Start ‘em early!

… I’m talking about both your crops as well as your kids!

It’s mid-April, and that means the whole family has been pitching in to get the yard cleaned up and the garden beds planted with early season veggies. These include peas, spinach, kale, swiss chard, radishes, beets and lettuce. The garlic, planted last fall, is just starting to sprout, with new, lovely green shoots popping up overnight.

At age two and a half, Sophia already loves helping out in the garden, especially when water is involved. Here she is tending to the garlic patch. Love this kid!

 

50 Shade of Green

Reason #6: 50 Shades of PESTICIDE-FREE Leafy Greens

Leafy greens – kale, spinach, swiss chard, lettuces and arugula – are one of the best things to grow in any garden. For one thing, most green varieties are frost hardy and so are one of the first crops you can plant. They are also fast growing, so are one of the first crops to harvest in the spring. The root systems of greens are fairly small and shallow, so you can plant a lot of it in a small space; the Square Foot Gardener recommends 4 lettuce, chard or kale plants per square foot. Finally, with succession planting, because they are frost hardy, greens are one of the latest crops going in the garden. Kale and swiss chard are often still green when the snow starts to fly.

Lettuce, kale, arugula, chard, spinach... It's so easy being green.

Lettuce, kale, arugula, chard, spinach… It’s so easy being green.

Anyone who is reading this blog most likely does not need to be told how amazingly healthy leafy greens are, especially the dark varieties such as kale, chard, spinach and collards. However, buying non-organic greens from the Superstore could be doing us more harm than good. Spinach, lettuce, kale and other leafy greens are included in the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen – a list of produce containing the highest levels of pesticide residue. Seriously scary stuff.

Sure you can buy organic greens at markets like Herb and Spice. But at $3.99/bunch for organic kale, I’d say it’s worthwhile to see what you can grow yourself!

Gardening… it’s not for wimps!

… and 29 other reasons why I think everyone should grow their own vegetables!

I have been pathetically and conspicuously absent from this blog for the past several months, so I have decided that I will do one post every day for the next month, each describing a different aspect of vegetable gardening that I love and that I hope will inspire others to get their hands dirty. These will be posted in no particular order or hierarchy of preference; simply at random depending on what inspires me in the garden on that particular day.

So, here we go…

Reason #1: Gardening is excellent for your health and well-being!

Gardening - it's not for wimps.

Gardening – it’s not for wimps.

Tired of doing bicep curls in front of the gym mirror when it’s a gorgeous sunny day outside? Feel like you’ll scream if you have to duck one more time to avoid photo-bombing that gym bunny’s post-workout #selfie? I’ve got a solution for you! It’s called gardening, and it is an incredible workout for your arms, back, shoulders, legs and core, particularly if you forget the leaf-blower and other gas-guzzling tools and use a little elbow grease instead.

Gardening has also been shown to produce a number of other mental and physical health benefits including lowered blood pressure, increased brain activity and lowered stress levels. Raking leaves, pushing a manual lawnmower, turning compost, hauling wheel-barrows of soil, crouching, bending and reaching to pull weeds, lifting bags of peat moss or manure, moving rocks, building raised bed and pruning trees – incorporate some of these into your summer routine and I promise your body and mind will thank you.

You can read more about gardening and health here.

In-Season Recipe (early July): Garlic Scape, Basil & Kale Pesto

Fresh batch of scape, kale and basil pesto. Does it get any more delicious?

Fresh batch of scape, kale and basil pesto. Does it get any more delicious?

It’s scape season! Well, the tail end of it anyway. We have been loving using garlic scapes in place of garlic bulb for the last few weeks. FYI, for those who don’t know, the scape is a long curly stalk at the end of which grows the garlic flower. Scapes are harvested before the garlic actually flowers to encourage the garlic to direct energy to the bulb. And they are delicious. We’ve been putting them in curries, omelettes, stir fries, roasted veg, salads, marinades… you name it!

Curly garlic scapes, ripe for the picking (early July.)

Curly garlic scapes, ripe for the picking (early July.)

But the pièce de résistance has got to be the pesto. We harvested all of the remaining scapes in one big bundle to be sacrificed to the food processor gods to become a few precious jars of garlicy, basily, nutty goodness.

Pesto is a cinch to make. Here’s how I did this batch. (Note that all measurements are approximate… it’s all up to your tastes.)

