The Efficiency Garden

One shovel at a time can move a mountain…or a pile of soil. It took me a week but it is finally done!

Ten yards of soil – the equivalent of 90 full wheelbarrow loads – have been ferried about the property and the driveway is empty once again.

We went from this….

To this…

Back to this…

I not only filled the five new beds…

I had enough left over to top up all the other beds and (was there ever any doubt?) create several more smallish beds here and there!

I made some narrow beds along the west backyard fence for more peas and we moved the compost bin to the other side of the yard, freeing up a sunny space behind the shed for a raspberry bed.

You can’t really see it, but there is another 16 foot livestock panel for peas on the other side of the stock troughs as well. I love these panels. I have never found anything that works better for peas to climb up.

But oh, look at that pathway! What a trampled, muddy, mess. I would love to put some flagstone along there, but one thing at a time. As it were, we kept leap frogging about on our projects this week.

In the middle of moving all the soil, Darcy put a couple windows in our garden shed.

It went from this…

To this…

And finally to this!

The lines in the raised bed are vermiculite. I sprinkled it on top of the carrot seeds both to help keep them moist until they germinate and so I know where they are, since they are so slow to poke their little heads up.

Now it feels a bit more like a potting shed with the added bonus that I am no longer left groping around in the dark when the wind blows the door shut.

With Darcy having his table saw etc set up in the backyard while he installed the windows, and me weaving my way around with the wheelbarrow, the yard felt more than a tad cramped.

Notice how Darcy has his music headphones set on “spouse mode”. One ear exposed so as not to miss out on any of my helpful and welcome observations.

At one point, as I was weaving my way through the maze, my somewhat loud observation was that our yard was perhaps starting to look more than a bit ridiculous.

“You can barely move, it’s nothing but garden beds everywhere. Our yard is way too small for all of this.”

“It’s not too small,” said Darcy. “It’s an efficiency garden.”

Now I can’t get “efficiency garden” out of my head. It makes me smile. I definitely have a step saver efficiency garden.

And for better or worse, this little piece of ground is starting to grow on me.

It’s Arrived!

If there is a more exciting sound than the hiss of air brakes in one‘s driveway on a spring morning, well, I don’t know what it is.

The sound catapulted me out of the shed where I was busy organizing my tools, trellises, containers and other such things.

My truckload of soil had arrived!

It was all I could do not to hug the driver and dance around the driveway with him for a bit, but Covid 19 and, well, not wanting to scare him off from making any such deliveries in the future.

Instead I settled for politely waving from the porch like a grown up and then doing a happy walk around the pile after he left.

There is nothing like fresh soil to get one’s dreams (and wheelbarrow) rolling!

When Growing Small means Growing Big…or something like that.

Trying to grow the equivalent amount of food I once grew in the country, but on a small city lot might seem like a fool’s mission, but I think it is possible. For me at least. And I don’t mean because I am extra gifted at growing food, because I most certainly am not.

With my gardens in the country I was always in expanding, moving, planning, developing mode. That meant things got spread, not only far and wide, but thin. It was a challenge to keep up with it all. Beans, peas and zucchini often got too big before getting picked, meaning a loss in taste as well as in potential harvest. With so many vegetables the more frequently they are picked while still at their prime, the more they will produce. Miss that window and both taste and harvest diminishes.

Other things suffered from neglect. With three separate garden spots and a busy life, things often got overlooked. Plants wilted before I noticed they needed watering and not all beds got topped up with compost before each growing season. Sometimes weeds got away on me and sucked up valuable water and nutrients meant for vegetables instead. Other things bolted and went to seed before I noticed. I could go on, but you get the picture.

And with having so much space to spare, I often (and by often I mean always) fell to the temptation of trying to grow things that were never meant to be grown in our northern climate. Entire beds were given over to these ne’er do well experiments that always started off in great bursts of optimism, only to end in predictable disaster, providing only fodder for the compost pile. Still, it was worth it for the hope and fun that inspired the planting.

