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 |

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 |

Hopefully my pepper plants will really thrive this year with better soil and a steady dose of epsom salt (read about the benfits here

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 |

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.


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. |

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

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. |

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

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. |

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

Popping my canning cherry and a pickle recipe

Pickle success on my first try? Only time will tell. Popping my canning cherry and a pickle recipe |

Pickle success on my first try? Only time will tell. Popping my canning cherry and a pickle recipe |

Get it? Popping my canning cherry. Like that sweet popping sound you want to hear when you can. It’s a sweet sound I tell you, especially when there is a symphony of popping lids. It means victory.

Everything is growing like mad around here. While my tomato plants aren’t as tall or as big as I would like them to be, there are plenty of fruits, big and small, ripening on their vines. I have about six little eggplants growing and dozens of peppers, hot and sweet. The ground cherries and gooseberries are impressive, taking over the little berry patch so much that my raspberry and blueberry plants have disappeared. I have plenty of canning recipes I plan to try with my crop as I am expecting a bumper one (PS tried ground cherries for the first time tonight and oh my are they are sweet and tasty). My homemade pickle cucumbers are also faring well, though not producing enough at one time to make pickles so I had to cheat.

I had seven homegrown cucumbers on the counter just dying to be made into pickles. I couldn’t wait.

I had to cheat and buy some extras from the farmers' market. I couldn't wait to try my hand at canning.

I had to cheat and buy some extras from the farmers’ market. I couldn’t wait to try my hand at canning.

After a trip to the Grimsby Farmers’ Market I had enough cucumbers to make a small batch of pickles. Too bad I forgot to plant dill, I had to buy that too.

It looks like my pickling adventure was a success (and my subsequent spicy dilly bean adventure as well as adventures in jam, all of which I will blog about soon). I do have one concern though, and only time will tell. Apparently in all my researching about canning, I failed to take in one major advisory: use a non-reactive pot.

What does that mean? Pots made of aluminum, cast iron or treated with a non-stick coating can leach a metallic taste into the final product. Non-reactive pans include those made of stainless steal or enamel-coated cast iron.

I used non-stick pans, though mine are not teflon treated, they have a petroleum-free, ceramic-based coating. Anyone have any idea if that makes a difference?

At least there are only four jars of possibly metallic pickles (and four more small ones beans). The jams are safe we used a stainless pot.

Here is the recipe I tried, though I cannot vouch for taste yet.

And there you have it folks, my first canning accomplishment.

And there you have it folks, my first canning accomplishment.

    Blue Ribbon Dill Pickles



  • 1 basket of pickling cucumbers
  • Bunch of dill
  • Head of garlic
  • 8 1/2 C water
  • 2 1/4 C pickling vinegar
  • 1/2 C pickling salt


  • Stainless steel pot, large and small size
  • Canning pot
  • 4 pickle-sized canning with rings and lids (make sure to get new lids as the seal is only good for one use)
  • Canning tongs *
  • Canning funnel *
  • Canning magnet *
  • Canning measuring stick *
  • Towels

(*all come together in a kit from Bernadin available at most retailers)

Wash jars either by hand in hot, soapy water or on sterilizer mode in your dishwasher. Rinse and fill with water, set aside.

Fill canner with hot water and set on burner over high heat.

In smaller pot, cover rings and lids with water and bring to simmer.

In large, stainless pot, bring water, vinegar and salt to a boil. Turn off heat and set aside.

Stuff jars. First layer the garlic (I did two in each) and dill at the bottom (I added some mustard seeds, brown and yellow) then stuff in the cucs. Cram them in there up to the neck. Make sure they are stuffed in there tight or you will have a big empty gap in your finished jar (like with my beans). Top it off with some more dill and another clove of garlic.

Next, get out your trusty little canning funnel and pour in that hot, vinegar-water-salt mix. Careful, it’s hot. Fill jars, leaving a half-inch gap at the top (use your trusty little measuring stick to do that). Wipe off jar rim with warm, damp towel.

Now it’s time to use that little magnet tool. Grab a lid and ring from the simmering pot and place it on top of the jar. Screw down rim, do not tighten to much, but make sure rim is even.

Once jars are filled, use those trusty canning tongs to lower the jar into the canning pot. Bring water almost to a boil, about 15 minutes.

Remove jars from pot with tongs and place on dish towel. Put another towel on top.

Listen for the pop.

If it doesn’t pop, don’t sweat it at first. It can take 12-24 hours for the lid to pop. Mine happened after I went to bed a little depressed that my pickles didn’t pop. It was like Christmas morning when I went downstairs and discovered that over night those lids had sealed. Victory.

And then I learned about the non-reactive pot thing. Less victory.

