While I was never a prepper, I was always appreciative of self sufficiency. I have long recognized the freedom that comes with growing your own food.
Plus it was a lifestyle I loved.
For 16 years we lived in small log house on 60 acres. We had a wood cookstove and large vegetable and fruit gardens that grew bigger with each passing year. We kept milk goats, chickens and bees.
Six years ago we moved into town and now here we are, living in a city during a pandemic. As Alanis Morrisette sang, “And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?”
Yeah, I really do think.
Even so, though I truly miss the country life, I am not going prepper/hoarder/head-for-the-hills crazy. I continue to believe in humanity and our ability to unite and adapt to our circumstances and not only survive, but thrive. Everything will be okay in the end, and if it isn’t okay, it isn’t the end.
I also recognize how privileged we are to live in a country like Canada.
However, I do think the pandemic has exposed problems in our food supply chain and highlighted more than ever the importance of supporting local farmers, markets and ranchers instead of a handful of massive processors. We have put way too many eggs in way too few baskets and this has been a wake up call that will serve us well going forward.
Instead of panicking about global food shortages or lining up at Costco, this is a time to reach out and commit to supporting our local producers, now and in the future. Prepare to be impressed with what has been available all along in our own backyards!
Speaking of backyards, I am also heartened by the surge of recent interest in gardening. I look forward to having even more fellow gardeners to exchange tips with in the Peace Country and beyond.
This year I have set a challenge for myself to grow the same amount of vegetables on our small city lot, as I did when we lived on the farm. Not because I think we are going to starve without it, but because I am curious to see if it can be done. Also, there is nothing that helps me achieve mental health more than time spent in a garden. And it is a great place to practice social distancing while getting some much needed exercise and fresh air.
This means saying farewell to a lawn altogether and having a backyard that is pretty much fence-to-fence raised beds.
Here’s a photo of our five brand-new yet-to-be-filled 4 x 8 foot beds.
Good Lord. Looking at this picture, the whole yard looks a bit horrific. Only a gardener could see the beauty in it. Or understand how I envision it already filled with vegetables, trellises, neat paths and painted wood, instead of a trampled mud bog of a mess. But such is life. A series of messes, with some dreams sprinkled in to keep us going along.
Anyway, these new beds are in addition to two 4 x 16 foot beds, one 2 x 24 foot bed, one 3 x 32 foot bed, one 3 x 20 foot bed and the three stock trough beds that were already in place from last year. We’ll see how it goes.
The front yard will continue to be a potager garden of sorts, with a bow to beauty as well as a bit of food production. There are lots of perennials and shrubs for curb appeal, but once again, I plan to tuck in things like rainbow chard, purple cabbage, lettuces, potatoes, herbs and what-have-you as food filler.
Where there’s a will there’s a way and where there’s soil, there’s always abundant opportunity for hope and growth. And with time, much beauty.
I had semi high hopes for the volunteer sweet potato sprout that poked out the side of the compost bin a couple weeks ago. As you can see in the picture below, it has been joined by a few more sprouts but hasn’t grown much.
I doubt there will be a bin full of potatoes by fall, but miracles happen in the garden every day. We will see.
Speaking of miracles, or a happy serendipity anyway, look at how the purple of these nicotianas perfectly pair with the poppies through no planning on my part whatsoever.
It’s not a great picture. I told the wind to stop blowing everything around so I could get a clearer image, but it paid me no mind. That’s a sea sponge in the bird bath. I put it there to turn it into a bee and butterfly bath. The sponge absorbs the water and allows the insects to land on it and drink without drowning.
Or that’s the hope.
I put in a lot of stones as well and very little water. It looks a little full because we had a bunch of rain last night. The result hasn’t been what I hoped for. The birds seem to enjoy this bath even more than the bigger one designated for them and I haven’t seen a single bee or butterfly partake. Yet.
One of many lessons harvested from a garden.
Speaking of which, the peas are podding but none have filled in yet. This, of course, does not stop me from eating them prematurely, flat pods and all.
Isn’t this Tall Telephone pea crazy? Also known as Alderman it reaches dizzying heights of over six feet! This variety is about the same age as me, dating back to 1965 which I guess makes us both heirlooms.
This is the much more understated Bolero pea which tops out around 30 inches. This is the one featured in the close up a couple pictures ago. It may be short but it’s locked and loaded.
The peas that I put in the stock trough gardens as backdrop to the carrots and beets are doing okay. I also stuck a tomato in the back centre. I need to stop doing this. I am always trying to cram one more thing into the mix to maximize harvest, but all too often it is just too much and everyone suffers.
Case in point are the two stock troughs of potatoes with a row of peas planted in the back. The one on the left is in the shade of the Mayday tree and suffered all around. The potatoes on the right were lobbed off a couple weeks back to give the peas a fighting chance.
The potatoes have since grown back. I am wondering now if that meant putting energy into regrowth that should have been going into producing tubers. We’ll find out soon. As for the peas, they are still alive, but it’s a struggle. They must feel like a short person in a mosh pit trying to see the stage.
Well, that’s my Friday photos of the backyard. I’ll post some more on here next Friday with a look at the front yard, including the much happier, and less crowded, in ground potato bed.
I have nine stock troughs that I am using for raised vegetable beds and so far it has been going fairly well. Last year I filled the bottom half of the troughs with tree prunings and called it hugelkultur.
Hugelkultur is the practice of planting in soil heaped onto rotting wood to take advantage of the whole composting system that results. I mostly did it to save money. Filling stock troughs with container soil would have been horrifically expensive without some free filler. The tree prunings provided that.
I topped the troughs with soil, making sure to fill all the nooks and crannies. Or so I thought. I found out I didn’t pack it down enough after I lost a few sprouted peas to a sinkhole. One day they were cheerfully checking out their new digs and the next there was just a hole where they had been.
