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!

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!

 

Discovering (and Taming) My Inner Garden Grinch

All that beautiful nitrogen laden snow has melted, delivering its magic formula down to the soil and roots that are revving up below.

The Peace Country is infamous for going from winter to summer overnight. The joke among local farmers goes, “Spring came on a Tuesday this year, but I was in town and missed it.”

Fall can be brief as well. Some years the leaves turn colour and then a huge wind sweeps through and knocks them off the trees all in the same week.

For all my defensive chatter about needing to live in a place that gets four seasons and not being able to live somewhere warm all year round, we really only have two seasons…winter and summer. Some years it is more like the nine months of winter and three months of poor sledding that is often joked about. But none of that matters now, for we are about to plant a big ole kiss right on summer’s cheek.

Speaking of cheeks, I once read your garden is ready for planting when you’d be comfortable setting a bare butt cheek on your soil. If I followed that adage I might never plant my garden (!) but I get the wisdom behind it. If your soil feels comfortably warm against your own sensitive skin, then it will be comfortable against the seed’s skin too. I just went out to test the soil (with my hands) in my raised beds and the soil is still a bit cool to the touch, but I am sure it will be warm enough in a day or two.

You can always speed things along with a cold frame or a sheet of poly to get your soil up to a comfortable temperature. Some people have quite deep raised beds and can afford to leave a few inches between the soil surface and the top of the bed frame. This allows room for an easy and instant cold frame simply by laying a sheet of greenhouse coroplast over the top of the bed and weighing it down with bricks. Be sure to remember to remove or at least vent during warm days to avoid frying the plants though! Having extra top space also offers side shelter for baby transplants, with the walls around it acting as a windbreak.

My own raised beds are only a foot deep, so I don’t have enough space. I need to fill them right to the brim. It is still possible to build cold frames that set over top with fancy lids and the whole shebang and we may do that one day. In the meantime, ahem, I have also rented a few deep beds over at the school which look like they are filled to perfection for easy covering.

All the elementary schools in our city have installed gardens in recent years, with beds reserved for the school, students and a few extra for the community besides. It’s a wonderful thing. It is ran by the wonderful people at NEAT (Northern Environmental Action Team). Last I heard, they still had a few beds available at some of the schools as well as at their main community garden, so contact them soon if you’re interested.

The school is a two minute walk from our house, so when I heard there were beds available for rent I couldn’t resist. I am ashamed to admit that at first I hesitated and not because I already have a garden. I was worried the garden would be vandalized or my produce would be stolen by the kids who frequent the playground over the summer.

I was busy thinking of what sort of things I could grow that wouldn’t hold any appeal for the little thieves, when I caught myself. It was like I suddenly stepped outside my own body and started observing my own thoughts. It wasn’t pretty. What kind of person was I ageing my way into being? Why would I even think the children would want to steal anything? A vision of me chasing some poor little kids across the playground while waving a hoe over my head, popped into mind. Good Lord.

What if, instead of being a pessimistic garden grinch, I thought of things I knew kids might like, planted them on purpose and encouraged them to pick things? I imagined growing peas, carrots, strawberries, cherry tomatoes and purple dragon beans (just so I could tell kids the bean’s name should the opportunity arise). Maybe I would add some herbs like lemon balm and lavender for them to pinch off and smell.

I imagined kids eating out of my garden, relishing the sight, the smell and the taste. Maybe one day they would look back on that summer and credit raiding that old lady’s garden at their school with instilling a love of growing and eating fresh vegetables. Maybe they would go on to do something super botanical that would save the world. Or maybe they would simply go on to plant a garden of their own. That would be reward enough.

The thought of growing a garden for the purpose of sharing, instead of hoarding it all for myself, caused my green grinchy heart to grow three sizes that way.

We will see how it goes. And grows. All I know for sure is I am now feeling grateful for the opportunity to be part of our community garden, grateful for my garden at home and crazy grateful for summer!

Not White Rain but Snow with a Capital S

Yesterday I mowed our lawn for the very first time this year. After building numerous garden beds, I have very little lawn left and it would be better environmentally if I had none at all, but I still like a few patches of green.

Our little electric mower sprang to life after a winter in the shed, without so much as a hiccup. When that first waft of fresh cut grass hit me, I almost teared up. I paused and breathed in the scent like a person hovering their nose over a caramel cappuccino. 

That was yesterday.

This morning we woke up to this…

This is NOT white rain. I repeat, NOT white rain. What a difference a day makes. Just to the left of the first plant pot is where I stood breathing in the scent of freshly cut grass less than 24 hours ago.

There is another way to look at it though. As disconcerting as the sight might be, for gardeners it is like someone gifted their yard with a huge dump of free organic nitrogen in the night, just in time for the growing season. How magical is that?

All moisture collects nitrogen as it falls through the atmosphere, but nothing gifts the earth as much as snow on thawed ground. Winter snow tends to run off the frozen earth come spring, taking its nitrogen with it. Light rain collects negligible amounts of nitrogen. Heavy rain, on the other hand, can pick up as much nitrogen as snow, but will usually come down so hard it runs off before any amount has a chance to sink in. An early fall or late spring snow is the best gift of all for growers.

Lightening also packs a load of nitrogen, but has to actually hit your garden in order to deposit it. You might get some nitrogen, but a soft covering of snow is a far less traumatic way to receive some free nutrients.

