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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?

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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:

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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. 

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New Year, New Opportunity to Create a Community Seed Bank

By Catherine Winter

The holidays are coming to an end soon, and those of us in the northern hemisphere now have a solid chunk of winter to slog through. This is the most frustrating time of year for most gardeners, as unless one lives in one of the warmer patches of North America or Europe (I’m looking at you, Texans and Spaniards), winter consists of snow, sleet, biting winds, and grey skies.

One saving grace about the winter months is that being forced to cocoon indoors allows us the opportunity to make plans for the coming growing season. It’s also a perfect opportunity to reconnect with friends… and if you put those two together, the conditions are ideal for creating a truly spectacular community seed bank.

A benefit to creating a seed bank in your own neighbourhood is that it’s more than likely that conditions will be quite constant in  your area: those who live near you will be contending with the same growing zone, rainfall, and similar soil conditions, as opposed to trading seeds with friends who live across the continent. This makes comparing growing notes much easier, and gives everyone a solid idea about what will or will not thrive in your area.

organic-seeds

How to Build Your Seed Bank

If you haven’t done so yet, request seed catalogues from a few organic/heirloom seed companies. Few things can brighten up a dismal winter day like flipping through a colourful booklet full of photos of all the vegetables and herbs that you can grow in a few short months. It’s important to use only organic seeds, as the plants that grow from them will be much more nourishing than those that are conventionally grown (i.e. genetically modified and pumped full of insecticides.) Your plants will be healthier, you’ll be healthier, and you’ll be able to save viable seeds from them for next year’s garden… and to share with your friends.

A few great companies to order from are the following:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Heritage Harvest Seeds

High Mowing Seeds

Salt Spring Seeds

Sustainable Seed Company

Then, you just need to gather some friends together for coffee or dinner, and discuss options.

One of the goals of community seed bank creation is that people can split the cost of organic packets and share the seeds around, instead of each individual making a huge investment. A typical seed packet contains between 30 and 300 seeds, depending on the plant to be cultivated, so a small group of people can grow a huge variety of different foods at very low cost. Let’s take a look at this breakdown as an example:

  • Friend 1: Three types of lettuce, and cucumbers ($10)
  • Friend 2: Kale, cabbage, carrots, and beets ($10)
  • Friend 3: Three varieties of tomatoes, and basil ($10)
  • Friend 4: Squash, pole beans, bush beans, thyme ($10)
  • Friend 5: Carrots, beets, oregano, leeks ($10)
  • Friend 6: Chard, onions, spinach, dill ($10)
  • Friend 7: Mesclun greens, assorted sweet peppers, peas, radishes ($10)
  • Friend 8: Melon, broccoli rabe, jalapeños, celeriac ($10)

That’s just a $10 investment per person, and if all the orders go in together, there will be just one small shipping fee. In turn, every person gets 32 edible plant varieties to cultivate. Isn’t that a much better investment than for each friend to pay $80 for the same number of plants, especially if they’d only use a fraction of the seeds in each packet that season?

Even if your group decides that they really only like the types of vegetables that can easily be turned into salads, there are dozens of tomato, lettuce, cucumber, and leafy green species to explore. If your group consists of tomato lovers, each of you could have over 20 different varieties growing in your yard for just a few dollars!

Sharing resources like this just makes sense on so many levels.

Related Post: Greens to Grow Indoors This Winter

friends-talking

Gathering the Community

This is also a great chance to branch out from your immediate friend/family circle and engage others in your community. The average person doesn’t know too many people in their neighbourhood aside from their immediate next-door neighbours, so putting up a notice on public boards (like in local shops or religious institutions) or even popping printed flyers into mailboxes is a good way to connect. You can create a Facebook group page, arrange meetings at your community centre, and cultivate great new relationships alongside flourishing gardens.

Multicultural neighbourhoods are also ideal for branching outside of regular comfort zones in terms of the vegetables and herbs that you might not be familiar with. When I was still living in Toronto, the neighbours around me were Chinese, Tibetan, Jamaican, Nigerian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, and Bolivian. By chatting with them and sharing items from one another’s gardens, I had the opportunity to try callaloo (amaranth leaves), bitter melon, tatsoi, and a huge variety of herbs that I had never tried before.

