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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

Quick and simple flower arrangement

Here’s a centerpiece I asked my older girls to make for our dinner table yesterday. I had them pick a bunch of moss phlox flowers and float them in this oval dish. Not exactly a new idea, but it turned out so pretty I had to share.

I imagine the same idea would work nicely with cornflowers (bachelor’s buttons), periwinkle, cranesbill (hardy geranium), or any other small flower.

My overgrown perennial bed

This is the lovely flower bed Margo planted years ago.

It is full of traditional perennials like irises, peonies, daffodils, lilies, clematis, phlox, and lupins.

At least, I think it is.

It was on the bottom of the priority list last year.

I thought it could stand a little neglect, because it was so well established.

Now I am paying for it.

Have I mentioned lately that I wish death to quackgrass? I don’t even think Kathy Renwald could help me hide this one…

Wildlife sightings

It’s been a good year for wildlife.

We had a perfect view of this little guy from a hallway window. Watched him for ten minutes before he trotted off.

We watched a fox bury his lunch in our backyard in February, and played host to the deer more than a few nights. There’s been moose up on the hill a lot this year and the guy I get my eggs from has a raccoon giving him grief. I think we’ve got some little yellow finches nesting somewhere nearby, because they are constantly hanging out in the mountain ash even though there’s no berries or anything yet.

We had two really cool visitors this week. A yellow-bellied marmot was just hanging out on the front walk when we saw him; by the time Chris got the camera out he was hiding out under the front steps so we didn’t get a picture. He was pretty amazing. I’ve never seen one in the wild, much less in my yard.

Then we had a tiger salamander drop in. They are common in southern Alberta, but we don’t tend to see them unless it gets good and wet, which it has been the last few weeks.

Salamanders are good luck charms for me. Amphibians are some the of first creatures to be affected when an environment is disrupted or damaged, so seeing this little guy is like a little signal from the universe that things are okay, that our little corner of the world is pretty healthy and happy. Makes you feel like you’re doing something right, you know?

Then doing the dishes here tonight, we saw a big old jackrabbit bound across the road. That’s a little more prosaic–my parents have a warren in their Edmonton neighborhood–but with all these critters around, I feel like our garden has become a veritable wildlife sanctuary. It’s reminded me I’ve been meaning to build a bat house and a mason bee house to add to all the birdhouses Chris and the kids have put up. Heck, I think maybe we’ll build a butterfly house this summer too… the more the merrier. As long as the raccoons stay away from my compost pile.

How to garden with (and around) kids: Part 1

There is no shortage of information out there on gardening with kids. There’s lots of talk about the lessons children can learn and the fun that can be had in the garden. There are lots of ideas, lots of inspiration, lots of encouragement, but unfortunately, not a whole lot of reality.

Don’t get me wrong, I think kids belong in the garden. It can be fun, healthy, educational. I’m a big believer in slave labor… I mean, helpers. And there are some really great books out there (one I’ll recommend for schoolagers: Kids in the Garden by Elizabeth McCorquodale, Black Dog Publishing).

But as a mother of five, I’m here to tell you, the vast majority of the stuff you’ll see about kids and gardens is written through rose-colored glasses (no pun intended). It’s not all about cute little yellow trowels and robust bean vines in terracotta pots. Sometimes you’re cajoling a ten-year-old to pull her share of weeds with a toddler clinging to your leg and soccer practice only half an hour away.

So here’s a few of my ideas, if you’re up for a little reality check:

1. There will be casualties. Accept this. They don’t know they just stepped all over your freshly planted annuals; they’re just chasing butterflies. Not every seed will sprout if planted by a three-year-old an inch deeper than it should have been, but really, is that the point? Resist the urge to redo their efforts. I’ve been known to build little fences out of fallen twigs around newly planted “please don’t walk here” spots. (Actually, this is a great kid job if the ground is soft.)

2. When you’ve got a wandering toddler who’s as likely to yank up a lily as a dandelion, getting much of anything done can be frustrating. You can wait until nap time or trade babysitting, but if you can shift your mindset away from accomplishing one particular task, a great strategy is to wear an apron with hand tools in it. Then just follow your little person around as he explores, digging a weed, pruning a limb, tying a floppy stem as you go. You’ll be surprised how much you can get done this way. (You can also use a bucket or tote of tools, but watch out: Murphy’s Law says Baby will find the scissors or knife as soon as you look away. Not that this has ever happened to me. Ahem.)

