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!

 

Whose Grousing Now?

I am a bit OCD with my bird feeding. Every feeder gets a measured cupful as this seems to be just the right amount. Any less and the birds are hanging around looking hungry, any more and seed gets scattered EVERYWHERE and this drives me to distraction.

It’s not just an aesthetics thing, though it is partly that. I worry about attracting mice, or encouraging birds to spend time on the deck where they might fall prey to the neighbourhood cats that prowl through from time to time.

Darcy accuses me of simply being stingy with the feed. On his days off he fills the feeders to the brim and seeds fly EVERYWHERE.

This morning I looked out at the sunflower seeds all over the deck from Sunday’s exuberant feeding, with much irritation, until I saw this…

A prairie chicken!  The big bird was happily pecking up all the scattered seed like a barnyard hen. Whose grousing now, right?

I am sure the bird is more than capable of perching in one of the large feeders, but somehow he looked far more at ease pecking up seed off the deck.

There will be no stopping Darcy now.

Share Your Nuts. That’s All I Know.

 

 

We have six backyard bird feeders, which we fill with an assortment of seed, fruit and nuts.

It amazes me how quickly the birds find it.

At first we just fed the black oiled sunflower seeds and got thousands of sparrows for our effort and a few (too few in my opinion) chickadees. When I put out the peanuts it took about three hours for the first blue jay to show up.

How does that work? Do they talk to sparrows or chickadees?

”Hey bud, the feeder over there has some of those horrid big seeds that you yammer on about all the time.”

”Big seeds? What are you talking about little bird? You mean peanuts? They have peanuts? OMG! SQAWK! SQAWK!”

Or maybe they smell them. Do birds smell things? I suppose they must. For some reason I only associate sniffing abilities with soft flesh covered noses, not hard beaks, which is kind of a weird assumption when you think about it.

Anyway, now we have lots of blue jays, as well as sparrows, chickadees, magpies and the odd raven and woodpecker.

About a month ago a singular Stellar blue jay showed up and she has been a daily customer at the feeders ever since.

I don’t really know if the stellar jay is a she, but I like to call her Stella so it works better that way. When I see her at the feeder I announce it by theatrically yelling (in a stage whisper so as not to scare her away) Stella! Stella! Stella!

You know, like in Streetcar Named Desire.

If I learn more and can figure out the difference and I’m wrong, I guess I will just have to call Stella Stanley instead.

Stella doesn’t care what I call her, so long as I fill the feeders with nuts.

She’s bold and bossy. While other birds fly off when I come outside, Stella flies in. When I go back inside and the other birds return, she tries to chase them away. However, with six feeders that can prove an exhausting undertaking and eventually she just chills out, settles in and eats.

Apparently stellar jays can mimic the sounds of other animals and birds, often parroting (stellar jaying?) birds of prey to scare other birds away from the feeders. Maybe Stella does this as well.

No one chases Stella and this worries me. Why is she the only stellar jay? Did her flock move somewhere for winter and leave her behind? Did her mate dump her or maybe die? Is she grieving and is that the reason she seems indifferent to human stranger danger and is so grouchy and bossy with the other birds? Or did her mate and/or flock dump her BECAUSE she is so grouchy and bossy?

Though generally no one becomes grouchy without someone else inflicting pain, even if that someone is the simply the voice in ones own head.

That certainly can be the way of things in the human world.

A few hard knocks and a person withdraws. A couple more and they become defensive and grouchy. Eventually they are making sure they’re the ones actively doing the rejecting. Get within feeder distance and they will run you off before you can so much as muster up a, “Hey, how ya doing?”

I don’t know what the answer is, but sharing your nuts is always a good place to start. Even if some won’t share them back. Maybe especially if others won’t share them back.

As the saying goes, “Hurting people, hurt people.”

Maybe hurting birds, hurt birds. Or maybe Stella just really, really, likes peanuts.

Short of settling Stella onto our couch while I sit nearby with a pad and pen on my knee, ready to record her fears, tears and anger issues, I will never know. And would it matter if I did?

When all is said and done, what really matters anyway? Heartache, gender, marital status, a beings disposition or the fact I have some seeds to share and we are all sharing a planet together?

What I know for sure is we are currently under a winter storm alert and the snow has been falling for hours and will continue to fall for several more hours to come.

It’s time to throw my coat back on, shovel the deck and share some more nuts.

Because I have some.

And Stella likes them.

