Good Soil Combos For Containers

Cold Snaps And Snap Peas

Thanks to my resident herd of deer, most of my edible plants live in large containers on my deck, some 20 feet above the ground. Since this is The Year Of Power Washing, all my pots are being emptied into the compost heap so the deck can be maintained. (Power washing every 2-3 years keeps the molds and mildews at bay quite nicely.) I usually refill my outsized containers with a blend of good garden soil and a half-and-half mixture of mature compost and well rotted dairy manure from family farmed, pastured cows that have not been treated with Bovine Growth Hormones.

Pit washed dairy manure is one of my favorite amendments for gardens and containers alike, as it is a primo soil conditioner. Because cows digest so thoroughly, their manure carries no weed seeds into the garden, making it my top dressing of choice. If you lack a local supply, you may find pit washed dairy manure from small farms by contacting your local Agricultural Extension Service, since most agents maintain a list of local manure sources.

Good Dirt, Great Soil

Garden dirt, however lovely, is too dense for use in containers unless modified. To add aeration, I mix it half-and-half with the aforementioned compost-and-dairy-manure mixture. The result is fairly fluffy, yet full bodied enough to keep my plants from getting knocked about by wild shore winds that whip through here. When I first started container-growing my edibles, I lost plants to wind rock. Many soilless potting blends are too light weight to hold plants in place in windy settings like mine, so I developed this mix to help my plants stay home despite sudden gusts.

If you don’t have access to good garden soil or manure and so on, there are a few potting soil blends that are quite decent. In the past few years, I’ve experimented with several kinds with varying degrees of success. The best of the bunch turned out to be made by E.B. Stone, a family owned company with a deep commitment to solid organic practices. Their potting soils are intricate mixes that combine as many ingredients as an Indian curry blend, with similarly delectable results. The one I can recommend without reservation for container growing is called Edna’s Best Potting Soil, which is fortified with feather meal for nutritional oomph and beneficial mycorrhizal fungi that symbiotically colonize plant roots, acting like mini-pumps to bring more nutrients and water to the partner plants. Edna’s also has yucca extract added to prevent the crusting that make it so difficult to re-wet many potting soils once they dry out too far.

Tucking In Chilly Youngsters

My first plantings this year are peas and lettuces, both of which are cool weather crops that can take a little frost in stride, fortunately (since it’s back to freezing nights lately). I train my peas up twiggy trellises placed so I can pick the curly, crunchy tendrils for salads and stir fries. Among my favorite red podded peas is Sugar Magnolia, which was reportedly also Jerry Garcia’s favorite snap pea. It’s gorgeous, with plump pods packed with sweet, tender peas. Sugaree snap peas are also Dead-icated faves, and both are bred by Dylana Kapuler and Mario DiBenedetto of Peace Seedlings, as are super crisp Green Beauty snow peas.

Peace Seedlings is Northwestern partnership dedicated to saving seeds of diversity and breeding public domain plants for organic growers. Peace Seedlings continues the work of Alan and Linda Kapuler’s Peace Seeds, co-founders of Seeds of Change and holders of a seed bank of about 1,000 varieties. The two seed companies share growing space and work cooperatively, each following their own particular interests with shared goals of creating true seed strains of delicious, nutritious food crops.

 Beauty & The Pea

A dwarf shelling pea, Desiree Blauschokker, can even be container grown without support. Its crisp, blue-purple pods are lovely raw (think snow peas) or grown to plump maturity and shelled. They look especially beautiful when joined in a raw salad with Golden Sweet Edible snow peas, which have lemon yellow pods that can also be enjoyed as youngster pods or mature peas (and even dried). My earliest are usually Sugar Ann (probably named for me, if they only knew), compact 2-footers with tender-crisp pods that pack a lot of flavor and are awesome raw or in risotto.

