Sunday, 7 June 2015

The state of the garden the first week in June

After the traumatizing weather in May, things seem to have settled into a more seasonal scenario with regular rain, sometimes accompanied by thunder and lightning, bright sun during the day, although not yet hot and humid, and cool temperatures at night. There is heavy dew which is really good for maintaining moisture al long as plants have a dressing of mulch.

Things are starting to come back after the late frost; the wild grape is putting out new leaves, the ostrich ferns are green again and even the catalpa seems to be forming new leaf buds.
The ostrich ferns are now bright green again
The garden too is recovering. While the radish seedlings were killed by the frost, the later seedings have germinated and are looking healthy. Successive seedings of lettuce, spinach, kale and mustard are all looking robust.
New radish seedlings on the left, spinach in the centre and lettuce to the right
The first potatoes I planted, the weekend of May 10, have broken through the earth and I hoed up around them.
Potatoes planted three weeks ago now have been hoed and hilled up
I prepared the bed and planted the heirloom bush beans, mulching afterwards with straw and grass clippings.
The newly sown heirloom bush bean bed with a mulch of straw or grass clippings between the rows  
I planted 30 more tomatoes on Thursday. There are 20 left at home to plant next weekend.

Fledgling tomatoes planted against Josh's tomato frames 
There has been a little time so far to do anything other than planting. I remember a farmer I had not met before, coming to take the hay off the field. When he stopped to chat he said he knew I was organic. Feeling somewhat pleased I asked him how. He said, "Because all I can see is weeds!" Put firmly in my place, since then I have always been acutely aware of all the weeds. This weekend I finally got a chance to do some weeding; the red currants are now free of their previous enclosure of quack grass, in addition to the straw I used in the fall to mulch the garlic, they now have weeds pulled and laying at their feet instead of competing with them.
The red currants weeded and now recognizable
The ornamental beds also were in desperate need of a little care. There's never enough time to do everything that needs to be done, so I start by edging the beds. That seems to guide the eye and restore the beds to three dimensions rather than two. Without intervention the weeds and grass just seem to fill in all the gaps and make everything the same height, colour and texture. There are so many more beds to edge and more weeds to remove farther back but at least I have started and feel just a little optimistic about how they might look if I just keep at it.
The shrub border has a crisp edge now
And the purple and orange bed was a treat to edge since the soil always stays moist and easy to work
I also started a new compost. There is just so much raw material and I've never really been able to successfully get good compost here like I can in the city. So, ever the optimist, here's one more attempt. All this material was collected on Saturday from my weeding efforts!
The latest attempt at composting - all this material was the product of one day's weeding!
Our native tree nursery seems to be doing well - the red oaks have leafed out and spruces are putting on new growth.
The tree nursery - spruce on the left, red oak on the right
More and more insects are showing up. There are dragonflies and the Yellow Swallowtail butterflies seem to time their arrival with the blooming of the Preston lilac.
Yellow Swallowtail feeding on the Preston Lilac
This bumblebee systematically went to every single blossom on the columbine.
It's hard to see the bee because it disappeared totally into each flower

I had two other exciting sightings; one of an oriole going from one shrub to the next in the Highbush Cranberry hedge. The other was of a hawkmoth at the Johnny Jump-Ups. But in neither case did I have my camera. Sigh, sigh.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Nature vs. Nurture Part 2

I realize now that my last post should have been entitled Nature and Nurture. This past week has illustrated what Nature vs. Nurture really is - in terms of being adversarial, not alternatives. In the five days since we left there has been a drought - and a hard frost, as in -4C!

On Monday we left the farmhouse with seedlings of radish, arugula, kale and mustard all having emerged with their primary leaves. We returned to find them black from the frost.
Arugula seedlings - the blackened ones frost-bitten
The pots which we planted with tropicals are now mush and the geraniums are wilted and waterlogged.
Formerly datura a sweet potato vines
Frozen portulaca
Waterlogged geraniums
When I finished planting them, I loved the datura and geraniums and thought the pot with pot marigold (calendula) I had grown from a packet of seeds looked sort of weedy. But after this week's weather the ugly duckling seedlings are maturing into healthy looking plants.
Pot marigold looking hardy and healthy despite the extreme weather conditions
Even native plants like the wild grape, ferns and sumachs which had recently leafed out, now have their foliage blackened from the frost.
Wild grape with frost-killed black leaves but with new green growth
The ostrich ferns after a killing frost
And the new foliage of some of the shrubs and trees we have planted, like the smokebush and catalpa,  is now blackened and shrivelled.

But in addition to the hard frost there has been a drought - no rain in weeks.The rhubarb, which is very cold hardy, had wilted as one would expect it to by the end of June when it was nearing the end of its season. And Railway Creek is as low as it ever gets at the end of a dry summer.
Today I have been dragging hoses around from vegetable bed to bed to water. But the problem with drought is that when you need to water plants and top up the pool, the creek is low and probably the water table too. We have never had our well go dry - yet. But many people have and it is not a situation you want to have to deal with.
Railway Creek, reduced to a trickle, the water so low its banks are exposed
All this weird weather feels biblical. My emotional response is that it feels personal - like punishment for being vainglorious; for thinking I had figured out a few things - about gardening, growing vegetables and the process involved. Who has ever had to water because of a drought when there is a killing frost?

