Saturday, 28 November 2015

Eyes on the horizon

You know how one can sometimes feel a bit lost in the turmoil of change?  That's exactly what's happening in our family.  This in-between place is awkward!  Having a wonderful and exciting new beginning ahead of us (but being unable to actually move forward) is frustrating.  We know this will pass and we know that we'll get there eventually (deep breath).  Eyes on the horizon.  Steady on.  

We've been in regular contact with my parents (who are already at the new place) and we've all been making exciting plans for our future together.  Ideas are springing forth and my mind is spinning with the practicalities of how we can turn this new property into a productive and diverse oasis of food.  Many opportunities exist so it's hard not to get too excited...  Eyes on the horizon.  Steady on.

In the meantime, we are deep in the process of divesting.  Our lovely laying hens have gone to their new home which is sad and happy all at the same time.  It's one more step in the process of our relocation but it was a tough one...   Eyes on the horizon.  Steady on.

Before we know it, I'll be sitting in my rocker beside my Mom on that lovely front verandah sipping tea while watching our new chicks learn to peck and scratch.  All will be well.  Eyes on the horizon.  Steady on.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Pushing the Boundaries Part 2

Season extension is valuable in a cold climate.  Making use of naturally warm microclimates is important because it creates passive resiliency (my favourite form of resiliency), but it's just as important to plan for intentional "shoulder season" protection.   Given that our growing season is so short, we often need a little bit of purpose-built extra protection to get some crops through to maturity (tomatoes and melons come to mind...).

Our winters are long with risks of late frost in Spring and early frost in late Summer.  Confused?  I don't blame you!  Know this.  We get frost both early and late in the season and it kills plants.   I learned this the very hardest way possible (on both ends of the growing season) as a new "country gardener".  Temperatures are often several degrees colder than in the city, so we decided to fight back by building permanent season extension.  

I'm showing you the ugly pictures so that you can see how it's possible to build something useful without spending much money.  With the exception of the roofing material (which was bought new), the entire structure was built using free or ultra inexpensive (as in nearly free) used materials.  How we obtained it all is fodder for another post, but know this:  free cycle and networking are powerful tools!

Building a greenhouse has helped us to grow more food largely because we can get those crops needing more "days to maturity" planted early enough to have them reach harvest before a killing frost.  I use sawhorses with plywood and old hollow core doors to create temporary seeding tables which are easily taken down when those plants are hardened off and planted outside.  This then frees up the north growing beds in the greenhouse (under the makeshift tables).   A greenhouse also gives us some degree of late season protection for tender crops which might freeze before ripening if grown outside.

Below, you can see the spindly tomato plants waiting to go in the ground (in the newly finished greenhouse).   Those poor leggy plants were the result of trying to grow seedlings in the house by the windows (which is what we did for shoulder season protection for 2 years before the greenhouse was built).    A greenhouse is a huge improvement over that effort and I'm happy to say that we no longer have to shuffle plant trays off the table and chairs to eat a meal! 

As with any system, diversity is the key to resiliency.  I never plant all of a tender crop in the greenhouse (nor would I plant all of a tender crop in the main garden).  In some years, we get lucky and can harvest heat lovers from the main gardens before a killing frost (making the greenhouse redundant), but often, we get only a portion of them harvested before they freeze solid.  In those "frosty" years, the greenhouse saves us from a long winter without tomato sauce (a fate I'd rather not endure again).

Row covers occasionally come into my season extension plan although I must be honest - I don't like them.  They are a lot of work to put them in place alone and are a huge hassle to remove and reposition (for weeding, succession seeding and harvesting).  I don't generally like any system that I have to fight and row covers certainly can be difficult.   The easiest way to keep them in place (after MUCH experimentation) is to use lengths of rebar (simply laid end to end along each long outer edge).  I can roll them off easily to check underneath and roll them back on to secure it again without pegging and tucking.   If you live in a windy location, I don't recommend using them.  My main garden is very protected from the wind, so it's not usually an issue for me in this location but I wouldn't use them elsewhere on the property.

We also have 3 small cold frames which I (in recent years) have used INSIDE the greenhouse to buy me further season extension.  These are a great way to grow micro greens VERY late in the season (early winter, even) or VERY early in the season.  You can see my cold frames pictured in the photo below on the south (right) side of the greenhouse (the lids are out of sight behind my field of view).

My greenhouse is not pretty like some you might see online.  It's a total workhorse of a space but I love it (warts and all) because it buys me peace of mind and really good food by way of reliable season extension.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Pushing the Boundaries Part 1

We live in a cold climate which means our winters are long, frigid and snow filled.  We typically only have 3 "guaranteed" frost free growing months, but we can and do experience up to 4 months of frost free gardening (in a good year).  

To balance out that harsh reality, we are very fortunate to have LONG summer days filled with many hours of daylight and bright sunshine.  In June, it finally gets dark at 11pm and the sun rises again around 4am!  Those long daylight hours translate to more growing time which compensates beautifully for the low number of frost free days.