Another small note. My garlic turned green. No blue. Like blue cheese. I read that this is perfectly normal and has something to do with a reaction between the garlic and water (or maybe my reactive pot?). For the beans, I chopped the garlic and did not have this problem. No more whole garlic in my canning recipes. Unless someone has a suggestion?


A pepper’s best friend

epsom salt

For a minute there, I was worried.

My beautiful pepper seedlings, which I had raised from itty-bitty seeds, were not looking so hot. The leaves were a light green, with a slight tinge of yellow. They weren’t pretty. They also weren’t really growing.

We eat a lot of peppers, especially jalapeno, so I was counting on getting a pretty decent yield of these thick-walled fruits. I have planted 32 feet of peppers, in two, 16-foot raised row beds. The varieties planted are California Wonder, Jalapeno, Pepperoncini and Sweet Chocolate.

I did a little reading online via Pinterest and made a few quick amendments and my peppers are looking good once again. The majority now have lush, green leaves and are starting to get a little taller.

Here is what I learned.

Epsom salt is a pepper’s (and tomato’s) best friend.

Early in the season this mineral compound aids in germination, early root and cell development, photosynthesis, plant growth and prevents blossom-end rot. Epsom salt, or magnesium sulfate, adds, you guessed it, magnesium to the soil. Plants like peppers and tomatoes are prone to magnesium deficiency which causes the fruit to be slow to mature and ripen. Because our season is limited, slowing the season is not a good idea. 

How to garden with Epsom salt.

At planting: This step I obviously missed, but apparently adding one or two tablespoons to the hole before transplanting peppers and tomatoes.

Throughout the season: Work in one tablespoon of Epsom salt per foot of plant height around the base of each plant. Do this two times a week. Epsom salt can also be applied as a topical spray by combining one tablespoon of Epsom salt per gallon of water in a sprayer tank (I use a $3 one from Dollarama). Apply this spray once the plants start blossoming to increase yields and keep plants lush and bushy. It is advised to substitute this application as a substitute for a normal watering once a month.

Hopefully, with if I keep up this routine, I will have a lot of peppers to eat and preserve later this season. I also plan to add a layer of black mulch to keep in moisture. I added a layer of grass mulch around my tomato and broccoli plants, however peppers do not like the extra nitrogen so off to the garden centre it is.

epsom salt2


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.

A box full of taters

Potatoes are planted!

Potatoes are planted!

We had a productive Sunday on our backyard farm. This weekend I planted more spinach, green onion, arugula, swiss chard, romaine lettuce and carrots. I also planted the first of my beet plants.

Another project we completed was our potato box. My husband did most of the work on this one.

I found the inspiration for our potato box on Pinterest (follow me The idea is to build a small tower that you grow with the potatoes. We built our potato box with wood we had laying around the dry shed, so we didn’t follow the directions to a T (they specify 2×2 posts, the ones we used were a bit larger). Dave cut the boards into 21- and 24-inch lengths with the posts 33 inches in height. He then attached the four boards to the bottom of the box (for a visual see, I would post photos of our potato box, but I left my card reader at work, check back tomorrow for photos). We filled the box in with dirt (we used triple mix and sheep manure) and planted the mixed seed potatoes we ordered from West Coast Seeds (these are a mix of Sieglinde, Chieftan, Yukon Gold, and Russian Blue, I can’t for these to grow) along with the majority of our seeds for this year. I planted them whole, though I have also read you can cut them into smaller pieces with at least two eyes per piece. As the taters grow, we will add more boards and dirt until it reaches the top of the box. To harvest the potatoes, you remove the boards. Some bloggers have reported yields of 100 pounds in a 2×2 box. Only time will tell how successful we are at potato growing. Fingers crossed we will have plenty of spuds to last us next fall and winter.

What is your favourite potato dish?

Why you should grow your own potatoes (or buy from a local, organic farmer)

Potatoes found in the grocery store are sprayed with a concoction of chemicals — pesticides, anti-sprotuing agents, fungicides, herbicides. Potatoes, like most root vegetables, absorb these chemicals that wind up in the soil. Potatoes are twelfth on the Dirty Dozen list, a list of the 12 foods you should buy organic according to the Environmental Working Group. Be sure to buy these organic (or grow your own) apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries, potatoes. Alternately, the “Clean 15” are onions, sweet corn (though a lot of corn is GMO, so be sure to watch for this), pineapples, avocado, cabbage, sweet peas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, kiwi, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, watermelon, mushrooms.

We are growing our own food because we are concerned about the food we are eating. Conventional products do not require labels warning consumers that they have been exposed to heavy doses of toxic chemicals, but organic farmers who want to label their products as such have to pay large amounts of money for certification. There is something backwards when a product has to be labelled for not having something in it, when products that could potentially harm our health require no such label. We will be able to enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables from our little homestead with the peace of mind that they are not genetically modified and have not been exposed to pesticides. It doesn’t get any fresher than the backyard.

potato box1