{ Author Archive - April Demes }

The digging of the potatoes

After plugging them into the ground in early June, my potatoes have lived without the interference of human attention. Unless you count the sprinkler blanketed over the whole garden. My mom is visiting this week and she keeps asking what she can help with (!!). So far, she’s washed every dish as soon as it was dirtied and made some serious headway with the laundry. To spare her from reading the same Dora the Explorer picture book for the tenth time, I suggested we head outside and dig the last of the veggies. My youngest daughter had to get in on the action, of course. She seems way more excited about these potatoes than the ones I have put on her plate before. Think she’ll start eating them now?

Quick frost cover-up

Remember the Cubs’ pumpkins?

Since helping the boys start the plants this spring, I have been gently nudging Chris to get his boys to take care of them (or take care of them himself), since it’s really their project, and I’ve got plenty of over things I’m already not on top of.

I “suggested” he’d better cover them up one night a couple of weeks ago, as there was a good chance of frost, but stayed out of it beyond pointing him to the burlap and the extra sheets. Guess what that guy did? Instead of using the flat sheets and weighing down the corners like I would have done, he grabbed fitted sheets and snuggled them right over the plants. The elastic was just right to hold the sheet on the plant without rubbing or breaking leaves.

Genius, right?

And look what they’ve got to show for it:

Ta-da! 'Jack of All Trades' has my endorsement for strong growth and quick fruit. Seeds, flesh, and carving: TBA

 

Good night, sweet earth

As I sit writing this, the first snowfall of the season sits on the lawn, and the radio is announcing a heavy snowfall warning for our area.

I’m sorry friends, it’s here.

We’ve been having such a pleasant, warm autumn that I’ve just been working steadily away, weeding and mulching and digging carrots, with nary a thought of full-on winter. The last few days, however, have been a flurry of activity: Chris mowing and finishing up the drip cap on a window we just replaced, me planting bulbs and gathering forgotten tools back to the shed. It’s amazing what little white cartoon crystals on the internet weather forecast will do.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this will melt in a few days, and I can finish digging up the beets, not to mention that most of you are probably still veritable ages away from winter proper. Just consider me your early-warning system: time to finish up. Time to tuck in your tenders, cover up select conifers. The earth is stretching her leafy-treed arms and getting ready for bed. So enjoy some relaxed late-night conversation with your garden, talk about your plans for when it awakes. Make it some hot chocolate, and kiss it goodnight.

Shhh.

Good night.

Sleep tight.

R.I.P., broccoli

I am in mourning.

I have been faithful with my application of Btk on all my brassicas this year, so no cabbage worms for us. I got all that stork’s bill under control (okay, most of it) and put down some good mulch. When I left the veggie garden alone last week to focus on the flower gardens and a few fall projects, the broccoli was just starting a new flush of strong growth, and I was smugly dreaming of a fall reaping of lovely green heads.

When I returned to see if they were ready for cutting, this is what I found.

Those little black spots are flea beetles, for the uninitiated. They got to my fall crop before I did. Ravaged it. Inedible.

This is what I get for feeling smug. ‘Pride cometh before the fall,’ and all that.

Or ‘Fall pride cometh before the flea beetle…’

 

Mystery tulip bulbs

In a hodge-podge corner of the front garden I have a bunch of different colored tulips. I’m still deciding what to do in this spot, so I’m content to let them go on doing their thing until I make up my mind, but I did decide quite a while ago one thing: I want to move the yellow ones over to where I’ve got some purple ones (I’m all about the complementary colors, you see.). Problem is, fall comes around, and I realize I have no idea where to dig to get the yellow tulips as opposed to the red or orange.

So this spring I was real smart. When the tulips bloomed, I reused the plant tags from the flats of pansies I bought to mark the bunches of yellow tulips so I could dig them up and move them this fall.
As in, now.
Well, I don’t know where those plant tags have gone, but they’re gone. I blame either children or hail.
Frustrated, I decided to dig anyway, trusting my memory (ha!) as to where the yellow ones had been. Approximately.

I found bulbs all right, but the question is, are they the right ones? Do I put them back and wait until next year to sort them out? Or do I take a chance and put them in their new home, and weed out any reds that might have slipped in?

I examined the bulbs carefully: no colour clue in the standard brown-covered cream. No little stamp on the outside stating the cultivar… oooo, wouldn’t that be handy? Or maybe little stickers like they use for produce in the grocery stores! There’s always a few of those persisting in the compost, so why wouldn’t they hold up to a few years in the ground? Somebody has got to look into the possibilities. I’m telling you, this could be a revolution in bulb management. Maybe not on the scale of the 1630′s, but it would change my little world.

Or maybe I’ll just stick em’ in the ground and cross my fingers.

