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!

 

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!