Seedy Saturday! Getting into “garden mode”

Seedy Saturday is happening in Ottawa this Saturday, March 2nd at the Ron Kolbus community centre at Britannia Park. Seed exchange table, organic local farms selling heirloom seeds, free workshops and all kinds of goodies. An organic gardener’s MUST DO to get ready for planting season… check it!

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So I am a bit sheepish to admit this is my first blog post in nearly 6 months, basically since returning back to work. Call me lazy, but I find there is something about working a full-time job and raising a toddler that kind of eats into your “Oh, I think I’ll write a blog post about composting or garbage-picking” time.


Here, I am, back at the computer, after all this time, motivated by the rapidly approaching spring and the need to start planning for indoor and outdoor planting. I know it’s hard to imagine that planting season is almost upon us when we have had such a hardcore winter that we’ve come to call -12 a “mild enough” day. But believe me people, it is almost here. Last year we planted our indoor seeds on March 10th… that’s in, like, only 2 weeks!

Ok, stop panicking (note to self: stop panicking.) Two weeks is a perfectly adequate length of time to plan a garden, provided you know where to start. Shameless self promotion here: If you DON’T know where to start and you’re thinking, after getting a few paragraphs into this post, that maybe you would like to grow some veggies this year, please shoot me an email and I’d love to come by and help out.

It definitely helps to have some experience testing out different seeds when you’re planning out what to grow. I find that with each passing year of experimenting with growing vegetables, I’ve gained a better understanding of what I like growing, how much is not enough/too much to plant, how often to plant, how much water things do/don’t like, what sorts of pests to watch for and how early and how often I can plant something, etc. etc.

I find it really helpful to sit down and make a plan, starting by thinking about what we loved from the last year(s), what we could have done without and what new veggie we’d like to try that we’ve never grown before.

Planting planning! And making a shopping list for Seedy Saturday.

Planting planning! And making a shopping list for Seedy Saturday.

Last year, we introduced Jerusalem artichoke – a definite winner, and I must learn to make a good roasted artichoke soup with them this year. We also planted our two peach and one nectarine trees, which produced a small but outrageously delicious crop of insect-free fruit. We also sprouted a sweet potato indoors and planted the slips… no spuds, but we’ll try again earlier this year! And of course there was the garlic. I still can’t believe it was the first year ever growing our own. We gifted several garlic braids to friends and family and ate garlic like we were living in a Twilight novel. We are definitely growing a lot more of that this year!

The big new thing for me this year is going to be flowers. Namely, medicinal or edible flowers. For starter, to keep it simple, maybe flax, echinacea, camomile, lavender, bee balm, nasturtiums and sunflowers. Other suggestions? I would also really love to get some raspberry and ground cherry bushes going. An old neighbour of mine grew ground cherries here in Ottawa, and they were off-the-hook. Ben and I tried planting some from seed here last year and failed miserably. This year I’ll do a bit more research.

See you at Seedy Saturday!


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.

Indoor planting… party?!

As if there is ever need of an excuse to eat fresh croissants with friends on a Sunday, but if you’re looking for one then an indoor seed-planting party is definitely a good one! The gist of the planting party is that everyone brings a little something to either plant or eat or both. Seeds are shared and planted in pots and flats, and everyone goes home with full bellies and an assortment of planted seeds to germinate indoors.

Jaune Flamme seedlings

Jaune Flamme seedlings

Due to Ottawa’s short(ish) growing season, if you’re planning on starting everything from seed, there are certain veggies that should be started up to eight weeks before the last frost date, which is May 6th, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. We held our planting party March 10th*.

