Dana’s Big Gardening Adventure: garden gone wild

August 22, 2008

If you’ve ever wondered how backyard gardeners deal when summertime travel and harvest season coincide, then this post is for you!

As it turns out, being away for over two weeks in August and leaving your garden to cope for itself is not the end of the world when you’re in the midst of the wettest summer on record. Not only was there no need to worry about my plants dehydrating, I came back to find that the garden was almost too moist in the low spots.

The side effect of this kind of moisture is that the weeds bolted as did water dense veggies like my cucumbers. As you can see from the picture above, my pickling cucumbers range from Chernobyl Betty-sized to the normal lovely pickle size I was hoping to grow. Although quite a few of my cukes are past the point of use, there are still blossoms and I found a number of smaller-sized specimens to cut up, sprinkle with cider vinegar and salt and serve to Oliver (one of his favorite TV time snacks!).

Besides putting them in the compost heap, does anyone have any ideas for things one can do with an overgrown cucumber? And, yes, since your mind went ‘there’ I will ask you to limit your suggestions to culinary uses only!

Dana’s Big Gardening Adventure: green beans

August 15, 2008

Photo by: Chris Freeland

Although growing green beans is easy (chances are you grew some in kindergarten in a cup filled with damp paper towel), knowing what to do with them when you have tons and tons (like I do right now) can be challenging.

I’ve grown slightly bored of boiled green beans with butter and salt and pepper and I’ve had just about enough salad Nicoise. So, it’s time to pull out an old standby recipe: Tuscan Green Bean Salad.

This recipe first appeared in my book Pantry Raid published in 2002 but it’s still a simple and stylish little recipe. Enjoy!

Tuscan Green Bean Salad
1/2 tsp (2 mL) grated lemon peel
2 tsp (10 mL) lemon juice
1 small clove garlic, minced
1/4 tsp (1 mL) each salt and pepper
2 tbsp (30 mL) extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup (75 mL) finely diced aged Pecorino or Asiago cheese
1/2 lb (250 g) green beans

Whisk lemon peel with lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper. Drizzle in olive oil, whisking constantly. Toss in cheese.

Cut away stem ends from green beans and cut into 2-inch (5 cm) lengths. Blanch in a saucepan of boiling salted water for 3 to 5 minutes or until bright green but still crisp. Drain and refresh under cold running water. Drain well; stir into cheese mixture. Makes 4 servings.

Dana’s Big Gardening Adventure gets boxed

August 8, 2008

I thought my pizza garden story offered a fresh idea about vegetable garden design but Josh Freidland of The Food Section (a generally excellent food blog by the way) outlines yet another simple, fun way to make planting and caring for a small garden manageable.

Growing Veggies by the Square Foot

Dana’s Big Gardening Adventure: 5 tips for growing peas

July 4, 2008

Recently I joined a farm tour organized by the Ontario Farm Animal Council. I met the group at Lennox Farm in Dufferin County near Shelburne, Ontario. Bill French, a 5th generation farmer who grows rhubarb and peas, owns it.

Growing 75 to 80 acres of peas a year has given Bill plenty of opportunity to refine his technique. Although my own pea growing efforts are progressing nicely, I wish I’d had the benefit of Bill’s tips earlier in the season. Had I known then what I know now, I would have done quite a few things differently.

Here are Bill’s recco’s for growing peas:
1. Since peas are prone to powdery mildew, plant them in rows that run north and south so that each plant has maximum opportunity for the sun to burn off the dew.
2. Bill also recommends creating raised beds so that rain doesn’t collect around the stems and roots.
3. Fertilize the seedlings with a molasses mixture to raise their brix level. This will make the plants more resistant to disease and the peas will taste sweeter, too.
4. Stagger planting so that you have peas throughout the season. In a farm setting, this means planting a new row every other day for as long as the farmer hopes there are 71 days left in the pea-growing season. In a home garden, you can plant one row and then the next week another and extend your yield time that way.
5. Pick and chill mature peas promptly. On the farm, Bill’s pickers bring peas from the field to the cold storage barn every one and a half hours to preserve the sweet, fresh flavour.

Dana’s Big Gardening Adventure: Dana considers professional help

June 27, 2008

I‘ve learned a lot so far on my big gardening adventure. For instance, bugs eat leaves and seed tape sucks (look to the left). In fact, I think I’ve learned just enough about food gardening to realize how much I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. In fact, I’m pretty thrilled to be learning so much about the complicated process of growing food!

I’ve already got a lot of plans about how to improve my techniques for next year. I’ll write more specifically about what I’ve learned not to do later in the year when I’m sure I know what I know (I hope that sentence made sense to you. It seemed pretty eloquent until I wrote it down!).

In the meantime I’m going to do more research of both the hands on and reading variety. I’d love to seek out professional help but I don’t think my schedule or pocketbook can afford the luxury. However, if you’re in a different situation, you might like to spend part of your summer on Mary Jane’s Farm. Although it sounds like a pot plot, it turns out that Mary Jane teaches people like me who want to garden organically how to get great results. It’s like a summer camp for green thumbs!

If you can’t go in person, check out their forums, magazines and books for armchair inspiration.

Dana’s Big Gardening Adventure continues: plant a pizza garden

June 6, 2008

Photo credit: thepizzafarm.com

If you’re looking for a way to teach kids (or adults) about how food goes from farm to fork, planting a pizza garden may be an ideal summer project.

