Gardening Blog

From grass to garden: Part 2 – the garden plan

This past summer, after having our sewer pipes replaced, my husband and I decided to give up on grass and turn our front lawn into a garden.

It’s been a long time coming, but I wanted to share what we accomplished that long weekend in August. While my dad and husband worked on building a low stone wall to cut the yard in two and add a bit of depth, my mom and I worked at spreading new dirt and mulch, and deciding where all the plants were going to go. You will see below the rough plan that we were working from.

After finally sitting down one night and drawing up a plan on a piece of scrap paper, my husband and I discovered that we had pretty similar ideas when it came to our vision of the garden.

1. I love window boxes and the idea that I could change them up according to the seasons. Since our windows are so old, we’ve put that plan on hold for now. Once we get new ones, we’ll consider adding window boxes to the new sills.

2. Even though there was grass there before, we’ve always used this area as a path to get around to the side of the house – and the mailman (depending on who it is) will use that route to get next door. We were originally going to use small paving stones, but modified our plans by using stones we already had to create the border and filling it in with pebbles.

3. Our neighbour is an engineer who works for a company that owns several quarries. These are some stones he had leftover from his own landscaping, so we knew we had those to work with.

4. My husband and I both agreed that we wanted some type of retaining wall to separate the upper garden from the lower area.

5. We originally thought we wanted a path curving around the front of the wall and joining the one at the top. We realized our yard might be a bit small for that, but may add some small stepping stones next spring.

6. The quarry stones mentioned above were used to separate the current garden from the new one. My husband would eventually love to add a garden bench as drawn.

Shortcuts are my friends

I came across a book a while back called “How to Cheat at Gardening.” I said, yes please, and immediately checked it out of the library. It was full of little tips and tidbits; mostly strategies we are mostly familiar with: mulching, weeding early and often, companion planting. Sadly, no magic bullet, but I’m always up for learning a few new tricks.

Like the one a got from my friend Lynn this week. This is going to sound crazy, but trust me, it works. I just tried it.

Take your carrots you are loath to scrub, top them, and toss them in the washing machine. Yup, you read that right. I used the spin cycle, so just a moderate amount of agitation, and took them out, sparkling orange, when it stopped. There was a teeny bit of grit right at the bottom, that was it. Lynn says she fishes them out of the water, before it drains, to avoid even that. She also says she does beets this way. I am not that brave.

Another cheat I posted on the forums a couple of years ago is still tried and true in my neighborhood: when it’s time to clean up your leaves from the lawn, grab your snow shovel instead of a rake. You can push the bulk of the debris right where you want it (compost pile, in my case, or for mulch) and be done with it. Much faster and less exhausting than the traditional method. If you want things pristine before the snow flies, you can go over the basically-bare lawn with your rake in no time.

I’ll bet every person reading this has a little cheat… I mean, shortcut to share. Come on, give.

Water plants, winter style

It’s bedtime. Autumn has pretty much wrapped up; there’s just a few odd jobs to putter at if your gloves can keep out the frosty air. Many gardeners now turn their minds to houseplants or windowsill herb gardens to get their green thumb fix until the seed catalogues start arriving. I’m usually one of them, but houseplants seem kind of ho-hum right now. My hoya and peace lily have both stopped blooming and my norfolk island pine is wasting away (too much watery love from the small people, I think).

But never fear! Inspiration has ousted the winter doldrums before they could even set in!

I was in Lethbridge today doing some early Christmas shopping (yes, I know) at the pet store. Our (Chris’) big plan this year is to get the kids (Chris) a fish tank. We picked one out and I was assigned to pick it up and get it hid before anybody was the wiser. Well, we picked the right pet store. I wasn’t in there five minutes before I had the ear of Alan, gardener and fish lover. He gets his gardening kicks in the snowy season by growing water plants in his – wait for it – 175 gallon aquarium. He taught me pH, fertilizer, growing medium, and even offered to share with me a cutting off his sagittaria plant (lawn for the underwater set).

I’ll admit, I was lukewarm about the whole fish tank thing. But I’ve warmed up to it with the realization that I can have the “pond” I can’t handle in the backyard, right in my living room. And in the winter, too!

Not to mention a whole new array of flora to investigate. Things are looking up.

And if you’re wondering how we plan to get this thing set up and keep it a surprise… well, so am I.

Last tasks of the season

On my to-do list for the last few weeks has been an entry reading, “dig beets” followed by an entry reading, “make pickles.” Whenever I see this list, I mentally add the carrots and the onions still in the ground. These are the last things I need to do to put the garden to bed (unless you count my pipe dream of getting around to dividing my tiger lilies). But, as I run around taking the girls to dance and choir, getting everybody to the dentist, doing my part on our local public library board, cleaning the house, chasing the barely-walking baby, and all the other louder demands on my time, the trio of vegetables keep getting shuffled to the next day’s list.

