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Celt's Garden - Time to Plant Your Winter Garden and WSU Mt. Vernon Research Update

Summer having barely arrived, it's time to plant the winter garden that will sustain us through fall, winter and early spring next year. Summer gardens are mostly fruits: zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers. Cool season gardens are mostly leaves and a few roots: carrots, beets, cabbage, bok choi, chicory, hardy lettuce, parsley, leeks, kale, radishes. It's OK to start with purchased starts. Look for varieties that say suitable for fall planting, or have "fall" or "winter" in the name. Cabbages are named by the season that you eat them, so January King is planted now. Quatre Saison lettuce goes in in late August and September, when you have to fuss over them to keep the starts from drying out.

WSU Mt. Vernon Research Station, aka NWREC, had two public open houses this month, the Small Grains Field Day and the general field day. Pretty cool stuff. There is a lot going on, from potatoes to tree fruit. The director is Dr. Steve Jones, who is a prominent wheat breeder. Dr. Jones is breeding wheat for the maritime northwest. All of the USDA wheat varieties go through a trial at Mt. Vernon for susceptibility to stripe rust. We have the perfect conditions for stripe rust, so the USDA is growing out 15,000 varieties there. Despite all that wheat, local farmers have to buy wheat varieties from the Midwest to plant here. No one has bred a commercial wheat specifically for this climate. 

Dr. Jones is clearly proud of his wheat project. He stood behind three small plots of hard red spring wheat, the most challenging choice for local conditions, just beaming. The wheat was headed out nicely. All three varieties were less than four feet tall, they hadn't fallen over in the recent giant windstorm, and they were green in a patchwork of trial plots browned by stripe rust. The bakers want a local bread wheat. NWREC has put in a test kitchen for baking trials. (That must be a kitchen with a mini-thresher. Hey, I want one!) It's not just the bakers. Most of the country's seed potatoes are grown right here, and the farmers need to grow wheat to break the potato disease cycle.

NWREC has a certified organic field. The barley trials were quite a sight. Barley comes in many forms and heights, from seven feet to knee high. There are different varieties for malting, feed, and food. The organic malting barley looks particularly good. One of the themes of the field day is that organic farming requires different varieties from conventional farming. (I can hear all you growers saying, "well, duh!")

They did a trial of different cover crops (wheat, rye, pulses and grains) for no-till vegetable farming. The intent is to suppress the weeds with the cover crop, then use a crimper to turn the cover crop into a pile of biomass and plant vegetables into it. I asked about using a machete or scythe to do the same thing at a smaller scale and was told to go do my own trials. Sounds like a plan. I'm going to use winter wheat and a mix of oats and small favas, not the rye. Rye turns into a monster in small gardens. 

I was pleased to see the move towards using far lower levels of chemicals in the conventional research projects which form the bulk of NWREC's work. Using more and more chemicals is working less and costing more, and now the  growers are funding research focused lowering input levels. 

Another theme that came up as we heard about grains, peas, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries, raspberries, pollination, diseases, fungi, viruses, and more, was the side effects of scale. I kept thinking that smaller integrated farms would have fewer of these problems than large monocultures of anything. Pollination? Plant hedgerows and beds for native pollinators. More crops different in smaller fields would help with disease. Integrating animals would boost fertility. Cycling inputs on the farm would lower costs. Then we're back to a farmer who has to manage and market wheat, chickens, vegetables, apples, raspberries, strawberries and potato starts, and it's a whole different approach to farming than 100 acres of raspberries or silage corn followed by silage corn.

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