{ Author Archive - April Demes }

My seed addiction

Hi, my name is April, and I’m a seedoholic.

I came to face the brutal reality of my situation after a trip into town last week.

We are in the middle of a bathroom renovation, and I put “vent for bath fan” on my shopping list, not realizing the danger I was putting myself in. I walked innocently into the hardware store and instantly the paint/grout fog of recent weeks melted away and the proverbial sunshine shone down upon me: the seed displays were up. Even more, soil mix and peat pots were on sale. My heart quickened. Before I knew what I was doing I had detoured from “heating and ventilation” and had a mitt-full of little bounty-promising packets.

A sane voice somewhere inside reminded me not to try too many new things all in the same season. It mentioned the catalogues waiting patiently at home for careful, measured appraisal. The voice pointed out the total lack of sunny counter space to place the mini-greenhouse I was carrying to the checkout.

The voice was right! I had stacks of cell packs in the shed and an already bulging box of seeds tucked away. Was I medicating my cabin fever? The drawn-out-reno blues? Was I simply willing February to hurry on up?

Whatever the reason, I still came home with three bags of assorted growing medium, the aforementioned greenhouse, a pack of peat pots, and, ahem… several seed packets.

On the way home, I mentally constructed a make shift shelf on which to put all my potential babies. I resolved to organize those seeds and have a proper look at my catalogues.

I also realized I’d have to come back into town sometime and pick up that fan vent.

Some of the less common seed companies I like (when I can avoid the impulse buys and choose carefully):

Bedrock Seed Bank – seeds for Alberta native plants. I met them at Edmonton’s Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market.

Richter’s – best for herbs according to most people I know who know. Seeds, plugs, extracts. Other plants as well.

Prairie Seeds – out of Saskatchewan. Heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, stuff that actually lives on the prairies.

Counting my blessings

I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time this year griping about everything going wrong, mostly with the weather. I’m a little late for Thanksgiving, but I thought a list of “good things” would be a great way to end the season.

1. I have a great crew of dandelion pickers. Just imagine how many more would have gone to seed if the “flowers” on my countertop had been left in the lawn.

2. The sparrows who were trying to nest in my dryer vent were ousted in time to set up housekeeping in a poplar.

3. I planted a dwarf Alberta spruce, a golden flowering current, a Medora juniper, a bunch of ninebarks, some baptista, and a European Mountain ash, all last fall in my big overhaul. They had a really good start, as well as the yarrow, blue flax, yellow flax, moss phlox, and mugo pine I put in this spring. They’ve had nice damp soil all year to get established and I haven’t had to worry about anybody getting scorched or dried out. And we got a crash course on how the new flower beds drain, so we got that sorted out before it got planted right up.

4. The weeds pulled out really easy out of the damp soil. Of course, they also grew really well…

5. Along with #3 and #4, and despite my complaining, I hardly had to haul hoses at all this year. One huge chore less. Who can complain about that?

6. The tomato plants that almost bit it in an early wind storm thrived once I moved them into my enclosed porch. I’ve used it as a “greenhouse” to start stuff in the spring, but I’ve never kept anything in there the whole season. The little sun we got this year was multiplied by the glass and we got quite a few tomatoes when I was expecting none. (Had to move them outside on good days for pollinators to do their business.)

This Echeveria bloomed on stalks about six inches tall.

7. I’ve never seen hens and chicks bloom before.

8. I forgot to plant marigolds around my broccoli and kale. I always plant marigolds! Guess what? Major bug infestation. Why is this a blessing? I now know that marigolds really do help deter pests (make sure they’re the smelly kind though!). It also led me to learn of Btk, a safe bacterium I can try next year to save myself some grief on the cabbage worm front.

9. Ralph and Brenda.

10. Berries.

11. I finally went to Nikka Yuko.

12. I started some yellow flax from seed I bought from the Bedrock Seed Bank. It is the first time I have messed around with anything requiring “moist stratification” (or anything more than your basic sprinkle and cover) and it lived. And is quite happy.

13. We just picked the last of the lettuce to have with supper last night. November 5. Those of you reading in Victoria are probably just blinking at the screen, unimpressed, but you prarie people know what I mean.

14. Our tacky, broken down shed got a new door, a paint job, and improved shelves. Just waiting for a latch, and the kids to quit dumping all their toys and tools right in the doorway.

15. We only lost one major limb off our twenty-odd poplars in this year’s spring storms. Evidence that arborists are worth their bucket trucks in gold. It did come down on the roof of the house though, but that’s also a blessing because Chris is now convinced that we really should be looking at gradually replacing the poplars with some younger, different trees.

