Garden Column

The new garden year starts soon. Here are some ideas to get you going!

Protected peas

Edible and flowering peas can be planted in January. Don’t confuse the two types as flowering peas are gorgeous and nicely scented but poisonous.

Peas are best planted in a well-drained location. They should be given some cold protection and soil warming. If have seen gardeners bend clear, corrugated fiberglass greenhouse sheets into a hoop over the seeded rows, kept in place by two rows of stakes with twine tied to the stakes across the top.

Other gardeners use bendable PVC pipe or 10-guage wire hoops and clear plastic. Open ends of the tunnels for ventilation on sunny days. They generally get a great start in these mini-greenhouses.

Once the peas outgrow the tunnels, cover them with loose floating row cover or, if the weather has warmed, let them fend for themselves. Eventually, the taller types of peas (both edible and flowering) will need a trellis of some sort.

Inoculate seeds so they will return nitrogen to your garden. Plant them about 2 inches apart. Rows should be 36-40 inches apart. Deer and slugs adore garden peas.

Gypsum, soil drainage, and Columbia County gardens

Columbia County has a lot of clay-rich soils. These soils can be productive but have major limitations. First, our clay soils are generally quite acid with native pH levels in the 5.5 - 6.0 range. Second, clay particles are the tiniest of all soil particles. Thus, pore spaces, which are so important for water drainage and aeration, are also very tiny in heavy clay soils. This leads to poor drainage and a lot of other resulting problems.

In certain parts of the United States, gypsum is widely used to improve clay soil drainage. What is less widely known is that this only works on sodic soils. These are soils with a lot of sodium. We have no sodic soils in Columbia County. So gypsum isn’t a quick fix for our drainage issues. Best options for gardeners (or farmers as well) include:

  • Make raised beds
  • Install tile drainage
  • Add of lots of organic matter which will, over time, improve drainage
  • All of the above together

But is there a place for gypsum? I think there is. Both calcium and sulfur are often in short supply in our gardens. Gypsum is calcium sulfate. Gypsum also doesn’t increase soil pH like regular agricultural lime (which is calcium carbonate) will. It won’t lower it either. So you can use modest amounts of gypsum around acid loving plants like rhododendrons and blueberries to improve calcium availability without making the soils less acid.

A study some years ago indicated that gypsum added to new raspberry raised beds would improve plant survival relative to root rot, a scourge of our raspberry plantings. Gypsum has been used to dust potatoes before covering the furrow to reduce the incidence of potato scab. And modest amounts can be added to the whole vegetable garden, assuming that there isn’t too much calcium there already.

Oh, Deer!

Two scientists in Washington tested a range of deer repellents and two application techniques for effectiveness in plant protection. They classed the compounds by their presumed effects on deer, i.e. pain (like hot pepper derivatives), taste (like some of the bittering agents like quinine), fear (rotting sulfurous compounds) and mixed messages that combined categories.

They looked at applications on trees and application around trees.

The best results (season long reduction in browsing) were for the powdered form of Deer Away® Big Game Repellent (active ingredient= “putrescent egg solids”) and Plantskydd™. Both are sulfurous-based products. There are now others that pack the same “decaying meat” message.

Application on the tree was far superior to application around the tree. All products tested were effective in the winter when the browsing pressure is lower. However, in the spring, most protected for about three weeks but after that, all bets were off. The best products showed up to eight weeks of control. Don’t use on edible crops.

2020 Master Gardener™ classes in St. Helens

The OSU Extension office in Columbia County will be offering the Master Gardener™ training again this spring. This year, we are trying a new schedule that allows people that work to attend. The classes will be held on Wednesdays from 6 p.m–9 p.m. and on alternate Saturdays from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. for about 10 weeks starting on February 5, at the Extension office in St. Helens.

Cost of the program is $100, which includes a large resource book. Some scholarships are available. Master Gardeners are responsible for providing volunteer gardening education to the community as partial payback for the training. If interested in the program, call the Extension office at 503 397-3462 for an information packet. Online registration is now available at

We can also send you an application and/or you can come into our office to sign up.

Chip Bubl works with the Oregon State University Extension Service – Columbia County 505 N. Columbia River Highway in St. Helens. He may be reached at 503-397-3462, or


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