When it comes to growing food, keep it simple

Clumps of primroses that resemble a doughnut need to be divided and replanted to provide “social distancing."

Last week, a gray whale made its way into the channel, and for a couple days it swam deliberate doughnuts and figure eights in front of cannery row, to the delight of local photographers.

Gray whales arriving from southern latitudes is a true sign of spring. As are salmonberries budding out, crows defending their nests and gardeners anxious to get their hands in the dirt.

It must be spring.

This week I’m combining two of my favorite topics: gardening and photography. First, photography.

Two of the most difficult photographs to take are portraits and landscapes.

Portraits, because it’s not easy to capture the essence of a person in a single frame. It takes lots practice. And for Americans in general, when it comes to interacting with our fellow humans, most of us experience boundary issues. Though with social distancing these days, perhaps it’s not so difficult.

As for landscapes, the act of composing your shot means trying to create some sense of order out of chaos while visualizing a fresh image of the natural world. Take a walk in Abercrombie with eyes open for picture possibilities and you’ll see what I mean.

To create order out of what looks like a mess is something photographer Galen Rowell said “gives our lives new meaning.” Yet our habit of cramming as much as possible into the viewfinder often leaves the final image gasping for air and the viewer scratching his or her head in confusion.

Enter simplicity. This is the secret to making a striking portrait or powerful landscape. Photographs that command the most attention, says Bryan Peterson, “involve commonplace subjects composed in the simplest way.” They’re powerful because they are limited to a single theme or idea.

In my 40-plus years of making photographs (somewhere in the world, there’s a picture of a young Marion dressed in a polka dot dress, clutching a Kodak Brownie Instamatic camera), I’ve come to respect the power of the single theme and the magic of being receptive to chance encounters in nature. 

So the other day, I was walking the path to the greenhouse when I noticed tiny purple flowers emerging from a tight clump of primroses. My heart gladdened at the new flowers, like a someone eating food after a three-day fast.

I pulled my iPhone out of my pocket, zoomed in, composed the shot, pressed the shutter button and stuffed it back into my jacket. I continued on my garden trapline, inspecting the newly transplanted seedlings. More on that in a minute.

As I headed back to the house, I thought about a question that came up after Saturday’s “Seedlings 101” Zoom-i-nar.

“I just move here from Florida. I want to grow food. Where do I start?”

It’s common for gardeners, loaded with enthusiasm, to want to grow everything, and now. Like a photograph, it’s easy to muddy it up with too much stuff. 

“Keep it simple,” I told her. “Make a list of 12 veggies that you like to eat then cut it in half. In other words, start with just a few things.”

I shared my Gardener’s Dozen, a list of the hardiest and easiest veggies to grow in Kodiak: kale, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, Swiss chard, onions, beets, rutabagas, lettuce, spinach, radish, peas, mustard greens, cabbage, garlic and cress. 

Once you decide what you want to grow, you can buy starts or grow your own seedlings, the topic of the Seedlings 101 class. Either way, it’s important to harden off your seedlings before planting them outside. 

Harden off? The purpose of hardening off, I told the class, is to help your seedlings gradually adjust to the outdoor life of real wind, real rain, real sunlight.

It’s a gradual process that takes about a week. Start by taking your seedling trays outside (out of direct sun) for a few hours, then bring them inside. Increase the time outside until they can remain there until you transplant them. Shelter them from heavy rain or strong breezes.  

Back to the photograph of the emerging primrose blossoms. Upon closer inspection, I saw not just purple petals, but also a large clump of leaves and flowers that was in trouble. The rosettes formed a circle, a doughnut with a hole in the center, indicating that below ground, the roots had become a solid tangled mass — much like leftover cooked spaghetti when stored in the fridge.

The only solution was to divide the primrose into individual clumps and re-plant them a healthy distance apart. Social distancing, plant-style.

These next couple weeks, before plant and root growth takes off with springtime abandon, is the best time to divide our perennials. That includes rhubarb. A sharp spade or shovel will do the trick. 

If you don’t have room for more plants, give them away. Mother’s Day is coming up. A little love goes a long way. 

Looking back over the years, I could see a pattern in my gardening methods. Where once I grew 12 or 14 kinds of garlic, I now grow one; eight kinds of lettuce, now three, tops. With that, I’ll leave you with a quote from Confucius: “Life is really simple, but men insist on making it complicated.”



• Prepare garden soil (if not too wet) by turning in organic material.

• Pick up your seed potatoes at local nurseries.

• Avoid walking on, and thus compacting, squishy lawns.

• Transplant seedlings into larger pots if needed.

• Divide up raspberry clumps, primroses, rhubarb, blue poppies and other perennials to transplant or give away.


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