Today I finally got rid of both entries and replaced it with “mulch beets and carrots”. I’ve overwintered carrots in the garden before very successfully. You can leave them all winter and they will go to seed the next year (they’re a biennial, related to parsley), or you can dig them up throughout the winter for fresh eating. They need a heavy mulch for this; I’ve used corn stalks and husks as well as leaves, but small straw bales are ideal as they’re easy to get off and replace when you want to harvest your carrots. Be sure to only dig what you want to eat though; they won’t hold.

I’m going to have to get the onions out, I think. We’ve had a couple of hard frosts this week, so I don’t know if they’ll keep for me (I usually let the tops dry and then braid them and hang them in the pantry). Maybe I’ll try them in my new dehydrator.

As for the beets… you don’t want to have any other commitments when you set out to turn the kitchen red. Maybe next week will be a little quieter. Until then, here’s my F.A.V.O.R.I.T.E beet pickle recipe. Maybe you can get some done.

SWEET PICKLED BEETS

2 pounds whole beets (don’t peel, or top, just trim)

water to cover

1 1/2 cups white vinegar

1/2 beet juice (from boiling the beets, strain to remove any silt)

2 cups white sugar

1/2 tsp salt

1 Tbsp mixed pickling spices (that’s actually what the label calls them), tied in a cotton bag (or cheesecloth)

Cook the beets until tender, then let cool until they can be handled. Slip the skins off and cut up into chunks, placing the chunks into hot, sterilized jars to within 1 inch of the top.

Place the vinegar, sugar, beet juice and salt in a sauce pan. Add spice bag and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and pour over the beets; seal jars. (Here’s tips on processing; at my altitude 10 minutes is good for pints.)

Makes about 4 pints.

Making a deal with Mother Nature never works

Me, last Wednesday: Hey, Mother Nature, thanks a lot for the lovely mild weather we have enjoyed the last couple of weeks. It’s been nice to enjoy the sunshine, and the farmers are getting caught up a little around here. We really appreciate that.

Mother Nature, last Wednesday: You’re welcome. Here’s another couple of sunny days for you with no frost!

Me, Friday morning: Wow, thanks. You know, I’ve got company coming for Thanksgiving. I know I’m half done this little landscaping project here, and it’s your general policy to abhor a vacuum, but could you, just this once, ignore a vacuum, until I can get back to it on Monday?

Mother Nature, this morning: Mmmmm…. no. I think the dandelions will return and begin to flower even though it’s October.

Me, this morning: Dang. Okay, well, can you keep the lovely clear skies going for a few more hours, and hold off that huge black cloud building in the west? I can get this mulching finished up real quick! And most of the farmers just need today to get the hay off…

Mother Nature: Mmmmm… nope. Time for rain! Lovely, cool, soaking, autumn rain!

Me, rather wet: Alright. I’m going to finish this right now anyway, in case you decide to turn this into snow.

Mother Nature, noon-ish: Sunshine is so lovely, isn’t it?

At least she knows how to make these crazy changes look good...

Pick the perfect gourds for Thanksgiving decorations

I love hearing about it when an article on the site inspires a reader. Last fall, the talented Jennifer Roos created a Thanksgiving centrepiece and table accessories. Our advertising sales director, Julie Wiggins, emailed me to let me know she saw the idea featured in our newsletter and decided to create a similar centrepiece for her Thanksgiving table. The photo is below!

What are you creating to decorate for this weekend’s feast?

I love those large acorns nestled around the gourds and mini pumpkins!

Disappointing Hoses

While cleaning up one of my flower beds this fall I found yet another soaker hose with a hole in it. It’s one of the black foamy types, and it’s ripped almost in half. I’ve been responsible for this kind of damage before (garden fork, anyone?), but more than once I’ve found a busted hose with no clues about its demise. A rogue rose thorn? A particularly hungry gopher?

The obvious next thing to do is blame the hose itself as being crappy. I’ve tried the green kind with the pin prick holes, but they were constantly kinking on me if I try to put the teeniest curve in them. I moved on to the black kind. I tried a Canadian Tire and a Home Hardware brand. Both bit it within the season. I bought some repair kits. New cracks appeared. So I shelled out a little more for some Gardena ones. They lasted quite well, actually, and came with lots of quick connect pieces. That was the one I found this morning. This is only the second season I’ve had it, but even so I think it was the better buy. The ends are self repairing; if I cut down the hose to where it broke, they’ll reattach, making the same, but shorter, hose.

So the next thing to blame is water pressure, or storage practices… I thought I was being careful in both these regards.

I expect to repair, as well as replace, hoses now and again, but I wasn’t counting on doing it at the rate of three or four a year. Am I missing something? Is there a better way? A better brand? A Holy Grail?

Or is this just part of the gardener’s yearly lament that I was unaware of?

A gorgeous fall container and a pumpkin covered in peanuts

Tuesday afternoon I headed to the TBG to shoot a video with director of horticulture, Paul Zammit. Paul is a natural on-camera, and had shot another video with us about two and a half years ago that still gets viewed every month. So I arranged to have him create a fall-themed pot and set a date with Carrie Shibinsky, the marketing and communications director. When I got there, Paul had chosen a very picturesque focal point outside. Our new media producer extraordinaire Ryan DaSilva, accompanied by Mark the intern from the Hockey News (talk about a change of scenery!), was there to film the unique setting and, of course, Paul’s masterpiece.

When I got there, Paul announced he wasn’t going the traditional orange and red route. I wasn’t worried, but I also wasn’t sure what to expect. Well the final result is quite stunning and unexpected. Paul chose a palette of chartreuse, yellows, greens and silvery blues. Even the pumpkins matched! Not only does Paul have a great eye, but you always learn important tips as he takes you through the steps. You’ll have to watch the video to learn more! And I’ve included a couple of behind-the-scenes shots below. If you’re in the mood to share, post your fall pots on our Facebook fan page!

Mark and Ryan setting up the right angles!

Paul always brings along lots of interesting plant material!

This is the pumpkin I mentioned in the blog title. After the video shoot, Paul took me out back to see it because it looks so interesting - like it's covered in peanuts!

Savour delicious soups and support a good cause at Soupalicious

Last week I was invited to “sip, slurp and savour” a variety of soups cooked up by a medley of Toronto chefs. The event was a preview of what the general public will taste if they attend Soupalicious next Saturday, October 9 (from 11 to 4) at Heritage Court in Exhibition Place. Over 35 restaurants, chefs and local farmers will be stirring local produce into cauldrons of soup for the crowd as well as for various charities. The proceeds from this soup festival ($10 for 10 cups of soup, $15 at the door) will go towards supporting the Plant a Row – Grow a Row program, an organization that encourages gardeners to plant an extra row of veggies so that they can share their bounty with those in need. The program is spearheaded by The Compost Council of Canada and the Garden Writers Association, and supported by local food banks. Visitors are also encouraged to bring a food donation next weekend to help support local food banks.

Here are some of the delicious soups I tasted – I would have like to try them all, but I was full after six!

  • The Annex HodgePodge Bistro & Catering: Curried Carrot & Ginger
  • Arvinda’s: Red Lentil and Carrot
  • Le Papillon: French Onion
  • Torito: The Latin Caldo de Puerco
  • The Gladstone: Cauliflower Soup with Leek Compote and a drizzle of curry-infused cold pressed soy oil
  • Room Service: Red Pea Soup with coconut cream and chicken

Good Grass, Bad Grass

After spending a good deal of the season trying to get rid of grass, I’m planting… grass.

We tore up a bunch of lilacs as part of a big garden overhaul last fall so there’s all kinds of lumpy bits and bare patches in the lawn. Not that it wasn’t pretty lumpy already; I live in fear of one of us spraining an ankle whilst strolling innocently out to the shed, never mind the kids running around. I’ve heard people blame this lumpiness on night crawlers, those big, fat, earthworm look-alikes. I’ve heard people blame it on horses and deer, which I’m apt to believe. I’ve heard people blame it on too much foot traffic in the wet spring. Whatever the reason, I have a very lumpy lawn. If you can even call it a lawn. It’s really what you call “farm grass”– a mix of clover, dandelions, crab, quack, and bluegrass. Everybody around here has it; it’s just one of the facts of life for a rural community. However, I cringe every spring when my lawn turns golden with little yellow mopheads. It wouldn’t bother me that much except I’m upwind from most of town and any negligence on our part will be felt by a lot of neighbors and farmers. And making your grass stronger and healthier is one of the better (and decidedly non-chemical) ways to choke out lawn weeds. So between the lumps, the relocated lilacs, and the dandelions, (and a few bags of free grass seed) I’ve been planning all year to do a little resurfacing and over seeding this fall.

Springtime on the east part of our property, formerly pasture for a couple of lump-making horses, now home to a nice crop of dandelions.

I fully intended it. They say it’s the best time. But a couple of weeks ago, right about when we started getting frost, I heard the BEST best time is several weeks before frost. Maybe the rest of you still have a chance…

So I’m focusing on another grass. I’m going to plant rye. As in, fall rye. My vegetable plot is returning to its clay origins lately and is in need of a good dose of vitamins, and fall rye is supposed to make a great “green manure” and help choke out weeds too. I’ve never tried it before, but what you do is clear the soil of vegetation and sow (“In September”, according to the package… that gives me… tomorrow, right?) the rye shallowly. It grows. Then in spring, you till (or hoe) it under with a little bonemeal, and you have a nicely rejuvinated soil. Rye is an annual grass, so it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) come back to haunt you… Considering my history with grass, I’m taking a major risk. Here goes nothing.

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