Put the following in a food processor and blend until smooth:

- 2 cups garlic scapes (chop off the little seed pods first)

- 1 cup chopped kale

- 1 cup chopped basil

- 1 cup lightly roasted pine nuts

- 1 cup lightly roasted walnuts

- 1.5 -2 cups grated parmesan cheese

- 1 generous cup olive oil

- juice of at least 1 lemon (more if you love a lemon zing in your pesto)

- Lots of cracked pepper and dash of sea salt, to taste

This recipe yielded about 6 small jars, but it was so good that Benny insisted on snacking on it immediately with some tortilla chips (as pictured above.) You will too. Freeze what you aren’t using immediately. These small jars make awesome leave-behind gifts if you’re going to a friend’s for dinner or visiting a friend with a new baby.

While pesto is typically made with basil, I used a combination of garden kale and basil in this batch and it worked out famously. We are growing three varieties of kale:

Red Russian and Blue Curled kale (early July.)

Red Russian and Blue Curled kale (early July.)

We have four varieties of basil growing this year, although I must admit that I did buy some basil transplants at the Parkdale Market to supplement the rather meager number of basil seedlings that germinated indoors (from seeds harvested in 2012.) I think we have a Thai, an Italian, a purple leaf and a Greek basil.

Benny’s Freaky Deaky Sweet Potato Sprouting Project

Take a good look at this photo and tell me what you see…

Up close and personal with Ben's sprouted sweet potato.

Up close and personal with Ben’s sprouted sweet potato.

An alien being? A mutated sea creature? Something freakish to be sure. But in actual fact, this is a newly sprouting sweet potato, and Ben’s current pride and joy (well, second to baby Sophia that is.)

We eat a lot of sweet potato, but have never seen it for sale locally, nor have we heard of anyone growing it in their garden here in Ottawa. Apparently that’s because it grows well in more tropical climates than ours, being indigenous to Central and South America (or so says Wikipedia.) But wouldn’t it be cool if we could grow some in our own backyard?!

So Ben set off on a Google quest to figure out the best way to sprout a sweet potato indoors… turns out there are a lot of other sweet potato lovers out there offering some very useful step-by-step advice on this topic. (Such as the DIY Network.) It works like this: suspend a sweet potato half in a container of water using some toothpicks, putting the “pointy” side down. Keep it in a sunny spot and if you are lucky the yummy little tuber will start sprouting roots and eventually some shoots and leaves! I think it took about 6 weeks for ours to get to the stage shown in the photo.

Sweet, sweet sprouted sweet potato.

Sweet, sweet sprouted sweet potato.

An important consideration – many sweet potatoes are treated with a sprouting inhibitor. We weren’t sure if the one we planted would actually sprout for this reason, but apparently it was not treated. We bought it at Herb and Spice.

The next step will be to put this strange little creature into some soil to see how it grows outside in the Ottawa summer… we’ll keep you posted!

The Pop Bottle Greenhouse

Here’s something for those of you planting cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, zucchini or any other crop with wide spacing… introducing the pop bottle greenhouse! Cut the bottom off some 2L plastic pop bottles and put them over your planted seeds or transplanted seedling and you’ve got mini greenhouses which will do wonders for kick-starting seedlings. AND they keeps the squirrels off your delicate little plants! Just make sure to remove them when watering your garden to ensure your seeds/plants are getting enough water. Keep the pop bottle greenhouses in place until your seedlings are growing out of them.

You are probably thinking to yourself: “Gee, that’s a neat idea, but I don’t drink enough pop to do this.” Well, neither do we. Just head out for a stroll around your neighbourhood on blue-box night with a large backpack and I guarantee you’ll collect enough pop bottles to satisfy all of your sprouting needs!

Pop bottle greenhouses over cucumbers, mid-May.

Pop bottle greenhouses over cucumbers, mid-May.

Here you see the greenhouses in action over some cucumber seeds and transplants. Mmmmm cucumbers! This year we’ve planted three varieties:

Oh and while we’re on the subject of cucumbers, here are a couple of tips: 1. Cucumbers don’t like to be planted right next to tomatoes. They do well with beans, carrots, beets and radishes; 2. Cucumbers can be grown vertically! Plant them along the back edge of a sunny garden plot and train them up a trellis… you can learn more about that here.

Early Season Planting… Hurry Up and Wait!

Getting the garden going in the spring is always an exercise in patience. The snow melts, then it comes back. The temperature jumps up to 20+ degrees for a few days but then is back down to near freezing. It can be hard to know what should be planted and when, and how to plan for a garden that doesn’t all get planted at the same time.