 

 

 

*The picture of the stellar jay at the top of this post is a stock photo and not an actual shot of Stella. Here’s a shot of our Stella in the feeder that I snapped a couple of minutes ago…

And now you know why I use stock photos! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Halloween Night, A Near Miss and A Direct Hit

Well, we woke up to winter as so often happens in the Peace Country on November first.

It always amazes me how that works. Obviously, we expect winter to arrive in November, but how it almost always shows up Halloween night speaks to something regimented and predictable, which is never how I have pegged Mother Nature.

Halloween night started off cold and rainy, before turning to sleet and finally full-on fat flakes of snow. Despite the seasons turn, we still got some brave and hardy treaters, for which I am grateful.

After four Halloweens in an apartment it was thrilling to hear the excited giggles and awkward clumps of costumed feet coming up our steps.

As our first Halloween in our new home, I was anxious to make a good impression on the neighbourhood children. I wanted the kids to be sure to program our house into their route for next year. And the one after that and…well, you get the idea. So with every giggle and clump on the steps, I rushed to the door eager to fill their bags with impressive treats.

Turns out not all treaters giggle or clump.

At one point in the evening I decided to check the sidewalk and steps to make sure they weren’t getting too icy. I was two steps from the door when the doorbell rang. I let out a (thankfully) small yelp and shot three feet in the air.

As I dropped treats into the bags, I thanked the Universe for her timing. Had I reached the door just a second sooner, I would have lost my mind.

To say I startle easy is an understatement. Not only that, I am not quiet about it. There’s a running joke in our family over how easily I am surprised. A family member can simply come around a corner of a room, and it is enough to make me scream. Opening a door to check on the weather only to find a punk rocker and a gorilla six inches from my nose…well, I assure you there would have been plenty of screaming.

And how confusing would that have been?

The poor treaters would have been wondering several things.

One – Why did I open the door prematurely?

Two – Given that I was the one opening the door unexpectedly, why was I the one screaming?

Three – It’s Halloween lady. You should be prepared for scary sights on your doorstep.

And finally, Four – We’re a gorilla and a punk rocker. That’s not so scary.

Fabulous costumes and all of that, but not exactly terror inducing.

Instead of being locked into their GPS for next year, we’d become known as the house with the scary, crazy lady who opens the door before you even knock and then screams so loud your ears ring.

Close call but crisis averted.

As for winter, it’s not looking like a close call at all. It is looking like a direct hit.

And that’s okay. As my sister shared with me this morning, if we don’t get winter how will we ever get to spring?

 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

It’s 6:18 pm and I just finished closing all the blinds to fend off the fishbowl effect. I can’t believe it’s already this dark outside. In the summer there were nights we didn’t even close all the blinds because we went to bed before the sun did. Except, of course, for the bedroom, where we closed the blinds to keep the sun from shining down on us at 10 pm.

And so it begins, this shortening of days.

This afternoon I went out for a neighbourhood walk before the sun went down. I love doing this. The city is always so friendly and busy. People lament how children don’t play outside anymore, but try telling that to the kids in my hometown.

In my short walk I came across a group of kids playing an intense game of soccer in the street, yelling “Car!” whenever a vehicle approached, car or otherwise. They scattered to the lawns on either side of the street and then reconvened as soon as the vehicle passed.

Another group were busy colouring up the sidewalk, selecting big fat pastel pieces of chalk from a bucket. They smiled and said hey, as I skirted my way into the street to avoid trampling their artwork.

What appeared to be a father and son were bicycling around the neighbourhood.

“Want to do the loop one more time?” I heard the father ask as they went by.

”Sure!” said the son.

I came across them again about seven blocks to the east. Big loop!

A mother was out with her two toddlers, sans stroller or wagon. The three were just walking along the sidewalk, hand in hand, taking their time and enjoying their stroll.

Some might say people were outside today because we are having an amazing extended summer at a time of year when it isn’t unusual to already have snow on the ground. You know, making play while the sun shines. That could be part of it, but I have found this same bustling, happy, outdoor crowd, every time I venture out for a walk. Even in the winter. And I don’t believe our city can be that unique.

But hey, if we are, yeah us!

I realize this doesn’t have a lot to do with gardening, except, as always, I was busy doing the gawk and walk as I passed by any houses with gardens. Though what slows my step these days are the yards filled with an enviable bounty of leaves. I have become a tad leaf obsessed.

Speaking of which, I asked NEAT about where to source some more leaves and apparently there is a Yard Waste Drop Off happening on November 03rd and I am welcome to show up and take all the leaves I can cram in my car.

I love this town.

Life is good.