A Lotta Lettuce

Greens appear in pretty much every meal I eat, and I especially love both super crisp and buttery lettuces, which taste most magical when just picked. Thus, I’m a huge fan of Frank’s Unsung Crispy Mix, bred by Frank Morton, whose Wild Garden Seed company breeds nutritionally superior, especially flavorful edibles that are well suited to organic farming practices. The Unsung mix combines colorful bronze, red, and green crisp-head, mini-head, and romaine types, all of which are toothsome singly or together. Yum!

Hot purple Hyper Red Rumple is a stunning looseleaf lettuce with great texture and full flavor that has always been utterly dependable in my gardens. I’m also getting fond of the new Salanova lettuces, which come in red and green versions of butterheads, oakleaves, frilly leaves and frisees. The baby butterheads look almost like succulents as infants and size up into buxom bouquets that fill a salad bowl with a single cut of your harvesting knife. I’m so glad that spring is on the way!

Here are some links to learn more about our Northwestern hero breeders:

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Hardy Garden Primroses

Primadonna Primroses Of The Past

I was recently asked to write more about collectors’ primroses; here are excerpts from an article I wrote some twenty years ago that pretty much covers the topic. It’s fun to look back and remember my dear garden where so many plant marvels were adoringly grown. Today, these species and heritage varieties are still to be found, having outlasted many new varieties bred for quick color rather than garden longevity. I know it’s long, but it’s only part of a far longer piece. I know, really? Enjoy!

The Primrose Path

To anyone raised on English children’s books, the word spring conjures up an artless jumble of primroses, violets, and celandines, with perhaps a cheerful hedgepig peeping through the leaves. This mental association of primroses and England is quite common and has lead to an assumption that American gardeners living beyond the mild, maritime regions of Pacific Northwest can only raise primulas under glass. Though it is no coincidence that most primrose specialty nurseries and the bulk of the membership of the American Primrose Society are to be found there, hardy garden primulas are successfully being grown all across the country.

Indeed, though gardeners in frigid Alaska may indeed be growing fancy auriculas in greenhouse or windowsill, they may equally well be growing native species or alpine primulas in their open gardens, for more hardy primroses are lost to the mugs of August than the frosts of winter. In warmer parts, the subtropical fairy primrose, Primula malacoides, blooms from winter into spring, and P. obconica may proffer its pink and purple flowers all year round. While not every primrose is for every garden, it might prove hard to find a garden where no primula could thrive.

Wild And Tame Treasures

My own initial impression that primroses were delicate creatures was dispelled by finding them growing along icy Rocky Mountain streams and carpeting stony natural garden rooms in the High Sierra. Wider travelers have discovered some six hundred members of the Primulaceae, so many that this great genus has been subdivided into thirty sections. Most are found scattered throughout the temperate parts of the northern hemisphere, but a scant handful of southern primroses, best known to us as greenhouse plants, hail from the tropics of Capricorn. In the wild, primulas enjoy an astounding variety of conditions, some clinging to the stern faces of sheer mountain cliffs, others demurely decorating lowland water meadows.

In the garden, however, these beautiful perennials often prove less cooperative, if no less adaptable. I had heard that the rosy, hairy-leaved Japanese Primula kisoana demanded shade and moist, leafy soil, but my original plant sulked in what seemed an ideal spot, sending thickets of runners into the loose coffee bean mulch of the sunny path, where its furry offspring still appear in droves each spring. The white form, said to be even pickier, proliferates happily in its shady bed, but also runs out into the sun, tucking itself between tufts of variegated Japanese iris. An American species, Primula parryi, grows far better in a fairly dry bed beneath an old apple tree than under a weeping willow along our stream, despite its preference for dampness in the wild.

How To Succeed

The keys to garden success with primulas seem to be flexibility–the willingness to experiment with site and soil–and patience. This last is especially valuable, since many wonderful species are most readily available as seed. Fortunately, most primulas are quite easy to raise from seed, which gives you a nice crop of younglings to try in various positions until you learn their preferences. Though exact requirements vary a bit from section to section, most primroses prefer that elusive ideal, a well-drained, moist soil. To this end, we will usually need to amend our natural soils, adding humus for better texture and water retention, compost to buffer the Ph, and grit or coarse builder’s sand to lighten heavy soils and improve drainage. Where summers are hot, stones, mulch, and protective
shrubs will provide cool root runs as well as shade from midday sun.

