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Now that much of the snow is gone in our neighbourhood, plants that were dormant all winter have revealed themselves again.  We have some garlic and rhubarb sprouting up, as well as a couple of onions that were overlooked in last year’s harvest.  What about you?

Garlic!
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Plant of the week: Strawberries

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Strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C and phytochemicals, and they contain calcium, fibre, iron, potassium, and many other essential vitamins.  You can grow them in your garden, in containers on your deck or in your home, and you can even grow them upside down!  Strawberry plants are not grown from seeds, but from juvenile plants, called runners or sucker shoots, which start life as offshoots of their parent plant (similar to how spider plants propagate).

Ideal growing conditions

Strawberries require full sun and rich, well-drained soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.8 (slightly acidic).  You can use pine needle mulch to increase the acidity of your soil, or, if your soil is naturally alkaline, you can grow your strawberries in containers filled with potting soil.  In the ground, space them about 18 inches apart, with the roots in the soil, but the central crown exposed.  If you bury the crown, the plant may rot.

Strawberries have shallow roots so they are difficult to weed, but mulching them with a thick layer of fine straw will help to keep the weeds down.  Strawberries send out many runners, which use up much of the plant’s resources that could otherwise be devoted to the production of fruit.  Allow three runners per plant to mature enough so that you can transplant them to a new location.  Pinch off the rest as soon as they start.

Plants typically thrive for a maximum of five years, which is why it is great that they produce their own suckers to replace them.

Types

  • June-bearing varieties produce all of their berries within a three week period.  You can choose from early, mid-, or late varieties, and they’ll produce in early, mid-, or late June (with variances depending on your specific climate).  They don’t produce fruit until their second season.
  • Ever-bearing strawberries produce large crops in the spring and fall, and smaller crops in-between.  They produce fruit the first season and onward, although not in as large of quantities as June-bearing varieties.
  • Day-neutral varieties produce decent crops of berries from spring until fall, but save their biggest crop from the fall. The plants are small but heavy producers.  These varieties don’t do well in the hot sun.  They produce fruit the first season and onward.
  • Alpine strawberries are, unlike the other varieties, grown from seed.  They are tasty, but small–about the size of wild strawberries.

Preserving strawberries

Pick strawberries in the morning, when the fruit is cool, and put them in the fridge. Don’t wash them until you are ready to use them.  You can freeze them individually, on a cookie sheet, and then later toss them into freezer bags, so they don’t freeze together in a big lump.  They’re also great in jam.  Many freezer jam recipes use less sugar than conventional bottled jams.

Friends

  • Beans
  • Borage
  • Caraway

Foes

  • Brassicas
  • Eggplant
  • Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Birds – you may need to use floating row covers to protect your harvest.

Fun facts

  • Strawberries are the only fruits that wear their seeds on the outside, but what look like seeds are actually a type of dry fruit, called achenes.  These contain the actual seeds!
  • Strawberries are members of the rose family.

 

Why gardening matters for kids

When I was a kid, I lived on a hobby farm; we had cows, sheep, and a large garden in which we grew a variety of vegetables.  These were the days before smart phones, smart appliances, and smart cars.  We were living in a 2-3 channel TV universe, and for a brief time the most interesting ring tone in the house was the one that identified that the call that was for you, not one of the neighbours on your party line.  But I’m not complaining, really.

I’m sure my mom remembers me complaining when we’d get home from school and find that she had a couple of bushels of beans for us to snap, or peas for us to shell.  That’s probably the last thing we wanted to do after school.  But we appreciated how great these vegetables tasted fresh, and later, when we pulled them from the freezer.  Most importantly, we learned how to grow our own food, and what it’s supposed to look like, taste like, and how it is supposed to nourish us.  We mimicked our parents by growing small gardens of our own (when we weren’t helping out in the main garden).

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My first garden.  There are edibles in there somewhere.

Society has changed, though.  We spend more time indoors and connected to devices; we’re often detached from the natural environment in which we exist.  Fewer parents garden, and fewer children are educated about food production.  The term nature deficit disorder has been coined to explain some of the behavioural issues that may arise in a today’s housebound kids.  But it’s more than just behaviour.  It’s a matter of basic health, both ours and of the environment.  When we eat food that’s been contaminated by pesticides and other harmful chemicals, we’re exposing ourselves to a host of problems.  Most susceptible are the workers who produce this food, and children (unfortunately, in some countries, these groups are one and the same).

