Gardeners should wait until last frost to sow most seeds, but not all

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Jose Alvarez prepares his plot for the first time in Forest Grove´s Victory Gardens as he tries to remember all of the advice from the classes he took through Adelante Mujeres.  Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of gardening columns by Stephanie Haugen, a reporter with the News-Times and the Hillsboro Tribune.

Alejandro Tecum says he always tells the truth.

So when he says gardening is healthy, brings peace of mind, saves money and can actually be fun, people usually believe him — even if they’ve never had their hands in the dirt before.

Tecum, a native Guatemalan who has been gardening since he could walk, is the director of the “agricultura” program run by Forest Grove nonprofit Adelante Mujeres, teaching beginners how to get growing and showing experienced professionals how to fine-tune their operations. Most importantly, he shares his love of gardening in a sustainable way to all who cross his path, hoping to inspire self-sufficiency, appreciation for the earth,and joy in getting dirty outside.

“Eating is something sacred; we shouldn’t let someone else decide what we eat or how we eat,” Tecum said. “Put your hands in the dirt and manipulate the soil.”

Adelante Mujeres supports La Esperanza, a Community Supported Agriculture farm in Forest Grove, as well as a portion of Forest Grove’s community Victory Gardens at the end of Maple Street, and community gardens in Cornelius at St. Alexander Catholic Church.

Tecum teaches organic farming classes each spring, followed by business classes for those who plan to make horticulture their profession.

“I’ve become obsessed with promoting organic farming,” Tecum said.

He believes teaching others to grow their own food creates healthy communities and individuals. It shows kids where food comes from and can be equally enlightening for adults who are limited to food in grocery stores.

Growing for yourself

Growing healthy food without using chemicals requires a good foundation and knowledge of the basics — a space, healthy soil, sun and water.

Start by picking out a space. Most vegetables and fruits need loose, well-drained soil, and eight hours of sun per day, so try not to plant your food crops next to shrubs and trees that may shade your crops and compete for nutrients and water. Preferably, choose a level spot protected from wind, and away from busy roads to avoid airborne pollutants.

Tecum does not recommend tilling. “Good soil is full of microorganisms,” he says. “When you till or plow, they come to the surface and die. Soil is a living thing.”

Instead, rake compost into the first inch of your soil, he says, turning it lightly.

To make a new garden, however, you may need to till to remove sod, but don’t rush the season. Tilling when the soil is too wet damages soil structure and will compact it, creating a hard layer that inhibits root growth. Tecum recommends waiting about a week since the last rain to till soil, or longer if the soil is still saturated.

The best way to tell if your soil is ready to till is to take a handful. If it stays in a mud ball it is too wet; if it crumbles freely it’s probably ready.

Plant your garden in the same place every year; continually adding organic matter such as composted leaves, straw, hay and grass clippings to improve infiltration and nutrients, and don’t walk on your planting space. Don’t use grass clippings if you’ve used herbicides. Straw can actually reduce nitrogen levels in the soil — fast-growing vegetables need more nitrogen than slower-growing perennials — so if you add straw you may need to supplement with extra nitrogen fertilizer.

“Feed the soil,” Tecum says.

It could be useful to test soil pH. Most vegetable crops grow well with a pH between 6.2 to 6.8, but ideal levels vary. Testers are available at most garden stores.

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN -  Greg Kriebel has had a plot in the Victory Gardens for five years. He´s prepping the soil to plant spring crops and is waiting anxiously to harvest his garlic, which is usually planted in the fall and harvested in the late spring or early summer.  NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGENMap it out

Now is the time to plan. Start prepping a space and pick out your seeds.

Tecum recommends growing what’s expensive in the grocery store and what you like, but Marcie Brown — Forest Grove resident, Pacific University employee, gardener and CSA customer — grows a little bit of everything in her garden, looks forward to the surprises she finds in her CSA basket each week and enjoys preparing a veggie medley she can’t find in the store.

Tecum’s favorite recommendations are spinach, broccoli, peppers, onions, butternut squash and kale for their nutritional value.

If you have a space of your own, he recommends planting perennials, such as blueberries and raspberries, or fig trees. These often have specific growing requirements, so research before you select varieties and planting locations. Tecum is a fan of dwarfing varieties that don’t get too big but still produce a lot of fruit.

It’s still too early to plant most vegetables outside — Tecum recorded the last frost of 2012 on May 17 — but a few can be sown now. Cool-weather crops like spinach, peas, arugula, carrots, cabbage, turnips, chard, fava beans, kale, lettuce, cilantro, onions and beets can be planted when soil temperatures are consistently above 40 degrees. Check the seed packets for specific information on planting temperature, depth and spacing requirements.

If the thought of all this work is making you want to revert back to your indoor hobbies, step away from that puzzle. Start small.

You don’t need rows and rows to grow a few veggies. Set aside a corner in your yard and start prepping now. See how it goes and move forward with a new zest gained from a little success.

It’s not as hard as it sounds and should be satisfying at the end of the day. When you take the first bite out of what was once a seed in the palm of your hand, it will all be worth it.

“Be creative; try your own methods and foods. Gardening is really rewarding and at the end you’ll be an expert,” said Tecum.

Where to plant

There are still plots available in the Forest Grove and Cornelius community gardens, but now is the time to sign up.

Contact Maureen McAdams at 503-359-1995 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., download an application at or stop by the Forest Grove Victory Gardens and grab an application to mail from the corkboard. A plot costs $30 for the entire year, and includes water and soil amendments.

To secure a space through Adelante Mujeres in Forest Grove or Cornelius, contact Alejandro Tecum at 503-992-2041 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

For a complete guide on vegetable gardening, visit

Look for “Dirt from the Garden” throughout the season for tips from local garden enthusiasts who want to share their passion for growing.

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