While all primroses appreciate moisture during active growth, a few, like the Himalayan drumsticks, P. denticulata, tend to rot where winters are wet. To avoid this, primrose fanciers often mulch their plants with stone chips, which works fine in a rock garden but may prove too obtrusive in mixed borders or wild gardens. In such situations, adding an extra helping of grit to the planting pocket and providing shelter, in the form of evergreen shrubs and trees, from prevailing winds will be helpful. So long as the soil mixture is rich enough in humus, dry summers rarely threaten the health of mature plants, though evergreen varieties may turn brown and tatty in a prolonged drought. Where summers tend to be dry, an hydrophilic polymer may be blended into the soil along with the grit (this is not a good idea with primulas that prefer dry winters, however).

Made For The Shade

A further requirement shared by all but a few bog primulas is shade. The amount and kind of shade wanted will vary by genus section as well as by your geographic region, for an alpine auricula that flourishes in almost full sun in my cool Seattle-area garden may need considerable shade to do as well in North Carolina. In any garden, the quality of the shade is important, for few primroses will tolerate dense shade, and all bloom best when receiving plenty of light and air.

The high shade cast by the upper limbs of tall trees in woodland gardens suits many European and Asian woodland species nicely. Most alpine primroses, as well as the subtropicals, prefer full morning and afternoon sun, hiding from the hot midday sun in the partial shade cast by rocks or shrubs. Meadow dwellers (as well as most woodlanders) appreciate the filtered shade found in mixed borders which hold a good percentage of mature shrubs and small trees.

Naturally Good Company

Because they are informal in shape and habit, primulas look more natural in casually mixed company than in formal bedding schemes (fancy auriculas are an obvious exception, but these are nearly always grown in pots). Given the right companions, even exotic species can appear thoroughly at home in American gardens. We can find good company for our primulas among the ranks of native spring blooming wild flowers such as hepaticas, spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), and blue bells (Mertensia virginica). Aroids like our native jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) or the southern A. dracontium contribute curious flowers and dramatic foliage to the primula beds, as does the eastern native Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum).

We can also take a tip from the English hedgerows and mix in sweet violets and lesser celandines (Ranunculus ficaria), of which there are many delightful forms. Mossy saxifrages bloom well in half shade, as will the diminutive Astilbe chinensis ‘Pumila’, with its frilly foliage and mauve flowerspikes. The host of shade tolerant foliage plants such as hostas and ferns blend comfortably with primroses and provide lasting textural interest as well. Evergreen ferns and perennials, perhaps Helleborus foetidus or dainty rosettes of Bergenia ciliata, make good place markers for deciduous Asian primulas like the lacy-petaled Primula sieboldii which have long dormant periods that make them vulnerable to forgetful gardener’s meddling. Candelabras and other bog primulas consort pleasantly with water iris, Canadian tiger lilies (Lilium canadensis), closed and bottle gentians, and skunk cabbage.

Section Vernales

The most adaptable and easy going of the clan are the vernal primroses, a large clan of European garden and meadow primulas which bloom from late winter through spring. These include the chalk yellow true primrose, Primula vulgaris, as well as the nodding yellow cowslips (P. veris) and oxlips (P. elatior) which decorate English meadows and lanes, as well as the bright-eyed polyanthas. All of these thrive in mixed borders, tucked under shrubs or grouped informally along lightly shaded pathways.

Vernal primroses have crinkled, evergreen foliage which suffers in summer drought, but some forms, notably P. x polyanthus, repay summer watering with an autumn crop of flowers, and may bloom straight through a mild winter. In good garden soil, vernals may need dividing every few years. Congested crowns may be gently teased apart into many small plants. The smallest scrap of root that also has a leaf will grow, but the woody, central part should be discarded.

Whose Lips?

