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Planning Your Garden

Friday, 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!!!

August Musings

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

I started a few flats of spinach today, to go in the garden towards the end of the month.  I like to grow a fall garden, I will also plant some salad greens in early September.  That plus my kale, swiss chard, endive, lettuce, beets, green onions and some herbs should get me through the fall.  Later this month I like to go to a local organic grower and pick a bushel of tomatoes which I freeze.  I also give him my order for winter vegetables for which I am so grateful.  I do not have the space to grow my own potatoes, onions, carrots, etc. in this tiny front yard, but I am lucky enough to have a space in my partially finished basement that serves as a surprisingly successful cold storage.  Buying a winter supply of vegetables is my second best choice and has worked for me for ten years now.

But that is not what I wanted to muse about.

I attended a music festival this weekend, its called Blue Skies and it is held on a large expanse of fields and woods north of Kingston.  About 3000 people attend, there is music, dancing, lots of interesting workshops, and wall to wall tents.  The festival has been running for over thirty years, I am not a die hard fan but many people never miss the long weekend.  To me, one of the things that makes Blue Skies special is its commitment to being as environmentally low impact as possible.  There are recycling stations everywhere, plastic water bottles are not allowed, everyone has to bring their own plates and cutlery because the cook shack will not give you anything disposable.  The festival runs with volunteers, volunteers to take the recycling to the local waste disposal site, volunteers to add peat to the outhouses, volunteers to deal with the bins of compost, volunteers to set up and take down the canvas tents that protect the stage and workshop areas.  In many ways it is a great deal of work, but it is work done within a community of friends.  People give of their time so that in the end there is very little garbage and very little permanent impact on the site.  This year there was a workshop about how to make Blue Skies carbon neutral and there was talk about funding a solar power installation in a nearby town that would put clean energy into the grid as a way to help offset the miles that people drive to attend the festival as well as the small amount of electricity that the festival consumes.  I am always amazed at what can be accomplished when there is commitment and conscious intention.

Many years ago I subscribed to a left wing magazine about world politics and events.  I had to give it up because it was just too depressing.  Of all the issues that I read, the one that has stuck with me for all of these years was one full of stories about people that were actually ‘getting it right’.  I remember reading about workers in Argentina who had reclaimed a closed factory and made it profitable, a city in Bolivia that had made a real commitment to public transit and their successes,  and a community called Gaviotas (look it up if you have time) that had won a United Nations award for Right Livelihood.  To me, in that sea of sad news, these successes have so much to offer all of us because they give hope and direction for positive change.

Out problems are immense, but if we focus on the positive and find ways to accomplish positive change in our own lives, we really can turn this world around.

Food Choices and Food Dollars

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Many of us become interested in growing some of our own vegetables out of a desire to eat food that is both fresh and organic.  If I were to purchase only organic vegetables for my family, I think I would be looking at a very hefty grocery bill.   Without my garden, those beautiful summer salads that we enjoy almost every day would not only be expensive, but would also involve either a drive to the Farmer’s Market in Kingston or a trip to the local grocery store for imported greens that are almost always grossly overpackaged.  With my garden, my vegetable food choices always seem to be easy to make.

But when I look around me as I walk down the aisle of a grocery store, I know that in many ways food choices have not changed much in the past 20 some years.  Kingston still only has a small percentage of health food stores or local and independent groceries.  Local, organic, minimally packaged food is a drop in the commercial food bucket.  As much as many of us would like to see a revolution in food and agriculture, things often appears to be getting worse, and not better.  One must also take a look at government policy if one wants to truly understand the make-up of our food choices.

I think it is very important that we understand the way in which government policy affects the availability and cost of the foods that we buy.  When one talks about buying and eating locally, one must decide what products one wants to focus on finding a local source for.  In my experience this can include vegetables, fruit, eggs, meat, honey, maple syrup, some dairy, and a very limited amount of grains and legumes.  For me, almost all of it is purchased outside of the grocery store, from local farmers, small butchers, a small cheese factory, and one small independent food store.  I see very few local products at Loblaws or Foodland.  Buying policies and government regulations affecting processing facilities make it almost impossible to sell local foods to big stores.  If we look at meat, most large groceries will only buy from federally inspected abbattoirs.  There are fewer and fewer small, provincially inspected abbattoirs in Ontario that process local meats and the regulations for a federally inspected abbattoir are so costly that these facilities must be large in order to be economic.  Similarly, new rules affecting cheese factories will probably spell the end of what few local ones remain in Ontario.

If we go one step further and look at agricultural policy, the picture gets even gloomier.  The U.S. Farm Bill doles out some $25 billion in agricultural subsidies a year.  The bulk of these subsides go to mega farms that grow wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton.  As a result one American food dollar will buy 1200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. It will also buy 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.  If we want those carrots and the orange juice to be organic, well, hopefully you have a very small appetite.  We cannot begin to make large scale changes in our agriculture unless we address government policy.  We also cannot hope to come to terms with issues such as obesity and diabetes,until we insist that the interests of quality of food, versus quantity and centralized profit, are given priority.

