Top Five Produce Picks for Growing Your Own Groceries

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to growing our own groceries and which items give the best return flavour wise, money wise and environmentally. Here are my top five picks. 

1 – Herbs

Herbs take the number one spot hands down. If I could only grow one thing, a herb would be my first choice. No other category of plants give such a huge return on such little space. You can even successfully grow herbs in a few pots parked on a windowsill.

Unlike the cabbage epiphany in the last post, where the cost of one plant at a nursery was almost equivalent to one cabbage head at the grocery store, you can buy a pot of herbs for the same price as just a few wilted leaves in a plastic grocery store clamshell. That same herb will provide you with dozens of clippings, easily saving you all kinds of money. More if you really look after it and harvest often. The great thing about herbs is the more you clip them the more they grow and the more you get. It’s a beautiful thing.

You can dry herbs to refill those tiny expensive herb jars you buy in the spice aisle. It’s dead easy and will taste far superior. You can also replace your favourite herb teas with your own home grown ones. I am currently growing a Holy Basil Ocimum tenuiflorum to make my own Tulsi Tea. The packet of seeds cost me $3.19 while the cost of a single box of Tulsi Tea at the grocery store sets me back $7.99. You can even make your own unique custom blends of teas by drying and combining different herbs.

On top of all that, are the medicines and beauty products you can make from your herbs. Herb products make fabulous gifts, saving even more money, not to mention post consumer waste.

Factor all that in and a tiny herb garden can save you hundreds of dollars. Plus most herbs have the soul of a weed and are ridiculously easy to grow.

If only all garden math worked out so well!

 

2 – Greens

If you buy those big plastic packs of organic baby greens you will love growing your own. No more guilt when you reach for the forgotten pack of greens only to find a slimy mass of leaves inside. All that packaging, shipping and money for nothing. Or maybe I’m the only one guilty of that.

If you grow your own greens you negate the need for any of those things. No packaging, no shipping, no refrigeration and very little cost. You can buy seed packs of Mesclun Mixes which are simply an assortment of leafy greens, or custom blend your own mix. If you gently tear off or cut the leaf and leave the roots undisturbed, most will grow back several times. A patch as small as four feet square can provide a small family with a season’s worth of greens.

If you add another four by four patch and fill it with Swiss Chard, spinach and kale you can freeze these heavier leafed greens over the summer to toss in stews, soups and smoothies all winter long. If you don’t have room in your vegetable garden tuck some yellow, red, orange or pink Swiss Chard in your flower beds along with some purple kale. They will add a pop of decorative colour to both your borders and your plate. 

 

3 – Berries

Strawberries, raspberries, saskatoons, haskaps, currants, and gooseberries are some of the berries that grow well here in the north. As mentioned in the last post if you freeze berries over the summer they will provide you with a flavourful alternative to buying expensive (and too often flavourless) fresh berries in plastic clamshells over the winter.

Spread the berries out on a cookie sheet, set in the freezer until frozen and then transfer to a large reuseable freezer container. This prevents the berries from freezing together into one big unusable clump and allows you to easily scoop out as much or as little as needed.

Try not to include the stems and twigs! This is not a good example of “clean berries”

 

4 – Shelling Peas

If you are going to go to all the effort of growing your own groceries, it makes sense to grow things that no amount of money can buy. Rare heirlooms can fall into that category and so do shelling peas fresh in the pod. You might luck out and find some at a Farmer’s Market but you won’t find any at most grocery stores.

The reason being that once picked you only have a day or so (provided you pop them into a bag and put them in the fridge right after picking) before the pods go limp. Shelling Peas are meant to picked, shelled and processed for the freezer all in the same day.*

However, most never make it to the freezer, and that’s what makes them a must for the garden. Frozen peas can be easily bought (though home grown tastes so much better).

Shelled raw peas, on the other hand, are a seasonal treat best enjoyed while standing out in the garden, picking, shelling and popping those delectable green orbs directly into your mouth one after another. Sadly it’s an experience not everyone gets to have. 

