Gardening Blog

Why does harvest time coincide with the onset of flu season?

I had a very productive weekend getting the last of the veggies out of the ground. I intended a busy week of canning, freezing, and drying, but only got as far as the canning: pickled the beets Monday and crashed on the couch with the worst flu I remember ever having. I’m coming out of the haze today, only hoping the carrots and turnips are still happy, covered, in the garage. To think I was going to leave the carrots in the garden over the winter, harvesting as needed. That would have been the better choice, had my crystal ball been working.

If some of you are wondering what to do with the end-of-season veggies at your house, I came across the USDA National Center for Home Food Preservation website, which gives specific guidelines for canning, freezing, drying, fermenting, curing… almost any type of food.

If you are more a book type, the old hippie-written Keeping the Harvest is still my go-to reference. During the growing season it rarely leaves my kitchen counter.

Goodbye, trees

Having been planted way back in the 1930′s, our poplar trees are starting to reach senior-citizen status. Some of them were planted right under where the power lines would end up running years later and, in consequence, as the trees have matured, they have needed trimming to keep them clear of the lines. While I shudder every couple of years at the drastic haircut, I’ve put up with it in the name of safety.

But last year they went too far. I came home to find one of the three less-than-ideally-placed poplars with its leader whacked and all of them with more than half the overall growth removed. (Not to mention one branch that had already died off still attached. Come on, it would have killed ya to take that while you were at it?) All three trees were already suffering from the regular attacks, but this was a death sentence.

You can see here the chair shaped chop that was the usual approach.

I called and complained. I was assured the crew were professionals and knew what they were doing. My eye. I assured the woman at Customer Service that what was left of my trees would be coming down, either on their tab, or later, on their precious line.

Sure enough, this spring all three trees were struggling, sending out stressed, weak growth. We had a strong wind storm and that dead piece they left up threatened to come down on the power line coming into the house. I called again. This time I got their attention and they sent out someone to check the situation.

This guy seemed to know a lot more than whoever actually did the cutting last time. He also informed me that the power company would prefer to remove the trees at their expense than trim them every few years. This was news to me. I’d rather put them out of their misery than watch them suffer. “Put me on the list,” I said.

And this week they showed up!

Going...

...going...

Gone! Just needs stump grinding...

It is sad in a way, but nice to be rid of that particular headache. I also have a nice big pile of wood chips to use for mulch. My kitchen is way sunnier in the afternoon than it used to be. And I have whole new design possibilities opening up…

How to repent and overhaul a flower bed

So, some of you may remember the horrid mess I encountered in one of my perennial beds this spring, thanks to my total neglect.

 

I continued my pattern of neglect right through the summer, but this week I decided the time had come to face up to my sins and fix things up. (Actually, I decided this last week, but it rained.)

If you, as I, have a nasty secret in your backyard, here are a few steps you can take to turn your life around.

1. Admit that you are powerless over quackgrass, that it really has become unmanageable.

2. Come to believe that a power greater than a trowel, fork, spade, or tiller is needed. Consider the merits of Roundup.

3. Start digging.

4. Put aside shame and ask for help.

5. Consider the layered newspaper thing. Smack yourself, remembering it is not a match for this particular problem.

6. Keep digging. Remind yourself that you really do need to divide the bulbs and the perennials anyway.

7. Lift all valuable plants. Marvel at the ability of grass roots to penetrate straight through an iris rhizome.

8. Stop for lunch.

9. Dig.

10. Consider Roundup.

11. Vacillate between replanting now, or stashing all the keeper plants in another part of the yard until the grass is really, really, really gone, either by Roundup or newspaper.

12. Remember that grass is never gone; stash plants/bulbs/etcetera in garage and put off decision for tomorrow.

Jack Frost comes to town

School is back in, the trees are changing color, and bugs are (attempting) to move inside: fall is unavoidably here. Some of you may still be weeks away from killing frost, but we’ve already had a couple of light ones here in Alberta.

Last winter I geeked out and did a bunch of reading on frost, thinking some theory might help my practical application this year. I had visions of early planting, and harvesting veggies and displaying flowers well into October. Not much of my vision materialized, as I still live in the real world, and I definitely haven’t reached the caliber of Niki Jabbour, but it’s cool to understand more about how weather works. And spreading sheets over the pumpkins with a flashlight after dark last week was totally worth buying them another couple of weeks’ growth.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned this year that may help you predict, and hopefully outwit, Jack Frost, and buy yourselves a little more time in the garden.