Children are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of pesticide residues due to their lower body mass, rapid development, and higher rates of consumption of affected products.  F FIn children, exposure to certain pesticides from residues in food can cause delayed development; disruptions to the reproductive, endocrine, and immune systems; certain types of cancer; and damage to other organs.  FPrenatal exposure to certain pesticides can affect cognitive development and behavior.  FSeveral studies have found that pesticide levels in children dropped to low or undetectable levels when test subjects consumed an organic  G diet.  (source)

In an effort to repeatedly mass produce on the same parcels of land, we’re putting ourselves at risk.

We can’t look at food the same way that we do shoes, and assume that what’s in the store is good for us.  The reality is that unless you are buying local and organic, there is a good change that you are ingesting harmful chemicals.  But unless one has grown one’s own food or researched food production, one may be detached from the process.  Food may just be another pair of shoes that one orders and assumes that if they’re the right size, they won’t cause blisters.

Studies show that children who are encouraged to garden appreciate ecology more and learn to respect their environment.  More importantly, they learn to enjoy a wider variety of fresh, healthy vegetables, and they make more informed food choices throughout their lives.  If you can, grow some food, either in your home, at your school, or in a community centre.  It’s not just the plants that may flourish.

 

 

Dealing with a perpetually waterlogged garden

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Most conventional vegetables don’t like very damp soil; constant and/or excessive water often causes their roots to rot, or root diseases to develop.  To make it worse (for you), stagnant water is the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and other waterborne insects.

If your garden is waterlogged, it may be because it’s at the bottom of a hill or in a depression, or at the end of a septic bed that contains soil that doesn’t drain very well.  It may also be due to a naturally occurring spring or a rising water table.  Perhaps a neighbour is unintentionally diverting water onto your property.

You may be able to improve drainage in your garden by filling in recessed areas, adding organic matter to clay soils to improve drainage, adjusting the plane of the garden so that water drains away rather than collecting within it, or building a pond.  You could also install a French drain.  If none of these are options, consider installing raised beds so that the roots of your plants are safely out of the saturated underbelly.  You could also use containers, for the same effect.

Many common plants, such as cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers, like damp soil.  Cauliflower and other brassicas also tolerate a fair bit of moisture.  If your garden is quite wet, though, consider the following plants, which range from needing a lot of water to being able to be grown within a semi-aquatic garden:

  • Celery (shown above)
  • Groundnuts
  • Ong choy (water spinach)
  • Taro roots
  • Upland rice
  • Water chestnuts
  • Watercress

 

 

Send off the clones

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When selecting seeds, chose open-pollinated varieties, and save your seeds so that you can produce genetically diverse plants that thrive in your micro-climate.

Open-pollinated seeds

Open-pollinated seeds are pollinated by animals–such as insects, birds, or humans–or wind.  There’s genetic diversity–or variation within the species.  The individual plants that thrive are the ones that flourish in the specific growing conditions, and produce viable seeds.  The species slowly adapts and evolves.

Hybrid seeds

Hybrid seeds may occur in nature, but more often occur as a result of human intervention, to breed for a specific trait.  All plants of a hybrid species are the same, and they all mature at the same time (which may be inconvenient for the backyard gardener).  Commercial hybrid seeds are often labelled “F1”.  The problem with hybrids is that if you save their seeds and plant them the next year, they’re less robust than their parents, and they produce irregular specimens.  In order to produce the hybrid plant, you have to buy new seeds each year.

GMO seeds

GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) seeds are created in a lab.  The DNA of viruses, bacteria, animals, and other vegetables are injected into them to make them “better”.  They’re resistant to certain pests, and diseases.  Each year, farmers must purchase licenses to use these seeds and their companion pesticides; they’re not allowed to reuse seeds.  Issues arise when seeds drift into other farmer’s fields, or cross-pollinate with their plants.  (There have been cases in which GMO seed companies have pursued legal action against farmers who were accused of stealing seed simply because it blew from a neighbour’s field.)

GMOs have not been proven safe.  In fact, many studies show they don’t increase yield, but they do increase cost, because farmers aren’t permitted to save their own seeds.

GMO and hybrid seeds produce crops of genetically identical plants–clones, if you will.  If a particular blight or disease hits a clone crop, the entire yield is destroyed.  Pests adapt to GMOs, becoming “super-bugs” that require farmers to increase the amount of  chemicals on the crops that we eventually eat.

