a mid summer update

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A wonderfully alien looking seed pod from love-in-the-mist. It’s been years since I’ve had to deliberately plant these, and they still come up every year.

It’s hot and smokey here (the smoke’s from the fires in the B.C. interior, fortunately nothing near by is burning). The garden is happily growing and I’ve been keeping busy with a plethora of projects. Since I stopped my monthly garden updates a few months ago, I thought I’d give a general update of what I’ve been working on.

Growing stuff

I’ve cut the water to the beans in the front yard. They all have lovely pods, so if all goes well, they’ll be dry enough to harvest by the end of the month. Potatoes are also ready to harvest, as will soon be my onions. The winter cabbages are putting on nice heads and we’re getting all the cucumbers we can eat.

And check out my hairy melon:

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Isn’t it delightfully hairy?

I planted some bigger fruit producers late winter including an apricot, cherry, assorted currants and gooseberries. All are doing well. As is my deck based lime tree (which will come in for the winter).

So far the only seeds I’ve collected have been from the Alexanders (a perennial relative of celery) – we had enough to eat their shoots this year. Not bad for an early spring crop.

Other random projects

Miso – I started a batch out of soybeans with a friend last night (will have to wait at least 6 months to taste it). Now I’m thinking of making a batch out of my homegrown tiger eye beans – mostly because I could call it tiger miso.

Tempeh – we started a batch last night and I’m struggling to find a spot the right temperature for it to ferment. I have no idea if it’ll work out or not.

There’s a watering system that needs to be put in – I have the stuff and having a working watering system would simplify my life. The hard part right now is most my ground is cement-like, so if I want to dig anything in I’ll have to wait until the rains start.

Writing

Settler Chronicles book 1 – I’ve started my final edit, at this point I’m just wordsmithing. My cover should be ready this fall (October) and I’m on track to release then. I also have the first draft of the second book written.

I put up the first scene on this blog a little while back (see here). Should I put up more of this book here? Perhaps the first couple chapters. Let me know in the comments below.

Deep Trouble – A current day action-adventure I’m co-writing with a friend.  I’ll put up the first chapter soon (it was titled ‘Benthic Adventure’ until a friend pointed out that most people don’t know what benthic means. Perhaps it is best I don’t try to surreptitiously improve readers vocabulary in a fluffy, fun action adventure story)

And I’ve started drafting another story for Wattpad – science fiction with lots of action (I’ll share more on this soon).

Reading

Solitude – a non-fiction book by Michael Harris about how creativity grows out of solitude. So far I’m enjoying it. I’ll likely write my own review, but for now there’s a review here.

The Nakano Thrift Shop – a novel by Hiromi Kawakami, translated from Japanese. I’m trying to broaden what I read, so this one is quite different from what I normally read. It’s about the relationships between the quirky staff of the thrift shop, and I’m quite enjoying it (although I will need a good action book when I’m done). There’s a review here.

When the gardener can’t garden

I stumbled across a blog, You Grow Girl, where the gardener, Gayla Trail, was kept from her garden by illness for a season. She describes the pain of not being in her garden and how some things died but much of the wilderness she created carried on. When she posed the question of what it means to be a gardener who can’t garden as part of her writing guild I decided to join in. So here are my thoughts:

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Rosemary flowers from my office window

From my home office, I can sit and look out on my garden (well part of it now that I’m expanding my garden space). The backyard is where I started when we moved into this house five years ago. Days after we took possession I was already planting lettuce seeds. It was early May and it didn’t take long until I had filled the existing beds with produce producing plants. Thinking back, I certainly didn’t always have access to land and was often living a nomadic life, but I almost always was growing something – and if I wasn’t growing something I was thinking about it.

The first garden that truly felt mine was a shady patch under a big leaf maple I claimed as a child. Bleeding hearts grew there naturally and I would carefully collect their tiny black seeds and spread them around with the hope more would grow. To add to the garden, my mom bought me already flowering impatiens which has left me with a nostalgic fondness of their cheery blooms even though now I prefer to grow vegetables.

Between that garden and the one I have now I tried many growing schemes, exploring all sorts of options that didn’t work. My balconies and window sills were always filled with potted food growing attempts. I know some people are very successful growing food in containers but I never was. Aphids would descend making lettuce, basil and dill to sticky to contemplate eating, while one forgotten watering session would lead to mass plant extinctions. Once, in a balcony-less apartment I had years ago I tried growing roma tomatoes inside, resulting in floor-to-ceiling leggy plants that never bothered blooming. But I kept trying.