16. These last several weeks have been dry and warm. The farmers actually got their hay off, and I got a bonus deadline extension on all my fall tasks.

17. The steps Jenni built me got through their first year in decent shape. I only had to fine tune two stones (by planting thyme and echeveria in the cracks around it–the root systems stabilize the stones, I ‘ve been told. So far so good.) As for the rest of the mess around them… there’s always spring.

18. My eight year old casually named about ten of the plants growing in our yard the other day. And I’m not talking “beans”, “carrots”, and “potatoes”, either. It’s rubbing off!

19. While the giant pumpkin never got to Cinderella’s carriage size, we actually got corn this year! Not bushels, but edible corn, nonetheless! And we were not buried in zucchini!

20. My Rudebeckia is no longer a John Doe.

Final blessing of the year: the chance to share all of my adventures with you.

Shortcuts are my friends

I came across a book a while back called “How to Cheat at Gardening.” I said, yes please, and immediately checked it out of the library. It was full of little tips and tidbits; mostly strategies we are mostly familiar with: mulching, weeding early and often, companion planting. Sadly, no magic bullet, but I’m always up for learning a few new tricks.

Like the one a got from my friend Lynn this week. This is going to sound crazy, but trust me, it works. I just tried it.

Take your carrots you are loath to scrub, top them, and toss them in the washing machine. Yup, you read that right. I used the spin cycle, so just a moderate amount of agitation, and took them out, sparkling orange, when it stopped. There was a teeny bit of grit right at the bottom, that was it. Lynn says she fishes them out of the water, before it drains, to avoid even that. She also says she does beets this way. I am not that brave.

Another cheat I posted on the forums a couple of years ago is still tried and true in my neighborhood: when it’s time to clean up your leaves from the lawn, grab your snow shovel instead of a rake. You can push the bulk of the debris right where you want it (compost pile, in my case, or for mulch) and be done with it. Much faster and less exhausting than the traditional method. If you want things pristine before the snow flies, you can go over the basically-bare lawn with your rake in no time.

I’ll bet every person reading this has a little cheat… I mean, shortcut to share. Come on, give.

Water plants, winter style

It’s bedtime. Autumn has pretty much wrapped up; there’s just a few odd jobs to putter at if your gloves can keep out the frosty air. Many gardeners now turn their minds to houseplants or windowsill herb gardens to get their green thumb fix until the seed catalogues start arriving. I’m usually one of them, but houseplants seem kind of ho-hum right now. My hoya and peace lily have both stopped blooming and my norfolk island pine is wasting away (too much watery love from the small people, I think).

But never fear! Inspiration has ousted the winter doldrums before they could even set in!

I was in Lethbridge today doing some early Christmas shopping (yes, I know) at the pet store. Our (Chris’) big plan this year is to get the kids (Chris) a fish tank. We picked one out and I was assigned to pick it up and get it hid before anybody was the wiser. Well, we picked the right pet store. I wasn’t in there five minutes before I had the ear of Alan, gardener and fish lover. He gets his gardening kicks in the snowy season by growing water plants in his – wait for it – 175 gallon aquarium. He taught me pH, fertilizer, growing medium, and even offered to share with me a cutting off his sagittaria plant (lawn for the underwater set).

I’ll admit, I was lukewarm about the whole fish tank thing. But I’ve warmed up to it with the realization that I can have the “pond” I can’t handle in the backyard, right in my living room. And in the winter, too!

Not to mention a whole new array of flora to investigate. Things are looking up.

And if you’re wondering how we plan to get this thing set up and keep it a surprise… well, so am I.

Last tasks of the season

On my to-do list for the last few weeks has been an entry reading, “dig beets” followed by an entry reading, “make pickles.” Whenever I see this list, I mentally add the carrots and the onions still in the ground. These are the last things I need to do to put the garden to bed (unless you count my pipe dream of getting around to dividing my tiger lilies). But, as I run around taking the girls to dance and choir, getting everybody to the dentist, doing my part on our local public library board, cleaning the house, chasing the barely-walking baby, and all the other louder demands on my time, the trio of vegetables keep getting shuffled to the next day’s list.

Today I finally got rid of both entries and replaced it with “mulch beets and carrots”. I’ve overwintered carrots in the garden before very successfully. You can leave them all winter and they will go to seed the next year (they’re a biennial, related to parsley), or you can dig them up throughout the winter for fresh eating. They need a heavy mulch for this; I’ve used corn stalks and husks as well as leaves, but small straw bales are ideal as they’re easy to get off and replace when you want to harvest your carrots. Be sure to only dig what you want to eat though; they won’t hold.

