Garden Planning part one: Dirty Talk

Black Turtle Beans, 10 feet

For plants to truly thrive they need a good foundation. These bean plants were stunted by the poor soil which I plan to fix using the principles of permaculture | www.pickytoplenty.com

I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. Like a lot. I was in a car accident nearly three months ago and it has turned my world upside down. While the accident wasn’t too serious, thankfully, it was enough to cause me health problems I’ve been dealing with ever since. One way to cope with stress is to do things I love — cook, write from the heart and dream.

There’s something about being up to the elbows in fresh soil that is oddly soothing. Caring for a vegetable garden is a satisfying journey that begins with the dirt. While it’s too early to get my hands dirty (though seed planting begins in only a few short weeks) I can cope with the stress by daydreaming about this year’s gardens.

One of my biggest mistakes in gardening last year was not paying attention to the soil. My raised beds thrived because they had great soil, the newer ones in the front however, terrible. Here on the Niagara Escarpment we have a lovely red clay soil… not so good for growing. While we did add a few yards of soil to the plot and some manure and compost, it was not enough to create an atmosphere where plants would thrive. Case in point, my midget pepper and bean plants which were barely half way up my calf when they reached their maximum height.

Peppers are looking lush again after a dose of Epsom salts | http://pickytoplenty.com/2014/06/30/a-peppers-best-friend/

Hopefully my pepper plants will really thrive this year with better soil and a steady dose of epsom salt (read about the benfits here http://pickytoplenty.com/2014/06/30/a-peppers-best-friend/)

Let’s talk dirt

I’ve been digging up a lot of information on dirt these days. Doesn’t that sound fascinating? I have been pouring over blogs and articles about soil and amendments to make sure my gardens are operating at peak performance this year. One method I am keen to try is a no-till garden which involves the layering of compost and straw. Of course now that I am looking for the article on this particular type of gardening I cannot find it so I will do my best to explain in my non-gardening-expert way.

The first step is to soak the area on which you plan to create your garden then lay cardboard down over the moistened area. This will prevent weeds from growing through. The next layer will be one of straw which will add plant-loving nitrogen to the soil. Soak the straw layer well before covering with organic matter of your choice. Because we have rabbits we have a steady supply of wonderfully, rich organic compost. My raised beds have been getting a regular topping up of rabbit droppings and I am going to start a pile near the big garden area in the front yard. I was going to start just spreading the manure on the garden but if I plan to follow this method it will be wasted. The rabbit manure won’t be enough so I also plan to purchase some mushroom compost from a local farm.

Once the compost has been applied, you spread another layer of straw, then repeat another layer of compost, watering each layer as you go. You can repeat the layers as many times as you wish, finishing with a layer of straw that will also act as a mulch to keep in moisture and prevent weeds from creeping through.

To plant your seedlings, make holes in the top straw layer, spaced appropriately for each plant to mature, and fill with your compost mix, seed and water as you would in a regular garden.

To maintain the garden throughout the growing season, top with additional layers of straw and compost as needed.

Think we will have plenty of Romaine this year. Who wants to buy a head?

Plants in my raised beds grew best as they already had a healthy soil foundation from previous years | www.pickytoplenty.com

Why no till?

The existing soil is an ecosystem made up of beneficial insects and microbes that help the help plants grow. Disturbing even the top few inches of the ground can severely damage the natural environment. This is one of the founding principles of permaculture, a practice that is guided by nature. In a forest, plants are able to grow through the carpet of leaves that covers the soil. There is nothing that pushes these seeds into the soil, they are just able to grow.

Nature has things figured out, all we need to do is look to her to find the way. Permaculture is ecological agriculture — a sustainable design science that is rooted in nature. Permaculture is so much more than growing food, it is designing for a sustainable future. I am only just starting to crack through the surface of this system thanks to a free permaculture design course offered by Open Permaculture (they also have a free e-book you can download outlining the principles of this system).

Step one in garden planning is preparing the soil. The next step is figuring out which varieties you will grow. Another system I plan to utilize more this year is companion planting to get the most from the garden space. Part two of this series will look at companion planting to maximize yield and flavour.

