Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The longer days signify fast growth.

This week in the seed growth is wonderful.  The snow was falling until an hour ago when the sun finally came out and the greenhouse is drenched in the late afternoon rays.  

The cucumber seeds are fast sprouters in the extended daily light.  The ones planted weeks ago are upstairs and have already produced the tendrils.  these help to anchor the plants and soon, they will have to be staked to avoid attaching themselves to everything within reach!!!  The snow is still on the ground today and yes, it snowed all day!!!

The parsley from last year's garden, which was wintered in the garage has become very green and is growing fast.  To help to bush it up, it will need to be trimmed the next time I put on a pot of soup.

The tomato plants are growing and with the help of an overhead ceiling fan, are getting stronger by the day.  I will be digging them in as soon as the above ground beds are built.  First, we have to wait until the snow is off the lawn and the ground softens.

Marigolds - these are growing well, so well, that i have planted another flat.  These will be beneficial for the garden to keep out pests and the more the merrier.  They are also a great colour addition to the garden.  Do not deadhead these at the end of the season.  Allow the seeds to mature then pluck them to save the seeds for the following year.  These are prolific seeders and will often re-seed the garden.  If this happens, just thin out the seedlings to allow the plants room to grown.  They are beneficial in attracting butterflies and bees to pollinate your veggies.

Let's talk about composting.....

Composting is a science that when done properly, can provide your garden with nutrients from your kitchen scraps.  We compost so many things in our garden compost container.  Ours is one we purchased from the city years ago.  It is black and has air holes for circulation and a door on the bottom in order to remove the compost.  It is best installed in a sunny spot which is easy to access.  This winter, Max had to snowblow a path to our composter so we could reach it!!!  Despite the cold weather, the composter actually is quite warm in the middle.  The breakdown of organics produces heat as a by product.  This heat helps to break down the organics.  If you don't have a composter, you can build your own using chicken wire.  Loosen the earth for about 8 inches below the surface to allow you to turn some of your scraps into the ground to get the process going.  The worms will love helping you.

What goes in?

What does not?

Companion Planting

To improve and encourage plants to grow, companion planting is the way to go.  This takes careful planning in advance.  Know what your plants need and then provide the right space to grow these plants together.  My father-in-law loves Basil and Tomato sandwiches and no wonder, these two plants do well together.  Know what to plant and how to plant them together!!  Heeman's, a grower east of London has some great tips and charts:



Tomato film

I found this handy 3' by 25' tomatoe film to help grow my tomatoes while protecting them from the late summer blight that yellows the leaves and reduces production just as you are heading into the pickling season!!  This sheet is perforated to allow water to pass but prevents the earth from splashing up in heavy rainfalls.  You can cut X's into the sheet to allow the sheet to be placed over the plant and pulled down to the soil surface.  Planting the tomatoes sideways allows the tiny roots to form along the stem, making the plant healthier and stronger.

This sheet is 3' wide and the 6" around the perimeter of this sheet will be used to plant the marigolds.  I cannot emphasize enough the importance of growing these flowers or nasturtiums to reduce the amount of pests in your veggie garden.  You can stake the sheet down with pegs to prevent it from blowing around or by stapling it to the raised box edge.  If you need to overlap the sheet, do so using an overlap of 4-5". 

Planting Beneficial Marigolds

Photo courtesy of A.E McKenzie Co. 

The marigolds (Cracker Jack) should be spaced 12" apart.  This old variety will grow to 3' tall.  It is also great to shade roots of plants where soil is exposed and will provide lovely colours while doing so.  Dead head the flowers to promote more flower heads. At the end of the season, I will allow the last of the dead heads to mature the seeds, which I will store in the garage in a moisture proof packet once the seeds are dried.  You can also place the seeds in your garden to get an early start in the spring. Either way, you will not need to purchase any more packets. 

Making Garden Labels
All seed companies now have their seed packet photos available online.  I simply use a word program or Martha Stewart Craft Studio on my iPad to create labels using picture and text. I then use a clear sticky polymer sheet to cover both sides of the label. Cut out leaving a 1/8" boarder around the label in order to keep moisture from reaching the paper inside.  As you can see, I created many labels on one sheet to save paper.....how Eco friendly is that?

