Friday, 17 April 2015

The early signs of spring

After working in the vegetable garden edging and worrying the whole time that is too early, that I might be permanently destroying the structure of the soil by working while it is too cold and wet, I decided to go for a walk through the fields to the woods. After hours of bending over I also need to remind myself that I am a biped who walks upright. And to reward Scylla who yet again demonstrated her patience and loyalty sitting right by me for hours today and yesterday.

On first appraisal there's not much to see. It is a very monochromatic scene but the sun was out and it was a beautiful 20C. The wind strong but warm.
A beautiful Wedgewood blue sky with puffy cumulus clouds.
The strong wind ruffles Scylla's fur, but not her enthusiasm.

But this time of year rewards closer observations. I love the old cedar fences with their robing of rich green moss.
The moss facing north grows thick and luxurious.

Being on the edge of the Canadian Shield, most pastures are dotted by outcroppings of rocks festooned with lichen.
In the middle of the pasture this outcropping of rocks and a few hardy shrubs.
Different lichens on the rocks

Bird nests are easy to see when not hidden by deciduous leaves.
A large nest; a perfectly circular bowl that seems made of clay
A much smaller nest high in the crown of this alder tree

And pussy willows are out but not yet flowering.
Pussy willows 

Once you come to the woods, a natural, not cultivated landscape, one sees that, in fact, lots is happening. Ferns cover the forest floor and the different tree barks are noticeable. The few leaves on the trees are beautiful for their rarity.
Ferns cover much of the forest floor and the coniferous needles lend lots of green
A beautiful yellow birch in the forefront with white birch in the background
A ghostly beech sapling

I love these woods with their relatively minor human disturbances. Here is a great old snag, clearly having provided homes for birds or animals for many years.
Many cavities up and down this snag

I come upon the first ramps, a foreshadowing of more to come once the forest changes from coniferous to deciduous.
An isolated clump of ramps.
Further along the gentle slope of the deciduous woods is covered with ramps.

Railway Creek's spring run-off has broken through the beaver lodge and created a few waterfalls that only exist at this time of year.
The breach in the beaver dam.
Even Scylla, who hates water, can't resist exploring this new development.
The first of the spring ephemerals are in bloom.
I think this is a white hepatica
Once we're back home there are a few courageous plants that offer a bit of colour.
An early crocus

And a very early bee covered with pollen.
Johnny Jump Up catching the sunlight

The rhubarb sporting the complementary colours of red and green, and the contrasting smooth and rough textures of emerging leaves and stalks..
The garden after I edged some of the beds ready to be planted once the soil is warm and workable.

The beds in the original vegetable garden with their (for now) crisp edges.
As I write this the sun is setting, the temperature is plummeting toward its predicted low of 2C and the spring peepers fill the evening with their chorus. Spring may not feel committed but it is definitely on its way.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Christmas Offerings 2014

As the days become shorter and the temperatures drop, the time has come to look forward to the comforts of Christmas and all the wonderful food that time of year brings. My offerings for this year include both sweet and savoury condiments and shortbreads. 

The shortbreads are made from the finest ingredients; Balderson 12 year cheddar, 70% dark chocolate, organic flour and sweet butter. Each package is a minimum of 100gm, ten to twelve cookies. 

As always most of the fruit and vegetables come from my organic garden.
This year’s offerings include Wild Grape and Crabapple jellies. These contain nothing but fruit juice and sugar (no commercial pectin). The marmalades highlight citrus fruits available for only a few weeks each year. The savoury condiments include a spicy ketchup made from my heirloom tomatoes, cayenne and jalapeno peppers. The Bread and Butter Pickles are made with my cucumbers and onions. The Sweet Zucchini Relish is a favourite of Cote du Bouef, the artisanal butcher  and provisions shop on Ossington Avenue, which I supply with vegetables and condiments through Cooper Road CSA. The Smokey Peach Barbecue sauce contains organically grown peaches from a farm in Uxbridge and has hints of smoked paprika. The pickles and relish come in 250 ml jars and everything else is in 125 ml jars.

You can order by email whenever and as often as you like. Let me know when you prefer me to deliver it and how many gift bags you would like. 

Each item is $5. 

I will also be at the CSI (Centre for Social Innovation) Holiday Pop-Up Market at 720 Bathurst on Thursday Dec. 11


12 Year Cheddar  Rich and with a bit of a cayenne kick

Parmesan Fennel   Light and melt in your mouth


Toblerone  A classic shortbread studded with this timeless Swiss chocolate bar 

Lemon    Flecks of lemon zest add a bit of tang to complement the richness of this traditional butter shortbread   

Dark Chocolate Orange   A classic duo

Cranberry Pistachio   New      Perfect for Christmas with flecks of red and green


Bread and Butter Pickles    250 ml   A great addition to sandwiches and charcuterie plates

Sweet Zucchini Relish      250ml   New    Perfect for hamburgers or mixed with mayo as a homemade tartar sauce for fish

Hot Pepper Jelly    A lovely jewel-like deep red with a bit of edge from jalapeƱo peppers  

Spicy Tomato Ketchup    Much more complex than commercial ketchup. Slow cooked all day

Smokey Peach Barbecue Sauce  New    A taste of August Ontario peaches with undertones of smoked paprika 

Wild Applesauce    New    Nothing but wild apples with their skins and a little water - no added sugar     


Wild Grape Jelly    A deep purple clear classic jelly 

Crabapple Jelly     Beautiful translucent red jelly good for breakfast and with roasted pork and chicken

Quince Jelly  New    Good with toast or cheese

Blood Orange Marmalade   New    A taste of  summer in the depths of winter

Meyer Lemon Marmalade   New    Not too sweet, a refreshing marmalade with toast and scones

Have wonderful holidays,


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 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