There’s No Such Thing as a Black Thumb

By Angelina Williamson

There’s no such thing as a black or green thumb. I’ve never met a gardener who said “I have a green thumb”, because they know that success in gardening isn’t some magical ability one is either born with or not. It’s something you learn as you go along, and never stop learning. People who claim to have a “black thumb” are people who gave up too fast to experience the success they were hoping for or they really never cared that much about growing plants to begin with. They think that because they killed a few plants they lack the talent for growing things.

I have killed off thousands of plants in the eighteen years I’ve been a serious gardener. Certainly I killed more plants as a beginner than I do now, and yet at this very moment my garden is host to: a half dead mimulus, the blackened skeleton of a tulsi plant, a crispy brown hollyhock, a sickly Abraham Darby rose, and the ghosts of fifty other plants that didn’t make it through the wet spring. Losing plants is a normal part of gardening, it’s not evidence of a black thumb.

Angelinas-Garden

Have you tried growing plants but concluded that you just can’t do it? If you got discouraged but still really want to garden, I promise that you can succeed at gardening. You may need to shift how you think about it and approach it, but anyone who truly wants to garden can do it. I want to tell you the truth about gardening. I want to tell you what I’ve learned about growing that may encourage you not to give up yet.

Plants Are Living Beings

To succeed at gardening the most important thing to understand is that plants are living beings. They aren’t inanimate objects. Whether you believe they’re sentient or not isn’t important but you need to know that they have vascular systems, they breathe, they drink, and they eat much like you do. They respond to care similarly too. The more you pay attention to your plants’ needs, the more they’ll thrive. Plants need to become part of your regular routine. You’ve got to notice them in order to keep them alive.

Forget-me-nots

All Gardeners Kill Plants

No matter how experienced you are at gardening there’s a part of you that will always be a novice because everything you learn opens the door to new things to learn. Every garden you work in has different conditions, from broad obvious conditions like light levels to all the things you can’t see like microbes specific to that patch of earth. This means that an experienced gardener can move to a new garden and find that things they used to grow with ease now give them exquisite trouble. This is normal. Learn your garden. Understand that every plant you lose can teach you more about what works and doesn’t work in your peculiar spot of soil. It’s not a pass/fail test. It’s about having the tenacity to keep trying, keep experimenting, and discover what plants thrive where you are, and which ones you have an affinity for. Just remember that you’re going to lose a hell of a lot of plants on your gardening journey.

Plant-Based Bête Noires

For every gardener I’ve ever met there are plants that simply won’t do well for them, regardless of how much special care they give them or how many different gardens they’ve tried to grow them in. Sometimes these are plants that are considered universally easy to grow. So don’t get hung up on what people say “everyone” can grow. You may meet your plant-based bête noire early on in your efforts or after you become very experienced, but at some point you’ll meet a plant you can’t grow that the books tell you is easy. This is normal and I’m not even envious of the very rare gardener this has never happened to.

My plant-based bête noires are basil and asparagus. Note that basil is considered one of the easiest unfussy herbs for beginners to grow. It’s okay, I don’t take it personally. I suspect there’s some understanding I’ve failed to reach with them.

Tomato

Sometimes There’s Nothing You Could Have Done

Sometimes plants you buy were destined to die young long before you brought them home. This is a true story. You need to know this because sometimes a plant’s failure to thrive is already written in its cells. Plants get diseases and fungal infections just like people do. For a beginner it feels like personal failure. No matter how much you care for a plant it suddenly blackens, wilts, and dies and there was nothing you could have done about it. Some ways you can reduce the risk of this is to only buy plants, seeds, and bulbs from companies that are scrupulous about keeping their plant stock virus-free.

Sometimes it isn’t about viruses but about individual unexpected plant traits. Plants, like people, even when grown in the best and most even growing conditions, are all individuals and can respond out of character to the rest of its family. You can grow one hundred of the same cultivar of tomato that’s known to be vigorous, bushy, prolific, and delicious and some of those plants are going to grow up a little straggly and pale, or perhaps have more bitter tasting fruit, or die of bacterial wilt. Sometimes a plant’s individual wild traits will turn out to be a happy discovery like an uncharacteristically vigorous and delicious tomato. This is all just part of the adventure.

Growing a garden is about developing a relationship with an environment and all the life living in it. The better you communicate with it, and the more you listen to it, the better your results will be.

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.

 

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

 

seed-sharing, seeds, seed bank, community seed bank, sharing seeds

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.