Gardening Blog

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.

Footwear for serious gardening

During my epic search for a great pair of rain boots this spring, Tara suggested I might like to try some Blundstones: not a rain boot, more of an all-out work boot. The lovely people at Tin Shack offered to send a pair out, so why not, right? A pair of Blundstone CSA Greenpatch boots arrived a few weeks ago and I’ve been putting them through the paces ever since. I must say, they have passed every test I’ve invented.

The first pull-on was rather stiff–high arches strike again–and I was skeptical they would ever be comfortable. I thought I might have to take them to a cobbler for stretching (an option mentioned in the product insert). However, they have shaped to my foot very nicely in just a few weeks and go on and off easily. They do come with inserts so you can adjust the fit within your size, but I’m not using them. I’m generally a size 7, but I asked for a size 7 1/2 because I thought there could be nothing worse than a tight work boot. I’m finding when I put them on I think I could have gone with a 7, and by the time I take them off I’m glad I got the 7 1/2. They don’t rub or anything and my toes like the wiggle room.

I’ll be honest. I expected to get blisters and lead feet wearing these. I’m more into bare feet than army boots. So, after wearing them for a half hour to an hour a day for the first few days, I decided to consider them “broken in” and wore them all day. I’d be lying if I told you “I didn’t notice them at all,” but I really was impressed with how lightweight they are. Even this klutz didn’t get tripped up. And no blisters.

I think... I may... conquer the world with these boots.

I found myself on an extension ladder trimming tree branches in a downpour (long story). I’m not a heights person but I felt pretty solid climbing with these boots, and not solid in a clunky, bulky way, but in a safe, reliable way.

I stepped into my mudhole — I mean veggie garden — to check it. I maintained traction and dryness and escaped with my life. And my boots.

I edged all the flower beds and most of the veggie garden in one day and didn’t even feel it. Let me rephrase that– my feet didn’t feel it. My back didn’t like bending like that for that long, but my feet were oblivious, as were my legs. You know that achy shin and hip you can get when you do a lot of slamming your foot into a shovel’s tread? Nothing. Thank you, Kevlar shank. I don’t know the technical name for the phenomenon of impact vibrations resonating through the body. Go ask your chiropractor, then go get some Blundstones.

I was digging some overgrown clover out of a bed I’m prepping for plants and swung my fork a little wild as I straightened up. The prong landed square on my foot. Left an insignificant dent in my boot; would have left a significant dent in my toes if I’d been wearing my Crocs.

Knowing how some shoes split right down the middle of the sole, and thinking of all the digging/edging I’ve been doing, I also just checked the soles of my boots for signs of cracking or dents or… anything. So far, so good. Other than some gravel caught in the treads, they could be brand new.

Speaking of gravel in the treads, I found this dried bit of mud in my entry after a dirty battle with some dandelions.

Oh, sure, I thought. It’s all good now, with all the rain, and the air temperature barely flirting with the teens, but just wait till summer really arrives. So I waited. And waited.

And Tuesday it came! On the calendar and in reality! And I gotta say, these boots are very breathable. My feet did get warm (how could they not) but not sweaty, and not uncomfortable. Of course, I also ditched them for flip flops by four o’clock to have Dutch Oven at the neighbors… but I think they pass.

Here’s a weird little personal thing I have with footwear: I hate not being able to bend my ankle and my foot. I have kids, I crouch down, sit in the grass, crawl through play houses… and I garden the same way: kneeling, reaching. I need mobility. I thought a work boot would cramp my style, like a puddle boot can with its stiff upper. Or I feel like I’m going to crack the sole by crouching to much. Well, count another check mark for the Greenpatch. I’ve already mentioned the amazing durability of the soles, but get this: they bend too. And the elasticized sides allow more ankle movement than I would have expected while still maintaining support.

So in case you’re hazy on my opinion, I love these boots. I’ve planted trees and climbed them, forked soil and double dug it, checked the flooded crawl space and driven the kids to piano. My Blundstones have seen a lot in the last three weeks, and I am not a gear girl at all, but they are my new best friends.

Though you can still count on seeing me in my red crocs when the work is lighter.

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…

Garden inspiration: Fix up an old bird cage

The other day, one of my writers, Signe Langford, sent me a photo of this gorgeous birdhouse with the following note: “A friend [Joy] did this for me. She found a decrepit Victorian bird cage and fixed it all up.” Does it not make you want to head out to the nearest antique market and find your own to fix up? I still dream about these amazing bird cages I saw in the Albert Cuyp market in Amsterdam. I still regret not bringing one home even though I was not quite sure how I would get it here in one piece.

Anyway, I asked Signe for a little how-to and this is what Joy had to say: I normally work in film doing set dec and art dept. I got the cage from a friend. They had used it as a humane way to catch squirrels. It was in rough shape and they were throwing it out. I knew Signe would like it. I took it home and I had to figure out how to make it look good. I had to repair the top part as the base of it had disintegrated. I ended up finding a piece of bendable wooden filigree that supported the unit and added a nice decorative touch. I decided I wanted to use paint from Restore as I felt better about recycled paint. I wanted a bright color so it would look beautiful in her garden amongst all the green. I found an egg yolk yellow. First I primed and it took 2 coats. Than I painted the yellow. After, I sanded the cage lightly to make it look a little worn, you know that whole antiqued look.

