Vicky Tamaru had tried gardening before, but she didn’t even bother to water her plants and soon forgot all about them.
No surprise here: Everything eventually died. “We were really not great at being good plant parents before,” Tamaru says.
Now that she’s stuck at home, though, her Central District garden is getting a lot more love. Together with her husband, Russell Songco, and 9-year-old daughter, Luna, she planted shiso, cilantro, basil, cumin, parsley, mustard and chrysanthemum seeds.
So far, so good. The seeds have all sprouted and now Tamaru is ready for the next step: building a raised bed.
Seattle falls in Zone 8 of the USDA’s plant hardiness map, which means our mild winters and long summer days allow us to grow a lot of plants. Some greens, such as kale, will grow year-round.
“Seattle is pretty much gardening heaven because the temperatures are so mild,” says Margaret Flaherty, co-owner of Magnolia Garden Center. “Grow what you like to eat. And just figure out how to grow that.”
Here are some tips for doing so — whether you have a small, medium or (lucky you) large plot.
If you have a patio or a sunny balcony
Ready to get your hands in the dirt, but don’t have much space? Start with container gardening — and tomatoes.
“So many people are starting out growing vegetables for the first time,” Flaherty says. “Certainly tomatoes are the most rewarding vegetable you can grow. Homegrown tomatoes are like nothing you will find in the store. It’s also [a way] for kids to learn to love to garden, and love vegetables.”
The Magnolia Garden Center carries 30–40 varieties of tomato starts, and Flaherty’s favorite is sun gold tomatoes. “They’re like candy,” she says.
For container gardening, you’ll want to look for dwarf or determinate varieties, which will stay at a smaller size. Get starts at the nursery and plant them in big pots (at least 5 gallons) with tomato cages for support. Put them in a sunny spot and water them at least once a week.
Lettuce in containers is another easy option. Flaherty keeps a compact raised bed with a mesh cover, called a Vegepod, on her patio. When she lifts the protective canopy, she’s got a personal salad bar ready to go. “It grows so fast I can barely keep up with it,” Flaherty says.
Horticulturalist Kerri Bailey, who consults for Zenith Holland Gardens in Des Moines, and Laura Matter, program manager at Tilth Alliance, offer other good choices for containers: Strawberries, mustard, bok choy, radishes and herbs all do well. Plant some marigolds to attract pollinators and insects that eat pests.
Do a mixed herb container with thyme, sage and oregano; they’re perennials, so you plant them once and you’ll never have to buy those expensive bundles from the grocery store again.
You can cluster different plants in one pot, such as lettuce and carrots, or do a big pot filled with mixed greens. Thin it and eat the baby shoots — yum!
If you’re on a balcony, don’t overload it — wet soil is very heavy. Make sure you use a good potting soil, which is fluffier than ground soil and doesn’t get as compacted. Ideally, your plants need at least four hours of sun per day, better if it’s six to eight hours.
Your options are more limited in deep shade: Try leafy greens, mint and parsley, or pansies (which are also edible if you grow them organically).
Terra cotta pots give you a traditional look and are inexpensive, but they can crack with temperature changes. Look into glazed ceramic pots, plastic pots or faux terra cotta. Whatever kind of pot you use, make sure it has drainage and that the size of the pot matches your plant’s mature size.
If you have room for a raised bed
If you have a little more space, the next step up is to put in a raised bed. You can build a raised bed out of wood, but be sure the lumber is untreated so you don’t get chemicals in your soil. Or build a raised bed using a 6-foot galvanized trough: Drill holes in the bottom, set it on bricks so it drains and fill it with a good soil mix.
“We really believe in making things as easy as possible so you’re going to be successful at it,” Tilth’s Matter says.
Her tips for raised beds (and novice gardeners): Keep the bed 8 feet long or less so it’s easy to walk around. Make sure the bed is near a water source that you can get to easily. Don’t overcrowd your plants, and plant in rows, so when the weeds grow (and they will), you’ll be able to distinguish your plants from the weeds.
How about fool-proof plants for a raised bed? Now is a good time to put out lettuce, Bailey says. You can also plant edible flowers such as violets and calendula to attract pollinators. Scatter some cilantro seeds — you can cut the greens and then let it bloom (it’s great bee food) and reseed itself.
Once the weather warms up a little more (usually late May), you can add tomatoes, peppers, peas and beans. In the late summer and early fall, you can start planting broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, cabbage and kale.
What won’t work well in a raised bed: long, trailing things that need room, such as squashes. Other plants that won’t do well in the Seattle area are those that need a lot of heat, such as watermelons and pinto beans.
If you have a large yard
With a large swath of sunny space, you can let your imagination bloom. Matter suggests walking through a P-Patch to get ideas for bed designs. “People have all kinds of creative ways to manage their spaces,” she says.
Bailey suggests planting a three sisters garden, pairing corn, beans and squash together. This companion planting trio is a centuries-old technique that is still popular today.
Plant sunflowers, leaving room for them to get really big and tall.
A mini orchard is beautiful and useful. If you don’t have a huge amount of space, you could go with a columnar apple tree, which grows straight and narrow. Keep in mind you’ll usually need two kinds of the same fruit tree so they can pollinate each other. Or get a three- or four-way combination tree, which is one tree with different branches grafted together so they will pollinate each other.