No Walk in the Park

We are finally getting some real rain. We had an inch yesterday and it is coming down steady again today. It’s a good thing. We need it. I am always amazed at how plants thrive after a rain in a way that never happens when you turn on a hose.

Maybe I need to stick my ankle out in the rain.

On Friday evening Darcy and I went for a walk through a park (or rather we attempted to take a walk through a park) when I stepped in a hole, twisted my ankle and dropped like a sack of potatoes.

What made it even worse, was on Monday I accidentally stepped off the side of the wheelbarrow ramp coming out of our garden shed and twisted the same ankle. However, with the first accident I experienced something of a miracle. After a painful day and evening of icing my bruised and swollen foot, I lurched my way to bed only to wake up pretty much fully healed. I have sprained my ankle several times in the past and have never recovered so quickly.

I was giddy with gratitude.

And then Friday evening we go for a walk, I step in the hole and well, this time there was no overnight miraculous healing to be had. My foot hurt so bad it took a few hours before I realized I had also pulled some chest and shoulder muscles.

THEN on Saturday I was slowly making my way back to the couch with a glass of water when I stubbed the toe of my swollen foot on an end table causing me to lurch across the living room in a flailing display of limbs, my eyes as big as dahlia blossoms. All I could think was I am NOT falling down again. To avoid falling I had to hobble way faster than I thought I could, water wildly splashing from my glass, before regaining my balance just in time to throw myself safely onto the couch. Sweet relief!

Things are never so bad they can’t be worse.

At this point I have no idea what the Universe is trying to tell me.

The good news is I don’t have to water the garden.

Vegetables in Stock Troughs

I have nine stock troughs that I am using for raised vegetable beds and so far it has been going fairly well. Last year I filled the bottom half of the troughs with tree prunings and called it hugelkultur.

Hugelkultur is the practice of planting in soil heaped onto rotting wood to take advantage of the whole composting system that results. I mostly did it to save money. Filling stock troughs with container soil would have been horrifically expensive without some free filler. The tree prunings provided that.

I topped the troughs with soil, making sure to fill all the nooks and crannies. Or so I thought. I found out I didn’t pack it down enough after I lost a few sprouted peas to a sinkhole. One day they were cheerfully checking out their new digs and the next there was just a hole where they had been.

I peered down the hole for the poor little fellows, hoping to somehow to fish them out, but there was no sign of them. I think they made their way to the bottom of the trough. Maybe later in the year they will resurface with a crazy long root system and produce mega peas. Maybe I will have stumbled on a new growing method that provides unbelievable produce and harvests. Maybe. But I doubt it.

The top bit of the troughs dry out fairly fast, so I have been watering pretty much daily. Especially after seeding the carrots. Those tiny seeds and wispy seedlings can dry out so fast, but so far so good.

I planted peas along the back of several troughs and then planted root vegetables in front of them, thinking it would be a clever use of both trough and vertical space. It seems to be working great in the pea and beet trough as well as in the pea and carrot trough shown above.

The two pea and potato troughs are another story.

The peas started off gangbusters but the potatoes soon caught up and are now surpassing them. The peas are flailing about behind the potatoes trying to make their way up the trellis and not looking happy about it. I may try trimming some potato leaves and see if that gives them the jump they need to rise above the spuds.

Some of the peas are making a race of it but others are getting lost behind the potato leaves. Planting them together seemed like a good idea. Time will tell.

I started some spaghetti squash from seed and transplanted some in a trough and some on a mound up bed on the ground and while all of them are craving more heat and looking stressed, the squash in the trough are doing better than the ones in the ground.

Here are four spaghetti squash planted in the ground. The pots are buried in the ground and I water the squash by filling them up and letting the water filter out underground. The pine cones are to deter cats from digging in the garden. Some seem to have gone missing. The cats probably buried them. 😀
The squash in the trough are way happier than the ones planted in the ground. All the squash were started from seed and planted out at the same time. I also planted a couple tomatoes at the back, a couple peppers and a zucchini on either end.

My eggplants, tomatoes, beans and peppers all seem to like life in the the trough as well. It makes sense for these heat lovers, since metal heats up and things are warmer higher off the ground. And if the hugelkultur is working, there should be some heat coming up off the decomposing tree branches below.

So far the cooler crops like cabbage, chard, lettuce, carrots, onions and peas (the peas not being smothered by potatoes or falling into sinkholes) all seem to be doing well, but no better than the ones in the ground. The real test will come as summer heats up.

I have six troughs on this end of the backyard and three along the fence on the other side. You can’t see the other three in this picture. Here I have cabbages inter cropped with onions in the first trough, beans and cucumbers in the middle trough, and celery, chard, lettuce, onions and kale in the third one. Along the back of the shed is the huge trough with the tomatoes, peppers, spaghetti squash and zucchini. Along the side of the shed are two troughs with peas and potatoes. The first one looks pretty puny because of all the shade from the May Day tree. Neither the potatoes or the peas are impressed by her size or shade casting ways. I might fill that one with shade loving flowers next year, or move it altogether.