So there you have it, a little garden decor inspiration on this sunny day!

Don't you want to make one yourself?

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.

Through the Garden Gate: A peek at Swansea Village gardens

Tuesday morning, I discovered a gorgeous pocket of Toronto: Swansea Village. I’m not originally from the city and I live in the east end, so I wasn’t familiar with the streets that have homes perched above the shores of the Humber River and Grenadier Pond. That’s the beauty of the Toronto Botanical Garden’s annual “Through The Garden Gate” garden tour. You get to discover magical little neighbourhoods in the city and see how people style their yards (or how their gardeners style the yards depending on the home).

A dedicated group of volunteers and the Toronto Master Gardeners, led by co-chairs Carole Bairstow and Eleanor Ward, have worked throughout the past year to make this fundraising event possible. It takes place June 11 and 12.

I got to preview five of the homes that will be on the tour. On the tour bus, the inimitable Sonia Day, who writes a popular column for the Toronto Star, provided some colourful commentary about this quaint area that until 1954 was an independent village—and apparently many of those who live there still fancy it so. Speaking of colourful, Sonia will be displaying some of her paintings of Bloor Street Shops at tour headquarters, which is at Swansea Public School. For $10 you will be able to purchase a poster with some of the proceeds going to the Toronto Botanical Garden. Full details on tickets, prices and everything else you need to know can be found on the Toronto Botanical Garden website. Tickets sell out quickly, so be sure to get them soon if you plan to go.

Here’s a teaser of what you’ll see. But it’s only a small fraction of the gorgeous gardens that await!

Stunning views. Stepping into the backyard of 4 (top) and 19 (bottom) Woodland Heights is like entering cottage country. Both these homes feature gorgeous gardens sloping down toward Grenadier Pond.

Hopefully the peonies will still be as showy for the garden tour! This one is at 19 Woodland Heights.

Interesting art, water features and sculpture. Clockwise from top left: 27 Woodland Heights, 19 Woodland Heights, 4 Woodland Heights and 14 Riverside Crescent.

A view from the deck at 4 Woodland Heights. I loved this boxwood knot garden with the stone bird bath in the centre. If you peek over the hedge, there is an herb garden.

14 Riverside Crescent: This is my dream. A little potting shed tucked away in the corner of my yard.

Things to do while it’s raining

Day 1

-Grumble about wishing I had more planted before the weather changed.

-Resolve to be productive anyway.

-Enjoy the smell of spring rain.

-Tidy up the shed.

-Read gardening magazine/books.

Day 2

-Grumble a bit; then think positive.

-Edge a flower bed, careful not to step in the bed.

-Clean some tools that got missed in the fall.

-Measure the rainfall.

-Watch birds.

-Read more.

Day 3

-Sigh.

-Do top-to-bottom organize of shed.

-Repair and prepare hoses (meant to get that done ages ago, three points for me!).

-Watch grass grow in front of my eyes.

-Inventory seeds that could have… I mean, will be planted.

Day 4

-Go to greenhouse for sympathy and support.
-Update garden scrapbook.

-Count worms.
-Tidy up houseplants.

Day 5

-Watch dandelions go to seed.

-Lose boot in mud after attempting to “check on things”.

-Consider collecting stamps with flowers, trees, and vegetables on them.

-Retire to couch with scrapbook and magazines.

-Give up and actually get something done inside the house.

At least I am well prepared with my new boots!

A taste of spring

I love watching the birds come back, and the blooming bulbs defying all logic, and turning the soil for new plantings, but really, at the end of the day, spring usually comes back to my stomach.

Radishes. Parsnips. Asparagus. Peas and lettuce and spinach. There’s something about stepping out your door and finding something to eat; something liberating about being independent of the grocery store for tonight’s meal, something energizing about knowing you are eating food that was growing ten minutes ago, growing because of you. This is a huge part of the joy of summer for me: several glorious weeks of choosing my menu based on what’s in the backyard.

Not that I’m quite there. All we can eat right now is some lettuce and spinach I overwintered last fall, making for some very early and no-care salad. I planted the radishes kind of late, but really, at 20-50 days maturity, we won’t be waiting long. Though the peas aren’t here yet, I already have a smile on my face thinking about eating them right off the vine with the kids after a good weeding session.

What we should be harvesting is asparagus. We had store bought for dinner last night. My asparagus patch is dead. The short version of the story: my pregnant brain thought it was a great idea to dig up and relocate the whole patch in late September 2009. Don’t say a word, you.

I crossed my not-so-green thumbs last season that it would come up, but no dice. I planted new crowns yesterday, digging deep with lots of sheep manure so as not to be responsible for any more death. I’ll have to wait at least until next year to enjoy them, but trust me, your own asparagus is well worth the wait, and once it’s established, is pretty self sufficient. I planted parsnips for the first time too, another be-patient vegetable, that will be wonderful to anticipate this winter.

So though the food hasn’t actually made it to the table, I’m already excited about all the springtime bounty. There’s lovage and sage and lavender, broccoli and kale in the cold frame, onions and garlic and chives, rhubarb waiting to be pie… and just imagine the strawberries…

My asparagus before I destroyed it

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