And so it begins

After months of planning, sowing, watering and weeding the harvest has started to trickle in. Right now our house has a smell going on that you will never be able to buy in an air freshener aisle. Or want to.

The food dehydrator has been humming all week with a wild mixture of plants inside. The lemon balm and mint were wonderful. Today there is plantain, lavender and dill on the trays and the aroma wafting about the house is…interesting.

I use dill weed like some people use salt. I like it on pretty much every vegetable I cook. I start harvesting the leaves off the dill when they are about a foot high. You don’t need a lot of plants to fill enough jars to see even a dill fiend like myself through a winter. A half dozen plants will more than do it. Plant more if you want dill seed for pickling.

Plantain is a common weed that is on par with dandelions for both being prolific and for having amazing medicinal uses.

As you can tell by the similarities, the common weed known as plantain belongs to the same family as hostas.

Herbalists refer to plantain as ‘The Mother of all Plants’ for its wide range of healing properties. The leaves can be used fresh in salads or fresh or dried for teas to help with colds or bronchial problems.

Many people have had success using plantain tea to quit smoking. Drinking a cup before having a cigarette is said to give the feeling of having “over smoked” shortly after you light up.

Perhaps its most famous and important use is a poultice for insect bites, bee stings, cuts, scrapes, stinging nettles and other skin irritations. Some claim it even helps with venomous snake bites or for healing broken bones.

Simply have the person chew a leaf thoroughly and then place the chewed up leaf onto the afflicted area to draw out venom or poison. and speed healing. Compresses soaked in plantain tea are also said to be beneficial.

Obviously plantain is not a replacement for proper medical care, and whether it can save you from a venomous snake bite or help with healing a broken bone is debatable, but if you are out in the wilderness with nothing to lose, it might at least help until you can get to a hospital.

For smaller issues like mosquito bites, small cuts or a run-in with a nettle patch, chewing up a leaf and applying it to the irritation is just the thing.

And here’s a bit of serendipity; plantain almost always grows near stinging nettles. Coincidence? Perhaps. But if it is mere coincidence, it’s a welcome one.

Since it is such a dependable “weed” I don’t plant plantain. I simply let a couple of them grow in my garden until they send up seed spikes and then I harvest and dry the leaves to use in the winter for teas, salves and soaps.

As much as I love both dill and plantain, it is the addition of lavender to the drying trays that is helping to make our home smell tolerable. Weird, but tolerable.

I planted Munstead lavender last year and, as always, was thrilled to see it rise and shine this spring. It is a cold hardy lavender that does great in our harsh climate. I’ve grown it in gardens before, so I don’t know why I am beyond excited to see it survive the winter, but I always am. I guess it is because I associate it with the sight and scent of the more fragile French lavender, so it feels decadent to have it as a perennial in the north. And it is rated as Zone 4a while we are more 2b or 3a, so it is always a bit on the iffy side. However, if you mulch it well before going into winter it will usually survive.

I dry lavender for soaps, adding to bath salts and for teas.

Plantain, lavender and dill midway through drying. I pulled the trays out a little too hard causing the plantain leaves to jump on each other just before I took this picture. Obviously the leaves need to be spread out on the rack evenly, not clustered up in a corner like that!

For the next couple weeks herbs will continue to rotate their way through the dryer, but soon it will be the most anticipated drying season of all…tomatoes!

Growing tomatoes can seem less than cost effective. As the joke goes, growing your own tomatoes is a great way to spend three months of your life to save $2.17.

Making your own dried tomatoes is another story. A smallish jar of sun dried tomatoes can sell for six or seven bucks.

Suddenly those three months of selecting, seeding, watering, pruning, staking and feeding your homegrown tomatoes are completely justified when you line a pantry shelf with a few dozen jars of your own dried tomatoes. Or semi justified anyway.

Tomatoes in my dehydrator…French tarragon waiting its turn on top! This picture was taken back in 2013 on the farm.

If you haven’t dried tomatoes before and would like to give it a try, basically you just slice the tomatoes thin, put them in the dehydrator and check every couple hours and remove the ones that have dried. They should still feel leathery, but with no moisture whatsoever.

If you haven’t finished drying them by the time you want to go to bed at night, you can simply turn the dryer off and resume in the morning.

You can store the dried tomatoes in jars as is. They make great chewy snacks right out of the jar or you can cover them with a bit of hot water to rehydrate them before using in your favourite recipe.

For a softer version right out of the jar, you can also preserve them in olive oil. If the tomatoes are completely submerged beneath the oil (this is crucial) they will keep for upwards of a year if not more.

While I just used regular tomatoes in the photo above, the best variety for drying are the plum type tomatoes.

Cherry tomatoes work great as well. Simply cut them in half and put them on the trays. Removing the seed pulp will quicken the drying the process but you don’t have to be too fussy about it.

If you like them salted you can do that before putting them in the dryer.

Lots of people salt some and forgo it on others for both health and future cooking purposes. Cherry tomatoes are perfect for this. Since they are going to have to be spread out on the sheet cut side up in order to best hold the salt, you can spread the non salted ones cut side down and dry both at the same time. That way it is easy to tell which is which when you take them out.