*Hint – I used to blanch my peas before freezing, until I learned they can be treated just like berries. Spread them on a cookie sheet, freeze and scoop out as needed. Easy peasy. 

5 – Potatoes

Potatoes rarely make the list of space/cost/production vegetables but I say Pffft. If you are looking to be self sufficient in something you could do a whole lot worse than potatoes. In fact, here in the north, for pure caloric return, you can’t do much better.

If the Zombie Apocalypse hits it would be hard to subsist on a few containers of frozen berries, peas and kale. However, if you have a few bushels of potatoes tucked away in your cold room, root cellar, crawl space or even boxed up in a cool garage, your chances of making it through to spring suddenly look a whole lot brighter. Hungry Zombies notwithstanding.

Another reason I like to grow most of own potatoes is that I once read that commercial potato growers always keep a patch of spuds in a small garden behind the barn for their own family because they don’t want to subject them to the necessary evil of all the chemicals used to successfully harvest a massive crop. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I do know that potatoes routinely make the Dirty Dozen list of our most chemically compromised produce, along with berries and greens!

Plus I really love potatoes and they are so versatile they usually show up in our meals several times a week. If you are going to be eating something often, it makes sense to lighten the chemical load if you can. And there is nothing like the taste of new potatoes. My mouth is watering just at the thought of those scrumptious tiny tubers.

Which brings me to my Number One Rule in choosing your Top Five things to grow in your garden…choose things you love to eat! Sounds like a no brainer but it is surprising how much effort I have put into growing produce I don’t even like.

If you’re looking at this top five list and thinking, “How could you have left out______(fill in the blank)” then whatever is in your blank should definitely go into your garden, along with onions, garlic and radishes.

Notice how I just tossed those three in there out of the blue?

I think of radishes, onions and garlic as the salt you might sprinkle over your meal. Even if your plate is full, there is always room for a sprinkling of salt. Same thing with radishes, onions and garlic.

Radishes reach maturity in as few as 27 days meaning you are already gleaning a harvest while other vegetables in the same bed are just starting to get their act together. Lots of people sow them with carrots, which are notoriously slow in germinating. The quick popping radishes mark the rows and break ground for the carrots that follow and are already harvested by the time carrots need room. 

Onions and garlic can be tucked into all the corners and crevices of both your flower and vegetable gardens, and even into pots. Tall and slender, they take up little room and as an added bonus, confuse and repel pests with their no nonsense scents, making for a healthier more productive garden. 

To the above five (or eight if you include the all-over sprinkling of radishes, onions and garlic) I will also be growing cabbage (as mentioned in the last post) as well as carrots, beets, tomatoes, zucchini, spaghetti squash, peppers, cucumber, snow peas and, finally and unexpectedly, two peppermint celery plants that leaped into my cart along with the cabbage starts. Peppermint celery! Who says no to a name like that? Obviously, not me.

I think a person should plant at least one edible a year they have never grown before. It keeps things interesting and who knows? It may become next year’s top five favourite. You’ll never know unless you try it.

Right now it is cold and rainy outside, and we are all thinking the S word even if we’re not saying it. However, starting tomorrow, it looks like we will be heading back towards 20 celsius and sunny skies.

But today I feel like I am stuck in the starting pose for an Olympic sprint, just waiting for the starting gun…or sun. 

Ready, set, grow!

 

Giving Cabbages the Raspberry. Sort of.

I started some cabbage seedlings a few weeks back that have failed to thrive. It happens. Some things I start from seed do incredibly well, while others are simply awful. Maybe it is The Universe’s way of keeping me from getting a swelled head.

That’s how I found myself standing in front of some very healthy and humbling cabbage transplants at a nursery, by a sign that read “$2.89 each”.

“Well,” I thought to myself, “For a six pack that still works out to less than fifty cents a piece.”

