Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Comings and Goings in the Garden

Hello Gardeners!

I'm back for a last blast after a very busy July which ended in surgery. I've been down for the last few weeks in recovery. The operation was a success, returning a good stitch of motor function to my lower right leg, something I've been missing for six years. I didn't get a blog up in July, but I got a pile of work done in the garden; I built a new Kiwi Trellis, rebuilt the irrigation, and re-arranged several garden beds to allow for deeper soils and more access to disabled folks – as a moderately disabled veteran this is something I think about quite a bit. Ill be back in the garden through the end of August tidying up.

The Kiwi Trellis (no Kiwi yet!), a new addition to the garden.
In addition the work I've done at SMU, I also work with veterans; We have a little non profit called VETS_CAFE, and we get together and build ecological design projects. Nature is perhaps the greatest teacher, most worthy ally, and harshest critic. Agriculture requires studies of botany, the many branched natural sciences, genetics, biochemistry, forestry, structural engineering and design, statistical modeling and applied mathematics, architecture, social sciences, therapy and counseling, poetry, and art; the roots and blossoms of most studies are found in nature, and by extension, may be designed into gardens.  

Ill be transitioning out of the Garden Manager position to focus on working with VETS_CAFE as we secure a few new projects around the South Sound over the Fall, Winter and Spring. Ill assist with getting the new Garden Manager up to speed, providing support to smooth the transition.There are many things I'd like to add to the garden, and beyond into the SMU grounds- a few hints can be found in structures like this which I help build in 2002-2003.

A teachers sanctuary built for New Day Children's School in 2002
by volunteers with the Village Building Convergence.
The beginning of a Hugelkulture- Or 'hill garden'. This will be a giant raised 
bed when its finished, covered with edible and native species.
Perhaps one day VETS_CAFE will work with the SMU on projects such as milling a set of picnic benches from on-site timber; construction of wheel-chair accessible raised beds; terraced gardens replacing the ivy slope and supplying the food bank with fresh produce; textile applications of native plants in construction such as use of hazel in wattle walls and boweries; and helping Brother Edmund rebuild the chicken coop for ease of cleaning and maintenance. If any of these seem intriguing, please drop a line- we're excited to demonstrate sustainable, low intensity eco-friendly technologies which have local character and universal appeal.

VETS_CAFE helps veterans develop job skills and develop careers in conservation, agriculture, forestry and ecological design. We also provide or network resources for certification, entrepreneurship training and employment to veterans interested in these fields. I'll continue talking with folks at SMU to develop a clearer understanding of my opportunities as an Adjunct Faculty, and if its possible, hope to offer a permaculture course for credit through the college. 

Its been a great summer helping out at the SMU Learning Garden, and I've really enjoyed the time I got to spend with folks in the garden- Thank You's: Irina Gendelman, Brother Edmund, David Martin, Phillip Cheek, Ken and Jesse with Grounds, and the great teams in HR and Campus Security. And thanks to the many students form the LGBTQA Club who came and enjoyed the garden, and Hasan, Fahad, and Taki who helped get the ivy under some control early on. And a special shout out to Carole Ann Beckwith and Nicole Ellison with Bon Appetite, it was fun talking food with you!

Thank you, and Best, 
Deston Denniston MSA CPI, 
Director VETS_CAFE

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Companion Planting

Companion planting is the practice of arranging plants next to one another for beneficial effects. It can look kind of wild.

Chard, Carrot and  Lettuce nestled
under Pole Bean vines. 
A well known example of companion planting is "three sisters", corn, beans and squash. Others include tomato with basil, and blueberry with rhubarb and raspberries. It also seems that many things which go well together in a meal or snack also grow well together. But not always- I love an apple pie with walnuts and raisins baked in. While grape and apple get along fairly well, the grape will overwhelm the apple without lots of care, and if you put either too close to a black walnut you might as well have soak them with kerosene.

One can find numerous examples of companion planting with a quick google search, and if all a person is interested in is are few hints on what combinations work, that will do just fine. How a specific group of companion plants work together is a completely different set of inquiries. Chemical, structural, and spatial relationships, or 'niches', drive the compatibility- and adversity- of plants. In any given planting these three qualities interface in dynamic relationships that change over both the course of the season and the life of the plant.

