Dana’s Big Gardening Adventure: an obituary

September 5, 2008

I am sad. I’ve been sad for two weeks since I went outside to check my garden and discovered that vermin (likely raccoons) had knocked down my corn and ate unsightly gouges into every cob.

The picture above was taken just days before the massacre and, as you can see, the ears were forming nicely. Visions of melted butter were dancing in my head. Times were good.

Sigh. The corn part of my big gardening adventure was a partnership between my son Oliver and I; so the loss is doubly felt at our house. That said, we’ve picked ourselves up and visited a farm stand to purchase corn. It was very good and our bellies, none the wiser, think they’ve had our homegrown kernels. It’s a subterfuge, I know. But I’m just not strong enough to break the news to my digestive system yet. Perhaps, in time, I’ll heal.

What we learned: it isn’t thumbs that separate us from other members of the animal kingdom, it’s the ability to eat corn in an orderly, sequential linear fashion that makes the difference. I’m sure of it!

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 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 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.

Dana’s big gardening adventure – week four: preparing the site

April 18, 2008

According to my reading, preparing the site for your garden is one of the most crucial steps to ensuring your veggies have a chance to succeed.

My garden is well established but has been fallow for at least three years. During that time my habit has been to dump all the leaves, cuttings and weeds from the rest of the yard into this space. When weeds have sprung up my landscaper has tilled them under with the Rototiller. I have a feeling that my soil is going to be very rich in organic matter but also thickly populated by weeds. So, as soon as the mud will allow, I’m going to put on my gloves, grab my hoe and pull out any little shoots that are popping up.

I’ve been told that the best technique is to till the soil in the fall so that you’re all set up in the spring and can plant earlier. However, I didn’t know I was going to use this vegetable patch last fall so
I’m going to use a Rototiller this spring to break up the soil and make it easier to weed and plant (actually my mom’s boyfriend John has offered to till the garden for me if I make sure there aren’t any big stones in it first – thanks John!). I was told by a knowledgeable farmer friend that tilling too often – especially in spring – should be avoided since it forces organic matter that needs surface bugs to be broken down too far below the surface. Regrettably, I’ll have to take that chance since my soil is pretty compacted.

In the meantime, while I wait for the mud to be less squishy, I’m busy inside nurturing and transplanting my seedlings to larger pots so that I can have nice robust plants ready when planting day arrives.

I planted my seedlings in peat moss not just because it’s recommended as a good starter, but also because it was the only soil I could find at the garden centre this early in the spring that didn’t contain any chemicals. Shocking, no?

I bought way too much peat moss, though. To plant all my corn, cantaloupes and pumpkins (that’s one seed starter kit worth of cells) I thought I’d need three 9 L bags of peat moss. I didn’t even use one full bag! No matter. I’ll soon have tomato plants to transfer and it will come in handy then.

Dana’s big gardening adventure: week three

April 11, 2008

Seedlings week two

Since last week my seeds have germinated but there really isn’t anything exciting to see yet in my seed starter kits. I’m sorry I can’t share a more interesting picture with you (turns out being a better Earthling isn’t visually stimulating at the early stages). What I can share is advice for planning your summer 2008 garden; so, this week we’ll discuss planning and choosing your plot (I’m referring to gardens, not burials BTW).

Although there are still many weeks before people in my corner of Canada will be doing any outdoor gardening, now is the time to plan your garden if you will be starting a new one. I’m lucky that the yard behind the test kitchen has a well-planned garden plot created by the previous owners. Once spring actually arrives, I’ll be able to get to the business of planting and growing my seedlings with very little effort.

For those of you who aren’t as lucky, here are some tips for choosing a good site for a garden plot:

• You’ll need a patch of land that receives 8 to 10 hours of sun per day.
• Look for a level site (if that isn’t an option in your yard, then you may have to build a retaining wall and build up one end to make a level growing space.)
• If possible, dig your garden near a water source. My own garden is far from the house so I’m going to set up a rain barrel to use for quick watering. For deeper soaks, I’ll be lugging around a muddy hose.
• Make sure the soil is safe and has a good base of nutrients. You can do that by purchasing a soil test kit at a garden centre.
• Although by August you may be worrying about drought and sick of rolling and unrolling the hose, if you haven’t chosen a well-drained area for the garden earlier in the year you’ll have problems with ground water, which can lead to root rot, fungus development and other nasty stuff.
• If drainage is a problem, consider raising the beds by surrounding the garden with a wall or a few stacked railway ties. Add a good layer of screenings, sand and top up with a deep layer of topsoil and you’ll assure good drainage.
• Don’t let your ambition outstrip your needs. Start small and, if you find you love vegetable gardening this year, then add extra rows next year. A 10-foot square plot is a large starter garden while a 20 x 40-foot garden will provide enough produce for most families to eat all summer with extra bounty to share with neighbours or the food bank.

Next Friday: Deciding what to grow
Friday after next: Site preparation tips

Dana’s big gardening adventure week two: starting seeds

April 4, 2008

Seed starters

Just before Easter my father and I had an interesting conversation about an annual contest he and his friend Marshall have to see who can grow the most delicious tomatoes. When I asked my Dad (who was raised on a farm) to share his tomato tips with me, I discovered that although I’m a relative city slicker, I’m a much ‘greener’ gardener than my dad.

While I’m starting three kinds of heritage tomato seeds on the window sill and intend to pamper my plants with non-toxic organic matter and kill any nasty leaf munching bugs with soap and water, my dad will buy his plant at Walmart or Home Depot and douse it regularly with commercial fertilizer and clouds of tomato dust bug killer. I’ve eaten the sandwiches made with his tomatoes in previous years so I know his method will create a great tomato. What I don’t know is if mine will be better. So, I’m going to invite myself to his tomato contest this year to see if my experiment results in more than just added peace of mind (or is it piece of mind? I’ve always been confused by that saying).

For those of you who plan to start tomatoes or any other garden plants from seed, here are my seed starting tips:

• I like the seed starter kits pictured above. They’re easy to use, lightweight and tidy. I bought my seed starter trays at the hardware store but you can order them from places such as Lee Valley as well.

• It’s never been easier to find heritage seeds. I saw some at the grocery store the other day and found even more in the garden section at the hardware store. However, I did order seeds for some specific items from an online seed catalogue. I found my supplier through Seeds of Diversity but a quick online search can point you in the right direction as well.

• This year the tricky part about starting seeds is anticipating when to take the plunge. My strategy has been to delay starting seeds for two weeks longer than usual to compensate for the crazy cold weather. (I can’t imagine I’ll be planting anything outdoors before late May this year).

• I’m also starting the plants that have a long maturation such as corn and pumpkins in pots. I’m hoping that by planting these items outdoors as plants instead of seeds that I’ll have some hope of a harvest before the fall frost comes.

• I label each row of seeds clearly. It’s important so that you can tell exactly what each plant is later on when it comes time to choose an appropriate place for it in the garden.

• In past years I found that the cells in these starters can be too wet to germinate seeds without growing mold. So, I recommend soaking them and then letting the cells stand for 12 hours before adding seeds. Later, water them often but sparingly (a spray bottle is ideal) so that you don’t wash away the seeds before they can drop roots.