What happened to September? I feel like I missed a month!
Rain finally came. After the first bout one of my tomato plants dropped dead. I’ve not had a blight problem in the past and don’t know if blight killed that plant, but I decided not to risk it and pulled out all my tomatoes. Green tomatoes came inside and all the plants have gone to the city compost (I didn’t want to risk putting them in my home compost). I’ve frozen bags and bags of chopped tomatoes and pickled all the green cherry tomatoes. I even made a batch of homemade ketchup and tried a tomato ferment (it failed).
My winter greens are up and thriving, I’ve already been harvesting as much as I can use. Depending on how cold our winter gets, I may be harvesting plenty all winter. In the past I’ve gotten as much kale and collards as I want, and if it is warm I may get chard and lettuce.
Greenhouse construction is still underway. I’m excited to have a new type of space to experiment growing in.
One of my goals for this year’s garden was to grow more of my calories. To that end, I took over my parent’s vegetable garden and filled it with potatoes, dried beans and squash. Yesterday, was potato digging day. I had planted four types – and I wrote what those types were down! There was Bintje a yellow flesh type and Red Viking with red skin and white flesh, both are supposed to be good for storing.
Because I’m drawn to the weird, I also planted Russian Blue which has a purple flesh which turns blue-ish when cooked, tastes great but looks horrid in a stew, and Ama Rosa said to have red flesh but I think it looks pink.
In total, the potato harvest was roughly 33 kg (73 lbs). At 0.77 calories per gram that works out to 25,410 calories worth of potatoes – enough to feed someone needing 2000 calories a day for almost 13 days (if one wanted to follow an all potato diet like Mark Watney of The Martian). I had expected more of a potato harvest and will try to produce more next year. Around here we won’t be going to an all potato diet, so I’m anticipating the potatoes will last us until the end of the year.
To add to my potatoes, we grew dried beans for the first time. I experimented with different types and not all are dried and weighed yet. Some were types were failures and some types did great (I’ll do a whole post on beans later). In total, I got roughly 6 kg of beans. Calorie counts appear to vary based on the bean variety, so I’ll use a middle value of 3 calories per gram. That give me 18,000 calories of beans or enough to feed my hypothetical person for 9 days.
We also brought home the squash harvest and we always get lots. I grew 5 varieties which produced 67 kg (147 lbs). Assuming a quarter of that weight is skin and other bits I’ll compost (I’m ignoring the seeds here, we’ll likely roast and eat those), that leaves me roughly 50 kg of usable squash which at 0.6 calories per gram gives me 30,000 calories of squash, or enough food for 15 days.
In an apocalyptic scenario, ignoring the rest of my harvest (like the carrots, beets, leeks, tomatoes, melons, peppers and eggs) my hypothetical person would have enough food for 37 days and would probably be very, very grumpy – I’d be on an all potato, bean and squash diet.
I’ll do a full calorie calculation at the end of the year when I sum up my harvest
I thought I’d profile a plant I grew this year solely because of a pretty picture in a seed catalog. Most of what I grow is edible in some form as I’m trying to put my urban yard to good use. There are a few exceptions like cosmos and sweet peas – flowers that I grew up with and feel sentimental about. There are other perennial flowers I’ve been given which add nice colour. But, the Irish Poet Tassel Flower (Emilia javanica) was completely new to me and I’ve not seen it grown around here (if my neighbours were growing it I likely would have asked to harvest a few seeds). The rather cumbersomely named Irish Poet Tassel Flower is also known as just Tassel Flower and a red version I’ve not seen is called Lady’s Paint Brush.
The bright orange puff that makes up a Tassel Flower gives the illusion that Beaker from the muppets is lurking in my flower bed (I’m not the only one who thinks about muppets – I recently met a woman who named her rooster Beaker). The flower is kinda silly and orange is my husband’s favourite colour so I ordered the seeds (from here).
I had success both from plants I started early in a cold frame and from seeds I planted directly into the soil. This plant is a sun-lover and has flowered continuously since early summer without any deadheading making it a winner in my mind. Even though deer regularly visit my fortified food forest, not once did this flower get munched on (the local deer are not picky – they even ate all the potato greens). Tassel Flowers are potentially poisonous if ingested but the pollinators seem to like them. I also strongly suspect that Tassel Flowers will reseed themselves, which I’m okay with.
Native to tropical Africa, Tassel Flowers were imported to England in 1799. During Victorian times they were known as Flora’s Paintbrush I don’t know when they got their current name. The flowers are about thumbnail sized at the end of a long stock, potentially making them a nice cut flower (I always forget to do this). The leaves are thick and green, I found the entire plant quite attractive and dense enough to hide the mulch. Since they are an open pollinated variety, I collected seeds when the flower turned into a dried puff of parachutes like a dandelion does. I’ll be growing Irish Poet Tassel Flowers again next year.
Three years in a row now I’ve tried to grow melons. I only got one un-ripe melon by the end of the season on my first two tries. This year has been different, check out my melons…
No I’m not adding to my home menagerie, these are all varieties of dried beans I volunteered to help harvest on the weekend (I’ve already harvested most of my own bean crop). The day was actually a seed saving workshop put on by the local seed library covering growing, harvesting and processing beans for seeds (and food). The beans belonged to Rebecca Jehn, a local seed producer growing a wide variety of dried beans, the farm was Northbrook Farm, a beautiful location.