First off, find a weather website you like or buy one of those weather stations from the hardware store. The Weather Network actually has a Lawn and Garden forecast, including frost predictions and watering advice. A little info goes a long way.

Next, be prepared for frost. Have some old sheets or lengths of burlap ready to cover plants, as well as something to weigh them down against the wind. Small straw bales, a cold frame, or cloches will also do the insulating job. Have a spot in mind in the shed or garage to move containers of annuals to when you get a frost warning. Do a little research if you’re not sure which of your plants need frost protection. Bronze, hairy, or compact plants, as well as those closely spaced, will be naturally more protected, but don’t count on most annual flowers, squash, tomatoes, peppers, or corn to stand up to frost without being covered overnight. Carrots, beets, and most members of the cabbage family, as well as many other vegetables, don’t mind frost.

If you want to actually predict a frost, the first thing to do is look up. Clear, calm skies are a sign frost make strike, especially if afternoon temperatures start falling fast. Frost is less likely to occur under a cloudy sky, or when there is fog, as the day’s heat is trapped closer to the earth. This is part of why covering plants protects them–it traps some of the heat from the earth close to your plants.

Then assess the wind. If it’s strong, especially if it’s coming from the northwest, cover things up. Movements of large, cold air masses often bring on killing frost. But very still nights allow the coldest air to settle to the ground, also risking the temperature for your plants to hit zero. A light breeze will keep temperatures higher, unless that wind itself is below freezing.

Higher humidity decreases the risk of frost. This has to do with all the high school chemistry you’ve blocked out regarding warmer air being able to hold more water molecules. (See the next bit on dew point.) I’ve known people to water in annuals to protect them when a light frost threatens, though I’ve never tried it myself. The science backs them up: when the air is dry, evaporation sucks warmth out of the soil, making for chilly plants. By attempting to increase the moisture available, these gardeners “insulate” plants from the cooling effect of evaporation. Same goes for the old standby of covering things–it keeps the moisture close to your plants.

So here’s the real nitty-gritty of how frost actually appears–feel free to skip this paragraph if you’re not into scientific explanations. Basically, the dew point is the temperature at which the moisture vapor in the air will condense back into liquid, based on the given factors, most importantly, humidity. If the air temperature drops to the dew point above freezing, you get wet summer grass and diamond-scattered spiderwebs. If the dew point is below zero, and the temperature drops to it, the water vapor is changed directly into solid form–ice–and you see lovely feathery crystals on the edges of everything. Now, if the dew point is below zero, and the air temperature drops below zero but doesn’t reach the dew point, you won’t technically have frost, but tender plants will be damaged by the freezing temperatures. The other thing that can happen is the water vapor condenses at a dew point above zero, leaving dew, but the temperature continues to fall below zero, forming a coat of ice. So if you know the dew point and the overnight low, you can predict a frost.

If you’re really of a mind to change your relationship with frost, you may want think right down to the bones of your garden, your location and its physical features. Ever noticed that your neighbor can get white tipped lawn when you don’t? Higher altitude increases frost risk because the air is thinner and the average air temperature is lower. But low areas in the garden can be more susceptible to freezing because cold air is heavier than warm and tends to sink. Gentle slopes that expose the garden to the sun are more protected, open spaces plagued by wind are not. Houses, fences, and water bodies can be heat sinks and/or wind breaks that protect from cold air. Allowing places in the garden where wind can move, and hence, cold air escape, will also be protective. And that old saw about starting with the soil if you want better plants? It’s true in this case too: Fertile soil holds more moisture and passes it into the air more efficiently compared with sandy or deficient soil. And we know that humidity is good.

There. Don’t you feel smarter?

 

 

 

It’s getting to be bulb planting time…

I’m not generally the type to pay a lot of attention to advertising, but I do have an admiration for a clever tagline or whimsical campaign. So when I first saw a Dig.Drop.Done magazine spot, it peaked my curiosity. A brightly colored home, with a vaugely Leave-it-to-Beaver mom at center, precariously icing a zillion-layer cake? And it’s for flower bulbs? I love bulbs. What is this?

I went and had a look at the website. It was started by a group of bulb companies to “promote the joy of bulb gardening and ensure its future in North America.” Much of it is aimed at the beginning gardener as opposed to the seasoned vetran, but some of the pop-up tips from the three “ladies” — mascots of bulb planting — were helpful to me though I’ve been planting bulbs for a good ten years.