Despite all of this, I always somehow managed to fill our freezer, pantry and cold room simply because I planted a lot of vegetables, rather than because I was a savvy grower or harvester.

Of course, most gardeners do a much better job and would have likely needed only a third of the space to achieve the same harvest. And that’s precisely why I think I can grow as much on our city lot as I did on the farm. And it’s also why I may have been better off growing a smaller garden really well, even when we lived in the country, but that’s neither here nor there.

Right now I am here, not there. What I lack in space I hope to make up for with dedication, attention and decades of experience, such as it is.

When your yard is tiny, no plant goes unnoticed and even keeping up with weeds is a breeze. Well, maybe not a breeze exactly, but doable anyway. Everything I water is within reach of a single length of hose. Moreover, I quickly hit a fence or curb whenever I start hatching up any distracting expansion projects and am therefore forced to focus solely on what I already have going on in the ground.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t any expansion projects left to be hatched. I mean, good heavens, that’s just crazy talk! A gardener always has projects to be hatched. Otherwise what we would do all winter? However, the scope of any future projects are far more limited and far less distracting than when I had 60 acres of potential ground to work with. So again, my main focus will be on my small garden instead.

For all these reasons, and probably more that I haven’t even thought of yet, I think my garden will be just as, if not more, productive.

Or that’s the hope anyway! There is never a more optimistic time for a garden and its gardener, than in the spring.

Which is just as it should be.

Our Lower Vegetable Garden in the country in June 2012. The hay mulch kept in moisture, added nutrients and helped smother the weeds aka Ruth Stout Method!

Garden School for Life

One of the many things that keep me engaged in gardening is the endless opportunity for learning.

No matter how many springs you have sown seeds or started transplants, there are always new lessons to be learned. A lot of these lessons come from brand new gardeners who approach gardening with fresh eyes and no preconceived ideas of how it should or should not be done. Wonderful things can result.

A great example of this was Mel Bartholomew who invented the square foot gardening method. He took up gardening after retiring from a life’s work as an engineer. He wondered why city gardeners grew vegetables in narrow rows with wide paths instead of in wide raised beds and narrow paths to maximize space and production and voila! Square foot gardening was born.

With so many people taking a new interest in gardening, I can’t wait to see what will come out of it next. While gleaning advice from seasoned gardeners is invaluable, never be afraid to ask questions, push boundaries and experiment. You never know what you might invent!

Speaking of experienced gardeners, Charles Dowding is one of my go-to garden gurus. He gently questions the dogma of companion planting and rotating crops and advocates for no dig gardening. He theorizes that if you take care of amending the top of the soil, just as nature does, everything else will take of it itself.

He also transplants beets, which blows my mind. I watched this vlog and was impressed enough to try sowing a few into seed trays this year for the first time. I am stuck enough in my ways to hold back and sow the other half the same way I always have…by soaking the seed for 24 hours and then direct sowing into the beds and thinning to a couple inches apart when they pop up. We will see which method works best for me. It is these sorts of experiments that have kept me fascinated with the whole garden process for decades.

Right now I am anxiously awaiting the delivery of a load of garden soil so I can fill my new beds and top up the old ones. It takes time for the winter piles to thaw out. Gardening is also a teacher of patience.

While I’ve been waiting, I painted the outside of the raised beds. Painting the inside would keep the wood from rotting as fast, but it also might leach unwanted chemicals into the soil, so I just leave the insides naked. There are eco friendly paint or stain choices you could use, but what with the pandemic and all, I simply used what I already had.

And what I already had was a gallon of exterior gloss black paint!

I’ve seen black raised beds trending on pinterest and they can look kind of pretty, especially when contrasted with all the green growing things inside them. I also have a lot of black containers that will match. Still, black seems a bit of a somber choice, especially at a time where perhaps cheerful colours might be more welcome. Like hot pink or sunshine yellow or, well, anything other than black. But black is what I had and black is what it is!