I realize the look of the troughs aren’t for everyone, but they are long lasting, their height makes them easy to work in and they don’t require any carpentry skills to build, giving you pretty much an instant garden. So far they are working well. Touch wood. Or in this case, metal.

If any of you have been trough gardening for awhile and have some tips to share I’d love to hear them.

Need a Shade Loving Climber? Meet Willy.

I want to create a pocket garden in our backyard. A small oasis I can slip inside of like a green envelope. I want to walk through a narrow opening and enter a space where I can sit in a chair or lay on the grass and cloud gaze, while being completely hidden from view.

The area I have chosen is against the north side of the house, so I am attempting to grow tall things that love shade, grow fast and are hardy to zone 3. I know. It’s going to take a minute.

Last year I started a border on the east side of this future pocket garden. So far I have a goatsbeard (potential to reach 6 feet), a rodgersia (4 foot potential), a bleeding heart (3 feet) and an astilbe (3 feet). Of course none of them will reach anywhere near that height for awhile. These things take time.

On the other side of the future pocket garden are some Hostas and several Lily of the Valley which look (and smell) really nice but, at knee height, do little to screen the garden. There are some hostas, such as Empress Wu that grow to dizzying heights, but the ones I have top out at around two feet.

So to make my pocket garden work, I set up a trellis and went shopping for a shade loving climber.

Imagine my delight when I found a Willy Clematis at Dunvegan Gardens with the following tag around his neck…

Not part sun, not part shade but FULL SHADE. Or full sun. What an adaptable clematis! I rushed home and planted Willy straight away.

Here is Willy on his new trellis. As you can see things are far from private right now, but I have vision. Unfortunately, so do the neighbours.

Please ignore the dandelions. This obviously isn’t a magazine garden. Check out What are Dandelions Good For? Absolutely Everything! if you too sometimes feel a need to apologize for the yellow beauties dotting your lawn.

I have high hopes for Willy, but I am starting to wonder if some mislabelling occurred. None of my online searches for Willy Clematis have backed up the “full shade” claim. All the info I found recommend full sun. Oh well, he’s in the ground now, so we will just have to wait and see.

Grow Willy Grow! I’m rooting for you.

A Brush With Frost

I think (whisper) I have managed to nip through our final brush with frost unscathed. It was a chilly one last night, but fortunately there was also abundant cloud cover and a teeny bit of moisture to coax the plants through the night.

I manoeuvred several containers of tomatoes, nasturtiums and a couple fig trees into the garage, covered what I could and held my breath.

The first thing I did this morning was check out the cucumbers and beans in one of my trough gardens. Neither are at all frost friendly, so I figured if they were still standing the rest of the garden should be as well. To my relief they were still green and vertical on the outside, though no doubt shivering and cursing on the inside.

Speaking of surviving the cold, last year I trialed a Berried Treasure strawberry plant for Proven Winners that offers up deep red blooms instead of the usual white. It is labelled as hardy to zone 4 but it survived the winter in our Zone 2b/3a garden with flying colours. Here is how it looked this morning.

I see they are readily available all over town this year, so I thought I would mention it. I mulched it fairly heavy in the fall and it was in a spot that received a lot of snow that stayed late into the spring, so maybe that helped.

The blooms really are beautiful, making it a fun addition to a potager garden where you are trying to create both beauty and edibles. The only downside is the flavour is nowhere as good as my Seascape, Kent or Honeye berries, but the blossoms are indisputably beautiful.

And here’s a glimpse of the raised raspberry and strawberry beds through a small potato, lettuce and pea patch. I can’t wait to breakfast on fresh raspberries, strawberries or peas in a pod while standing in the garden or to cook up some new potatoes and toss a homegrown salad for supper.

Hopefully everyone escaped the final threat of frost and now we are summer bound for bountiful harvests!

This is Why I Garden

A Peace Country bumblebee on an allium head this morning.

Bumblebees. And earthworms, birds, butterflies, ants, hover flies, ladybugs, bats, rabbits, squirrels, snakes and so much more, including even the deer. These are the reasons I garden.

I pretend my reason for gardening is simply to grow as much of our own groceries as possible, but that’s just my cover story. The real reason I garden is to have an adult excuse to to hang out with nature like a child.

While a huge upsize from our 160 square foot apartment balcony, our 7000 square foot city lot is still a drastic downsize from a life spent mostly in the country. Even so, it boggles my mind how much life there is in this small space.

Whenever I kneel down on the pretence of weeding, all kinds of wonders appear. A small ant packing a seed on its back, a bold chickadee chasing off a crow, a crazy big flock of ladybugs scaling the trunk of the Mayday tree. The exquisite detail of insects are amazing. I always imagine the steady hand of an artist’s brush trying to replicate the dots, stripes, intricate designs and colours of the insects I come across.