At it’s most authentic, a pizza garden is a place where all the elements of a pizza are grown and transformed into a pizza pie. Places like the Pizza Farm in California and ‘R’ Pizza Farm and Restaurant in Dow, Illonois, epitomize the concept. At ‘R’ Pizza Farm and Restaurant, a 2-acre pizza shaped plot is used to grow organic produce and livestock (chickens, pigs, herbs, tomatoes, peppers). Each wedge of land is large enough to grow a single crop or to pasture a goat, a cow or another animal that can be milked to make cheese or raised and processed to make meat-based pizza toppings such as bacon and pepperoni. The on-site restaurant at ‘R’ sells pizzas made only from the grain, vegetables cheese and meat raised on the property. It’s a wonderful place where people can see where the food on their plates comes from. ‘R’ Pizza Farm attracts about 4,500 visitors each summer.

Although I don’t recommend raising goats in the backyard (unless you hate your neighbours and enjoy visits from by-law officers), you can still plant a pizza garden at home. Simply make a round shaped bed, divide it into sixths or eighths and plant your favorite sauce and vegetable topping ingredients.

Use the following info to help you create a plant list and to get the most out of your pizza garden as the season progresses:

Basil: If you pinch the stems frequently, your sweet basil will grow bushy and full.

Eggplant: When harvesting, cut each eggplant off the vine leaving about an inch (2.5 cm) of stem remaining on the fruit.

Garlic: Plant garlic in the fall. Where winter is mild, plant cloves 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep, root side down; where winter is severe, put them 2 to 4 inches (5 to 8 cm) deep and mulch lightly.

Onions: Spacing the plants widely apart will maximize air movement and help reduce the time that leaves are wet, resulting in less risk of disease.

Oregano: Don’t begin to harvest the leaves and stem tips until the plants are 4 to 5 inches (10 to 12 cm) high.

Parsley: Try soaking the parsley seeds for 24 hours in room temperature water before planting to accelerate germination. For large parsley plants, thin sprouts to about a hand-span apart.

Roma tomatoes: Commercial tomato growers in California are now planting four tomato seedlings in the same hole since trial has shown that the stress caused by the four plants competing for the same amount of moisture, fertilizer and space causes them to bear more heavily.

Rosemary: As the seedlings become established, pinch the tips to prevent the rosemary from becoming leggy. Once plants are well established, begin to take cuttings; however, never harvest more than 20 percent of the plant at one time.

Sweet and hot peppers: Peppers of all kinds like hot sunshine, warm nights and moist soil. Stakes can prevent branch breakage when the fruit is heavy.

Zucchini: since water on the leaves can lead to powdery mildew, water these plants at the roots. Zucchini dehydrates quickly so mulch the soil heavily but leave some room around the main stem to prevent rotting.

Dana’s Gardening Adventure: Growing veg is also great in a crate

May 30, 2008

So, the plants and seeds are doing their thing in the garden. Weeds seem to be growing faster than anything, which is a bit of a worry but I guess also a fact of the organic gardening experience. While mine is a classic backyard garden plot, I’ve noticed that people are finding any way they can to be better earthlings by growing a few of their favorite veggies and herbs.

Urban community gardens are popping up in all kinds of Canadian cities. In fact, the picture above is of a 2007 summer Toronto garden sponsored by Hellmann’s mayo. This year their project will continue with 94 contest winners who will get urban garden plots in cities such as Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. Hellmann’s also has some useful online garden planning tools I found fun to play with.

If you don’t have access to one of these plots or have a yard that’s suitable for planting, you can still grow food in window boxes, pots and other containers. I’ve done it and it’s surprising how much produce a few pots can yield.

Even if you’re a champ at growing decorative plants in containers, the shift to growing edible plants can be a challenge since soil, sun and fertilizing can greatly affect the taste and nutrient content of herbs and vegetables. So, check out my container gardening tips before you get started:

Sun: To mature successfully, the balcony or terrace where you grow edible plants should receive about 5 hours of sun a day, preferably morning or late afternoon exposure, which is less scorching than the intense, mid-day rays.

Drainage: Choose containers that have an adequate number of holes in the bottom to ensure proper drainage; that way your edible plants will neither drown nor parch.

Soil: The soil for growing edible plants in containers needs to have a combination of characteristics: container plants do well in soil that allows rapid drainage but also require sufficient water retention to keep the plant roots uniformly moist. “Soiless” potting mixes and peat moss drain quickly, are lightweight and free from soil-borne diseases and weed seeds.

Planting: Since there is seldom 100% germination and emergence when growing plants from seed, always plant more seed than is needed in each container. After the seeds sprout and the seedlings start to touch, thin plants to the desired number.

Feeding: Since you’ll be cooking and eating the herbs and vegetables you grow, choosing a safe fertilizer is very important. Avoid chemical fertilizers that can make plants inedible. Unlike a yard garden, the soil in containers is unlikely to get organic enrichment naturally so work compost into the containers often. Compost is sold by the bagful at most garden centres.

Watering: The best way to water container plants is with a watering can or gentle sprayer attachment on a garden hose. Be sure the water is cool before applying it to the vegetables, particularly if the hose or watering can sits in the sun for part or all of the day. Watering with hot water cannot only damage foliage, but retard root development.