Photo courtesy of Martha Stewart Craft Studio and internet photos from A.E McKenzie Co.

New Garden Design
With all the many design elements we came up with, we knew the first design was more designer than friendly.  Max and I decided to change the design to maximize growing space and to increase curb appeal. There are many considerations for growing Urban gardens and these were the main design elements:
1.  Make it so that you maximize growing space.
2.  Above ground planters to increase growing time and allow for cold frame installation.
3.  Curb appeal.....while it is your property, others still have to live across the street and next door.
4.  Consider the heat/amount of daylight.  Is it morning or afternoon sun?  
5.  Do some plants need shade?
6.  Companion planting
7.  Pest control
8.  Watering?
9. Unwanted neighbor intrusion - make sure the garden is not easily accessible to the street.  Place a barrier garden or unique fence and plantings to be enjoyed by those walking by.  We do not have a sidewalk but many people walk their dogs on the edge....some leave gifts!!!
10. Be willing to network with curious and friendly neighbors.  We will have a sign with our blog link available so that our shyer neighbors or visitors to our neighborhood can see what we are doing.

Our new design will incorporate these elements......so here it is!!!

All the rectangle beds are 4'x8' except for the two facing the front of the house. These two will be 4'x7'.  It is much easier to construct and section for plantings. With a 4' span and access from all sides, this will reduce the strain of stretching across.  The street side has the bowed shape allowing us to errect a taller climbing fence that blocks the view from the street and a showy garden of bedding plants and flowering bushes relocated from the back yard.  We will be taking a trip out to Elmira to a nursery to obtain any other fruit and berry bushes. 

We are also considering making a wattle fence to decorate and separate our front garden from the street.  It is a weaved fence using green wood that is still flexible enough to weave. It can be made into panels that can be removed before the winter to prevent damage from snow plows. It is a great way to recycle tree trimmings. Now we just have to find a good source of materials.  There are laws about moving wood from one location to another now that the forest city has been hit by the Ash Borer.

Hints and Tips

Repotting seedlings - we planted two seeds into each pot.  Once the first leaves are out and the plant is sporting a strong stalk, it is time to repot them into their own space.  I do this before the roots intertwine making it impossible to separate.  While most seed packets tell you to plant 2 or 3 seeds in each cell and then thin out, I will actually repot both seedlings into the newspaper pots. Use a proper potting soil or mix a potting soil with parts of compost and topsoil. I prefer potting soil because of the peat mixed in to hold the moisture.  Tomato plants and their seedings are water hogs and I find the potting soil helps with this. Once the seedlings have been repotted, I usually keep them out of the greenhouse to make way for more seeding as the room is limited.  They can then continue to grow bigger and then be planted directly into the ground without being shocked.  Plants will need to be hardier off before planting. We will talk about this next week. 

The marigolds will not be repotted because I have only planted one seed per cell (any seeds that did not start will have another seed placed in the cell).  I want to get these flower seedlings to become pot bound - a process by which the roots fill and crowd the cell or pot.  This will force the plant to produce flowers.  I want these to be flowering before I place them into the vegetable beds.  Once they flower, they will grow and flower non-stop (dead-heading encourages this by nipping off the dead flowers before they produce mature seeds). Flowers that are properly kept will grow quite large and fill out between each other. 

Seed sharing
This is a great way to introduce new produce into your garden and for someone to benefit from your seed cache.  Too many seedlings in your greenhouse?  Great way to meet your neighbors by either selling them at the end of your driveway or gifting them. 

Plan ahead for your produce for storage 
Knowing your luck, you will have a gazillion tomatoes and not know what to do with them all now that your neighbors and office mates have reaped the benefit.  You should have a game plan as to what you will be doing with your tomatoes.  Preserving your harvest will be an ongoing process as your harvest begins to mature.  I have a large chest freezer, which has been emptied and defrosted.  It is unplugged for now just waiting for the season to begin.  As the tomatoes ripen on the vine, what I cannot use will be placed on trays and put into the freezer until I have enough of them to make tomato sause or salsa.  Veggies, like green peppers can also be frozen fresh without cooking and can be used for salsa and sauce. 

