April Eating and Gardening

April 17th, 2010

Spring has been wonderfully early here in Southern Ontario and most people feel that we are about 3 weeks ahead of schedule in the garden.  It is still a challenging time to eat seasonally but I do find that there is a surprising amount of food, one just has to be creative.

Here is a list of what I have available to me

  • carrots, onions, garlic, and potatoes in my root cellar
  • one last butternut squash
  • mung bean and alfalfa sprouts in jars on my counter
  • sorrel, chives and garlic chives in my herb bed
  • kale and green onions in the garden -  I plant about 12 bunches of green onions in August specifically to leave in the ground over the winter, they survive almost every year without any special care.  Kale always comes back as small leaves on the larger plants that were in the garden in the fall.
  • Spinach in the garden – last August I planted an 8 x 4 foot bed of spinach and harvested it throughout the fall.  I made sure that I left 5 or 6 leaves on each plant in November and then covered it with about 6″ of straw.  This spring about 2/3 of the bed had survived and I have been eating spinach salads for about a week now.
  • Garlic in the garden – I always plant about 50 cloves of garlic in the fall specifically for spring eating.  They too are mulched with straw in November/December and most of them survive.  This garlic I eat like a green onion, harvesting the whole shoot when it is about 8-10″ tall.
  • Buckwheat and Sunflower seed sprouts that I make in trays of soil and grow under lights or in a sunny window.  These sprouts do require soaking and are then broadcast in about 1/2″ of soil.  (See the March chapter of From Seed to Table for detailed instructions).
  • Jerusalem Artichokes in the garden

So, that is the list.  So far this month we have enjoyed baked squash, raw carrots, Jerusalem Artichoke and Potato Soup, Pasta with garlic, green garlic, and chives, stir fries with carrots, onions, and mung bean sprouts, egg salad sandwiches with alfalfa sprouts, spinach and sunflower sprout salads with hardboiled eggs, feta, mushrooms, and/or toasted sunflower seeds,  fish in a wonderful sorrel sauce, Vietnamese Fresh Rolls with buckwheat sprouts, julienned carrots, and chives  – a new invention and very yummy, and lots of mixed bean salads with red onions, chives, garlic, and garlic chives.  I seem to have problems getting to the kale!  When I finish writing this blog I am heading out for some wild leeks for this weekend’s supper.

If you are planting a garden, there are many things that can go in in April.  Green onions, more green garlic, radishes, peas – shell, snow, and sugar snap, salad greens, lettuce, spinach, and beets all can be planted and don’t mind a few frosty nights.  I like to start green onions, lettuce, spinach and beets in flats indoors in mid March so I get a head start on the growing season.  The other way that I speed up my harvest is to cover my April planting with a layer of floating row cover.  This cover is available from Seed catalogues and will warm your soil up by about 4 degrees celcius.  I find it works better than a cold frame and speeds up my harvest by about 3 weeks.  Nothing grows quickly in cool soils!  Around now I like to start another flat of lettuce, endive, beets, fennel, and green onions to be planted in the garden mid May.

So surprisingly lots to eat and a few hours worth of planting for April – all in all a great month!

Why is growing our own food so important?

April 5th, 2010

Someone once said that you could solve 95% of the world’s problems if you addressed the issues surrounding food.  As I thought about this statement, I began to see all of the aspects of our life that food touches.  I thought about greenhouse gas emissions, environmental degradation and pollution, waste issues, obesity, stress, degenerative diseases, poverty and loss of access to land and water in developing countries, genetically modified organisms, corporate control  – the list just kept on getting bigger.  The ways in which we set up our systems of food production governs much of the way that our society, and the societies that we trade with, function.  So, it would follow that if we changed our relationship with food, we could begin to reshape our society and address the problems that we face.

A century ago, almost everyone knew how to grow something, growing food and harvesting and storing it were very much part of day to day life and therefore part of a person’s education.  Often the academic year was arranged around the growing season, to allow children to help with the work on the farm.  Food was relatively simple, unprocessed and unpackaged.  But food production has become big business and today fewer and fewer people are actually involved in the whole process.  This has led to several generations of people who have very little understanding of their relationship to food or to the land that grows it.  I also believe it has led to a host of very poor environmental decisions that are beginning to have real consequences.