I’m going to have to get the onions out, I think. We’ve had a couple of hard frosts this week, so I don’t know if they’ll keep for me (I usually let the tops dry and then braid them and hang them in the pantry). Maybe I’ll try them in my new dehydrator.

As for the beets… you don’t want to have any other commitments when you set out to turn the kitchen red. Maybe next week will be a little quieter. Until then, here’s my F.A.V.O.R.I.T.E beet pickle recipe. Maybe you can get some done.

SWEET PICKLED BEETS

2 pounds whole beets (don’t peel, or top, just trim)

water to cover

1 1/2 cups white vinegar

1/2 beet juice (from boiling the beets, strain to remove any silt)

2 cups white sugar

1/2 tsp salt

1 Tbsp mixed pickling spices (that’s actually what the label calls them), tied in a cotton bag (or cheesecloth)

Cook the beets until tender, then let cool until they can be handled. Slip the skins off and cut up into chunks, placing the chunks into hot, sterilized jars to within 1 inch of the top.

Place the vinegar, sugar, beet juice and salt in a sauce pan. Add spice bag and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and pour over the beets; seal jars. (Here’s tips on processing; at my altitude 10 minutes is good for pints.)

Makes about 4 pints.

Making a deal with Mother Nature never works

Me, last Wednesday: Hey, Mother Nature, thanks a lot for the lovely mild weather we have enjoyed the last couple of weeks. It’s been nice to enjoy the sunshine, and the farmers are getting caught up a little around here. We really appreciate that.

Mother Nature, last Wednesday: You’re welcome. Here’s another couple of sunny days for you with no frost!

Me, Friday morning: Wow, thanks. You know, I’ve got company coming for Thanksgiving. I know I’m half done this little landscaping project here, and it’s your general policy to abhor a vacuum, but could you, just this once, ignore a vacuum, until I can get back to it on Monday?

Mother Nature, this morning: Mmmmm…. no. I think the dandelions will return and begin to flower even though it’s October.

Me, this morning: Dang. Okay, well, can you keep the lovely clear skies going for a few more hours, and hold off that huge black cloud building in the west? I can get this mulching finished up real quick! And most of the farmers just need today to get the hay off…

Mother Nature: Mmmmm… nope. Time for rain! Lovely, cool, soaking, autumn rain!

Me, rather wet: Alright. I’m going to finish this right now anyway, in case you decide to turn this into snow.

Mother Nature, noon-ish: Sunshine is so lovely, isn’t it?

At least she knows how to make these crazy changes look good...

Disappointing Hoses

While cleaning up one of my flower beds this fall I found yet another soaker hose with a hole in it. It’s one of the black foamy types, and it’s ripped almost in half. I’ve been responsible for this kind of damage before (garden fork, anyone?), but more than once I’ve found a busted hose with no clues about its demise. A rogue rose thorn? A particularly hungry gopher?

The obvious next thing to do is blame the hose itself as being crappy. I’ve tried the green kind with the pin prick holes, but they were constantly kinking on me if I try to put the teeniest curve in them. I moved on to the black kind. I tried a Canadian Tire and a Home Hardware brand. Both bit it within the season. I bought some repair kits. New cracks appeared. So I shelled out a little more for some Gardena ones. They lasted quite well, actually, and came with lots of quick connect pieces. That was the one I found this morning. This is only the second season I’ve had it, but even so I think it was the better buy. The ends are self repairing; if I cut down the hose to where it broke, they’ll reattach, making the same, but shorter, hose.

So the next thing to blame is water pressure, or storage practices… I thought I was being careful in both these regards.

I expect to repair, as well as replace, hoses now and again, but I wasn’t counting on doing it at the rate of three or four a year. Am I missing something? Is there a better way? A better brand? A Holy Grail?

Or is this just part of the gardener’s yearly lament that I was unaware of?

Good Grass, Bad Grass

After spending a good deal of the season trying to get rid of grass, I’m planting… grass.

We tore up a bunch of lilacs as part of a big garden overhaul last fall so there’s all kinds of lumpy bits and bare patches in the lawn. Not that it wasn’t pretty lumpy already; I live in fear of one of us spraining an ankle whilst strolling innocently out to the shed, never mind the kids running around. I’ve heard people blame this lumpiness on night crawlers, those big, fat, earthworm look-alikes. I’ve heard people blame it on horses and deer, which I’m apt to believe. I’ve heard people blame it on too much foot traffic in the wet spring. Whatever the reason, I have a very lumpy lawn. If you can even call it a lawn. It’s really what you call “farm grass”– a mix of clover, dandelions, crab, quack, and bluegrass. Everybody around here has it; it’s just one of the facts of life for a rural community. However, I cringe every spring when my lawn turns golden with little yellow mopheads. It wouldn’t bother me that much except I’m upwind from most of town and any negligence on our part will be felt by a lot of neighbors and farmers. And making your grass stronger and healthier is one of the better (and decidedly non-chemical) ways to choke out lawn weeds. So between the lumps, the relocated lilacs, and the dandelions, (and a few bags of free grass seed) I’ve been planning all year to do a little resurfacing and over seeding this fall.

