OPB’s “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest with videos, articles and this weekly newsletter. To keep you sated between episodes, we’ve brought on food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian and ecologist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem. This week she shares tips on getting the garden ready for a Superabundant growing season, recommends ways to support pollinators in your own yard and offers a recipe for honey-grape cake.
We’ve been going on and on about spring, but after a few sunny and warm days, it’s actually starting to feel like a turnover in the seasons. You might be amped to get busy in the garden, but hold your horses: Are you making room for insects in your landscape plans? There are so many small steps we can take to support pollinators in our gardens, and this will pay off in dividends with a more Superabundant growing season. How many species of bees call Oregon home? Read on to find out!
Small Bites: Futuristic cheesecake, a major master gardener milestone, and salmon runs more of a jog
Freshly picked morsels from the Pacific Northwest food universe:
Up next: Smell-o-Vision?
If you think the AI art accompanying this newsletter every week is weird, buckle up: 3D-printed food just made a new advancement. In the paper published in npj Science of Food last week, “The future of software-controlled cooking,” researchers posit that the world is ready for a completely hands-off approach to food preparation. Going way beyond the capabilities of smart refrigerators and ovens that can be controlled from a smartphone app, this is as close to a Jetsonian future as we’ve ever come. Though science does sometimes veer into “coulda, not shoulda” territory, the researchers behind the project see the potential for personalized nutrition applications. Now if only we could create a robot to decide what to make for dinner.
Fall Chinook ocean fishing season may be canceled.
Jefferson Public Radio reports that fall Chinook season may face some restrictions this year. Though coho salmon runs are expected to be healthy, the Oregon Coast’s spring Chinook salmon numbers may be low enough to garner listing the entire ESU (evolutionarily significant unit) under the Endangered Species Act. Fall Chinook are currently doing better than their spring counterparts (because stream water levels are lower and warmer during the spring and summer, spring Chinook generally have more challenges), but because the spring and fall populations are the same ESU, this means that commercial harvest of fall Chinook may be closed this year to ensure the entire population has time to recover.
The master gardener program turns 50.
Happy birthday to Washington State University’s Master Gardener Program, which turns 50 this year. The pioneering program launched master gardeners’ certification programs, not just across the United States and Canada, but as far as South Korea. Oregon State University’s pilot program came shortly after, in 1976, and both share the goal of making growing food and flowers accessible to anyone with an interest. Today, master gardener programs operate chapters in 24 Oregon counties and in each of the 39 counties in Washington.
Grow a Superabundant garden
Spring has finally arrived, and it just takes a couple of sunny March days to get us amped for a Superabundant garden. While we technically have a year-round growing season (west of the Cascades, at least), it’ll be another couple of months before it’s consistently warm enough to grow vegetables like tomatoes and peppers. That doesn’t mean it’s too early to get started, though — there’s still plenty of work to be done if you’re champing at the bit.
Early spring is the ideal time to sharpen your shovels and shears, sift through seed packs (anything older than two or three years probably won’t be viable unless it was stored in deep freeze), and get cold frames set up. If it all feels daunting, just remember: March is for yawning and stretching after winter’s slumber. Things are only beginning to stir, so there’s no need to hurry. Take time to set your intention with a few small steps of preparation.
Don’t bug out about invertebrates
Want a more productive vegetable garden? Support your friendly neighborhood pollinators. According to the Xerces Society, pollinators are keystone species in most terrestrial ecosystems; because of the myriad roles they play in the food web, pollinators are vital not just to agriculture, but to all life on earth. It’s not just the butterflies and honey bees who need our help. Solitary bees like bumble bees, mason bees and sweat bees do a lot of the heavy lifting, too. (There are approximately 500 bee species in Oregon.) Wasps, moths, beetles and even flies get an unfair bad rap, but they each have their own place in the garden.
When it comes to supporting invertebrates, pollination isn’t the end-all and be(e) all. Other beneficial insects are the gardener’s friend, too — lacewings and ladybugs are well-known helpers for keeping pests at bay, but even less-universally appreciated insects like great golden digger wasps are a boon at controlling the invasive beetle grubs that chomp your plants’ roots. (Though great golden diggers are impressively large and shiny, please exclude them from your “NOPE” category; unlike the murder hornets threatening local bee colonies, golden diggers aren’t aggressive; they only sting their prey. Otherwise they’re just busy drinking nectar, being chill and looking cool.)
If setting up mason bee blocks and insect hostels sounds like a lot for the start of spring gardening, the easiest way to help insects is deceptively simple: do nothing. Don’t mow, don’t rake and don’t weed. Do remove invasive plants from your outdoor spaces, but feel free to leave benign weeds like dandelion and clover for the buzzy buddies. Creating an invertebrate-friendly garden doesn’t require a complete landscape overhaul, and will pay off in dividends. The space you create for butterflies can be a welcome stopover for dragonflies and mantises. If you prefer a tidier appearance in your yard, consider leaving a less-manicured corner or border — fence lines and hedgerows are great for this — and include a mix of native grasses and wildflowers alongside your prized lilies and peonies.