Open pollinated seeds, on the other hand, are much more robust.  If the individuals in your garden show genetic variety, and you’re hit with a particular pest, or experience an unfavourable year in terms of weather, chances are some of the crop will survive or produce well enough, even if much of it dies or fairs poorly.  The same cannot be said for GMOs or hybrids.  Entire crops have been wiped out because none of the plants had any hybrid vigour to take on a pest.

For food safety, crop security, and reduced costs, choose open-pollinated seeds.

 

Plant of the week: Carrots

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Ah, carrots.  They’re one of those vegetables that taste so much better fresh from the ground that one might wonder whether they and the specimens from the grocery store are of the same species.  They’re so much sweeter and more flavourful fresh from the dirt.

Not only are carrots delicious, but they are an excellent source of phytochemicals and vitamin A, as well as a less significant source of vitamin Bs, C, D, E, and K, as well as potassium.  It’s true what they say; they’re good for your vision, but they also have many more health benefits.

Ideal growing conditions

Carrots prefer loose and sandy soil that is free of rocks.  I tried to grow them one year in spot in my small backyard that had been well-travelled; the ground was too hard, so they died as stunted seedlings.  They prefer full sun but can deal with partial shade.  Direct sow them outside once the soil is workable.  You can also plant them in pots, but choose a variety that develops shorter roots.

Carrot seeds are tiny, so they are difficult to space apart when you sow them; don’t worry, it’s always necessary to thin them later.  Sow them in rows about 3-4 inches apart.  At first it will be difficult to distinguish them from weeds, but once the secondary leaves develop, you’ll recognize their curly tops.  Ensure that you keep them weeded, and thin them out as they grow so that there is sufficient room between the remaining plants for them to develop good size roots.  You can enjoy the baby carrots that you remove.

Preserving carrots

You can blanch and freeze carrots, pickle them, or store them boxes filled with sawdust or sand.  You can leave them in the garden after they’ve been hit by frost; frost improves their flavour.

Types

Carrots aren’t just orange–they come in a rainbow of colours including purple, yellow, white, and red.  Most varieties of carrots belong to one of the following categories:

  • Nantes carrots produce sweet, crisp, 6-7” cylindrical carrots with blunt tips. They are great for home gardens, as they can grow in sub-optimal soil.
  • Chantenay carrots are short and stout, with broad crowns.  They’re also a good choice for home gardeners, although they often get woody cores, so you will want to harvest them when they are about 6 inches long.
  • Mini carrots are the best varieties for growing carrots in containers or rocky soil.  They’re harvested when small.
  • Imperator carrots are the classic long, tapered type of carrot that you see at the grocery store. These carrots require a foot of properly prepared soil to grow, so they are probably not an ideal choice for backyard gardeners.

Friends

  • Beans
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Chives
  • Leeks
  • Lettuce
  • Most herbs
  • Onions
  • Peas

Foes

  • Dill
  • Tomatoes

Fun facts

  • Carrots are actually biennial; that is, if you leave them in the ground, the tops will flower and produce seeds in their second year.
  • Carotenemia may occur if one eats massive amounts of carrots.  The skin of the afflicted person may turn yellowish orange!
  • Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, reportedly did not like carrots.  😦

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Growing vegetables in hot, dry conditions

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Following are some tips on how to encourage a productive garden during a hot, dry summer:

  • Choose varieties that mature quickly and produce smaller fruit.
  • Lay your garden out so that plants that need similar amounts of water are grouped together.  Raised beds retain more water than open beds.
  • Plant in groupings or hexagonal offset patterns rather than rows so that the leaves can provide shade.  Space plants 1.5 to 2 times further apart than usually recommended to provide plants with access to a larger area from which to draw moisture.
  • Sow tall plants, such as corn and tomatoes, on the south side of heat-intolerant plants such as leafy greens, to provide them with shade and lower the temperature.
  • Add large amounts of organic compost to the soil; this helps trap moisture and encourages deep roots.
  • Apply a thick layer of mulch to the soil to prevent moisture loss and keep the soil cooler.  This will also help prevent the growth of weeds, which compete with your plants for water.  You can use natural materials such as grass clippings, straw, dried leaves, pine needles, or shredded bark.
  • Water plants heavily when they are very young, and producing blossoms or fruit.  During other times, they can do with less water. Use drip hoses, which direct water into the soil, rather than spraying the plants from overhead where it is wasted on the leaves.  Water in late evening and early morning.
  • You can place shade cloth over the south sides of eggplant, pepper, and tomato plants.  This will reduce the temperature by 5-15 degrees and may prevent sunscald.  Plants like peppers and eggplants may produce less during a drought, but they will still produce.