As an organic market gardener, one of my first real lessons in understanding consequences came when I was faced with an outbreak of cucumber beetles.  These tiny beetles are very fast and hard to catch, and they can easily destroy young cucumber plants.  I remember going to the local farm co-op store and looking at the remedies – this was before they had organic insecticides.  I read the labels, looked at the price (very high), and actually bought a container of something and brought it home.  Then I went out into the garden and as I worked I thought about the chemical, about the whole physical action of putting it on my cucumber plants, and then finally about harvesting those cucumbers and feeding them to my family.  I realized that the chemical insecticide was just not an option.  I think we lost most of that cucumber crop, but there were lots of other things to eat, and the next year we paid far more attention to the growing conditions for cucumbers.

Growing one’s own food also brings up many questions concerning value.  Science, technology, and industry have replaced so much of what was once an inherent part of human existence with artificial alternatives.  Why would anyone grow a head of lettuce when it can be bought for 60 cents at the grocery store?  Having grown my own food for 25 years now, I would ask why anyone would want to forego the experience of harvesting and eating something they have grown themselves for something that has no connection to their own life.  Taste and quality are definitely superior, but more than that, it is the satisfaction and the richness that gardening brings to my life that cannot be replaced.  In harvesting my own food year after year, I feel the sun, the wind, the soil.  I also feel deeply grateful for all that the earth has provided.  Somewhere along the way I have made a big shift from thinking that I grew my own food to realizing that what I am doing is caring for this miracle that is the soil and in doing so, am blessed with abundance.  For me, this is a way of knowing and of being in the world that comes only through thoughtful and mindful work in nature.  I also believe that it is the foundation for the kind of earth centered philosophy that we need so badly if we are to preserve this planet for future generations.

Eating Locally and seasonally in a northern climate

February 23rd, 2010

In this blog I try to answer the question of what can one reasonably ordinary person expect to achieve in this climate?    Having grown much of my own food for many years and also being one to really enjoy a challenge, I would like to take a stab at answering this question.  First of all, I should say that I did once live on a farm and have had both the headaches and the pleasures of a large garden, chickens, maple syrup making, and a large woodlot.  But for the past 12 years, I have worked to develop a diet that is primarily local and seasonal within the confines of a very small village lot in Eastern Ontario.

The first thing one must do is to make some decisions about what can be grown and what must be purchased.  Let’s begin by looking at what must be purchased, at least for all of us who do not live on a farm.  I would say that the easiest places to start are with local eggs, honey, and maple syrup.  If you live in the country, many of you will know of producers, and if you are an urban shopper, most health food stores carry these items.  Almost all dairy products are local, so that one doesn’t require much work.  Our area is also lucky to have a cheese factory that actually makes its own cheese from local milk, though there are sadly few of these left in Ontario.  Quebec, however, has a booming cottage industry that makes beautiful cheeses and even local butter. Meat is one food that I believe is very worthwhile to purchase locally.  Government regulations and supermarket buying policies tend to limit the ability of small farmers to get their meat into large grocery stores.  This is because supermarkets will only buy from federally inspected abattoirs and the only farmers who can afford the economies of scale required by these huge processing facilities have very large operations.  This generally means feedlot animals that are often subject to all the worst horrors of our meat producing industry.  There are fewer and fewer provincially inspected abattoirs, in Ontario over 100 have closed in the past decade or so.  As a result, it is increasingly difficult for the small farmer to find a place to have their animals butchered.  Having said all of this, there are still farmers who produce good quality beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and turkey and these farmers are worth finding.  With a decent sized freezer, buying this meat can happen once or twice a year and does not have to take up a great deal of time.   As far as dry goods, there are suppliers and producers of local grains and dry beans, jams and jellies, and baked goods – if you can find them in your area, so much the better.

Fruits and vegetables can either be grown or purchased, and for many eating locally involves some combination of the two.  It is surprising how much food can be grown in a small area.  Since leaving my farm 13 years ago, I have grown an incredible amount of food in a tiny, 350 square foot garden in my front yard – my house backs into a limestone hill so I do not have a back yard, just rock walls and ledges!  This garden provides about 90% of the vegetables for my family of 3-4 from April to late November and often into December.  I do this by using an intensive method of growing, by planting small amounts every month from April to August, and by replanting about half of the garden in mid to late summer, once the spring crops are finished.    This garden is too small to provide me with winter storage vegetables so in the fall of each year, I visit a local farmer and purchase a winter’s supply of onions, garlic, leeks, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, turnips, parsnips, beets, and squash.  These vegetables keep amazingly well in a small and very simple cold room that I built in my basement; many vegetables hold their quality well into April and May.  Others such as leeks and beets need to be eaten within 2-3 months of being put in storage.   This garden/cold storage combination has allowed me to eat vegetables that are almost entirely seasonal and local for many years now.