Community seed banks really are ideal ways to cultivate biodiversity, and help groups of people get a head start on food security for a very small investment. You might also find that you develop some wonderful friendships along the way too.

Photos via World Bank Photo Collection and Wikimedia commons.

Greens to Grow Indoors This Winter

By Catherine Winter

If you’re in the northern hemisphere, chances are things are already getting a bit chilly where you are. Out here in Quebec, we’ve already had about five inches of snowfall, and that’s likely to increase exponentially over the next few months. As an avid gardener, I used to spend months pacing and champing at the bit to get my hands back into the soil so I could grow my favourite vegetables, but since the snow often doesn’t melt out here until mid May, that’s a lot of pacing and frothing.

Fortunately I’ve discovered that there are plenty of food plants that can be grown indoors during the cold half of the year, and few require any kind of special equipment. I’ve had a hell of a lot of luck growing vegetables and herbs beneath standard LED lights in my basement, as well as on windowsills. South-facing windows are ideal, as they get the most light and warmth over the course of the day, but any window that allows in a fair bit of sunshine will do the trick. Just don’t place your plants too close to the glass if it’s seriously below freezing outside, as the chill can kill tender greens.

These are a few varieties that I’ve managed to cultivate quite easily. If they can grow in my chilly, rural Quebec basement, chances are they’ll thrive in your space as well. I’ll link to a few of my favourites from the organic/heirloom companies I order from in case you’re interested in cultivating them yourself.

sprouts

Microgreens

These don’t take up much space, and you harvest them shortly after their leaves appear, so you don’t have to worry about them surviving for months. I like mizuna, but you can also get a great microgreen mix that has several varieties mixed in.

Mache

Small and really quite adorable, these buttery little leaves are great in salads or sandwiches, and grow best in cool conditions.

Lettuce

You can either grow your winter lettuce in pots, or get creative and hang it in a mesh basket. Just cram it full of seedlings and hang in a sunny window. You can snip off leaves for salads and let them re-grow over the course of the season.

Purslane

Its leaves may be teensy, but purslane is packed with flavour and thrives in cool, shady conditions. Those little leaves have a wonderful, meaty texture and slightly lemony-green bean flavour, and are wonderful in salads, soups, and tabbouleh.

peas

Climbing Peas

These hardy plants are ideal for growing on a wall or lattice indoors. They’re sweet, juicy little pearls that brighten up dark winter days with bursts of flavour.

Kale

All brassicas grow well in cooler conditions, but kale can even grow in the snow. Seriously. I’ve brushed knee-deep snow out of my garden beds and found kale still thriving beneath, so it’ll do just fine in a cool room with just a bit of winter sunshine.

Sprouted Legumes

These are probably the easiest of the lot, as beans and peas will sprout if you so much as wave a glass of water in their general direction. As far as equipment goes, you just need a jar, wire netting or cheesecloth, a bean/pea mix, and some water, and you can cultivate a crop of sprouts on your kitchen countertop.

Winter Savory

A bit hardier and more aromatic than summer savory, this herb can take a beating and still keep growing strong.

Sorrel

Alongside chervil, sorrel is the first green to make an appearance in my garden every spring, stubbornly pushing its way up through cracks in the ice and snow. It’s known as Sauerampfer in German, and is a key ingredient in one of my favourite soups.

There are, of course, just a few varieties that I’ve been able to cultivate with ease indoors. Right now I have rainbow chard sprouts arching enthusiastically beneath the living room table lamp, and potted chives that are doing surprisingly well. I’ve never been able to keep basil alive indoors, nor dill, but savoury, thyme, rosemary, and parsley have all thrived on my kitchen windowsill. Ultimately, it’s really a question of trial and error to discover what will grow well in the space you have available, and what you like to eat.

Don’t waste time, space, or resources growing anything that you don’t actually want to eat, just because you think it’ll grow well in your space. Is there a particular vegetable or herb that you’d like to grow indoors this winter, but don’t know whether it’ll thrive or not? Let us know in the comments section!

 

Photos via Wikimedia and Flickr Creative Commons