Cowslips and oxlips are easily confused in garden settings, where exposure to other vernals has produced lovely hybrids with orange, copper and red flowers. The cowslip (Primula veris, zone 3) has slim stems from which dandle soft bunches of tubular, cupped flowers of clear yellow that smell like spring, each with a loose fitting green calyx. It blooms in March and April, and is unusually tolerant of dry soils. The oxlip (Primula elatior, zone 3) is similar, except that its stems are taller, its flowers are upfacing and lack the characteristic primrose scent.

The true primrose, Primula vulgaris (zone 3), has solitary, wide-eyed flowers, usually soft yellow, on short stems, coming into bloom with the first thaws. Its many forms, both single and double, come in dozens of colors, from vivid reds and blues through faded denim, terra cotta and buff to soft white. Primula x polyantha (zone 3) is a bunch-flowered version with hundreds of variations, including a number of antique forms created centuries ago. Gold and silver laced primulas have a thin rim of white or yellow that encircles and divides each deep-toned petal, while Jack-in-the-green primroses are framed by a large ruff-like calyx. The calyx of a hose-in-hose primrose mimics the flower form and color, looking as if one flower were fitted into another.


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Welcome Kalettes & Cousinly Crosses

Who Can Resist These Ruffled Beauties?

After a decade or so of acclaim, kale needs neither introductions nor accolades. However, some delicious, new-to-the-family crosses are just hitting nurseries, markets, and high-end restaurants this year, notably kalettes. As I mentioned in an earlier post, these ruffled, purple-veined darlings are the offspring of an arranged marriage of kale and Brussels sprouts, two of my all-time favorite vegetables. So far, kalettes come in three varieties: Autumn Star matures early, Mistletoe is a mid-season cropper, while Snowdrop is for late winter harvest.

In each form, tall stalks are studded with adorable baby sprouts, which are surrounded in turn by frilly foliage (think kale) splashed with flashes of fuchsia and purple. Gorgeous on the plate, the foliage and/or plump rosettes can be roasted, sauteed, lightly steamed or enjoyed raw in salads (slice them in half or quarter them). Indeed, they’ve been featured in a number of magazine and cookbook glam shots that will probably put these pretty puppies on the top of the pop charts in no time flat.

Sourcing The Seed

Neither kalettes nor any of the other crosses I’ll mention are gene-spliced GMOs; instead they are carefully hand bred using time honored techniques. Partly in response to agri-monster corporations that contaminate seed lines and food crops with GMOs, a new band of artisan breeders has arisen. These inspired people work by patiently crossing individual plants to create new ones with even more desirable characteristics, then grow out the best of the results to develop reliable seed strains.

Uprising Organics ( is one such local group, a dedicated bunch of farmers who devote their lives to preserving and improving food crops and open pollinated seed lines. They themselves grow most of the seed they sell, and what isn’t home grown is carefully sourced to keep the quality as high as possible. Similarly, small-scale hand breeders up and down the coast (and around the country) are working to refresh and purify classic tomato and potato varieties, among many other crops. These folks combine lofty ideals with practical goals, notably the development of ever-more-delicious vegetables.

A Close Knit Family

The cole clan intermarries readily, which is a wonderful thing, considering the variety and quality of its many crosses, each of which offers a distinctive twist on the mama plants. One of my favorites for the past few seasons has been another kale/Brussels sprout cross called Flower Sprouts Petit Posy. Not surprisingly, it’s very similar to kalettes, the foliage having the earthy warmth of kale and the sprouts inheriting a somewhat lighter, fresher version of the lush, deep Brussels sprout flavor. A stunning kale/broccoli cross called Purple Peacock is beautiful enough to be a border plant. Its deep purple stems are tipped with broccolini-like florets, while the young, pink and purple stained foliage is wonderful raw in salads, sauteed, or steamed with other greens (an a little olive oil, garlic and lemon does no harm at all).

