Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Avoiding The Heat: keeping your tomato plants cool

I always thought tomatoes loved hot sunlight the more the better. But this year when the numbers of dead tomato flowers seem to outweigh the numbers of actual tomatoes I began to realize it was the extreme heat, not some weird disease, that was killing the flowers.
Tomato flower2
When temperatures get up above 40C, (104 F) tomato flowers start dying. It was easy enough to move my pot grown tomatoes away from their sheltered microclimate, on my south facing deck, into a cooler spot but what to do about the tomato plants inside the greenhouse?
Meanwhile the peppers cucumbers and even the beans were working overtime lapping up the heat, putting out twice as many flowers and fruit than they usually do.
Half and half ' Burrackers favorite' heirloom tomato

This is a new problem for me. Despite leaving the door and the window at the back of the greenhouse wide open, by midday the mercury was soaring. I had heard about using a shade cloth to keep tempeartures down but was suspicious about it actually working. One friend said she covered her greenhouse with a tarp to keep temperatures from getting to high.

So I got out my ancient orange tarp and a tall ladder. It took me 3 minutes to climb up the ladder and realize that the tarp was too small to drape over the roof. Investing in something bigger is one option but not cost effective.
Tomato Vines

Then I read this article.
Suddenly it made sense to somehow string the tarp up inside the greenhouse above the tomato plants. I thought I could staple it to the bottom of the joists that hold up the roof. Problem solved.

However I won’t get to set it up till next year because nowadays daytime temperatures have dropped dramatically. If I open the greenhouse door at all it is only for a few hours.

Last week our night time temperatures were as low as 3C (37.4F) Luckily there was no frost yet in my garden.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What To Do With Comfrey, Symphytum officinale

Early spring food garden June 20
When I choose plants for my garden I think about what else besides the obvious things like scent, colourful flowers, edible leaves, stalks or fruit does the plant have to offer. The more attributes I can list the more valuable the plant is as a citizen in my garden community.

Comfrey, Symphytum officinale, is one of those herbal giants (it's the plant on the left of the photo) although like other herbs it is not edible. My comfrey plants easily attain statuesque proportions of 152 cm (5 ft) high and 91cm (3 ft) wide competing with the lovage and horseradish for biggest garden herb.

Hardy Perennial

I used to grow comfrey in my zone 2 garden in the BC Peace. Like all perennials, during their first year, it needs a reliable source of infrequent but adequate water to encourage it to establish deep roots. A deep watering about once a week is sufficient. After the first year I stop watering. Mulching keeps the soil cool and slows evaporation.

Nutrient accumulator

Comfreys deep roots help it search out deep pockets of water as well as minerals and other nutrients that it concentrates in its soft, lush green leaves and thick stems. Comfreys ability to gather nutrients and its exuberant growth make it one of natures stellar mulch makers. I have comfrey plants all over my gardens. I cut them down periodically throughout the summer, to throw on my compost bin but more likely to use as a nutrient filled mulch in my vegetable gardens. I cut the stalks into approximately 4 inch segments and lay the pieces around my plants. The aim is to cover the soil and give the soil organisms something to munch on. Keeping soil organisms well fed increases their interaction with plant roots and fosters nutrient exchange helping my plants grow strong and happy.

Root Buster

Apart from distilling nutrients comfreys deep roots are great at breaking up hardpan and clay soil. It's a boon in my garden since the soil is hard, unyielding clay.
Propagating comfrey is easy, some say too easy since a whole plant will grow from even the tiniest bit of root. This was great when I was first establishing my garden.

Comfrey flowers (Symphytum)
Insect attractor

Comfrey’s lovely purple blossoms attract insect pollinators and predators. I usually admire the flowers for a week or two before chopping the plant down to use as mulch.

Bone Healer

Comfrey makes a substance called allantoin in its roots. Allantoin promotes wound healing and moisturizes the skin. Knitbone, bruisewort, boneset and healing herb are popular names for comfrey in old herbal medical books. These books advise mashing comfrey leaves into a poultice and applying it to external cuts and scrapes to help heal them. I’ve never taken their advice, maybe one day I will.

Friday, July 11, 2014

What To Harvest From The Garden In July

The peas and potatoes are flowering, I've got green tomatoes but meanwhile I'm eating :
The garlic scapes are ready to eat.