I’m thinking black will likely absorb more heat from the sun and in our cold climate that should be a good thing. A better experiment would have been to paint at least one raised bed white to see if it makes any difference. There is an older bed to the left painted a light brown that might offer a clue, if I resist painting it black to match the rest. However, anyone who has ever suffered through the protocols of a school science experiment could see that the size, location, depth etc would be too variable to be conclusive.

We’ll see.

I say that a lot when it comes to gardening. That, and “next year” and “I wonder when the soil will arrive.”

Wishing you all a hopeful spring. Stay safe.

Flash Sale!

I just want to state right at the outset, that I have no affiliation with Storey.com whatsoever, but I am always stalking them for their flash sales. If you are an e-book reader it is a cheap way to build up your garden e-library.

I see they have one of my all-time favourite books on flash sale right now for just $2.99. Despite already having a hard copy AND an e-copy I was so excited I almost tried to buy another one. Ha. Anyway, I thought I would pass it along here in case anyone was interested. Just click on the book and it should take your straight to the site.

The only issue I have now with The Backyard Homestead, is our lot isn’t even a quarter of an acre – the land base starting point for self sufficiency in the book. However, since I’m not trying to raise any animals, I have plenty room to grow most of our vegetables and some fruit. This book is a treasure trove of information on how much to plant. It is always amazing what you can cram into small spaces when you put your mind to it!

Signs of Spring and Leca Balls

My houseplants are always the first to tell me when spring is near. Nature is so miraculous that way. I can’t understand how indoor plants know it is time to kick the grow cycle into a higher gear, but they do.

They coast their way along through the winter, with me doing my best not to overwater. Weeks go by with scarcely a change. Then suddenly they start sucking back the drinks like crazed pirates who have been at sea for three months with no rum. I can’t seem to water them often enough. New shoots burst out, they are constantly dry and the growth spurt is on.

How does that work? I have most of them under a grow light which still goes on before first light and stays on until well past dark, so it isn’t the lengthening days. I haven’t even increased the amount of nutrients they get. Most are tropical plants who wouldn’t even experience winter and spring in their natural environment, and yet, they still know growing season has arrived in The Peace.

I thanked my houseplants for the heads up, and proceeded to start my onions. I never have a lot of luck growing big storage onions, but it doesn’t stop me from trying. This year I sowed three varieties I haven’t tried before; Hybrid Genesis, Alisa Craig and Exhibition Hybrid. Fingers crossed.

I also directly sow onion bulbs in the spring, which can always be counted on for small onions and greens, but what I want are tennis ball-sized storage ones that last most of the winter. Maybe this will be the year!

Last fall I changed over all my houseplants from potting soil to leca clay balls. You can buy them by the 50 kg sack, though they also come in smaller bags. They remind of moose turds, Fortunately just by look, not feel. Not that I have ever touched a moose turd…but I am seriously digressing.

Here’s what they look like…

The balls are about an inch around or so and very porous. They absorb water, but also allow roots to breathe. You arrange them under and around a plant’s roots just as you would potting soil, then you just put a pot that drains inside of a decorative catch pot and keep the bottom couple inches filled with water, fortified with nutrients. It has made a huge difference as far as aphids and other little critters go. My houseplants have spent a pest free winter, which I am sure they appreciate. They seem happy and healthy enough.

I also love that the balls can be reused indefinitely, so unlike potting soil, they will never need replacing. It makes me feel much better than repeatedly buying bags of potting soil and then having all the plastic to contend with, not to mention shipping emissions, peat, etc. This way it is once and done. If a plant dies you can simply take out the plant and reuse the balls for another.

The only big drawback is the cost. I think I paid about thirty-five dollars for a large bag, but two were enough to change over all my houseplants with a generous amount left over. They have some at Dunvegan here in Fort St John, but it is likely available in lots of other places as well.