Peas are leguminous, and, working with soil bacteria, make nitrogen in the soil available to other plants. Peas benefit most things that they can be grown next to by increasing the soil fertility. Beets, celery and potatoes can all benefit from this. Take it up a notch by planting them next to perennials such as small fruit trees, open structure shrubs, and deciduous bushes where they can climb and vine.

Plant 'niches' are a plant's structural habit and soil/light/heat preferences. The habit of tomatoes is lightly vining and sprawling. They don't need deep soil, but do prefer well drained, warm spots with lots of water. In the tropics I have seen cherry tomatoes growing in massive tangled mats at the high mark of water scour on swift moving streams. They like an acidic soil rich in minerals but have a high tolerance for low organic content. For instance, the San Marzano, a cultivar developed nearly 300 years ago following a gift of Seed from the Viceroy Of Peru to the Kingdom of Naples. Treasured for its rich paste and hearty soup flavors, it grows prolifically and has naturalized in the ground up basaltic soils inundated with springs and seeps at the base of Mt. Vesuvius.

When we know a plants soil needs and growth habit, we can begin to consider who it might thrive with. For instance, blueberries do well in well drained, acidic soils and find vigor in high mineral soils. They also can provide some woody structure for a weak vine to hang from and climb in. However, tomatoes, and the San Marzano in particular need  heat to get ripe- enough to  burn a blueberry. Peas are a better choice, ripening early enough to be harvested and removed from the blueberry before it produces fruit. Still, peas may struggle with the soil acidity and water tolerance blueberries are known for. Companion planting asks us to consider plants niches and how they will interface with neighboring plants.

Early I mentioned one might as well go about watering apples with kerosene as planting them next to a black walnut. Walnuts are part of a genus called Juglans, and are known for producing juglones, powerful chemical hormones which prevent many other plants near them from growing- this is why the ground under large old walnuts is often bare or sparsely vegetated. Apples don't do well when exposed to juglones. However, a solid handful of plants are not only able to survive and thrive in this environment, some actually create buffers so that the tendency of juglones to saturate the soil is mitigated. Examples of these plants include Serviceberry, Persimmon, Mayhaw, Pawpaw, Elderberry, Goji Berry, Redbud, Mints, and Daylillies. However, the Walnut will outlive many of these, and in time a young walnut will grow over and heavily shade these companions. So we must think about the assembly over time, rotating in new companions every few years to decade as the tree grows, using plants that can tolerate the high juglone and heavily shaded conditions under the canopy.

This year in the Learning Garden we put in several known companions: Kale, peas, and turnips; rosemary, chives, and strawberries, carrots, peas, and lettuce. Kale, peas, and turnips work largely because they fill different structural places in the garden. They don't get in each others way. Rosemary, fava, chives, and strawberries  are similar. While rosemary's strong volatiles drive away aphids and leaf miners, fava's nitrogen fixing effect provide chemical benefits to the soil.

Comfrey used as a 'chop and drop' mulch around a small tree.
Let us not forget the weeds. Many 'weeds' are powerful allies in the garden assembly. Dandelions, comfrey, and dock, pull nutrients up from deep soil. when the leaves decay those nutrients can be reached by shallower rooted plants like lettuce and peas. By letting these garden allies grow just to the point of flowering, and then leaving the root but pulling the flower or unripe seed pods and leafy greens, we can excellent minerals and nutrients to the soil. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as magnesium, selenium, boron, iodine and other trace nutrients plants (and our bodies) need become available to plants this way. They also provide ground cover, providing moisture retaining shade at the ground level as a living mulch.  Dandelion, comfrey, and dock, will re-sprout if you leave the root in the soil and remove just 3/4 to 7/8 of the greens. The leaves, etc., can be used in compost or just as 'chop and drop' mulch.

