Gardening Column

Contact Information

Oregon State University Extension Service – Columbia County

505 N. Columbia River Highway

St. Helens, OR 97051


This has been the strangest spring. And as of this writing, we aren’t into “April” yet. There is a lot of concern about fruit tree pollination.

For apples and pears there are two things that will help. First, we are two weeks later on the timing of peak bloom compared to the historic average. Second, we had a weak crop last year, so the trees tend to produce more bloom the following year. Finally, with apples and pears, a full crop is about 15-20% of the flowers setting fruit.

The more fruit set you have; the more thinning is needed. That is so different from cherries where we want all the flowers to set fruit. Bottom line, I am still cautiously optimistic about fruit set. I am concerned about reports of significant honey-bee hive loss. Orchard mason bees are active now.

Garden soil is way too wet to work-up yet unless you have raised beds (sided or not) that drain faster. But on the positive side, this is the first time in about 10 years that our “water year” (which is calculated from October 1st -September 30th) is at or above the 40-year average by ~3 inches in the St. Helens area and more at higher elevations. I had a conversation with one of our avid local gadeners at Spring Fair and he said that his water gauge data showed they had more rain this April than the past three Aprils combined.

Garden soil is also very cold for this time of year. Again, raised beds help, since better soil drainage also raises soil temperatures (it takes less sunlight energy to heat soil, air, and some water and soil, less air, and a lot of water). Clear plastic over soil prior to planting can speed corn germination assuming it dries up enough to plant corn. There still is time to turn this gardening season around. Cloches of row cover or clear plastic can be used to speed growth of trans-plants. Clear plastic must be opened on sunny days or your transplants can get “cooked.” Row covers don’t have to be opened.

Keep baiting for slugs. They are mating and eating with abandon.

The spring rain should be helpful to western red cedars that have been dying from low spring/summer soil moisture. People that transplanted conifers this fall or early spring should lose less than in drier springs. And it may provide more moisture for some of our deeper rooted vegetables. Whether it will have an impact on our fire season is yet to be seen.

The cool, wet spring is likely having an impact on swallows. They usually show up here on a nice spring day. We had one in mid-April (it was 75° on one day) and there they were. But then the weather dove into this cold and wet pattern. Those temperatures slow insect emergence (which I track on our shed that attracts moths under a light), reducing feed for swallows. Our local numbers seem down. There could be other causes. And there are separate cycles of northward migration along the west coast.

So, there is still hope swallows can help with flying insect control. On a brighter note, there is a large group of Vaux’s swifts using a chimney in the old grade school, now Riverside church, in Rainier. The chimney was purposefully reopened to help swifts which, before Europeans came, sheltered in very large, hollow trees. Our logging practices largely removed those trees.

Little brown bats (by far our moist common species) also return in mid-March, though there may be a “groundhog” activity going on where a few test the weather, and if it isn’t up to snuff, hold off the return migration. Bats would have had a tough time getting enough grub the last several months if they indeed returned.

Many Extension publications available online

Are you putting up salsa, saving seeds, or thinking about planting kiwis? OSU has a large number of its publications available for free download. Just go to Click on publications and start exploring.

Important notes

The OSU Extension Office is fully open from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Donate produce and/or money to the food bank, senior centers, or community meals programs. It is greatly appreciated.

The Extension Service offers its programs and materials equally to all people.

Have questions?

If you have questions on any of these topics or other home garden and/or farm questions, please contact Chip Bubl, Oregon State University Extension office in St. Helens at 503-397-3462 or at The office is open from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Free newsletter

The Oregon State University Extension office in Columbia County publishes a monthly newsletter on gardening and farming topics (called County Living) written/edited by yours truly. All you need to do is ask for it and it will be mailed or emailed to you. Call 503-397-3462 to be put on the list. Alternatively, you can find it on the web at and click on newsletters.

Contact information

Oregon State University Extension Service – Columbia County

505 N. Columbia River Highway

St. Helens, OR 97051



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