 

The war on weeds: Hairy nightshade

Cleaning up after our carrot pulling, I found these lovely presents sitting in the soil.

Obviously the seeds of somebody plotting the downfall of next year’s garden adventures. They must be stopped!

A little digging and I found the culprit:

The dirty little sneak in question turns out to be Solanum sarrachoides: an annual weed in the same family as potatoes, commonly known as hairy nightshade. It only propagates by seed, luckily, although once I started looking, there were more little green orbs winking up at me than I was ready to live with. I don’t know if they’re mature enough to germinate (the full-grown berries are brownish coloured) but I’m in no mood to be lenient.

This is where kids come in real handy. I convinced my five-year-old that these little fruits were a favourite food of fairies and sprites, and gave her a bucket. Twenty minutes later, she had gathered a surprising number of berries and was busy making a fairy feast (over on the concrete, where it will be easy to stage a Santa’s cookies-style cleanup).

She’s entertained for a good hour, I’m freed of the pesky seeds in the garden, the fairies get fed; everybody wins.

 

 

Carrots and memories

It’s time to dig the carrots, which means Grandpa is on my mind, as he often is. I think it’s time you met him properly.

Yes, he took this picture himself, with a timer. Don't ask me how Mr. Spry got into position in time.

Hi, Grandpa, circa 1985! Great pants, by the way. Meet the Canadian Gardening community circa 2012. I was just telling all of them that I am thinking about you, because I am pulling up carrots. I didn’t thin very well this year, so there’s lots of tiny ones, like the ones you used to give me as you thinned. Do you remember me following you down the rows, waiting patiently as you trimmed the tops with your pocket knife and brushed the soil off? There was nothing like the taste of those little carrots.

I study this picture of you more than you might imagine, hoping to distill some of your knowledge from the little hints it contains: boards laid down to protect the soil and tiny seedlings, the hoses laid out in straight lines. What are the plants I can see? What was the chicken wire for? And what were you painting when you decorated those shoes?

I wish I’d had more time with you, to enjoy you and to learn from you, but here we are. And anyway, I think most of what you’d have wanted to teach me is right in those straight rows, plain as that mischevious smile, and deep down in the taste of those carrots.

I’m pulling carrots today, and though I am annoyed with myself for not thinning earlier and letting the stork’s bill get the upper hand, I still have a smile, because you’re around. And I’ve got a couple of little girls following me, munching away just like I did.

Getting great layers

I am still working on the design of my front garden after three years. I intended to have a plan and plant accordingly, but as it turned out, by the time the Bobcat showed up, only the basic foundation plants were firm in my mind. The rest has kind of evolved and morphed over the seasons, which has actually been a lot of fun. I’ve learned a lot about coordinating bloom colors and times, plant heights and spacing, and the impacts of weather patterns for my space.

One of the things I’m still trying to get a handle on is what I call layering: using plants, hardscaping, and decor to create pleasing levels and depth in the garden. This involves the principles of form, texture, proportion, and scale. It’s pretty easy to put tall delphiniums behind shorter roses if you’re looking at the space head on, but what if they are viewed from the side? What if it is a space you intend to walk through, as well as around or beside, with views from many angles?

I was mulling over this particular design challenge when we went for a hike last week in the mountains. Mother Nature tends to inspire consistently, and she didn’t let me down. I came upon this scene and a few things clicked into place. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but I’ll show you anyway.

What you are looking at here is perfect layering. Bearberry and junipers cover the ground, tiny little tendrils reaching out right to the stone walkways and easily navigating slopes, providing a living mulch with texture and color. Behind this layer, and breaking through the rear of it, are the (remnants of) wildflowers, giving more color in their season and adding height. Next are the small shrubs, in this case potentillas, bringing the eye up to the large conifers which anchor the scene and provide shade for the lower plants.

Pretty basic, right? But here’s a couple things a learned from this simple scene:

1. The trees are in the “back” of this picture, but they’re not in the “back” of anything on this mountainside. The position of everything can be described in relationship to each other, but outside the photograph, there is no ultimate, overarching orientation to this scene. It is anchored by the trees, and the path gives it some line, but it is more a circle than anything else. I’ve been thinking too linearly (is that a word?), with my house at the “back” and the street to the “front”. How can I think in circles? What are at the centre of my circles?

2. It pays to take several steps back. I tend to analyze my garden from about five feet away. This scene struck me from at least thirty feet away. What will I see if I pull back and let my eyes  go just a little out of focus, so the shape and colour of things stand out?

