Garden Edible

Johanna Pakendorf’s zest for the outdoors began on Bowen Island 10 years ago with the simple goal of keeping herself in shape. “I could have taken up running in the woods to keep my figure, but the garden also gave me the rewards of food for the table and for the soul,” she explains. “I feel I’m creating something for eternity. Deep down, I think that’s why I love it so much.

“I’m often in the garden after my husband leaves for the first morning ferry and will work until about 2 p.m. A neighbour once saw me at 5 a.m. with a headlamp on, trying to move a huge rock in the middle of the lawn before my husband woke up,” she jokingly recalls.

In one corner of her beautifully landscaped yard is a vigorous and diverse organic vegetable garden consisting of raised beds and an unheated greenhouse, both surrounded by the 2.5-metre-high deer fence, which along with the other garden structures was constructed by Johanna’s husband Gerd.

It’s a 15-by-9.6-metre garden that keeps both Johanna and Gerd fed for most of the year. She starts in the greenhouse by seeding iceberg and winter romaine lettuce at the end of August, but stops watering after November to ward against freezing the plants. The lettuce grows little from December to February, but she still harvests it until the end of March. In February, she sneaks in a few seeded trays of peas, lettuce and green onions.

Not one to procrastinate, Johanna removes the remaining lettuce and the soil from the greenhouse and fills the beds with pure compost for her tomatoes. “By changing the soil, I can plant my tomatoes in the same place, without having to worry about disease,” she points out. In April, her greenhouse and store-bought seedlings are placed in the garden, but she advises keeping an eye on tender plants, such as cucumber. A couple of tomato plants are also planted outside the greenhouse in the asparagus patch, because tomatoes contain solanine, which kills the asparagus beetle.

Living on the West Coast, Johanna can also grow radicchio, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, leeks, Brussels sprouts and onions outside over the winter. She usually plants the seeds in the middle of July, but will wait a couple of weeks if the weather is too hot. For Johanna, winter gardening has its own advantages: no watering, weeding or dealing with bugs.

Another tactic that ensures a nearly constant supply of fresh vegetables on her dinner plate is to plant seeds while harvesting her summer crop. For example, Johanna sets out her bush bean seedlings in the spring, harvesting the mature plants from the beginning of July to the end of August; meanwhile she sows pole bean seeds at the end of June to take her into the fall. The resulting beans aren’t big, but still tasty. She advises gardeners to write down how long it takes for a vegetable to mature in order to make the plan of staggering them easier. Another option is to sow lettuce and beans every two weeks or month, but she warns that it can take a few years to figure out how much you actually eat.

And her prodigious bounty doesn’t come at the expense of nature. Marauding insects are kept at bay by hand-picking and other organic methods. “I’m a nut case about beneficial bugs. When I have a problem, I look for the specific bugs needed, such as ground beetles and rove beetles, which I often find under a board that I keep at the bottom of my stairs, and I place them in the infested area,” says Johanna. “I’ve found ground beetles useful for getting rid of cutworms, cabbage maggots and slug and snail larvae, and rove beetles take care of aphids and mites as well as the cabbage maggots.”

Johanna’s bug control strategies came from studying books and learning by accident. “I once had an aphid infestation in the greenhouse so I placed a few ladybugs inside. Two weeks later I saw larvae and thought, oh no, a new problem. I looked in my book and realized I had ladybug larvae. They eat more aphids than the ladybugs and they don’t fly so you can physically place them where needed.”

She confides that the secret to the garden’s productivity is the soil. Key factors are double digging, peat moss, manure, a lot of compost and a winter cover. “Every September I switch between winter rye or another cover, such as broad beans, and dig it under in March. But I was lucky. My garden was originally an alder patch, which added a lot of nitrogen to the soil.” After 10 years of composting, she is able to generously supplement the soil in the spring and before the winter cover.

In talking with this energetic gardener, it becomes pretty obvious she won’t be stepping inside to relax anytime soon. “If we stay in this house,” Johanna muses, “I’d like to install a pond, a Japanese garden, and put in a little orchard. But then again, if we moved to a new house, I could start over again from scratch.” Now those are the words of a devoted garden lover.

Organic Veggie Tips

• Use compost as the main fertilizer in the spring and fall. If you have a vegetable that is a heavy feeder, grow it separately in pure compost.

• Only water plants frequently when they are young. Johanna waters her mature plants only once a week for three 10-minute periods during the day in each spot to encourage deep rooting.

• Harvest seeds on a dry day. Wash, dry and place them on post-it notes on a windowsill (newspaper gets too wet).

• Turn over the winter cover in March. Dig one trench at a time, place the dirt on a sheet or in a wheelbarrow, chop it up with the roots in the air and put it back in the trench. Let it sit for a month, till it again and then add your compost. Use winter rye for fluffy, humus-rich soil, and broad beans to add nitrogen.

• Don’t water tomatoes and lettuce from the top. This will encourage mildew.

Sylvie Michaud is a freelance writer and avid native plant gardener living on Bowen Island.