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Feasting in France

France is for foodies – that just goes without saying. So when you visit a country where “gourmet” simply feels like the standard, and tour a countryside famed for its fresh local fare, you may gain a few pounds, but you’ll surely have eaten like a roi.

In France’s Rhône-Alpes region, the vegetation is verdant. From veggies to lavender to olives to grapes, the tradition of cultivation predates the founding of France itself, dating back to Roman times, so the mastery of these ingredients is all but built into the population’s DNA. And it’s evident in the food they prepare, which is served up like art on a plate.

View of the Ardèche Gorge

 

Eating my way from Ardèche to Drôme (considered the gateway to the South of France), I enjoyed food fresh from the ocean and from the land, often prepared at Michelin-star restaurants, but my all-time favourite meal in France was tucked in a tiny 18th-century farmhouse-turned-restaurant/guesthouse called Le Mas des Faïsses.

Le Mas des Faïsses courtyard

 

Using ingredients from their 18 surrounding hectares of gardens, terraces and orchards, Yvette the gardener and Robert the cook create seasonal, original recipes maximizing whatever’s in season, including even edible blooms like daylilies.

 

Chef Robert telling us about the ingredients

 

Yvette the gardener is a bit shy

A floral centerpiece that turned out to be a garden-fresh salad, a pudding of pureed fresh veggies, and a selection of young goat cheese (from local goats) were just some of the stages in this five-course luncheon…

Centrepiece or salad?

Salad! (That's me eating, not smelling)

 

…but most memorable was the beet pancake of the main course. Delicious-looking, no? I had been thinking about it pretty regularly since I returned from France and finally thought to try my luck at obtaining the recipe to share with our gardening readers. And since, in this part of France, they’re as generous as they are gourmet, Robert sent us his recipe and let us all in on the secret to the alchemy of his famous fresh fare.

 

Main-course magnificence

Beet Steaks

500g grated beet
1 sliced onion
1 egg
110g flour
1 tablespoon tamari sauce
1 teaspoon of Provençal herbs

Mix all ingredients
Pre-cook the steaks in a blini pan
Put aside in an oven-safe tin to use immediately or wrap in plastic film to refrigerate or freeze for further consumption.
Cook in oven at 250F for approx 30 minutes.
Serve with salad and roasted potatoes, fresh pasta or green beans.
 

 

 

Paying less than a pretty penny for a pretty garden

Looking back over the season, I’ve added up all I’ve spent on plants, tools, and soil, and it’s a lot more than I expected. I’m not giving you an exact number, because some of you will think it’s a drop in the bucket compared to yours, and the thrifty among you, well, I don’t want to risk any heart attacks.

The point is, it’s a lot for me. For us, our household. What’s a great buy for one person is frivilous for another, and one gardener’s money-saving measure is a time-wasting annoyance for his neighbor. Everyone has different priorities. But I want to be a little smarter about my garden budget in the coming year. Charmian Christie has some good ideas, and here’s a few of mine:

1. Never underestimate the power of a sale. Watch your stores for discounts throughout the season. Buy your mulch, stable fertilizers, etc. in the fall, when many stores would rather sell them off than ship them back to storage. Assuming you have somewhere to store it.

2. Many trees, shrubs, and perennials are happy to be planted in the fall, when many greenhouses and big box stores sell them off for as much as 50-80% off. Just watch out for stress and disease before you buy.

3. My favorite greenhouse has a customer appreciation day the first Thursday of every month. If I can time my visits for these days, I get 15% off.

4. Plan a plant and seed exchange in the spring or fall (or both!). Free plants! The selection might not be what you’d find in retail, but you might be surprised. Bonus: meet fellow gardeners you may not have crossed paths with yet. Or, if you’ve got some hutzpah, put on a sale.

5. This is something new I’m trying this year. Every time I get a little windfall of cash, I’m putting it into a seperate savings account (free from my bank). Fifty bucks here, five bucks there, but by spring, I’ll have a few hundred set aside for the new hoses I need, taking the pressure off our April/May household budget. Wage earners could do the same, transfering a set amount each pay cheque. We do it for retirement and insurance, why not this?

6. Compost.

7. Reuse… all kinds of things. Egg cartons for starting seeds, milk jugs for drip irrigation, mason jars for cloches. Save your money for the tools and gear you really need or love.

8. Think outside the box on hiring help. A neighborhood work party, moving from house to house and spending an hour on each one, can get a lot of spring or fall cleanup done in one Saturday. Is there a landscape designer you know who you could barter services with?

That’s about all I’ve got… how do you keep your gardening passion from draining your pockets?

There’s something about the forest…

“What would the world be, once bereft of wet and wildness?

Let them be left.

O let them be left, wildness and wet;

long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

–Gerard Manley Hopkins

Zone envy

In the last week I’ve seen a lot of gardens, from formal to cottage and pond-scape to desert-scape. We’ve crossed through several planting zones and I’ve seen plants I’ve only read about. It’s been fun, it’s been educational, and it’s been downright stressful–at least the part about choosing which gardens to see and which to miss.