Springtime on the east part of our property, formerly pasture for a couple of lump-making horses, now home to a nice crop of dandelions.

I fully intended it. They say it’s the best time. But a couple of weeks ago, right about when we started getting frost, I heard the BEST best time is several weeks before frost. Maybe the rest of you still have a chance…

So I’m focusing on another grass. I’m going to plant rye. As in, fall rye. My vegetable plot is returning to its clay origins lately and is in need of a good dose of vitamins, and fall rye is supposed to make a great “green manure” and help choke out weeds too. I’ve never tried it before, but what you do is clear the soil of vegetation and sow (“In September”, according to the package… that gives me… tomorrow, right?) the rye shallowly. It grows. Then in spring, you till (or hoe) it under with a little bonemeal, and you have a nicely rejuvinated soil. Rye is an annual grass, so it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) come back to haunt you… Considering my history with grass, I’m taking a major risk. Here goes nothing.

An ode to trees

Had to share with you a podcast I listened to this week from CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera. It gets people from all over the country telling their stories about the trees in their lives.

Here’s a few of my stories. What are yours?

When I was pregnant with my first child, I was really morning sick, all day. I worked on the north end of Edmonton and rode the bus home to the University area. The driver on the route I took really liked to take the corners tight, and by the time we got over the High Level Bridge, and took that little twist at the end, I was turning green. I would hold it in until I got off the bus, but I would more often than not succumb to the nausea about half a block east. This neighborhood is/was full of mature leafy giants planted in the boulevard that give the streets that lovely canopy of shade. There was one tree I would lean against while… taking care of business. This might sound goofy, but I swear, it held me up. It felt like it was letting me suck a little energy out of it. More than once I saw people giving me funny looks, and I’m pretty sure they thought I was dead drunk at 10 pm, but I’d just hug my tree, say thank you, and carry myself home to bed.

My grandparents’ weeping birch I told you about earlier this summer has lots of memories. We lived with Grandma for awhile after Grandpa died, when I was in high school. That tree had great branches, and I would climb up there and wait for rides. I was totally hidden in the branches. I’d jump down to the ground when my friends drove up, appearing out of nowhere, and pretty soon the running joke was that I lived in the tree, not the house. That was okay with me; I loved that tree. We were buddies.

We hired an arborist in the spring of 2009 to rescue our mature poplars (been topped one too many times). He gave us a free estimate, worked fast and neat, left us loads of wood chips to use, and came in under his quote. Then this spring, after they’d leafed out, the same poplars were attacked by the power company’s “arborists.” It looked like one side of three of them had been shaved. I think they’ve killed one; they took probably 60-70% of the growth off of it. I swear, give me a bucket truck and I would have done a better job. Don’t get me wrong, I have a very healthy respect for the situation–my sister is an arborist and she’s married to a power linesman, so I’m pretty well educated. But I was raging for weeks. I want to hire my guy back and bill the power company. How do you think that would go over?

Anyhow… trees. Love ‘em. This podcast also helped me commit: I am going to quit threatening and actually plant an apple tree this spring. I’ve had my eye on a Prairie Sensation…

Unexpected surprises in the garden

After another little round of rain I went out to investigate the yard and found a few unexpected things. We grabbed the camera to document them for you.

-A Boreal Chorus frog (or possibly a Western chorus frog) in the driveway. The kids pulled out the field guide and identified him before setting him loose in a puddle. Every time this happens I start thinking again about putting in a pond. Because I’m keeping up so well with the rest of the place, and I don’t have any half finished projects.

-At least five different types of mushrooms growing in the lawn and (what was supposed to be) the fallow section of the vegetable garden. If these ones are edible, I’ve probably got enough to stock the freezer for the year. Where’s a reliable mycologist when you need one?

-The peas going to town, blooming like there’s no tomorrow, which there might not be for them–we’ve already had our first snow! I don’t normally grow peas, so this is an extra special treat for me, and makes me wonder, why don’t I normally grow peas?

-The tops chomped clean off one patch of beets. I assume the deer are coming through again; they seem to change their route a couple of times a year and I haven’t seen much sign of them since late winter. I’d have a picture for you of that travesty except meine Kamera ist kaput. (The final unexpected surprise. Boo.)

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