Low-Maintenance Food Plants for Novice (or Reluctant) Gardeners

By Catherine Winter

Are you interested in growing your own food plants, but you’re intimidated by the prospect of doing so? Or is it something you’re reluctant to do but feel that you should be doing for health, wellbeing, and planet-saving? Well, don’t worry: there are some delicious, easy-to-grow plants you can try out that won’t break your spirit, and might just encourage you to keep at it.

lettuce, leaf lettuce, cut-and-come-again lettuce, salad greens, organic lettuce, heirloom lettuce

Cut-and-Come Again Lettuce

Lettuces are pretty easy to grow anyway, but the kind that will re-grow after it’s been snipped is ideal for newbie gardeners. Most lettuces’ leaves will happily spring back after you’ve snipped them for salad, so you won’t have to fuss over re-sowing over the course of the growing season: just trim off a few leaves now and then (sparsely, so you don’t take more than 30 percent of the plant at a time), and your salad bar will re-stock itself in no time.

Iceberg, arugula, mizuna, tender mustard greens, and most loose-leaf varieties are ideal for this method, and since lettuce grows really well in the shade, you can grow it on a small balcony or patio, or even indoors.

cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, currant tomatoes, yellow cherry tomatoes, orange cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, heirloom cherry tomatoes

Cherry Tomatoes

Tomatoes are considered the gateway to gardening, as just about every gardener out there started with a tomato plant, even if it was just a teensy potted one on a balcony. Cherry (or grape, or currant) varieties ripen much earlier than full-size ones, so you have earlier gratification for your gardening efforts.

If you have the space, get yourself a few different plants to see which ones you like best. Maybe an orange or black cherry, grape, or currant, etc. Each one has a unique flavour, and since they’re so easy to grow, you can expand your palate while revelling in the joy of being a new gardener. (And honestly, who doesn’t love tomatoes?)

potted herbs, culinary herbs, basil, thyme, parsley, cilantro, savory, cooking herbs, pot herbs, potted herbs, kitchen herbs

Herbs

Culinary herbs are wonderful for small spaces, as you can grow them on a sunny windowsill or patio and just trim off bits here and there when you’d like to cook with them. Hardy aromatics like thyme, sage, and savory thrive on neglect, and will survive if you forget to water them as regularly as you should. Leafy herbs like parsley and basil are a bit more high maintenance, and both chives and oregano are stubborn survivors, and perennials to boot: they’ll come back year after year.

If you’re more interested in medicinal plants, calendula is really hardy, as is chamomile. Lavender thrives in sunny spots, yarrow can do quite well with neglect, and if you really are terrified of killing your plants, get a pot of mint. That stuff is damn near indestructible.

You can do this! If you need any help or advice about which plants would do best for your space and your skill level, don’t hesitate to contact us for help: just leave a note in the comments section below, or drop us an email at farmtheworldorg AT gmail.com

Photos by Dan Gold, Dwight Sipler, and Patty Mitchell via Unsplash and Foter creative commons.

raised beds, raised garden beds, vegetable beds, raised vegetable beds

Permaculture Principles: Observe Your Land Before You Plant Anything

By Catherine Winter

One of the first lessons in sustainable permaculture is to observe your land for at least a year before planting anything in the ground. You can plant anything you like in pots and containers as you can move those around easily, but plunking seeds, bushes, or trees into your land requires a whole lot of research and awareness first. Many of us get reallyreally excited as soon as we have a plot of land to play with—we go nuts with planning and ordering seeds and planting all kinds of stuff, and end up sabotaging our vegetable gardening attempts with our impatience.

I’m just as guilty of this as many others have been before me, and although it’s been a pain in the arse to sort out and I’ve kicked myself for my stupidity, I’ve also learned from my mistakes. Hopefully you can learn from them too.

raised beds, raised garden beds, garden beds

Royal Screw-Ups

Case in point: when I moved into this house in 2013, I was delighted to see a beautiful little flat patch of earth on the NE side. I promptly squeed myself and plopped two raised beds onto it, filling those beds with herbs, lettuces, and brassicas. Well, fast forward a month and those beds were completely shaded once the trees’ foliage filled out completely. The beds were also under constant onslaught from the fuzzy poplar catkins that fell from above, so I was weeding and cleaning the soil every day just to keep up.

This is exactly why it is of vital importance to observe your property during all four seasons before committing to any permanent structure or long-term investment like nut trees or berry bushes.

I have raspberries, blueberries, serviceberries, and blackberries in a nice acidic patch of soil in one corner of my property, and I’m happy that I really observed and took note of the changes in that area before planting anything. See, it’s on a rather steep slope of the mountainside that my home is perched upon, and winter’s meltwater takes a very specific path through that very berry patch and into the stream below. If I hadn’t taken note of the water’s course in late winter/early spring, I might have planted some bushes right in that pathway: the plants would have died and I would have gotten screamy.

cabbage, green cabbage, savoy cabbage, brassica, brassicas

As frustrating as it is to be patient, it’s even more frustrating to regret hasty actions… especially since seeds and plants can be a costly investment. I can’t tell you how many plants I’ve lost thanks to sudden May heat waves, crazy July frosts, and local wildlife discovering what a lovely buffet I’ve provided for them.