I peered down the hole for the poor little fellows, hoping to somehow to fish them out, but there was no sign of them. I think they made their way to the bottom of the trough. Maybe later in the year they will resurface with a crazy long root system and produce mega peas. Maybe I will have stumbled on a new growing method that provides unbelievable produce and harvests. Maybe. But I doubt it.
The top bit of the troughs dry out fairly fast, so I have been watering pretty much daily. Especially after seeding the carrots. Those tiny seeds and wispy seedlings can dry out so fast, but so far so good.
I planted peas along the back of several troughs and then planted root vegetables in front of them, thinking it would be a clever use of both trough and vertical space. It seems to be working great in the pea and beet trough as well as in the pea and carrot trough shown above.
The two pea and potato troughs are another story.
The peas started off gangbusters but the potatoes soon caught up and are now surpassing them. The peas are flailing about behind the potatoes trying to make their way up the trellis and not looking happy about it. I may try trimming some potato leaves and see if that gives them the jump they need to rise above the spuds.
I started some spaghetti squash from seed and transplanted some in a trough and some on a mound up bed on the ground and while all of them are craving more heat and looking stressed, the squash in the trough are doing better than the ones in the ground.
My eggplants, tomatoes, beans and peppers all seem to like life in the the trough as well. It makes sense for these heat lovers, since metal heats up and things are warmer higher off the ground. And if the hugelkultur is working, there should be some heat coming up off the decomposing tree branches below.
So far the cooler crops like cabbage, chard, lettuce, carrots, onions and peas (the peas not being smothered by potatoes or falling into sinkholes) all seem to be doing well, but no better than the ones in the ground. The real test will come as summer heats up.
I realize the look of the troughs aren’t for everyone, but they are long lasting, their height makes them easy to work in and they don’t require any carpentry skills to build, giving you pretty much an instant garden. So far they are working well. Touch wood. Or in this case, metal.
If any of you have been trough gardening for awhile and have some tips to share I’d love to hear them.
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!
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.
I started some cabbage seedlings a few weeks back that have failed to thrive. It happens. Some things I start from seed do incredibly well, while others are simply awful. Maybe it is The Universe’s way of keeping me from getting a swelled head.
That’s how I found myself standing in front of some very healthy and humbling cabbage transplants at a nursery, by a sign that read “$2.89 each”.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “For a six pack that still works out to less than fifty cents a piece.”
I reached for the cabbage starts, trying not to think about how I had already spent a similar amount on an entire pack of what turned out to be wasted seeds.
Instead of a six pack, my hand closed around a single cabbage. A single cabbage in a sizeable container cell, but a single nonetheless.
Now I understand how expensive it is to run a commercial greenhouse. Moreover, I am pretty much an expert at garden math. The sum game of spending over a thousand dollars to build a greenhouse, fill it with soil and fuel a heater all to save $1.60 on store bought tomatoes.
Of course they’re not store bought and that’s what makes the negative numbers turn positive. It is all about heirlooms and flavour and knowing for certain what goes into the food we put into our bodies.
The thing with the cabbage transplant is that I had no idea how it had been fertilized and sprayed to get to this point. I just knew it looked ridiculously healthy. Maybe even suspiciously. I reluctantly set it back on the shelf. Later I checked my grocery bill and discovered I had recently spent $3.38 on a sizeable head of cabbage.
I could go back, buy the single transplants and spend the summer watering and fussing with cabbage worms, all to save .49 cents.
It made me take a closer look at all the things I was growing in my limited garden space.
I love cabbages but they can be bought cheaply at the store and without any added plastic. Raspberries and strawberries, on the other hand, are a different story. Both come in plastic clamshells, are expensive and it’s hit and miss for flavour. Frozen home grown berries are always tastier than fresh store bought, not to mention the joy of eating a fresh berry from the garden still warm from the sun. Better yet, you don’t have to replant them every year. Once and done. Sort of.
And so, thanks to my cabbage-sticker-shock-epiphany, one of our two backyard 4 X 16 raised beds originally destined for assorted vegetables, have been given over to strawberries and the other one has been filled with raspberries. Both also have a single haskap bush planted at one end.
If I can only be self sufficient in a few things, they should be things that pack the most value, environmentally, financially and flavour-wise. I am not sure I will produce enough berries to meet all our needs, but we’ll see how close we can get.
I still have nine stock troughs in the backyard that have been converted into raised beds, as well as the potager garden out front and four 3 x 8 beds at the community garden at the school. This is a good thing, since (ahem) I later found some equally impressive cabbage plants in a six pack for just a bit more than the singles and this time three of them followed me home.
They’re purple and pretty and will add a nice pop of colour in the potager garden out front. And did I mention I love cabbage?
Thinning seedlings–whether in the garden or in pots–is a painstaking process. Make it simple by using scissors instead. It’s like giving your garden a haircut!
Using a pair of clean garden scissors to lop off the tops of plants seeded too closely together not only quickens the task of thinning, but also ensures the roots of the plants you’re keeping aren’t disrupted by pulling up plants around them.
With greens, such as lettuce, garden scissors are once again the tool of choice. Create a “Cut and Come Again” garden of greens by snipping off the tops for a fresh salad, while leaving enough leaves to start the growing process over again. When harvested in this way it is possible to get three or four cutting harvests instead of just one!
Herb Scissors are also an excellent tool for harvesting sprigs from your herb garden.
You could say great gardeners get snippy with their gardens!!! But you probably won’t because that’s a groaner of a pun. My apologies.
I can’t leave on that note, so here is a picture of a fabulous garden I saw while on a garden tour a couple of years ago.