Out in the Cold: Bill Thorness talks Winter Gardening and his New Book

By: Erin Meier

I first met Bill several years ago at the Ballard P-Patch in Seattle where we were both gardening. (P-Patches are community gardens named for the Picardo family, see story here) Bill is a lot of fun to talk with about gardening and beyond. Get to know him a little better and you’ll find out he’s not just a passionate gardener: he’s an author, an avid bicyclist, a teacher, Master Gardener and even a Master Composter/Soil-Builder.

When I started as Workshop Coordinator at City People’s Garden Store in Madison Park, I invited Bill to come by and speak about his favorite topic: edibles. A self-described farm boy from North Dakota, Bill quickly won over his audience with his impressive knowledge of heirloom vegetables and down-to-earth gardening advice.

Last week I spoke with Bill about his latest book, Cool Season Gardener.


Cool Season Gardener Cover

First of all, congratulations on your new book.

Thank you.

This is your third book. How does it feel to be an author three times?

Publishing is different for everybody. I enjoy sharing the information I’ve learned over the years. It’s rewarding to have a dialogue with people you wouldn’t meet normally. You can garden with friends, or in a P-Patch, but with a book you can reach a lot more people.

We actually met at the Ballard P-Patch, which was a great time for me in my gardening life and I wanted to ask you: how has having a P-Patch influenced you as a gardener?

Actually, my first garden in Seattle back in 1986 was a P-Patch. In fact I’ve gardened in a P-Patch almost continually until a couple years ago.

Recently, I was giving a talk for the Master Gardeners at the Ballard P-Patch. Of course, I’d brought some seeds with me, heirloom black radish seeds. One of the gardeners spoke up, “I have those seeds as well.” She’d gone to somebody’s house on a garden tour  and they’d given her some.

Well she didn’t realize it, but the gardener she was talking about was me. She had them growing in her garden. That kind of connection is really fun. And that’s what I love about the P-Patches. You can’t get that kind of collective wisdom anywhere else.

Bill proudly displays his purple-sprouting broccoli seedlings

Bill proudly displays his purple-sprouting broccoli seedlings

A lot of gardening books touch on winter gardening. Why did you feel ‘Cool Season Gardening’ needed its own book?

That’s a really good question. All of this knowledge you get through working with the P-Patch, Seattle Tilth, Master Gardeners and trying to grow food year-round….You learn a lot and you find resources. Two books that were very valuable to me were Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest by Binda Colebrook and Gardening Under Cover by William Head. Both of these books went out of print. (Though recently Binda’s book has been re-published.)

I was talking to my publisher about how there is a whole new crop of gardeners in their twenties, who could benefit from this kind of knowledge as I did in my twenties. I wanted to create a resource that combined all the gardening knowledge I’d amassed over the years. Most vegetable gardening books have three or four pages on how to build a cloche, a few pages on winter gardening and succession planting. My book goes into those things in-depth.

As I was reading your book, this passage in particular stuck with me.

I think failure in the garden is not paying attention to those messages from nature. It is refusing to learn from them. It is acting as though you are in complete control. Everything that happens in the garden is a lesson, and learning is a successful endeavor in itself. (Thorness 22)

How does this reflect your gardening philosopy?

Purple sprouting broccoli: ready to harvest!

Purple sprouting broccoli: ready to harvest!

If the cabbage doesn’t put on a head, eat the leaves. If the kale goes to seed prematurely,eat the flowers. It’s not always gonna work out the way you planned. There are so many factors, summer vacations, changes in weather, you just have to roll with it. Vegetable gardening is very forgiving because every season you get to start over, giving you a chance to redeem yourself from past mistakes. (he chuckles) And I’ve made a lot of them!

One of my favorite sayings that I’ve never been able to attribute to anyone is: ‘The gardener’s shadow is the best fertilizer.’ If you’re out there every day you’ll be able to see what’s going on. Even if it’s just a little garden walk on your way somewhere else. You can see what’s happened, and make a change because of it.

I’ve never been able to attribute that quote. But garden wisdom gets passed over the back fence. And that’s the way it should be, as long somebody gets something out of it, that’s the reward.

I know our readers will want me to ask, do you have any tips for gardeners starting a vegetable patch right now?

The spate of cool, moist weather we’re having is perfect for starting fall greens — get some rows of lettuce started now, and continue planting short rows every 10 days or so through September, and you’ll have lettuce continually into December. The later plantings might need to be covered with floating row cover or a cloche after October, but with a little protection, you could put your own salad on the table at Thanksgiving!

Sounds delicious! Thank you Bill.

Thank you!


A Note to Readers: You can find Bill’s book locally at Village Books in Fairhaven!

Want more ‘cool season’ gardening tips? Check out Bill’s website!



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