Companion planting is kind of wild. But then so is a forest. And just like a forest, the plants in our garden aren't here just for us, they also are bound to one another. By recognizing the  natural relationships plant communities use to create prosperity and resilience, we can learn something of how to best meet our needs while remaining in harmony with nature.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


A great deal of time and money is spent on soil nutrient testing in gardens. Soil nutrients needed for optimal health vary from plant to plant. Further, its not just N, P, K, but 40+ other nutrients and micro-nutrients which provide for optimal growth and health. This begs the question, “What happens to plant health when these nutrients are not present or abundant enough?” Turns out the plants themselves display nutrient deficiencies in some key ways, and with a bit of research, one can skip the soil testing and go right to the plants themselves for an analysis.

The first consideration one may make regards the plants that willingly establish themselves in the area being surveyed. By willing establish I mean volunteer- not planted by us, humans. When  plant volunteers in a place, its telling us it is either more able to cope with the soil, and so out-competes other plants. For instance, where white clover appears, soil is typically low in nitrogen; if plantain appears the soil is often cultivated, wet and clayey, so slightly acidic. Other examples include buttercup (clayey, wet soil), stinging nettle (abundant moisture, high nutrients typical of alluvial soils) and dock (wet, acidic, clayey and often magnesium depleted). A less than ideal garden soil may still bear good crops if one knows what to plant; for instance, beans, beets, carrots, parsnips, peas, radishes, sage, and thyme all will tolerate and even perform well in  poor soil conditions.

Following this notion, we chose two varieties of radish to do some observation based soil analysis in the Learning Garden: Red Cylindra and Pink Globe Radishes.  This wasn't a scientific survey, but a naturalist one; science could easily be employed to produce a knowledge of the soils nutrients by comparing observational data of soil growth with plant material testing, soil testing and so on. However, a quick observational survey suffices to tell us quite a good bit about our soil in the Learning Garden.

As a bit of background, the soil in the Learning Garden is the garden mix sold by Great Western Supply. The soils they produce have been in beds at the garden for 1-3 years. The Garden Mix is a combination of 1/3 screened sandy loam, 2/3 mushroom compost (cow manure).  Worm tea, a liquid produced from worm castings, was applied at seeding, upon germination and then bi-weekly. This ruins any 'control' we might have used in a formal scientific study aside, but still gives us some insights.

Radishes above below are from three amended beds. The top row are Red Cylindra radishes planted in the NE bed which has the shallowest soil (4"), least light and most temperature variance; the Red Cylindra and Pink Globes in the bottom row are from the two beds farthest west, with deeper soil (4-6", the most light and least temperature variance.

Radishes on the top row are pithy, with air pockets and fibrous roots, and which had 'bolted', aka, put on flowers before producing edible vegetation. Pith and bolting can be a sign of several factors; shallow soil, late harvest, spotty watering, nitrogen over-fertilization and too much heat. Early flowering is typically stress related, meaning a lack of nitrogen, soil depth, or spotty watering. We can eliminate late harvest and too much heat, and its not likely the soil is overly fertile, but the bed these were harvested from is only a few inches deep, preventing the tap from developing properly and causing the plant to ACT like it is poorly watered. So these radishes are telling us “MORE SOIL!”, and with that bed being just 3-4 inches in depth, I tend to agree.

The bottom row has some nice specimens which are crisp, juicy, almost an inch in diameter. Among them are roots that went woody before developing, barely a pencil width in diameter. This can be a sign of overcrowding, or nitrogen and phosphorus over fertilizing. However, we saw no leaf burn that is typical of nitrogen over-application. Judging by the quality of the roots that did form, and the broadcast method of planting the seed, its a fair wager that the soil is good shape but the plantings were a bit too dense in spots- meaning the gardener needs to thin some crop!

Overall the soil at the Learning Garden appears to be in good shape. by continuing to mulch, feeding worm tea and applying manure from Brother Edmund's chickens on occasion- and adding depth to some of the beds!- the soil here will be good for years to come. For more info on radishes and other plants as soil nutrition indicators, see:

COMING SOON: Companion planting with Corn, Beans and Squash in a Composting Raised Bed

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Learning Garden Plant Sale!

