A Sweet Surprise

I have tried to grow sweet potatoes several times over my many years of gardening, but with little success. Once I harvested a handful out of a half whiskey barrel in a greenhouse, but that was it.

I tried starting my own slips from organic store bought potatoes that were probably terrible variety choices for our northern climate. That didn’t work out at all. Twice I ordered slips from Nova Scotia to be shipped clear across Canada because the variety was supposed to be cold climate friendly. Or as cold climate friendly as a heat loving sweet potato can get.

Unfortunately the first time the slips arrived they were put into our rural group mailbox located about a mile from our house during a week where the nighttime temperatures were dropping below zero. More unfortunately, I didn’t always pick up the mail on the same day it was delivered. The 12 precious slips camped out in the mailbox for at least one entire night and maybe as many as three.

They may have been suited for a colder climate, but not that kind of a colder climate. I tried to revive them but it was all for naught. The next year I tried again, this time picking up the mail every single mail day morning without fail. That was the year I managed to harvest a handful from the whiskey barrel. And then we moved.

I don’t have a greenhouse (yet) at our new (to us) house so I didn’t bother ordering any slips.

And yet…I have a sweet potato all the same!

When I went out to the compost bin today I spotted this poking out of a tiny slit in the side of the bin…

Here’s a look at the whole bin…you can just make out the leaves poking out two ridges down on the right.

It’s been awhile, but I am ninety percent sure it is a sweet potato. It must have hatched out of a peel that got tossed into the compost.

So now it’s a bit of a dilemma. The bin is full and has been cooking at full throttle for about a week, but in the last few days it has slowly started cooling down.

I know this because I have one of those garden nerd compost thermometers that look exactly like something you would use if you were cooking a turkey for a giant. It has a button thermometer attached to a foot long steel skewer that you insert into the bin. The thermometer shows when the compost is in the cooking zone, when it is hot and when it is cold.

My compost just tickled the underside of getting hot before it started falling back down into the cooking zone. This means it is time to fork the compost about, give it a few turns and put it all back in to heat up and cook some more.

But then out sprouts what I think is a sweet potato leaf.

I love sweet potatoes. Obviously. Which is how so many peels got into the compost in the first place and why I keep trying to grow them.

So now I am thinking if I just leave it alone it might like growing in the compost bin. It’s certainly warm enough, and even as it cools down the black walls should keep the roots nice and cozy without frying them. Since it has popped out fairly high up the bin, that would allow for all kinds of potatoes to grow below.

However, if I want to make a few batches of compost this summer I need to turn the contents often and hurry things along so I have enough compost to amend all my beds in the fall.

So which do I want more…sweet potatoes maybe or compost for certain?

I am not a gambler and my motto has always been a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but I think I will take a chance on this one. I will just have to start another compost bin/pile elsewhere.

Who knows? Maybe by chance my compost bin has discovered a whole new way to grow sweet potatoes in the north without a greenhouse.

Fingers crossed.

A Snip, Snip Here and a Sorry, Sorry There

I can’t believe I am espaliering fruit trees along our backyard fence, but there they are and so it is.

Just as I am bothered by animals in cages, the idea of tying a tree to a wall, whacking off most of its limbs and torturing its branches to bend in directions it would never naturally go on its own used to repulse me. Yet here I am doing it.

It gets worse.

I could say I am doing it because we have less than 7000 square feet which includes the house, garage, sidewalk and driveway, so growing space is at a premium. Espalier allows a gardener intent on growing as much of their own food as possible to pack in a crazy amount of fruit trees in a small area.

I could also say that espalier boosts productivity, fruit size and (this one surprised me) actually extends the life and increases the health of the tree. I have learned there are espalier gardens that are centuries old where the trees continue not only to survive, but thrive, producing crop after abundant crop, while suffering none of the blights experienced by their wilder siblings.

I could say all these things and they would all be true, but it wouldn’t be the whole truth of why I chose to espalier.

Turns out, I love to prune.

Here’s an image of an espalier from Pinterest https://pin.it/dxhiweefauorvh

I am not sure why my newly discovered penchant for pruning makes me feel slightly ashamed. It’s not as if I am confessing to being a serial killer or something. It’s just that for so many years I let things grow wild by choice. I rarely pruned anything. I hated to even thin the carrot beds and not just because it was a tedious job. I liked to think of myself as more of a helpful observer in my garden than a controller. If you asked me what I thought of people who espaliered I probably would have been less than kind in my response.

Then we moved to this urban lot and I felt forced to prune out some trees branches that were either crossing the property lines or causing issues with our house or driveway. First I reluctantly tackled some lilacs, then the mountain ash and finally our apple, birch and maple.

I took out all the branches that were dead, then ones that crossed over and rubbed on other branches and finally ones that took away from the overall shape of the tree. I discovered there is this moment when you are pruning where you can actually feel the tree start to “breathe”. The air circulates through the branches and everything looks and feels so much healthier and you can see the shape it wants to take. You can almost sense the tree thanking you.

After their pruning, the trees looked so much healthier. I liked how that felt but I also loved the process that got them there. If I were 20 years younger and not so afraid of heights, I would go into training to become an arborist. I love it that much.

I starting wandering around the yard with my pruning shears like a hairdresser gone wild, just looking for something, anything, to prune.

This is the perniciousness of the urban garden. It demands attention but then gives you very little to pay attention to.

If you have a busy life and a young family this is a good thing. You can whip around for a couple hours on a Saturday morning mowing, weeding and trimming and get all the yard work for the week finished and still have a weekend to call your own.

If you’re a gardener whose idea of a great weekend IS yard work, then it can be a bit of a let down. The good news is that it is nothing a few dump trucks of soil on your front and back lawn can’t take care of. Throw in a few high maintenance perennials and lots of beds that need constant edging, weeding and deadheading and all is right with the weekend world of the urban gardener once again.

Or you can sprain your ankle and let the garden get ahead of you that way, but I don’t recommend it. But enough about that.

If you are a gardener who has developed a pruning habit and find yourself wandering your lot with a pair of pruners, looking wistfully over the fence at your neighbour’s trees, well, you just might be interested in espalier gardening.

As soon as I read how espalier trees require lots of detailed pruning, I knew I needed to have some. And that is how I came to have a plum, an apple and a pear tree spread-eagling their way along a couple rubber coated wires on our back fence.

You can buy fruit trees specifically for this purpose that have already been prepped for espalier wires, but I did no such thing. Instead I bought trees that were already too tall to allow for any lower branches to weave their way along the fence. This is not ideal.

On the other hand, it allows me to plant smaller fruit trees of a different type and by pruning so they remain short, I can run their branches beneath the others, on a lower wire, further maximizing my space, food production and crop variety.

And so here I am, happily bending, tweaking, pruning and well, generally torturing encouraging things along. I have no idea if any good will come of it. All I can say for certain is I am being as gentle as I possibly can, I haven’t killed any of the trees yet and if an enthusiasm for pruning mixed with whispered apologies count as fertilizer, they should start growing like crazy soon. I hope.

Right now my own espalier shape is nowhere near as fancy as those shown above. It is simply sparse and somewhat horizontal. I also have grapes, clematis and Virginia creeper climbing up the fence, so I am hoping for a kind of a hodgepodge mix of blossoms, fruit, branches and vines that somehow add up to a wild, beautiful but carefully pruned whole.

Time will tell if it is a success or a rousing failure.

On that note, I leave you with one of my favourite garden quotes.

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!