Check out their “bulb-pedia” for planting and species info on a very respectable range of flowers; and the ladies’ videos if you’re up for a groan or two…

Cabbage, and that sense of accomplishment

With the first of the frost warnings bearing down on me, I’m in the mood for some warm comfort food. Especially if it’s made with — ahem — the first cabbage I have ever grown! Ta da! Not that cabbages are tricky, I’ve just never grown them before, and I must say, they are very satisfying and quite beautiful. I came into the house holding my lovely green prize (with only one slug hole apparent) and presented it to Chris, gushing, “Look what I made!” He was suitably impressed.

Here's a lovely red one that should be ready soon.

But then I actually turned it into supper the next day. There’s something really fulfilling about that. If you’ve never grown food, please try it. (You can sign up for the Seed to Supper newsletter, too.)

So the supper I turned my wonderful Brassica into was cabbage rolls. I’m not classically trained in the art, but I love them, especially if it involves as little work as this recipe does. I’d be sorely tempted to eat the whole pan myself if it weren’t for the… consequences…

LAZY MAN’S CABBAGE ROLLS

Serves 6

1 pound (500 g) ground beef
1 1/2 cups (375 mL) chopped onions
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cans (10 oz./284 mL each) tomato soup
2 cups (500 mL) water
1 cup (250 mL) long grain rice
1 teaspoon (5 mL) chicken or beef bouillon mix
1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) freshly ground pepper
1/8 teaspoon (0.5 mL) cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon (0.5 mL) nutmeg
1/2 green cabbage, chopped (or 6 cups (1.5 L)coleslaw mix)
sour cream for serving

Brown beef, onions, and garlic over medium heat about 7 to 10 minutes, stirring to break up meat. (Use oil if needed.) Drain off any excess fat.

Stir in next 8 ingredients (tomato sauce through nutmeg). Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for a few minutes.

Sprinkle half of cabbage over bottom of a greased 9 x 13 inch baking dish.

Spoon half of beef mixture over top and spread evenly. Sprinkle with remaining cabbage.

Spread remaining beef mixture over top. Bake, covered, at 350 F (170 C) for 1 1/2 hours or until bubbly and heated through.

Serve with sour cream. Really. I don’t care if you’re on a diet, it’s required.

Give ground cherries lots of room to grow

Lately, I’ve been stepping out onto my patio to collect about 20 to 30 small lanterns off the ground below two large planters. These are my ground cherries and they’re producing wonderfully–but they also like to tease me, I think.

Inevitably, every time I’m finished collecting all the ripe fruit from the ground, I am just stepping inside when I hear another “plop!”

I turn around to see another freshly dropped lantern, go back and pick it up, then head back inside.

Finally, I close the door and I don’t dare look closely behind me for fear one of my two plants is wobbling its branches trying to shake more fruit free.

I decided to grow two ground cherry plants this year after trying the little golden fruits for the first time last year. I ordered Aunt Molly’s Organic Ground Cherry seeds from Veseys and started them indoors in the spring. They grew quickly, but I was worried because the stems were very thin and flimsy. They grew tall quickly, then started to lean over.

Unripe ground cherry in its husk on the plant

However, as soon as I moved them into bigger pots outside, they took off and became really sturdy. Their stems are thicker than a tomato plant’s and they actually didn’t grow much taller, just wider.

I wasn’t sure what size of pot to use, so I experimented. In my early research, I learned that ground cherries can take over a garden if some stray seeds make it through to the next year, so I wanted to grow in pots to avoid having to rip out plants in the future. Plus, growing in pots on my deck meant that I’d be able to see all the lanterns easily and they wouldn’t be sitting on wet soil or grass before being collected.

Ripe ground cherries in their husks

My large planter is a 20-inch round pot (and about 18 inches deep). Its plant grew to have a span of over 50 inches.

My smaller pot was about half as big and the plant grew accordingly. Even its fruit was slightly smaller.

Next year I’ll definitely grow in the larger sized pots, although I’m almost not even sure I need two plants –my large ground cherry plant has produced hundreds of fruits.

Time to make some ground cherry pie, I think!

Ripe ground cherries ready to eat

What shall I do with the aphids?

