High noon and fruit trees, berries, bee-pleasing orax, and corn as high as an elephant's eye, glisten and ripen in the sun. You may think it's a mirage as urban heat rises and surrounds you like an unwanted cloak. But no, these hardy plants are survivors, nurtured by those committed to growing edibles and sustenance for pollinators and birds alike.
If a garden tour piques your fancy, come along. It's a hot, dry summer but with the right techniques, urban gardening couldn't be better. In a time of statewide drought and fires raging in traditionally wet forests, the harvests are good in many urban and suburban gardens. And, even without any restrictions on water, some gardeners are upping their efforts to use water efficiently.
First up, a garden in the West Woodland area of north Seattle that boasts a 100-year-old catalpa tree with giant heart-shaped leaves and white showy flowers. Tear yourself from beneath its shady canopy and you'll see what gardener, Scott Steinhorst, calls “tropical drama,” one of many micro-gardens in a varied, lush landscape. “We're standing underneath banana trees. This is Masu Baju. You can't eat these, they're ornamental.” By late summer, says Steinhorst, the Masu Baju will reach 15 feet, with 8-foot leaves for shady comfort. Rainbow chard grow in clusters at the trees’ base. Yellow faced bees sip nectar from bright purple orax and hummingbirds hover over hot lips salvia, a sage with tiny red and white flowers that bloom from early spring to fall.
Record dry conditions make Steinhorst eager to install drip irrigation for all the family's micro-gardens. One do-it-yourself circuit is already up and running in a woodland garden with huckleberries. Drip irrigation is the most efficient way to water, say gardeners with experience. “It's better for the plants. You don't get water all over the leaves of the plant. You put the water just in the soil, just where you need it,” he says.
Drip style or watering by hand, water deep to feed the roots of the plants, say experts. Sue Hartman with the Garden Hotline says if the soil is healthy and layered with mulch or pesticide free straw to retain moisture, daily watering may not be necessary.
The Steinhorst garden is a family affair. The girls in the family like to make sandwiches from its bounty. The youngest, Emee, offers a visitor a sandwich wrapped in kale and chard. What's inside? “Some pansy petals, dandelion fluff, and chives,” she says. “With strawberries and three blueberries on top.”
But it's not all sweet for gardeners this year. The Northwest hasn't seen anything to match its recent string of 15 days in a row for record-breaking heat since 1977. Scott Steinhorst worries about climate change. At the same time he feels good that the family can lower its carbon footprint to a certain degree by growing a little food, often with enough to share.
Drop in on another neighborhood garden, named “West Woodland Harvest House.” Here you'll meet a family trying to grow food all year long. Raspberries haven't done so well because of lower-than-average spring rain, but the drought tolerant herb garden is doing very well. David Barnes says the family relies on what he calls “sustainability components” to complement growing food: solar access, a rain garden to keep stormwater on site, and a cistern for rainwater. A five kilowatt solar array on the roof provides for more than 50 percent of the family's energy needs. One aspect of the drought, reduced snow pack and river flow, says Barnes, could mean less hydro-power. “So it's kind of important for people to get on the bandwagon and produce their own renewable energy,” he says. “We certainly don't want to go back the other way and start relying on fossil fuels, like coal or oil.”
A sustainable environment calls for “environmental buckshot”, he says. “It's not just one silver bullet. You need the buckshot, one after the other. And if something doesn't work, you try something else.”
Continue the edible garden tour up a nearby steep hill and you'll find a garden with a fish pond. The gurgling water has a cooling effect. Squash and cucumber are bursting out of planter boxes on the parking strip. Grown in plastic pots with holes cut from the bottom, the strategy keeps the soil moist. Chili peppers grow in a wheelbarrow and a small hothouse nurses seedlings.
A mile further to the west, in Ballard, and you'll meet gardener, Libby Nichols. Growing food naturally and organically is her passion. There's nothing like growing something yourself, she says – the taste, the health. “On top of that it's a politics of land use thing. It's like there's all these land owners right and they're wasting space.” With concrete and with grass, she says. “I feel a moral and kind of ethical responsibility to do more with my space."
Nichols’ garden – she's a landscape designer by profession – is a multi-layered splendor of vertical and linear gardens as well as pots of all sizes with edibles and ornamentals growing side by side. Everything seems to be thriving, the result of her know how and soil-building, some from the family's rabbits. Poor soil doesn't absorb water, she notes. Irrigate, she advises. Turn the soil over. Add more mulch. Nichols admits she's had to water more this year but, “on a good day I can get 30 pounds of tomatoes and peppers. That didn't used to be true.”
A new gardener walks by and asks for advice. Think of the space you have as an upper story, middle story and lower story, advises Nichols, referring to ways to organize plantings for efficient use of water, sun and time. “If you think about it that way and you look at what happens in nature and you try to mimic it, you're going to have a better design and lower maintenance.”
The afternoon is coming to an end and Nichols is thinking about what to make for dinner. Cherry tomatoes are ready for picking and orange nasturtiums. Leeks are also ready, mint, kale and other greens. Easy fixings for dinner.
Recently, Seattle Public Utilities changed its water supply outlook from good to fair after the hottest June in recorded history, higher-than-usual water consumption, record-low stream flows into storage reservoirs, and the onset of El Nino conditions. For now though, gardening in the city is a high-reward activity.