Take Photos, Make Notes

Seriously, take pictures of your property every couple of weeks throughout the year so you can see how changes take place over time, and get out there so you can experience things firsthand. Make notes about everything from little microclimates you may discover to dips and hills: you can use these to full advantage when planning your garden, such as keeping water-loving plants in the dips, and those that need better drainage in the raised areas.

rabbit, wild rabbit, rabbit in the garden, rabbit eating plants, bunny, garden bunny

Keep an eye on the animals and insects that visit your property, and determine whether they need to be attended to. These are just a few aspects that should be monitored:

  • Are there a lot of bees and other pollinators? Or will you need to entice some to your land with indigenous flowers?
  • Do squirrels, rabbits, deer, or other herbivores stop by often? Take note of which species visit so you can sort out an action plan for dealing with them humanely so they don’t eat all of your plants.
  • Does a lot of snow fall on your property? Where does the meltwater go?
  • Does your region have a history of inclement weather such as droughts or summer hailstorms?
  • Which areas get the most sun throughout the year? Which get the most shade?

Once you have a really clear idea of all of these facets, you’ll be able to make well-informed decisions about the types of plants that will work best for the space you have to work with. Remember how we talked about working with your land rather than against it? It really is in your best interest to determine what would work best, and then go that route rather than dreaming up what you’d like and then trying to force Mother Nature to comply with your wishes.

…don’t even try, because she always wins.

If you have any questions about which plants would work best for your zone and the space you have available, please don’t hesitate to ask us in the comments section: chances are someone on our team will have answers for you.

 

Photos by Local Food Initiative and Nathan Anderson via Flickr Creative Commons and UnSplash.

soil, garden soil, garden earth, acidic soil, compost

Seeds n’ Soils

By Catherine Winter

Just about every person who’s tried to grow vegetables or herbs has had to deal with “failure to thrive”, whether it’s from seed failure or seedling death. It’s disappointing (even devastating if someone’s dependent upon gardening endeavours for their food), and there are a number of different reasons why it happens. One of the most common reasons is that the plants haven’t been cultivated in the right soil, so it’s important to determine what type of earth your plants need so you can give them the most optimal conditions from day one.

You’ve undoubtedly noticed that you’ll find different plants in different areas. On my land, there’s a ton of coltsfoot and mullein growing in the sandy soils around the creek, but I’m not going to find those plants tucked in amongst stands of birch in the loamy forest soil. They’re growing in the areas that are best for their development, and will fizzle out and die if forced to swap spaces.

peppers, capsicum, hot peppers, chili peppers, jalapenos, piri piri, banana peppers

Acidic Soil

Radishes, peppers, and potatoes all thrive in acidic soil. You can add sphagnum peat moss into an all-purpose organic seed-starting mix, and the sphagnum will increase the soil’s acidity and increase the chances that your plants will germinate successfully.

Sphagnum is a good option for container gardening, but if you’ll be planting a large garden’s worth of food, you can get sulphur at your local garden centre and work that into the soil you’ll be planting into.

Here’s a tip: If part of your land is naturally acidic, take full advantage of that area and plant a bunch of perennial berry bushes. They’ll grow really well there, and you won’t have to put any extra effort into making the soil a happy place for them to be.

Cabbage

Alkaline Soil

Brassicas, peas, beans, and most leafy greens (like chard, lettuce, and spinach) prefer alkaline soils, but can do just fine in pH neutral soil as well. If the earth in your garden is on the acidic side and you’re really keen to have a ton of broccoli and beans, you can add some pulverized limestone to increase alkalinity.

If you’re uncertain as to just how acidic or alkaline your soil is, you can test it with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and plain white vinegar: take two samples of soil, and add a bit of baking soda to one sample, and a bit of vinegar to the other. If the sample with baking soda in it fizzes, then your soil is acidic. If the vinegary one fizzes, it’s alkaline. If nothing happens at all, it’s neutral.

You can, of course, also use pH testing strips, but this is an easy way to test your soil using items you likely already have at home.

carrots, root vegetables, roots, orange carrots

Sandy Soil

Root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, and beets tend to do best in sandy soils, as do aromatic culinary herbs like thyme, summer and winter savoury, oregano, and sage. Just like amending your soil with sphagnum, you can work sand into your soil prior to planting your seeds.

*Note: root vegetables can also be stored in sand in a cool, dry place over the winter. If you have a root cellar or cool, dark basement, try this method after you harvest them.

squash, squash seeds, heirloom squash, cucurbits, organic squash, Baker Creek

Rich Soil

Squashes, pumpkins, zucchini, melons, broccoli, and cucumbers are heavy feeders that suck up a lot of nutrients from the soil, so it’s important that whatever they’re planted into is very nutrient-dense and rich. Work aged compost into your seed-starting mixture, and work a good fertilizer into the soil they’ll be planted into about 3 weeks before transplanting them. Once they’re in the soil, it’s good to re-fertilize every few weeks (compost tea is ideal for this), but along the “drip line” (around the edges of your plant) so you don’t burn or damage the plant itself.