My rational reaction is to think it is yet one more indication of climate change with its
accompanying erratic and unpredictable weather patterns. I have found the whole scenario to be scary and apocalyptic-feeling. I know on Victoria Days in the past, weather has been everything from snow to an occasion to cool off by swimming.  But previously, whatever the conditions were, they were expected because of the preceding days' weather. It is the conjunction of frost and drought that feels so unpredictable and impossible to deal with.

Monday morning I woe to grey skies and a slow steady drizzle - the perfect kind of rain to gradually be absorbed into the parched earth. I just hope it lasts long enough to quench the thirst of the plants, the soil and replenish the creek and water table.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Nature vs Nurture

At this time of year when I have been foraging, I start to reflect on the differences between wild and cultivated plants. When ramps and fiddleheads are at their peak there is virtually nothing to be seen in a vegetable garden.
Jessica and Alex picking ramps on Mother's Day, 2014,  accompanied by Scylla
Fiddleheads earlier this past weekend beginning to unfurl
Of course it is not really a justifiable comparison. If we were restricted to hardy plants we couldn't grow tomatoes and peppers which need to be started indoors since they need a longer frost-free growing season than we have here. I'm always finding potatoes when I dig the beds in the spring - but that's because I somehow missed them when digging last year's crop. But if I didn't rotate the beds for potatoes, very few would survive the growing season because the potato bug overwinters in the soil. With no control they would devastate the potato foliage preventing the plants from producing tubers underground. But I have never found a summer squash or cucumber seedling that survived a winter hibernation. Likewise with beans. Carrots and beets and all the biennials would undoubtedly be overcome by weeds even if they were left to flower and set seed for a crop two years later. Wild carrot (Queen Anne's Lace) thrives in the wild but because all of its energy goes into producing flowers and therefore seeds, the root is fibrous and skimpy.

But greens are a difference story. As long as you grow open pollinated lettuces, mustards and kales and allow them to flower they will drop their seed. After a winter under the snow, when conditions are favourable, they will germinate. Despite, or perhaps because of, the various weather scenarios they experience - everything from late frosts and snow to temperatures in the 30C's and full sun they grow hardy and well adapted to their very local environment. I then transplant these seedlings into beds refreshened with compost and manure.
Earlier this weekend weeding the bed of lettuces and spinach seeded last fall
A close-up of the bed with lettuces on the left, spinach on the right
Another greens bed. The lettuce on the top germinated from seed  that overwintered from lettuce plants left to go to seed and the seedlings on the bottom were sown a week ago from seed saved and stored inside all winter.  
I also plant a crop of spinach and onions in the late fall. Like the lettuce they start growing when conditions are suitable and provide a crop at least four weeks earlier than seedlings direct sown.
Fall planted spring onions
Permaculturists aim to reproduce, as much as possible, a woodland ecology; as many perennials as possible, a canopied treescape with large trees at the top, then fruit and nut trees underneath, soft fruit below like berries and finally strawberries and traditional market garden vegetables at ground level. It always seems to me, the optimum approach is to take the best ideas and/or the strategies easiest to employ from wherever you can glean information. I love my rhubarb patch - one of just three plants we inherited - who knows how old it is. Other than using the leaves from harvested stalks as mulch it needs no care.
The rhubarb patch
Another perennial vegetable I grow which I planted a few years ago is sorrel. It is not universally liked, but for those who are fans they love it for its crisp lemony taste.
It would be nice to have a greenhouse to get a jump on the season. But you really need to live where your greenhouse is, to monitor ventilation and temperature. I don't have that situation. But with some perennial vegetables, fall sowing and letting plants flower and go to seed, I can manage to provide a smooth procession from foraged plants to cultivated ones, by relinquishing a certain amount of control and working with nature, at least some of the time. So, not nature vs nurture, but nature and nurture.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Ramping down for the season

I'm ramping down for the season.Scylla and I went for a walk to the woods to harvest ramps for the last time this season. The stroll through the three fields to the woods was lovely. At one point the air was filled with a heady fragrance from wild privet or currants. I couldn't see where the fragrance was coming from but it certainly smelled like one of those two spring flowering shrubs. There was also a patch of wild strawberries along the path in our field. In the low-lying area where the pussy willows thrive there were squadrons of dragonflies.
Wild strawberries in the field
But when I got to the woods it was full-on assault from both blackflies and mosquitoes. The breeze that had kept them at bay in the open ground had disappeared in the closeness of the forest. I also lost track of the path which looks much different at this time of year from the winter. It was time for full HazMat.
HazMat protective gear
Finally I reached the hardwoods and was able to locate some ramps. Wild leeks like to bury down between rocks so it can be difficult to get down to the bulbous part of the ramp. On the very first plunge into the soil my trowel broke. After that I had to use the handle to dig down deep to get extricate the ramps.

