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Peanuts!

I saw a packet of peanut seed from the Ontario Seed Co. this spring and bought it on a whim. I had no idea that peanuts would grow in our area, but the back of the seed packet said they would, so I thought I’d give it a try. Not many seeds in the packet, just enough for one 8-foot row. They came up, and they flowered, and then they didn’t seem to do anything else. I read up on peanuts and they are supposed to throw “pegs” out which arc back into the soil and that’s where the peanuts grow. Well, I imagined these “pegs” as large (or at least visible) shoots, and I never saw any… So I figured they hadn’t made any… We’ve had a bad, bad drought all summer, and I didn’t irrigate the peanuts, I just gave them a couple of gallons of water a few times during the worst of the drought. So I figured they hadn’t “set fruit” (or in this case, nuts).

This afternoon when I was picking the ripe tomatoes (yes, our tomatoes are still ripening in mid-September – we’ve had a rough year!) I decided to pull one of the peanut plants, just to see. The book said to leave them until the leaves turned yellow, and mine are still green, but curiosity finally got the better of me and low and behold – there were peanuts!

Just a couple (I pulled one of the smallest plants), but actual honest-to-goodness peanuts had grown in my garden! I’m totally thrilled, and will be planting LOTS more next year. The best part is that they grew with hardly any irrigation in a summer of severe drought. Since our local climate seems to be getting hotter & drier in the summer, this is so good to know!

I make all our jams & jellies, but we buy a fair bit of peanut butter and roasted peanuts. Knowing I can grow our own peanuts makes me feel like I’m one baby-step closed to self-sufficiency. We have hazelnut and walnut trees that should start to bear in the next couple of years, so the addition of peanuts and sunflower seeds expands our options for reasonably reliable non-animal protein.

It turns out that the “pegs” I was looking for and not seeing were the little shoots that come off near the bottom stems and burrow almost straight down into the soil under the plant. Next year I’ll know what I’m looking for!

Time to start researching my options for a food mill / grinder that has attachments to handle both cereal grains and oily nuts…

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Happy Spring everyone, and for the first time that I can remember, we are indeed having spring this week! The crocuses are up, the birds are singing, the chickens are laying, and maple syrup season (such as it was) is over. I even saw a ploughed field when I was walking the dog yesterday. Usually at this time of year, there’s still a fair amount of snow on the ground out here, and greetings of “Happy First Day of Spring” are greeted with a sarcastic “Yeah, right.” Being the realist (some would say pessimist) that I am, I’m not expecting our unseasonably warm weather to last. I think we’ll get walloped at least once more at the beginning of April. As I over-heard one old farmer saying to another this past weekend, “Remember that year we had snow on Mother’s Day?”

Unseasonable weather or not, I’m thinking about this year’s vegetable garden. Every year I agonize over when to start the seeds indoors, and when to plant them out. This year I started the peppers (bell and hot) an extra two weeks early, because last year they didn’t start setting fruit until September, and then the frost got the golf-ball sized still-green peppers. That may have had something to do with the drought we had for the entire month of July, of course.

I started the peppers on March 4th, and they are just starting to come up today. I’ll be starting the tomatoes this week, and crossing my fingers that I’ve guessed right. Start them too early and they get leggy in their pots, which makes the stems prone to snapping when you’re planting them out or when a breath of wind hits them. Start them too late and you don’t get them into the garden until June, and then you don’t get any tomatoes until August.

The seed packets, gardening books, and websites helpfully give you the following information, “Start seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before last frost,” which seems simple enough, right? Find out when the average “Last Frost” date is in your area, count back 6 (or 7 or 8) weeks, and that’s when you start your seeds.

Problem #1: “Last frost” dates are listed for major cities, not small villages in the middle of nowhere. The weather is so variable in this part of the country that using the “Last Frost” date for Ottawa or Montreal would be about as accurate as throwing a dart at a calendar page.