 

Peppers, peppers everywhere

Have an abundance of fresh peppers? Make a batch of colourful cowboy candy and enjoy their sweet and spicy flavour all winter long | www.pickytoplenty.com

Have an abundance of fresh peppers? Make a batch of colourful cowboy candy and enjoy their sweet and spicy flavour all winter long | www.pickytoplenty.com

My pepper plants may not have grown very big, but they produced.

I am pretty sure it was a combination of low water and terrible dirt that caused my pepper plants to be dwarves. Watering regularly while living off a cistern is tough. Every time the weather man promised rain, I held off, hoping mother nature would sprinkle down some hydration on my plants — but she didn’t. In fact, it almost seemed like there was invisible umbrella over my house. The skies would get dark and my hopes would rise. But it always passed. Missing us, missing my gardens.

A mix of sweet and hot peppers come together in a syrupy brine to create Colourful Cowboy Candy | www.pickytoplenty.com

A mix of sweet and hot peppers come together in a syrupy brine to create Colourful Cowboy Candy | www.pickytoplenty.com

Regardless of their short size, my pepper plants produced. I grew pepperoncini, jalapeno, California wonder and sweet chocolate varieties.

Next year, I plan to add more varieties of sweet and hot peppers so that I can make more Colourful Cowboy Candy. While I haven’t actually tried any yet, they smelled delicious while they simmered briefly in a syrupy brine.

If you have an abundance of peppers, you should give this recipe a try.

Colourful cowboy candy | ww.pickytoplenty.com

Colourful cowboy candy | ww.pickytoplenty.com

Colourful Cowboy Candy

(yields five pints)

  • 1 pound of fresh peppers, a mix of sweet and hot
  • 1 1/3 C apple cider vinegar
  • 4 C sugar
  • 4 Tbsp mustard seed, I used brown and black (it’s what I had in my cupboard)
  • 1/2 tsp celery seed
  • 2 Tbsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

Wash and slice all peppers into rings.

Combine vinegar, sugar and spices in a stainless steel pot. Bring to a boil, turn down heat and simmer for five minutes.

Add peppers and simmer five minutes more.

Load sterilized jars with peppers first, stuffing them in, then liquid leaving a 1/4 inch head space. Process 15 minutes in a water bath canner.

Avoid eating them for at least a month to bring out the flavours.

Use up those garden peppers with colourful cowboy candy and enjoy your harvest for months to come | www.pickytoplenty.com

Use up those garden peppers with colourful cowboy candy and enjoy your harvest for months to come | www.pickytoplenty.com

 

 

Why ground cherries are a great addition to the backyard garden

Ground cherries are a great addition the backyard garden. Not only are these tomatillo relatives a heavy producer but they also require little maintenance. | www.pickytoplenty.com

Ground cherries are a great addition the backyard garden. Not only are these tomatillo relatives a heavy producer but they also require little maintenance. | www.pickytoplenty.com

Would you look at those beauties? I grew those little lanterns from seed that I purchased from Tree and Twig Heirloom Vegetable Farm in Wellandport. I had never heard of these relative to the tomatillo before stumbling upon them on Linda Crago’s website. I was instantly intrigued, especially by the fact that they are extremely productive.

According to the seed packet, ground cherries have been around since the early 19th Century. The variety I am growing, one of the most popular, is Aunt Molly’s variety. The earliest recording of this fruit was 1837 in Pennsylvania. This Polish variety is prized for its clean flavour.

Aunt Molly's Ground Cherries date back to the early 19th Century. They are a great addition to any backyard garden. | www.pickytoplenty.com

Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherries are a great addition to any backyard garden. | www.pickytoplenty.com

The flavour is quite unique. It tastes like a pineapple crossed with a grape. It is sweet with a hint of citrus. It is delicious.

