Thursday, 17 July 2014

Growing fruit

When we bought the farmhouse 24 years ago we inherited three plants; a huge spruce tree in the front which the previous owners, the Brady's, who lived here for 51 years, planted as a Christmas tree, an old apple tree which I have suspected might be a Snow apple and Charlie had the same feeling, and two rhubarb patches. Since we never pay attention to the apple tree, neither pruning nor spraying, it just does its own thing, occasionally bearing fruit and more often, losing huge limbs whenever there is a windstorm. One rhubarb plant was in an area which I wanted at a certain point to be a perennial bed (in my Vita Sackville-West period). In digging it out I discovered their roots reach down and down and down, almost to China. But with successive savage attacks it ultimately succumbed. Now, of course, I wish I had that second rhubarb plant, although the one survivor (of me) produced 15 pounds of rhubarb this year. Compare that to the new rhubarb I planted three years ago which is barely surviving.
Our old faithful, the inherited rhubarb
The apple tree has been obliging in its dotage by finally producing a progeny. Time will tell if it actually is the same kind of tree. The apples are small and quite green with a red blush, a very white flesh and tart flavour. Every few years the fruit is almost blemish free and makes for good eating. But more often they make their way into applesauce.
The original apple tree complete with downed but hanging-on-by-a-thread limb still producing fruit 
The new little apple tree, badly in need of liberation from the surrounding quackgrass
Three years ago I decided I wanted to grow more fruit. First of all I planted a raspberry hedge along the west side of the new vegetable bed in the field. Then the following spring I went to a workshop on hardy tender fruit and, inspired by what I learned, planted three haskaps and four of the new hardy Romance shrub cherries, developed at the University of Saskatchewan. They are called "sour" but they have a Brix (the scale used to measure sugar content of fruit) of 22 while most commercial tree cherries have a Brix of only18! Alex tells me haskaps are an "indicator species" providing information on the characteristics of a specific area's soil, climate and conditions generally. I understand they are indigenous to every province except British Columbia and are known for being the first to bear fruit, in June. I have yet to see that since they have not yet produced their white flowers for me.
One of the shrub Romance cherries
A two year old haskap
I also heard at Ken Taylor's workshop about the hardy table grapes he had bred and ordered 50 from his nursery. Most of them survived and when I ran into him at the Guelph Organic Conference in January earlier this year he told me not to bother yet with pruning - very good news. I became very excited when one of his grapes seemed to be growing extremely vigorously. Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, it was a new wild grape dwarfing its two year old, more highly bred cousin.
One of Ken Taylor's Hardy Table Grapes 
The vigorous wild grape honing in on its more delicate domestic relative 
Many years ago I was very excited about growing (and maintaining the genetics of) relatively rare heirloom apple trees. What a process to select the trees from the catalogue! Did we want Standard, Dwarf or Semi-dwarf? Were we interested in early, mid or late season? For their intended use did we like dessert, eating, cider or sauce apples? Should the rootstock (since all fruit trees are grafted) be hardy, semi- hardy or suitable for the sub Arctic? We finally selected, ordered and eventually received and planted our 8 tiny whips; six survived until this winter when two more died. For the first time ever we actually have some apples, at least until the few remaining on the tree join their siblings on the ground.
One of our heirloom apple trees bearing fruit - finally
The same tree dropping most its fruit on the ground
For years my mother has picked her red currants and given them all to me to make into jelly. Last year she read that thinning and pruning the bush would give it renewed vigour. I understand that because we just did the same thing, for the same reason, to our mock orange. But this is a case of being in it for the long haul. The mock orange is now about a third of its former size and my mother's red currant has spent all its energy on new growth at the expense of producing fruit. Other years she picked about ten 500 ml containers. This year she got two. I planted three red currants and another three black currants three years ago. The red currants produced some fruit for the first time this year -  a minuscule 250 ml.
Our three year old red currant, the fruit tends to be hidden behind the leaves close to the ground
All to say I think it is very challenging to grow fruit. From selection of the specific plant to protection against rodent damage to the trunk in the winter, to spraying (we don't), to hoping for pollination in the spring and then anticipating all that effort will produce even just a little fruit. And sharing whatever little bounty there may be hasn't even been mentioned. My raspberry bushes are finally producing for the first time and I was so excited to come up and see if the berries were ripening. Well, if possession is 9/10th of the law, then the permanent residents have already staked their claim.
I hope whoever ate those two raspberries enjoyed them as much as I would have
A much older purple raspberry planted in the original vegetable garden
The local wild raspberry known as "blackcaps" which I make into raspberry vinegar
And the raspberries are not the only victims. Someone has been eating my sugar snap and snow peas. Some of the ravaged peas are low hanging and others are up at least four feet. I'd like to know what is going on. Is it a variety of animals? Or birds? The place has become lousy with chipmunks and red squirrels. I only see them in the garden around the house, never in the vegetable beds. But just because I don't see them doesn't mean they're not having their way behind my back. I kind of feel like Allan Lamport, Toronto's mayor from 1952 to 1954 and known for his malapropisms, who famously said "If someone's gonna stab me in the back, I wanna be there". I feel "If someone's gonna cheat on me I wanna be in on it!"
An heirloom Golden Snow Pea enjoyed by our resident wildlife
At least our dinner guest has both good and varied taste - here Sugar Snap peas provided a delicious snack
But there is the occasional success. I'm glad that tomatoes are a fruit. I can grow them! And years ago we had a mulberry tree at the city house. Whether we intended to plant one of its seedlings here at the farmhouse or whether it piggybacked in the compost I brought up, I can't remember. But we now have a beautiful mulberry tree. While we don't eat its fruits, the birds do. And what birds; flocks of Cedar Waxwings, Orioles, Bluejays. and of course Grackles and Starlings.
The tomatoes have almost reached the top of Josh's 6 foot frames
The mulberry tree, full of birds at this time of year when it is laden with berries