For two years in a row, I signed up for a plot at the community garden near where I lived at the time. It was rural Alberta, a place with space – lots of it. All the plots were the same size, way to big leaving me overwhelmed. I was successful growing plenty of food, but both years the weeds took over. Threats to plow my plot under unless I got the weeds under control were issued forcing me to wrangle up my friends and press them into weeding service (which turned out to be fun).

On a micro-scale, while on an icebreaker in the Beaufort Sea a few years ago, one of my crew mates showed up ready to grow sprouts. I thought that was a fantastically original idea and my mind was set free to the possibilities of portably growing food; a thought exercise I still use when I can’t sleep. Under the right lights, I could try grow anything (especially in my imagination). Oh, and growing sprouts on a ship turned out to be an old idea – Sir Parry an Arctic explorer in the 1800’s grew sprouts for his crew to ward off scurvy (I haven’t found any record that his crew actually ate them).

I often ponder why I’m drawn to gardening, even when I’ve not been set up to do so. The answer is that I don’t know. Maybe its because I like working with my hands. Or maybe its because I get to witness a process that almost feels like magic, where with a little effort on my part, a speck of a seed grows before my eyes into a majestic plant.

Stolen Peas – how my garden quantification project came undone

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the infamous pea and strawberry thief on the prowl

I wrote this short essay for a course I took and thought I’d share it.

I grew up eating from a home garden leaving me with fond memories of standing beside the pea vines savouring their sweet taste. Tomatoes were never refrigerated and always juicy. Carrots grew beneath frilly leaves and corn grew on majestic, tree-frog infested, eight-foot-high stalks. In time, my parents assigned me my own garden plot where I planted beans and zinnias. Since then I’ve always wanted to grow my own food. A few years ago we bought our first house, and in the backyard of our urban lot, I have six large raised beds and a small coop for five hens.

I’ve morphed into an urbanite growing as much of my own food as I can. What I can’t grow I source as close to home as possible, though I still drink coffee and stock my cupboard with spices from the tropics. I’ve started quantifying the economic worth of my harvest – empirical data that feeds my scientific side. I now weigh my produce and calculate its worth based on grocery store prices. However, only a couple of months in, my experiment is already compromised. A new user of the garden has arrived on the scene.

“Mooooore,” my toddler demanded, pointing at the bed of strawberries one summer day. She had already shoved three whole berries into her mouth resulting in a red dribble down her chin. I caution her to take her time, but moments after she puts one into her mouth, she asks for another. After searching through the strawberry leaves, I couldn’t find any more ripe ones. I try to explain that more will be ripe in a few days – a concept she can’t yet comprehend. Spying a white berry with a blush of red, she tries to crawl into the bed, until I distract her with a pea pod.

No peas, strawberries, raspberries or cherry tomatoes have made it to my kitchen scale; instead they go directly into my toddler’s mouth as she wanders the garden, and she has voluntarily tried kale, nasturtiums and cilantro. Sometimes what goes into her mouth is rejected and left on the garden path, making me cringe because none of this food is making it on to my scale. Even though I can’t quantify what she is learning, I’m sure it has more value than any weight in produce. In time, I’ll assign my daughter a plot of her own.

woke to a sprinkling of white

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The view from my office

Last night temperatures dipped and the scheduled rain became snow. The garden looks so different covered in white – but it won’t last, I’d be surprised if there is any evidence of snow by tomorrow. With the exception of the chard, most of what is left in the ground will tolerate the cold just fine.

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Snow covered chard – the cold might do these in, but the kale, chicory and collards will be fine.

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Ice under the drippy gutter. I think it looks kinda pretty.

 

First hard frost

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My charismatic radicchio covered in frost crystals

 

Last night was our first real frost of the season – I’m lucky that I live in a place in Canada where it is well into November before temperatures dip below zero.. The last of my summer flowers are now done, but my parsnips will be getting sweet.

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Chicory flopped over from the frost – I assume they will perk back up as soon as the sun hits them.