Mulch ado about nothing
Besides allowing things to stay unkempt a little while longer, you should wait until the weather dries up a bit before raking and aerating the soil. You can top-dress your soil anytime by adding a layer of compost, but hold off on cleanup and don’t work soil too much when it’s still cold and wet. Not only are soil-dwelling critters not fully ready to emerge from dormancy, but wet soil clumps and forms clods that you’ll just have to break up again later.
Watch the Soil episode of “Superabundant” to learn about how the Northwest’s soils formed
Unless you’re really adept at maintaining a compost heap’s temperature to kill weed seeds and can test and control its levels of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, think of composting more as a way of recycling your garden waste and plant-based kitchen scraps and less as a source of free fertilizer. It’s still an important soil amendment for supporting soil organisms and adding organic material to your soil, but shouldn’t be treated as a substitute for feeding your plants when they’re actively growing. That said, your backyard compost heap can be a fun source of volunteer plants — there’s no more pleasant surprise than finding a free kabocha squash vine growing out of your compost pile.
Sow your oats (and peas, lettuce and radishes)
Speaking of free seeds, you don’t have to be a master gardener to save them yourself. In fact, with a lot of the gorgeous heirloom-variety pumpkins you may have picked up for your winter roasting and stewing needs over the past few months, the only way to grow them in your own garden is to save the seeds yourself — you can’t always rely on your local garden center to have black futsu starts come May, even if you were able to find the squash itself. There are tons of vegetables and herbs that can be grown from seeds already sitting around your kitchen — plant a few of those beautiful orca beans and French green lentils that you bought for soup and see what happens. And likewise, seeds that you may have bought for sprouts (stuff like daikon and broccoli) can be grown past the sprout stage; even if they bolt and bloom on the first warm day, you can add the blossoms to your salads and soups to make them more fae.
Throughout the state, you can kick-start your vegetable garden with quite a variety of cool-season crops. Peas, radishes, beets, turnips and both braising and salad greens, okra and dill can all be seeded now, as can sunflowers and corn (but protect these seeds from greedy squirrels). Cool-season herbs that self-sowed in the fall (like chervil and parsley) can be moved around while the soil is still cold and damp, and perennial herbs like lovage, savory, thyme, and oregano can be divided and moved.
It may be too early to direct-sow summer crops (wait until the soils are consistently above 60 degrees for that), but that doesn’t mean you can’t get busy with your seed trays indoors. Cucurbits (cucumbers, melons and winter and summer squash) and summertime nightshades (tomatoes, eggplant, goji berries and peppers) should be started indoors for transplanting outdoors in May. If it seems like the seeds are taking forever to do anything, remember that soil temperature is more important than light in getting seeds to sprout; an inexpensive heating mat or seed starting dome can go a long way in boosting germination. Full-spectrum LED bulbs are affordable, efficient, and can help things along while you wait for steadier sunshine.
As the days grow longer and warmer, it is tempting to get going right away, but a little patience now will be rewarded with a long and fruitful gardening season. Soon you’ll have strawberries coming out of your ears. In the meantime, there’s always this delicious honey-grape cake.
Recipe: Honey-grape cake
Bees: What can’t they do? Not only do they pollinate our crops, they distill the pure essence of flowers into liquid gold. This cake is like a mashup of the Italian grape cake traditionally made during the wine harvest (sweet table grapes are available year-round, so we say go for it) and a Greek honey cake. The important thing here is to use good, local honey — Old Blue raw honey from Philomath is sadly no longer available (we still pine for their bigleaf maple and pumpkin blossom honeys), but any raw Northwest honey will be redolent of the region. Here, hazelnut meal replaces the typical ground almonds to give it more Oregon flavor, but if you can’t eat nuts you can substitute polenta for a similar nutty texture and sweetness. This cake is delicious on its own (with tea or a glass of sherry), but a dollop of whipped cream, sweetened crème fraîche or mascarpone will take it to the next level.
1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup ground hazelnut meal
1 tsp fine sea salt
2 tsp baking powder
¾ cup warm honey (preferably local)
½ cup neutral oil (such as canola)
2 large eggs
Zest of 1 orange
1 ½ cups small red or black seedless grapes, divided
1 tbsp sparkling sugar (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease an 8″ springform pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, hazelnut meal, salt and baking powder. In another bowl, combine the honey, oil, eggs, and orange zest. Make a well in the bottom of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients, stirring until combined.
- Fold half the grapes into the batter, then scrape the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle on the sparkling sugar. Bake for 10 minutes, then sprinkle the remaining grapes over the top of the cake and bake for an additional 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Run a thin knife around the edge of the cake and then remove the springform. Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes before serving.