In recent years, I've experimented with microclimates on our property.  These little pockets of growing space (where various factors combine to create unique growing conditions) are GOLD MINES of opportunity in our short growing season.    It can take a few years to really know where those places are on your land or on your city lot, so I encourage you to walk your property slowly in every season to find them.   Pay close attention to temperature and wind protection and really NOTICE what's going on in those unique areas.  Look for both sides of the spectrum - the cold, exposed (windy) places, the damp, wet hollows, the warm protected pockets and the searingly dry "dead zones".  Every one of those places offers you an opportunity for a yield.

Growing crops in location appropriate places means more food with a LOT less work.  So often, we plan our gardens based only on crop rotation or convenience (growing all veggies together in a rectangular beds somewhere in the back yard).    By working with the natural microclimates all over our properties, we can grow abundant gardens in those highly specific areas simply by matching up plant needs to those specific microclimates.    

In my case, I have a protected growing area (facing SE) which is a natural place to grow heat and sun loving plants.  Here in this bed (photo below taken in summer), I have grapes, tomatoes, peppers and heat loving herbs such as rosemary, basil and sage (and giant hyssop for the bees and as a companion for the grapes).  All around the edge, I planted strawberries and onions (which grow VERY well together).  This warm, wind protected place is one of the first growing spaces where the snow melts in Spring so those strawberries get a nice early start to the growing season.  

 Speaking to wind protection, our prevailing winds are NW.  The house is angled slightly to face SE, so our home blocks the west wind and the front stairs (combined with the distant trees) helps to keep the cold north wind out.  Below (now in Autumn and looking very bleak indeed), you can see how the reflective heat from the gravel driveway (and the concrete) adds further warmth to the garden (which contributes greatly to this site's microclimate).   The thermal mass of the concrete is excellent for ripening those strawberries early in our growing season!  The concrete captures and stores heat all day then slowly radiates it out overnight to help ripen and protect those precious juicy jewels from late Spring frosts (which is why I planted them right at the edge of the garden).

The "soil" in that area was dreadful when we moved in.  It was crusty, dry, cement-like clay with ZERO organic matter.  Water literally ran off it instead of soaking into it.   By building the soil through winter cover cropping with rye, green spring manures (buckwheat), mulching (wood chips and straw) and adding rich compost made from the hen house bedding, we now have prime, first class soil in this area.  This soil is sweet and loamy, bursting with organic matter, rich in mycelium and teeming with microbial life.  It holds thousands of gallons water and even through our driest summer, we didn't have to water beyond the seedling stage.  The scant rainfall we had twas enough to sustain this garden.  All the work we had to do was a little bit of occasional weeding (the mulch kept most of the weeds away), harvesting and eating!

Thinking outside the traditional "box" of planting only ornamentals at the front of the house has netted us a strong yields of delicious produce for VERY little time and work.  This relatively small patch of earth was among the most productive spaces on our land this year thanks to a little bit of planning and planting to suit the natural conditions here.  Had I planted lettuce, spinach and peas, they would have wilted, bolted and tasted very bitter (they like cool soil and some protection from the searing afternoon sun).  I would have been fighting the conditions all season which is SO much work!  This garden and the tremendously successful yield from it this year is a prime example of working WITH nature not fighting it.  It took me YEARS to figure this out, but our ongoing learning has proven that we can do things in a better way. 

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Late Season Bee Food

We paid particular attention to the bees over the last 2 months as Autumn is a time of dearth when crops are in and gardens have wound down for the season.  With warm sunny days in September and October, the bees are out looking for food but pollen and nectar sources are scarce in these months.  We wanted to provide a steady supply of late season food for the bees this year so I seeded specific plants in Spring in order to provide for them. 

Old fashioned single mixed hollyhocks were a strong favourite which hardily endured many light frosts.     

Calendula also tolerated frost, but wasn't as popular as the other flowers.  Bees visited the flowers, but not as much as I expected...

Giant hyssop was a HUGE hit!  It's the bushy plant with purple spires in the above picture (it looks like lavender).  We sat on our front verandah and happily watched the bees work the blooms for hours.  I highly recommend this plant for it's LONG bloom time and frost resistance.

Sunflowers are another important late season food for bees and of course the birds love them, too.  We sadly had mice eat most of our planted seed but a few plants did make it!  Our neighbour had a huge show of sunflowers, so that certainly helped our bees out.

Lastly, catmint is hands down the bee favourite!  We have 2 large plants in this back garden (right and left in the above picture) and 4 more very large plants by the greenhouse.   These were strategically planted to attract the cats to the greenhouse perimeter to help keep the mice from getting in (it worked!).  These 6 plants were CONSTANTLY covered in bees from sunrise to sunset right through the entire blooming season (which only recently ended late in Autumn). 

We noted that our honey has a slight minty, licorice-y, citrus-y taste to it and I was reminded of the flavour when I was cutting back the plants on Sunday...  it's amazing how honey tastes like our gardens :)

Even if you don't keep bees, I strongly encourage you to plant a few species specifically to help feed bees in Autumn.  A quick google search can identify what plants you can grow for bees - they will thank you for it.