Garlic Scapes

A garlic scape is an immature flower stalk, it curls around itself in a distinctive way , you won’t be able to miss it.
I like to leave a couple of garlic scapes to develop into bulbils. Each flower head matures into loads of tiny garlic seeds called bulbils. I plant these in the garden, leaving them in the ground for two or three years until they have grown into a decent sized head of garlic.
Planting bubils is admittingly a slow way to increase my garlic crop but it’s satisfying to see the thin green garlic leaves push their way out of the soil after the snow melts, fatten up all summer beneath a deep layer of mulch and return the next year fatter still.
I harvest most of the scapes to eat, they have a mild garlic flavour when cooked. This year my favourite way to eat them is to first brush them with olive oil and while my steak or burger finishes cooking, the last 3-4 minutes on the BBQ, heat them till they are brown on the outside and get soft (al dente) on the inside. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and eat.

First strawberries

Every morning I pick a bowl full of sweet, red strawberries for breakfast. I'm definititely planting another strawberry bed in September when the weather is cooler and the runners will be easier to establish. I currently have 2 raised beds full of strawberry plants but why not have another. The more strawberries I have the more I can pack away into the freezer for that other time when I have to wear more than a loose sleeveless dress and bare feet to go outside.

Cavolo nero or Tuscan or Lacinato kale #gardenchat

You know what I'm talking about, things like cos or romaine lettuce, mustard greens, arugula, swiss chard, spinach, spicy pepper greens, collard greens and kale. My favourite kale cultivar is known by many names -Tuscan kale, lacinato kale, black kale, or cavolo nero- to me it has the best flavour. In northern, short season gardens kale may not survive winter. It's worth leaving your kale plants in the ground as an experiment. Kale is biennial meaning it goes to seed the second year. I want my kale plants to survive winter so I can collect the seed.

My favourite way to eat garden greens is to eat the young leaves in a salad. I eat the older leaves stir fried alongside eggs or meat dishes.


I've been eating chives since he snow melted. I chop up the purple flowers to add colour as well as taste to my salads.
Egyptian walking onions are perennial. The mother plant not only comes back every year but propagates itself by falling over and rooting its seed tops. Sometimes I facilitate the process by planting the tops in different part of the garden.
Chopping the root and the green stem, marinating it in butter and using it as a base for spicy curry, egg dishes, and stir fries is the way I eat egyptian onions all summer.

What are you eating from your garden?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Plants I Know: the generosity of gardeners

MyosotisWhen the forget-me-nots, (Myosotis), in my garden bloom I think of Ivy. She arrived at my house one long ago day with three boxes of seed potatoes and 3 pots of forget-me-nots. I knew her from the weekly parent run preschool I had started attending with my baby and 2 year old the previous winter. Even though we lived ten killometres apart we were both members of the small community of Tomslake

Violets growing on a sunny south facing slope
Margaret, a friend I made while living in residence at UBC ended up living in Dawson Creek the same time I was living up there. As a long time gardener she bought with her cuttings of all her favourite plants. When I moved into my new house she had some extras to give away. She bought me a spade full of mint roots. I was intrigued by the blue and white flower poking out between the green stems. She told me it was not a mint flower, it was called a johnney jump up, (Viola). I found out later they self seed voraciously and they cross with pansies producing millions more flowers with exciting colour combinations.

Thymus pseudolanuginosus, woolly thyme, creeping thyme

My first Thymus pseudolanuginosus plant came as a cutting,  growing in the pot of another perennial I was buying from Mrs Knobler who once owned the nursery in Dawson Creek. Sadly she is no longer with us but her memory lives on. Over the years I've increased my stock by dividing the main plant and replanting the divisions to different areas of the garden.

The Alberta spruce,( Picea glauca 'Conica') in my ornamental bed is now four times its original size. My son bought it for me for a long ago mothers day present with money he made from his first part time job when he was still going to school. It was a no brainer to carefully dig it up and transfer it to its new home in my log house garden.

The “London Pride’ Saxifraga sp. is flowering right now. My hiking friend Barb bought me a box of rosettes the first year after we built our new log house. They have mutiplied steadily so now the plants form a dense ring of leaves around my spring garden.

