Although we’ll never know for sure whether this is fully true, Bill Mollison, the original co-creator of permaculture, had a point. Gardening has the potential to be powerful when it comes to addressing some of the systemic and environmental challenges we face as a world today.
By growing our own food, we can divest from unsustainable industrial agriculture practices, mitigate habitat loss by providing green space for wildlife, significantly decrease carbon emissions, and reduce our waste, all the while reconnecting back to the natural cycles and flows of the earth. Indeed, gardening can be a deeply enriching experience, one that allows us to connect with nature and create a beautiful oasis in our own backyard.
Pacific Northwest gardening
For those lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest, gardening can be an especially rewarding pursuit, as the region’s temperate climate and rich soil provide the perfect conditions for growing a wide variety of plants. Whether you are a seasoned gardener or a beginner looking to get your hands dirty, the art of gardening in the Pacific Northwest is an opportunity to tap into your creativity and create a thriving garden that will bring joy and serenity to your life for years (and generations) to come.
In this article, we will explore the many techniques and tips for creating a thriving garden in this idyllic region, from selecting the right plants to caring for them and everything in between.
So, grab your gloves, and let’s dive in!
Understanding the Pacific Northwest’s climate
The first step to having a successful garden is understanding the history of the region and landscape around you. The Pacific Northwest region of North America encompasses parts of the US and Canada that are located along the Pacific coast. In the US, this includes Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. In Canada, it includes British Columbia. But what exactly makes the PNW’s climate unique?
The PNW’s climate is shaped by its location along the Pacific Ocean and its history, which dates back to the ice age. During the ice age, massive glaciers covered much of the region, carving out deep valleys and creating high peaks. The glaciers also deposited rich soil and rock, which laid the foundation for the region’s diverse and abundant vegetation. As the glaciers receded, they created the Olympic, Cascade, and Coast ranges, which further influenced the region’s weather patterns and climate.
The Pacific Ocean plays a major role in the PNW’s climate. It acts as a buffer, moderating temperatures and bringing in moisture from the ocean. This moisture rises and cools, forming clouds that provide the region with abundant rainfall.
High peaks of the Olympic, Cascade, and Coast ranges act as barriers, trapping the moisture and creating a “rain shadow” effect on the eastern side of the ranges. As a result, the western side of the ranges receives most of the rainfall, while the eastern side is much drier. Coastal areas are typically cooler and more temperate than inland areas, which are subject to greater temperature swings.
First thing to do then, is get to know where you sit in the region and what weather patterns impact you. How much rainfall do you receive each year? Are you in a rain shadow? Are there any unique characteristics of the landscape where you plan to garden? Observe the rain and the sun, feel the soil. This high level understanding will deepen your intuition when it comes to making decisions for your garden.
Understanding available resources
Without some caution, gardening can easily become degrading and harmful to the environment. Over-watering, the displacement of natural resources, the use of chemicals, and soil nutrient depletion are just a few examples of the potential environmental impacts. Understanding what resources are critical in your area and how to work harmoniously with them is fundamental to the longevity of not only your garden but the planet, too.
One of the main ways to ensure long-term sustainability is to utilize what you already have or what you can access locally. This will look slightly different for everyone but can include: composting your own food scraps, using leaves as a mulch, repurposing local materials for raised beds, supporting a local seed library, or creating fertilizer from plants you’ve grown.
The materials and supplies available to you will change drastically depending on if you’re in an urban or rural environment. Cities often have excess materials and waste streams that can easily be capitalized on because they are challenging to get rid of, on the other hand, access to specific supplies can be limited in rural areas, so learning to work directly with what is on site is key.
Understanding gardening essentials
So, what exactly makes a garden successful? There are several key factors to consider, including: soil, fertilization, water, location, method, plant health and maintenance.
Soil & fertilization
Soil is the foundation of a healthy garden, as it provides the necessary nutrients and structure for plants to grow and thrive. If we feed the soil, the soil will feed our plants, and the plants will feed us. By understanding your soil type and amending it as needed, you can create the ideal growing conditions for your plants.
The pH level of the soil, the type of nutrients it contains, and the amount of organic matter it holds are all important factors to consider. Test your soil with an at home kit for pH, or send it to a lab to better understand what nutrients it contains and is lacking. If you live in an urban area, have your soil tested for heavy metals such as lead, as you may need to import new soil in those cases.
Soil building techniques
If you consistently grow plants and don’t fertilize, the soil will become depleted. Some areas in the PNW are much more depleted than others, as it all depends on the historic use. Feeding your soil, as well as planting plants that will feed the soil when they die, is the best way to build your soil. To feed your soil, add rich organic materials such as compost, leaves, grass clippings and green-manures such as cover crops. Fertilize with liquid teas like compost, comfrey, or coffee grounds. Collectively, these organic materials will add valuable nutrients to your soil, improve soil structure, and promote healthy plant growth.
There are also several popular techniques that specialize in building soil, such as no-dig, hugelkultur, and lasagne gardening. These techniques involve layering organic materials on top of the soil and allowing them to decompose over time, adding nutrients and improving soil structure. By building your soil and providing your plants with the right nutrients, you can create the foundation for a thriving garden.
Water is also an essential component of a successful garden. Plants need an adequate amount of water to grow, but too much or too little can have a negative impact on their health. By understanding the water needs of your plants and the local weather patterns, you can make sure that your garden is receiving the right amount of water.