Every time I head out to work in the garden, I never know what I will encounter, but I know I will see something worthwhile. At a time when the world feels increasingly fragile, there is huge solace in just watching a bumblebee sipping nectar from an allium blossom. The new potatoes and peas fresh from the pod are just an added bonus for getting to spend time in nature. I suspect a lot of gardeners feel the same.

This is Mr. Bugsy. I made him yesterday using a metal bowl. The same bowl I bought while we were still living in the apartment. I wrote about it before. It was on the discount cart at Winners and I loved the quirkiness of it, even though I had no clue what to do with it.

The bowl was too big to set on a table, the holes were too large to successfully hold anything and it wouldn’t even fit on top of a cupboard for decor. I didn’t know what to do with it. No one did. Which is probably why it was on the discount cart. One Christmas I filled it with ornamental balls and hung it on the wall.

I had to slap it onto the nail lightening fast to avoid losing the balls. When I took it down I was less successful. Balls went flying and rolling all over the floor. The poor neighbours below us!

Since moving to the house, the bowl has been in storage. I loved it too much to get rid of it, but still didn’t know what to do with it. At one point I spray painted the silver brown for a project that didn’t pan out.

And then the idea for a bug hotel against the fence came along. I stuffed the bowl with twigs, pine cones, old wooden plant stakes, tree trimmings etc. and hung it on the fence.

Later I found the “face” I had bought years ago, thinking it would look cute on a tree (which is what it is meant for) but then the idea of hammering nails into a tree to hang the eyes, nose and mouth from, seemed like a very bad idea for the tree. I kept them anyway, thinking I would find a use for them and so they were relegated to the “going to use some day but not sure for what” corner, along with the metal bowl. And that is how Mr. Bugsy was born. A cedar shake on top of his head serves to divert rain from falling inside the ball. It will be fun to see what sort of insects take up residence in Mr. Bugsy’s head.

Okay, time to get back to work. And by work I mean gardening. And by gardening I mean weeding, watering and checking out Mr. Bugsy’s head for new arrivals.

The Crazy Watering Can Lady

You don’t get two dump truck loads of soil tipped onto your front lawn without attracting some attention. People walking by, as I work in the front yard, often call out something along the lines of, “Looks like someone enjoys gardening!”

I feel accepted in our cul-de-sac as The Lady Who Gardens. People smile, wave, share their own gardening endeavours, both past and present, or even enquire about certain plants. Some may think I’m quirky or obsessed, but in a harmless sort of way. Not in a grab-the-children-and run-inside kind of way.

Well, until yesterday.

Up until yesterday every trip to the school community garden involved seeds, transplants, garden tools, stakes etc. making it necessary to take the car, despite it only being a couple blocks from our house.

Last night, for the first time, I prepared to go over to the school with nothing more than my watering cans. The gardens have a couple water tanks but no shed or spot to stow any sort of garden stuff. I grabbed my watering cans from the backyard, walked through to the front, said hello to a couple neighbours who were outside, and then headed off down the street.

As I went on my way, all conversation between the neighbours behind me stopped. As conversations are wont to do when someone comes into their front garden packing a pair of watering cans, tosses out a cheerful hello and then continues on across the street and down the sidewalk without so much as a backwards glance.

Not one but two vehicles went by as I made my way down the sidewalk. I noticed that both drivers did a double take and stared at me. One had a passenger who looked at me and laughed.

I wondered if I had forgot to brush my hair or something. It happens. Then it dawned on me that walking down a city street carrying a pair of watering cans could be considered a tad odd.

I thought about the neighbours falling silent in my wake and wondered what they had thought. Did they think I was so addicted to gardening the watering cans were like a token of security for me? That things had escalated to a point where I couldn’t even go for a walk without carrying some sort of gardening paraphernalia for comfort? Or maybe they thought I was so used to packing garden stuff around I had somehow forgot I was carrying it at all. Or that I was simply losing my mind, gardener style.

I decided I would casually wave my watering cans at the neighbours upon my return and call out, “Been over at the school watering some beds I rented.” That should clear things up.

Alas, even though I hurried, when I got back home there was nary a neighbour in sight. Obviously they had grabbed their family members, rushed inside, locked the doors and were going over strategies on how to handle any future encounters with The Crazy Watering Can Lady. Because that’s my name now.

I considered knocking on their doors and explaining why I had headed off down the street carrying watering cans, but that seemed even crazier.

There was only one sensible thing left to do.

Move.

When I explained it all to Darcy he suggested that maybe, just maybe, no one really cared why I was wandering the neighbourhood with watering cans in hand. Furthermore, it was possible I worried too much what others thought.

So we’re not moving after all, and I have decided I will continue to pack my watering cans down the street to the gardens, because driving a vehicle two blocks, while at the same time trying to grow more of our own groceries to lessen our footprint, really would be crazy.

Right?

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!