Wednesday, August 12, 2009

My Green Thumb - Tales of a West Coast Gardener - Fall Article

- the following is my first published article in Bamfield's new 'West Coast Quarterly' magazine; a Barkley Sound Community Journal. Publication date: Fall 2009

"If you're not killing plants, you are not really stretching yourself as a gardener." JC Roulston. When I came across this quote a few years ago I finally felt better about myself as a gardener. Yes, I have killed many plants….

I grew up with gardens – vast veggie beds done in the traditional style of long rows & miles of flower beds. I have many fond memories of learning the difference between weeds & plants & the taste of fresh picked cherry tomatoes still warm from the sun.

When we moved to Bamfield in 2002 I was overjoyed to see that there were flower beds & raised beds at our house. I spent the first summer uncovering & rediscovering plants in those established beds & learning all I could about the differences in gardening techniques between BC & southern Ontario – I made many, many mistakes!

It wasn’t until we moved into our own house in 2008 where I had to build my gardens from scratch; digging out the rock & the brambles, that I came to understand my connection with all things green. I am obsessed with gardening & have been seeking a way to share my enthusiasm with others here in Bamfield.

My challenges & lessons learned this year were many. Be Patient! I got my first hit of sunshine in February while I was transplanting & making a new raspberry patch. I was eager to get my gardens underway. Spring was 3 weeks late, but that didn’t stop me from starting seeds indoors the first weekend in March. I turned my house into a greenhouse & most of those seedlings didn’t survive the transition to outdoor living.

Give mystery plants a chance, but know when to yank them out! When we moved into the new house, I had quite an extensive collection of transplants & divisions, all which grew according to their own set of rules & regulations. Now I have a long list of plants to divide & move this fall as I didn’t know those rules would change in better soil with more care!

Landscaping IS different than gardening. I’ve started over from scratch & am still in the landscaping phase—building raised veggie beds, designing flower beds & moving rocks. My 5 year plan is slowly coming to shape, but I can’t wait to be done with the big landscaping projects!

Compost is a great thing but… I grew up with monster compost piles. But I also grew up in southern Ontario where there are no bears & we had a dog to keep the deer & other critters away. Our piles were works of art & had such a sweet smell that it can’t really be described. I love compost – I have a huge compost tumbler. It’s a big metal bin on a big metal frame. Yes, the bear has checked it out – twice. Once last fall, so I shut it down for the season & once this spring, where I once again emptied it into my new raised beds. I believe the bear was just checking me out & reminding me to stay on my toes & respect my own set of rules towards composting. If it’s green – it goes in. If it’s been cooked or has processed food on it – it goes in the chuck. During the summer, I won’t even compost most fruits as they are sugary. While most things break down in the heat of this bin, not all things do. I had a multitude of mutant-compost-tomato seedlings appear everywhere I put that luscious compost down. Mutant because they survived the composter heat & mutant because I don’t know what variety of store-bought red rubbery tomatoes they came from. I had successfully killed all my other tomato seedlings, so I wasn’t too impressed with these new monsters appearing. I also knew that if I really wanted them to grow, I would have to dig them up out of the garden, pot them up & try them in the greenhouse – which, if you haven’t seen it, isn’t much of a greenhouse. More like a plastic covered storage shed for all my pots & tools. I pulled them out instead & thought ‘maybe next year’.

Try something new. This lesson is great to try every year because someone else always has stories about their successes or failures & it can be a challenge to see if you can get out of your garden comfort zone & try it too.

This is the year of ‘The Great Wet Coast Corn Patch Experiment’ – yes, I’m growing corn in Bamfield. I’ve heard many stories about people who used to do, about those who’ve tried & not succeed & I’ve had many people laugh at me. Well, so far so good!

Another experiment I was determined to succeed with was growing basil & other interesting yet difficult herbs. My basil sprouted very well from seed & now lives in my greenhouse/storage shed. It is actually doing extremely well considering I water them only once a week & rarely check on them. The purple basil has much better flavour than the sweet basil, but seems to attract the occasional aphid. The French tarragon loves to be ignored & is also doing very well. Now, my rosemary survived this past winter & I’m determined to have it last a few more years, so I’ve taken cuttings as well as sprouted some from seed—a delicate work of patience as some took 6 weeks to pop up! I have to figure out a way to protect the rosemary & tarragon during the winter without moving half my garden into my house! (My house plants take up enough space-even the hanging spider plants become overbearing monsters demanding a heavy hand in pruning.)

Which brings me to thoughts of autumn—my favourite season. How I miss this season of change (growing up in Ontario): the colours of the fall leaves & the wonderful earthy smells of leaf rot & mushrooms. We do get a wonderful autumn here in Bamfield & it’s a great time to relax & play in the gardens—time for transplanting & dividing, harvesting fall veggies, cleaning out the flower & raised beds & finding those long lost tools.

Since the deer ate my peas this year, I’m curious to see if I can grow a fall crop in the cooler weather & actually eat some myself! My radishes this spring grew so well, I’d like to also try a fall harvest (I grew an Easter egg variety & had white, red & purple radishes-sweet & crunchy with very little heat).
I only had time this spring to build 2 raised beds for veggies & 1 for herbs, so my journey into growing vegetables was limited in space. Kale took up most of one bed, mixed in with green & yellow beans, a few baby carrots & beets, so next spring I’d like to add a couple more beds & try my hand at other veggies that I’ve seen my neighbours grow.
I found this past winter I was reading a lot of gardening books & magazines & doing research on the internet. A few of my ‘must read’ books every year are:
· Jekka’s Complete Herb Book by Jekka McVicar, Kyle Books, England. (excellent for herbs & their uses)
· Plants of Coastal British Columbia by Pojar & Mackinnon, Lone Pine Books, BC. (want to know what’s in your backyard? A ‘must read’)
· All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew, Cool Springs Press, USA. (great for figuring out spacing in raised beds)
· Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades by Steve Solomon, Sasquatch Books, Seattle.
· ABC’s of West Coast Gardening by Mary Palmer, Harbour Publishing, BC. (these 2 books are good for beginners & essentially say the same thing)

There are some great magazines out there too but the websites give information just the same:
· Harrowsmith Country Life (
· Canadian Gardening (

I also check out different plant & bulb catalogues (also available online):
· West Coast Seeds (based in Delta, BC & a much better choice for seed selection for coastal gardens) (
· Vesey’s Bulbs & Vesey’s Seeds (based in PEI) (
· Stokes Seeds (based in Ontario) (
· Breck’s Bulbs (based in Ontario) (
And last, but not least for tools & other fun garden accessories (will cause drooling & excitement during the winter):
· Lee Valley Garden Catalogues ( - a store now located in Victoria!!

I have a plaque on my wall that reads: ‘Quit Thinking; Just Enjoy the Garden’. Well, I have found that when I’m enjoying my garden (be it a leisurely tour, a session of guerilla weeding or harvesting the fruits of my labour) I actually do a lot of thinking & remembering. I remember why I love this town & my coastal family. I remember the solutions to problems in my life. And most of all, I remember how to relax & enjoy my garden – even if the deer ate all my peas & unripe blueberries!