A Sweet Surprise

I have tried to grow sweet potatoes several times over my many years of gardening, but with little success. Once I harvested a handful out of a half whiskey barrel in a greenhouse, but that was it.

I tried starting my own slips from organic store bought potatoes that were probably terrible variety choices for our northern climate. That didn’t work out at all. Twice I ordered slips from Nova Scotia to be shipped clear across Canada because the variety was supposed to be cold climate friendly. Or as cold climate friendly as a heat loving sweet potato can get.

Unfortunately the first time the slips arrived they were put into our rural group mailbox located about a mile from our house during a week where the nighttime temperatures were dropping below zero. More unfortunately, I didn’t always pick up the mail on the same day it was delivered. The 12 precious slips camped out in the mailbox for at least one entire night and maybe as many as three.

They may have been suited for a colder climate, but not that kind of a colder climate. I tried to revive them but it was all for naught. The next year I tried again, this time picking up the mail every single mail day morning without fail. That was the year I managed to harvest a handful from the whiskey barrel. And then we moved.

I don’t have a greenhouse (yet) at our new (to us) house so I didn’t bother ordering any slips.

And yet…I have a sweet potato all the same!

When I went out to the compost bin today I spotted this poking out of a tiny slit in the side of the bin…

Here’s a look at the whole bin…you can just make out the leaves poking out two ridges down on the right.

It’s been awhile, but I am ninety percent sure it is a sweet potato. It must have hatched out of a peel that got tossed into the compost.

So now it’s a bit of a dilemma. The bin is full and has been cooking at full throttle for about a week, but in the last few days it has slowly started cooling down.

I know this because I have one of those garden nerd compost thermometers that look exactly like something you would use if you were cooking a turkey for a giant. It has a button thermometer attached to a foot long steel skewer that you insert into the bin. The thermometer shows when the compost is in the cooking zone, when it is hot and when it is cold.

My compost just tickled the underside of getting hot before it started falling back down into the cooking zone. This means it is time to fork the compost about, give it a few turns and put it all back in to heat up and cook some more.

But then out sprouts what I think is a sweet potato leaf.

I love sweet potatoes. Obviously. Which is how so many peels got into the compost in the first place and why I keep trying to grow them.

So now I am thinking if I just leave it alone it might like growing in the compost bin. It’s certainly warm enough, and even as it cools down the black walls should keep the roots nice and cozy without frying them. Since it has popped out fairly high up the bin, that would allow for all kinds of potatoes to grow below.

However, if I want to make a few batches of compost this summer I need to turn the contents often and hurry things along so I have enough compost to amend all my beds in the fall.

So which do I want more…sweet potatoes maybe or compost for certain?

I am not a gambler and my motto has always been a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but I think I will take a chance on this one. I will just have to start another compost bin/pile elsewhere.

Who knows? Maybe by chance my compost bin has discovered a whole new way to grow sweet potatoes in the north without a greenhouse.

Fingers crossed.

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

Inside Scoop on Horseradish and Other Vegetable Matters

Our city is riddled with chutes, which I take great delight in going through. I am not sure where the pleasure comes from. Maybe it’s because they feel like a secret passage transporting you to some hidden oasis, even though they merely take you to another part of a subdivision or launch you onto the walking trail. But I like them, just the same.

The one below takes you from a busy street into a new subdivision that only three years ago was nothing but a field.

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This is perhaps my favorite chute, because of the horseradish that grows rampantly beside it. I like to walk past it and wonder how it got there. It is evidence that the field-turned-subdivision wasn’t always just a field. Perhaps there was an old homestead here long ago and these are the horseradish plants from that long-forgotten garden.

Lord knows these plants are tough. And tenacious. Just like the homesteaders who planted them. If, indeed that is how they got here. All I know for sure is that once you have horseradish you always have horseradish.

I have a bit of a pioneer/prepper/self sufficiency mentality so I also take pleasure in knowing of a public source for horseradish. This could be important when the SHTF (a prepper acronym that stands for Shit Hits The Fan and encompasses all manner of mayhem from banks collapsing to city-wide riots to weather catastrophes).

Should the SHTF I can stand up and say, “Everyone calm down. I know where I can get some horseradish.”

Because we all know what a life saver horseradish can be.