 

Many seed companies (especially organic and heirloom dispensaries like Baker Creek) have in-depth information on the backs of their seed packets: they’ll tell you exactly what type of soil is best for your plant, as well as their sun and water requirements. If your seed packets don’t give you this information, a quick Google search should work wonders. We’re in the process of compiling a rather large database of information that will let you know exactly what each species needs, but it’ll take us a little while to get all of that sorted out.

Have you had to amend your soil to suit different plants’ needs? Which techniques did you use? Please let us know in the comments section below!

Cherishing Food as Sacred

By Catherine Winter

How diligent are you about not letting any food go to waste? Do you find yourself throwing out wilted greens or furry fruit on a regular basis? Or letting leftovers go bad at the back of the fridge because you didn’t want to eat the same thing two days in a row? If you have, you’re not alone. Most of us have allowed this to happen on more than one occasion, and although we might have felt a pang of guilt, we may not have felt the solid gut-kick of irresponsibility and remorse that we should have felt at the time.

Why is that? Well, it’s likely because the average person is so far removed from the process of growing food from seed to harvest that they really aren’t capable of appreciating just how much work goes into growing everything they buy. They don’t consider how soil (black gold, really) is made from organic matter breaking down, and how the nutrients in that soil are sucked up by little seeds to grow into edible plants.
They don’t think about the diligence needed to keep little seedlings alive with regular waterings, or how vital pollinators like bees and butterflies are in order for these plants to develop and go to seed.

Plums

Growing one’s own food cultivates an appreciation that just buying pre-packaged items at the grocery store doesn’t provide. It can’t. There’s too much of a disconnect between the plastic-wrapped, pre-made items bought at the supermarket and the plant or animal from which it originated. It’s not until a person has taken part in the process of coaxing life from a seed and nurturing it to maturity, or drawn an egg out from beneath a clucking hen, that they can really comprehend how sacred food really is, and how devastating it is to let any of it go to waste, ever.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, author and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer touches upon the “Honourable Harvest”: the idea of only taking what is given (and not more than what is needed), to use it well, to be grateful for the gift, and to reciprocate it in kind. When we pick wild berries, we only take our share, and leave the rest for our forest cousins. Similarly, when we purchase food from the grocery store, we should ensure that we’re not depleting the shelves for our own selfish whims, but leave enough for others. When we harvest items from our garden, we need to make sure that we let a portion go to seed: both so we can re-sow the following year, and to allow wild creatures to take their fair share as well, in exchange for having helped to pollinate and fertilise our gardens.

Children Gardening

There is an overwhelming sense of gratitude that occurs when one takes an active role in cultivating and raising food, and the awareness that food is a gift, and not to be taken for granted. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to get children involved in food gardening from a very young age: if reverence is nurtured from day one, they’re far less likely to be wasteful and irresponsible about food later in life. Hell, they might even become avid gardeners themselves, but we can only hope and pray that’ll happen.

It’s time that we re-learn what it is to treat our food as sacred, and revere it as such; to take a moment before eating to acknowledge all the work that was poured into growing every morsel on our plates, and have sincere appreciation for the sun, soil, rain, and toil required to feed us. It is with these small gestures that we can start to move beyond our consumerist leanings and connect more deeply with the world around us, and the life-sustaining gifts that we receive from it.

dandelion, dandelions, edible dandelions, foraged edibles, foraged food, wild foods

Early Spring Dandelions? Use Them for Salad

By Angelina Williamson

A lot of people associate salad eating with summer. There’s no denying that summer yields fantastic salads, but I’m a big fan of winter and early spring salads too. Here’s one that I made using three things from my (zone 9b) winter garden: mache, flat leaf Italian parsley, and dandelion greens.

I don’t buy many out-of-season vegetables but one exception I make is for hothouse cucumbers. I happened to have one so I included it. Before I tell you how I put this salad together I’d like to list some other great ingredients you might have on hand that make fantastic cold weather salads.

dandelion greens, edible dandelions, edible wild greens, wild dandelion

Great Winter/Early Spring Salad Ingredients

Beans are a fantastic substantial ingredient to include in salads that will help give you the energy and protein you need to get through cold dark days that may or may not include activities such as shoveling snow. My favorite bean to use in salads are navy and cannellini beans which taste essentially the same but cannellinis are larger. Other great beans to include in salads are chick peas (garbanzos), black beans, and kidney beans. But don’t be limited by this list. If you grew your own dried beans, cook them up and try them out in a salad.

When summer vegetables and fruits are out of season there are a lot of other fantastic vegetables and fruits to add to your salads such as roasted: beets, cauliflower, carrots, winter squash (cut in cubes first), celery root, potato, brussels sprouts, and broccoli. Crisp apples, European and Asian pears, grapefruits, and oranges (mandarin or blood oranges are extra wonderful), all work well together.

Some other great ingredients are nuts and seeds (walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, and pepitas), marinated or pickled summer vegetables, dried fruits (cranberries, sour cherries, and tomatoes), and baked tofu.

In my growing zone, late fall to early spring is the best time for growing any greens, especially tender greens. If your winters are too harsh for lettuces, try growing in a cold frame or indoors. But even if the more tender greens don’t happen in your zone until summer, experiment with the heartier greens as your salad base.