Problem #2: The most recent and up-to-date “Last Frost” data available for Ontario is based on average temperatures calculated from 1976 to 2005. The climate is a-changin’, as seen by the fact that I’ll be walking the dog in shorts and a t-shirt this afternoon, when there is usually still a foot of snow on the ground this time of year. Tomorrow’s forecast high is 28°C – the normal high for this time of year is 4°C. Historical averages are becoming less useful. The best data available from Ontario, however, is here: Climate Zones and Planting Dates for Vegetables in Ontario (Note that most books and websites are using much older data, typically the American USDA maps which are based on a 1953-1980 data set).

Problem #3: (And this one is the “gotcha” that prompted this post) “Last Frost” is a fox terrier.

Ok, that obviously needs some explanation: a “fox terrier” in this context is a “canonical” phrase or idea that gets repeated by authors in texts without being examined or re-examined. The phrase was coined by the wonderful natural science author Stephen J. Gould. Gould was writing an essay on the evolution of the horse, and he found himself typing a description of “Hyracotherium” as being the size of a fox terrier. Then he stopped and thought to himself, “Why am I typing that, when I don’t even know what a fox terrier looks like?” His subsequent research on the topic found descriptions of this particular ancestor of the modern horse being compared in size to a fox terrier, in an unbroken line of textbooks dating back over 100 years. He asked around his department, and none of his colleagues knew what a fox terrier looked like, or in fact exactly what size it was, though they had taught out of those same textbooks for years. He then wrote a further essay on the topic, “The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone.” 1

Here’s the thing I realised that changed the way I think about planning to plant the garden: The idea that you “should” be able to prepare your soil for planting well before the average “last frost” date comes from gardeners writing gardening books in England, where it doesn’t snow, and hardly ever freezes! Like Gould’s dinosaur descriptions, authors of gardening books have simply repeated, “6 to 8 weeks before last frost” whenever they talk about starting tomato seeds indoors. “Aha,” I thought to myself one day, as the cartoon lightbulb lit up over my head, “‘Last Frost’ is a fox terrier!” If you are gardening under perfect conditions, in an “average” (whatever that means these days) year, then the Last Frost data is probably all you need. Spring comes, the snow melts, the ground dries out, you turn it over and prepare your seed bed, and you plant according to the information on the backs of the seed packets. No problem.

But in my experience out here, about half the time, the veg patch is still under water on our putative “last frost” date. We don’t have particularly bad drainage, but some years it rains for all of April, and there’s just no way we can get the rototiller (or a person with a fork) into the garden by May 11th (our official “last frost” date). So the seeds whose packets say “plant out as soon as the soil can be worked” (which in Oxford, England, where the gardening books were originally written, is sometime in mid-to-late February) get planted in late May, at the same time as the tomatoes and the potatoes and everything else, because that’s when I can plant!

Now I’m not faulting the books, websites, or seed packets for using “last frost” date as an instruction for when to start seeds. Of course you want to set our your young plants after the last frost, whenever that should be. And of course you want to give new gardeners some sort of guidelines other than “in spring” (though I’ve seen that on the back of a seed packet, too!) But I’ve come to realize that “in spring” is really the best we can do, most of the time. 8 weeks before May 11th, I have no way of knowing if it’s going to be cold or warm, wet or dry for the next two months. I don’t know if I’ll be planting out my tomatoes on May 6th or June 6th.

So I’ve changed my thinking from “I have to have the garden ready to plant the tomatoes out on May 11th,” and feeling like a failure every year that I can’t, to “It’s probably not wise to plant the tomatoes out before the second week of May or so, most years.” I’m hoping it’s going to make me a much more relaxed gardener.

Happy Spring!