I am beginning to get far more interested in incorporating fruit trees and berries into my small yard.  I have a large patch of wild blackberries and two years I planted ever bearing raspberries among the flowers on the east side of my house.  I would like to try a few grape vines, as well as perhaps one or two fruit trees.  Windmill Point Farm in Ile Perrot, Quebec, specializes in fruits and nuts that are hardy, disease resistant, and require little or no attention – a winning combination!   But for the most part, local fruits must be purchased.  This means small berries from June to August, then an abundance of plums, peaches, pears, grapes, etc. in late summer and early fall and then apples in the fall and winter.  I do store apples in my cold room but with only moderate success and I freeze and can whatever fruit I can in order to supplement our winter diet.  I have also recently found a small local grocery that has a great cold storage and is selling local apples throughout the winter.

As more people become interested in eating locally, locating suppliers and producers gets easier.  Increasingly, many municipalities have local food campaigns and these campaigns often produce pamphlets and directories that list producers.  Health food stores and small local groceries have long supported small farmers and increasingly we are seeing the opening of ‘local food stores’ – stores that specialize only in foods produced their area.  These are great venues, and often supply a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, honey, grains, etc. etc.  And they make for one stop shopping.  If your city or town has a farmer’s market, this can be both a wonderful shopping experience and a great resource.  However, it is important to make sure that the vendor is selling local produce, as many simply buy from wholesalers.  Many small farmers sell vegetables at the farm gate or through something called a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).  A CSA is almost like a buying club; you connect with a farmer and agree to take a regular delivery of vegetables throughout the season or throughout the year, if the farmer has winter storage facilities.  The other resource that I have found valuable is Canadian Organic Growers.  This organization publishes a quarterly magazine which is always full of interesting articles; it also has local chapters that often publish a producer’s list.  They can be reached at www.cog.ca and membership is $40 per year.

Incorporating local and seasonal foods is a process and a challenge, but a fun one.  It won’t happen overnight, but there are many foods that can be either easily purchased or grown in a small area.  I like to encourage people to set small challenges – switching to local eggs, cook one or two meals a week with only local vegetables, find one small grocery store that supplies local products.  Then gradually build on these challenges and increase your repertoire.  It is well worth the effort – taste and freshness are vastly superior, you are supporting your local economy, and you are reducing the environmental impact of your food choices.  A win-win exercise for all of us.

Planning Your Garden

February 5th, 2010

I always recommend to people that they make an actual garden plan in conjunction with doing a seed order.  It is so easy to get carried away with plans for growing all sorts of vegetables in February when the snow is still on the ground.  Come the heat of summer, it can feel overwhelming with way more food than one can possibly eat and weeds sprouting up everywhere!  So, a plan, which confines your garden to a certain amount of square feet is always a good idea.

I start by making a list of all of the vegetables that I would like to grow in the coming year.  Then I get some squared paper and I draw out my garden.  I have been growing all of the food for my family from early May to late November is a garden of about 400 square feet and for anyone starting off, I would say this is a good size.  Learn to maximize  your growing space and to eat everything that comes out of the garden, before you let your garden get bigger.

In your garden plan be sure to include plantings from April until August, planting small amounts every month is best if you would like a continuous and manageable supply of vegetables.  In my book, From Seed to Table, I give several garden plans that illustrate how I do this.  If you plant quicker growing salad vegetables such as salad greens, spinach, lettuce, radishes, and green onions, you will find that the beds that you planted in April and May can be replanted in July and August.  In this way, you can use part of your garden twice and really maximize your growing space.

The other trick to getting more out of your garden is to design your garden around 4 foot wide beds with walkways that are 1 – 1.5 feet.  This wide bed system is based upon an intensive methiod of planting developing in Europe where is is common to find small commercial gardens of less than five acres that rely on small tillers and hand labour.  Many North American gardens are planted with a single row of vegetables seperated by a three or four foot wide walkway.  This type of spacing was originally designed for mechanical planting and weeding so the area between the rows had to be large enough to accommodate the wheels of a tractor.  There is no reason to give vegetables that much space, and for the backyard gardener this method results in a great deal of unproductive garden that must be dug, weeded, and watered along with the productive part of your garden.