Winter Salad.png
White Bean, Sun Dried Tomato, Kalamata, and Dandelion Salad

  • 3 cups navy beans, cooked
  • 1/2 cup Kalamata olives, sliced
  • 1/2 cup sundried tomatoes, sliced
  • 1/4 cup dandelion greens, julienned
  • 1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, minced
  • 2 tsbp of your favorite vinaigrette

Mix all of the above ingredients together in a bowl and let it sit in the fridge (or covered on your counter) for about a half an hour. You can eat this just as it is or you can add this to a bed of greens (dress the greens with additional vinaigrette) and top it off with feta cheese as I’ve done in the picture above. I happened to have a hothouse cucumber in need of being used up so I decorated the edge of my salad with them.

Dandelion leaves are packed with potassium, vitamins A, C, and B6, as well as iron and magnesium, making them powerhouses of nutrition after winter’s scarcity. Just please remember that if you’re living in a colder zone, dandelion flowers are the first real food of the year for many bees and pollinating species, while the leaves nourish wild rabbits and other mammal friends. If you gather wild dandelions for food, please do so sparingly in order to ensure that others have food too.

tomatoes, growing tomatoes, tomato plants

Gateway to Gardening: Which Plant Got You Started?

By Catherine Winter

We all had one. You know what I’m talking about.

That first little plant that sparked a love of things that grow, and set you on your path to being a gardener, farmer, and/or homesteader. It could have happened when you were a child, or when you moved into your first apartment with a partner, or perhaps even after you retired. Maybe you adopted an unloved seedling from a garden centre and nursed it to verdant health, or someone gave you a plant as a housewarming present and they sparked a green fever that just keeps getting stronger.

Cherry-tomato-plant

For a lot of people, the one that got their green thumbs twitching was a tomato plant. There aren’t too many folks out there who don’t love tomatoes, and they’re as easy to cultivate in a container garden as in a standard grow bed. Cherry tomatoes are ideal as starter plants because they combine the ease of growing with the early gratification of jewel-sized tomatoes that you can pop in your mouth at least a month before larger varieties even begin to ripen.

In my case, it was a bean.

Miss Emmanuel’s first grade class, 1982. We had all been given a couple of beans to poke into our paper Dixie cups full of soil, and we lined those little cups along the sunny window ledge and made sure to water them any time the soil seemed a bit dry. Within no time at all, there was a little green seedling popping up through the earth, and I watched as every day, it unfurled a bit more until it was a merry little plant in its own right.

Bean-sprouting

Naturally, I hounded my parents to let me have a garden space so I could plant more (MOAR!!!), but the apartment landlords said no. I had to make do with a few containers of plants on our patio, but I’d caught the bug. We lived in that place until I was seven years old, and as soon as we moved into a house of our own, I was allowed to cultivate a little patch of earth in one corner of the backyard. Now I have a massive berry patch, hugelkultur piles, a dozen grow beds, bean and pea tipis, and a couple of hazelnut bushes. It just goes to show that a love like this can sprout (hurr, hurr) from very humble beginnings.

Which plant got you started as a gardener?

Claytonia, miner's lettuce, perennial greens, winter purslane, purslane, winter greens

Bored of the Usual Greens? Try Something New This Spring!

By Catherine Winter

There are over 20,000 edible plants on the planet, yet most people never branch out from the smattering of greens offered at their local grocery store. Sure, basic edibles like lettuce, spinach, kale, and cabbage are great and all, but there are so many other edible green vegetables to enjoy, from salty agretti to frilly, anise-flavoured chervil.

Many of these vegetables have far greater nutrition than the standard offering, and have gorgeous flavours and textures that are worth exploring. While you’re putting together your shopping lists of the great vegetables and herbs you’d like to explore in this year’s garden, consider trying some of the following greens. You’ll expand your palate, increase biodiversity, and might discover some new favourites along the way.

agretti, salsola soda, barba di frate

Agretti

Also known as roscano or barba di frate, this frond-like Italian green has fleshy, needle-like leaves that look like chives and taste like a cross between samphire and spinach. They’re best braised with olive oil, garlic, and a bit of lemon.

  • Scientific name: Salsola soda
  • Zone: 3 and above. Sow seeds directly into your garden about 5mm (1/4 inch) deep once daily temperatures average around 23 to 26C (73 to 78F).
  • Soil and sun needed: This plant thrives in poor soil, and doesn’t need too much direct sunlight. Keep the soil moist, but not soaked. Since this plant grows wild near the ocean and is often grown in saltwater-irrigated soil, it tolerates areas with a high salt content very well.
  • Details: Agretti seeds are only viable for a Known as callaloo in the very short time. These are not seeds that you can store for years and expect to germinate sometime in the distant future—you need to plant them within three months. This plant is very easily killed off by frosts, so if you live in a place that has a short growing season, start it very early.