 

 

my seedy saving plan

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wintercress

As I sit in my office overlooking my rain-soaked garden, the rainy season on my Pacific island has taken hold, I can’t help but think about what I’m going to do in the garden next year. There is still plenty to harvest, but the last thing for me to plant this year will be the garlic. Next year is open with possibilities and one of the things I’d like to do better with next year is seed saving.

I keep meaning to become a serious seed saver, but once again I’ve found myself with a few saved tomato seeds, a ridiculously large amount of wintercress seeds (they were so easy to collect, so I kept collecting) and chive seeds (again easy to collect and great for sprouting). Since my chives will reappear on their own, my seed saving efforts will net me only two, tasty, but not very filling crops for next year.

Although, I don’t view my gardening as a cost saving measure, not saving seeds feels like I’m choosing to be unsustainable*. Since one of my gardening motivations is to produce food low in food miles, it makes sense to save the seeds that I can leaving me pondering how to be a better seed saver.

Through a rather round-about way I discovered my local library has a seed library. Serendipitously, I discovered the seed library a week before the Dan Jason of Salt Spring Island Seeds scheduled to talk at one of their events. I dragged a friend to the talk set up outside on a day that turned out rather chilly (we had to rush off for hot chocolate afterwards to warm up).

Dan brought a tub of examples of seeds ready to save – starting with tobacco he originally propagated from 1000 year old seeds, to quinoa, amaranth, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, brassicas, radishes, corn, sage and more.

He filled my head (and notebook) full of useful seedy information. For example, I had no idea that seeds on ripe quinoa plant left outside in the rain would sprout right on the plant – Dan said someone described it as looking like quinoa crawling with maggots. He passed around an example of sprouted quinoa and I wouldn’t describe it that way. Or that quinoa in stores has been mechanically processed rendering them unlikely to sprout at all.

Dan pointed out that there are many varieties of most crops and that it makes sense to keep trying different varieties until I find one that reliably grows well for me and tastes fantastic (why grow anything that doesn’t taste fantastic?). He inspired me to give amaranth another try and to continue on with my plan to grow dried beans. Both of these plants are easy to collect seeds from. If I have success with lettuce and pepper next year, I’ll collect those seeds as well. Perhaps, I’ll leave a couple leeks in the ground to flower and collect those seeds too. There are plenty of easy options to try.

And the seed library doesn’t yet have any wintercress, so hopefully at the next meeting in March I can share my surplus (I plan on joining).

*I accept that I can’t be truly sustainable in any way on a small urban lot – but I can always do better.

The After Summer Report – part 2

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I was greeted with this when I went out into the garden this morning.

A few days ago I outlined what grew well in my garden last summer, now it’s time to go over what didn’t grow well.

1 – Cabbage. This one I consider a colossal failure. I started two types in a cold frame last spring resulting in enough robust, healthy seedlings for half a garden bed. I carefully spaced them out and planted them once temperatures were warm enough – that night cut worms took action killing several of my seedlings. I made little collars for all the surviving cabbage seedlings and spent several nights outside with a flashlight hunting cutworms down. Next slugs took their turn munching complex patterns into the leaves, then the aphids moved in covering the plants. I sprayed them with soapy water, but the aphids didn’t seem to care. More seedlings succumbed to the attacks. Heading into winter I have two cabbages left, enough for few coleslaws, but certainly no sauerkraut. I sacrificed a lot of space to cabbages, for not much gain – while kale (which I like equally as much) always thrives. I won’t be growing cabbages next year.

2 – Lettuce. I started early lettuce in the ground last spring. Slugs decimated my new lettuce seedlings (but not the arugula). Lettuce starts given to me by others did just fine when planted, I assume they were big enough to withstand some slug munching. I started lettuce in trays on my deck, well away from the risk of slugs, right beside the cabbage with germinated just fine. But, germination rates were low. Mid spring (mostly because of my salad-a-day challenge) I went to the nursery and bought quite a few lettuce seedlings. Over the summer, I tried two more times to start lettuce in trays with little success. I was hoping to try overwintering some lettuce but that’s not going to happen (I do have plenty of mizuna, mache, wintercress, spinach, arugula and chicory – so I’m set for salads). I’m not willing to give up on growing lettuce, so I’ll get all new seeds to try next year – any ideas on how to better start lettuce would be appreciated.