If you will be canning your produce, you will need to purchase jars.  I am always looking for mason jars and will accept any jars gifted to me.  Glass tomato sauce jars from the grocery store are often mason jars disguised under a label.  I always buy tons of lids and seals when they are on sale for just this purpose.  I do not re-use seals.  For the money you save, it is not worth losing an entire batch of salsa or sauce when the seals give way a few weeks later.  I can't tell you how many I lost in the first season..... sigh!!  Garage sales are usually the perfect place for finding jars.  

I am growing pickling cucumbers and dill this year.  While dill is usually cheap in the market, it is easily grown in amongst your flower beds.  I love the aroma of fresh dill!!  This can also be dried upside down in a warm place and put into mason jars for storage in a dark pantry.  

The apple sauce I make from my quad apple tree is frozen after it is made, so jars are not required.  

I am growing bush beans, wax beans and green beans this year.... to get a good steady supply, you will need to plant seeds for new plants about every 2 weeks.  Once the plant slows in production, simply cut it down to about 3 inches above the ground.  Do it right and the plant may well give you another production.  Keep a diary on what works best and try to replicate what you do right for next year.  Beans can be frozen but only after blanching them (quick steam bath)... they can also be pickled... yum!!!

Water melon and cantaloupe can be 'balled' (a metal tool that scoops melon into ball shapes) and frozen for a sweet mid-winter treat. Simply place the freshly 'balled' or cut melon pieces on a cookie tray lined with parchment paper.  Freeze the fruit balls and then place in a freezer bag in portions that can be used for a snack or desert for your family.  I have a vaccume sealer but you can also just insert a straw and suck out the air in a resealable ziplock bag.  This prevents freezer burn.

Carrots, potatoes and squash can be stored in a cool place for many months in the dark.  My mother used to use a bushel container filled with sand and would push the carrots into the sand to keep them fresh.  My garage is always around 5-10 degrees C in the winter and is a great cold storage for my potted plants as well as for produce kept in paper leaf bags filled with newspaper or shavings.  Cooked squash can be frozen for future use.

So you see, once you know how you can store your harvest, you can have a plan in place for collecting jars, creating cold-storage space, and purchasing a chest freezer if you do not have one.  You may also consider purchasing a storage unit for your jarred goods.

We will begin the process of planning out the garden plots to maximize the sun exposure, companion planting and vertical growing.......

Monday, March 17, 2014

Time to plant melons and squash

It is a great day to plant your melons and squash and of course any other vegetable you wish to get into the ground and produce earlier.  I am trying to maximize space in my tiny greenhouse by planting two seeds in each cell.  These will be separated and repotted when they have their first leaves on.  The cucumbers I planted weeks ago are now 5 inches high and are now growing rapidly in the newspaper pots they were transferred to.  


The dollar store had seed packets available @3 for $1.  These were the essential ones most people would purchase .  The ones pictured above were finds from the local big box hardware store.  Even Martha Stewart has a nice selection of organic seeds!!! These are great finds for the beginner gardener as these give you a limited but good variety of seeds to sow in a small bed.  Once you have grown the produce from seeds, you can always save the seeds they produce for next year.  Gathering seeds will be just as important as finding the right seeds to plant this year.  Seeds this year have cost us approximately $100.  To purchase the same amount of plants these will produce or to purchase the produce would cost hundreds of dollars more.  A mellon vine can produce a dozen or so in a season and at $3 per mellon, you are almost half way to the cost of your seed.  Determine what you want to grow and how you will store your produce.  Keep the packages for the information and what the veggie looks like.  For tiny seeds such as celery, carrot and beets, seed tape is a great choice.  You can easily plant these tiny seeds by simply unrolling the tape containing the seeds placed at the exact distance for growing.  This reduces the amount of thinning necessary for plants to get the space they need to grow.  