Plants can grow to 18 inches tall and 24 inches wide, so they will need quite a bit of space in your garden. I grew mine in a square, raised bed garden that also include caped gooseberries, raspberries and blueberries (both of which now have to be moved because of these beasts). Next year, I think I will move them to a raised row garden.

Reason for this is how you harvest the little lanterns. You don’t actually pick the ground cherries, you collect those that have fallen from the branches. They will be a pale yellow at this point and the husk will be papery. I have read that they can be stored for as long as three months in a cellar if they are kept in their husks. They can also be made into a variety of preserves, from jams and jellies to hot sauces and pie filling. I plan to do a fair share of ground cherry and gooseberry canning, after all, plants can produce up to 200 pounds of fruit each. And the great part, they keep on giving.

Ground cherries start fruiting by the end of July and continue until frost.

I have to admit, I was a little nervous adding a crop that I had never tasted nor heard of, but I am happy to report that ground cherries make a great addition to the homestead. So far I have only been able to harvest what you see in the top photo, but I suspect I will soon have enough to make my first preserves.

Ground cherries, from the tomatillo family, are a productive fruit for the backyard gardener, producing up to 200 pounds of fruit per plant. | www.pickytoplenty.com

Ground cherries, from the tomatillo family, are a productive fruit for the backyard gardener, producing up to 200 pounds of fruit per plant. | www.pickytoplenty.com

Where this all began

Late planted tomatoes, hopefully they produce

Late planted tomatoes, hopefully they produce

I came home after a long day at work, plopped my self on the couch and grabbed the remote to turn on the TV. Click. Nothing.

“The TV doesn’t work,” I say to the husband.

“I unplugged it,” he replies.

“Oh. Why?” I ask.

The answer is this. We were spending far too much time hypnotized by the 42″ flat screen picture box mounted to the wall and not enough time living. We were eating the crappy, engineered foods that advertisers told us were healthy. I was duped by the low fat, healthy and every other key word businesses use to distract you from the fact that most of those products, the ones that come boxes, bags and cans, are not really food.

This one gesture started a path towards happiness and hopefully, sustainability.

I am tired of anxiously watching the total rise with each purchase I make at the grocery store. Our food bills are out of control and I am tired of it. Instead of putting money in someone else’s pocket I am hoping to keep more in my own and maybe even make a little more along the way.

If everything goes as planned, we should have plenty of food to keep us well fed throughout the fall and winter. A greenhouse or hoop house will enable us to grow fresh greens year round while food preservation methods such as canning, drying and freezing will provide our staples.

Our flock of Plymouth Barred Rocks will provide us with fresh eggs and meat. If we like it, our rabbit colony will also provide a sustainable food source.

My head is bursting with ideas on how we can grow our venture to not only feed ourselves, but feed others. My dream is to provide people with fresh and trustworthy food. Vegetables grown organically, meat raised on pasture without any hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified feeds. I want to bring pure food to your table.

It all starts with a dream. The dream is the platform from which great things develop. My dreams are big, but not far out of reach.

To add some art to the post, here are some updated photos from my garden progress. Note the lush green of the pepper plants thanks to the use of Epsom salt in the soil.

Enjoy.

Growing a future

It’s been a while since I shared some photos of the homestead so I grabbed my trusty Canon for an update. Everything is growing amazing considering my black thumb. Have I not mentioned that before? Normally, I am the plant killer. But that’s usually indoors. How I managed to start more than 100 seedlings this year is beyond me. Maybe my thumbs have developed some green.

It’s an exciting time at the Moore homestead. As the plants grow an idea is blossoming, one I hope to share with you soon. In the meantime, enjoy the updated photos from our farm in the making.

It’s beginning to look like a farm around here

Broccoli, Eggplant, Celery, Tomates, Squash, Melons and Cucumbers in this 16x8 raised bed.

Broccoli, Eggplant, Celery, Tomates, Squash, Melons and Cucumbers in this 16×8 raised bed.

In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt — Margaret Atwood

Boy did I ever. It was a busy weekend on the backyard homestead and you know what, it’s starting to look like a farm around here. This quote is fitting not only because my weekend consisted of a whole lot of dirt, but because it was included in the course guide for a backyard farming workshop I attended at Sentimental Farm. Even with the three-hour workshop on Saturday, I still managed to get a lot done on our growing mini farm.