Within the four foot bed, you can easily access half of the bed from the adjacent walkway and within the bed, the plants are spaced far enough apart that they have room to mature, but they are close enough together thar they shade the soil underneath them, keeping it cool, conserving moisture, and blocking weeds.  By having about 80% of your garden in wide beds and only about 20% in walkways, your harvest is much greater and the overall garden size can be much smaller.

So make a plan, and keep it small!!!

Turnip recipes and seed catalogues

January 21st, 2010

For those of you who are trying to eat more seasonal meals this winter, I thought I would share a few recipes.  I have been trying to find more ways to use turnip – it is a great winter vegetable but one that can be harder to get people to like.  I find it always tastes nice cooked with equal parts carrots and then mashed, with butter and salt and pepper.  But recently I have found a few interesting recipes that both children and adults have seemed to like.

Oriental Turnip Fries

  • 4 cups turnip, peeled and cut into 1/4″ by 2″ matchsticks
  • 2 tbsp sesame oil
  • 2-3 tsp tamari or soy sauce

In a large cast iron pan warm the sesame oil over medium heat.  Add the turnip and saute for 3-5 minutes.   Add about 1/3 cup of water and place a lid on the pan.  Steam the turnip fries until tender, about 5 minutes.  Remove the lid and let the water evaporate.  Add the tamari or soy sauce and saute another few minutes.  Serves 4-6.

Mashed Turnip and Potato

  • 4 cups turnip, peeled and cut into 1/4″ chunks
  • 2 cups potato, peeled and cut into 3/4″ chunks
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream (this is why kids like this recipe!)
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • Salt and Pepper

Place the turnip in a large pot and cover with water.  Bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes.  Add the potato and more water if necessary and boil until both the potato and turnip are tender, about 15 minutes.  (The turnip takes longer to cook than the potato so that is why I cut it into smaller chunks and also why I cook it slightly longer).   When tender, drain the water and add the butter and cream.  Using a hand blender or potato masher, puree until smooth.  Add the nutmeg and season with salt and pepper.  Serves 4.

I was also given some golden beets and decided to make a grated beet and carrot salad.  I wanted a different dressing than my usual oil and vinegar and so came up with this one:

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 2 tbsp tamari sauce
  • 1-2 tbsp honey
  • 1 large clove garlic, grated
  • 1 tsp grated ginger
  • 1 tsp sesame oil

The ginger and rice vinegar flavours seemed to work well with the salad.

And finally on the subject of seed catalogues…

Canadian Organic Growers is a great place to get inspiration for gardening.  Membership is $40 per year (www.cog.ca) and includes a quarterly magazine as well as a monthly enewsletter.  It is a great way to stay current on what is happening in agriculture, and has many great articles for both commercial and home gardeners.  It also has an  extensive lending library which is free to members.  The Winter 2010 magazine has articles on growing garlic from bulbils and on saving seed.  There is also a comprehensive directory of seed sources for organic growers  – seven pages of small and large seed companies.  One that was recently recommended to me and which I think is worth checking out is the Cottage Gardener, one of the few smaller organic seed companies that offers seed in both packet sizes and larger quanties.  (www.thecottagegardener.com).

Best wishes for a happy rest of the winter.

Time to order some seed catalogues

January 7th, 2010

Happy New Year to all.  I find it interesting how one’s energy can follow the seasons – as the light levels go down and we approach the winter solistice it seems as there is little thought of starting new projects.  But once we emerge from those really short days and find the beginning of January, it feels like enthusiasm and energy return.

So, for those of you contemplating a garden this year, I would really encourage you to go online and order some seed catalogues.  While it is possible to buy all of your seeds from gardening and hardware stores, you will find that seed companies offer a far greater variety of both vegetable varieties and package sizes.