Iris in the rainA few years ago with a large garden to fill I answered a posting on our local Prince George Freecycle group to accept a bag of Narcissus bulbs. I was surprised when I discovered the person giving them away was Anne a women I knew from book club. When she saw it was me who wanted the bulbs she threw in another bag full of Iris roots. The Narcissus have lovely, big, white flowers that smell faintly of flowery honey. I planted them in my spring garden bed and beneath the apple trees. The've steadily grown forming large naturalized clumps. The Iris plants have grown forming a pretty meadow of purple and white flowers between my roses.

Several cultivars of Herucha AKA correl bells have made homes for themselves on the shadier side of my garden. One of them is an unnamed variety I bought from Wendy, the first year she had her garden plant sale. Every spring as I watch its leaves unfurl I think of the fun we have and the work we do as members of the 'Land Army', the informal title our group call ourselves. We get together three times a month to help maintain the David Douglas Botanical Gardens at the University of Northern BC, UNBC, here in Prince George.

Dianthus are one of my favourite plant genera. I have many cultivars I grew from seed that have traveled to all my gardens, still others I bought at plant sales and one plant I got last year from Grace. It was a present for spending a long hot day shuttling plants from garden to vehicle and into the university parking lot for our annual David Douglas Botanical Garden Society plant sale.

This is not all. I have many more bulbs, roots, tubers and seeds given to me from neigbours I barely know, internet friends I’ve never met in real life and random strangers whose gardens I’d admired in previous neigbourhoods.

Do your garden plants have stories and memories attached to them? Let me know in the comments.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Spring: Edible Perennials Wild And Domestic

Spring is when the lawn turns green over night. The colony of aspen trees behind the house, has a new outfit of small circlular leaves that tremble every time the wind blows. The brassicas, beets and chard seeds, I planted two weeks ago, sprout and grow three inches high in a week. The peas put out tendrils and start climbing the fence. Even though the mercury drops into the low single digits every night, by noon the next day the species tulips that just broke bud a few hours ago, droop, shrivel and fade beneath the soaring hot subshine. Other early, cold loving spring flowers suffer the same fate.

#Lovage is a giant celery tasting #herb #gardenchat

Dependable Perennial Domestic Food
While the annual food plants are still in babyhood and nowhere near big enough to start eating my perennial rhubarb is entering middle age and the garlic, asparagus, arugula and sorrel are gangly adolescents. We've been eating the perennials daily for more than a month. Perennial vegetable plants grow quickly providing me with food before the annual seeds have even been planted. Once established these plants are an easy source of early spring food. I have a master list of perennial food plants, hardy in short season gardens over here. I've updated the list to include the perennial Arugula I wrote about in this post

Wild Food
The other day I found out, via a link on twitter, that the new shoots of spruce, pine and fir trees are edible. After reading the article I realized they are not consumed like a vegetable as I assumed but used as a flavouring like one would use herbs.

Other common native plants that I eat include fiddleheads AKA Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), saskatoon berries (Amelanchier alnifolia), wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), blueberries (Vaccinium myrilloides) and huckleberries, (Vaccinium membranaceum).

Do you eat any native plants?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Building the Soil: Growing Food Without Chemicals

Below is the presentation I made for The Food and Creativity Pecha Kucha here in Prince George BC. My presentation documents my discovery that soil is the most important part of the garden.

I show you that no matter what kind of soil you have the way to condition it for growing food is the same. Good soil is a thriving community of worms, insects, algae, fungi and microbes; keeping them happy is the way to grow healthy, productive plants.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Self Seeding Plants Are Like unexpected Presents

You only need to plant borage once. It’ll self seed all over the place and you’ll be weeding it out all spring. But I couldn’t have a garden without its beautiful, edible, tiny, blue lowers that add colour and the flavour of cucumber to food. Its hairy leaves have the same flavour. Chop them finely before adding to food.
As well as food, borage flowers attract insects, most of them beneficial. Like parasitic wasps that eat aphids and bees that pollinate most of the food plants we eat.

Self seeded dill

This year I was gratified when I noticed tiny dill seedlings that had popped up where it was growing last year. I moved them over to another spot happy to have free dill. Like borage dills huge flowers composed of hundreds of tiny floweretts attract beneficial insects to the garden.
Dill leaves and seeds are edible. I love chopped dill leaves in coleslaw and soup.

Peppergrass a green slender plant tastes peppery hot. I love it in green salads. When it self sowed in the garden this spring it took me a while to identify it. At first I thought it was cilantro. However it wasn’t long before I realized it looked exactly like the peppergrass sprouts I had planted elsewhere.