Garlic Scapes and other gardening stuff

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

One of the wonderful things that can be harvested this time of year are garlic scapes.  The idea of eating garlic scapes is perhaps new to many gardeners, but they are becoming popular and can even be found for sale at many farmer’s markets.  For those of you who are new to them, garlic scapes are those curly tops that shoot up from the center of hard necked varieties of garlic plants.  They are quite slender with a small round section which is where little bulblets form – that part is not good eating.   The scapes can be broken off from the main plant – some people say this encourages a bigger bulb of garlic but I am not sure.  At any rate, it does not harm the bulb.

There are several different ways to use garlic scapes:

  • they can be lightly steamed and served with butter
  • they can be coated lightly with oil and roasted in the oven
  • they can be made into a pesto – take either fresh or roasted garlic scapes and puree them with olive oil and ground almonds.  Serve with pasta and parmesan cheese – fantastic!
  • garlic scapes can be frozen, simply chop into 1-2 inch sections and place in a freezer bag – no preparation necessary.  They can be defrosted and used in soups or stews throughout the winter
  • Pickled Garlic Scapes – parboil the scapes for about 2 minutes. Drain and place in sterilized Mason jars.   Add some fresh dill and a few hot pepper flakes to the jars.  Make a pickle with 1 cup white vinegar, 3 cups water and 1 tbsp pickling salt (or multiple thereof, depending on how big a batch you are making).  Bring to a boil and pour over the scapes.  Add lids, rings and process as desired.

A few other things to think about at this time of year are

  • getting some mulch down in your garden.  I like to use straw to mulch around most of my plants, the straw helps to keep the moisture in the soil and also works to keep the weeds down.  It looks like we are going to have another very wet summer here in Southern Ontario so moisture conservation is probably not a big issue, but the straw does help to prevent the soil from splashing up onto your plants – especially important for tomatoes which can get a fungicidal blight from the soil.
  • I like to do a thorough weeding at this time of year, the soil is still damp and the weeds are easy to pull.  It is also the time of year when many weeds begin to go to seed – this is something you really want to avoid!
  • do some pruning on your tomato plants.  If you are growing heirloom varieties they are usually what are called indeterminate – meaning they will grow very big and sprawl with many stems coming out from the base of the plant.  Really you do not want so many stems – in fact many people train their tomatoes up a string and prune the plants so there is only one main stem.  At the very least, try to keep the plant to less than five stems – this opens up space so that light can get to the fruit and it can ripen.  The larger your plant, the more fruit you will have but they will be smaller.  A pruned plant will give a very nice harvest of larger sized tomatoes.  It is also much more likely that the stake you use will be able to support the plant!

Replanting in the Garden

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

One way to harvest a great deal of food from a small space is to replant several sections of your garden in June, July and August.  My garden is only 300 square feet, which translates into 4 beds that are each 15 feet long.  In April I plant a bed with peas and a bed with salad greens, spinach, lettuce, beets, green onions, and endive.  In May I plant a bed with some beans and more of all the same salad vegetables.   Without replanting, that would leave me with only one bed for the rest of the summer.  Hard to imagine that I can grow enough to feed my family into November in that one bed. Hence the replanting, which I thought I would talk about in some detail.

If I look at the April beds around the first week of June, the peas are just flowering and will be in the garden for at least another few weeks.  But in the “salad bed”, the greens and the spinach have been finished for some time now.  The greens were dug under and the spinach plants pulled and put on the compost.  The remaining lettuce, beets, green onions and endive are all ready and somehave been harvested and others are still waiting.  This bed is perfect for planting tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and zucchini in.  In the space that is wide open – where the spinach and greens were – it is easy to see how to replant this area.  Neither tomatoes nor peppers need a great deal of compost so the whole bed does not need to be composted.  It is enough to put a small shovelful with each individual plant.  The rest of the bed calls for what I call ’strategic harvesting and planting’.  Harvest your salad vegetables so that there are gaps between what is left in the garden.  So say you have a section of lettuce – harvest every second one.  The space that is made available between them, assuming they are 1 foot apart, is about 2 feet.  Perfect to fit a small cucumber plant where that lettuce was just taken from.  Use a hand shovel to work the area up and again, add some compost before you plant the seedling.  By the time those cucumbers start to grow and sprawl, the rest of the lettuce will have been harvested.  I do this with all of this section of my garden and fit my cucumbers and zucchini into my strategically harvested blank spaces.

There is still a fourth bed that is open and that I use to plant my June salad bed – lots of basil, some dill and coriander, some more beans, and the usual flat of lettuce, green onions, beets, endive, and fennel transplants.

I try to start a flat of what I call ’salad vegetables’ every month.  In July I will plant that flat in the area that the peas were growing in.  They are usually finished in my garden by mid July.  The advantage of starting your lettuces, etc. in flats is that if the peas are still producing, you can delay the transplanting for a week or two.  Finally, the bed that was planted in May with salad vegetables and beans can be replanted in early August with more salad vegetables, some salad greens, lots of spinach and some more herbs.

My last planting is in early September – I find a blank space and plant a 6-8 foot section of salad greens.  As long as they go in by the end of the first week of September here in southern Ontario, they will produce a long harvest that will often last into November or early December.  Lots of food from a very small space!