I admit when I pulled up the blinds this morning my first reaction wasn’t, “Wow! Free nitrogen. Thank you Universe!” and I did feel a tad traumatized. However, once I calmed down, I realized it couldn’t have come at a better time. Next week we are moving consistently into the double digits and out of the freezing zone at nights. Thanks to this snowfall, the garden will be primed and ready for seeding.

So yes, thank you Universe for your timely gift and please accept my sincere apologies for the things I might have said to you this morning.

Peas are going into the ground next week. Can’t wait to get seeding.


White Rain and a Hardening Heart

On the heels of the backyard iceberg finally disappearing, we’ve been experiencing some white rain showers for the last few days. Since it melts as it hits the ground, I see no need to toss the S word around, so I will leave it at that.

It all gets considered though, when figuring out the optimum day to seed the garden. I used to wait for the May long weekend, but that can be way later than necessary. I have learned to take my cue from nature instead of the calendar.

When the dandelions are in full bloom, it is time to put in the cool weather seeds such as peas, carrots, beets, turnips, onion sets and even potatoes. When the trees have leafed out, it is usually safe to put out the tougher transplants, provided they have gone through the hardening off period of being set outside for increasing lengths of time.

Hardening off plants is an important step to a successful garden and one that is a case of do as I say, not as I do. I completely suck at the process. Oh, I start off setting my darlings out on a sheltered porch for a couple of hours before rushing out to anxiously whisk them back inside, just like a good gardener should. But alas, in only a few short days it all falls apart. The darlings are forgotten and accidentally left out for the entire day. Usually before the first week is even over, I get up one morning and remember I forgot to bring them in the night before. The same seedlings I carefully purchased, sowed, labelled, watered, fertilized and fussed over for weeks, are left thoughtlessly abandoned like so much compost.

Of course I rush right out, oh so sorry and full of apologies, but the plants are having none of it. There they are, sitting on the porch, shoulders hunched, looking weary of it all before the season has even properly begun. Some years it is worse. Far worse. I rush out to find frost has had its way with them in the night. You’d think I would learn.

Sometimes spring gets away on me and I end up skipping the hardening off process altogether and just plant them out in the garden straight from the greenhouse or grow lights.

I watched a vlog recently where the gardener said he doesn’t bother with hardening off. He likened his method to taking the plants out in the woods and handing them each a knife and a packet of matches and saying, “Let’s see what you’re made of. I’ll be back in a couple of days to check on you.” As terrible as it sounds, I can identify.

One of the zillion great things about plants, is that they are resilient. They don’t even need knives or matches. They are designed to grow and to produce and will overcome all kinds of crazy odds to make that happen. Don’t think for a second I’m not grateful for that. But it is so much better for all concerned if you do things right and help them along. That is how bumper crops are made.

Maybe this will be the year I harden my plants off properly and they start the year with robust enthusiasm and no need for any disappointed withering glances in my direction. Or knives or match boxes. With age comes wisdom and all that. Unfortunately, with age comes forgetfulness as well. It could go either way really.

So long as the rain stops coming down white, everything should be okay. Sort of.

P.S. This morning the white rain is no longer disappearing as it hits the ground. I am now calling it rain dust. Or rain frosting. But, and this is important, I am still calling it rain. 

 

April Snow Brings May Flowers…or something like that.

The snow was almost gone from the front yard and little spikes of bulbs were spearing their way up all over the place. On the south bed, up against the house, one daring little crocus even burst into bloom.

Today, while out snow blowing the driveway, there was no sign of life. Or lawn. Just lots of the white stuff and I don’t mean crocus petals.

Every year spring arrives and we lose our minds. Every year, just as the last bit of snow is about to melt, winter makes a comeback and every year we are equal parts outraged and surprised.

As that old joke goes, winter in the north is like an angry person who storms out of the room only to return and say, “And another thing…”

Today we woke up to another thing which turned out to be several inches thick. Which is also a good thing, given the amount of life that was starting to bubble to the surface. When temperatures drop, the snow acts like an insulating blanket keeping all that greenery protected until winter decides to exit again, which, according the forecast, will happen tomorrow with highs of +11 C.

So once again, we are looking forward to spring casting off its white comforter. But this time we are keeping a wary eye on the door in case winter has a few last stormy retorts.

Spring Arrives Tomorrow at 1:00

Spring arrives tomorrow at 1 pm. How is that for precise? That is when temperatures are supposed to creep up to the plus side of zero and-according to the forecast-stay there for the daytime for the next 14 days.

With daylight savings kicking in tomorrow for much of the country, that’s 1 pm Pacific not Mountain. For us it is simply Peace Country time, which is the same time all year long. While everyone around us switches back and forth, we just keep our clocks unchanged, only it’s not the same time because half the time we’re the same as the rest of BC and the other half we’re the same as Alberta so we’re always having to adjust for that. Confused yet? Me too.

Animals in the Peace have no such problems. Dinner time never changes. If dinner is 5 pm it is 5 pm 24/7/365.

What is about to change is this…

So. Much. Snow. I took this picture this morning. Beneath that heap of snow on our front lawn is my newest garden bed which I loaded up with bulbs last fall. I am giddy with anticipation. On the far right corner buried beneath soil, mulch and six feet of snow is a giant allium bulb that is meant for Zone 5. Living in our land of Zone 2b or not 2b, splurging on this bulb was a bit of a reckless gamble, but look at that snow cover!

Thanks to the city and their snow truck spewing ways, the amount of insulation on the allium makes the four inch layer of mulch I carefully piled on top of the precious bulb laughable. I have high hopes for the bulb’s survival.

I guess we will find out soon enough. Time to put on the gum boots, stand back and let ‘er melt. Hello spring!