With experience, you will be able to recognize the leaves of plants as they begin to mature.  If you have way too many plants or seed you wish to share.... this would be a great opportunity to meet your neighbors or swap plants with other gardners.  I know my young mother of two Sarah is too busy to plant right now but with me helping her in her garden each year, she can have a very productive and healthy way to feed her girls.

In the months ahead, I will show you just how to store and preserve your harvest!!  It is best to shop for seeds now as we enter into the growing season to get the best selection.  

Using the seed packet to note which seeds are which will eventually get soggy.  My daughter came up with a way to keep track of seeds, especially in flats where many different varieties are planted.  I liked her ingenuity so here it is...  The writing is facing inwards and they are clipped where the seeds are planted.  This way, we can still use them to dry our clothes on the line in the summer when they are not needed in the greenhouse.  I did purchase a roll of clear plastic with adhesive on one side to waterproof the seed packet for outside in the spring.



With each trip to the grocery store, I select fresh produce that can easily be rooted to produce another plant.  Those green onions with the roots still intact can be cut about 1/4 inch above the roots and placed in a cup of water overnight.  You can then place these into seeding cells.  For each cell that did not produce a plant from seeds, I simply pushed my index finger into the middle of a vacant cell, placed the roots in and pushed the soil back in place around it.  Boston red leaf lettuce (pictured above shows new leaves forming) does not have roots but amazingly, just like the celery, I just cut off then ends about 1 1/2 inches from the bottom and placed in water.  Small roots will form after you notice the greenery beginning to sprout leaves up through the middle.  I then potted these in paper pots as well.  These will mature faster than it will from seeds.  Just about all veggies including the tops of carrots and beets will produce a new veggie.  Potatoes in our cupboard are kept in the dark and allowed to grow eyes.  These eyes will eventually produce vines that will grow our potatoes.  Once the ground is ready, I will place these potatoes on the bottom of a potatoe box to produce over 100 pounds of them.

The asperagus is now a bunch of ferns growing every which way.  I had hoped our spring would have arrived this month with the warming to the earth so necessary for planting these early producers.  Only these will not produce for another few years yet to come.  The far corner of our garden that has an abundance of daisies will be greatly thinned to accomodate for these new inhabitants.  I look forward to harvesting these beauties in 2016.

The marigolds are growing quickly now that the roots are filling up the tiny cells they were seeded in.  This week, I will be planting more Marigolds in paper pots now that I have run out of seeding cells.

The design we agreed on is shown below.  The 'clown face' at the top is a sitting deck with room for two to have coffee in the morning sun.  The dark area on either side is our existing garden where there are small bushes and some plantings.  The dark triangles in the flower shape are the above ground planting beds that will have a small climbing fence at the outside edge.  The paths in between (lighter colour) allow us to move around and cultivate our plants from all sides.  The openings will eventually have raspberries and other low lying fruit bearing bushes planted.  This will keep nocturnal visitors from freely entering the garden patch.  The raspberry canes will be donated by our neighbor and planted once the boxes are completed.  The stone front steps at the top of the picture and to the right have the wall of the garage to one side.  This is the wall that will incorporate our vertical herb garden.   All other areas are grass and places to plant some of our perennials from the back garden in order to dress up our vegetable garden.  A small sign will be placed at the end of the driveway (black) offering a link to our blog so that our neighbors can see how our garden grows.

We welcome you to share your experiences as an urban gardener and your hints and tips to make a garden as productive as possible.  This coming week:

PLANTING CHART:  We will have a chart compiled to let you know what plants work well together and what plants do not.  Encouraging plants to grow and planting flowers like the marigolds discourage cat visitors while encouraging bees to come and pollinate the flowers that both vegetable and fruit plants produce.  Bees and other pollinating insects are beneficial to our gardens.  Some plants discourage non-beneficial insects to stay away.  

PREVENTING ANIMAL INTRUSION: The raspberry canes I mentioned earlier... some of them will be placed across the beds where new seedings are growing to discourage cats and squirrels from digging into the newly seeded earth.  Rose canes also work well from the heritage roses.  Some soil additives can also help deter squirrels.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Repotting on a surprisingly sunny warm day...