Rebecca walked us through the process of how she harvests dried beans – pulling up the entire plant then plucking each pod off by cradling the pod in your palm then closing your fingers around the pod before pulling it free of the plant – so if the pod bursts open, as dried bean pods tend to, the beans would just be in your hand and not scattered in the dirt. Each pod got tossed into a large paper grocery bag and later spread out to dry until brittle.
Next came the threshing box – a plywood box with sides slightly smaller than a door (alternately a heavy tarp would work as well). Along the bottom of the box strips of wood were nailed down in a herringbone-like pattern to provide texture. A bag of bean pods were spread out in the box and we took turns donning the crocs-of-cleanliness (designated for only this task, not mucking out the chicken coop) and stomping on the beans. With our weight, most of the pods would break open and spill their beans. We then used compressed air to blow out the pod remnants, the beans and chaff that remained were dumped into a bucket.
From a high height, the bucket of beans and chaff was poured into another bucket in front of a fan. All the little bean pod bits got blown away, while the beans, because they are heavier, landed in the second bucket.
Next, the beans were put onto a screen that allowed any last bits of non-bean matter to fall through, this included the too-small-to-bother-with malformed beans. Spread out like that it was also easy to pick out any damaged, split or discoloured beans and discard them.
All that was left was beautiful dried beans – and there were so many different types of ogle over – agate pinto really intrigued me with its pretty white and brown markings. I loved the opportunity to just run my hands through so many different types (and it was nice to learn that I’m not the only one who likes to do that).
This is not how I cleaned my beans, partly because I harvested them a bit early and they were only ’leathery’ as opposed to ‘brittle’. I spread them out on our living room floor and we watched TV, drank beer and opened each one by hand. I really didn’t mind my way, however if I do scale up the amount I grow I’m now armed with knowledge to clean them in bulk.
One of the more important things I learned is that my attention to separating by bean varieties is not really necessary for what I’m trying to do. Rebecca grows her beans in long rows – one variety follows another in a single row and different varieties are in adjacent rows. Yes, occasional crossing happens which can add the the genetic diversity and if the resulting bean is significantly different than expected it can be removed. I’ve been obsessively picking over my beans removing any that is sub-par, so removing oddballs would be no big deal especially since it would mean I could grow more different bean varieties.
My significant other/ co-conspirator and I were brainstorming while sipping coffee in bed this morning (it was a rare morning our household little person slept until 7am). What to call our mirco-farm was the topic. It seems urban farms are often named like the local to me Mason Street Farm or the further afield Moonlight Micro-Farm or the Micro Farm Project. There is even the awesome Garden Pool project.
I think we’ve crossed a line between gardening and really small scale farming this year as we are now producing a significant amount of our own food on our urban lot. Currently, food production is mostly contained in the backyard, but expanding in both physical space and in taking over this blog. I spend much of my free time working the soil, thinking about what to grow, photographing vegetables and writing about my efforts. So, I’ve concluded that my food producing project should have a name, but what?
It’s no secret I’m a science fiction fan with a fascination with both real and imaginary biodomes. Plants grown in space are right up my alley, be it lettuce grown on the real ISS or forests preserved in space in the B-movie Silent Running. I’m also drawn to names with numbers in them like the local brewery Category 12 or the TV show Warehouse 13. I was recently drawn to the novel Station Eleven at the bookstore for the same reason (since it was set in a post-apocalyptic world I bought it and it turned out to be awesome).
We threw around ideas for almost an hour. We take turns making coffee at 6 am mostly because I have delusions that I’ll productively use the time to write or exercise – I almost never do. UF-1510 is what we settled on, where UF stands for urban farm. I was sooooo tempted to go with urban farm operation, but decided that was going a bit too far and I reserve the right to change my mind on the name at any time.
The harvest has begun big time around here, my high calorie crops are starting to be brought in. Although summer isn’t technically over for a few weeks, it feels over – fortunately fall is my favorite time of year.
In the last few days we’ve turned a weather corner back to rain, technically I do live in a rain forest so it is rain we desperately need. I suspect it’ll get warm again in the fall, but my tomatoes plants couldn’t deal with the rain so I went out last night and brought in all the green tomatoes and pulled out the plants. I left the cherry tomato plants as they seemed to be fairing better. My dining room table has taken on it’s seasonal roll as a produce counter filled with drying beans and ripening tomatoes. I get a weird pleasure just looking at the abundance there.
To update our household wasp trapping – my husband took down the trap and counted them. Since we are science-y around here, it didn’t surprise me at all he wanted to sit down and count them. So the tally is: 875 wasps caught in about a month. I’m amazed there were that many visiting our deck! Now, there must be a few empty nests around. We also caught 3 bald-faced hornets, at about twice the size of a wasp and twice as aggressive they make particularly nasty visitors. Sadly, a honey bee got caught – I assume the bee got caught up with the wrong crowd.