Implementing sustainable watering systems such as rainwater harvesting or drip irrigation is an excellent way to work with what you have and save on watering costs. Rainwater is a natural resource that is available in abundance in all parts of the PNW, and it can be a great source of water for your garden. There are several techniques you can use to harvest rainwater, such as rainwater cisterns, which can be installed around your house.
The City of Seattle currently has a program called RainWise, where they will cover part or all of the costs to have a rainwater cistern installed. In the garden, you can also implement techniques such as swales and infiltration basins. These systems are designed to direct water into the soil, where it can be absorbed and used by your plants. By retaining moisture in the soil, you can help your plants thrive, even during the driest of dry periods.
When it comes to creating a beautiful and thriving garden, choose a location that works best for your current situation. If you have access to land, there are several factors to consider, starting with the sun. Most plants need some sun, and many annuals prefer full sun. If you can find a location that gets 6 hours or more, your plants will thrive and produce abundant yields. However, if you are working with shade, it is still possible to create a successful garden, as long as you choose the right plants for your conditions.
Accessibility and proximity are other important factors to consider; ideally, you want to choose a location that is easy to access, with pathways and clear access points. This will make it easier for you to get to your garden, maintain it, and harvest your crops. With proximity, if your garden is located too far away from your house, you may find yourself spending more time traveling to and fro. We are humans, so the more optimized the better.
If you don’t have access to land but still want to get involved, one way is through a local community garden. A P-Patch is a type of community garden where individuals and families are assigned a small parcel of land to grow their own food. This is an excellent way to build community, get outside, and learn about what does and doesn’t work in the garden.
In the Pacific Northwest, there are TONS of P-Patch community gardens, such as Picardo P-Patch in Seattle, Clinton Community Garden in Portland, and Shared Harvest Community Garden in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Another interesting community based gardening project is the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, Washington, which is a community-driven permaculture project that aims to cultivate a seven-acre urban food forest. It is designed to be a low-maintenance, sustainable food-producing ecosystem that provides free food to the community while also serving as a model for urban agriculture and food security.
No matter which direction you choose, each offers a unique array of resources and opportunities for people of all ages and skill levels to cultivate the land. There are many ways to get involved, you just have to look at what’s around and choose what feels right for you.
There are dozens (maybe even hundreds) of different techniques of gardening including no-dig, raised beds, aquaponics, traditional tilling, vertical gardening, food forests, container gardening, and straw-bale gardening. If you are just starting out, start small: choose a method that works best for you and your current situation and then work outwards. Maybe it’s a small container garden on your front porch with cooking herbs, perfect. Or a large polyculture food forest, awesome. Doing something is better than nothing, because it allows you to get outside and get started.
When it comes to choosing the plants you want to grow, the options can seem endless. In general, you want to follow this two part rule:
A desert garden in the temperate tropics of Western Washington is likely to fail, and an all-annual garden in a rainshadow may deplete local water sources. A mango tree, although it sounds exciting, will most likely suffer if not grown in a greenhouse. Plants that don’t excite you will be harder to grow. If you follow this as a general rule of thumb, everything else will fall into place as the years go by.
Another sure way to allow your garden to thrive is by companion planting or even better “guild planting”, which is the concept of planting groups of plants that work well together. For example, you could plant a single apple tree, or you could plant it with bee balm which will attract pollinators, chives which will deter unwanted pests, comfrey to mulch the soil, and daffodil to suppress the weeds. Altogether, these plants support each other and create a rich, mutually beneficial relationship.
When buying plants and seeds, consider supporting small, local nurseries whenever possible. Buying locally helps to reduce the carbon footprint of your garden and supports your local economy. Choose organic, open-pollinated, heirloom seeds to provide a wealth of diversity and ensure that the genetic makeup of your plants remains intact.
When it comes time to actually get your plants into the ground, it’s important to follow the proper planting instructions for the best results. Before planting, make sure the soil is thoroughly wet. This will help the roots of the plants to take hold and establish themselves more easily. After planting, be sure to water your plants again, so that the soil remains consistently moist.
After you plant, cover the soil with a mulch layer such as leaves or straw. This not only helps to retain moisture, but it also protects the soil from the sun and wind, preventing it from drying out and becoming compacted. The mulch also helps to suppress weeds, so that you don’t have to spend as much time pulling them out. Additionally, the mulch will decompose over time, adding valuable organic matter to the soil and helping to keep it fertile and healthy.
As you watch your garden grow, it’s important to keep an eye out for pests, fungus and diseases that may arise. Pacific Northwest gardens can be susceptible to a range of pests such as slugs, aphids, powdery mildew, and verticillium wilt, among others.
When these situations come up, don’t fret, to a certain extent it is natural. Remember that everything is trying to eat and survive, and it’s a good thing to allow life into your garden. Work with what you have by incorporating more plants that invite bugs that eat pests, and incorporate natural remedies that build the health of your plants instead of striping them of their nutrients.
The power of patience and perseverance in gardening
Gardening is a wonderful journey that requires patience and perseverance. My opinion is the following: the secret to a thriving garden in the Pacific Northwest is simple – take care of the earth and it will take care of you. Lead with love, and incorporate this concept into your garden and you will never look back. There will be mistakes along the way, but with each one, you will learn and grow as a gardener. The key is to continue to work on and build upon your plan, making tweaks and adjustments as needed.
Remember that gardening is not a race and success takes time. The power of patience and perseverance will pay off in the end, as you watch your garden thrive and flourish. Embrace the process and have fun. Happy gardening!