Veggie Growing 101: Starting Your Kitchen Garden in Portland
My neighbor, Camellia Nieh, is a great gardener -- I often admire her skills from my window and have tasted many of her cherry tomatoes and other goodies. She offered to write an introduction to vegetable gardening in Portland, and I said, yes please!
As weather begins to warm, Portland gardeners begin to anticipate the joys of the growing seasons. Waking up on a sunny morning, strolling outside, and harvesting a basket of fresh tomatoes, basil, spinach, and chives for your morning omelet. Sending the kids out into the yard to graze on sugar snap peas, strawberries, and cherry tomatoes when they clamor for a snack. Browsing a bounty of ripening cucumbers, eggplants, and summer squash as you decide on a vegetable for dinner. Snipping a bowlful of baby greens to bring to a dinner party and garnishing it with edible gem marigolds, day lilies, and sweet violets.
The gardening buzz is everywhere. You’ve heard about the Obamas’ breaking ground for their vegetable garden at the white house, and about the resurgent victory garden movement. You know all the reasons. There’s the statistic about how our average meal travels 1500 miles to reach our plates, and the fact that switching to a local diet is equivalent to driving about 1000 miles less per year. And you’re painfully aware that the average American consumes a pound of pesticides a year, and that we don’t yet know how that chemical load will affect our kids’ growing bodies.
But if you’ve never grown your own food before, perhaps you’re not sure where to start. Not to worry. Growing edibles in Portland is easier than wrangling a wild banana slug. There are tons of resources in this town to help you get started, many of them inexpensive or free.
What You Need
You’re off to a good start if you have a an hour or two per week to devote and a small patch of earth that gets at least six hours of sun per day (but even these ingredients aren’t a prerequisite—keep reading). Start small—you’ll be surprised how much you’ll produce with just a four by eight foot bed. Rustle up a shovel, a bag of compost, a pair of gloves, and some seeds or starts, and you’re well on your way.
Organic Gardening Magazine has a quick article that covers all the basics. For more in-depth reading, try Steve Solomon’s Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, or Carl Elliot and Rob Peterson’s The Maritime Northwest Gardening Guide.
If you prefer a live teacher, Portland Nursery offers free workshops at both nursery locations covering basic gardening and beyond. Metro offers free workshops and garden tours focused on organic and sustainable practices. Growing Gardens provides educational workshops for adults and children for a small fee ($5-$25 sliding scale), and hands-on work-learn parties, as does Zenger Farms. Sign the kids up for free gardening classes through Portland Parks and Rec.
What to Plant and When?
Some veggies are best planted early, like peas. Others, like tomatoes, won’t do much until temperatures get a bit warmer. OSU, Oregon Tilth, and other organizations offer charts, but I think the easiest to use is Portland Nursery's Veggie Calendar.
But I Don’t Have Time!
Don’t let that stop you from transforming your boring lawn into a lush cornucopia that feeds your family, attracts bees and butterflies, and sequesters carbon. In Portland, there are abundant resources for people with a patch of earth but no time to get dirt under their own fingernails. Consider offering up your space for a yardshare: local gardening groups will come in and do the work, beautifying the site and sharing the fruits of their labors with you. You can connect with interested gardeners at or www.yardsharing.org or www.hyperlocavore.com. Or if you want to keep the entire harvest and hire professionals to do the work, you can call Your Backyard Farmer. It’s up to you whether to entrust them with the full job or have them train you so that you can do it yourself next year.
But I Don’t Have a Yard!
If you don’t have any dirt of your own, you can apply for a plot at a community garden, or you can search for a yardshare in your area through the sites listed above.