Self seeded cilantro actually it's  pepper grass

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Collecting Seeds In Short Season Gardens

I’m constantly on the lookout for perennial and biennial food crops that will survive the insanely long winter in my short season garden. Such crops are up and growing the minute the snow melts, meaning I can start eating from my garden before I’ve planted my annual seeds.

Biennials stay in place for two years and perennials survive ad infinitum. Plants that say in one place do not disturb the soil. They maintain their vital connection to the soil community. They grow bigger each year, giving me more food. Their undisturbed roots help the soil community stay healthy and in turn the soil community helps the plants. And since I don’t have to replant there is less work for me to do.


Looking For Carrots
I was preparing a garden bed for seeding when I noticed a feathery looking leaf poking out of the ground as I reached over to pluck it from the soil I saw it was connected to something orange, it was a carrot that had over wintered. Yay! So the mice hadn’t eaten all of them.

I plant the same vegetable in different parts of my garden following the notion that if pests or a disease befell a crop they may not find it all. It worked.

Every Autumn I leave part of my carrot crop in the ground to overwinter for a spring harvest of food and a summer collection of seeds. But this time some mice had set up home under the snow relying on my carrots to be their food supply all winter. I was dismayed when I discovered, after the snow melted, they had eaten everything except the very tips of the carrots. It meant no spring harvest and no seed collection for me.

However the carrot I found was growing in a different part of the garden and the mice hadn’t found it. So now I 'm able to collect seeds after all.

Arugula sylvetta that over wintered in my garden

Unexpected Harvest Of Greens
I read about perennial Arugula sylvetta in one of Eric Toensmeier’s books. On the off chance it may be hardy in my garden I purchased a packet when I made my seed order. Later, when it came up, I realized it was the same plant as the Italian Arugula I had purchased the previous year from Bosa Foods In Vancouver. It has narrower leaves than regular arugula and a hotter more peppery taste that I love.

I left the plants in the ground over winter to see what would happen. Come spring it was one of the first things to start growing, although very slowly.

Harvesting Greens
Kale Trials
I left the kale in the ground too. I know people who have had some cultivars come back in their zone 3 gardens.

When the snow melted it was already sprouting leaves that were immediately chomped off by the hungry bunnies, AKA Lepus americanus that have been terrorizing my garden lately.

I spent an entire day building a fence around the perimeter of the garden with wooden fence posts, rebar, chicken wire and staples to keep the bunnies out.

Three weeks later only one of the kale plants is alive and like the Arugula sylvetta growing very slowly. Now that I have the fence I'll try to over winter kale again.

Hit And Miss
Some plants require more days or more heat than a short season garden can provide to produce flowers and seeds that we may never see them.

One way to avoid this is too choose cultivars that take 65 days or less to mature.
However sometimes there is just not enough heat to get the plants to flower and seed. It doesn’t matter since greens can be eaten at any stage of growth although if you want seeds like I do you're SOL.

Leaving biennials in the ground doesn’t always work, even if they are not eaten by critters they may just rot away. Beets seem to be particularly susceptible to rotting.

Lastly growing beans to the point of over maturity so I can collect seed seems to be an unattainable goal. Perhaps if I planted them in my greenhouse …

Monday, May 19, 2014

My Book Is Here

I have an advanced copy of my book! I took this photo while in the car right after I ripped the top off the box and pulled out the finished copy of the manuscript. I've been writing and editing and editing some more for the last sixteen months.
I still can't believe I did this. I wrote a whole book!

What's Inside

The first section, the most important one, explains how to get the most out of your garden by building up the soil to feed your plants and choosing a warm microclimate to ripen your crop faster. I clarify technical terms like winterkill, hardening off, biennial, annual and perennial. Proper watering techniques, dealing with pests and diseases and a detailed discussion on harvesting and storing your crop over the long winter

Section two is about the best way to grow each vegetable and fruit, what to do with it in the kitchen and recommended ways to store it.

Section 3 is a compilation of recipes to make with your garden produce every month of the year.

Included are detailed frost and zone maps, a section explaining how to make a cold frame to keep your produce alive at either end of the season and specific instructions on germinating seeds indoors so you can jump start the growing season.

For the most part the photos are mine. They were taken over the years in all three of my gardens.

You are invited to help me launch my book On Wednesday June 4th at 7PM at Books & Co,1685, 3rd Ave in Prince George. I look forward to meeting you

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