Canadian seed companies seems to come in several different sizes, each with advantages and disadvantages.  The larger seed companies include Stokes, William Dam, the Ontario Seed Company and Dominion Seed House.  These larger seed companies all publish beautiful colour catalogues that they will send out for free.  Generally larger seed companies give a much better catalogue description of the vegetables that they are selling, in terms of taste, days to maturity, productivity, disease resistance, etc.  They also sell their seeds in many different package sizes, from packets to kilograms.  This allows one to purchase larger quantities of seeds, which is far more economical for vegetables such as salad greens, peas, and beans.    To their disadvantage, some of their seeds are often treated with a fungicide (to prevent rotting during germination – something that I have never found to be a problem.  Also they offer only a limited number of organically grown seeds.    By far the best larger seed company that I have found is Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine.  While it is an American company, it is committed to providing a very high percentage of organically grown seeds, many of them older heirloom varieties.  The quality of their seed, in terms of germination rates and longevity of the seed, is the best that I have ever found.

There are many smaller Canadian seed companies that publish very simple, black and white catalogues.  These companies are generally committed to selling only open pollinated (i.e no hybrids) and organically grown seeds.  What I have found to be the biggest disadvantage with these smaller companies is the lack of description in their catalogues.  So while they may sell several varieties of peas or carrots, there is very little information about taste, days to maturity, etc.   As well, the seeds are generally only sold in one size which is a small packet size.   Some of the smaller Canadian seed companies include Greta’s Organic Gardens. Prairie Grown Seeds, Terra Edibles, Salt Spring Seeds, West Coast Seeds and Full Circle Seeds.   Salt Spring Seeds is run by Dan Jason who has worked for several decades now to develop varieties of grains, dry beans, and pulses such as lentils, suitable for growing in Canada.  He also specializes in many varieties of garlic.

If you have the time, order a few seed catalogues in the next few weeks, they are wonderful for dreaming about spring and the seeds that they have to sell are far more interesting than those sold on racks at grocery, hardware, and gardening stores.

Wrapping up the year

December 10th, 2009

I haven’t felt that there has been much for me to write about in the last few months – my apologies.  My planting for the year is finished and I have been trying to make what produce  is left in the garden survive as long as possible.  It is surprising how long one can harvest food from a garden, especially if the fall is reasonably mild.

Winter hit southern Ontario on Tuesday, December 8th.  Up until that time we had had many frosts but nothing drastic and no snow.  In my garden I managed to prolong the harvest of beets, green onions, spinach, kale, swiss chard, parsley and salad greens.  I served my last spinach salad yesterday, December 9 to friends.  This year I have covered the spinach with a thick layer of straw and I am hoping that much of it will survive the winter and grow again in the spring.  Over wintering of vegetables is really worth trying to do, as it means there are full sized salad leaves for the picking by late April.  If this snow melts soon, I may be able to cut the last of my salad greens and have a few more salads.  Nevertheless, salad from the garden in the first week of December is very impressive and really does show that we have potential to do so much.

For the most part I am beginning to eat from my cold room.  I stocked that in early November with 2 bushels of potatoes, 2 bushels of carrots, 6 large cabbage, 8 turnips, 2 bushels of onions, 1/2 bushel of leeks, 1/2 bushel of parsnips, 1/2 bushel of beets, and about 3 dozen garlic bulbs.  It is amazing how well this all stores, even though there is nothing fancy about my little cold space.  It is located in an unfinished basement, insulated from the rest of the room and at the end furthest away from the furnace.  I make a trip to a local organic farmer and buy all of these vegetables at once – my Honda Civic  struggles under the weight but we manage.  I find that leeks and beets do not keep as well as my other vegetables so I work at eating these first.  The rest really do well into late March and often into April and May.  I store my carrots in damp sand and have often had wonderfully crisp and sweet carrots in late May and early June.  Sometimes I wonder why such simple solutions have been forgotten.

In an email newsletter entitled Good Food Nation I see that MIT researchers think that America’s obesity epidemic can be reversed via ‘foodsheds’.  Essentially this means that we should eat food that is grown within a certain distance of our home.  By doing this we would find that our diets would change from processed and packaged foods to foods that are healthier and also more affordable.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 90% of American foods are processed.  Eating food that is locally grown and comes to us through farmers markets and local stores, would in essence mean a shift to far more fruit and vegetables, and a shift away from sending those fruit and vegetables elsewhere for processing.  Sounds like a good idea.

Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore’s Dilemna has voiced support for the idea of building regional foodsheds.  By creating a regional system of food distribution, transportation costs can be reduced, making nutritious foods cheaper.  Studies show that locally grown fruit and vegetables travel an average of 56 miles, while imported fruits and vegetables travel an average of 1500 miles.  In this issue, it never seems to fail that an analysis of the numbers reveals some pretty shocking information.   Pollan also lends his support to the idea of individuals growing some of their own food in their own gardens, noting that the Victory Gardens of World War II supplied over 40% of U.S. fruit and vegetables.  This is quite significant and hopefully all of you that are reading this blog will be thinking about their gardening plans for next year!  Send away for some seed catalogues – I recommend William Dam and Johnny’s among the larger companies as well as many of the small, organic seed companies that have sprung up over the last few decades.  Just google ‘organic seed companies’ and your area and see where the search takes you.

Creating a Local Food Supply

October 15th, 2009

Despite growing consumer awareness and increased support for local foods, there are many obstacles that must be overcome if we are to create a  vibrant and sustainable local agricultural economy.  Canadians import 53% of their vegetables and some 90% of their fruit.  Food production is steadily shrinking as prime agricultural land is developed and paved over.  In the past 15 years, the Canadian population has grown by some 15% while food imports have increased by 160%.  Ontario alone imports four billions dollars more in food than it exports.

Many of the problems lie with both government regulations and with the larger food suppliers.  What are the chances of finding a local strawberry in a major supermarket in June?  As often as not, they are still coming from the U.S.  In the U.K. this year, hundreds of tons of plums were left to rot on trees because farmers could not find a market for their fruit.  Despite a bumper crop of local plums, most supermarkets allocate only about 20% of their shelf space to British plums, the rest goes to foreign imports.  Only two of the larger British chains, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose, responded to the problem by making space for British plums.  Others cited an unpredictable British supply as reasoning for their reliance on imported plums.

Poorly thought out government regulations are also a big barrier in the fight to increase local food production. In Quebec, small scale poultry and egg producers have been banned from selling any products that have been raised out of doors.  This is reportedly due to worries about avian flu, despite the fact that the disease occurs primarily in industrial farms.  In British Columbia, new regulations require that all meat sold directly to the public must be slaughtered in a provincially or federally inspected abbatoire.  This policy affects small farmers who have traditionally slaughtered on their own farms and though it may be appropriate for large scale operations it is questionable wether it is necessary for small producers.  In Ontario, government regulations have resulted in the closing of hundreds of small local abbatoires that traditionally served small farmers.  Instead we have only a handful of federally inspected abbatoires that create both problems of distance and scale of supply for the farmer that produces one or two dozen pigs a year for market.  Most Ontario supermarkets will only sell meat from federally inspected abbatoires, resulting in conditions where it is almost impossible to buy local meat.

So what kind of food systems and policies are needed in order to support small and mid-sized farms?  Must we completely rethink our ways of selling and buying food.  Not all of us can grow our own food or purchase directly from local farmers.  There are many innovative ideas that can increase the availability of local foods.  Farmers cooperatives, such as the Quinte Organic Farmers Cooperative are examples of farmers working together to pool their production and marketing efforts.  Mobile delivery services are another way in which producers can effectively reach consumers through a better system of distribution.  In the U.K., Riverford Organics delivers fruits and vegetables directly to over 100,000 customers, with 80% of their produce coming from small to mid sized farms.   Another very positive sign comes from the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International which recently  resisted pressure from large buyers such as Starbucks and decided that certified ‘fair trade’ coffee would only come from small scale operations.  All of these are very positive initiatives, however, one cannot ignore the need for supportive government policy if our food systems are going to change significantly.

Extending the Fall Garden

October 3rd, 2009

As the weather begins to get colder, there are many ways in which one can protect the fall garden and extend the harvest into December and sometimes even January.

The floating row cover is usually my first line of defence against early and light frosts.  The row cover is an extrembely lightweight blanket made of spun polypropylene, a bit like a light fabric interfacing.  It comes in different widths and is placed directly over the garden.  It provides four degrees of frost protection while allowing the rain through and 80% of the sunlight.  In the spring it works to protect small seedlings  from frost and to speed growth.  In the fall it provides about 4 degrees of frost protection.  I buy my row cover from Stokes Seeds in St. Catherines, Ontario.  There are many different weights and widths available, their product is light enough that you do not need to raise it off the plants with hoops and comes in a 5′ width which works perfectly for my 4′ wide beds.

