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.

I’ve Got Worms

I’ve had worms for just over a year now. Okay, that doesn’t sound right. What I mean to say is that a year ago my sister gave me worms. Wait, that doesn’t sound right neither.

The worms I have are red wigglers and they live in my coat closet.

There. That sounds much better.

I think.

When we first moved from the country into our apartment, friends joked about how I was going to keep goats, chickens and bees on our balcony. I laughed, but there was a small part of me that tried to work out the logistics in my head.

Okay, obviously goats were out of the question…though Strata rules do allow for one small pet. But keeping a goat in an apartment would just be cruel. And not just for the goat. Chickens wouldn’t be any kinder. Or less messy.

But bees…a hive of bees could be very happy on a balcony. For several weeks plans buzzed about in my head. Plans that would have given the Strata Council a collective stroke had they known about them. I figured I could conceal at least one hive in the corner of our balcony and no one would even notice. You see rooftop hives in cities all the time. A hive on a rooftop, a hive on a balcony…tomato tomahto, right?

After harvest, I would show up at a council meeting bearing a basket filled with jars of honey as a thank you for the bees no one even knew were there. With a jar of fresh honey in hand and perhaps a few candles, my future as an apartment dwelling beekeeper would be ensured. Or so the fantasy went.

In the end I settled on a hive of worms in our coat closet, otherwise known as a worm factory. Far less likelihood of controversy or lawsuits.

I comforted myself with the fact there are a lot of similarities between a worm factory and a beehive.

Here are some of the hives I had when we were in the country.


And here is the worm compost “hive” aka Worm Factory that I have stowed in the closet.

See what I mean? Of course the harvest is used for different purposes and comes from opposite ends. Bees fill a little pouch inside with nectar and then cough up the golden, gooey product we know and love as honey. So yes, essentially honey is bee vomit. Sort of.

Worms, on the other hand, digest kitchen scraps and squeeze out a black, tarry, substance we know and love as worm compost. Which is just fancy speak for worm poop. No sort of. That is exactly what it is. Black poop.

Both are lovely products. Both are great for tea. Honey for sweetening and compost for growing a bumper crop of tea herbs. See? Same thing, only different.

As bees fill the frames in their hives you add on another super of frames as needed.

As worms fill each layer of their worm factory you add on another frame as needed.

Again, exactly the same, only different.

Both bees and worms are equally fascinating. I loved having the bees around as much for watching as for the honey they produced.

I feel the same fascination working with the worms.

Without a compost bin to take my table scraps out to, I appreciate being able to recycle table scraps into valuable soil for my houseplants and balcony garden rather than adding to the landfill. Watching the speed with which the worms consume a cantaloupe is amazing.  Last year I even got enough of a harvest to add a healthy scoop of their black gold to the transplanting holes at my Community Garden. A little goes a very long way.

You can buy a great looking worm factory from Veseys in PEI or on Amazon or you can take in a few YouTube videos and learn how to make your own out of plastic totes. The worms themselves can be a bit more difficult to source. I was lucky enough to get a small margarine tub of “starter worms” from my sister who has been keeping her own Worm Factory going for years. For a successful worm farm you want red wigglers that thrive in the top few inches of soil and have voracious appetites suitable for creating worm compost; not the earthworms that are native to the Peace.

Unlike bees that hibernate over winter, an indoor worm farm will keep you entertained all year round. Depending, of course, on your idea of entertainment.

Cute worm cartoon


Bears on the Balcony?

In all the years we lived on the farm we only had a bear problem after I did three stupid things; well four I guess, but whose counting?

The first stupid thing was making homemade apple juice and burying the pulp in a trench in the garden. I thought I was experimenting with “composting in place” but turned out I was actually experimenting with “what will a black bear do when he smells apple pulp in my garden?”

Answer – the bear will drop everything he is doing and come to the garden to dig up the apple pulp. When the human shows up in the garden only one of them will scream and act startled (hint: not the bear).


The second stupid thing I did was move our compost bin from its moose-fenced lower garden enclosure to up by the house for “convenience”. The first few times I found vegetable scraps strewn about and the lid to the bin tossed open I blamed the wind. Or rodents. It was neither. Yup, it was a bear.


Two hives with greenhouse in background


The third stupid thing was storing honey supers in an unlocked shed, though in my defence I had no idea a bear could figure out how to open the door. Though I guess thinking that way just adds up to more stupid.

The fourth thing was not replacing our dog friends when they eventually got old and passed away.

A quiet yard filled with tasty treats is a bear friendly yard. Or as the saying goes, there are no problem bears, just problem humans.

teddy bears picnic

One evening I looked outside and there was the bear carefully peeling the coroplast off our greenhouse. He had his head and most of his shoulders inside before my clapping and yelling scared him off. If you can call slowly pulling his head out of the greenhouse, studying me for several irritated seconds and then sighing and finally ambling towards the woods “scaring off.”

