With a Little Help from My Friends – Community Gardening Makes Good Sense and Good Fun

“It’s incredible what you can accomplish with some focused energy, good friends and a whole lotta love.” – Me, 2010

A labour of love.

A labour of love.

The backyard is not just our place of food production. In the spring, summer and fall it is a place buzzing with life and social activity. We chat over the fence to our neighbours. Good friends tend to come straight to the backyard instead of the front door. Our house backs onto a city park and sounds of the basketball court, soccer pitch and kiddy pool create a happy community background soundtrack. (We honestly love it, even when the conversations on the court get a little profane.)

The food production itself is also a social activity. I’ve been pleasantly amazed to discover how social vegetable gardening can be when you really get into it. For the past three years, our garden has been a shared project together with a few dedicated friends who do not have growing space of their own. “Many hands make light work,” as the saying goes. We started working together when, in the spring of 2010, the landlord of a duplex I was living in agreed to allow us to dig up 300 sqft of the front yard to put in a vegetable plot. A similar plot already existed in the large, sunny yard of the rental property – a community garden organized by the Sustainable Living Ottawa West (SLOWest) GrowSLOW Gardens project. (GrowSLOW Gardens partners landowners with gardeners to turn unused backyard space into glorious food-producing, community gardens.) There are quite a number of community gardens in Ottawa for those who might be interested to join an existing gardening space. Check out the Just Food Community Gardening Network of Ottawa for more info.

We started from scratch, turning over sod with pitchforks and shovels borrowed or bought cheap off Kijiji. We had a planting party to start indoor seedlings. To build a raised bed we scavenged wood from reno dumpsters and the curbside. We ordered a massive dump truck full of top soil and splurged on a wicked seed selection at Seedy Saturday. We traded neighbours our excess soil and tomato seedlings for lattice, bamboo, tomato cages a water barrel and all sorts of useful tools and materials. In total, 7 of us spent about $70 each on our start-up costs, which included soil, seeds and chicken wire.

We worked our butts off all spring to get the garden ready for planting by mid-May. We took turns watering and weeding. Everyone harvested delicious fresh veggies throughout the summer and fall, both to take home to their families and to eat together, which tended to happen fairly often. We had some great successes but also suffered an infestation of cucumber beetles and failed to get more than a handful of potatoes from a stacked tire growing method. We all learned a ton about gardening, enjoyed working with our hands and each other, and felt incredible about eating fresh organic produce.  It was an all-round wonderful shared project to undertake with a group of friends. You can check out a little photo montage of the garden on Facebook.

Beans, peas, carrots, cucumbers and friends.

Beans, peas, carrots, cucumbers and friends.

Since Ben and I made the move to our own home, we have continued to make the garden space a shared space. Friends helped to turn sod and build raised beds once again, and continue to periodically come over to share in some of the work and the harvest. We’ve been given seedlings and transplants by various friends and family, including fruit trees and garlic from “Grandpa” Frank and strawberries brought all the way from Mum’s backyard in Rossland B.C. And of course we have been enjoying paying all of this forward by giving seedlings, pumpkin pies, pesto, zucchini loaves and other goodies from the garden. Can you feel the love?! (Speaking of love, sending much to gardener amigas Anita, Vivs, Do, Xime. xx)

I hope this post might inspire others to get together with friends, family and/or neighbours to start a community garden. Sharing the work and sharing the harvest is a practical way to make backyard food production fit into a busy urban lifestyle, and is a beautiful way to connect to the people around you.

Friends with shovels! Anita helps Ben dig out a new bed next to the garage.

Friends with shovels! Anita helps Ben dig out a new bed next to the garage.

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.

In-Season Recipe (early June): Spring Mix Salad with Shaved Radish and Baked Goat’s Cheese Medallions

Spring mix salad served with portabello mushroom and asparagus fritatta. Spring eating at it's best.

Spring mix salad served with portabello mushroom and asparagus fritatta. Spring eating at it’s best.

Randy for radishes!

Randy for radishes!

Early season harvests are the best!… tender greens, baby spinach, crisp spring onion and the pièce de résistance – ravishing ripe red radishes. Planted in early April, these tangy, peppery little delights are now ready for the picking… and the eating! It’s so tempting to eat them right out of the ground, with just a wipe on the shirt sleeve to clean them off. But they are also amazing in a salad of fresh garden greens.

Here is a delicious and simple recipe that is a perfect way to enjoy early season greens and radishes. Serve this as a light meal or as a side. It’s pictured above paired with a portabello mushroom and asparagus frittata. Enjoy!

