Category Archives: Gardening

Spring is springing?

The weather forecast for the summer predicts a hot, dry summer across the Prairies.

…really? Could have fooled me. The spring started off promising, but we seemed to have settled into a rather cool, wet period for the last few weeks.

Or maybe I’m just getting impatient. See, I haven’t been able to get my garden in yet. My seedlings are started, my whole seed order has arrived… I just need to wait until the garden warms up and dries out a bit. Hopefully I’ll get that chance next weekend. I’m starting to worry about my tomato seedlings, since they’ve been shuffled in and out of the garage so much lately. I may need to start fertilizing them to keep them happy if I can’t plant them out soon.

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I did manage to get my peas and lettuce in about a month ago, though, so they are coming along nicely. They both thrive in the cool and wet, so we should have peas by the end of June, and butterhead lettuce before that.

Every year I try something new, something that I’ve never attempted to grow before. Brussels sprouts, cabbage, eggplant, broccoli and sweet melons have all made an appearance in my garden. This year, I’m attempting artichokes. Artichokes are tricky in this climate, since they won’t produce in their first year, and they aren’t hardy in this climate and thus won’t survive the winter. But the variety I’m trying can (apparently) be fooled into thinking they’ve gone through a winter by setting them out in chilly weather while they are seedlings. The cool temperatures we’ve been having have helped with this, so at least it’s helping me out that way.

But, even if the weather prevents me from getting my garden in this weekend, another sign of summer will be arriving: the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market! The first market of the year will open on Saturday, June 2 at 8am, and will run until 3pm. The Wednesday market will also open next week, starting June 6.

Also, we’ve already started making pilgrimages down to Crampton’s Market on Waverley, which recently opened for the summer.

Have heart! Summer is on the way. We just have to be patient, right?

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Garden planning, 2011

Although it may not feel like it, winter is slowly slipping away. We can tell because we’re no longer going to work in darkness or coming home in twilight. Daylight savings time starts next Sunday, and spring officially starts on March 21. It’s deceiving looking out the window at all that snow, but underneath the white blanket my flowers are thinking about waking up.

Framed.

Just like last year, our schedule looks a bit crazy right around planting time. Consequently, I will not be starting seeds indoors again. (Boo.) So we will have a trip to the nurseries for bedding plants. However, I will soon order the seeds that will be started outdoors.

Based on last season’s records, I am going with a lot of the same varieties. The onions did quite well, as did the peas that I usually order. I’ve been pretty loyal to the pole beans that I usually get, and the quantity of beans that we got was astounding. (We are still eating those beans!)

Lettuce in situ.

But the real news story from last year was the lettuce. The variety we got was butterhead variety called Matina Sweet. It was a good starter, had nice-sized heads, and was slow to bolt (a huge problem we deal with in the summer heat). Plus, it was darn tasty. The heads themselves were the perfect size for a two-person side salad, so we helped ourselves to a lot of salad out of the garden last summer.

I will be skipping the pumpkins, though. Until I can get the weedy side of our garden whipped into some kind of submission, there’s no point in planting any type of viney gourd over there. The slugs just think that I’ve set up a banquet and help themselves.

We will be rounding out the garden with zucchini (no sense in not planting a sure thing), a slicing tomato, a paste tomato, maybe a cherry tomato, and a vegetable to be determined later. I always try to pick one new thing each year, just trying to see what might do well in my garden. Last year it was the onion sets, which did well enough that they earned a spot in this year’s garden as well. The year before that it was cabbage, which was nice but also seemed to attract slugs like no one’s business. I would love to try out these short-season artichokes, but they’ll have to wait for a year when I can start my own seeds (unless I find a nursery that has started them for me!)

Also new last year was the herb garden. I’ve put this firmly in my husband’s hands, since the vegetable and flower gardens keep me busy enough. He set up an array of pots last summer and filled them with thyme, lavender, basil, rosemary, mint, and strawberries. I loved having the fresh herbs on hand, and now that we have a better idea of what did well and what did too well (I’m looking at you, lemon thyme) he’ll plan out his contribution to our garden again this year.