3. It’s true that having kid-size tools and gloves helps make it more fun and easier for kids to help. It’s harder than you think to use a full size (and weight!) rake when you’re only four feet tall. But just as important: some toys, games and space for them to play. Kids have short attention spans. Inevitably, you will want to work longer than they will, and it really cuts down on the whining if they’ve got a sandbox or a hammock to retreat to as a reward or break. And for the smaller ones, it means you can keep an eye on them without having someone hanging out in your lap.

4. For you it might be about color schemes and cultivars, but for kids it’s about being there. Weeds are pretty; dandelion seeds are meant to be blown. Don’t kill their joy with your vision or schedule. I’ve been that yelling mom and I can tell you two things: one, it doesn’t change the situation, and two, it’s detrimental to the kid’s attitude. You’ll still have unpicked weeds and they’ll not be in much mood to help the next time you ask.

5. Mulch is your friend. It is every gardener’s friend, but especially to a gardener with children. It buys you time and saves you work. Make the investment.

6. Never say the words, “Let’s plant some seeds today” to a three to five year old until you are absolutely, entirely, earnestly, ready to get them in the soil.

7. The things you hear about ownership are true. Once a kid has “her” tree, or “his” tomato plant, it will be watered and weeded proudly with only occasional gentle reminders (especially if there’s a lingering lesson from last season of something that died of neglect. Just saying. Not from experience or anything.). We have a “kid garden” where I’ve done some structural planting and they get to plant whatever else they want. Each of my older girls has a rose bush that they do everything for (including the pruning, with some pointers). My six year old plants sunflowers every year. He keeps track of how tall they grow and which one gets the biggest flower. And you won’t find any weeds surviving at their bases.

8. A watering can in the hands of a three year old is a powerful weapon. Direct it well, and you’ll lighten your load. Allow it to be unleashed on the unsuspecting though, and you may have some flood victims.

9. Patience. Cultivate it along with your plants. It takes a seed time to germinate, flower, and set fruit. A child is no different. Don’t expect fruit when he’s just learning how to flower.

The people who live in my garden

It was bittersweet to pull my edger out of the shed today. I inherited it from Chris’ grandmother a few years back, and she died last week.

Every time I picked up that edger, I’d say, in an exaggerated German accent, “VVan-daa” because Oma had labeled it with her name to ensure its return from the neighbors, and I couldn’t help but think of her as I used it. Today it meant even more, knowing her life here was over, that I’d never eat plums off her tree again, or have zone envy when her magnolia bloomed. But through this tool, I feel like she will stay with us, continue to give somehow.

Wanda helping me tidy up the tulips

My grandfather has always had a presence in my garden too. I spent many summer hours of my childhood alongside him in his patch of dirt, weeding, nibbling chives, eating carrots right out of the ground. He taught me respect for the earth, the pleasure of work. I imagine him now looking over my shoulder, enjoying and encouraging things. I still use many of his tools, too, and plant things the way he did. The peonies and the tomatoes and the cabbage all remind me of him.

The more I think about it, the more people come to mind that have a place in my garden. There’s Rob and Margo, who laid the groundwork for the land I work today. There’s Phaedra, who gave me Chinese lanterns. There’s Patsy, who gave me lilies and irises. There’s Heinz and Lisa, who inspired me with fresh greens (and morels and fiddleheads too). There’s Ralph and Brenda, who tackled the weeds with me. There’s our neighbor Bob who kept our lawn mowed when Chris was sick. There’s my sister Jenni who designed the new flower beds and built me stone steps. There’s Jay, who inspired a couple of new planters this year (I’ll show you when I get them planted up). There’s my brother Ben, who has been the muscle on more than one occasion.

I could keep going. Yup, I’m working alone right now, with just the two little girls playing in the grass. But it sure doesn’t feel like it.

My garden is pretty crowded.

Who’s hanging out with you?

What to bring to Canada Blooms

Tomorrow Canada Blooms, the annual gardening extravaganza, kicks off at the Direct Energy Centre in Toronto. Last week I put together a little preview of what I’m excited to see though realistically I’m excited to see it all.