But as I said, I am still weeks away from tomato drying time. In the meantime herbs will keep the dryer humming along.

How about you? Do you like to dry things for winter? What’s in your dryer? Or do you prefer a different method? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Fall, Food and Fodder for the Future

There is a tinge of lemon on the poplar leaves and that all too familiar bite in the air. Summers are crazy when you live as far north as we do…just over 1200 kilometers (760 miles) north of Vancouver, BC.

When spring arrives summer is hot on its heels, licking up all the ice and snow and churning out so much fast growing greenery it takes your breath away. My father loved to tell us to be careful not to stand in one spot in the field too long because the grass was growing so fast it would knock you off your feet. As a kid you almost believed it.

Then along comes a string of days like the ones we are having now, with that undeniable shift in the air. Yesterday a flock of Canada geese winged past our apartment window. They weren’t forming their practice V’s like they will be in a few weeks, but they were starting to gather together, sharing gossip, showing off their babies and discussing flight plans.

As for me, I am trying to find a direction for the surge of energy that always comes with this time of year. In my old life I would be elbow deep in the vegetable harvest, busy taking any surplus honey from the bee hives and stacking enough hay to see the horses through to spring grass. Instead I drive down to the community garden and take stock of my tiny plantdom. Someone snapped off the tops of my onions and threw them beside one of my raised beds. I’m not sure what the motivation would have been. Maybe they were trying to pull them up, but the stalks broke and they threw them down in disgust. But why give up so easily? Why not root up the bulbs? Or at least take the stalks and chop them up in a soup or stew or something.

And then it occurs to me that I am annoyed with the vandals for their laziness in not taking my produce. But still. Others report beets pulled prematurely and tossed to the side and  a few immature ears of corn snapped off the stalk and tossed on the grass. The metal hose bracket has been broken off the side of the shed.

It’s the nonsensical waste that irks. If someone just took the produce we would tell ourselves they needed it more than we did, but to pull up plants and toss them about or destroy things like the hose holder is crazy making. We also have lots of “share beds” painted green and clearly marked. We tend these beds communally for public consumption. Why not just harvest from them?

Ah, but what use is anger? It’s simply swallowing rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. Everyone cleans up their plots and carries on.

I still have some beans, onions, garlic, beets, kale and some sad looking tomatoes, carrots and zucchini. I tap my watch, look pointedly at the skies and tell the latter three, Get it together will you? We’re almost out of time. We have ate most of the potatoes already since there is nowhere to store them in the apartment. I have a few plants left and might try keeping some potatoes in the storage locker in the basement, but it isn’t very cool even down there. At best they’d likely only keep for a month…two at most.

I realize now that a large part of the reason I loved gardening was the sense of security I felt every fall when our little log house groaned at the seams with the year’s harvest. I would look in the cold room at the rows of canning jars, dried herbs and baskets of root vegetables and then note our wood cook stove and know that we would be okay no matter what happened. I liked the illusion of being in control of my future.

In our apartment I feel at the mercy of the masses. I feel vulnerable. I am pretty sure I have a few teensy control issues, though preppers would say I was just being smart. Or stupid, depending on how you look at it.

 

Speaking of prepping, I had a strange series of experiences one day last week.

First I walked downtown to meet up with my husband for lunch and across the street from the restaurant the local food bank had set up a display of over 600 pairs of shoes depicting the number of residents who had to access the food bank in a single week. It was a pretty dramatic, sobering display that certainly was effective in making its point.

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Secondly, Shaw’s system had crashed earlier that morning leaving half the city without internet access and no way to accept debit or visa payments. We were lucky enough to have a little cash on us-both to donate and for our meal-but many others arrived at the restaurant and found they were unable to pay for the meal they wanted to order and had to go elsewhere. Some no doubt had lightened their wallets of cash at the food bank booth, only to cross the street and find they couldn’t buy a meal for themselves. The irony!

Thirdly, after lunch I walked home and discovered I had lost my “secret” horseradish patch I told you about in the last post. I am no longer your go-to gal for horseradish should a disaster strike the city. According to a plastic sign and the distressed look to the once healthy green leaves, the city had came along and sprayed the patch of “noxious weeds”  into oblivion.

Here’s what they looked like when I passed them on my way home. Sad enough, but now all the lovely horseradish plants are absolute goners. Just dried up husks right down to their spicy roots. I know they are invasive, but it still makes me sad. I’ll miss walking by and wondering how they came to be there.

I don’t pretend to have the answers for our future food security, but I still harbor hope for a kind of utopia where no one goes hungry and our urban centers become self sustaining. You do hear stories about it happening more and more. Instead of ornamental trees, the cities plant edible fruit trees-which ours already have done here and there. In San Francisco there is a Guerilla Grafting movement grafting fruit tree branches onto sterile ornamental trees in public spaces.