If you are using the row cover to protect low lying plants such as lettuce, you can probably anchor the cover with a few strategically placed rocks.  If you are covering larger plants such as tomatoes or peppers you pretty well have to drape it over the plants and hope that the night is not too windy.  Luckily frosty nights usually are relatively still.

Often there are light frosts in September and October.  A light frost means that the temperature goes slightly below zero, maybe 2 or 3 degrees.  Vegetables such as lettuce, salad greens, beets, carrots, cabbage, and kale will easily survive a light frost, without any protection.  It is the more tender vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and basil that need protection – often covering with the row cover can mean a month to 6 weeks longer of harvest. Once the nights get colder, below -4C, I find it is hard to protect these tender plants and I allow nature to take its course.

My next category of frost is the medium frost, this means that the night time temperature will drop to between -4C and -8C.  For these nights, I use the floating row cover to protect all of my salad vegetables, beets, swiss chard, cabbage, and kale.  Root crops such as carrots and parsnip will not be affected by this kind of frost, and in fact, their flavour sweetens considerably after several frosts.

As the weather gets colder, I try to save as much as I can in the garden by using a double layer of floating row cover.  Then I pull out some old sheets bought at second hand stores.  These are arranged as puffily as possible to trap air and insulate the plants.  It is important not to leave these covers on during the day as your vegetables will start to suffer.  Straw is another nice insulator and can be hilled around the base of kale plants to help them survive some very cold frost.  I also like to place a light layer of straw over spinach and swiss chard in the hopes that these plants will survive the winter and regrow in the spring.  Kale and Swiss chard are perhaps the two hardiest green vegetables in my garden, and I have often harvested them well into December and sometime again in January if there is a thaw.

note – I do not write about cold frames, which can be used to successfully protect lettuce, endive, beets, etc. into December, mainly because I have seen too many cold frames left out after the first snow and in the spring there is a mess of broken glass on the garden.  Also, if at all possible, do not leave the floating row cover out all winter – it usually disintegrates and is no longer usable.  Row cover that is stored inside can last 5 or 6 years.

A Vision for local agriculture

September 18th, 2009

As the gardening season draws to a close, it is sometimes good to reflect on why all of this growing and eating seasonally is so important.  There are the obvious benefits of taste, quality of food, and true enjoyment of the whole process.  But as we become more aware of the effects of our food system on the world around us, I believe we have to look at issues of environmental degradation and pollution.

Modern agriculture is very heavily dependent on oil and as such, contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions.  It is estimated that in the past 50 years, the amount of oil used in agriculture has increased 80 times, while yields have only increased four times.  A 2oo1 British study done by PowerSwitch UK estimates that the average British family of four is responsible for about eight tonnes of CO2 emission through the food that they eat in a year, while this same family only emits about four tonnes of CO2 through the car that they drive in that year.  Similarly, an American study shows that the average person consumes 10 barrels of oil per year through the food that they eat, 9 barrels per year through the car that they drive, and 7 barrels per year for household consumption.

Oil is used in agriculture for many things – the production of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, mechanical cultivation, irrigation, processing, packaging, storage, and distribution.  By far the biggest consumption of oil occurs in the refrigerated transport of fruits and vegetables, by both plane and truck.  To give an example, it is estimated that it takes 127 calories of energy to fly one calorie of lettuce from the U.S. to Britain.  Changing one’s diet to include a high percentage of local and seasonal foods can go a long way to making a real difference when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

If we want to imagine what a truly l0cal agricultural economy would look like, we can look to Cuba for inspiration.  A 2006 video entitled ‘The Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil’ (produced by Faith Morgan, Pat Murphy and Megan Quinn Bachman and available through New Society Publishers) gives some very powerful images of a society transformed.  Before 1990, Cuba exported 80% of its agricultural outputs – primarily sugar cane and tobacco – and imported 80% of the food it consumed.  With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cuba lost access to oil imports, export markets, and capital.  Today Cuba produces 80% of the food that it consumes, farmers are among the highest paid workers, and the Cuban diet has changed to include a large variety of fruits and vegetables. Throughout the country every inch of vacant land has been turned into gardens, producing both food and cooling shade.  Cubans consume only 1/10th of the energy that North Americans do and they are the only country to come even close to meeting the World Wildlife Fund’s targets for sustainable living and development.   Today Cuba’s largest export is ideas, and people come from around the world to learn what can be done.