I was so freaked out I made Darcy stand guard while I pulled up all the tomato plants, harvesting what I could and getting rid of the rest. In the days that followed I harvested everything outside the fence. I was a vegetable plucking madwoman. I didn’t see the bear again, so I don’t know if he finally gave up on us after having all his dining choices struck from the menu or if his lack of fear got him into trouble with a gun toting neighbour.

At least living in a Condo means I can grow tomatoes on the balcony without worrying about attracting bears…right? Right? Wrong.

Check out this link to a CBC video about a black bear scaling an apartment building in Whistler in search of tomatoes.


A co-worker spotted a black bear crossing the highway a couple weeks ago near Baldonnel, so these critters are already venturing out in the Peace. Keep your garbage and compost contained and your tomatoes…well, I guess we have a few months before we need to worry about those.

Compost Happens

“My whole life has been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that lets you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first compost heap. I love compost and I believe that composting can save not the entire world, but a good portion of it.” –Bette Midler, in a Los Angeles Times interview

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I have been busy filling my compost bins for winter. I have one of those three bin structures where the idea is to always have one finished, one cooking and one being filled. Unfortunately, the bins were situated far from the house and neglected. In the fall I would fill them with garden waste and in the spring I would lift the lid and discover…dried up garden waste. To make matters worse, the bins faced west and the wicked winter winds were forever blowing the lids open with such force it was wrecking the hinges. This despite using three concrete blocks—the kind people often couple with planks to make shelving—plunked one on top of each bin. One of the bins wasn’t used for compost at all, but a pseudo garden shed. Plant pots, buckets and stakes and all manner of garden paraphernalia were routinely shoved inside. All in all, it was a very sorry and unproductive state of affairs.

This fall we hauled the bin up to the new garden closer to the house and almost overnight I became a compost queen. Instead of tossing potato tops and pea vines into the bins willy-nilly, I actually followed instructions. I carefully built my layers of browns and greens. I scurried back and forth collecting straw, manure, sheep bedding, leaves, old grain and anything else that came to mind. I buzzed about with my loaded wheelbarrow like a worker bee, muttering fascinating things such as “Aha! Some greens! More browns, I need more browns.”

Creating compost is often likened to making a cake. If you were baking a cake you wouldn’t dump in a cup of flour, wait a month before adding an egg, and then leave the bowl on the counter for another few weeks before pouring in some milk and expect to get something edible. It’s the same thing with cooking compost. If you want the compost to “cook” so it will kill off any pathogens or weed seed you need to gather your ingredients together and layer them all at once being sure to sprinkle each layer with water as you go. When you’re done you close the lid and leave it to cook. I walked away from the pile in the same way I walk away from a cake in the oven; with a dollop of doubt that it will actually turn out.

Three days after filling the first bin the magic began. The mixture actually began to heat up. Lifting the lid one cool morning I was greeted by drops of moisture raining down from the inside of the lid and a faceful of rising steam. I shoved my hand into the mix and felt the building heat with the kind of giddy excitement most women reserve for a shoe sale.

When Darcy arrived home from work I pounced on him and said, “I don’t suppose you want to come out to the garden with me and feel my compost pile?”

As the long suffering husband of a rabid gardener, Darcy is used to being dragged out to the garden to look at freshly hatched flowers, unique seed heads or a loaded berry bush. This, however, was the first time he had been asked to share my enthusiasm over manure and apple cores. To his credit, Darcy set down his lunch kit, postponed supper and the ball game on TV and followed me out to the compost bin. He bravely plunged his hand through the layers into the depths and agreed that things were definitely heating up. A few days later he even bought me a leaf sucker for my birthday. What a guy!

Now my bins are full and steaming and I have moved on to open piles. The whole idea of bins is to disguise what would otherwise be viewed as an ugly sight. With no neighbours nearby I have gone a different route. I have carefully positioned my compost pile so I can see it from the house. The idea of sipping my morning tea while watching steam rising off the compost thrills me. That’s weird, I know. Last week I even bought a compost thermometer and a moisture meter. I am now officially a garden geek. The thermometer is just like one you use for testing a turkey only longer. As I check my compost, prepare more batches and vacuum the forest for leaves it’s as if I am nature’s housewife getting ready for a banquet. And in a way I am. A banquet of plants that will arrive with hungry roots come spring. I can’t wait. In the meantime I really should be vacuuming the house and doing some cooking for Thanksgiving and the human company it brings. Just one more bag of leaves…

Side note…

I picked up a copy of Composting for Canada by Suzanne Lewis at Dunvegan Gardens in Grande Prairie and it has quickly become my compost bible. It covers everything from hot and cold composting to vermicomposting, bokashi buckets and more with simple easy instructions and lots of pictures. Jam packed with great ideas for making your own compost and fertilizers over winter in your own home. It even convinced me to start a worm bin (vermicomposting) of my own…but I’ll save that story for another post!

Here’s what the compost book looks like in case you’re interested in grabbing a copy of your own…