Smyrnium olusatrum, Alexanders, biennial food plant, Tudor monastery farm

Alexanders

  • Scientific name: Smyrnium olusatrum
  • Zone: 5-10
  • Soil and sun needed: Partial shade, in moderately fertile soil, though it seems to thrive just as well in poor/depleted soils. It’s often found among ruins, particularly along walls where it can get plenty of shade, and it does very well as part of a hedgerow polyculture. The seedlings don’t transplant well, so it’s best to sow it in place in autumn so the seeds can striate over the winter.
  • Details: The Romans were extremely fond of this ancient vegetable, and introduced it to the UK when they settled it a couple of thousand years ago (which I learned while watching Ruth Goodman’s Tudor Monastery Farm. Yay!) Alexanders were a vital food throughout Europe for centuries, and the estates of France’s Carolingian kings were packed with these plants, as they were favourites of the court as well as for the general population. It’s been used in a similar manner to lovage and parsley, and its leaves, buds, roots, and stem are all edible. Even the seeds can be used like cumin in soups and such.
  • Note: Alexanders are biennial, so it’s a good idea to plant two patches of them, a year apart. That way you’ll have a crop every year as the beds alternate.

amaranth

Amaranth

With its gloriously colourful seed heads, amaranth is as beautiful as a decorative plant as it is a food source. Very young leaves can be picked and eaten raw, but in general the leaves are best when cooked in the same way you’d cook chard, collards, or spinach. (Again, you really can’t go wrong sauteeing or braising greens with garlic and olive oil.)

  • Scientific name: Amaranthus tricolor/Amaranthus hypochondriacus/Amaranthus caudatus
  • Zone: 3 and up
  • Soil and sun needed: Well-drained, loamy soil that’s rich in nitrogen and phosphorous, and full sun. Start seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before your areas last frost date, and transplant outdoors once there is no risk of nighttime frosts. You can also sow directly once the soil has warmed, but be aware that the seeds are very well liked by birds, and they’ll likely eat them before they can sprout.
  • Details: Amaranth can thrive pretty well when neglected, but be sure to keep it well watered during dry periods. Nourish with compost tea or organic fertilizer a couple of times a season if you find that growth has stunted.

Arugula

Arugula

  • Scientific name: Eruca vesicaria sativa
  • Zone: 3 and up
  • Soil and sun needed: Arugula does best in well-drained, fertile soil, but doesn’t thrive in extremely hot weather. It’ll do well in springtime and autumn, or in zones where summers don’t get too warm. Sow directly where it’ll get full sun. It’ll benefit from fertilizer once in a while, and keeping the soil moist will help to prevent it from bolting if the weather gets warmer than it likes.
  • Details: Also known as roquette (or “rocket” in the UK), this spicy green is as beautiful raw in salads as it is sauteed or braised.

Cardoons

Cardoon

  • Scientific name: Cynara cardunculus
  • Zone: 6 and up; hardy to zone 8
  • Soil and sun needed: Cardoon loves deep, rich, compost-filled soil and full sunshine. Although it will tolerate partial shade, it won’t thrive in it.
  • Details: Grown mostly for its fleshy leaf-stalks and delicious stems, this Mediterranean plant is certainly one to try if you live in a warm enough hardiness zone. Close relatives to artichokes, cardoons have very similar growing requirements and can be fussy to cultivate, but they’re well worth the effort. You’ll need to start seeds indoors about 6 weeks before you’ll be transferring it outside, and it can’t be planted in your garden until 3-4 weeks after your area’s final frost date. They don’t do well in container gardens, nor do they tolerate companion plants well: plant these as solitary creatures.
  • Note: Hummingbirds LOVE this plant, so be prepared to see a lot of them.

Chervil

Chervil

  • Scientific name: Anthriscus cerefolium
  • Zone: 3 and up
  • Soil and sun needed: High compost, loamy soil, in partial shade. Chervil is ideal for cultivating in guilds beneath fruit or nut trees, but it needs to be sown directly: the seeds do not transplant well at all.
  • Details: This beautiful, flat-leafed herb has been cultivated for both food and medicine for centuries, and was extremely popular during the medieval era. It has a subtle anise/liquorice flavour, and is lovely when minced finely and added to summer salads, especially those with fruit and nuts added to the greens. In French cuisine, chervil is one of the  four herbs that make up the “fines herbes” group, along with tarragon, parsley, and chives. Chervil’s medicinal properties are subtle: it’s mostly used as an infusion to aid digestion, and to lower blood pressure. It may also ease insomnia.

Claytonia

Claytonia

  • Scientific name: Claytonia perfoliata
  • Zone: 2-12
  • Soil and sun needed: Full sun to partial shade, sown directly into moderately fertile, moist soil. If you’re growing it in a container, make sure it has plenty of coir or peat, along with compost-rich soil.
  • Details: Also known as miner’s lettuce and winter purslane, this hardy green thrives in cool weather and is an ideal winter green in zones 8 and up. Unlike regular purslane, this has no bitterness and instead has a sweet-ish flavour that’s somewhere between baby spinach and water chestnuts. Rich in vitamin C, these leaves will keep you from getting scurvy if you eat them regularly.