Tomorrow morning I will be there bright and early to take it all in. I put together a quick little list of what you should bring/wear so that you have the best possible time:

  • A notebook and pen: You will gain countless ideas and tips that you can apply to your own gardens. Best to write them down. I do!
  • A camera: Again, you’ll be brimming with ideas as you stroll through the stunning displays. You’ll want to visually capture some of that inspiration for your garden journal. Also you never know who you’ll run into! Martha Stewart took a stroll through last year’s show.
  • Comfortable walking shoes: You’ll be walking on concrete for x number of hours. I speak from experience when I say “wear sneakers.”
  • A watch: You don’t want to miss any interesting seminars or presentations.
  • Cash: The shopping is pretty irresistible. You can buy everything from exotic plants to organic seeds to rain boots to magazine subscriptions (like to Canadian Gardening, wink wink).
  • Reusable shopping bags: For your loot. Some people even bring those little bags on wheels.
  • Also, empty your purse of non-essentials. There is nothing worse than lugging around a ton of bricks for five hours.

Gardening gift of the day: Grow Great Grub

I really wish I knew about Gayla Trail’s first book, You Grow Girl: The Groundbreaking Guide to Gardening, when I first bought my house. Gayla has a way of making gardening sound so fun and easy and attainable. Her fantastic follow-up, Grow Great Grub, inspires readers to grow their own fruits, veggies, herbs and edible flowers. Teeny tiny yards and balconies are no obstacle, you just have to work with what you have. That might mean growing tomatoes upside down or raising kumquats in your living room. Delicious, interesting recipes make full use of your harvest and a helpful section shows you how to preserve your bounty so that nothing goes to waste. Gayla’s DIY ethos and conversational tone make you want to reach for your gardening gloves and start planting, salvage containers for plants and grow something you haven’t tried before—like potatoes in a metal garbage can!

Price: $24.99
Available at: Chapters Indigo and Amazon.ca

Plants with curls

Now that my garden is fast asleep, I fulfill my gardening urges by sorting through my garden photos. We all admire plants for their colourful blooms and interesting foliage, but what about their other unique attributes.

Take curls for example. I found these two examples of plants with curls in my garden photos, but I know there are many other plants that showcase these curly tendrils. Of course I admire the plant’s ”whole package’, but sometimes it’s fun to focus on one interesting aspect. So today, it’s all about curls!

Yucca tendrils

Yucca tendrils

Pumpkin tendrils

Pumpkin tendrils

Spooky Halloween horticulture

With the arrival of Halloween tomorrow, the houses in my neighborhood are becoming ghoulish haunts. Front yards are littered with tombstones and zombies and skeletons are lurking in the shadows. I love when homeowners make the effort to create haunted gardens, even if it’s a traditional jack-o-lantern greeting children as they scream “trick or treat?”

Haunting my front door this Halloween is the Headless Horseman.

Haunting my front door this Halloween is the Headless Horseman.

Have you ever wondered why we crave pumpkins for Halloween?

The tradition dates back several centuries to Ireland, where a lazy farmer named Stringy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. When the time came to pay for his drink, Jack convinced the Devil to transform into a coin, but instead of paying with it, he put it the coin in his pocket with a silver cross to prevent the Devil from transforming back. When Jack finally decided to let the Devil go, he made the Devil promise that the he wouldn’t take his soul.

Unfortunately for Jack, he died the following Halloween (of unrelated causes) and was turned away from the Heaven because of his sinful lifestyle. Turning to the Gates of Hell as a last resort, he was turned away by the Devil because the Devil had promised not to claim Jack’s soul. Poor Jack was alone in the darkness, but the Devil took pity on him and gave him a glowing piece of coal to light his way. Luckily Jack found a turnip and put the burning coal inside. To this day, Jack is roaming the earth, carrying the turnip lantern to find his way in the darkness.

Although there are many different versions of Stringy Jack’s story, all lead to the tradition of carving turnips. Since pumpkins were more plentiful then turnips in North America, Irish emigrants decided to hollow out the large orange gourds when making their Jack-o-Lanterns for Halloween.

To read more Halloween horticulture, check out Charmian Christie’s article ‘Halloween Plant Lore.

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