1 Stephen J. Gould Bully for the Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History. 1991.

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It’s tomato time out here, which means that very soon it’s going to be green tomato time, too. In fact, last Saturday when I was filling in for the manager of our local Farmer’s Market, a customer asked the vegetable seller next to me if he had any green tomatoes. He said he had lots, in his field, and if he had known people wanted to buy them, he would have brought some. He promised to bring some for her next week. She wanted to make green tomato pickles, which in my house growing up we always called Green Tomato Chutney. I make a big batch every year, and eat it with Egg Pie, or on toast with or without cheese. I find it particularly welcome in May when the winter is over, but none of the fresh veg is available yet. The funny thing is that my British mother’s “family” recipe for green tomato chutney actually comes from her French Canadian neighbour, Andrée. Here it is:

Ingredients:

  • 8 pounds (approximately 3.5 kg) of green tomatoes (about 32 medium-sized tomatoes)
  • 6 large onions
  • 3 cups (750ml) vinegar
  • 3 cups packed brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon coarse salt
  • 1 teaspoon each of ground cloves, cinnamon, and mace

 

Method:

  1. Chop the tomatoes and the onions, and put into a large stock pot.
  2. Bring the mixture to a boil in it’s own juice.
  3. Simmer on low heat for 30 minutes.
  4. Add the rest of the ingredients and let simmer, uncovered, until the mixture starts to thicken. Then let it simmer for another 20-30 minutes, stirring regularly to prevent it sticking.
  5. While it is thickening, prepare your canning jars, lids, and rings.
  6. Ladle hot chutney into hot jars and seal. Process in a boiling water bath canner for 15 minutes.

Makes approximately eight 500ml (1 pint) jars.

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It’s been a rough summer for the vegetable garden. Spring started out very cold and very wet, and so we were late getting the garden rototilled. I say “we,” but t! is the one who wrestles the rototiller around the garden for two days so that I can plant. The cold-loving veggies (onions, peas, string beans, and greens such as spinach and bok-choi) went in in the middle of May, the potatoes at the end of May, and the things that need more heat (tomatoes, cucumbers, dry beans, and squashes) went in at the beginning of June.

Through June, everything looked pretty good, chugging along slowly but surely the way a garden should. Then July and the heat wave hit. Temperatures up to 35°C and the only rain was the very occasional short, sharp thunder shower. I started watering the tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumbers by hand with a bucket (next year there will be some sort of irrigation system in place). The only things that didn’t seem to mind the dry and the heat were the soup beans (Great Northern and Black Turtle) and the basil.

Basil

But the first bunch of tomatoes to set fruit had blossom-end rot, which in tomatoes is caused by a lack of calcium to the flower, which in turn is almost always (and in my case certainly) caused by a lack of enough water for the plant to get the calcium in the soil up to the flowers when they need it.

Blossom End Rot (Sorry for the slightly fuzzy photo!)

So I stepped up the watering as best I could, and that seems to have solved it. I have tomatoes, but the crop is probably going to be small. It’s late in the summer, and not enough fruit has set. Small is the word for most of the crop this year. Onions, small. Potatoes, small. Cucumbers, small (and few). Bell peppers. Sigh. I have 15 bell pepper plants (red bell peppers are t!’s favourite vegetable) and 1 pepper so far.

Small Potatoes

As I’ve learned to say from my neighbours with a philosophical sigh, “That’s farming…”

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Seedy Tips

Today was a lovely warm sunny spring day, so I took the opportunity to get some more of this year’s garden seeds started. I planted cucumber, zucchini, and winter squash seeds. I thought I might share a few tips on starting seedlings that I’ve picked up or worked out over the years:

1. Recycled plastic food containers make great seed-starting pots. I find large yoghurt containers perfect for tomatoes (punch holes in the bottoms for drainage), and these mushroom trays work well too, especially the ones that aren’t recyclable.

Cut the corners off the container with scissors for drainage.

2. Always, always, always mark your pots. “I’ll remember” has never been true for me. If I’m only planting one variety, then I just mark the type of plant – the details of the variety I write down in my gardening log book.

The tomatoes are all in yoghurt pots, so I’ve just marked the first letter of the variety, in this case “F” for “Federle”. You can see where I crossed out whatever was previously written on this particular yoghurt container. Re-use, and then recycle!

3. I like to plant 2 or 3 seeds per pot to make sure I get at least 1 viable transplant in each pot. Last year I did an experiment: I used to plant three seeds per pot, and then at transplant time I would separate the seedlings for planting.