Spring Mix Salad with Shaved Radish and Baked Goat’s Cheese Medallions

For goat’s cheese medallions:

  • Soft unripened goat’s cheese (quantity is up to you!)
  • Egg, beaten in a bowl
  • A couple handfuls of bread crumbs on a plate. (If you’re eating gluten-free, try using some ground flax and cornmeal, or whatever “breading” substitute you are using.)
  • Olive oil.

Gooey baked goat's cheese. Drool!Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Generously grease a baking pan with olive oil. Shape goat’s cheese into 1tbsp sized medallions. One-by-one, dip medallions into the beaten egg and then press lightly into the breadcrumbs, making sure they’re well-coated. Place medallions on the baking pan. Bake for approx. 15 minutes, flipping once. They’re ready when golden brown on the outside and gooey soft on the inside… Mmmmmm.

While goat’s cheese is baking, toss the following in a salad bowl:

Early June harvest basket.

Early June harvest basket.

From the garden:

  • Assorted lettuce (Jericho Romaine, Red Oak Leaf and Curly Green Leaf)
  • Giant Winter spinach
  • Astro Arugula
  • Bunching spring onion
  • Cilantro
  • Raxe radishes, finely “shaved” using a carrot peeler, or chopped very thinly
  • Walnuts (or any nut you have in your cupboard)

For the vinaigrette:

  • 2-3 tbsp Olive oil
  • 1-2 tbsp balsamic vinegar (I used a raspberry balsamic)
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • tsp honey
  • tsp grainy mustard
  • sea salt and cracked pepper to taste

As soon as goat’s cheese medallions are done, toss salad in the vinaigrette and top with 2-3 medallions. Drizzle with balsamic glaze if you have it.


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.

3 Super Simple Ways to Use Less Tap Water

Clean drinking water is Canada’s most precious natural resource, yet we are constantly flushing it down the toilet and pouring it on the ground. Literally. Think about it – we flush our toilets and water our gardens with water that is processed, treated and purified for drinking… and we pay drinking water prices for it. Does this make sense? We think not, so here are a few low-tech, super simple and highly uninventive things that we do to reduce our day-to-day household water consumption. (I stress the simple because they are things that you, dear reader, could start doing right now!)

1. The bath water “greywater” system - Like all parents, we draw a bath almost every evening for our little kid to wash away the day’s accumulated grime. But when she’s squeaky clean and out of the tub, we don’t pull the plug. Instead, we use Sophia’s bath water to flush our toilet. We simply keep a 3L jug next to the bath and scoop a jug (ahem, or two) into the toilet to flush. Booyah – the lowest-tech, simplest greywater system you can think of!

In the month of April, we kept a piece of paper and a pen taped to the wall in the bathroom to keep track of each time we flushed with bath water. In total, we used bath water for 160 flushes! With a 6L toilet tank, that’s 960 litres of drinking water saved in just one month… that’s 11,520 litres in a year! (And I should note that we did not take showers standing in dirty bath water… the tub was often drained before it was completely empty.) Seriously, try this for one month and it will become second nature in your family bathroom routine.

Sophia Squishy Face and Back yard water barrel and water savingMay 17, 2013-81130517May 17, 2013

160 bath water toilet flushes in April!

2. Rain barrels for outdoor watering - We have 4 rain barrels around our house – 2 in the backyard, 1 in the front and the other currently undergoing some repairs but will soon be on the side of the house. To water the garden we fill up large water cans and do it manually. Watering by hand may sound like a daunting and time-consuming task, but it is actually one of the most pleasant and meditative parts of our daily routine. We usually water in the evening after our daughter Sophia has gone to bed; beer or cup of tea in hand, we poke around the garden and see how everything is growing, do a little weeding and enjoy the sounds of the backyard. (Note: We do use a garden hose for watering if several days without rain have left the barrels empty.)

You can get a 220L rain barrel  for $55 in Ottawa! Check out rainbarrel.ca. Rainbarrel.ca barrels are sold via fundraising events by various local community groups (e.g. sports teams, boys scouts, girl guides.) Check out the events page of their website to locate an upcoming fundraiser in your area. Another bonus – if you live in Gatineau you can get a $50 rebate from the city on the purchase of a rain barrel!

Rachel and Sophia watering from the rain barrels.

Rachel and Sophia watering from the rain barrels.

3. Kitchen sink “greywater” for watering houseplants - Not surprisingly, we have quite a few indoor plants which require watering once or twice a week. We use “waste” water from washing veggies in the kitchen sink to do all of the indoor watering. It’s simple – instead of running water over your veggies and down the drain, soak your veggies in a salad spinner (with the basket in) to clean them. Then remove the basket of veggies and pour the waste water into a small watering can or directly onto your plants. Easy peasy. We also use “waste” water from rinsing out the coffee bodum and tea pot for watering house plants.



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!