to find your favorites.
Asparagus: Lucky is the gardener who grows asparagus. This perennial vegetable takes two to three years to become established, but thereafter, you can expect delicious asparagus for twenty years or more. Plant rust-resistant varieties, such as Early California 500, Mary Washington, or Jersey Giant, which is also resistant to fusarium wilt.
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