I reached for the cabbage starts, trying not to think about how I had already spent a similar amount on an entire pack of what turned out to be wasted seeds.

Instead of a six pack, my hand closed around a single cabbage. A single cabbage in a sizeable container cell, but a single nonetheless.

Now I understand how expensive it is to run a commercial greenhouse. Moreover, I am pretty much an expert at garden math. The sum game of spending over a thousand dollars to build a greenhouse, fill it with soil and fuel a heater all to save $1.60 on store bought tomatoes.

Of course they’re not store bought and that’s what makes the negative numbers turn positive. It is all about heirlooms and flavour and knowing for certain what goes into the food we put into our bodies.

The thing with the cabbage transplant is that I had no idea how it had been fertilized and sprayed to get to this point. I just knew it looked ridiculously healthy. Maybe even suspiciously. I reluctantly set it back on the shelf. Later I checked my grocery bill and discovered I had recently spent $3.38 on a sizeable head of cabbage.

I could go back, buy the single transplants and spend the summer watering and fussing with cabbage worms, all to save .49 cents.

It made me take a closer look at all the things I was growing in my limited garden space.

I love cabbages but they can be bought cheaply at the store and without any added plastic. Raspberries and strawberries, on the other hand, are a different story. Both come in plastic clamshells, are expensive and it’s hit and miss for flavour. Frozen home grown berries are always tastier than fresh store bought, not to mention the joy of eating a fresh berry from the garden still warm from the sun. Better yet, you don’t have to replant them every year. Once and done. Sort of.

And so, thanks to my cabbage-sticker-shock-epiphany, one of our two backyard 4 X 16 raised beds originally destined for assorted vegetables, have been given over to strawberries and the other one has been filled with raspberries. Both also have a single haskap bush planted at one end.

If I can only be self sufficient in a few things, they should be things that pack the most value, environmentally, financially and flavour-wise. I am not sure I will produce enough berries to meet all our needs, but we’ll see how close we can get.

I still have nine stock troughs in the backyard that have been converted into raised beds, as well as the potager garden out front and four 3 x 8 beds at the community garden at the school. This is a good thing, since (ahem) I later found some equally impressive cabbage plants in a six pack for just a bit more than the singles and this time three of them followed me home.

They’re purple and pretty and will add a nice pop of colour in the potager garden out front. And did I mention I love cabbage?

Lessons from Marcescence Trees

I love how you are always learning new things in a garden. There are so many mysteries in the plant world and getting to ponder them is something I especially enjoy.

We have two trees that are practically curb side on our front lawn that hang on to their leaves in the fall. Last spring, our first one here, I thought it was just an anomaly. Sometimes winter comes so fast the trees are caught off guard and are caught still wearing their summer greens. A few times-not often-our aspens have failed to shed their leaves because of this. Eventually they turn brown but they hang there all winter long. Just like on our two trees.

This year, when our two trees once again hung onto their brown dead leaves I started doing some research. Since I knew it wasn’t because of an early winter, I figured it was due to lack of water or inadequate nutrition or some failing on my part. Instead I learned a new word.

Marcescence.

Marcescence is a classification of trees that hold their brown leaves all winter long, only releasing them when the new green leaves push them off to make way.

Apparently our Young’s Weeping Birch and Tatarian Maple are such trees. Or if they’re not, they certainly behave as if they are.

The bare branches of our crab apple wave its naked arms in front of our Young’s Weeping Birch while to the far left the Tartarian Maple holds its whirlybird pod-like leaves intact as well.

Whenever I learn something like this I am always certain I’m the last one to step up to the information wicket. Everyone else reading this is thinking, Duh! Who hasn’t heard of marcescent trees? And, obviously, the answer is me.

Why marcescent trees hang on to their dead leaves is a bit of a botanical mystery, which makes me love it even more. Some researchers think it is a self protection mechanism to hide the spring buds and make them less appealing to deer.