Last year I did this for half the tomato seedlings, and the other half I planted the whole pot of three seedlings together, cutting off the smallest, weakest plant at transplant time, and then going back and cutting off the next smallest a week or so later. My theory was that the decaying roots of the newly decapitated seedling would give the other seedings a nutritional boost to help mitigate the “transplant shock” – which in my experience means that the plants stop growing for a week or two while they adapt to their new environment. The tomatoes I treated this way grew significantly larger and faster than the ones I separated for planting. So I’ll be doing all the tomatoes, as well as the bell peppers and squashes that way this year. It may seem like a “waste” of seeds, but since it takes me two or three years to use all the seeds in a packet, and I save seeds from many of my plants, I think it’s a worthwhile trade off.

4. Beyond the seed rack, on the kitchen counter is a fan. For a couple of hours every afternoon I take the plastic cover off the greenhouse and turn on the fan.

It serves two purposes, first to get air circulating around all the seedlings to help prevent a fungal disease called “damping off”, and secondly the “fake wind” encourages the seedlings to grow sturdy and strong rather than spindly and leggy.  They lean toward the window every day, and I turn the flats 180° at the same time that I switch the fan on so that they grow more evenly.

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Red pepper seeds coming up:

 

A female Northern Harrier hawk, hunting low over our back field (luckily the chickens were smart enough to hide in the coop):

 

Whiskey quality-testing some new quilting fabric:

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Starting seeds

Tuesday was a bright, beautiful, warm, sunny day, so I took advantage of it by starting some of this year’s seeds. As I did a couple of years ago, I spent some time with Environment Canada’s temperature database and came up with my “Best Guess” of a last-frost date for our area of March 8th. I do this because I can’t find any published Last Frost data that A) isn’t 30 years out of date, and B) is for a city within 50 kilometers of where I live. Calculating 8 weeks back from March 8th tells me I should be starting the bell pepper and hot pepper seeds this week. If I was planning to grow eggplant/aubergine, I’d be starting them too:

  • 12 pots of “King of the North” sweet red peppers
  • 8 pots of “Marconi Red” sweet red peppers
  • 2 pots of “Long Red Cayenne” hot peppers
  • 2 pots of “Orange Thai” hot peppers.

Yes, it’s a lot of peppers, but sweet red peppers are A) expensive, and B) t!’s favourite vegetable, so I want to grow as many of them as I possibly can. I’m trying hard to concentrate on growing what we eat this year, and growing things that are high up on the “Dirty Dozen” food list, and growing things that are expensive to buy in the shops. So for instance, this year I’m probably going to give the corn a miss, but try to grow two crops of spinach (an early one in the spring and a late one in the fall).

Once the seeds were planted, I racked them in the mini-greenhouse that usually starts out in a sunny corner of the kitchen, and then moves outside once the seeds have sprouted and the weather has warmed up:

These are just the tip of the massive iceberg that is this year’s plans for the garden:

  • Tomato, paste – Amish paste
  • Tomato, paste – Opalka
  • Tomato, paste – Federle
  • Cucumber – Straight Eight
  • Zucchini, yellow – Golden
  • Squash, winter – Australian Butter
  • Squash, winter – Connecticut Field Pumpkin
  • Melon – Cantaloupe
  • Onions
  • Parsnips – Harris Model
  • Turnip – Golden Globe
  • Peas, edible-podded – Mammoth Melting Sugar Pea
  • Peas, sweet – Sugar Snap Pea
  • Spinach – Bloomsdale Longstanding
  • Beans, dry – Great Northern
  • Beans, dry – Black Turtle
  • Carrots – Scarlet Nantes
  • Basil – Genoese
  • Potatoes, early – Norland
  • Potatoes, main crop – Desiree

I get most of my seeds from The Cottage Gardener, because I like supporting a small, relatively local, family business, and because I believe in buying seeds from as geographically close to me as possible so that the varieties I’m planting are well adapted to our climate. I highly recommend them.

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