Hi Friends,

Tatsoi, a delicious, firm, nutty, micro green and stir fry leaf.
We have a passel of plants for your purchase Tuesdasy through Thursdays, Noon to 3pm. Drop in to gather some strong starts for your garden basics, and find out about our planned expansion of existing beds and other summer projects. We'll be busy on pretty much every Wednesday afternoon starting May 8th with a new or continuing garden design project. Also, bring your garden questions; even if you stump me I enjoy taking a note and researching new garden knowledge. I look forward to visiting with you!
We put up $75 in revenue last week for some garden upgrades including a Kiwi trellis and new raised beds. We've sold out of sunflowers, and have just a few artichokes, cucumbers and tatsoi left- the tatsoi is a Asian Cabbage that graces stir fries as easily as green salad. Thick, tender and crisp all at once, with just the slightest nutty-broccoli flavor, tatsoi is quickly becoming a green to rival even the mighty Spinach!

Herbal Garden Salt $3.00
(made with sea salt and herbs from the learning garden!)
Artichoke $4.00
Cucumbers $3.00        
Kale $2.00                    
Kohlrabi $2.00  
Leeks $2-$4/pot        
Oregano $3.00            
Mint $3.00        
Culinary Sage $4.00
Strawberry $3.00 or 9/$20                           
Raspberry $3.00 or 5+/$10    
Tatsoi $2/$3            
Tomatoes $3.00            
Yarrow $2.00

Friday, April 15, 2016

Salt with garden herbs

Last night, OIKOS students used this recipe by Megan Myers to make herb salt with the fresh herbs from the Learning Garden -- we used rosemary, sage, and oregano.
  • 1 cup coarse Kosher salt
  • ½ cup fresh sage leaves
  • 1/4 cup fresh rosemary leaves
  1. Preheat oven to 250°F.
  2. Process ingredients together until herbs are chopped, about 30 seconds.
  3. Spread onto a rimmed baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes.
  4. Let cool and package in airtight containers.
The salts will be available during the Learning Garden sale. Come by and get a 4oz. jar for $3 and support the garden. All proceeds go towards developing the garden as a hands-on learning space at SMU.The garden sale is happening this week 12-3pm on April 19, 20, & 21. There will also be a garden planting workshop from 1-2 on April 20.

The Learning Garden is continuously developing as an outdoor classroom that can be used across disciplines. Our former UNI101 students helped plant the veggies in the Fall of 2015 and prepared the garden for the next crop of students. We will planting, building and harvesting all summer with our new two session summer class on community and permaculture.
Heather Nicole created these labels for the jars.

"What to do with flavored salts? Use them on cuts of meat, sprinkle over fish, make your own potato chips, add to desserts for a savory burst, top popcorn, or simply use on roasted veggies. The possibilities really are endless!"

chopping herbs by hand

Thursday, April 14, 2016

 Learning Garden Workshop April 20, 1-2pm

How to Plant and Trellis Beans and Peas

Beans and peas are a great way to build fertile soils for gardening while sustaining a harvest. We will cover basics of effective microorganism inoculations, planting, transplanting, and spacing/thinning starts and the basic concepts of companion planting.

Hands-on Summer Class: Community, Permaculture, and Transition

395a Summer Session 1: May 17-June 23 (3 cr.)  Tuesday & Thursday 09:00-12:30
395b Summer Session 2: June 28-August 4 (3cr.)  Tuesday & Thursday 09:00-12:30
Session 1 is requisite for Session 2

This program is for those who are interested in developing ecological literacy. Whether designing broad-acre managed intensive grazing systems for dairy animals, a personal herb   patio, or green spaces for high density urban areas, all systems benefit when soils, nutrient cycles, plants, and animals, interact in a functional community. Learn key patterns for engaging successfully with natural systems while designing a proposal for implementation of an expanded Learning Garden at St. Martin's University.

Over the program We will be working with South Sound Veterans Partnership, composed of several veteran's service  groups in Olympia, WA., including GRuB Victory Gardens, the Veteran's Conservation Corps, Enterprise for Equity and others. We will be deeply connecting the proposed garden with their work.