Personally, I would love to see more multi-density housing with rooftop gardens that supply all the produce needed for the residents that tend them, complete with root cellars in the building’s basement for keeping produce through the winter in colder climates such as ours. I like that idea far more than every man for himself bugging out to the bush, armed to the teeth to protect his potatoes. Or their onion stalks and immature corn for that matter.

We live in interesting times to be sure, which means we need some interesting solutions.  I believe we will find them. In the meantime if you have a few dollars, cans of food or garden produce to spare, I know the food banks would sure appreciate whatever you can give them.

Lady vegetable gardener

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Next year…

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Many famous gardens are referred to by name, starting with the Garden of Eden. Some are named for their location such as Sissinghurst, others simply for the gardener as in Monet’s gardens while still more are named because the description fits such as Sage Mountain, Rosemary Gladstar’s famous herbal retreat in Vermont.

I always smile when I see names posted like Growing Concern, Garden of Eaten’ or the oft used Garden Of Weeden. Serenity, Green Tangle or Fairy Lane are nice names too. However, if I were brazen enough to give my own garden a title the letters on the sign would probably read “Next Year.” Lord knows, I say those words often enough while tending the plants and soil.

In an area that gets—on average—85 frost free days, this year we were granted 120. Us! The ones in a frost pocket! The ones who always get both a late frost in the spring and an early one come fall. Some years we have only made 45 days between frosts. I don’t ever remember getting four straight months without the temperature dipping below zero before and I have lived here for half a century. Of course, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, just that I don’t remember if it ever did. If I wasn’t worried it was the result of global warming, I’d be delighted. Of course, this was also the year I gave up on wasting space on winter squash, sweet potatoes and other long-season heat-lovers that always get slapped down with frost before producing anything worth eating. Ah well. Next year.

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There is nothing like garden fresh kale tossed into a salad just seconds after picking…and it just gets sweeter with frost.

Even with the long season, there were the usual hits and misses. I had a bumper crop of potatoes, beans, lettuce and kale and a decent amount of beets, carrots and strawberries. The deer ate most of the peas so next year they are going back down in the orchard with its eight foot fence. The onions were terrible and I only got a few measly garlic and shallot bulbs for my year-long effort. The raspberries grew lush with all the rain but only produced a smattering of berries. There were so few we only had enough for eating straight off the bush, and even those didn’t taste very good. The new growth of canes look very lush and promising though, so I’m hoping for better results next year.

Tomatoes in my dehydrator...French tarragon waiting its turn on top!

Tomatoes in my dehydrator…French tarragon waiting its turn on top!

Things in the greenhouse did pretty well. I still have tomatoes ripening, though it’s long past the time to do the final harvest and bring them in, green or otherwise. I dried a few jars worth in my dehydrator. It’s an Excalibur and works wonderful. My only regret is that I cheaped out and bought the economy version instead of springing for one with a timer. It takes a long time to dehydrate things like tomatoes and it would be nice to be able to wander off and not worry about wrecking a batch. If you’re interested in getting one of these dehydrators just click on the picture and you can price them out. They’re expensive, but worth it. Dehydrated produce retains more nutrients than any other method of preservation and you don’t have to slave over a hot stove or worry about your freezer if the power goes out. You can also try going directly to Excalibur’s site and see if you can find a better deal there. But really, any dehydrator will do and there are small ones that work just fine and are far more affordable  if you’re only interested in doing a few small batches a year. If you’re real handy, you could even build a solar dehydrator!

My Sweet Success cucumber lived up to its name. A single plant produced so many cucumbers we couldn’t eat them all and had to give some away. There are still a couple dangling from the vine even now and here we are in the month of October! And of course the zucchini kept its prolific reputation intact. Just like the cucumber, one lone plant gave us more zucchini than we could eat. My peppers, however, are just starting to blossom so it’s a wash for them. Next year.

My leaf harvest for the compost—which you would think would be a sure thing—has come to an abrupt end before it scarcely began. Rains came and made the falling leaves a sodden mess. There are still some leaves on the trees so I haven’t lost all hope of playing with my new leaf vacuum, but it doesn’t look good. Oh, well. Next year.

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Not exactly appetizing but once it has been composted and worked into the garden the produce will be!

At least the horse manure for the compost is a crop I can count on. I’ve hauled over 20 wheelbarrow loads out of the pasture in the last week alone. Despite the fact that the average horse produces 7.5 tons of manure a year giving me a typical yield of 15 tons annually, I have collected most of the good stuff. I don’t want the dried out sawdust textured piles that have had all the nutrients leached out of them. Instead I go for the fresh piles, the steamier the better. Okay, that sounds disturbing even to me. But it’s true. It’s got to the point where I am practically rolling the wheelbarrow right up under the horses’ tails and tapping my foot.

Of course, the key to safe compost is time and heat. You want the pile to heat up sufficiently to kill off any pathogens or weed seeds in the manure and then you want the worms to move in and do their thing before transferring the rich, brown, gold to the garden. Next year.

How about you? What were your hits and misses this garden season? Plans for next year? Green tips for extending the season etc. ? Let us know…the more we share the more we grow!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone…