On to my last two library books I took out to scour for ideas…
The Book of Kale: the easy-to-grow superfood by Sharon Hanna is relevant to my kale growing ways so it will get added to my Christmas wish list. I may be an anomaly, but I really enjoy kale (and collards), especially in the late winter and early spring. Generally I saute it with a lot of garlic, occasionally I make kale chips which tend to get eaten as fast as I can make them. Other than occasional kale salads, that about all I do with kale – so some new ideas are welcome.
The author claims kale is “the stuff of legends and reportedly offering sustenance since the age of dinosaurs, kale is one of the earth’s most health-giving, nutrient-dense food.”
What I like about this book is that she goes into the history of kale, as there is always a convoluted story behind how certain plants came to be part of our diets which I find fascinating. Kale has been cultivated for more than 6000 years. This book starts with the ancient Egyptians who must have grown a very heat tolerant kale liking it so much to decorate the tombs of their pharaohs with kale carvings to wish them eternal good health.
From another direction, wandering Celts likely brought kale to Europe from Asia in roughly 600 BC. This green went on to flourish providing tasty nourishment that went in and out of fashion to today.
The book has an entire section on how to grow kale, which I skipped – I just plant the seeds in the spring then ignore them until the fall as I generally eat other greens over the summer (the kale does get watered). Because I’ve occasionally left kale in the ground long enough to set seeds, I tend to get random kales popping up all over the place. She suggests kale as a good plant for a kids garden as it grows so quickly.
Most of the book is recipes and they are diverse – kale smoothies, kale muffins, kale chips, kale gomasio, fermented kale, kale humous, kale fritters, kale caesar, kale soups, kale pastas ……. there are lots of tasty looking recipes to try.
My last book is Vertical Vegetable and Fruit: creative gardening techniques for growing up in small spaces by Rhonda Massingham Hart.
Venturing into the third dimension is one way to produce more in a small space that I’ve only dabbled in so far. I make bamboo teepees for beans and peas and have blackberries growing along a fence. And every year I stake my tomatoes, I blink, and they have grown well over the height of the stakes and flopped over, producing a mass of jumbled tomatoes. I always miss a few ripe ones inside the mass, only discovering after that they have rotten on the ground. So there is plenty of opportunity in my garden to take better advantage of growing vertical.
The author claims: “plants grown vertically have access to more air and light, pest management is easier, and you typically will increase your yield.” Sounds good to me, perhaps this year I’ll try cucumbers and melons on trellises. I’m still going to use bamboo as I like how it looks. In addition we have an old crib which is scheduled to be disassembled to provide plant support (probably for scarlet runner beans on the deck). Bamboo and wood supports have an additional benefit over wire mesh I’d never considered – the wire mesh would heat up on a sunny day, potentially burning plants (I don’t know how much of an issue this would be).
She suggests A-frames for the heavier vines like cucumbers and melons and has a tomato support system I’ll try (I can’t describe it, so I’ll take pictures after I build it). Then there is some advice for kids: “a teepee is a great way to get kids excited about growing food, because as the vines cover it, the teepee creates its own secret garden, complete with snacks!”
The author suggests malabar spinach, a perennial in warmer climates than mine, that is a heat-loving vine. It is already in my plan for this year. It is native to Africa and southern Asia and apparently produces a mild green for salads or for cooking. Apparently it is also a good looking plant – I can’t imagine it is prettier than chard, but I’ll take pictures. I’ll try growing it against the fence.
There is also some unconventional ideas such as window farming (eg www.windowfarms.org), window boxes and plants grown in bags attached to walls. There are plans for multi-level raised beds, pot sculptures and tater towers – but, since I have space to grow plenty horizontally, a lot of these ideas I won’t bother with (I think they’d be great for much smaller spaces). A living wall is something I might try as these can look fantastic (see some examples here). A modest living wall as a screen might be the solution I’m looking for to hide my compost bins.
Now I just need to remember to return these books to the library.
My second library garden book is Smart Permaculture Design by Jenny Allen. I was drawn to the beautiful pictures and hoped to find inspiration to beautify my veggie producing space – but the book turned out to be about gardening in sub-tropical Australia (I bet they don’t look forward to getting snakes in the yard like I do). Allen writes about her efforts to convert a traditional yard to a food producing wilderness, describing its end state as “a garden that provides us with almost everything we need: abundant and varied food, entertainment, tranquility, living art and fascinating insights into nature” – exactly what I’m hoping my garden will provide, just in a different climate.
The author defines permaculture as “an ingenious design system based on working in harmony with nature. It looks at a garden as a whole, not just at its parts. Everything interrelates.” – and this book is a beginners guide to permaculture and covers basic concepts. She examines her gardening mistakes with good humor with the hope her readers will avoid making the same mistakes.
We do have some plants in common like the ubiquitous chard, peppers, strawberries, tomatoes and basil. She highlights some exotic fruit that I’ve never heard of like chocolate pudding fruits, babaco, Panama berry, choko and midyim berries. Then there are the avocados – I adore avocados and am envious of anyone that can grow them (they are much to large of a tree for me to try growing them as a houseplant, maybe…).
She does discuss two sub-tropicals I can grow in my garden: feijoas and pepinos. Feijoas with fruit that gets compared to a guava, might thrive in the warm microclimate along my back fence, so I’m going to be on the hunt for a couple of these bushes later this spring (I tried growing feijoas from seeds last summer, but they didn’t sprout). Pepino, a plant on the continuum between tomatoes and eggplants, has already been planted in my dad’s greenhouse. For me this plant will be a annual requiring shelter and tastes (so I’ve read) like a melon but grows on a metre tall bush. I’m looking forward to seeing how this one turns out.
Although I find the plants and wildlife of her garden fascinating, her garden decor is not to my taste – I won’t be posting quotes or investing in statues anytime soon.
I took a smattering of gardening books out of the library with the hope of gleaning a few ideas for my own space (library books are great because I can be totally whimsical about my choices and I don’t feel I need to read the whole book if it turns out to be not to my taste). I tend to be a random idea generator – I already have more ideas than I can possibly implement, but I enjoy putting my feet up and flipping through books and it’s completely possible I’ll stumble across some great ideas.
First up – Indoor Kitchen Gardening: turning your home into a year-round vegetable garden by Elizabeth Millard.
Outside spring is bursting forth, it won’t be long until the first of this years crops will be ready to harvest (mustard greens, arugula and chard are all on their way), but I’m still intrigued by the idea of growing what I can inside. This book is aimed towards those with much colder winters than I have to endure and is filled with beautiful pictures including full-sized celery, hot peppers and photogenic red chard. She advocates having a plan for indoor gardening (which it true outside too) to avoid getting overwhelmed, very good advice which I’m guilty of regularly ignoring.
Although I grow food year round outside, come winter time it’s fun to watch new plants sprout without getting soaked in the rain, besides why can’t houseplant produce some food? I have a sunny kitchen and the luxury of a bit of space – the biggest danger to anything I grow inside is a carrot-stealing toddler. In the winter and early spring my counters are lined with sprouts and pea shoots at various stages of growth. We recently added some grow lights to start seeds, but I can also grow some microgreens under them or even some full sized basil, cilantro and lettuce.
Millard’s instructions to set up an indoor garden are detailed, which would be good for someone just starting out. Microgreens and sprouts are first up – easy choices, both of which I grow through out fall and winter. There are instructions to grow mushrooms and wheat grass. She goes through lists of herbs and categorizes them by ease of growing. Basil and cilantro are labelled as ‘more challenging’ – however, they can’t be that hard to grow as I have both growing in my kitchen right now.
She suggests growing lemongrass from the grocery store this way: “trim the top and put the stalk in a few inches of water. The stalk will produce roots on its own and dozens of new shoots and you can harvest from these.” I’ve looked into starting lemongrass from seed, and her way seems much simpler I’ll have to try it.
She does go into growing full sized vegetables inside, I have to admit, with the exception of hot peppers, I don’t think I’ll bother as I can grow what she covers outside. Unfortunately, tropical options like pigeon peas (a tropical bean that I understand can be grown to a crop producing size indoors, currently I’m testing this and will report back) are outside the scope of the book.
I’ll post about the other books shortly – it looks like they contain some good ideas for outside.
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time writing code for a project I’m working on. So far, I’ve proven to myself that although I can write code that works eventually, my coding efforts always turn into long hunts for misplaced commas (or some other single character). It’s frustrating. So, after a couple hours of this frustration I popped outside to find something for dinner and look what is ready to harvest… shiitake mushrooms!!! I bought what looked like a plastic bag of sawdust in February at our local seedy-Saturday (it was an awesome, I’ll definitely be going in future years). The bag went outside and got ignored, now it is bursting with mushrooms. Here’s a close-up:
I’ve tried growing mushrooms several times before and produced nothing but rotten substrate. So I’m surprised this time was successful so quickly. I’m looking forward to eating them. I think I’ll stir fry up the mushrooms with garlic and my purple broccoli. Hopefully, I’ll get a second crop.
Our unseasonably warm weather has resulted in a lot of growth in the garden – some good, some bad.
My new post about nature in a bubble and re-creating wilderness is up at the Sustainable Collective – check it out.
My spring bulbs have burst into bloom – grape hyacinths, daffodils and snow drops are all showing off their colours. And the unseasonably warm weather has coaxed the plum tree behind the back fence to bloom (which isn’t necessarily a good thing as I haven’t seen a single bee). As pretty as the flowers are this time of year I really appreciate the brassicas for both being pretty (in a more subdued way) and their tastiness. So here are some cabbage-family pictures.
For me, wilderness is defined by the forest I grew up beside, as it was nature I could directly interact with – which I did a lot. I knew where the yellow violets grew, where the best huckleberries could be found and where the best climbing trees were. The decaying stumps from logged out old-growth forest acted as constant reminders, for all the good qualities of this piece of wilderness, it could not be considered pristine.
In Rambunctious Garden, Emma Marris questions our notion of a pristine wilderness suggesting that no such place exists and perhaps never did. As she puts it: “Every ecosystem, from the deepest heart of the largest national park to the weeds growing behind the local big-box store, has been touched by humans. We have stirred the global pot, moved species around, turned up the thermometer, domesticated a handful of plants and animals and driven extinct many more.”
The books is about ecology in an accessible way, neither over simplified or too complex, covering some potentially radical ideas on how to conserve nature including alternate definitions of what should be included as nature. It’s a book inline with my own interests with concepts new to me like rewilding (a topic that I’m now hearing about everywhere), assisted migration and novel ecosystems.
She calls us to “…temper our romantic notion of untrammelled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us.” Her definition of wilderness includes the not-pristine forest of my youth, allowing it to fit amongst the places worth conserving. Although, I no longer have a forest on my doorstep, I’m certainly aiming for a rambunctious home garden where plenty of wildness can still thrive. Overall, I liked the book and it has certainly gotten me thinking.
As a tangent, my eighth grade science fair project was directly inspired by the dark and damp regions of this forest. Under the shade of the big trees, I collected different species of mosses and tested their absorbency. Perhaps an early step towards the road to becoming a scientist that I’m on now.
‘Tis the season to let loose the puce – and the rest of the shades on the pink-lilac continuum. An over abundance of these shades creates a cacophony of ugliness only equaled by the ‘toys for girls’ aisle of the local big-box-toy-store. Puce hides amongst the pink hearts and flowery sentiments created to sell cards and fancy underpants, but unlike bubble gum pink, puce has a bloody story behind it like magenta, tyrian purple and cochineal red (and surly we can all manage more than just one romantic day a year).
‘Puce’ brings thoughts of something putrid or rotten to my mind, the word sounds unpleasant to me. Like being up to ones elbows working in ground beef, perhaps to make a meatloaf, only to discover the meat is well past it’s expiry date. Or a colour to inflict on bridesmaids – which it often is (I didn’t do this to my bridesmaid).
Puce is a shade somewhere between a dark-purplish-brown and a dark-red and can even be a lighter red-purple. As described by Jude Stewart in her book Roy G. Biv, puce is “purplish brown reminiscent of raw chicken meat, prunes sweating in hot water, or the blood-filled French flea for which it is named.” Some say, it’s the colour of a blood-sated flea (however, no matter how much blood they eat, fleas stay the same colour). Perhaps, this colour comes from the bloody smear a squished flea makes, or is the colour of a flea’s blood-stained droppings.
Fashionable colours wax and wane over time – puce hit its high note at the court of the French queen Marie Antionette (1755-1793), perhaps because a flea’s hunger for blood was a metaphor dripping with sexual innuendo. This was also just after synthetic dyes were discovered by accident by a teenage chemist was attempting to make a synthetic quinine, the cure for malaria. Colours previously only available through complex and time-consuming manipulation of pigments requiring a dyer with the skills of an alchemist suddenly were available in large quantities. If you had the means, the shade of puce could grace your clothing, bedding, carpets, furniture, drapes and even the fabric covering your walls …. okay, maybe that’s puce overload.
Shades along the pink-lilac continuum generally don’t make the list as anyones favourite colour – certainly not mine. I don’t hate these colours but only want to see it in small doses, like on a few poppies in a field, as too much pink is unsettling bringing to mind fairy princess castles combined with drunk-tanks and Pepto-bismol (okay there is a small minority of pink lovers out there, and if the colours from pink continuum works for you, embrace it).
Alternately, puce can be an intense green – a colour I would quite like.
One of my goals last summer was to have plenty of options available for salad making this time of year. In general, to have anything in the garden ready to eat this time of year requires advanced planning – there isn’t enough light or warmth plus any seeds planted right now will probably rot, especially in my garden, since even the raised beds are goopy wet right now (my paths are so mucky they threaten to hold my boots with each step). Right now I have plenty of the expected greens like kale, collards, spinach and corn salad, but I also planted some weirder things to try. Now it is time to taste test.
The photo above is of a primrose a friend gave to me last summer and it is just starting to flower. The lemon yellow flowers are cheerful this time of year, but the real reason I wanted to try growing primroses is because I heard the flowers are edible. I was watching Tutor Monastery Farm, a reenactment of late medieval English farming and Ruth Goodman, one of the hosts, raved at how good primrose flowers tasted, so I decided to try them. Try them I did, and I have to say they aren’t fabulous. Their flavour is rather plain, not offensive, but not something that would stand out. I think the flowers would be quite pretty in a salad, but not add tastiness.
Above are the leaves of salad burnet – a perennial I started last spring with a long history of culinary use. It’s a pretty plant which has produced a mound of small leaves that stayed green all winter. The leaves are supposed to taste like cucumber, and they do a little bit. A leaf on its own is rather strong, however mixed with other greens salad burnet makes a nice salad component. The real bonus is, this plant is a perennial, so I don’t have to remember to plant it each year which works well with my laziness plan.
Last April, I did a taste test on the purple deadnettles that spring up all over my yard. They were flowering at the time and I determined they were flavourless with a weird texture. Since, I have a lot of these plants popping up in my garden right now (they are an effective pioneer plant) and, like the primroses and salad burnet, they have a long history of being eaten by people, I decided they deserved a second taste test – this time of the new growth. Nope, the new growth isn’t any better, I’ll save this plant for after the zombie apocalypse.
I have a couple of wintergreen plants outside my office window to add green this time of year. When the plants get big enough I’ll try making tea from the leaves. This year, one of the plants grew a handful of red berries, since they are also edible I gave them a try. I found the berries weird because they didn’t taste anything like any other berry I’ve tried. They tasted like, surprise, surprise, … wintergreen – that almost minty flavour found in chewing gum (this plant is the origins of that flavour). I actually enjoyed eating a few of the berries, but I don’t think I’d want a whole bowl full.