Mmm… I can almost taste the strawberry rhubarb pies now.

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Garden Retrospective, 2010

We’re still getting days in the high 20s, and the humidex has been bringing the “feel like” temperature well into the 30s, but summer is ending. You can feel it on the wind, and smell it in the air. The trees are still mostly green, but a few are starting to take on their fall yellow cast. The lady at The Preferred Perch was on CJOB’s The Gardener a few weeks ago, and said that she thinks fall will be early this year because the birds are starting to migrate already.

Beans.

Oh well. I can’t complain too loudly, since this year has been head and shoulders better for gardening than last year. We’ve already harvested more tomatoes this year than we got all of last year. My poor tomato cages are being crushed beneath the weight of the vines this year, and I have my eye on a few monster tomatoes that are starting to ripen. I also have a gigantic bowl of cherry tomatoes already. A good number of those are destined for the freezer to liven up our winter pastas.

The beans are the real story in my garden this year. I think I’ve frozen about 10 pounds of beans so far, and they’re still going! We didn’t do a very good job last year of keeping them picked, so we’re trying to stay on top of it this year.

Also, the zucchini are producing baseball bats. Bleah. I prefer my zucchini smaller, because they taste better and don’t have as many seeds. But I think I tried to pack too many plants into a small area this year, and the zucchini are being hidden until they’re ginormous. I’m going to have to retool where everything is planted for next year.

Onions.

And finally, this year I got onions. Starting them from seed is for suckers – I’m doing sets from now on! The onions are a good size, and taste good. They also look like they’ll keep rather well, so I did something else that I’ve never done before. After the sugar snap peas were done, I turned over the bed and replanted it to try and get a late crop of peas, lettuce and onions. I figure that even if we get an early fall, they can take a mild cold snap and still produce well. We’ll see how that goes.

Overall I’m pleased with how everything came out this year. I’m doing my best to save as much as we can (since the two of us can only eat so much produce before surrendering!) and have been making great use of our new freezer. I’ll try to do a post soon about some of the things I’m doing to save the harvest for the coming winter.

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Planning the garden

In the dead of winter, a gardener will look outside. Where another person might only see gently rolling snow drifts, peppered here and there with rabbit tracks, the gardener sees something very different. The gardener will see the possibility of what this spring’s garden could bring. Where others see only snow, a gardener will see neat rows of vegetables.

It's that time of year...

When I was planning out our garden this year, I thought about what “new” veggie we’d try. Every year I like to test a vegetable that I’ve never grown, just to see how well it might do. Sometimes they don’t do well due to the weather: for example, the eggplants did miserably a few years ago due to a wet and chilly summer. But sometimes they do great: last year’s cabbages did very well.

I wanted to try out artichokes this year. Vesey’s (my usual seed vendor) advertised a variety of artichoke that would mature in one season, rather than the usual biennial varieties. But when I went to order, the seeds were back ordered… and back ordered.. and back ordered… Until the date that I would have needed to start them slipped away. Oh well. My schedule is pretty wonky this year anyway, so it might be for the best that I didn’t have a special type of seed to start and rush into the ground. I’ll try them out next year, maybe.

So instead, we’re going to try out pie pumpkins. My husband makes an awesome pumpkin pie, and we have found several recipes that use pumpkin (such as soup, curries, pasta…) Plus, I have a section of garden that is now getting sun (woo hoo), so I’ll try planting some vining plants there to help keep down the weeds.

These are the seeds and sets I ordered this year:

* Sugar snap peas
* Pole beans
* Butterhead lettuce
* Onion sets
* Zuchinni (don’t plant too much, don’t plant too much)
* Pie pumpkins

I think that’s it. We’re also going to buy some tomato and pepper starts from a nursery because I don’t have time to deal with baby tomatoes this year. It’s been a few years since I grew onions, and I’ve never gotten them from sets, so this will be new as well.

