Archive for April, 2009

Edible Landscaping

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

I attended an excellent workshop at St. Lawrence College in Kingston this weekend.  It was given by Ken Taylor of Windmill Point Farms in Ile Perrot, just west of Montreal.  Ken has been growing and developing fruit and nut trees for the past thirty years.  He specializes in finding and developing varieties that require very little attention , are disease resistant, and that survive our Canadian winters.  He has an incredible wealth of knowledge gained through years of experimenting and self-teaching.

Of the many fruit trees Ken sells, it seems he is keenest on the Asian Pear.  He says he planted  a line of trees 20 years ago at 4 foot spacings, assuming many would die and he would end up with the correct spacing of 10 – 12 feet.  Today, these trees have all survived and produce bumper crops of nearly perfect fruit despite never having been ‘pruned, weeded, watered, fertilized, or sprayed’.  The Asian Pear originated in China and tastes something like a pear-apple cross, they store far better than apples and maintain their crunchy texture and delicious flavour for many months.  The trees tend to be small, manageable for picking, and produce fruit in two years.  Other interesting varieties included a plum that was resistant to black knot disease, an apricot variety developed from a several hundred year old tree he found near Georgian Bay, and a Japanese walnut that is hardy, delicious, and extremely productive.

Windmill Point Farm also sells small fruits and berries, Ken recommended the mulberry tree, black raspberries, several grape varieties,and something called the Albion strawberry, the best everbearing strawberry variety he has ever seen.  He believes, like I do, that many of us can grow a great deal of our own food, and in so doing, significantly change our systems of food production.  He works hard to make it interesting, successful, and easy for all of us first time fruit and nut growers.

Information about the farm is available both at the Windmill Point website and at his nursery website All sales are through the nursery.  As well, the spring 2009 edition of Canadian Organic Growers features  an article entitled Forbidden Fruit which is written by Ken Taylor and is on growing pears.

April Gardening

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Spring is in full swing here, with its mix of very hot and very cool days.  All of my April planting is finished, including a bed of mixed salad greens, some radishes, and peas.  I also planted a flat with spinach, green onions, beets, endive, and lettuce that I started in late March.  All of this is under a section of floating row cover – this is a light almost interfacing like fabric that I rock down over my wide beds.  The plants grow up underneath it and it allows 80% of the light through, all of the rain, and adds 4C of warmth to the bed.  Since soil temperature is the biggest factor in growth rates in the spring, it does make a huge difference.  I would say it speeds up the maturity of all that I plant in April by two to three weeks.  The cover is available through many seed catalogues but there are many different weights so you have to be a bit careful – you want a weight that does not need hoop support.   I found that Stokes Seeds had the cover that I wanted in 50′ sections and a width that works for my four foot wide beds.

For anyone who really wants to grow their own food, it is nice if the work can be done quickly and efficiently.  Keeping your garden to a manageable size is really important – I would recommend nothing bigger than 500 square feet to start.  Another time saving idea is to dig your pea seeds in, rather than making trenches and seeding by hand.  It is a random seeding but it works.  I count out about 10 pea seeds for every square foot of garden that I want to plant and then scatter them evenly over my bed.  I then take my garden fork and quickly turn the soil- some seeds end up a bit deep, some too close to the surface, and the rest come up nicely.  This really does save a great deal of time.

I like to work with transplants if possible, I find it easier to start seedlings indoors on a monthly basis and then plant them out into the garden when they are three to four weeks old.  For my May bed I have started a flat with spinach, lettuce, green onions, fennel, and Swiss chard.  I also have a flat with tomatoes and peppers that I started in March.  Both of these I keep outside in a small mini-type greenhouse that I made with 2 x 4’s and second hand glass.  It works very well and means I don’t have to use my light table any longer.

The Good News

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

Canadian Organic Growers is a wonderful resource for both serious growers and home gardeners as well as anyone interested in what is happening in the global world of agriculture.  The organization publishes a quarterly magazine, has local chapters all across Canada, hosts conferences and events such as Seedy Saturdays, has a lending library that is free to members, and also publishes a monthly e-newsletter.  I like the e-newsletter because if often gives one a quick but informative overview of what is happening with food and farming around the world.  For this blog, I thought I would summarize the good news.

  • The Canadian Wheat Board announces $200,000 in funding for organic sector development
  • Canada has said that any products derived from cloned foods can not be called organic under our new standards and logo (to me the overall news is awful)
  • A U.S. survey in 2008 reports that organic food sales are up 10%
  • Dannon is eliminating the rBST growth hormone from its dairy operations.  General Mills has done the same thing.
  • The Philippine army is launching an organic agricultural project to help less privileged residents in their area.
  • A 2008 report from the United Nations says that “organic agriculture is particularly well suited for smallholder farmers, who comprise the majority of Africa’s poor”.  Good news
  • A United Nations 2008 assessment of world hunger has concluded that ‘Genetically modified crops have very little potential to alleviate poverty and hunger’.  This is in direct contrast to claims coming from GM companies, but supports the continued development of organic food production.
  • Britons continue to support organic and ethical foods despite the downturn in the economy
  • 250 pesticides will be removed form store shelves in Ontario by the end of this month under the new Cosmetic Pesticides Ban Act.  Quebec is the only other province to have a similar ban, with P.E.I. and New Brunswick considering one.
  • The amount of land globally in certified organic production grew from 30.7 million hectares to 32.2 million hectares in 2007, with strong growth in Latin America and Africa.

Not to put a damper on life, but this seems important.