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Revisiting Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Reduce, reuse and recycle is a phrase that has been around a long time. It started as a government initiative to address the increasing pressure on landfill sites and reflected a shift in attitude that saw waste as a resource rather than a problem.

But long before the phrase was coined, necessity required people to be resourceful and thrifty. Those who lived off the land, whether farmers or native peoples, became ingenious at seeing nature as a resource and manufactured goods as worthy of many uses and reincarnations.
Manure - nature's way of restoring fertility to the soil
Straw, a byproduct of cereal products, remains after the grain and chaff have been removed. It adds carbon and organic material to the soil
For anyone growing food commercially it is a challenge to make a profit when food continues to be at an all time low as a percentage of annual income, at least in developed countries. Figures from 2011 show the lowest amount spent was in the US at 7% of annual income. (It is interesting to note that the statistics are reversed in poorer countries where feeding oneself can be the largest single annual expense. The highest cost for food was in Cameroon at a debilitating 48%!) For us in North America attitudes are that food should be cheap and so producers need to reduce costs as much as possible.

Because of the low profit margins in market gardening and farming (especially if you factor in paying yourself a wage) and also through the influence of my American depression-era mother, who has always been about good old "Yankee ingenuity", looking for ways to use what is "at hand" has been a life long habit.
Here raked grass clippings are used to mulch a new bed of salad greens. The mulch conserves moisture,  maintains an even temperature and adds organic material to the soil. 
Twigs from pruning the crabapples find new life as supports for the shorter peas

Each year strips torn from threadbare bedsheets are used to tie in the heirloom indeterminate (vining) tomato plants 
Old cans can be used to guard tender vegetables from the voracious cutworm
An old iron bed head and foot board are this year's cucumber support. The string is binder twine originally used for the straw bales and the wooden wedges are waste from when Josh finished the base of the tomato frames into points

Sometimes we have have used "waste" from other sources.
Hot boxes Alex and I made from used construction palettes

