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.

 

spring, spring flowers, spring flower, spring gardening, zone 5a, Ontario gardening, spring garden canada, bee, pollinators

Spring.

By MK Martin

I have yet to perfect Hygge. For those of you who didn’t see the ubiquitous feed post concerning this ‘art’, it is all about enjoying winter. Enjoying the books by cozy fires, the spiced drinks, the rich food, the cheer and the togetherness. I love books, but reading by the fire makes me overheat. Hot drinks for me are coffee or Earl Grey. Do not offer me other things, I am not interested in a spice cabinet-filled wine cup. Rich food is lovely, for the feast days, the days after the harvest and in the middle of lining up food for winter. Cheer is something that wanes after a day or so, and togetherness becomes cloying once all the baubles of holiday have been packed away. I will take some turns tromping through the deepening snow, to capture rare moments of crystalline rainbow refraction through the ice, to feel the far away sun on my face and to clean my lungs with deep, hidden breaths.

Pink-flower

After a few turns, though, give me spring. Give me melting snow and ephemeral ice on the trails, turning into puddly poo ponds: the stuff that will give us trout lily, ramps, and morels in what seems like the blink of an eye. Give me blustery, moorish mornings with ruffled robin feathers and lost umbrellas. Give me birdsong. The cacophonous cackle of the grackle, the invisible staccato of the chickadee, the crooning cry or startled whinny of the mourning dove all blending together into beauty, even though the songs themselves are territorial. Give me rain. Fat bullet drops hurtling toward the earth and spitting in my eye, or fine, hazy mist, covering the awakening green with eye catching droplets, curling my hair and surrounding my skin with negative ions. Paint me in dirt and line my pockets with seeds.

Ants

For me, getting through winter isn’t about enjoying it for what it is. It’s all about The Dream. Every year at Imbolc (St. Brigid’s, February 1st), for the past 8 years, I begin The Dream for the gardening season. This year’s dream is the most photogenic yet, with lovingly put together brown paper Jardiniere journals (no lines!) and handmade ceramic receptacles filled with pens, pre-season clay pot sales and piles of heirloom seed catalogues.

Planting-seeds

Arranged, just so, I feel that Martha glow. If you didn’t know, Martha has her garden planning calendar available for all to see, where we can discover there is no time off when it comes to gardening. As soon as your dirt is frozen and slumbering, you should be scouring your resources, planning your rotation, and penciling in your sow by dates.

Lily-of-the-valley

We began in zone 4b eight years ago and had three, charmed, food-filled years, free of pesticides and glorious weather. And then, things began to change. We are now considered zone 5a, and the weather has been confused for awhile. We are still trying to clean our groundwater from the two years neighbours poured roundup onto their ancient chestnut tree, so, this year will see pots of salad and steaming greens, herbs and carrots, while I work toward making our main beds home to flowers. The initial journey was about food security, but over the years, one’s eye begins to focus closer upon the intricacies and smallness of garden workings.

Hummingbird

As the collective mind shifts, and access to quality CSA produce increases, the food security that becomes most important right now is that of the bee, the bird, the bat, insects of all kinds and the worm. We’ve even attracted a fox this far up, to set after the bunchy bunnies that have moved in. Our ‘sleepy’ town has begun to burst at the seams in the name of progress, destroying long standing habitats, flushing creatures out. The community complains a fox can be see in plain sight during the day, rather than all stopping together, to admire it and send it on its way. These are creatures for whom time has no
meaning, as life is the clearest meaning of all, and they never question their purpose. Freedom is in their function.

Frog

My hope is to create a symbiotic space, more than just feeding out of hand. To be a haven for plants long slandered as weeds, brush the native seeds of wildflower-lined trails from my clothes into the grass, and see what else we can invite.

Green-plant

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!

peas, harvested peas, shelling peas, shelled peas, sweet peas, green peas, growing pea plants, homegrown peas, summer peas

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!