Today was a great opportunity to get outside into the warmth of an unusual day amongst many cold and bitter ones this winter.  I do not teach on Tuesdays and I was able to elicit the help from my brother-in-law Paul.  He is always up for helping out no matter what the project. 

I have so many leeks that I felt needed to be repotted because there were a number of seeds in each seeding cell.  So, we dragged the potting soil and 3 dozen paper pots outside.  The garage wall is in the sun from early in the morning to late afternoon.  When the late afternoon casts shadows across it from the roof line, the heat stored in the bricks radiates outwards.  This is the wall that we will do a vertical herb garden on within the next month.  Today though, we are out of the light winds and sitting on the front concrete steps folding more paper pots.  Hard to believe how many pots we really need. We decide to leave them outside to take in the sun until we could make room inside, so we used a ladder and a clear drop sheet - like using a cold frame.

This gave us time to pull together a wire shelf system in the kitchen to accomodate the transplants.  A few minor adjustments and some wire to hold the middle together lend it strength to accomodate the wooden top shelf.  This is a very bright kitchen during the day and we are running out of room anywhere else in the house.   

Greenhouse: mixed lettuce, Swiss Chard, watermellon seeds (today), spinach, peppers and marigolds.
Shelving: Asparagus, leek, celery (from grocery store - bottom of stock), and parsley.
Spare room:  Tomato and Green peppers

The plant beside the celery is the parsley that I overwinter in the garage.  It can be left in the ground through the winter months but this one was in a patio pot.  The cells that are left vacant by seeds that did not sprout in the greenhouse are now used for veggies that have roots on them from the grocery store such as green onion.  Simply cut off the bottom of the onion and push the root side into the earth in a cell. 

The tomato plants are growing well!!!!  These are just a few of the 65 tomato plants.  With the fan blowing across them each day this week, they are now standing upright and not laying down.  With some research I have discovered that tomato plants can be planted deep or even sideways in the ground to encourage root growth along the stem.  

Grocery Store Finds this week:
Green Onions - cut off the base of the onion with the roots intact.  Inserted them into the ground roots first.
Butternut Squash - removed the seeds and put them in a bowl in the fridge to imitate a natural process in nature.  Not sure if this will work but it certainly is worth a try.

Growing tips
Using cold frames can extend your growing season.  Using old windows and a thicker mm plastic to keep wind and cold off the plants and allow sprouting plants to begin in earth warmed by the sun.  Our raised beds will all be fitted this season with clear plastic sheets in the spring and fall to keep the veggies from frost damage.  Raised beds have the advantage of warming faster than the ground because the sides are exposed to the sun.  

This summer, I will be teaching a few friends how to preserve their produce in my kitchen.  I will include recipes and how to's through the coming months.  The bounty you grow can be easily preserved to last throughout the winter.  

Would love to hear about your gardening tips or favorite recipes!!  Let me know how your garden grows.

Next Week.... 
Updates on the seedlings and whats being planted next..... materials for the raised garden and the final design for our front yard!!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Welcome to our newest blog

My husband Max and I have gardened and landscaped around our property for years.  We have made some attempts at creating a vegetable garden, however, our urban environment is devoid of enough sunshine or space in the back yard.  Even our pool is in the shade for part of the day and our feeble attempt at growing tomatoes in a small patch has not produced enough to make it worth the effort.... that is until now.

The idea of an Urban garden began a few months ago when I started to juice vegetables.  I noticed that the prices in the grocery store fluctuated dramatically and began to rise.  A drought in the states and our extended winter is going to have a far reaching impact on what we will be able to purchase at the local grocery stores.  A drive around our local area to find producers is getting harder with the urban sprawl... and frankly, farms are being sold for the valuable property they are sitting on.  Gardens are seen as opportunities for beautifying properties instead of feeding the inhabitants.  Growing a garden to sustain our family, free of pesticides and other unknown chemicals only made sense.  But where??  With a pool and a postage stamp box sized plot in the back, how were we going to do this?