Escarole

Escarole

  • Scientific name: Cichorium endivia, varlatifolia
  • Zone: 4-10
  • Soil and sun needed: Full sun, in neutral, compost-rich soil that has high potassium and phosphorous, but low nitrogen. If the soil has too much nitrogen, the plant might bold instead of growing into a proper head.
  • Details: Escarole (or broad-leafed chicory) is a gorgeous leafy variety of endive that grows well in most climates, and is great both raw and cooked. It has a mild-but-pleasant bitterness, and is a key ingredient in many Italian dishes. (Here’s a tip: try escarole and white bean soup with a good, crusty bread and your favourite Pinot Grigio.) You can either start it indoors and then transfer outside after the last frost date, or sow directly once your soil warms.

Gai-Lan.png

Gai Lan (Flowering Broccoli)

  • Scientific name: Brassica oleracea var. italica
  • Zone: 3-10
  • Soil and sun needed: This is a heavy feeder, and likes a rich soil full of composted manure. Start seeds indoors, transplant outside after the last frost. It does best in cooler climates, and bolts very easily during heat waves or hot summers.
  • Details: More commonly referred to as flowering broccoli or Chinese broccoli, this is an Asian green in the brassica family that’s definitely worth exploring.
  • Note: like any other brassica, this plant can be destroyed/devoured by cabbage moth larvae. It’s best to grow it beneath fine netting to keep the wee beasties away, unless you have chickens or ducks controlling such pests in your garden.

Good-King-Henry

Good King Henry

  • Scientific name: Chenopodium bonus-henricus 
  • Zone: 3-9
  • Soil and sun needed: Full sun to partial shade, and although it does best in fertile soil, it tolerates poorer soils well and pretty much thrives on neglect. The seeds need cold striation in order to germinate properly, so it’s best to sow it in the autumn, or else in flats stored in the fridge for a few weeks before planting after the last frost.
  • Details: Few people have even heard of this vegetable, let alone tasted it, but this popular iron age and Medieval green is well worth re-discovering. It’s been called goosefoot, poor man’s asparagus, Lincolnshire spinach, and markery over the centuries, but in any case it’s a wonderful perennial green that’s packed with iron, calcium, and vitamin C. It’s also one of the greens that was most commonly used in pottage, alongside leeks, peas, and chard.

Chenopodium album, lamb's quarters, goosefoot, fat hen, wild edibles, foraging, wildcrafting

Lamb’s Quarters

  • Scientific name: Chenopodium album
  • Zone: 3-10
  • Soil and sun needed: Nitrogen-rich, depleted soils, and full sun to partial shade.
  • Details: Chances are that you already have this plant growing somewhere in your area, so it’s best to wildcraft for it first before deciding whether you need to plant it! Also known as goosefoot or fat hen, it’s a prolific edible that’s usually considered an invasive “weed” rather than the delicious, nutrient-rich food source it really is. Even if you don’t want to eat them, they’re ideal for feeding poultry, livestock, and even domestic herbivore pets.
  • Note: Lamb’s quarters are high in vitamin A and calcium, which is great, but they’re also high in oxalic acid and should be eaten in moderation so as to avoid causing any strain on your kidneys.

Rumex acetosa, sorrel, garden sorrel, perennial vegetables, perennial greens

Sorrel

  • Scientific name: Rumex acetosa
  • Zone: 3-9 (perennial in zones 5+
  • Soil and sun needed: Full sun, in slightly acidic-to-neutral soil that’s well drained and moderately fertile. You can either sow it a couple of weeks before the last frost date in spring, or in late autumn so it can overwinter.
  • Details: Sorrel, also known as garden sorrel, French sorrel, and spinach dock, is a gorgeous perennial pot herb with a tart, lemony flavour. In German, it’s known as sauerampfer, and is a key ingredient in spring and summer soups. It’s one of the first greens to pop up in springtime, often sprouting while snow is still on the ground. Its bitterness comes from oxalic acid (so don’t eat too much of it!), but it’s full of vitamins C, A, and magnesium, so it’s a good spring herb to replenish that which was depleted during the winter months/hungry gap.

 

sowing peas, how to sow peas, how to plant peas, planting peas on St. Patricks day, St. Patricks Day, planting peas, sweet peas, green peas, how to grow peas, growing peas

Sowing Peas on St. Patrick’s Day

By Catherine Winter

Did you know that throughout the United Kingdom and parts of the USA, it’s considered lucky to sow peas on St. Patrick’s Day? In temperate areas like Ireland and most of the United States (let’s say hardiness zones 5b or 6 and higher), the ground has thawed enough by March 17th that peas can be planted, and sowing early will ensure a bountiful spring/early summer harvest.

For those of you who live in colder growing zones, aim for four weeks before your last frost date: peas tolerate frosts well and thrive in cooler temperatures, so it’s okay if there’s a light dusting of snow after you’ve popped your peas into the ground. In fact, there’s a cute way to gauge the perfect time to plant your peas: when the leaves on local lilac bushes and trees are the size of mouse ears (roughly the size of your pinky fingernail). How adorable is that, seriously?

growing peas, how to grow peas, pea trellis, climbing peas, sweet peas, how to grow climbing peas, how to support peas, pea support, pea trellis, peas

Back to peas. These lovely, sweet legumes love to climb, so be sure to use some type of trellising so they can stretch out and grow to their little green hearts’ content. You can plant your peas along a fence so they can use that to brace themselves as they grow, but you can also hang netting along the side of your house and they’ll climb that just as eagerly. Untreated household twine strung over some sort of frame can work like a charm (I did that over an old gazebo last year), and you can also gather long branches and lash them into a tipi.