DIY Beneficial Insect Hotel

By Catherine Winter

Many people gripe and moan about the insects they have to contend with, but not all bugs are equal when it comes to benefitting (or harming) your plants. Vital pollinators like bees and butterflies deserve our respect and appreciation, while aphid-eating ladybugs and mosquito-devouring dragonflies are powerful allies for organic pest control. By creating an insect “hotel” and setting it up near your food garden, you can provide a wonderful shelter for your local insect allies so they can keep working hard amongst your food plants.

This is a great weekend project to dive into during this nebulous time between winter and springtime. Snow’s still on the ground and we won’t be able to get seeds into the ground for a little while yet, but those of us who are champing at the bit to do garden-ish things can focus our energy on creating one of these in prep for the growing season ahead.

insect hotel, bug hotel, insect habitat, bug habitat, pollinators, beneficial insects

What You’ll Need:

  • A large, open wooden box
  • Rolled-up tubes of paper
  • Hollow reeds or bamboo, cut to fit the depth of your box
  • Large wood chips or strips of bark
  • Dry straw or small sticks
  • Solid wooden blocks with “bee holes” drilled into them, if desired. (Remember that different bee species have specific preferences for both their eggs, and shelter. Leafcutter bees like 1/4″ wide and 2 1/2 -4″ deep holes, while mason bees like theirs to be 6″ deep, 5/16″ wide. Don’t drill all the way through the block: bees need warmth, not drafts.)
  • Eco-friendly, natural glue*

*Note: If you’d prefer not to use any kind of glue, you can just arrange everything loosely and then secure thin-gauge chicken wire over the front of the box. This will keep all the sundry bits in place, and the insects will have no problem getting through the wire mesh.

insect-house

Instructions:

Decide how you’re going to arrange your hotel ahead of time by drawing some thumbnail sketches. If you’ve created a drilled bee box, glue that into place first: it’s a lot easier to work around that behemoth than to try to mash it in to fit later.

Once that’s done, glue items into place around it, ensuring that they’re held together quite firmly, but that there’s enough room for air to circulate. Using different materials means that a variety of species will be able to find nooks that are best suited to their needs.

Cultivating a relationship with the beneficial insects in your area is a vital aspect of sustainable permaculture: the goal is to encourage your land to function in the most harmonious, holistic manner possible, and insects are imperative for a healthy, self-regulating ecosystem. For example, parasitic wasps annihilate tomato hornworms, cabbage moth larvae, whiteflies, and many caterpillar species.

insect-castle

You’ll draw the most beneficial species to your garden by planting indigenous wildflowers in and around your space, as well as along the periphery. Although exotic plants are beautiful, local insects are most adapted to native flowers. For example, Queen Anne’s lace is indigenous to your area, plant that for parasitic wasps, lacewings, and ladybugs.

Before you know it, you’ll have countless new visitors helping out with your vegetables and herbs, and those lucky critters will have a gorgeous villa to go home to after a hard day’s work.

Changing Seasons in Tasmania – Summer’s End Rose Hip Ketchup

By Kel Flowers

I think most of us have some kind of treasured memory strongly associated with a favourite season. A particular Christmas perhaps with memories of frost-nipped fingers, the scent of peppermint and hot chocolate; a Summer spent by the river filled with the scent of sun-warmed mud and the hum of bees in the hedgerows.
My memory is of a beloved Autumnal day spent walking on the village Green. The wind was high and cold with a fine but soaking rain falling sideways; the smell of Autumn that is so hard to describe but unmistakable when encountered. Elm and Oak leaves on the turn, hedges filled with the last of the late summer berries—hawthorn, rose hip, elderberry, blackberry.

hippy

I crave those glorious Autumnal days every year, and look forward to them more than any other. So imagine my joy when this year Autumn seems to be coming early! While my Northern Hemisphere brothers and sisters are still searching for signs of Spring, here in Tasmania we’ve already had our first frost along with a healthy slew of wet windy days and frankly quite chilly nights.
Summer will no doubt rear its head again soon for one last hurrah and have us all melting and moaning about the heat, and it can do its thing ripening the last of the berries and haws.