For being in a city, we get a ton of deer in our front yard. They are always eager to pitch in and help prune the crab apple and lilacs, but I haven’t noticed so much as a nibble on the two trees that hold their leaves, so it seems to be a valid theory.

A second plausible explanation is that the trees hang on to their leaves so they can deposit them at their roots in the spring, when they need the mulch and nutrients the most. The practice minimizes the risk of the leaves blowing away with the autumn and winter winds. If that is the reason, it isn’t working so well this year. It’s been a gusty spring. Most of the leaves have been sent skittering down the street, taking their nutrition with them.

Watching the leaves take off serves as a reminder of the uselessness of hanging onto negative things from the past, in hopes that it will somehow serve you in the future. It won’t. Well, unless it is something like lighting your hair on fire because you bent too close to an open flame. Hanging onto that memory could help prevent you from doing it again and that would be very helpful. However, other than those sorts of things, nothing good comes from hoarding old hurts.

It doesn’t do a lot for your appearance neither. I hate to diss my own trees, which I love dearly, but the look of dead brown leaves (in my view) are not nearly as attractive as naked branches against a cobalt winter sky or the fresh green buds that are unfurling on our other trees even as I type. Which doesn’t mean I will replace the trees or fail to appreciate them for who they are, but it is a warning that it can be better for body and soul to just let it go. These are now my Warning Trees.

I look out at these trees a few times a day, as I do the dishes. Now instead of wondering, “What is wrong with those trees?” I can think, “They are Marcescence. Hangers on of the past.” and it will serve as a warning that it is better to suffer a few deer nibbles than to try and protect oneself in a coat of bitter memories from a time that is better released to the winds.

A garden is a great provider of therapy, as well as flowers, fruit and vegetables. if we just hang out in a garden and ponder our questions long enough, the garden will provide profound answers. I was going to add that it is also cheaper than therapy, but (ahem) my credit card bill often says otherwise!

Well, enough philosophizing. A glorious day is shaping up outside. The sun is shining, there’s not a cloud in the sky and (most) of the trees have leafed out. Another day of lessons await. It’s a great day to be a gardener.

Turning up the Heat

Summer truly arrived yesterday. I knew this for sure when I was driving home from the grocery store and trying to figure out what was wrong with the car. The heater wasn’t on, the seat warmer wasn’t on, but it was strangely warm. I looked down at the outside temperature gauge and was shocked to read 19 Celsius!

I had to laugh. It’s been almost eight months since I have even thought the words air conditioner. I was out of practice in assuming a warm car could actually mean it was warm outside. I didn’t turn the ac on though. I just rolled down the window and smiled.

Later, I zipped down to Canadian Tire to pick up some garden supplies. I walked out back and summer had arrived there as well. Just a couple days ago all they had in their outdoor garden centre were pallets of soil and mulch. Today it was full of trees and plants. It was like stepping into a slice of heaven.

The potted fruit trees were in full blossom and loaded with bumble bees. I wondered if they came with the trees or if they had simply lucked out and spotted them below as they flew through the city. I suspect the latter, since they were in such a happy frenzy. They looked like I felt.

Nature is so miraculous and gardeners get a front row seat. How lucky are we?

Discovering (and Taming) My Inner Garden Grinch

All that beautiful nitrogen laden snow has melted, delivering its magic formula down to the soil and roots that are revving up below.

The Peace Country is infamous for going from winter to summer overnight. The joke among local farmers goes, “Spring came on a Tuesday this year, but I was in town and missed it.”

Fall can be brief as well. Some years the leaves turn colour and then a huge wind sweeps through and knocks them off the trees all in the same week.

For all my defensive chatter about needing to live in a place that gets four seasons and not being able to live somewhere warm all year round, we really only have two seasons…winter and summer. Some years it is more like the nine months of winter and three months of poor sledding that is often joked about. But none of that matters now, for we are about to plant a big ole kiss right on summer’s cheek.

