A couple’s time, energy and hard work have paid off with a wildly productive garden.
IT TAKES John Mathes eight to 10 hours just to mow the lawn. But John and his wife, Cathy, put most of their time and energy on the large Camano Island property into their picturesque and wildly productive vegetable garden.
Pacific NW Magazine: Week of Sept. 19
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Cathy is a dietitian who comes from a long line of serious cooks and accomplished gardeners. “I really love food, and how it can affect wellness,” she says as she strolls the paths between bed after raised bed of tomatoes, peppers, raspberries and squash.
John grew up spending summers on Camano. Between Cathy’s desire for space and sunshine to grow food, and John’s love of the island, they found property about two-thirds of the way down the island and built their home in 2007. And they started right in digging. Now their 5 acres are 80 percent cultivated.
“We weren’t going to do that, but John got on his tractor and just kept going,” says Cathy. “We still have a little patch of woods,” John points out.
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For a year after they moved in, the couple watched how the sun fell on the property through the seasons before John set to work building the 50-by-70-foot vegetable and fruit plot. He floored the garden with 5 inches of gravel and built raised beds out of stone to create an extra-warm microclimate. He installed drip irrigation and filled the beds with a mix of native soil, good plant soil and sand, topped off with compost.
And now Cathy has to climb up on the garden wall in early June to harvest the tall, ripening artichokes, which she marinates in olive oil. The tomatoes, grown from seed, are already producing in June. It doesn’t hurt that she foliar-feeds the plants with a mix of 50 percent kelp and 50 percent fish fertilizer. “I use a little Sluggo, and some Neem Oil on the roses when I need to,” she says.
Her favorite edibles, the ones she always grows, are cucumbers, zucchini and butternut squash, raspberries, blueberries, currants, tomatoes and more tomatoes. Last season, Cathy was particularly pleased with the darkly colored Bumblebee and striped Tiger series of cherry tomatoes.
Despite all the success, the couple is still experimenting. John and Cathy have started to grow some of their tomato plants in black pots, and are pruning them less to see whether that increases productivity. And they’re constantly moving garlic and onion plants around the garden to find the best location to discourage voles and moles from snacking on the produce.
Did their desire for self-sufficiency spur the growth of the garden, or is it a natural result of their successful harvests? No matter how it unfolded, the couple now cans, freezes and dries, and makes jams, jellies, syrups and pesto. They even grind wheat to bake their own bread.
“We like the idea of being as self-sustaining as possible,” says John.
“My grandma was Italian,” Cathy says. “I always buy basil and borlotti bean seed from Seeds From Italy.” And she loves what she calls “old traditional food,” like the rosehip syrup and jam she makes every summer.
The garden is as beautiful as it is productive. There’s a charming shed, built by John, with a deep sink for washing produce. The deer fence is hedged in a thick, fragrant display of ‘Provence’ lavender. It took Cathy three years to create the hedge, starting out with little slips she rooted in sand.
She grows kalettes, a nutritious cross between kale and Brussels sprouts, in part because the plants are so pretty. Scarlet runner beans and sweet peas are trained up sunflowers and onto the fence and trellises. An epic sage plant sprawls across the gravel, and zinnias and marigolds grow between the vegetables.
Rose bushes are Cathy’s specialty, and many fragrant, old-fashioned varieties perfume the edges of the garden with their ruffled blooms.
“I take great joy in producing all this food,” says Cathy, who keeps a photo journal of her garden’s progress every summer. “I like it best in full harvest, when there’s such great abundance.”