And while I do pine for a magnolia hardy to Zone 3, and must lapse into ignorant silence when the conversation turns to rhododendrons, I’m a little perturbed by some of the innocent comments I’ve heard from warmer zone gardeners. They seem to communicate that it is somehow better to garden in Victoria compared to Calgary, that I, in my winter-wonderland region, am to be… pitied.

No disrespect meant to all you lovely people in Zone 5 and higher, but sometimes I feel like a second class citizen. You Edmontonians, Winnipeggers, Saskatchewanians: I think you know what I mean.

You open the latest issue of Canadian Gardening, and get ALL exCITed about a featured plant, let’s say… hellebores, just for example… the array of attractive colors, the siting options. The gears start turning in your head and you’ve half designed a cozy little space for them, only to have your little heart break when you realize every variety listed is out of your league, based on one factor: the location you chose to set up shop.

There’s a few things going on here. I’ll admit, part of it may be sour grapes–I really do want hellebores.

But also, there are lots of things we can grow in colder climes, for instance, I’ve got very happy Munstead lavender in my front garden, despite many experts (not this one) rating it at Zone 5. There are varieties of many plants that will stand up to lower zones if you select carefully and maybe plan for a little extra protection.

And who says “more plants” is the only Ace in the gardener’s pocket? Can you grow a greater variety of plants on the west coast? Indubitably. But guess what? I’m not fighting ivy. On my home turf, it’s only hope is as a houseplant. I’ve got more limited choices, but don’t need to worry about road salt or moss or most fungal diseases.

So while I am drooling out here on the island, I’m still looking forward to going back home. I don’t believe one spot is better than any other; the gardener’s cupid pricks us all with a different thorn. My own little plot, with all its weeds and clay, is still mine. It’s my classroom, my cathedral, and no way would I trade it in.

But I will thumb my nose and plant some hellebores… just as soon as my windbreak is established.

A Victorian garden party

I’m headed off on holidays tomorrow, and part of our trek will take us through Victoria. I’m already drooling at the thought of all the gardens I’ll be seeing… as we drive by… *sniff*.
One stop we are making is at Craigdarroch Castle, a real, live, historic castle! (My little girls are thinking princesses, my boy is thinking storming the gate.)
As luck would have it, we will be there August 13th, the day the Castle is holding a special (and free!) Victorian garden party to mark the completion of their restored grounds! I’ll let you read all the details, and maybe I’ll see some of you there!
(That’s more exclamation points than I usually use in a month…)

In which I plant some healthy ideas and reap some better health

This spring I was having some nasty headaches, which seemed to be developing from my constantly tense shoulders. I was climbing into bed aching and exhausted almost every night, but my life was busy with kids and home and garden and community, and I didn’t take the time to get any help other than having Chris rub my back as I washed supper dishes. I got good and fed up with it one night a couple of weeks ago and called my brother, a chiropractor in Calgary. I told him my symptoms, and he asked me a bunch of questions. He told me his over-the-phone diagnosis boiled down to lousy posture. My back went up immediately – in the figurative sense – but then I realized he was I right. I have pretty horrible posture. I’m a sloucher. He ran through a few stretches I could do, and admonished me to see a massage therapist and a real live face to face chiropractor. I thanked him and went to bed.

The next morning, while digging in the garden planting some very, very, very late potatoes (a girl can dream, right?), I realized I was totally hunching into myself over the shovel, giving what I thought was my all my strength into each step. I stopped, tried to recall what my brother had taught me the night before, and corrected my posture, making a conscience effort to roll my shoulders back and down. I immediately felt a difference. I was actually getting more power with each dig, it took less effort, and was not at all uncomfortable. I realized my gardening habits were likely contributing to my miserable body.

Life hasn’t slowed down any, but I’ve been paying much closer attention to my posture, and I’m already reaping the benefits: no more headaches, fewer body aches, more accomplished in the garden (and the house) because I’m not wasting so much energy. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that I’m making my inconsistent yoga practice more consistent, too. I haven’t fit in a visit to the chiropractor or for a massage, but the minute I find one willing to do house calls at 7 a.m. or 10:30 p.m., I’ll book ‘em.

Here’s a few resources to help you in your efforts to stay healthy.
-Maintaining your core muscles will help your whole body, and protect it from injury. Contracting your abdomen before lifting, bending, etc. will protect your lower back.

-Cultivate healthy gardening habits. Remember, your body is a tool as well. It needs care and proper use.

-A wall angel is the first exercise my brother recommended for my tense shoulders and neck. A great stretch to train your shoulders to a healthier position. Focus on bringing your shoulder blades down and together.
-Yoga Journal has lots of great resources, including a list of positions to target different parts of the body, even to target chronic issues.

-If you’re new to yoga, here’s five great simple stretches for gardeners. (the descriptions are to the right of the pictures.)

-Prevention is always better than treating an injury.

Jenni’s tree chair

With my landscaping overhaul two years ago and various articles this spring, I’ve been thinking a lot about garden furniture this year. It’s a major element missing in my yard.