Speaking of cheeks, I once read your garden is ready for planting when you’d be comfortable setting a bare butt cheek on your soil. If I followed that adage I might never plant my garden (!) but I get the wisdom behind it. If your soil feels comfortably warm against your own sensitive skin, then it will be comfortable against the seed’s skin too. I just went out to test the soil (with my hands) in my raised beds and the soil is still a bit cool to the touch, but I am sure it will be warm enough in a day or two.

You can always speed things along with a cold frame or a sheet of poly to get your soil up to a comfortable temperature. Some people have quite deep raised beds and can afford to leave a few inches between the soil surface and the top of the bed frame. This allows room for an easy and instant cold frame simply by laying a sheet of greenhouse coroplast over the top of the bed and weighing it down with bricks. Be sure to remember to remove or at least vent during warm days to avoid frying the plants though! Having extra top space also offers side shelter for baby transplants, with the walls around it acting as a windbreak.

My own raised beds are only a foot deep, so I don’t have enough space. I need to fill them right to the brim. It is still possible to build cold frames that set over top with fancy lids and the whole shebang and we may do that one day. In the meantime, ahem, I have also rented a few deep beds over at the school which look like they are filled to perfection for easy covering.

All the elementary schools in our city have installed gardens in recent years, with beds reserved for the school, students and a few extra for the community besides. It’s a wonderful thing. It is ran by the wonderful people at NEAT (Northern Environmental Action Team). Last I heard, they still had a few beds available at some of the schools as well as at their main community garden, so contact them soon if you’re interested.

The school is a two minute walk from our house, so when I heard there were beds available for rent I couldn’t resist. I am ashamed to admit that at first I hesitated and not because I already have a garden. I was worried the garden would be vandalized or my produce would be stolen by the kids who frequent the playground over the summer.

I was busy thinking of what sort of things I could grow that wouldn’t hold any appeal for the little thieves, when I caught myself. It was like I suddenly stepped outside my own body and started observing my own thoughts. It wasn’t pretty. What kind of person was I ageing my way into being? Why would I even think the children would want to steal anything? A vision of me chasing some poor little kids across the playground while waving a hoe over my head, popped into mind. Good Lord.

What if, instead of being a pessimistic garden grinch, I thought of things I knew kids might like, planted them on purpose and encouraged them to pick things? I imagined growing peas, carrots, strawberries, cherry tomatoes and purple dragon beans (just so I could tell kids the bean’s name should the opportunity arise). Maybe I would add some herbs like lemon balm and lavender for them to pinch off and smell.

I imagined kids eating out of my garden, relishing the sight, the smell and the taste. Maybe one day they would look back on that summer and credit raiding that old lady’s garden at their school with instilling a love of growing and eating fresh vegetables. Maybe they would go on to do something super botanical that would save the world. Or maybe they would simply go on to plant a garden of their own. That would be reward enough.

The thought of growing a garden for the purpose of sharing, instead of hoarding it all for myself, caused my green grinchy heart to grow three sizes that way.

We will see how it goes. And grows. All I know for sure is I am now feeling grateful for the opportunity to be part of our community garden, grateful for my garden at home and crazy grateful for summer!

Not White Rain but Snow with a Capital S

Yesterday I mowed our lawn for the very first time this year. After building numerous garden beds, I have very little lawn left and it would be better environmentally if I had none at all, but I still like a few patches of green.

Our little electric mower sprang to life after a winter in the shed, without so much as a hiccup. When that first waft of fresh cut grass hit me, I almost teared up. I paused and breathed in the scent like a person hovering their nose over a caramel cappuccino. 

That was yesterday.

This morning we woke up to this…

This is NOT white rain. I repeat, NOT white rain. What a difference a day makes. Just to the left of the first plant pot is where I stood breathing in the scent of freshly cut grass less than 24 hours ago.

There is another way to look at it though. As disconcerting as the sight might be, for gardeners it is like someone gifted their yard with a huge dump of free organic nitrogen in the night, just in time for the growing season. How magical is that?

