Gardening time is here — if only the weather would cooperate

May 07, 2008 12:00 am
Bill Howe gets a jumpstart on gardening by sowing seeds indoors, then moving the plants outside when the weather shapes up. He says he's about a month behind usual this year due to the cold spring. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Bill Howe gets a jumpstart on gardening by sowing seeds indoors, then moving the plants outside when the weather shapes up. He says he's about a month behind usual this year due to the cold spring. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By LISA BRITTON

Baker City Herald

Maurice McKinnis says some of his gardening practices entice funny looks from neighbors, but he doesn't mind because he'll get to harvest apples and peaches this summer and fall.

His trick is to string big Christmas tree lights around the limbs of his fruit trees when blossom time nears.

"If it's going below 32 at night, I turn them on," said McKinnis, 74.

And that temperature seemed a certainty rather than a possibility last week when cold winds — and horizontal snow — whipped through Baker City.

As a result, gardeners are waiting a bit longer than usual to tackle yard tasks.

"About a month ago I rototilled, but it's too cold to put the seeds in the ground," McKinnis said.

Bill Howe, 76, is about a month behind his usual planting schedule.

On a sunny, blustery day last week, he prowled his tilled garden beds and plunged a soil thermometer into the earth.

"Hell, it isn't even moving," he said.

Then he stooped for a closer look at the dial.

"It's 46 degrees — and it's going down."

He said a soil temperature of at least 40 degrees is necessary for seed germination.

"Sixty degrees is better. We get that in August," he chuckled.

He does, however, have radishes sprouting and lettuce seed planted. Both those rows are covered with wire to ward off quail in search of a tender snack.

Both McKinnis and Howe are graduates of the Master Gardener program through the OSU Extension Service — but gardening is a lifelong learning process.

Here's an example: Howe said the best vegetables to grow here are those that mature in 85 days or less because of Baker Valley's short growing season.

"Except last year. We had a long, hot, dry fall," he said.

Good for heat-loving vegetables — not so good for fruit.

"Last year wasn't a very good apple year. Something about the weather," McKinnis said with a shrug.

With gardening comes a trial and error process that eventually evolves into individual preferences.

Howe, for instance, doesn't mulch around his vegetable plants, but he doesn't battle weeds.

"The key to gardening is to plant it close together. It'll self-weed," he said.

Howe also flood irrigates down rows rather than sprinkling the entire garden at once.

"I water what I want to get wet, not the ground around it," he said.

He also surrounds his garden and flower beds with wood boards or railroad ties dug into the ground. That barrier keeps weeds from sending roots into the planting areas.

But before anyone worries about weeds or harvesting, the weather needs to get a little warmer to coerce seeds into sprouting.

Howe has a jumpstart with cauliflower, broccoli, parsley, lettuce and tomatoes he's started from seed inside his garage. Every sunny day he loads the tender seedlings on a wagon and parks the plants outside to get accustomed to the weather.

Other crops he'll have are peas, beans, peppers, spinach, potatoes, squash, carrots, cucumbers, onions, herbs and whatever else strikes his fancy.

He and his wife Alice make good use of the harvest, and even freeze tomatoes to use in winter soups and stuffed peppers for baking.

He also shares the bounty with friends and neighbors.

"And when I run out of places, I go out to unsuspecting doorsteps," he said.

Aside from the obvious benefit of fresh vegetables, Howe said gardening keeps him busy.

"I don't hunt or fish, so I have the time to spend out there," he said.

And he spends many hours tending his garden plot.

"When you're 76, you can make a project last a lot longer than when you're 36," he said with a laugh.

McKinnis' vegetable list is much the same as Howe's — and his tomato plants are growing nicely across the street in Don Hutton's greenhouse. (Hutton has 500 plants and he supplies tomatoes to Ace Hardware, D&B Supply and the public.)

McKinnis also plans his harvest to last, and he has a cold storage room still keeping onions from last season. The shelves of that room are also packed with jelly from his own grapes, tomatoes, pickles, green beans and more.

"I have to have my green beans," McKinnis said with a grin.

To ensure a big bounty of beans, McKinnis plants rows measuring a foot wide.

"You get a lot more beans in a little space," he said.

He does a lot of the canning, thanks to lessons from his wife, Beverly.

"She taught me how to cook, too," he said. "We make everything from scratch."