This year I wanted to try something a bit different. I’m not really a huge fan of sweet things—jams and jellies usually sit forgotten in the fridge. Not that they are bad! My mother makes some pretty spectacular jams and whatnots from her numerous fruit trees and berry bushes, but to be honest I’m a Vegemite girl (go on, make a face and gagging motions). Grow up in Australia and it’s kind of a given.

But then rose hips started ripening and beckoning to me. If not jelly, then what? A quick Google offered up rose hip ketchup. It’s basically a traditional tomato sauce with rose hip puree instead of tomatoes, and if like me, you suck at growing tomatoes, feel free to pillage a bag of hips from some rose bushes and make this instead.

Aside from being absolutely packed with Vitamin C, this sauce tastes pretty good too!

Ingredients:

  • 6 cups rose hips
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp ground allspice
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground clove
  • pinch of ground nutmeg
  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar

hippy2

First collect your hips! Really this is a no-brainer, any kind of rose bush will do. You can go for the big fat cultivar hips or the small wild rose hips, and I’ve made batches from both. Either way just make sure they are spray and chemical free bushes. I steal my rose hips from my Mother’s garden so I know they are truly organic.

Gather your hips when they are a nice cheery red and a little soft. After the first frost is usually a good time.

Cut off the stems and the remnants of the flower.

Simmer your hips in water for 20 mins or so or until you can squish one between your fingers.

 

If you have big fat cultivar rose hips, you can always de-seed them before cooking by cutting them in half and scooping out the innards. Remove the seeds and ALL of the fluff. That fluff is irritating to your stomach (and can be to your skin too). If you have wild rose hips, however, skip de-seeding them this way and cook them first.

Next you need to push the soft hips through a fine mesh sieve. I won’t lie, this bit can be tedious. Put on some music and scare your neighbours with your singing. Depending on the size of your sieve, push a handful at a time through the mesh with the back of a spoon. Do this over a clean bowl. Once you are mostly just pushing on seeds, scoop out the seed/fluff and dump it into another bowl. Keep going until you’ve run out of hips.

ketch2

Now put aside your bowl of lovely thick rose hip puree, and grab the bowl of squished innards. Dump the innards back into the pot, add water so it all swims freely, and cook again for 5 mins or so. Repeat the squishing/sieving. If it looks like there’s still more to be had from the goop, go again. Three times should do it if you have the patience (or a food mill if you have one. Use it.)

You should now have a gloriously smooth and rich rose hip puree. Have a taste so you know what you’re dealing with. Sort of tangy fruity sharp.

Put your puree in a heavy-bottom saucepan along with the rest of the ingredients and some water, and simmer until the onions are nice and soft. Whiz into a smooth sauce with a stick blender, and simmer down to a thickness that agrees with you. It will thicken up a little when cooled, so allow for that.

ketch

Taste your creation. Keep in mind that it will mellow out after a few days in the fridge. The spices will round out and the vinegar tang will mellow considerably. The quantities of spices are really just a guideline, if you think it needs more whatever, add more whatever! I like things pretty punchy, so I tend to up the garlic and spice in just about everything.

Eat it with anything you’d usually put ketchup on. And maybe with some things you’d not normally put ketchup on, who am I to say?

If you plan on bottling your ketchup (and you should, after all that effort) follow your usual rules for sterilising your bottles and lids and whatnot.
If you don’t know how to do that, well what are you waiting for. A whole world of canning and preserving fun awaits you! There are countless resources online and in print.

Get learning and happy hubble-bubbling.

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

 

lettuce, organic lettuce, organic vegetables, vegetables for zone 4, straw bale gardening, strawbale gardening

Work With Your Land, Not Against It

By Catherine Winter

Those of us who have always dreamt of abundant food gardens have likely had pretty grandiose ideas about what we’d like to cultivate. When I moved to this house, I looked at the land around my home and imagined it brimming with all manner of fruit trees and berry bushes, and lush gardens practically spilling over with cucumbers, tomatoes, and pumpkins. Damn, was I wrong.