A mosaic wall in the bathroom Robert Dafoe created from old china
When we had the ice storm on Dec. 22 I broke up all the fallen branches and twigs and strew them over the beds in the back garden. Anything to try to add organic material and water retention to our incredibly sandy soil here in the city. I recently learned from the people at sustainable.to that our wild solitary bees are at risk because of habitat loss. One of the biggest contributing factors is that we clean up our gardens too well, leaving none of the hollow stems and twigs that the wild bees use for their homes. Along with autumn leaves and compost made from our own kitchen waste we can add tree debris to resources we literally have in our own backyards. Maybe the time has come for YIMBY?

Recently I was inspired to "edit" our back yard garden in the city. I wanted to divide some existing perennials and buy some new plants with interesting foliage. And recently the crown of one of our cedar trees broke off. So there was also that to deal with.  I managed to divide some hostas and heuchera and create two new beds with the divisions. They were planted with compost and mulched with the leaves I had removed from the downed cedar. To some people's eyes this may look "messy" but I am trying to create a woodland feeling. Who ever goes for a walk in the woods and thinks "How trashy the ground is"? Instead we relish the earthy smell of the humus earth, spongy and bursting with microbial life.
The fallen cedar after I've removed the lowest side branches
The side branches collected in one location. Now they're ready to have the leaves removed to use as mulch for the new  plantings
The new hosta divisions with their mulch of fresh cedar trimmings
The wine red heuchera yielded 7 new fledgling plants

The branches left after I trimmed the leaves for mulch were broken up for cedar kindling - if nothing else a change from splitting kindling.

A modest pile of cedar kindling
I still have the crown of the cedar to break up and I'm looking forward to mulching the new perennials whose bed, to my eye at least, looks, not neat, but naked.
A variegated knautia on the left and lavender on the right. The soil bare without a mulch yet

Monday, 26 May 2014

Josh builds sturdy tomato frames

Last year when Josh, Jessica's and Alex's old friend, AKA "the son I never had", came to visit the farmhouse he was helpful as always; consulting with me on roasting the grass finished beef so it wouldn't turn into shoe leather, unclogging the bathroom sink, moving furniture and a multitude of other jobs. But, clearly a masochist at heart, he proposed another project; to build me sturdy tomato frames that would not only last the whole season but which could be used year after year.

I had been building teepees out of bamboo stakes. Initially they looked somewhat orderly but by the end of the season, burdened by the weight of the vines of the indeterminate heirloom tomatoes, they often collapsed under the weight of the plants.
The frames I had previously fashioned just after the seedlings have been planted

People often propose helpful projects but it always seems best to let them take the lead in following through. A couple weeks ago Josh came over to get a few heirloom tomato and lettuce seeds. While he was here he mentioned the tomato frames so it was time for me to get excited. This past weekend it happened.

Josh came up late afternoon on Friday laden with table saw, appropriate tools and wearing his trusty Carhartt overall. Within minutes of his arrival he had set up in the garage, starting to cut the one inch supports for the tomatoes. He figured after a while that 3/4" would actually be fine. He cut the base of each vertical support into a spike for ease pushing into the ground. By now it was time for dinner; steak, mushrooms and red peppers and asparagus all on the BBQ, roasted blue potatoes and rhubarb crisp and 10% yogurt for desert. Then back to the garage for some after-dark cutting.
The table saw gets a workout. Josh properly outfitted with thick leather work gloves, safety glasses and ear protection
The supports go from being one inch in diameter to 3/4 inch
The pile grows
Each 2 by 4 is cut, initially into 4 pieces, then later 5
Safety first; Josh gives each piece a final push with another piece of wood
Not quite burning the midnight oil but it's definitely dark

On Saturday morning he explained the general design. There would be a vertical support at each end and a crosspiece horizontally laid across the top. Along each side there would be the one inch pieces screwed at an angle into the horizontal piece.