In other news, I harvested my first ever ripe melon last night – it was amazing!
Sadly, summer is clearly winding down, days are noticeably shorter and dew has returned in the morning. Our calorie dense winter crops are starting to mature (more on that later). Spider webs appear over night across seemingly impossible divides and I despise walking into spider webs. I suspect all the spiders will migrate inside the house for the winter – the spider equivalent of heading to Florida. I don’t mind spiders inside the house as long as I don’t see them – the ones I see get evicted. Wasps are a different story.
The wasps started getting desperate for food early this year swarming around the yard and house looking for grub. They rely heavily on smell to find food, their noses leading them directly into the kitchen (unfortunately, we don’t have screens). Regularly, we were swatting one or two yellow-and-black banded bandits. Their bold colouring a warning of their sting. Unlike a bee, a wasp can sting more than once and they don’t hesitate to do so (a bee’s stinger gets ripped out when it stings, which is fatal to the bee). Plenty of animals eat wasps like other wasps, spiders, dragonflies, beetles, moths, crabs, badgers, frogs, fish, birds, skunks, bats, rats, mice, etc. So wasps do fill a ecosystem niche – but I have limits to my tolerance of them.
While making applesauce with my little helper, I counted twelve wasps buzzing around her head – that was the last straw. I hate the idea of poisoning my yard or home, so we settled on using a wasp trap. Within a day we caught dozens (I’m stunned there were that many around). Now the trap is so packed, wasps have to force their way in – and we are still catching them.
As a tangent – people also eat wasps, or more specifically, wasp larvae. I’ve read (as I’ve never met anyone who eats insects) the larvae taste great fried in butter, further support to my theory that butter can make anything taste good.
My Sunday morning began with a trip to collect two new hens. I went with pullets (hens who are old enough to start laying eggs) this time. As cute as chicks are, they are messy and take a lot of work. My husband is clearly longing for fall beers since he suggested Licorice and Stout as names. They’re just an industrial cross, not a quaint heritage type.
Right now, the two new hens are relaxing in an un-used rabbit hutch, tonight they’ll go in with the flock (Butter, Kung-pow, Salt and Pepper). Hopefully, in the morning the hens will all wake up and assume the two new ones were always there.
Magenta fireweed flowers under a blue northern Alberta sky – a stunning backdrop for oil company propaganda (I don’t remember which company). The oil company claimed this was restored land after oil drilling had finished – but northern Alberta isn’t a homogeneous field of fireweed. Fireweed, a pioneer plant, is part of the first step in a succession, that, if conditions are right, might result in the northern Alberta ecosystem that was originally stripped away. Maybe the oil company is doing more to restore these ecosystems and just chose to film in a swath of fireweed because it is pretty. I don’t really know, but it did get me thinking about our meddling in the natural world.
Meddling with our environment is what people do, yet we maintain an idealized view of an untouched nature out there somewhere. Emma Marris in Rambunctious Garden suggests, “We imagine a place, somewhere distant, wild and free, a place with no people and no roads, and no fences and no power lines, untouched by humanity’s great grubby hands, unchanging except for the season’s turn.” She goes on to point out that if such a place ever existed, it no longer does.
Thinking hypothetically, if we have crossed a threshold where we’ve damaged the earth so badly that it can no longer support a natural ecosystem, can we recreate wilderness? … well not from scratch. Closed biospheres have been an active area of research since humans first ventured into space and still is. The experiment conducted in Biodome 2 in the early 1990’s demonstrated that we can’t yet create a complex, human-sustaining world in a bubble. As Rebecca Reider describes in Dreaming the Biosphere, Biodome 2, “ …is not simply a garden in a greenhouse; it is, perhaps, the most highly engineered wilderness in the world.” To create this wilderness, several working ecosystems were carefully crammed into a small space. Everything from rainforest trees to buckets of swamp dirt to hummingbirds and more were sourced and shipped in. Then eight humans stepped inside and sealed the door, becoming stewards of this created world.
The eight humans were necessary because without constant human intervention the engineered ecosystems would evolve into something else. Within the sealed bubble of Biodome 2, growing pains included acid rain from high carbon dioxide levels to low oxygen as curing concrete bound to it. While the Biodome 2 sealed experiment ran, it never became stable, and ultimately doors were opened because toxic gases were building up inside. Maybe, eventually, someone will figure out how to build a stable ecosystem in a bubble big enough to include us, for now, we need to work with the wilderness we have.
Since we’ve meddled in every ecosystem on the planet, perhaps we can take a step back and plan our meddling to leave space for nature. Ecosystems change; that’s always happened, but change needs to happen at nature’s pace – and there needs to be room for nature to be complex, as complexity is the path to resilience. Emma Marris argues that we need a new way of seeing nature that includes everything from old growth forests to the weeds that push up through asphalt. With this view, the mossy ecosystem erupting from a concrete crack counts as wilderness.
In my view, a solution (as there are an infinite number of possible solutions) is to make more space for nature – let a pocket of lawn go wild, plant berry producing bushes for the birds or flowers for the bees. Nature can flourish in little spaces.