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Archive for the ‘wheel of the year’ Category

I don’t follow the Wheel of the Year, but Spring is the season for growth, renewal and new beginnings, so today I did some magic:

First, I poured out all my fears onto a sheet of paper – writing furiously until the paper was full. I took the sheet out to our compost bin, and buried it deep under a layer of mould and rot and ash. Then I opened the door at the bottom of the bin and scooped out a bucket full of fresh, crumbly compost.

I took my bucket, shovel, and an egg out to the vegetable garden. I dug a deep hole and lined it with seeds and herbs. I whispered my dearest hopes and dreams to the egg, and then carefully planted it in the hole with offerings of tobacco, rose petals, sacred water, and a bucket of fresh compost.

May your fears crumble away and your dreams grow strong. Happy Spring.

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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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This:

Goes here:

Needless to say, we don’t park our car in the garage. Even in the summer when it’s not half-full of firewood, it’s full of gardening tools and equipment, and usually a rototiller on loan from a friend. One day maybe we’ll have a barn or shed for the tools, but in the meantime we clean & organise the garage once a year in the fall to make room for the firewood.

This will be our third winter heating primarily with wood. We have the oil furnace automatically set to go on for an hour first thing in the morning, to heat up the house as we’re getting out of bed, and then I light the fire in our heat stove. For the rest of the day, except on the coldest, windiest days of the winter, the stove is (just) enough to keep the house at a livable temperature. The furnace goes on again for an hour at dusk, when the outdoor temperature drops significantly.

The first year we heated with wood, we bought 6 (face or stove) cords and had about a cord left over at the end of the winter; however we started heating late, since our stove was on back-order and wasn’t installed until the middle of October. The second year we bought 7 cords of wood and ran out at the beginning of April. It was a very dry winter (very little snowfall) and our neighbors all said they were burning more wood than usual – the lack of snow meant less natural insulation around the foundations of houses.

This year I didn’t want to take any chances, so we bought 10 cords. Once stacked it will run the length of the garage, in a pile as high as t! can reach and three rows deep. I won’t be doing all the stacking myself, though it’s nice to know I could if I needed to. I’m managing about a cord an hour, with regular breaks. Most of my elderly, retired neighbors still stack their own firewood (everyone heats at least partly with wood out here, as it’s about half the price of oil). It’s a good job for a day like today when I want to be able to see what I’ve accomplished; having the wood safely stacked in the dry garage provides a wonderful feeling of security, “No matter what happens, at least we won’t freeze to death!” my subconscious mind says as I’m working.

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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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