Being of humble means, and not into grabbing the cheapy trend-of-the-moment patio set from the big box store, (translation: picky, but not rich enough to be) I’ve been biding my time until the right pieces come along. This approach to shopping problems has always served me well. (Pair of black dress boots, my size, exactly the style I wanted but couldn’t find, mint condition, for free, at a garage sale. Oh yeah.)

I’ve thought a lot about the style I would like, and I’m leaning towards rustic without being too stereotypically “cottage” style. (See? Picky.)

I think my sister Jenni is right on the money. And this chair suits her, being an arborist. Custom made by her husband, I’m seriously debating commissioning a couple. With my riches, you know.

Accidents really do happen

No happy post today, friends. Sorry.

A family close to us had their not-quite-two-year-old daughter taken from them in a farming accident this past weekend. I hesitate to use the word, but it really is nothing short of a tragedy. I can’t imagine all the “what if I had…” or “why didn’t I…” thoughts going through the minds of her parents this week, but really, there’s nowhere to point a finger. It just happened.

Could it have been prevented? Maybe. But how does that help the family and community that now mourn her? Like most accidents, it was just the wrong blend of totally normal circumstances. I wish there was a way to rewind time and bring her back to her mother, father, and two brothers, and the circle of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins who love her. Not having a time machine or mystical powers, I find myself helpless to help beyond prayers and hugs.

I hope I don’t minimize this family’s loss, or make it uncomfortably public, by sharing it with you. My purpose is to bring your attention to how quickly and easily things like this can occur. It has made me look at my own home and yard with different eyes: where are the accidents waiting to happen? I’m putting my tools away a little more carefully, reassessing the chemicals in the shed, watching my step.

Many who will read this are urban gardeners, and may think this outside their list of worries. But all gardens have sharp tools, things to trip over, and probably some light machinery. I hope all of you will take a few minutes to assess the safety in your own garden, not to the point of paranoia or fear, but with a healthy respect for your mortality and that of those you love.

And give your kids, your spouse, your pets, an extra little hug today, for little Anna.

Summertime, and the livin’ is…

…easy, a little too easy.

It’s tough to get motivated on that weed pulling when there’s picnics and beaches calling. I’ve done more kayaking this week than lawn mowing, and hanging the hammock seems more appealing than hauling hoses. But it must be done, and there’s a part of me, buried deep under the sunscreen, that really does want to do it. So I made myself a ‘summer garden’ playlist to kick-start my work ethic. And being the generous person I am, I’m sharing it with you. Hope you enjoy. If it’s not your taste, make your own and share it.

Summer Gardening Mix

In search of local food

So I got an email last week about a shindig going on up in Edmonton (my old stomping grounds) this Friday — the Sturgeon County Bounty local food event. Local chefs will be presenting food sown and grown in the area. Sigh. Too bad I’m not in the area anymore.

One of the drawbacks to country living — and I’ll admit, there are a few — is being far away from all the fun events like this one. And Home and Garden shows. And Canada Blooms. And Hort shows in general.

But I digress.

As I wallowed in my lack of County Bounty attendance, a pang of guilt struck my heart. I remembered that up the road a little out of my way is a market garden I have never visited. I’ve driven past the sign for Room 2 Grow lots of times; but usually on my way up to Edmonchuck so I’ve never justified a stop. Why am I worried about local food in Edmonton when I’ve got local food right here that I’m ignoring?

A cayenne pepper growing in the greenhouse. Also here are tomatoes, cucumbers, and sweet and hot peppers.

So I repented and made a trip up there today (a whole 20 km, my odometer tells me) and had a visit with Heather, who runs the place with her husband Norm. They have about 2 acres of berries, vegetables, and herbs with the rest of their 1/4 section dedicated to raising bulls. It’s a laid back, unassuming place, with gardens of strawberries hiding behind tree lines and potato patches snuggled up against pastureland. They sell eggs, chicken, and beef as well. Heather (who is also an award winning artist) seems preoccupied with all the weeds she hasn’t pulled, but says she would “rather have it messy than have it full of who knows what.” She hands me a strawberry right off the plant and I taste the result of their zero chemical approach: the unbelievable flavor locals, tourists, and three local restaurants keep coming back for.

One of the ladybugs Norman released in the greenhouse to snack on the aphids. The Dodds rely on biological approaches like these to tackle any gardening problems.

I left with a bag full of strawberries, a cucumber, and several of the tastiest, most gorgeous tomatoes I’ve ever had.

Heather also reminded me that I have two different weekly farmer’s markets within a half hour’s drive of my house.

Drawbacks to country living, my eye.

So your challenge this week is to discover what kind of food opportunities are hiding close to you. I’ll bet you a sweet little strawberry they’re closer than you think.

Here’s a sampling of local food resources from across the country. Try Googling “local food” and your city or province.

Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association

Greenbelt Guide (Ontario resources)

Eat Local Manitoba

Select Nova Scotia

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