Archive for August, 2009

Why I like transplants so much

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

In From Seed to Table I try to make a pretty strong case for making transplants as much as possible in one’s garden.  I start making my first transplants in March, when I start tomatoes and peppers as well as a large flat of early spinach, lettuce, green onions, beets, and endive.  I also like to start any brassicas and squash family plants a few weeks early and then transplant them into the garden.  There are many advantages to transplants – an earlier harvest, good germination, seedlings that are a few weeks ahead of the weeds and better able to cope with pests, eliminating the need for thinning later on, to name a few.

But what really makes a difference for me in having a steady supply of vegetables all summer long is that I also make a flat of ’salad’ transplants around the middle of every month from April to August.  These are some combination of salad vegetables and greens – kale, swiss chard, basil, spinach, lettuce, endive, green onions, beets, fennel, collards, this year I tried cutting celery.  The flat holds 48 cells and I fill it with whatever combination of vegetables takes my fancy.  By making this one flat every month, I know that I will have a small but steady supply of vegetables that mature evenly throughout the summer.   I find it easier to discipline myself to start the flat than to direct seed in the garden every month.  But more importantly, I don’t have to worry about watering and getting seeds to germinate in the garden, instead I have a small tray to keep moist and care for once the transplants are up.  I can keep the transplants in the tray anywhere from three to five weeks, depending on how busy I am and also on the weather.  And almost every transplant that I put in the garden matures into something that I can harvest.

These past few weeks in Southern Ontario have brought home to me the benefits of transplants.  In early August I started my last ’salad’ tray – a flat with only spinach in it.  The seeds were up within about 5 days of planting and I moved them outside to a small structure – I call it a mini greenhouse – that I use for my transplants.  Then we had our first real heat wave of the summer,  which lasted about 10 days.  During this time I was able to move the flat to a shady area in the heat of the day and one quick pass with a mister and it was well watered every day.  To me, this is so much easier than caring for small plants in a garden space.  Now that the heat is over, I can transplant them on a rainy day and they will hopefully thrive without much care.

I try to help people to grow a lot of food in a small space without too much work. For me, once you are in the habit of making transplants, they are quick and easy to do and make for a much more successful garden.

Thinking about winter storage

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

I thought I would spend a bit of time talking about winter storage.  I find my garden pretty well takes care of itself this time of year.  I have a few flats of spinach that are just starting to germinate, they will go in the garden at the end of August at which time I will also direct seed some salad greens.  And then….THAT’S IT FOR THIS YEAR!!  Hard to believe that we will soon be heading into fall, but that is my favourite time of year so I look forward to it.

I do believe that if we want to be committed to eating locally and seasonally it really helps to have one’s own cold storage.  There is not a great selection of local vegetables in the grocery store in February and March and what is there is seldom organically grown.  Not only that, if you can get bulk winter vegetables from a local organic gardener, you can usually get them for a reasonable price and the quality and taste are just so much better.  Anything that is packaged is always more expensive, so for example I see a bundle of 3-4 Ontario leeks sell for $4 in February, the half bushel I bought in November cost me about $20.

I have never built a root cellar in a finished basement so I can’t offer too much in the way of advice.  I have built two in unfinished basements, both of which had an operating oil furnace at the other end.  Basically you are looking for a cold, dark space that is about 6′ x 8′ in size.  It should be as far away from the furnace as possible, preferably on the north side of your basement.  The floor and the walls to the outside (in my case, stone) do not have to be insulated, but everything else should be, including the ceiling and the door that you build.  You want to try create a space that stays between 2-8 Celcius if possible.

A few other things to consider

  • humidity – traditional cellars were often dripping water from their ceilings.  This is seldom the case in modern houses, but root vegetables can be stored in damp sand and this provides the moisture they need
  • air circulation – the advantage of low humidity is that air circulation is seldom an issue.  As long as you don’t see mold growing on your produce, the natural circulation in your basement is probably all you need.
  • darkness -  this really does need to be total – cracks of light will cause vegetables to sprout.
  • storage containers – you can build wooden bins if you feel inspired.  I use open bushel baskets for leeks and cabbages, 7 gallon plastic pails layered with damp sand for beets, carrots, parsnip, and turnip, and mesh bags for onions and garlic.  Potatoes can go in open baskets but they should also be covered to stop them from drying or out  seeing the light! Cloth or newspaper works.

If you have a space that is less than perfect, don’t be discouraged.  You might be amazed at how well it performs.  Or it may give you a good supply of vegetables for the coldest months and that is certainly better than nothing.  In my converted cistern I am able to keep carrots in sand until late May with great quality.  This was far more than I expected when I first insulated the area – I thought the heat from the furnace would cause far more problems than it has.  Some ideas for other spaces that friends have looked at are under porch stairs and in a garage or shed that butts up against the house, preferably on two sides.  I suggest that they buy some sort of thermometer with an alarm so that they can know if the temperature is approaching zero.  At least until they get a sense of how the space will perform.

Thank you to all who have sent such positive comments – they are greatly appreciated and inspire me to keep writing.  I had tried for every Thursday but it seems to be working out at every second Thursday.  Hopefully that is enough!!!!

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.