All moisture collects nitrogen as it falls through the atmosphere, but nothing gifts the earth as much as snow on thawed ground. Winter snow tends to run off the frozen earth come spring, taking its nitrogen with it. Light rain collects negligible amounts of nitrogen. Heavy rain, on the other hand, can pick up as much nitrogen as snow, but will usually come down so hard it runs off before any amount has a chance to sink in. An early fall or late spring snow is the best gift of all for growers.

Lightening also packs a load of nitrogen, but has to actually hit your garden in order to deposit it. You might get some nitrogen, but a soft covering of snow is a far less traumatic way to receive some free nutrients.

I admit when I pulled up the blinds this morning my first reaction wasn’t, “Wow! Free nitrogen. Thank you Universe!” and I did feel a tad traumatized. However, once I calmed down, I realized it couldn’t have come at a better time. Next week we are moving consistently into the double digits and out of the freezing zone at nights. Thanks to this snowfall, the garden will be primed and ready for seeding.

So yes, thank you Universe for your timely gift and please accept my sincere apologies for the things I might have said to you this morning.

Peas are going into the ground next week. Can’t wait to get seeding.


White Rain and a Hardening Heart

On the heels of the backyard iceberg finally disappearing, we’ve been experiencing some white rain showers for the last few days. Since it melts as it hits the ground, I see no need to toss the S word around, so I will leave it at that.

It all gets considered though, when figuring out the optimum day to seed the garden. I used to wait for the May long weekend, but that can be way later than necessary. I have learned to take my cue from nature instead of the calendar.

When the dandelions are in full bloom, it is time to put in the cool weather seeds such as peas, carrots, beets, turnips, onion sets and even potatoes. When the trees have leafed out, it is usually safe to put out the tougher transplants, provided they have gone through the hardening off period of being set outside for increasing lengths of time.

Hardening off plants is an important step to a successful garden and one that is a case of do as I say, not as I do. I completely suck at the process. Oh, I start off setting my darlings out on a sheltered porch for a couple of hours before rushing out to anxiously whisk them back inside, just like a good gardener should. But alas, in only a few short days it all falls apart. The darlings are forgotten and accidentally left out for the entire day. Usually before the first week is even over, I get up one morning and remember I forgot to bring them in the night before. The same seedlings I carefully purchased, sowed, labelled, watered, fertilized and fussed over for weeks, are left thoughtlessly abandoned like so much compost.

Of course I rush right out, oh so sorry and full of apologies, but the plants are having none of it. There they are, sitting on the porch, shoulders hunched, looking weary of it all before the season has even properly begun. Some years it is worse. Far worse. I rush out to find frost has had its way with them in the night. You’d think I would learn.

Sometimes spring gets away on me and I end up skipping the hardening off process altogether and just plant them out in the garden straight from the greenhouse or grow lights.

I watched a vlog recently where the gardener said he doesn’t bother with hardening off. He likened his method to taking the plants out in the woods and handing them each a knife and a packet of matches and saying, “Let’s see what you’re made of. I’ll be back in a couple of days to check on you.” As terrible as it sounds, I can identify.

One of the zillion great things about plants, is that they are resilient. They don’t even need knives or matches. They are designed to grow and to produce and will overcome all kinds of crazy odds to make that happen. Don’t think for a second I’m not grateful for that. But it is so much better for all concerned if you do things right and help them along. That is how bumper crops are made.

Maybe this will be the year I harden my plants off properly and they start the year with robust enthusiasm and no need for any disappointed withering glances in my direction. Or knives or match boxes. With age comes wisdom and all that. Unfortunately, with age comes forgetfulness as well. It could go either way really.

So long as the rain stops coming down white, everything should be okay. Sort of.

P.S. This morning the white rain is no longer disappearing as it hits the ground. I am now calling it rain dust. Or rain frosting. But, and this is important, I am still calling it rain.