3 – Watering by hand. All summer, I went out every night with a hose to water the garden. I don’t mind spending the time, but I’m a bad waterer. I don’t manage to water everything evenly. In my carrot patch, based on the amount of foliage, I can see where I watered plenty and where I didn’t – I don’t think trying to water more evenly by hand is the solution, I need to make the process more automatic. I’m going to start researching automatic watering systems with the goal of installing a system for next summer.

Overall, I’m happy with how my garden did this year – and I’m not done yet, there is plenty still out there growing to feed my family for the winter and into next spring (kale is the best in the early spring).

The After Summer Report – part 1

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This year was the year of the hot pepper for me – I harvested a years worth off of three plants. They have a great level of heat.

Years ago I was in the army. At the end of each of our exercises we would sit down and create an ‘After Action Report’ outlining what went well and what didn’t. The idea was to create a document to learn from. With this in mind, I thought I would take a similar approach to this summer’s garden now that I’m trying to be more systematic about getting more food-stuff out of it.

What turned out well:

1 – Early peas in a big, black pot. I started peas really early in both a garden bed and in a big, black pot. The ones in the pot took right off, out growing the height of my trellis in no time while producing tones of peas. The peas in the ground were slow and produced only a few peas. My theory is the black pot provided extra warmth by heating up in the sun. Next year, I’ll grow all my early peas in black pots.

2 – Raspberries, strawberries and blackberries. All of these are in relatively new places and heavily mulched and fertilized. The result was a constant supply of these berries, even now there are raspberries and strawberries to eat.

3 – Carrots and beets. I devoted most of a bet to these two this year and mulched them well. None of them turned out huge, however we’ve eaten plenty over the last while and have enough to last us a few more months.

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Some tasty looking celery.

4 – Celery. I had an old package of celery seeds and some extra space when I was starting seeds, so celery became a last minute addition to my garden plan. I’ve tried to grow celery before and was disappointed by the small, bitter tasting plants that resulted. This year I ended up with six good sized plants (plenty for my family) that tasted great. Again, they were heavily mulched which kept them wetter than before. It appears that mulching is a common factor that improves my harvests.

Next, I’ll get into what didn’t turn out well…

A potentially nuclear magenta soup

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a nice morning for a beet photo (it’s a red ace beet)

I used to hate beets – it was all about their colour. Their juice stains everything it touches a nuclear shade of magenta, a colour I find unappealing. Now that I’m gardening, beets make a great crop; they are easy to grow, nutritious, and can just be left in the ground until needed. These plusses outweighed the fact that I didn’t like them, so I planted beets. I can’t say they are my favourite vegetable, but I’ve grown to tolerate them in soup and roasted (my quest to love beets is still ongoing).

In looking for something to do with my beets, I stumbled across a recipe for ‘biosphere beet soup’ from Eating In: from the field to the kitchen in Biosphere 2. The recipe called for beets, a potato and a lemon. I don’t grow any of my own lemons as I would need a greenhouse. However, I do have lots of beets and potatoes, so this recipe makes a great starting point for an experiment in making dinner out of what is currently in the garden.

First thing this morning, I went out and harvested the beets. Beside the beets were red carrots. These carrots were bred to contain lycopene, a health promoting nutrient, and they were red. Purple and orange carrots have been a huge success, so trying out red ones seemed like a great idea. To release the lycopene, the carrots need to be cooked and their redness wasn’t as bold as I wanted (they are a rather pale red, almost pink) making them an ideal ingredient for my beets soup.

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A nuti-red carrot. They grew fine, but I won’t bother with them in the future as orange and purple carrots are great for munching on raw and there is plenty of lycopene in the tomatoes.

In another bed, my first successful celery crop waited to be harvested, so I cut off several stalks to put in the soup. Last spring, I had planted multiplier onions to harvest their greens. The onions did their own thing and set single bulbs, that are modest sized red onions. Several of these onions went in along with two cloves of my own garlic.

Purple potatoes seemed the obvious choice for this soup, so I included a handful of small ones. Based on my recent spaghetti squash avalanche, I’ve also slipped in a squash which I assume will blend in.

Everything is now in the slow cooker, along with some salt and pepper that I didn’t produce. I’ll puree the lot before dinner. The original recipe came to 101 calories per serving, which is rather low. It is difficult to get a lot of calories out of garden produce. I think I’ll fry up a couple of eggs from my hens to round out the meal. That’s as local as I can get.