Career applications include: Conservation Sciences and Policy, Agriculture, Farming and Ranching, Urban Designers, Forestry/Silvaculturists, GIS Technicians, Ecological Engineers and Designers, Green Architecture, Appropriate technology, Transportation Design Professionals,  Etc.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Garden Sale in April

Learning Garden Plant Sale

Come get your plants! The garden sale will be held in the Learning Garden, just outside of the cafeteria on April 19, 20 and 21 from 12-3pm.

Here is a list of items that will be for sale:
Broccoli $3.00          
Cucumbers $3.00        
Kale $2.00                    
Kohlrabi $2.50  
Leeks $2-$4/pot        
Oregano $3.00            
Peppermint $3.00        
Culinary Sage $4.00
Strawberry $3.00 or 9/$20                           
Raspberry $3.00 or 5/$10    
Tatsoi $2.50              
Tomatoes $3.00         
Sunflower $3.00          
Yarrow $2.00
Money from the sale will be used to fund improvements to the garden including new and repaired raised beds, soil and soil amendments, seating areas, and perennial plant purchases. We aim to create a true 'Outdoor Classroom' on our verdant, perched terrace

It's time to plant your garden!

Sunday, March 20, 2016


The Learning Garden is stirring from its winter slumbers. Over the next several months the garden will change shape, overflow its beds, creep across and down the hill slope to the west of Old Main, take on new technologies, and demonstrate ancient and resilient practices of food production for both perennials and annuals.


APRIL 19-22, 1:30PM-5:30PM

Over 500 4" and 3" pots and 1" plugs, with 15+ kinds of starts!
We've started over 500 plants in starter trays, and have another 500 to go! Plant Sale will begin April 19 and run through Earth Day, the 22nd. Vegetable and Flower Favorites will be available. Sunflower, strawberries, kale, lettuce and leeks are all germinating, and tomato, artichoke, cucumbers, squash and beans are on the way. We also have some sage and mint starts from division.

Donation Request: We currently need 4" pots and trays. Were also keen on perennial starts if you have any to donate.  Please contact

The better part of this of the Learning Garden is to help us all understand and create sustainable relationships between one another, our environment and our food. Money raised at the plant sale will be used to build out garden facilities, with projects ranging from a pergola and kiwi arbor to cloches, benches and more raised beds, creating a sense of 'Outdoor Classroom' for our verdant, perched terrace.


Wednesdays, 1:00PM-3:30PM 

Wintered beds are waking up. Drop by and
see the difference just 3 weeks can make!
March 23-
        Companion Planting: A way to increase both production and individual plant vigor. We will discuss Allium, Rosa, and Mint companionship. If you would like to show up as early as 11AM to join our potting party, you'll also get a tutorial on starting tomato, tomatillo, ground cherry, cucumbers, select squash, corn beans, select flowers and more.

March 30-
Sheet or “Lasagna” Mulching: A quick way to develop deep, rich, living garden soil.

April 6-
        Companion Planting #2: Three Sisters Guild: Corn, Squash, Beans. Why these three important continental food sources grow best when their roots and crowns mingle.

April 13- 
We will be prepping for the plant sale this Wednesday. Drop in join us in making the space bright! Clean up, decorations, sign making.


Hisa and Ali remove aggressive Ivy and expand cultivation area.
Composting Workshop Series ~
Worm bins, compost tea, and kitchen/pruning piles composting including biology, nutrient ratios, quality of feed product, and technological aspects of composting. See linked articles to learn more about composting

Build a Seed Storage Locker ~
Recent archaeological digs have discovered squash seed caches over 800 years old- and the seeds are still viable. What conditions do seeds need for dormancy and storage? How long will they 'wait'? What stimulates germination? A good bit of that information can be found here:

Introduction to Permaculture: System Theory, Design, and Practice ~ An important aspect of sustainability is systems thinking and design. Gardens are both a source of inspiration and the product of systems thinking via the work of design. Understand how systems thinking can increase product and quality while saving time and work. For an online primer     see:

Thank you, and I look forward to seeing you in the Garden!
~Deston Denniston, MS, CPT