3. Light and shadow can play as strong a role as leaf and stone.

4. I really, really, do love bearberry, and I am willing to wait for it to grow.

So that’s my little design lesson from the expert. As you head outside this long weekend, pay attention to what Mother Nature has to teach you. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

 

Dirt: the book and the movie

At my local library last week I stumbled across a DVD brazenly titled “DIRT!” which I of course immediately picked up, being one of those people who knows I should use the term ‘soil’ but can’t resist the earthy real-ness of the d-word.
It’s a documentary about… well, dirt, and it’s role in farming, civilization, food stability, and the roots of life itself. Before you yawn, I must tell you that this is a funny, engaging movie, as well as being informative a thought-provoking.
There’s cute little animated dirt bits commenting on the scientific stuff, and astonishing news about microbial fuel cells (! I’d never heard of them before either). While it feels slightly soapboxy when it gets into mining and clear cutting, there are wonderful insights into traditional farming in India and digging up concrete playgrounds in NYC.
I found it well worth the watch (as did the people at Sundance) and am now hunting down the book on which it was based, Dirt: the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, by William Bryant Logan.
Happy Digging!

What to do with zucchini-shaped bounty

A friend recently posted on her Facebook: “Anyone who wants zucchini, come and get it. I have lots.”

I wanted to post back–but didn’t–”I’ll come get some of yours if you come get some of mine.”

Let the jokes, jibes, and ring-and-run deposits begin.

But for all the groans about its proliferious growth and size, zucchini is a great vegetable. No, really. I mean it. I’m not being sarcastic at all. It’s got next to no saturated fat, cholesterol, or sodium, but chock full of good stuffs like minerals, vitamins, and dietary fibre. It fills you up quick and takes on the flavour of whatever it’s cooked with, so it’s great for stretching out meals.

But, dang it all, you’ve got to eat that stuff almost constantly to keep up with it when you convince yourself every year that six plants will be about right. (Next year, I SWEAR, I will only have two.) I have tried slicing, blanching, and freezing it, as well as drying it to add to soups and such, both with marginal results. (The exception: shredded it holds up well enough for baking.)

It really is best fresh, that’s all there is to it. And it’s best picked early. Tiny baby zucchini 3-5 inches long tossed in a salad are just lovely, prime 8-12 inch squash are ideal for most other uses. If you see one this size, pick it now. Really. If you leave it, thinking to return at supper time to prepare it, it may have gained 5 inches. Do not turn your back.

In the event you end up with some oversized specimens, do not despair. You can peel them, core them, and shred the remaining flesh for quick breads (or the lovely marmalade included below). I also like to split them lengthwise, core them, and lay the halves on a baking sheet to receive fillings of almost any kind (ground beef and mushroom soup is a stupidly easy one). Throw it in the oven for 45 minutes or so, sprinkle with cheese, and dinner is served.

Not that there is a lack of zucchini recipes out there, but here’s a few more ideas I personally endorse (being quite experienced at getting rid of this stuff):

-add it to chilli, minestrone, spaghetti sauce, lasagne, taco filling even, sliced, shredded, or pureed, depending on preference or how sneaky you are trying to be.

-As a side dish, zucchini pairs nicely with carrots and baby onions. Steam and toss with a little butter, dill, and rosemary. Or try tossing slices or wedges with an equal amount of similarly chopped tomatoes and roasting them. Serve sprinkled with mozzarella or Jack cheese.

-If you like sautéed onions with your steak, add some mushrooms and zucchini too. Don’t forget the pepper.

-Grill zucchini strips and red, yellow, and green pepper strips that have been tossed with olive oil, garlic, oregano and thyme. About 15 minutes will do. Serve over Caesar salad.

-Quick breads hide zucchini very well. Recipes for brownies and spice-type cakes abound, but this is my favourite as it is a little less sinful but still feels like a treat. My kids know these just as “chocolate muffins”. Insert mad-genius laughter here.

3/4 cup butter or margarine

3/4 cup applesauce

1 cup white sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 cup plain yogurt

3/4 cup cocoa powder

2 1/2 cups flour (I use half white, half whole wheat)

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

2 cups grated zucchini

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Beat together first 5 ingredients until light and creamy. Add the yogurt and cocoa powder and beat until smooth. Stir in remaining ingredients except zucchini until just combined, then fold in the zucchini. Fill muffin cups, and bake 25 minutes. Nutella is the perfect topping. But that kind of goes without saying, doesn’t it? Makes 20-24 muffins.

 

-Zucchini Marmalade

This is an old recipe from Chris’ grandmother that has stood the test of time. I’m not that crazy about marmalade, but I love this.

Put 5 firmly packed cups peeled, grated zucchini in a heavy pot. Add the juice and grated or finely chopped rind from 2 oranges and 1 lemon, 1 small can of crushed pineapple (drained), and 5 cups white sugar. Bring slowly to a low boil, and cook until thick, stirring often. Pour into hot, sterilized jars, and process for 10 minutes to seal (or just stick them in the fridge). Makes about 5 500mL jars.

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