Growing Your Peas

There are many different pea varieties to choose from, and you’re certain to find one (or three) that are best suited to your zone and growing space. These are just a few:

pea plant, pea flower, peas, growing peas, how to grow peas, how to plant peas, pea plants

Although peas are happiest in fertile, loamy soil, they’ll do fairly well in almost any soil type except compacted clay, or that with overly high sand content. It’s best if you soak them in water for a couple of hours before planting to speed up germination, but it’s not necessary to do so. Peas are resistant to most diseases and practically thrive with neglect, so you’ll just need to water them regularly and then ignore them until it’s time to harvest ’em. Be sure not to over-fertilize your peas, either! They’re very light feeders, and any fertilizer with a high nitrogen content can do more damage than good. If you feel that your soil is really depleted and you absolutely have to add some kind of fertilizer, go for a very weak compost tea.

Peas grow quite quickly, and unless your plants are destroyed by eager wildlife (I’m looking at you, rabbits, groundhogs, and deer), you’ll have beautiful, pollinator-attracting flowers followed by an abundant harvest in no time.

Remember that pea plants are very delicate and have shallow roots, so when you pick your pods, use one hand to hold the stalk in place, and the other to break the pod off gently. If you’d like to make absolutely sure that you don’t damage or uproot the main stalk, you can even use small scissors to snip the pods off instead of plucking them. You can dry your peas for use in soups and stews later, but they really are best fresh: just cook them lightly, making sure you don’t boil them as that will destroy their sugars and delicate flavour. Serve with a bit of butter (dairy or vegan), a pinch of salt, and even some finely chopped mint, if you’re so inclined.

Happy growing!

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Images by Billy Sarsam, Amanda B, Isabel Eyre, and Maria Keays, via Flickr Creative Commons. 

Zone 9b – Time to Start Seeds!

By Angelina Williamson

Right now is the perfect time to start seeds indoors in zone 9b. It’s generally recommended that you give most plants about 8 weeks to get big enough to plant outside. If you’re a stickler for planting your vegetables after the last predicted frost date then you still have a couple of weeks to get your seeds started as our last frost date is usually May 1st. I, however, nearly always plant my vegetables in mid-April which is two weeks early. It’s a gamble, but one that has nearly always paid off for me.

Vegetable seeds that must be started indoors in zone 9b:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Eggplants

You can also start summer squash, winter squash, and cucumber seeds indoors but they grow so fast and do really well direct-seeded later in the season that I don’t bother with them. I’ve seen beans and peas in starts too but, again, they tend to do much better being direct sewn that I never start them or buy them in pots. There are some plants I don’t grow here, such as melons, so I can’t say with experience whether they do better started indoors or not.
Other plants you can start now are flowers and herbs for your summer garden.

seedlings-in-paper-cups

Seed-Starting Secrets

I have mixed luck starting seeds indoors but there are three things I’ve found essential to my seed-starting success:

Use sterile seed-starting mix. This ensures that you’re starting off without any viruses or bacterias that can cause your seedlings instant death. I have learned this from sad experience. Don’t plant your indoor seedlings in straight compost either. Unless you’re sure its nitrogen content isn’t too strong, use the sterile seed-starting mix. Seeds have all the nutrients a plant needs to get started, too much nitrogen will burn them and cause them to wilt and die. I’ve made this mistake, it was such a sad time for me seeing all those tiny dead plants.

Find a good light source. You can buy indoor seed-starting lights and as soon as I can afford this I will do it. If you have a very bright south facing window you probably won’t need artificial lights. In my current situation I don’t have great window light for my seedlings. I will probably bring them outside during the day and in at night to get them the extra light they need. If your seedlings grow tall and thin with few leaves it means they aren’t getting adequate light.

There are many containers you can start seeds in but I have only had luck with the ones that have a water-wicking mat that draws water up from a bottom tray into the base of the plant cells. This type of seed-starting tray prevents you from overwatering or under-watering the seeds, both things that can kill off your seedlings. All you have to do is make sure the bottom tray stays full of water.

seed-starting

Starting your own seeds certainly is more work than buying starts in a nursery. I want to say right now that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting your plant starts from a nursery, but there are real benefits with going through the trouble to start your own. The greatest benefit, in my opinion, is that you have a vastly increased number of plant varieties to choose from when you grow from seed. There are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes you can grow from seed while most nurseries will carry no more than ten or fifteen. Another benefit is control over what kind of seeds you use. You can choose to use only organic and/or non-GMO seeds if that’s important to you. The last real benefit is that seeds are less expensive than plant starts, even after you factor in sterile soil and specialty pots if you use them.

Here are the seed varieties I put in my seed-starting tray yesterday:

Tomatoes:

Aunt Ruby’s German GreenCaspian PinkRoman CandleOpalka, and Gold Medal.

Eggplants:

Thai Chao PrayaThai Lavender Frog Egg, and Tadifi.

Peppers:

Fish Pepper and Aji Cristal.