And because I use horseradish…well, I never use horseradish. That stuff is crazy spicy. But if the SHTF and you find yourself in dire need of some horseradish, I’m your go-to-gal.

Did you know that even harvesting horseradish is spicy? I read somewhere once that you should wear goggles and hold the root underwater when you peel it just to keep the fumes from overpowering you. See? I know stuff. Prepper stuff. I’m prepared. Sort of.

Speaking of growing food, my community garden is ripening off. Here is what it looked like about a month ago…

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But things have gone a bit downhill since then. My zucchini and spaghetti squash have been struck down with powdery mildew and almost everything else is going decidedly yellow. My green pea harvest was nothing to write home about and most of my onions went to seed before producing much of a bulb, but the dragon tongue beans, potatoes and kale are all doing pretty good.

One bed of beets up and died while another patch in an adjoining bed are doing fantastic. Go figure. I should get a few decent carrots, but they should have been thinned better.

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And look…I even got one lonely vine ripened tomato! I love these dragon tongue beans as much for their name and purple streaked appearance as their taste. Once you cook them they turn green though, which is unfortunate. These potatoes are Yukon Gold.

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My favourite variety is this Red Russian kale. I should just eat it in salads and green smoothies but I like it best tossed in salt and olive oil and then baked for about half an hour in a hot oven until crispy. Kale chips! Delicious. But probably not super healthy.

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Here’s my garden as it sits right now. It’s not looking super healthy neither. The dead yellow vines are purple mist peas that I am letting ripen for soup peas. I should get all of two cups by the looks of things : ) The deep purple plant is a Kalette that I wrote about awhile back. It’s a cross between kale and brussel sprouts. It takes a long time to mature so we’ll see if the frost gods are kind. And the sad little vine to the right is a wanna-be spaghetti squash that has no hope of producing anything in time to beat the frost but I just can’t pull it up. At least not yet.

 

 

 

What’s Growing on in the Red Boxes

After a lifetime of huge, rambling-and sometimes overwhelming-country gardens I am embracing my first year of community gardening. I am so grateful for the loan of these four red rental boxes. I can’t even tell you what they mean to me.  I saw a quote attributed to Doug Green that read “I am more myself in a garden than anywhere else on earth.” Amen to that.

This is what the red boxes looked like when I first spotted them back in April…

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And then a little later after topping them up with compost, adding some stakes for the pea and bean fencing and doing a little early seeding and transplanting…

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Crisscrossed with shallots, red and yellow onions and garlic, it isn’t exactly square foot gardening but it’s close. Crammed gardening…that’s what it is! And yes those are potatoes in tomato cages. I circled them with early peas and am planning to wrap string around the cages for the peas to climb and then harvest and remove them before the potatoes are ready. Not sure how that will work. The potatoes may be starved for light and no doubt it will be a challenge to hill them. I plan on just sprinkling mulch on top to avoid any green potatoes. We’ll see…

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And here is a picture of a red box taken just over a week ago. Over the last month we have had snow, rain, frost, couple days of 27 C weather and then more rain. There is nothing like the determination and resiliency of a plant to keep growing forward! We should all be so tough and resilient.

So many lessons to be learned from a garden. It’s so much more than just kale.

 

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Everything’s Coming Up Radishes

Everything’s coming up radishes…and peas and potatoes and shallots and onions and beets and lettuce. So much growing on and that’s just in one little red box! My square of beets are a bit of a mess. So many here, so few there…I may try carefully moving some about.

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Overall, things are growing well at the gardens. And I am learning some lessons about community in the process.

The other night I drove down to the garden to water. Upon arriving, I was secretly pleased to find no one else there. I sighed in contentment, looking forward to some solo watering time.

I had just finished uncoiling the garden hose and dragging it over to the boxes when a father showed up with his young daughter. The little girl was fairly leaping in the air with enthusiasm. I told them to go ahead and water their garden first, hoping they would then leave so I could carry on with my watering in solitude. Don’t judge me.

After they finished the little girl asked if she could water my garden and, of course, I told her that would be wonderful. She flew about spraying water here and there with unabated joy.

I’ll just water it properly after they leave, I told myself as I smiled and thanked the girl for all her help.

“You can leave if you like,” the father said unexpectedly. “We’ll put away the hose.”

The conversation that followed went something like this.

Me “No, no, I’ll do it. You’ve helped enough.”