I had a couple of moments of panic; because I'd lost the path, because once I found them the ramps were so difficult to harvest and because the bugs were driving me to think longingly of a cliff to jump off.

Having fled the woods, pursued by a cloud of bugs, the final insult came when, attempting to cross a double barbed wire fence, my bug jacket netting got caught in the wire. I felt like Steve McQueen at the end of The Great Escape. I'd made my escape, true on two feet, instead of on two wheels. I'd eluded clouds of bugs, not a squadron of evil motorcyclists, but like Hilts, "the "Cooler King", just as freedom was in sight I got snagged on a barbed wire fence.

Once I had extricated myself from the barbed wire both Scylla and I made a beeline for home. Our woods, being young since we planted them over the past twenty years, are much more civilized, at least for their lack of bugs and scattering of naturalized daffodils.
Scylla leads the way home
Naturalized daffs in our woods 

I'm done. That's it for a walk in the woods until the chill of frost in the air in the fall. But since I did go there are BBQ'ed ramps for dinner and ramp pesto for a taste of spring in the depths of winter.
Ramps cleaned and ready for washing
A drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of coarse sea salt
Fresh off the grill
Ramp Pesto with Roasted Pinenuts

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Making Willow Plant Supports at North House Folk School

I had flown up to Thunder Bay to see Alex's new apartment and accompany her on her drive down to southern Ontario. We decided to cross the border into Minnesota and take a course at North House Folk School in Grand Marais. The workshop was part of their Sustainability Symposium, with a focus this year, on harvesting sustainably from the boreal forest.
Leaving Thunder Bay south along the north shore of Lake Superior
We set the alarm for 6:10 with the intention of leaving by 7 to arrive at NHFS for 9AM. Everything went according to plan until we arrived, only a few minutes late, to find out we were, in fact, almost an hour early. Minnesota is in the Central Time Zone! Alex used the extra time well to borrow a socket wrench and attach the topper for her pickup truck more securely. I checked out the school's bookstore and where we could eat our dinner.
The campus of North House Folk School
The school's bookstore
At 9, local time, we met Emily, our instructor, and the other four women who were taking the course. We also got a look at what we were hoping to have built by the end of the day.
Emily's willow plant structure
Emily had brought willow branches harvested in the fall and now dry which we would be using for the supports for our structure.
Dried willow for the vertical supports
First on the agenda was a drive twelve miles out of town to harvest the whips we would be weaving amongst the supports. Everyone loaded their harvested whips into the back of Alex's truck.
Emily, second from left, explaining how to recognize willow
Alex harvesting willow whips
We all piled our willow harvest into the back of Alex's truck
It had turned into a beautiful day, sunny and a good ten degrees warmer away from Lake Superior. So we stopped at Bull Bay Lake on the way back into town.
Alex and I on the shore of Big Bull Lake
Both Alex and I were absolutely ravenous once we got back to the school. We inhaled the chicken salad sandwiches we had brought. And so headed next door to a smoked fish cafe for a delicious bowl of smoked trout chowder and a Turtle brownie on the deck in the sun.
Smoked Trout chowder on the deck overlooking Grand Marais harbour
The hard work began in the afternoon. Emily provided us each with a box which would act as a substitute for soil. Into this base we put sixteen of the dried willow supports in a circle. Then it was time to start weaving the freshly harvested and pliable willow in and out of the supports. This, for me at least, was incredibly challenging.
Step 1 was pushing the vertical supports into the boxes
Emily keeps a vigilant eye on us
After securing the 16 vertical supports it's time to make the base which is woven from the willow we had harvested
A couple hours later we each had a willow plant support which needed the finishing touches; trimming loose ends with secateurs and securing the top with willow "twine".  Each structure was unique; the variations indicated by the angle of the weaving, the colours of the willow and, undoubtedly, the skill of the artisan.
Alex is loving the process and making great headway
Emily explains a finer detail to Joan
Hard at work and some time for quiet contemplation - or perhaps simply exhaustion?
Alex is thrilled with her finished product
I,  too,  am thrilled. But more just because I am finished! 
The willow plant supports ready for the drive home
We finished the day at The Angry Trout, apparently the "destination restaurant" in town. Dinner was shared whitefish fritters, a salad with grilled fresh whitefish and maple syrup cheesecake and Quaker lemon tart. Delicious!

We stopped at a lookout over Lake Superior close to the border. A veiled full moon hung over the scene.
Looking over the forest down to shore of Lake Superior just before sunset

There had been a certain amount of discussion at the workshop about whether we would have trouble bringing a wood product over the border. We had all concluded probably not since it wasn't firewood and the willow was just stems. But we were all wrong. The customs officer was clearly torn - our creations were undoubtedly a wood product. But Alex had engaged him in conversation as soon as we pulled up to the booth. He was familiar with the North House Folk School - and The Angry Trout - and  seemed reluctant to disappoint us by confiscating the fruits of our labour. So, in a tone of consternation he warned us never to repeat this unlawful action - and sent us on our merry way.

Happy to be back on Canadian soil