Then it hit me.... why not use the front yard?  The grass doesn't look great and the bunnies are always taking advantage of the clover that grows in abundance beneath the only shade under a spindly city tree by the curb.  I don't want to pull weeds anymore and really, who wants to push a mower around to compete with the neighbours, when we could be using the mainly unused property for growing a sustainable garden.  I first had to find out if there were any bylaws in the City of London with respect to Urban Gardens.  There are no rules and no guidelines, however my email to the City has produced a contact who will be visiting in the spring when the snow leaves... hopefully soon.... and will do an 'Eco-yard Evaluation' for free.  Megan has sent me a number of PDF's to teach me about companion planting (planting plants that benefit each other.... strangely, some, like people and pets, just don't get along), time of planting and events in the Civic Garden down the road from us.  She will speak to us of water conservation and whatever other questions we have.

I informed my husband of my intentions.  I received a strong NO.  "Use the garden in the back".  I asked him why??  His answer was simple.... "the neighbours won't like it and it won't look great".   "What do you mean??" I stare at him from across the kitchen counter,  "You are a designer, we both do landscaping and really, if the neighbour down the street can plant big plastic playhouses and play equipment on her front lawn.... I am pretty sure we can come up with something truly lovely".  So, I took to my iPad and showed him the collection of websites I had been getting ideas from.  He looked up when he saw the raised beds on one site. "That", he pointed to, "will be far too expensive!!"  He made a good point.  We have a shoestring budget and even less when I finish teaching next month.

Always up for a challenge, I email a CEO from a recycling company I met a few months back.  His simple reply.... let me know what you need.  Now Max is up for the challenge, knowing we have some donations coming in.  He has been doing some research and we have both downloaded information on plantings and designs.  We have to create a list of must haves and how much.  We want to reflect the design from our back yard and pull that around to the front.  Of course, there will have to be a vertical herb garden on the garage wall that is in sun from early morning to late afternoon.

This month had us pulling out the Lee Valley Green House that we purchased years ago and was tucked into the furnace room collecting board games and discarded items.  Next I had to find all the little seeding containers I have amassed over the years and purchase seeds and soil.  I have harvested some seeds from grocery store bought vegetables and plants like celery that will regrow from a cut stalk in water.

The asparagus seeds have taken well in the green house and were transplanted a month later into newspaper origami pots.  I had a limited number of plastic transplant pots and so I had to be creative using my shoestring budget of FREE..... the simple pots are easy to fold (will include this at the bottom of the blog) and I just water the bottom of the plastic tray instead of watering each pot.  The newspaper wicks the water up to the plant.  Easy peasy and cheap!!   I learned a lot about asparagus.... it takes three years to mature... needs lots of room to grow and can grow roots up to 1.2 meters deep.  Do not have to water these once established and they are a very early spring veggie.  The rest of the year, they look like ferns.

Tomatoes - I am using a hardy early Canadian variety.  There are 65 tomato plants now growing in my spare room.  I learned that the little hairs on the tomato plants need to have a slight breeze blowing across them in order to hardy the stem and strengthen the plant... so I turned on the room fan during the day.  I will transplant these in the new raised boxes with the newspaper pots which will decay into the soil.  The entire pot must be covered with soil to prevent the newspaper drying and wicking the water away front the plant.

Pepper Seeds - got these from the green peppers I had in the fridge from the grocery store.  Only two were successful so my next set of seeds were dried out for a few weeks and planted in March.

Marigolds - these super stinky flowers are just the trick for dressing up the garden and discouraging cats and other rodents from visiting.

The pepper seeds have been planted today in the seeding pots and placed in the green house.  The flowering Hibiscus tree in my kitchen is blooming.  I store my planters from the pool area in the kitchen where most people would put a table and chair....  The other flowering vines are doing well and should be blooming before the spring finally arrives.

Here is a great site for the instructions to folding the newspaper seeding pots.

The bottom two shelves of the green house showcase the asparagus and leek in the paper pots and marigolds on the bottom shelf.  The marigolds are used to disuade cats and other pests from getting into the garden.  My cat, like all cats, love fresh earth for washroom duty and this really stinky flower is not appealing to them.