This year I am even trying to start my garden seeds using leca. The obvious problem is the balls are large and the seeds are tiny and they will just tumble around and slide to the bottom. This winter I managed to successfully start a couple Holy Basils from seed, by pulverizing some leca balls and using the dust to create a solid layer above the clay balls, and sowing the seed into that. However, smashing the balls up wasn’t easy. I eventually put the balls in a bag, placed the bag on the garage floor and took a hammer to it, but those little suckers are determined to stay in one piece.

For my spring seeding, I decided to compromise by buying a bag of vermiculite and spreading an inch or so on top of the leca balls and sowing my onion seeds into that. I am not sure how it will go come transplanting time, but we will see.

Nothing is up yet, but then again, it has only been about three hours. Ha.

I am holding off on starting my tomatoes for a couple more weeks, as I always seem to do it too soon and then they are way too desperate for the outdoors long before its time to go out, sort of like me. It would be different if you were seeding heirlooms with long maturity dates or had a greenhouse, but since I have to plant mine outdoors I need varieties that mature quickly in northern climates. All that said, I will likely cave and seed them soon. And by soon, probably by the end of the day!

Change

I follow several blogs and vlogs. It can be a bit disconcerting when one just stops posting new stuff without any explanation.

Did they die? Were they kidnapped? Inhaled by an alien? Did they fall on the sidewalk, hit their head and lose their way back to their keyboard? Are they out there even now, just wandering the streets, with no idea who they are or what they used to do with their free time? When content stops coming, you are simply left to wonder your wonders. But I get it. Life happens.

The last post I wrote was in July 2019 when I promised to show pictures of the potatoes in our front yard the very next week. And then I never posted again. Until now. While I highly doubt anyone has been missing me or giving a second thought to not getting to see those promised pictures of the potager potato patch, I apologize nonetheless.

Darcy retired at the end of July and we spent the rest of the summer doing a raft of home renos and regrouping. We are currently in a stage of “what now” and “what next.” While the exit from the business that had consumed our lives for the better part of three decades was very intentional, there was not a lot of thought given as to what would happen afterwards. We still aren’t sure.

Will we move yet again? Stay put? Start a new venture? There’s a lot to consider as we head into the latter stage of our lives. All I can say for certain is wherever life takes us (or doesn’t) there will be a garden. I hope.

But enough of all that. Here, six months late, is a picture of those potatoes!

The potatoes are in the middle bed. There ended up being a decent harvest. Decent enough we are still eating potatoes from the garden in January. Well, we are actually eating potatoes from storage in the garage, not from the garden, but you know what I mean. It’s January in the Peace Country after all.

As for the community garden, I only got two hills worth of new potatoes before someone made off with every single spud. All 34 hills. At once. I couldn’t believe it.

I’ve participated in several community gardens over the years, though this was my first in this particular location. When you grow vegetables in an open and easily accessible communal space, you expect to lose some of your produce. It’s simply par for the course. However, I wasn’t expecting to lose it all. It was so shocking it was kind of funny.

Our summer walks often take us past the school and its community gardens and that’s what we were doing when we discovered the loss.

As we strolled by, we both automatically looked over at my four garden beds and were stopped in our tracks at the sight-or lack thereof-of potato tops. On closer inspection the tops had all been neatly piled in a heap at one end of the four freshly dug up beds.

At least I got two massive garbage bags worth of compost ingredients for my bins. Ha.

They even made off with the cabbages and chard. The only thing left was one lonely cabbage plant and that was just because it had a wee half-formed head. When I cleaned up the potato tops I considered pulling up the tiny cabbage out of spite, but I just couldn’t do it.

A week later the cabbage-still small but apparently deemed big enough for the soup pot-was gone as well. All I could do was laugh and hope whoever took everything needed it more than us. And who knows, maybe the taste of home grown vegetables will inspire them to grow their own garden this year and in turn change their lives. It could happen.

The new garden season has officially begun with the arrival of seed catalogues. Despite not being sure where life will take us next, I will still be planting a few seeds. Though probably not in the community garden.