Him “No, I insist.”

Me “That’s okay, I’ll finish up.”

Him “No, no, we’ll put the hose away. You can just go.”

What could I do? There was nothing for it. I left.

At first (did I already say don’t judge me?) I was a bit annoyed. But as I drove home I thought about that beautiful little girl helping me with my garden and I had to smile. It is a wonderful thing to see a young person taking an interest in gardening. It’s even more wonderful to see a young father taking time out of his busy day to encourage that interest. I hope to see them at the gardens again.

And that, dear Shannon, is what community gardening is really about.

And here I was thinking it was about deeply watered carrots. Pffft. Amateur.

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Miracle for a Dime

“Now seeds are just dimes to the man in the store, and the dimes are the things that he needs. And I’ve been to buy them in seasons before, but have thought of them merely as seeds; but it flashed through my mind as I took them this time, “You purchased a miracle here for a dime.”

Edgar A Guest penned the above lines. The English born American poet lived between 1881 – 1959. I am not sure when he wrote this poem but his lifespan gives you a loose idea of the economics of the time period he lived in. Here in 2016, 135 years after Edgar’s birth, you won’t find seeds for a dime.

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Having said that, I did pick up some flower seeds the other day for forty-nine cents a package, which is only five dimes. It was in a discount bin of-I’m assuming-expired seed, but for five dimes I took a chance on a miracle.

They say most seeds are viable for three to five years, but I am always hearing of people discovering ancient seed in a tomb and managing to get them to germinate after a few thousand years…which is a lot more than three to five. Keep them in a cool, dry, dark place and most seeds last a very long time.

That said, Rhoda Cutbush of the U.K. managed to resurrect the Crimson Broad Bean after discovering three seeds in a tobacco tin in the corner of a garden shed…hardly the most temperature controlled environment. You can read the post about it here.

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Rhoda Cutbush: Shown here with a handful of the Crimson Broad Beans she helped rescue from extinction is Rhoda Cutbush of England. Rhoda passed away in 2003 at 98 years of age. Photo Credit: Garden Organic

I wonder how the first people felt when they discovered plants produced seed that in turn produced more plants. What a mind blower that must have been. It is still a mind blower. I don’t know of a single gardener who doesn’t think so, even after decades of seeding. You never get jaded. You always look at those specks in your palm and think of all the potential packed in such tiny packages.

And the faith! You drop the seeds into the potting soil, water and patiently wait for the promise to be delivered. There is no overt evidence that the Bonnie Best tomato seed really is a Bonnie Best tomato, but you trust that it is true.

Yesterday I started my tomatoes, cucumbers and an assortment of flowers. Some packets cost three or four dollars and when I opened them up I discovered a mere dozen seeds hiding in a corner. Others were so generously filled I was able to start all I needed and still have plenty to store away for next year.

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People store up investments and savings and even gold and silver, but the greatest riches lie in seeds. Open pollinated, non GMO, heirloom seeds that make a miracle out of every planting. You can’t eat gold, but tomatoes and broad beans are a different story. Its a reality that the folks at Monsanto were clever enough to recognize. If that bothers you there are lots of ways to protest; write letters, join rallies and boycott GMO products to name just a few.

However, the biggest and most radical thing you can do to stop the food giant in its tracks, is to simply save your own seeds. It’s a lot better for your blood pressure too. Letters and rallies can make you crazy, but planting and harvesting your own vegetables is all about health and spending quality time with nature. It is the most peaceful and productive of protests.

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Winner, winner, vegetable dinner!

If you are interested in saving seeds Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth now in its second edition is a great read…

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If you can’t save your own seed, but still want to grow your own vegetables, it makes sense to keep at least a years supply on hand from your favourite open pollinated, heirloom seed supplier. To find such suppliers check out the Online Catalogues tab at the top of the page.

Thanks for reading this and happy planting!

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Transplanting Peas…Who Knew?

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If you subscribe to Growveg.com you will have already received this video on how to start peas in a gutter for easy transplanting into the garden. If not, click on this link and check it out. It’s a great idea for getting a jump on the season and avoiding having mice eat the seeds or birds scratch them up onto the surface in their search of worms (that was always my biggest problem). It would work for sweet peas too and who knows what else? The roots are minimally disturbed using this method. Check it out!