Now I just have to wait for the snow to thaw… And the garden to dry out… And some warmer weather…

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Fresh Option Organic Delivery

With the seasonal closing of the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market last weekend, and having put the garden to sleep earlier in October, we decided to take the plunge and sign up for something we’ve been interested in for a while: the Fresh Option Organic Delivery service.

Fresh Option delivers boxes of fruits and vegetables to your door weekly (or bi-weekly if you prefer). I’ve been interested in this service for quite a while, but we just didn’t think we could eat the veggies from the garden and the stuff from the farmers’ market and whatever was delivered! But now that we’re into winter (sort of), we decided to try it out.

It’s sort of like a pot luck for vegetables. Fresh Option posts the contents of your upcoming box on their website a few days in advance, allowing you time to plan your meals and research foods you haven’t tried before (for example, our first box will contain chard). We opted to get the small box once a week, and I’m surprised at how much stuff we’re going to get. If we go a few weeks and it looks like we’re getting too much food, we’ll scale it back to once every other week.

It’s also requiring us to shift when we do our meal planning, since we ordinarily go grocery shopping on Sundays. This first week, though, I’m using the few days leeway as a chance to get “caught up” and use up the veggies that we already have on hand: namely, almost a whole bag of onions. (French onion soup it is!)

When spring rolls around, the farmers’ market opens and the garden starts producing more zucchini than I know what to do with again, we will most likely cancel the service until the fall again. But until then, we’re looking at this as a challenge – can we use up all the fruits and veggies in once week? If anything, it’ll encourage us to get more veggies in our diet!

I’ll post again in a few weeks with an update as to how it’s going.

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Early spring blues: craving asparagus

This is a depressing time of the year for Winnipeg gardeners and foodies, especially ones who do a lot of stuff on the internet… Like me.

The snow has finally melted off my garden, exposing the disaster of shredded leaves and stubble that is left from last fall. (The leaves were put on the garden on purpose, and will be dig into the soil as soon as it can be worked. The stubble is there because – well, hey, I was busy last fall.) The ground is still too damp to do anything, although if I had some raised beds I could be planting the first of my spring lettuce right now. It’ll be a few more weeks before I can start some serious gardening.

Meanwhile, the food blogosphere is starting to revel in the treasures of (a much earlier) spring, especially things like grilled asparagus. It’s at this point I start whimpering, since we won’t be seeing fresh local asparagus for another month or so.

Asparagus *is* one of the things that I would like to grow. My parents have always grown their own asparagus in Ohio, and getting those first spears from the garden was a treat. Of course, by the end of asparagus season you were totally sick of seeing, tasting or smelling asparagus, but that happens with every type of prolific vegetable when you grow your own. (Remember the late summer inundation of zucchini?)

The problem with asparagus is that it’s a perennial, so you have to plan ahead and find someplace where it can live for a long time. This location also has to be in full sun or close to it, which is a problem for us. I love our elm tree, but sometimes the shade it casts causes issues.

Anyway, now I’m waiting for our first influx of fresh spring vegetables, and my favorites: asparagus and the first sugar snap peas. What are you waiting for?

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Panfried Baby Zucchini

Gardening season is officially over here. I’m not complaining – our first frost date is September 22, so to be able to go well into October without a killing frost is nice.

We cleaned up the garden, pulling out all the spent plants and putting away the gardening equipment. This is our last chance for fresh produce, and pulling out the plants helps us find things we’d missed. (Like the baseball bat sized zucchini!)

One of the little prizes I found was a large handful of baby zucchini. These squashes were all between four and seven inches long, and the largest was no more than the width of my fingers in thickness.

What to do with them?

I have a basic philosophy about cooking with fresh-picked vegetables: the fresher something is, the more innate flavour it has on its own. Therefore, I like seasoning really fresh produce as little as possible, so that its own flavour can stand out. (That is, I can’t imagine smothering something in layers of cheese and sauce.) My summer cooking, when we have food from our garden and the farmers’ market, tends to be very simple for this reason.

Panfried Baby Zucchini

So, I picked a simple cooking method for these tiny zucchini. If you’d like to make this too, you’ll need:

* 6-8 small baby zucchini (4-7 inches long, no more than an inch in diameter)
* minced garlic (about 1 clove; I used organic prepared garlic for this)
* olive oil
* salt and fresh ground pepper

Wash the zucchini and halve them lengthwise. Add 1-2 TB of olive oil to a frying pan and heat over medium heat. Add the garlic.

Once the oil is hot (watch that the garlic doesn’t burn!), place the zucchini cut side down in the pan. Fry for about 4 or 5 minutes, until the bottoms have just started to turn a nice golden colour.

Flip the zucchini onto their “backs” and finish cooking through, until just tender. Don’t overcook them so they get mushy. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the cooked zucchini to a serving plate and cover with oil and garlic from the pan.

I would imagine that a bit of fresh grated Parmesan would have gone great with this as well, but we were fresh out!

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The Winter Catalogue Deluge

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Aaah, it’s that time of the year again. Snow on the ground, Christmas trees in living rooms and delicious cookies on every desk at work. Yes, it’s time for… gardening catalogues??

That’s right! As any home gardener knows, this is the time of year when the first seed and plant catalogues begin to arrive on your doorstep, mixed in with your Christmas cards and credit card bills. It may seem counter-intuitive to curl up with a plate of cookies, a notebook and a gardening catalogue in front of the Christmas tree, but it’s actually a great time to plan out what you want to grow next summer.

* First, assess how the summer went for you. What did you grow? How did it go? Was anything more trouble than it was worth? Was something really good, and you want to grow more of it? This past summer, aside from the rhubarb
and blue honeysuckle bushes (which have yet to produce anything… hmm…), we grew: sweet corn, sugar snap peas, pole beans, grape tomatoes and zucchini.

For the past few years I’d been growing the sweet corn using the three sisters’ technique: interplanting corn, zucchini and beans so that the squash shaded the ground and prevented weeds from growing, and the corn provided support for the beans. After two windstorms two years in a row devastated my little plot of corn (it’s amazing how easily such large plants can be ripped out of the ground in wet soil), I’m through with corn. It’s too much work, takes too much water, too much babying, for too little payoff. If you have about an acre on which to grow vegetables, it’s worth planting corn… But not when your garden is about 20′ square. From now on, our corn will come from the farmers’ market.

The beans did poorly this year because of that same windstorm; many of their stems were snapped off when the corn started whipping around in the wind. But I love beans, and the ones we did get were good. So the beans stay on the list, although I haven’t decided between pole beans and bush beans.

The zucchini also did well… as always. I have a feeling that one zucchini plant could feed a whole village. I had about ten plants this past summer – waaaaaay more zucchini than any sane person needs. So, since I won’t be doing the corn/interplanting trick this year, I’ll scale back the number of plants. Two plants ought to be plenty.

Tomatoes are a staple in any home garden. They’re relatively easy to grow, and the produce you get is so much better than the waxy, watery, tasteless fruit you find in the grocery store this time of year. This year I grew two plants from heirloom seeds sent to me from a friend in California. Sooo good – definitely a do-again. I’ll probably add another plant in there, a slicing variety this time, so we’ll have both grape tomatoes and slicing.

Finally, we have the sugar snap peas. Early summer just isn’t the same without these little sweet morsels. I insist on these every year, and I get no arguments from my husband.

* After you’ve decided what to keep from last year, make a quick sketch of your garden and plan out next year’s crops. This doesn’t need to be to scale, unless you’re into making detailed maps; just a rough idea of where your walkways are and the general size of the garden is enough. The first few years you might want to measure how much room you have, but after a while you’ll get a good idea of how much you can cram into an area.