An Italian variety, Broccoli Spigariello Liscia, is a leafy broccoli that produces tender little heads like those of broccoli raab, along with tasty foliage with the sweetness of kale/cabbage crosses such as Lacinato and Tuscan Black kale. Broccoli also crosses readily with Gailon, a Chinese broccoli with slender stems and smaller florets. Several recent introductions of this mating are hitting the nurseries, sometimes sold as Brokali. Broccoli x Gailon Happy Rich, a fall cropper, combines broad, substantive foliage with chunky, raab-like floret-heads, both of which are delicious raw, steamed, grilled, and sauteed. Last season, we pigged out on Asparabroc, another  Broccoli/Gailon cross with mild, almost succulent foliage, clusters of tender florets, and asparagus-like stalks. If you harvest the main head, several side shoots will follow in short order.

Sauce For the Goose

Here are a few basic treatments that will help you fall in love with any of these splendid cole family creations. There are so many great ways to enjoy these veggies that it’s almost impossible to go wrong. The worst you could do to coles is to overcook them; almost anything else will have a desirable outcome.

Best Ever Basic Broccoli

4 cups broccoli florets
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Put broccoli in a steamer basket over boiling water, cover pan, reduce heat to medium and steam for 3 minutes. Immediately plunge broccoli into a bowl of very cold water and let cool for about 10 minutes (about to room temperature). Drain well and serve with a sprinkle of sea salt. Addictive!

Super Sprout Salad

2 cups sliced sprouts (any of the above)
2 cups sliced Crimini mushrooms (or any kind you prefer)
2 tablespoons avocado oil (or olive oil)
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon flaked nutritional yeast (optional)
1 teaspoon maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups chopped Romaine lettuce
1 cup grapefruit sections, peeled and chopped
1 Opal or Honeycrisp apple, diced
4 green onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup stemmed cilantro OR Italian parsley
1/4 cup coarsely chopped roasted almonds or hazelnuts

In a serving bowl, gently toss sprouts and mushrooms with oil, half the lime juice, nutritional yeast (if using), maple syrup, and salt and let stand for 15-20 minutes. (This marinade “pre-cooks” the sprouts and mushrooms and mellows them considerably.) Add remaining ingredients, toss gently and serve. Serves 4-6.

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Kalettes, Wasabi and Colorful Cauliflower

Grow The Newest Trendy Foods At Home

I work at the local library, a dream job if there ever was one. As I soft and shelve books, I notice that the balance of most-checked-out books is shifting from cook books to gardening books. That reflects the turning of the year’s tide as days grow just a bit longer and softening rains prepare beds for planting. However, plenty of foodie books are still circulating, especially those having to do with unusual vegetables. That amazing savant, Yotam Ottolenghi, author of Plenty, my favorite vegetarian cookbook so far, has come out with yet another masterpiece of vegetable bliss.

Ottolenghi’s newest book, Plenty More, is packed with tantalizing pictures of gorgeous vegetable dishes that beg to be made. Watercress features largely in this collection, including an amazingly delicious raw vegetable salad also involving cauliflower, French breakfast radishes, asparagus, peas and fresh basil. Yikes! His recipe for crunchy roots calls for rutabagas, turnips, kohlrabi, and carrots tossed with a zippy dressing that’s lively with cilantro and pomegranate seeds.

Fresher From Your Garden

Here in the maritime Northwest, we can harvest many root crops clear through the winter, storing them in the ground instead of in the pantry. I’m still enjoying slender, tender-crisp carrots that were sown last fall, as well as the final few potatoes and beets, and the last of the kale is still delicious as well. Though foodies are now declaring kale to be so last year, it’s still tops on my table, especially the various forms of Italian heritage kales. My top fav is still Black Magic, a kale/cabbage cross with crinkled leaves and a sweet, earthy flavor. I also love Portugese Beira, whose wide leaves look like jade porcelain and make amazing cabbage rolls.

Though temporarily trendy, there’s a reason that kale has been a staple plant in many cultures for hundreds if not thousands of years. Handsome, tasty, healthful and easy to grow, kale lasts through winter’s cold snaps and tastes even sweeter when dug out of a snowy bed. That’s why there are dozens of kinds of kale, from Nagoya White and Peacock Red to Petit Posy, a recent kale/Brussels sprouts cross with flavorful leaves and plump little rosettes.