Several crops can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked, and actually prefer to germinate in cool soil, including spinach, radishes, beets, greens, kale and peas.

Sprouted Giant Winter spinach, Jericho romaine lettuce and Early Wonder beets, early May

Sprouted Giant Winter spinach, Jericho romaine lettuce and Early Wonder beets, early May

Here is a list of everything that we planted outdoors in the month of April and the source of the seeds. The items that are in bold are things that we’ve done before that we’ve loved and would recommend:

  • Romaine lettuce (seeds harvested from 2012 season, originally Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Red Oak leaf lettuce (seeds harvested from 2012 season, originally Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Curly green leaf lettuce (seeds harvested from 2012 season, originally plant given by friend)
  • Astro Arugula (seeds harvested from 2012 season, Greta’s Organic Garden)
  • Black Seeded Simpson lettuce (Page Seed Co)
  • Giant Winter spinach (Greta’s Organic Garden)
  • Rainbow Dinosaur kale (Urban Harvest)
  • Vates Blues Curled kale (Urban Harvest)
  • Red Russian kale (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Plum Purple radish (The Cottage Gardener)
  • Raxe radish (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Atomic Red carrot (Urban Harvest)
  • Scarlett Nantes carrot (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Jerusalem artichoke (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Detroit Dark Red beet (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Early Wonder beet (Greta’s Organic Garden)
  • Sugar Snap pea (Ferme Tourne Sol)
  • Fordhook Giant swiss chard (Urban Harvest)
  • Sweet Peas flowers (Aimers – bought at Lee Valley)
Plum Purple radish and Sugar Snap peas, early May

Plum Purple radish and Sugar Snap peas, early May

This year we really had our shit together and got our early planting started as soon as the ground was thawed enough to turn over the top 12 inches of soil. But we didn’t just bury the seeds any-old-where in the garden. We planned the early planting with a few things in mind this year – succession planting, crop rotation and interplanting with later season crops.

Succession planting -  Some crops mature quickly, which means that you can/should plant several “batches” of them throughout the growing season to maintain a constant supply of your favourite salad fixin’s! These include lettuce, arugula, spinach, beets and radishes (and carrots to a lesser degree.) Successive rounds of planting can be done every 2-4 weeks for these crops.

This has implications for your first round of planting in the early season; it means that you don’t need to plant all the beets you can eat in one go! Plant some now and more later…  We planted our sunniest garden plot with a small assortment of salad greens, beets and radishes. 2 weeks later, we planted another plot in the garden with radishes and beets. Another round of lettuces will be planted in the coming week. It should be noted, however, that certain crops don’t do well when it gets hot, hot, hot. Spinach and beets will likely not do well when planted into July and August; best to do a couple of plantings in spring and wait for later summer to plant again for fall harvest.

(Tip: The book Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew has some extremely helpful and simple planting charts to help plan succession planting. Highly recommended for urban gardening newbies!)

 Crop rotation - Each crop in the garden needs a different balance of mineral nutrients (namely nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) from the soil. As a result, the soil can become depleted of one or more nutrients when the same crop is planted in the same place year after year. To avoid this, we are doing our best to switch up the location of crops in the garden. For example, cucumbers are nitrogen-suckers! We will be putting cucumbers in a different spot this year and planting beans – a nitrogen-replenisher – in their place. This is an important consideration in the early season as you plan out the location of your crops in the yard and put in some of the longer-growing early season crops such as kale, chard and peas.

Interplanting – This year we are going to dabble much more with interplanting – the art of planting more than one type of crop together in a harmonious and beneficial way. As noted above, we did our first spring planting in the sunniest garden plot, which is also occupied by our garlic, planted last fall. (See previous post Why yes I do have garlic breath.) This sunny spot is primo tomato growing location, so our plan is to interplant tomato seedlings with the early season greens, radishes and beets. As the tomatoes grow and require more space we will be eating the radishes and beets and will thin out the lettuce. In the heat of the summer the few heads of lettuce that remain will enjoy partial shade from the towering tomatoes and (in theory) will not bolt as quickly as lettuce that is exposed to the direct blazing sun… stay tuned to see how that works out!

If you haven’t planted anything yet and are reading this thinking “Aww man, I’ve missed the boat and now it’s too late!” then please stop worrying. You can plant now. Or next week. Just please do plant this spring!