Here is a list of the seeds we planted indoors and the source for each:

  • Jaune Flamee tomato (heirloom, Ferme Tourne Sol)
  • Black Cherry tomato (heirloom, Ferme Tourne Sol)
  • Montreal Tasty tomato (heirloom, Ferme Tourne Sol)
  • Mixed bell pepper (seeds harvested from 2011 planting)
  • Beaver Dam Hot Pepper (The Cottage Gardener)
  • Hungarian hot pepper (The Cottage Gardener)
  • Evergreen bunching onion (Urban Harvest)
  • Rosa Bianca Eggplant (Urban Harvest)
  • Dill (Greta’s Organic Gardens)
  • Cilantro (seeds harvested from 2012 planting)
  • Basil (seeds harvested from 2012 planting)
  • Sunflowers (Seeds of Creation)
  • Watermelon (seed trading table at Seedy Saturday)
  • Cantaloupe (from Ben’s dad)
Pepper seedlings

Mixed “Mystery” bell pepper seedlings

Here is a list of some things that are important to prep before you host your own planting party:

  1. Have all of your seeds in order and sort out those that should be planted indoors. All seed packets will come with planting  instructions will say whether a crop should be started indoors.
  2. Determine approximately how many plants you would like of each crop… I tend to err on the high side because it’s fun to give away seedlings to neighbours, friends and colleagues. (It is amazing the goodies you can trade for you home-sprouted seedlings!) Once you know how many you want, you can figure out home many pots/planting flats you need, and how much potting soil you will need.
  3. Make sure all of your pots and/or planting flats are the type that allow drainage. Some of the flats come with a clear plastic lid which provides an excellent greenhouse effect for little seedlings.
  4. Have some trowels and a small watering can or spray bottle on hand. Ask friends to bring their own trowel and any small tools they think they’ll need.
  5. Labeling is key, especially when you have many people planting several different types of seeds. Have masking tape and a few sharpies on hand and make sure people are labeling as they go… last year we somehow ended up with something like 2-dozen eggplant plants and no pepper. Whoops!
  6. Pick your house’s sunniest spot and clear out an area for the flats to live for the next 6-8 weeks.
  7. Good music, good friends and good food also help make a highly successful indoor planting event. Duh.

Once seeds are planted they need to be kept warm, moist and sunny. Take good care of these little babies! In the week leading up to the planned date of outdoor transplanting, the indoor seedlings should be left outside for several hours a day to “harden” them. Read more about seedling hardening here.

Afterthought: We had good germination on most of the above listed crops, with the exception of the onions… I think this will be the last year we bother trying to start those by seed indoors.

It’s a little seedy around here

At this time of year, I get a lot of people asking me the same question when I tell them about the vegetable garden: “Where do you get your seeds?” In case you are also interested in the answer to this question, dear reader, I will tell you. There are the several places we get our seeds…

First of all, as much as possible we harvest seeds from our own garden for future planting. To date we’ve had success doing this with peas, beans, peppers, basil, cilantro, cantaloupe, lettuce, spinach and arugula. (Stay tuned this summer for a video blog series dedicated to showing you how to harvest from various crops.)

Hands down the best seed-buying event in Ottawa is Seedy Saturday – an event held in early March each year where numerous local (ON and QC) organic farms sell their seeds. For the last three years we have come home from this event with way more seeds than we planned from several of the farmers selling there, and have yet to be disappointed. The event also has a seed exchange table (i.e. FREE seeds if you have something to contribute to the table), some highly instructional gardening workshops and all sorts of scrumptious artisanal goodies to be found. Check out the Ecology Ottawa website for next year’s date.

Sugar snap pea seeds

Sugar snap peas from Ferme Tourne-Sol

There is one farm from which we’ve had some particularly incredible seeds: Ferme Tourne-Sol co-operative farm (les Cèdres, QC.) We have tried several of their tomatoes, beans, lettuce, peas, radishes, carrots and kale and everything has been very well germinating and producing. If you missed them at Seedy Saturday you can always order seeds from their website.

We are trying some fun potatoes this year! We have ordered four different varieties of fingerling potatoes from Bryson Farm.

We’ve also had good results with seeds from Greta’s Organic Gardens (Gloucester, ON) and Urban Harvest (Toronto, ON.)

Finally, I have been know to pick up certain herbs (rosemary, thyme, dill, chives) at the Parkdale Market, where you can often buy 3 plants for $5.

So, you could say we are not really one to buy seeds at Canadian Tire, preferring to take time to choose seeds that are heirloom as often as possible, and from organic producers. BUT, if that is what is easiest for you in order to get growing, then what better way to spend your CT dollars!