I am really, really lucky when it comes to mean bugs. Knock wood. I’ve declared war on cabbage worms, and had flea beetles move in a couple of times, but that’s about it.

This spring however I had a bunch of aphids show up on my lovage plant and nearly destroy it. Having never faced in infestation like this, my guard was down and I didn’t really notice a problem until the seed heads popped up and the whole plant started yellowing. It was pretty bad, so I decided to cut the whole plant back and burn the tops. This seems to have done the trick.

But while doing dishes, I look out on my lovely mountain ash (which is doing very nicely, thanks for asking). I had noticed when we got back from our trip that one branch seemed to have died back–shriveled leaves and all. I didn’t think much of it until this week, when another branch near it started doing the same thing. Having been focused on catching up the veggie patch, the front garden had been neglected and sure enough, when I went to investigate, I found aphids cozied up all over, with ants coddling them right along. Luckily, a few diligent ladybugs had already showed up to do their part, but I doubt they can take care of the lot all alone.

Go, ladybug, go!

This is why the experty people tell you to do a tour of the whole garden once a week, looking for stuff like this, isn’t it? Maybe I should hire someone…

Now, cutting back my tree like I did the lovage is not an option. I sprayed the tree down with a jet of water–I seem to remember reading that somewhere–but what advice do you all have for my entomological conundrum? I’m going to go ask Google, but I’d like to hear from some of you in the trenches–what really works for you?

Bring your appetite to the fifth annual Picnic at the Brick Works

Want to eat your way through the 12 regions of Ontario without the huge gas bill? Head to the Evergreen Brick Works Sunday, October 2 (from noon to 4) for the Picnic at the Brick Works. Last year’s event featured delicacies from 72 Ontario producers and 72 chefs. You can see all of this year’s participants—producers, chefs, restaurants and beverage suppliers—on the website. And I’ve included some mouthwatering photos from last year below. The price of your ticket ($120 general admission) gives you access to all of them! The proceeds from the event “will ensure farmers and producers are paid fairly for their labour. For Evergreen, proceeds will fund children’s food gardens and cooking workshops. For Slow Food Toronto, the funds support learning gardens, and connect consumers to local, sustainable food producers.”

If you’re in Toronto or the GTA, I have 4 pairs of tickets to give away. To enter, simply leave a comment below. You can tell us what you’re excited to try or simply say: “I’m hungry.” Four responses will be selected at random September 26, 2011.

Contest closes September 26, 2011 at 12pm EST. Open to all residents of Canada, except those in Quebec. Not open to any Transcontinental Media employees, their families, or any other persons with whom they reside.

Good luck!

The Cheese Boutique

Sampling the wares of one of the participants

Frank / Thorpe's Organics

An inspiring trip to Reford Gardens

Last summer, I had the opportunity to travel around Maritime Quebec. My trip was billed as “Glaciers, Flowers and Gourmet Delicacies.” What immediately stood out to me on the itinerary was the Jardin de Métis, also known as Reford Gardens. I’d read a lot about the gardens and couldn’t wait to see them for myself. To get there, we had taken a ferry the night before from Baie-Comeau, where we had spent a day touring around, to Matane. We stayed at Hôtel-Motel Belle-Plage, so I fell asleep and awoke to the gentle waves of the St. Lawrence River. I was disappointed to wake up and discover an overcast and rainy day, however as we neared Reford Gardens, we drove into the sun.

After wandering through the unique, intellectual gardens that make up the International Garden Festival, we met up with Alexander Reford, director of Reford Gardens and great-grandson of the gardens’ founder, Elsie Reford. Alexander has been instrumental in continuing Elsie’s legacy and expanding the gardens in both size and profile. In fact, Alexander won a Canadian Garden Tourism Award for Person of the Year this past March at Canada’s Garden Tourism Conference.

Alexander took my little group of three behind the scenes showing us some future project sites and introducing us to chef Pierre-Olivier Ferry whom we encountered in the kitchen garden.

I took a ton of photos and compiled them into a photo essay, which you will find in our Garden Travel section. I thought I’d share some of the more candid ones here.

Maybe this giant gnome in Matane was lucky and brought the nice weather to Reford Gardens.

This web, part of the Dymaxion Sleep exhibit, suspends visitors over various aromatic herbs. I thought it might be a little stiffer, so I couldn't stop giggling when I fell into it.

Alexander and I at Estevan Lodge Restaurant.

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