Almost all of my 32 tomatoes are in the ground, planted in 16×8 ft raised bed along with cucumbers, squash, melons, eggplant, celery and broccoli. My peppers will be planted in a similar bed next to this one with cattle panels bended between the two to form trellis tunnels (see plan here) for the various climbing veggies. Most of my berries have been planted in a patch. More mesclun and romaine seeds went into the ground and I dug a European-style raised bed for my corn and beans that I hope to get in the ground this week. I also made an attempt at thinning my carrots.

See how there are two stems, you have the thin it out to one or you won't get a crop.

See how there are two stems, you have the thin it out to one or you won’t get a crop.

What’s that? You have to thin carrots? Who knew? Not me. At least not before attending my course on the weekend. According to Rob, if you don’t thin your carrots, you won’t have carrots. Now, it’s not that I am crazy about carrots (next to peas, they are probably my next least favourite vegetable on the planet, raw or cooked), but it was the thought of not having a yield that drove me to attempt the pull out and relocate the extra carrots growing. Carrot seeds are teeny tiny little things and planting just one or two seeds per hole is pretty difficult. Once the carrots grow a few inches, you can see the multiple stems coming from the same spot. The idea in thinning is to gently pull the weaker carrot out and move it to a new spot, that you dig by pushing a pencil into the ground. It is best to try this after a few days of rain when the ground is soft, or so the man in the YouTube video said. Sadly, the carrots that I transplanted all appear to have withered away BUT the carrots that are now singletons are thriving. I think they grew an inch overnight. A solution to this Rob offered is organic carrot tape that is available at TSC stores. It is essentially carrot seed properly spaced on rows of toilet paper that you plant in the ground. I don’t know the cost of this, but seeing how many carrots didn’t survive I might look into this for next year.

Rabbit hutch is half finished but Thumper has moved in.

Rabbit hutch is half finished but Thumper has moved in.

On the livestock side of things, Thumper is finally outside enjoying the sunshine. The rabbit hutch is almost finished, the hubby just has to finish the girl’s side and then we can put our meat rabbit operation into business. I’m sure Thumper will be happy to learn that he will soon have a few lady rabbits to” entertain”. Bunny was a little afraid of his new house at first, but after a few minor adjustments and luring with dandelions (his favourite) he can now hop up and down the ramps and get from his house to his run. Doesn’t he look happy?

He sure loves those dandelions.

He sure loves those dandelions.

There was also a fair amount of planning done this weekend for the fall/winter harvest. Who knew there were so many varieties you can grow all year long with the help of a hoop house (something we will be adding soon so be sure to check back for a how-to). What vegetables would you like to see in a fall/winter CSA? Varieties that I have: cabbage, kale, spinach, winter mesclun, super gourmet mesclun mix, Autumn King carrots, beets, arugula, swiss chard, Coastal Star Romaine, cabbage plus herbs parsley, cilantro and chives. Varieties I plan to add: corn salad, purple sprouting broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, scallions (I am out of seed and will be ordering a hardier variety for fall) and radish. Varieties I am considering: brussel sprouts and parsnip. If you are thinking about signing up for a CSA what varieties would you like to see added?

Hope everyone smelled of dirt at some point over the weekend!

PS: This week has been declared Local Food Week in Ontario, celebrate by supporting a local farmer either at a farmers’ market or farm gate stand.

My attempt at a European-style raised bed with 2-foot rows and 30-inch paths.

My attempt at a European-style raised bed with 2-foot rows and 30-inch paths.

I cheated on these ones but I don't think my seedlings will produce any fruits this year so I couldn't resist.

I cheated on these ones but I don’t think my seedlings will produce any fruits this year so I couldn’t resist.

Almost time to add a new layer to my potato box. Grow potatoes grow.

Almost time to add a new layer to my potato box. Grow potatoes grow.