Companion planting

A Vancouver family with young children works together to grow a plentiful organic garden

Claire and Drew Beagle have a yard many city dwellers dream about – huge. A 10,000-square-foot lot, they have sectioned it off to represent the various segments of their contemporary lifestyle. There is a play yard for the kids, Henry, two-and-a-half-years old, and Elliot, 10 months, a garden space for Claire and a back patio and play area for adults, complete with a hand-me-down half-pipe skate ramp.

Drew, a Washington State Department of Transportation civil engineer, and Claire, a graphic designer and stay-at-home-mom, have put their talents and interests together to begin a garden that today encompasses 750 to 800 square feet in nine raised beds. Drew designed the beds with Claire’s help and Claire chooses the crops and – the best part – does the cooking.

Claire’s parents grew up farming literally down the road from each other in the Philippines before moving to California when her father joined the Navy more than 40 years ago. They grew vegetables, rice, bananas, kept animals and made wine. Her father’s farm is still in the family. Even on their small city lot in Sacramento, they have a large year-round garden, and send Claire the seeds of plants from their home like long beans, a special purple onion and gourds that literally grow six feet high.

“Their garden is huge. They eat three-quarters of their meals out of the backyard,” she said.

Though Drew’s father ran a nursery for the state of Utah, he did not grow up gardening, but he is happy to reap the benefits of handmade and garden grown pizza all year round.

“My parents taught me how to flash freeze,” said Claire. “They are about living off the land and using every little bit of everything they can.”

She taught herself how to waterbath can, and they have two chest freezers in the basement. Claire laughs while she shows me pictures of their impressive harvests from a previous season. Because of a method for growing tomatoes which involves a plastic bag called a watertower that is wrapped around the base of the tomato plants, they have had tomatoes towering over their bird netting when the rest of Clark County was complaining about terrible tomato seasons. They also grow the “three sisters,” which is a planting method of co-locating corn, beans and gourds or squash for optimal harvest and space saving.

Drew and Claire do not use any herbicides or pesticides, rather encouraging the spider population and purchasing ladybugs to help with aphids. Companion planting is another method of keeping vegetables healthy. When the dandelions start to get too prolific, they have little Henry head out to “pick Mommy some flowers.”

Is isn’t easy with two small children to keep up a large garden. Claire has set her limits – she grows from starts or seeds that can be sown directly into the ground. She does not do any seed starting and transplanting. She checks out Millenium Farms’ stash of plants weekends at the Vancouver Farmers Market, and then makes trips to the Ridgefield organic farm itself to get the good stuff – the interesting varieties of tomatoes that aren’t on sale at the market. She also shops at Portland Nursery and Shorty’s Garden and Home. Seeds come from Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit heirloom seed company.

They started in 2009 with three raised beds in the backyard (pictured at right), and learned from their mistakes as they went along. In 2010, Drew built a sweet set of six more raised beds with a bench in the middle. The beds have mini-benches for Claire’s ease and are raised off the ground by inexpensive pavers to keep the untreated 2x12s from rotting.

The new bed location is very lovely and is in close proximity to the kids’ play area, but it has one drawback – a black walnut tree. The juglone from the tree’s dripline, secretions from the roots and the walnuts themselves kill or maim most vegetables. They can only plant certain veggies and are opting for flowers in the bed closest to the tree. But they would never cut it down, as it provides great shade for the kids’ play area. Also, Claire is a crew leader for Friends of the Trees as well as a Neighborwoods Steward – her aim is save a tree where possible, not cut one down. So they are working around it, and planting what is possible, such as beans, carrots, corn, melons and squash.

Raised beds are very popular right now. They can be found in backyards across Southwest Washington, but are also dotting more and more front yards as time goes on. They are easy to work with, help with back-breaking labor, and save time, space and water. But they have to be topped off with many cubic feet of compost and fresh soil every year. To that end, Drew designed and hand-built modular fencing on their property, with wood and wire panels that simply slide up and out. This way, truck loads of compost, dirt and other materials may be brought in with little hassle.

On the day I visited their property, these modern parents were out in their garden with a baby monitor while both kids napped. And Drew, not needed for heavy lifting, had spent the morning with the kids while Claire readied the gardens for the season. Gardening is time-consuming but the Beagles make it a family affair, and it’s well worth it, sharing fresh organic food with their family all year long.

 

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