I’d love to know what other people are starting from seed this year! What will you be growing? Let us know in the comments section below!

Victory is Sustainable: Local, Seasonal Food is the Way to Grow

By Catherine Winter

The first thing I saw when I woke this morning was an article about food security that a dear friend of mine had sent me. Although the piece was about food shortages in Great Britain, the subject matter is something that all of us can relate to, regardless of our location. Most of the food sold in grocery stores across the UK is shipped in from mainland Europe: all those tomatoes, eggplants, zucchinis, and peppers that British people like to eat year-round have to be imported from Mediterranean countries, but inclement weather has destroyed countless crops there, leaving British supermarkets with empty shelves.

This is obviously not just a problem that people in the UK are contending with. Here in rural Quebec, I’ve often seen single heads of broccoli or cauliflower priced at $8 apiece in January or February, and I won’t even tell you how much I’ve paid for lemons or avocados. South America provides most of our produce during our winter months, and when crop failures occur there, prices quadruple here.

emptyshelves

For several years now, we have all been urged to eat more locally and seasonally, but that really isn’t just a serving suggestion anymore, if you’ll pardon that (horrible) pun. With climate shifts happening around the world, we really cannot rely on produce grown in distant lands to fill our plates: all it takes is a sudden freak hailstorm or heat wave to obliterate an entire crop, and we’re left hungry. The paltry bits of produce that do make it onto shelves are hideously overpriced, and are also rationed so people can’t hoard them.

Thanks to global trade, we have all become very spoiled when it comes to our eating habits. Most of us here in the northern hemisphere have the luxury of being able to enjoy the same iceberg lettuce salads in January that we eat in July, and markets are generally packed with strawberries for Valentine’s day in the dead of February. This is a far cry from what our ancestors were used to eating during the colder months: sure, many of them canned and pickled summer fruits and vegetables to enjoy as occasional indulgences over the winter, but as far as fresh vegetables went, they’d have eaten mostly root vegetables and hardy greens like cabbage and kale, in hearty, warming fare such as soups, stews, and porridges.

Some people aren’t even aware of what seasonal eating really means, or they have misconceptions that the only good, real foods are available in summer and autumn—that in wintertime, they’d be relegated to tree bark and waxy rutabagas (and they have no idea wtf to do with rutabagas). They may not realise that hardy greens like brassicas and lettuces can be grown right through the winter in most growing zones, that plenty of food can be grown indoors, and that many types of thick-skinned produce (like squash, pumpkin, apples, etc.) can stay fresh right through the winter months if stored properly, such as in sand or straw. A wonderful bowl of curried, roasted squash soup with goat cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds is a perfect example of seasonal winter cuisine, and it doesn’t sound all that terrible, does it?

soup

To many people, however, root vegetables and such might not sound like the most appetizing fare, considering how most of us are accustomed to the luxury of imported fruits and veg. We may crave cherries and watermelon in January, but eating seasonal, local fare is a much more sustainable practice in the long run. Continued erratic weather patterns can disrupt food security everywhere, and if we really want to ensure that we don’t go hungry, then we have to take matters into our own hands. This means cultivating our own food wherever and whenever possible, and buying local produce that’s in season.

The solution may sound a bit extreme and paranoid, but if we take a look at how prevalent crop failure has been worldwide over the last few years, it’s really not all that extreme at all, is it?

urbanfarmDuring the second World War, many of our grandparents, or even great-grandparents at this point, cultivated what were then known as “Victory Gardens“. Since the food that was grown on most farms went to feeding servicemen involved in the war effort, food shortages became the norm across North America and Great Britain. As such, just about every family with a patch of yard space tried to grow as much food as possible. Front and back yards were transformed into vegetable gardens, and local sports fields and golf courses were turned into allotment gardens for people who didn’t have yards in which to grow their own food.

You may be aware of the  “Food, Not Lawns” movement that’s been gaining traction over the last couple of decades, and its base concept has never been more powerful than right now. Lawns are pretty much useless leftovers from a time when people grew grass in order to show that they were wealthy enough that they didn’t need a garden in which to grow their own food, but people all over the world are discarding that ridiculous idea and realising just how wonderful it is to take an active role in their own food security. Some people are even looking back at how wartime gardens were designed in order to inform their own gardening plans.

ww2-victory-garden

The chart above uses a 25 x 50 foot plot example to plan out a family’s food cultivation, but a hell of a lot can be grown in even a fraction of that space. Square foot gardening, vertical trellises, permaculture techniques such as keyhole gardens or spirals… there are countless techniques that can be used to maximise space and grow as much as possible in whatever space is available.

Food can be grown anywhere. If you have a sunny window, a balcony, an urban patio or a suburban backyard, you can grow at least some of your own food. You can revel in sweet green peas in spring and summer, tomatoes and potatoes in autumn, kale and beets in wintertime. Whatever isn’t eaten immediately can be preserved to be eaten over the winter: you can pickle your carrots and cucumbers, transform cabbage into sauerkraut, make strawberries into jam, freeze green beans.

It’s about time that we stop relying on far-away countries to provide our food for us, and take our nourishment into our own hands: it doesn’t require much space, and the future of food security pretty much depends on us doing so.

canning-food