Garden Status Report #4

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

After a rough start to the growing season and its endless rain, the pessimism is slowly fading away as the landscape turns more and more green with each visit.

We lost a lot of seedlings in rainstorms that, in some cases, dropped two inches of rain in one night. Our garden had washout damage that took most of our onion seedlings with it. The beans from our early seeding had a hard time breaking through the hard ground created by the rain. But some did, and our second seeding, for our drying beans, are pushing through the ground right now. It's a beautiful sight.

Beets are forming under delicious greens and the savoy cabbages are beginning to take shape.

Our tomatoes were looking pretty sick a few weeks ago. Sitting in the damp soil gave them all early blight. We were pretty heartbroken, but ruthless picking of sick leaves and branches and recent dry weather has turned them into pictures of health. Some plants are already bigger than any plants we've ever grown on our lot in town.

The pepper plants are beginning to blossom and take off. They seem to be a lot slower than the tomatoes, but they're coming along.

Our herbs are beautiful. I'm continually impressed by basil that is grown in my parents' soil. We're going to have about a dozen waist-high plants in a couple months.

I also picked up some Red Fife wheat seed. I planted it late, but was curious to get some in. We've now got access to a small flour mill, so I thought I'd try growing some. What we grow this year will probably just become next year's seed.

Our hops are happily climbing and so are our beans. I'm not sure if we'll get actual hop cones this year, but it's a start. The bean trellis we built blew down in a storm a few weeks back, but nothing was damaged, so we put it back up with some reinforcement. I can't wait until it's a solid green mass of beans.

Zucchinis are beginning to grow as well as pumpkins. We planted some giant pumpkins, the only non-practical thing in the garden, but the kids will love seeing them grow into massive boulders. They'll also serve as a bit of a distraction while we're weeding.

Some of the pests are ugly, others are beautiful. The first thing we do on every visit is sweep for Colorado Potato Beetles. First stop is the potatoes, second the eggplants and a third sweep through tomatoes. We've heard mulching with cedar works to keep them away, but so far, it's not a huge task to just walk through and flick any we see into the affectionately named Death Jar.

The other "pests" are the Swallowtail Caterpillars. They're the most beautiful creatures and are slowly munching away at our dill. But knowing they'll turn into swallowtail butterflies and be off soon, is helping us tolerate them.

The garden is definitely looking up, and I can't believe we're going to have ripe tomatoes soon. Just looking at all of this stuff, and thinking back to starting it all with tiny seeds in our tiny porch blows my mind. To think that, on this small quarter-acre, is enough life that we can eat year-round and give us free seed for next year is an incredible feeling.

Garlic Scapes

Friday, June 24, 2011

Every time we go to the farm I have been thoroughly examining the garlic, wondering when the delicious scapes might appear. I'd feel the leaves coming out of the middle, and they were always flat, not the round stalk I was looking forward to. However, this past weekend gave us a big surprise.

We hadn't been to the farm for almost a week and when we arrived we were greeted with LOTS of scapes. We picked all of the ones that had fully curled, and there are still many more on their way.

The scape is the stalk that grows from the centre of the stem, and is the beginning of the flower and eventually, seeds. However, common practice in growing garlic is to snap the scape off to focus all of its energy into developing the bulb and cloves.

Scapes are delicious grilled up with other vegetables, cut up into a salad, or made into a pesto. We use a mortar and pestle to grind them up and add to some olive oil and balsamic vinegar to make a delicious bread dipper or salad dressing.

If you haven't tried scapes before I definitely recommend picking some up at your local farmers market and giving them a try. You certainly won't regret it.

Field Trip: Preserving Strawberry Fields

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Every year, my mom would brave the fields with 4 kids, and set out to the pick-your-own strawberry patch. We were always in awe of how quickly she could fill her baskets, and how perpetually empty ours were. Although, I know why ours were never filled.

We'd bring them home and clean them, eat our share of berries fresh, or sliced and covered with milk. Then, when the sight of another strawberry sickened us, mom would make jam.

It feels great to continue the tradition with my own family. Our three year old was the most ambitious, snatching the biggest basket to fill. Regardless of whether or not he actually filled it (he didn't), whatever strawberries ended up in it were definitely his.

We like the idea of a pick your own farm. When you are doing your own preserving it becomes a fun task and isn't overwhelming. It's cheaper when you pick your own and picking isn't that hard. Thirty minutes of picking can give you more berries than you need to preserve.

We pick our berries at Lindley's Farm in Ancaster. They don't use any chemical sprays on their fruit or vegetables, so we're a lot more comfortable letting the kids eat a few in the field. In fact, our son was happily informed upon arrival that the only rule was to try one.

We, quite quickly, picked 15 quarts of berries, took them home and immediately ate our fair share. Then I moved on to the jam making. I followed a recipe found in Canning & Preserving with Ashley English. It is a very simple and delicious recipe.

The 15 quarts of strawberries quickly disappeared as I made a huge strawberry rhubarb crisp and a batch of strawberry-rhubarb muffins. We more than paid for the berries in the jam alone and we won't have to buy any for a year. And the best part is that we know exactly the source and ingredients of our jam.

If you haven't been berry picking you still have time. Find a pick-your-own farm near you and get picking, you certainly won't regret it. Whether it is for freezing and preserving to last you through the year, or for simply eating local fresh produce while it is in season, it's great experience.

Mom's Sweet Potato Hack

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

We've been working away on our quarter-acre plot, which we hope will feed all of our vegetable needs from July on, but in planning an extensive garden, sometimes you miss a chance, forget, or simply don't have the time to start something. One of those things was sweet potatoes. We wanted to grow them, but planning out the garden was a lot busier than we thought and we totally forgot about them.