Keep in mind that you don’t want to plant the same things in the same spot over and over. Rotate things around as best you can. This allows the soil to regenerate between heavy-feeding crops (like corn) and lets you grow nitrogen-fixing plants (like beans) in different places. This next year, for example, I’m going to relocate the peas and sunflowers (which I always plant in with the peas).

* Now that you’ve got your sketch, you might have some blank spots in it. Because I’m not growing corn or nearly as many zucchini plants this year, I took the opportunity to move everything around. This is where you decide what new things to grow, or if you should grow more of something. Being added to the garden this summer will be lettuce (I used to grow it but stopped because I always ran out of room), and potatoes. I’m also considering growing broccoli, although I might decide not to do this because we’re going to be away during a critical part of the summer.

My first harvestable pea pod probably won’t arrive for five to six more months, but I’m already looking forward to getting my hands dirty in the garden again. No food is as local as the stuff growing 20′ from your back door!

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Oven-Dried Tomatoes

What to do with a surplus of little sweet tomatoes from the garden?

Our daytime temperature is falling fast, but we’re still getting large handfuls of sweet grape tomatoes from the garden every day. After seeing the price of sun-dried tomatoes at the grocery store ($4.00 for a small bag? and look at the preservatives!) I decided to try my hand at making my own.

I researched a few recipes, but all of the “good” ones seemed to start with “Fire up the dehydrator….” Not being in possession of such a device (and not wanting to spend days babysitting tomatoes sitting out in the sun), I went with the oven method. It was amazingly painless and easy.

Oven-Dried Tomatoes

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Summer Garden Bruschetta

Unfortunately, this summer was not great for our garden. We had a late start due to a cool spring, a wicked windstorm in early August, and just not enough days of sunny and hot. (The heat wave we saw in late July helped, but it was a little too late and too short to do any real good.)

Not all was lost; we got a few ears of corn, a handful of beans and lots of zucchini. The sugar snap peas did well, but that was due mostly to the long cool spring. However, I was especially pleased with the performance of the grape tomatoes. I had received the seeds as a gift from a friend in California, and they did quite well despite the coolish weather.

One evening I’d collected a bowlful of the sweet little fruits, and I decided to make a tomato bruschetta. At its simplest, bruschetta is just toasted bread rubbed with garlic and olive oil, but most North Americans have come to associate bruschetta with the tomato-topped bread commonly served in restuarants. I have to say that I love tomato bruschetta with a firey passion, and I was excited to try my hand at making some at home.

Bruschetta

I was kind of winging it with the recipe, so please take all actual amounts with a grain of salt, and feel free to adjust to taste! I’ve noticed that a lot of recipes call for peeling the tomatoes (there’s a photo walkthrough here), I didn’t feel it was neccessary. If you can’t find grape tomatoes, you can substitute cherry tomatoes as they have a similar sweetness. Also, I used garlic-infused olive oil; you can use regular extra-virgin olive oil and increase the garlic to two cloves if desired.

You’ll need:

* 2-3 cups chopped grape tomatoes
* 1 clove garlic, minced
* garlic-infused extra virgin olive oil
* salt & pepper
* Italian seasoning (use the dried stuff your mom got for you)
* 1/8 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
* 1 loaf crusty French bread

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Slice the bread into 3/4″ to 1″ slices. Toast the slices in a toaster oven until they’re just slightly golden. (You can use your large oven if desired; just set the slices directly on the oven rack, and watch closely!)

In a large mixing bowl, gently mix tomatoes, garlic, parmesan cheese, Italian seasoning and salt/pepper. Drizzle with garlic-infused olive oil and mix again.

Cover two baking sheets with aluminium foil and spray lightly with cooking spray. Brush slices with garlic-infused olive oil – don’t be stingy! Spoon tomato mixture onto bread slices. Bake in oven for 5-10 minutes, or until bread edges just start to turn brown.

Possible variations: endless! Try adding chopped red onion, or wilted spinach, or topping with mozzerella cheese instead of mixing in the parmesan.

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