The Newest Cover Girls

Those ruffled, pink-and-purple-tinged Petit Posy sprouts show up in Ottolenghi’s new book, causing several readers to ask me where on earth those adorable sprouts might be found. They are perhaps rivaled only by kalettes, a new kale/Brussels sprout cross resulting in adorably frilly little critters that taste as good as they look. So far,  three kalette introductions are available;  green-and-purple Autumn Star,  mid-winter Mistletoe, and late-season Snowdrop.

Cauliflower is closing in fast on kale as the new chef’s favorite, and it’s about time. I often roast cauliflower in a little avocado oil with raw cranberries, then toss them with sea salt and coconut aminos for a stunningly flavorful side (actually it’s my entire meal when eating alone). The colorful cauliflowers offer a wider range of those healthy cole family nutrients, and besides, they are gorgeous in raw salads. Dazzling Graffiti Purple, a summer-into-fall header, has been joined by Purple Cape, a winter header that brings fresh snap to the table in the darkest months. Creamsickle orange Sunset is also lovely and tasty raw but the color fades with heat.

Waking Up Overwintered Wasabi

I totally forgot to bring in or protect my pot of wasabi and figured it was toast after the hard frosts we’ve had, but when I was clearing the deck, I noticed that the pot is packed with bright, fresh green leaves. I’m moving it up to an even bigger pot with a wide, deep saucer to keep those roots reliably moist. An aquatic horseradish (and kale) cousin, wasabi prefers to grow by streams but accepts damp shade as well. Real wasabi is a culinary marvel, utterly unlike the gummy green paste offered in most sushi bars. Both the rhizome and the big, heart-shaped foliage have an astonishing pungency that blows the glop out of the water.

Freshly grated wasabi is a delicate, baby ribbon green, with a bright, sharp heat that sings in the mouth, but it’s a fleeting song. Within minutes, the grated rhizome loses its warmth and power, so it’s only outrageously delicious when absolutely freshly prepared, preferably at the table. (A fine microplane is perfect for grating fresh wasabi.) Luckily, you can store the harvested root in the fridge, wrapped in clean cheese cloth and set in a bowl with a little water. It will keep for up to two weeks, so you can grate just a bit at a time as needed.

A Waiting Game

Wasabi’s heart-shaped foliage and slim stems are also tasty raw or lightly steamed. Don’t harvest too much foliage from a young plant, however, or you’ll end up robbing the slower-growing root, which is of course the main event. The roots need a couple of seasons to reach harvest size, and you can tuck the smaller offshoots back in for another crop.

Half-hardy, wasabi can take a few degrees of frost but may be killed by prolonged, deep freezes, so they are best overwintered in a greenhouse in colder areas. In England, wasabi is commercially grown in open streams, along with watercress, where the running water protects the root from hard frost. Here on Bainbridge Island, wasabi planted decades ago has colonized the banks of Issei Creek as it runs through Bainbridge Gardens Nursery half a mile from my home.

Raw Spring Salad With Wasabi Greens

2 cups baby spinach
1 head butter lettuce, pulled in pieces
1 cup pea tendrils
1 cup thinly sliced wasabi foliage and stems
1 cup raw asparagus, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 cup chopped cucumber
1/4 cup chopped toasted almonds
1 tablespoon avocado oil
1 teaspoon plain rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Combine all ingredients, toss gently and let stand 10 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

Poached Salmon With Fresh Wasabi

1 pound salmon fillet, cut in four pieces
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 inch fresh wasabi root
1 tablespoon minced basil

Place salmon skin side down in a wide, shallow pan and sprinkle with half the salt. Add water to bring the liquid depth to about 1/4 inch. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, cover pan, reduce heat to low and cook to an internal temperature of 136 degrees F (about 6-7 minutes). Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes. Grate the wasabi, blend quickly with the basil and remaining salt, add a teaspoon of the paste to each serving of fish and serve immediately. Serves four.

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