When my mom started asking about how to grow them, we were happy to have someone on the job. I immediately directed her to Google to do some research.

Sweet potatoes aren't related to the ordinary potato. They're in a totally different family that just happens to have a similar, tuberous root. Sweet potatoes are actually related to the Morning Glory, the vining, decorative flower. So to force them to sprout is a bit of a different story than simply leaving a potato out to chit.

Here's how my mom did it:
1. Find a nice, local sweet-potato, and a jar it can fit into
2. Stick three toothpicks into its equator
3. Put the sweet potato in the jar, pointy end down, so it sits on the toothpicks
4. Fill the jar with water and let it sit on a sunny windowsill for a few weeks
5. As the sprouts, also called slips, begin to grow, break them off once they're a few inches tall, and sit them in a shallow dish of water to root
6. Tranfer to soil once they're  4-6 inches long

Most likely it's a bit late to be starting them now, but we're slowly building a chart to help us schedule what starts best when, and sweet potatoes are going on the calendar for March 1. It's a nice early job to do while we're tempted to start our vegetable seeds too early. Keep an eye on our blog for the calendar. We'll share it once it's done. And keep an eye out for updates on how they're coming along throughout this growing season.

Pure Green Magazine

Monday, June 13, 2011

Look how official we look! In layout! We're happy to be included in the Pure Green Magazine summer issue. In fact, we're happy to be included in all of the upcoming issues, since we're official columnists.

The magazine will be issued 4 times a year, and our column focuses on growing and preserving food. Our first article focuses on the importance of planting a garden, no matter how big or small, early or late.

Here are some screen shots, but why don't you just read the whole issue online here. We will keep you posted when new issues come out.

Field Trip: House's Asparagus

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

When you eat seasonally, things begin to reveal their value again. I'm not talking about monetary value, it's a value that feels a bit more natural and a bit more true. We hadn't eaten asparagus for a while before my parents brought over some of House's first asparagus of the season. When foods are eaten seasonally, they become a special treat. It's hard to not get excited about the first asparagus when it's been almost a year. There's a saying about absence...

House's Farm Market has been my family's source for fresh asparagus for years. Right on highway 24, heading south into Norfolk County, sits the market stand. And right next to it is the field full of asparagus. It doesn't get much more local than that.

Ernie and Susan House invited us into the field to take a look at how the asparagus grows. We walked to a patch of brown ground where we assumed nothing was growing. It looked like a field with leftover mulch from last year. But upon closer inspection, all over the field, little green spears were poking through.

We talked about how asparagus grows in our first Garden Status Report. We learned that it takes four years for it to reach the age where it can tolerate cutting. Harvesting asparagus must be stressful for the crown, or root system. It sends up a spear, which is cut, and then keeps trying again and again. You have to be careful to not overdo it, and eventually need to let a spear grow into the the mature fern, which in turn will harness solar energy to store and grow again next year. 

As for the smell when you pee, it comes from various sulfurous compounds found especially in young asparagus. And the debate isn't around whose urine smells after eating asparagus, it's all about who has the genes to actually smell it. Some doctors would say that since you can smell it in your urine, it must be hard on the kidneys, but we think it must be fine, especially when you're eating it seasonally.

Asparagus, although their main local crop right now, isn't the only thing grown on House's farm. Their sweet corn is exceptional, especially when it's picked so close, and they also grow their own potatoes, green peas in the pod, green and yellow beans, squash, and pumpkins. If you're driving through Norfolk County any time soon, make sure you stop and pick up the freshest asparagus you'll probably ever buy. 

House's Farm & Market
1903 Windham Road 3 (at Hwy. 24)
R.R.# 3 Scotland, Ontario

Garden Status Report #3

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Heading out to plant the hops. They're doing well. They seem to have a weed-like vigour. Maybe because they're in the hemp family.

When you are new to gardening and farming, the learning curve is steep. For starters, you learn pretty quickly that you have no control over the weather, and to be specific, you have no control over the rain.

For our region, the general rule of thumb is that you can safely plant your whole vegetable garden on or after the Victoria Day (May 24th) weekend. You can start hardier seeds and plants before that, as soon as the ground is workable. However, because of this year’s wetness, everything had been delayed waiting for the ground to dry out.

Peppers on their way out to the field. Roma's are the classic paste/canning tomatoes.

We did manage to get some stuff in the weekend before - our onions, brassicas (cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli), beets, carrots, asparagus, rhubarb and strawberries. They’re all pretty hardy and can go in as soon as possible. We also planted four variety of potatoes that will, hopefully, feed our family for the year (banana fingers, purple peruvian, chieftain, and yukon gold). We planted a few too many, so we’re discussing opening a chip stand.

As for the warmer season vegetables, they were taking over the greenhouse. We were really anxious to get them out into the field, and we had a small window for planting in our schedule so we planted our tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and pumpkins during the long weekend. We put up some supports and planted pole and bush beans, and hops went in next to makeshift poles while they wait for their trellis. It was a lot of hard work, sometimes even planting in the unstoppable rain, but so worth it.

We made the bean supports out of Sumach, which is a weed-like tree that grows out of control. No imported bamboo necessary.

Our push to get everything into the garden was probably a little premature. The cold days that followed hurt a lot of our cucumber plants. We lost over half of them to what we believe is a mixture of cold and rain on top of transplanting shock. We were also worried about how the single-digit temperatures would affect our bean seeds as they tried to germinate, however, they’re doing fine and are starting to break through the soil. We’re going to seed over where we lost cucumbers and we have more watermelon plants in the greenhouse to replace those failures.

One of the cucumber survivors. They didn't transplant well and we lost about half.

But this year is all about learning. Lesson one was the weather, and lesson two, I have a feeling, is going to be all about weeds. We’re banking all of this experience, and we’ll be that much further along next year.