You see, this house is right on the mountainside, which means that there are only a couple of inches of (poor) soil before I hit solid rock, and the tall trees around the property stop sunlight from reaching all but a few choice areas. I put some raised beds in those spots, but the tender plants I tried to grow ended up being obliterated by inclement weather. Needless to say, after four growing seasons, I have a pretty solid idea about what will and will not grow on this property, in my frustrating, cold, downright infuriating 4b agricultural growing zone.

dead lettuce, wilted lettuce, dead garden, wilted garden, failed lettuce, failed garden

Rather than being discouraged by the fact that I will never be able to grow a decent tomato or melon here, I’ve learned the invaluable lesson that working with the land I have is far easier on both my wallet and my heart than fighting with it. I could have spared myself a lot of heartache if I had followed the number one rule of permaculture and observed my land for a full year before planting anything, but sometimes eagerness and enthusiasm drown out common sense. Live and learn, right?

Raised beds are a great option in our area, but the wet summers and long, cold, snowy winters wreak havoc on wooden beds, requiring them to be rebuilt every other year. I have a gorgeous, large hugelkultur bed for my medicinal herbs, but that took a few  years to build up with classic lasagna gardening techniques, and I need something quicker and easier for this year’s garden. The solution? Straw bales.

straw bale, straw bale garden, strawbale garden, strawbale gardening, straw bale planter

Straw Bale Gardening

These are great because you can just plop some bales in an area that get a fair amount of sunlight over the course of the day, and get gardening. You don’t need to put any effort into building raised beds (although it’s not a bad idea to brace the bale sides in some way, since they can fall apart over the season as they decompose and get squidgy), and the very process of their decomposition creates nutrients for whatever you grow inside them. The decomp process also creates heat, so you can plant seeds earlier than you could in a standard earth bed.

The key is to ensure that you source your bales from an organic farm, otherwise you’ll just end up contaminating your land, your food, and your own body with the pesticides and other poisons that have been sucked up into the straw. Once they’ve been placed in position, they just need to be soaked daily for a couple of weeks prior to planting to condition them. Some people just use water, but the consensus seems to be to add a fair bit of fertiliser when soaking so there are tons of nutrients available to your growing plants. This is especially important for heavy feeders like squashes, brassicas, and melons.

root vegetables, roots, beets, turnips, parsnips, radishes, celeriac, rutabagas, zone 4b, zone 4

Grow for Your Zone!

As mentioned earlier, I’ve learned what will and won’t grow well on my property, in this frigid little zone with a crazy-short growing season, so I’m focusing on plants that I know will thrive. Leafy greens such as lettuces, spinach, and chard grow well, and as long as I keep cloth or mesh over them so the cabbage moth caterpillars don’t obliterate them, brassicas such as broccoli, kale, tatsoi, and collards can thrive here too. We’ll often get colder snaps right into June (even had hail last July!) so I need to make sure I only grow hardy plants that won’t fall apart with inclement weather.

I’ve learned my lesson about attempting to grow tomatoes or eggplants, so I’m aiming to try to grow some pumpkins, zucchini, onions, and root vegetables like carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and beets instead. Sturdy, stubborn plants that won’t shriek and wilt at the first sign of imminent danger. Interestingly, peas and beans also thrive here, so I’m going to cover my gazebo in climbing varieties and let them go nuts.

I’ll be planting hardy sunflowers, amaranth, and popcorn around the garden’s periphery, as well as the usual pollinators and repellents such as borage, calendula, and milkweed. I’ve been scattering native wildflower seeds all around my property for a few years now, so there’s a startling amount of asters, ox-eye daisies, bachelor’s buttons, echinacea, lupines, and vetches around, and I’m happy to say that I have never seen so many bees in one place as I have seen in my garden over the last two summers. It’ll be interesting to document this year’s garden to see what thrives and what falls apart, so hopefully I can share gems of information with the rest of you so you can learn from my successes as well as my failures.

xo

straw bale garden, strawbale garden, straw bale gardening, squash, plant, straw bale squash