According to the Environmental Health News (01/06/09) antibiotics are showing up in vegetables such as potatoes, corn, and lettuce.  These vegetables are absorbing the antibiotics when grown in soil fertilised with livestock manure in which the animals have been fed antibiotics.  Approximately 70% of all antibiotics and related drugs produced in the United States are fed to cattle, pigs, and poultry.  You are not protected by eating commercially grown organic vegetables, because these too are fertilized with commercial manures. North American organic standards recommend the use of organic manure, but it is not mandatory.  This is because there is not enough organic manure to meet the needs of organic production.  For those of you with your own gardens, I would recommend sticking with manures from animals that are primarily grass fed – I use horse manure that I collect from local stables and commercially bagged sheep manure, both of which are widely available.

Eating in April

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

I  am working hard to be creative these days, finishing the last of the vegetables in my root cellar and making lots of sprouts.  I find it amazing that the carrots that I bring up are still of the highest quality, crispy and sweet.  They should remain that way well into May.  The cabbages are looking somewhat worse for wear, but I peel off the outer layers and then store them in the fridge for the next few weeks.

I am trying to eat a meal or two with Jerusalem artichokes every week.  I think I have finally found my favourite way to cook them. Basically I just scrub them well – this is much easier if you eat them on the same day that you harvest them.  Then I cut them in 1″ cubes, with the skin still on, removing any parts that look sketchy.  I parboil the cubes for about 5-10 minutes, drain them and then saute them in oil with some salt and pepper.  They go nice and crispy and brown, just like fried potatoes.

I will soon begin to scrounge my garden.  There is kale and green onions that have survived the winter, as well as some garlic that seems to have naturalized itself on the south side of my house.  All of it is big enough to eat.  Also I see that the sorrel leaves are poking their heads up and should be big enough to pick in a week or two.  My chives are also about a week away from being ready to pick.  Sometimes it feels like these little bits of food don’t add up to much, but I am always surprised by how much food there is when I go to harvest something.  And now that I can get my bicycle out, I should take a trip down the road to my little patch of fiddleheads and see how they are doing.  All in all, there is much more to April than meets the eye!

Moving My Transplants

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

After a few days of cold, wintry weather, spring has returned to southern Ontario.  I did plant some salad greens last week and I am sure that they survived the small bit of snow that we got and will start to germinate this week.  I have covered them with a double row of floating row cover as an experiment to see if the extra warmth results in an earlier harvest.  I am hoping to eat my first salad before the end of this month.  Will keep you posted!

I set up my little mini greenhouse today and moved my spinach, lettuce, green onion, beet and endive transplants outside.  The greenhouse is made of 2 x 4’s and four second hand windows, its about 2 feet tall and 6 feet long and has glass on the top and the front.  I made it 2′ tall so that it could hold my tomato transplants that will go out in late April or early May.  The flats I moved out today are already 3 weeks old and will have to go in the garden within a week or two.  They are all hardy vegetables and can survive a few cold nights, though if the forecast calls for several degrees below freezing, I will probably bring them in for the night.  It feels good to get them outside and the natural light will help them to toughen up a bit before they go in the garden.

Experiential Learning

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

A good friend of mine is the head of the Outdoor Education program at Queen’s University here in Kingston.  She has taken my gardening workshops and really believes that growing food should be part of Outdoor Education.  She recently asked me to write a small article for a newsletter, which I have exerpted below:

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.

Understanding nature is an experiential kind of learning. The interconnectedness of all that is our environment cannot be learned from a book. One can read about the need to act mindfully, but it is often only when one has actually spilled that night’s dinner into the campfire that a person begins to really understand what it means to be careful and thoughtful in their actions.

Growing food is also a very important form of experiential learning. Gardening, and the thinking that happens when one is engaged in it, is an invaluable experience. It is by putting our hands into the soil and by experiencing the whole season, that one really begins to understand the processes that are at work. It is through the satisfaction of growing and eating something that one comes to value the earth. And it is through being faced with choices, that one begins to understand their implications.

As an organic market gardener, one of my first real lessons in thinking something through 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. Nature makes us wait and I firmly believe that it is this process of waiting that causes us to think and to look for environmentally responsible alternatives. The quick fix does not allow for this process to ever occur.

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 made a big shift from thinking that I grew my own food to realizing that I cared for this miracle that is the soil and in doing so, was blessed with abundance. For me, this is a way of knowing and of being in the world that has to be felt and experienced through thoughtful work in order to be understood. 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.

March Transplants

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

I like to start my first transplants on the first day of spring – it feels like a good way to celebrate the new season.  I start a tray of peppers and tomatoes, far more than I need but I have a few friends that I share with every year.  Also I make a large tray of spinach seedlings and a mixed tray with lettuce, green onions, beets, and endive, about a dozen of each.  Butterhead lettuces have a wonderful taste and buttery texture but really only do well in cooler weather so I like to include them in this planting.   Everything is up and growing under my light table, it really does feel nice to watch them grow and to baby them along.

Seedlings are quite hardy but they should not be overwatered and they should have sufficient air circulation to do well.  If either of these are a problem, you can get a fungus that erodes the stem of the seedling – this is called damping off.  It is a good idea to check your flats on a regular basis and make sure they are thriving.

It has been such a warm and early spring here in Southern Ontario that I think I will plant my first section of salad greens today.  I am thinking of trying a double layer of floating row cover for the first week or two to warm up the soil.  I also pulled the straw off the garlic  that I planted last fall and there are plenty of little green shoots making their way above the ground.  These I will harvest in April and May as young shoots that I call green garlic, which I use like a green onion.  They are great in soups, bean salads, pastas, and stir fries throughout the spring and I do several more plantings of green garlic in April and May so I have a continuous supply.  You can plant them anytime now – to plant simply break several bulbs of garlic into individual cloves and push them into the soil, about 1 inch deep and 4-6 inches apart.  The root side of the clove should go into the ground first.  I would recommend planting 30-40 cloves in each planting as  I use 5 or 6 at a time in my cooking.