Then it was time to make the prototype in situ. We decided on a length for each frame, the distance between the pieces that would each have a tomato planted at their base and the distance between each frame.
The prototype!
Scylla inspects and gives a nod of approval

I had originally envisioned having the bed in the field dedicated to the tomatoes I am growing for the butcher shop I supply. The other tomatoes would be planted in part of a bed close to the garage. But Josh realized we had enough lumber to make six frames each supporting twelve tomatoes plants. Absolutely perfect because I have started 72 seedlings. And all the tomatoes will be in one spot, with the area by the garage available for more potatoes. Josh had figured it would take about 8 hours and it did. Time for a lingering lunch by the pool and then Josh left to go back in time for a party in the city. The tomatoes are hardening off on the deck this week readying themselves to be planted next weekend.
Halfway there
Done! Six frames each supporting twelve tomato plants

On Sunday morning Charlie dropped by for, as they say, a "chin wag". I took him out to the field to have a look at Josh's handiwork. He was suitably impressed! Josh and I had talked about taking them down each year, both to extend their life and also to accommodate crop rotation. Charlie's idea was to leave them there and rotate the crops using them; tomatoes, then peas and pole beans, finally cucumbers. They are tall enough that even with a little rot at the bottom after overwintering in the ground they could be driven further down each spring a number of times. Of course, while a great idea, that also assumes the willingness of Josh to come up and repeat the effort for next year's tomatoes…..
Not sure Josh will be smiling when I pass on Charlie's thoughts….


Saturday, 17 May 2014

Fiddleheads

The triumvirate of spring foraging are ramps, fiddleheads and morels. One year we were blessed with morels simply popping up in the lawn at the foot of a dead elm. In fact, not expecting them, at first glance they looked like pine cones. But they never made a return appearance and I have never found them in the woods.

Fiddleheads appear at the tail end of ramp season. Fiddleheads are the curled frond, croziers, of ostrich ferns. They enjoy very damp ground. Ours are in the "flood plain" of the creek at the outer edge of aspens where they get sun but still a dappled light.
Ostrich ferns just recently unfurled
Another location where the ferns are slightly behind and there are more fiddleheads

Like any foraged treat, timing is of the essence. The fronds for eating need to be tightly curled. Once they appear just a day or two of sun will coax them into opening up into graceful fronds. Fiddleheads come from the ostrich fern, matteuccia struthiopteris. They are characterized by an indented stem.
The clearly indented stem of the ostrich fern fiddlehead

All ferns reproduce by spores, having neither flowers nor seeds. Along the outer edge of the stand of ostrich ferns are the smaller sensitive ferns, onoclea sensibilis.
A stand of sensitive ferns
Sensitive ferns bordering an ostrich fern in the centre

Like other wild greens, fiddleheads are a nutritional powerhouse. Rare in vegetables, they contain Omega 3 fatty acids. They have twice the antioxidants of blueberries and are high in fibre, Vitamin A and C and contain iron and potassium.
Fiddleheads ripe for the picking
Fiddleheads just starting to unfurl
When foraging for anything it is always important to pick sustainably. For fiddleheads it is essential to leave at least one crozier on each plant. That is relatively easy because the fiddleheads emerge from different depths over time. The topmost accessible fiddleheads are removed while the lower buried ones can be left to maintain the health of the fern.
One fiddlehead clearly above the others. It can be picked and the others left  

There has been some controversy about the safety of eating fiddleheads. Although it wasn't proven conclusively, fiddleheads were thought possibly to contain a toxin. But they have been a staple of native and country diets for years. The safe approach is not to eat them raw or undercooked. To prepare for eating the brown chaff needs to be rubbed off. Then the fiddleheads are rinsed multiple times in cold water until the water is clear. The ends can be trimmed. Health Canada recommends boiling for 15 minutes or steaming for 12. At this point they can be served simply with a drizzling of olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt. Or used in endless other ways, sautéed, highlighted in a risotto, pizza, quiche… Your imagination is the limit.
Fiddleheads ready to be cooked