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Advice from Columbia County's OSU Extension Service agent on how to nurture your green thumb.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Chip BublIf you are thinking of a new vegetable garden or landscape beds, there is a no-dig method that has proven very useful in the Pacific Northwest. Be warned that this process takes four to six months to work well, so you need to get started right away for a spring garden.

If you want a sharply defined outline for the bed, take string and lay it out. Then shovel (square bladed ones work great) a small trench, 4 inches wide by 4 inches deep, following the string outline. Throw the excavated material into the future bed.

Cover all the bed area with about a ½-inch of newspaper (you get dual use out of our fine local newspaper!). This will help to suppress perennial weeds, especially grass. Then cover the entire area with eight to twelve inches of compost, leaves if you still have some in piles, manure or mulch mixed with compost or manure. Any combination of the materials will do. Sprinkle about 10 pounds of lime per 100 square feet into the compost/manure mix as you are shoveling it onto the future bed.

During the next four to six months, the organic matter will decompose and shrink and the grass underneath will largely disappear from lack of sun. Some gardeners cover the entire bed with black plastic to speed the process. The materials underneath plastic must be moist, though not sopping, to decompose.

Four months later, you can plant potted perennial plants or vegetable transplants directly into the bed and top with a layer of nutrient rich compost. Make sure the perennial plants have most of their roots in soil. Remove black plastic prior to planting.

For vegetable gardens that you direct seed, the entire mass can be tilled in prior to planting seeds. The grass crowns underneath should be largely dead, though some seeds of both grass and broadleaf weeds will return.

Vegetables, either transplanted or direct seeded, will need nutrients from organic or conventional fertilizers to support vigorous growth.

Purchase seeds soon

Last year, as the pandemic unrolled and shutdowns started in March, there was a rush to buy vegetable seeds. Retail suppliers were basically sold out by May, except for the most obscure vegetables.

Seed suppliers indicate that they are in a better position this year. That said, vegetable gardening has taken a firmer hold here as younger families are increasing the time they spend food gardening. My perception now is that you should get your seeds sooner than later.

For people new to gardening, there are some seed terms that can be confusing. But to start with, something needs to be cleared up. There are no "GMO" vegetable seeds for sale to home gardeners, and precious few for vegetables in commercial production. The GMOs you read about are 98%-plus developed for planting field corn, soybeans, and cotton.

When you look at seed descriptions, you may come across these three terms: open-pollinated, hybrid, and heirloom.

As long as people have been growing plants for food (about 10,000 years) they have been selecting the best plants in their field to save seed to plant the following year. Over thousands of years, this led to distinct regional varieties. Heirloom varieties are supposed to be at least 50 years old. But a particular heirloom variety might have come from a region that has a much different climate than ours. Heirloom varieties are worth trying, but know that some will work well here, others less so.

"Open-pollinated" refers to seed grown in isolated seed fields that are pollinated by bees or wind to produce plants of reasonable uniform taste and appearance. For vegetables that cross-pollinate (squash, cucumbers, cabbage family, beet family, etc.), the "open-pollinated" seed has to be grown in isolation to prevent genetic crossing and getting off-type seed. Winter squash are bee-pollinated, and the seed field might need to be 2+ miles from another winter squash plant. It isn't easy to produce these seeds. But a lot are grown in western and central Oregon.

Another important term is "self-pollinating." Vegetables that self-pollinate include beans, peas, tomatoes, peppers (mostly) and lettuce. You can save the seed from self-pollinating plants from year to year and generally get the same plant from your saved seed each year. Isolation is not important. But if the original plant was a hybrid variety (see below), the seeds from the plant won't be true even if it is self-pollinating.

Hybrid plant breeding was developed about 100 years ago. The technique transfers a distinct set of valuable genes from one variety into another variety without going through a many year complicated conventional breeding process. Typically, one plant parent has important plant survival genes (disease or heat resistance, for example) and the other has the high quality end product (flavor, aroma, yield, etc.) characteristics.

Seed packets note if the seed is a hybrid. There are great hybrid varieties. But, as noted above, you will need to but new seed every year.

Finally, sort through your old seeds, discarding packets that are more than 2 years old. While germination might still be OK, seedling vigor decreases faster than the germination rate. In the competition with weeds, you don't want weak seedlings.

Free newsletter

The Oregon State University Extension office in Columbia County publishes a monthly newsletter on gardening and farming topics (called County Living). All you need to do is ask for it and it will be mailed or emailed to you. Call 503 397-3462 to be put on the list. Alternatively, you can find it on the web at extension.oregonstate.edu/columbia and click on newsletters.

You can call the office and leave a message if you have gardening questions, or email me directly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The Extension Service offers its programs and materials equally to all people.

Chip Bubl is an associate professor at Oregon State University and agent for the OSU Extension Service in Columbia County. He also serves as a Port of Columbia County commissioner.


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