Avoid planting these vegetables

Vegetables like peas, brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, etc.), and leafy greens like cold weather, so they won’t do well in the heat of summer.  You can try planting them in the early spring or late fall, when the heat is less extreme.

Do try these drought-tolerant vegetables

  • Amaranth
  • Artichokes – Jerusalem and globe
  • Arugula
  • Asparagus
  • Beans
  • Chard
  • Chickpeas (I made the mistake of overwatering these and they started to germinate in the shell!)
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Cowpeas
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplant
  • Endive
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Melons
  • Mustard greens
  • Okra
  • Onions
  • Oregano
  • Peppers
  • Rhubarb
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Savory
  • Squash
  • Sweet corn
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Thyme
  • Tomatoes
  • Watermelon, especially the sugar baby variety

 

Edible perennials

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Most edible garden plants are annuals; that is, they must be planted from seed each year.  Perennials are plants that remain productive year after year.  They may go dormant in the winter, and re-emerge in the spring.

Perennials often need a few seasons to mature before they begin to produce.  Once they are established, they may be prone to spread to the point that they become invasive, so be sure to carefully plan their locations.  It’s a good idea to keep perennials together so that you don’t have to cultivate in and around them each year when you sow your annuals.

Here is a list of edible perennials:

  • Asparagus
  • Bamboo roots
  • Berry bushes, such as raspberries and blueberries
  • Bunching / Welsh onions
  • Chives
  • Collard greens
  • Egyptian onions
  • Fruit trees
  • Globe artichokes
  • Horseradish
  • Jerusalem artichoke / sunchokes (flowers shown above)
  • Kale
  • Lemon balm
  • Lovage
  • Mint
  • Oregano
  • Radicchio (technically a hardy biennial)
  • Rosemary
  • Rhubarb
  • Sage
  • Sorrel
  • Strawberries
  • Wild leeks / ramps

 

 

 

Insects: our tiny garden friends

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You’d think, from the language some pesticide manufacturers use, that most insects spend their days pillaging gardens.  The truth, though, is that up to 90% of insects are actually beneficial to the garden, or benign.  In addition to pollinating plants, breaking down organic matter, and aerating soil, they eat insects that do like to munch on our prized plants.

Broad-spectrum pesticides kill indiscriminately

Pesticides introduce harmful chemicals to our gardens, and kill both beneficial and harmful insects.  When you remove the natural predators from your garden, there’s nothing left to kill the second (and third, etc.) wave of harmful pests that will, inevitably, move in as they pass through your neighbourhood.  So now you have another type of insect to deal with.  You may find your garden is in worse shape than before because the natural predators weren’t there to protect it.

Attracting beneficial insects

A perfectly mowed lawn is not an inviting habitat for beneficial insects.  Gardens that contain a mixture of flowers, shrubs, herbs, and vegetables offer an inviting habitat for beneficial insects, as well as birds, bats, frogs, and toads.

Good bugs

Here’s a selection of bugs that help your garden:

  • Assassin bugs are well-named.  They eat many different types of bugs and their larvae.
  • Centipedes eat pests that live in your soil.
  • Ground beetles eat cutworms, caterpillars, slugs, and snails.
  • Hoverfly larvae eat aphids, cabbage worms and other small caterpillars, mites, and other pests. Adult hoverflies consume flower nectar, and help to pollinate plants.
  • Lacewings eat aphids, whiteflies, larvae, thrips, and mites.
  • Ladybugs, ladybirds, and ladybeetles eat aphids, mealybugs, and scale.  Their larvae eat mites.
  • Spiders, like the yellow garden spider shown above, catch pests in their webs.
  • Parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside pests, thus destroying the pest when the egg is hatched.
  • Pirate bugs eat a variety of insects, such as aphids, spider mites, and thrips.
  • Praying mantis eat a wide variety of insects, such as fruit flies, aphids, cockroaches, crickets, beetles, grasshoppers,  and caterpillars.

Bees and earthworms, it should go without saying, are also insect heroes of the garden!

The bad

Here’s a selection of pests that may damage your garden:

  • Aphids spread viral diseases to legumes, and damage leaves.  They have many natural predators, as indicated above, and can be removed with a spray bottle filled with water or a natural soap solution.
  • Many types of beetles and weevils can damage plants.  The best solution, in many cases, is to remove them by hand, shake them off the plants, or apply floating row covers to your plants.
  • Adult Japanese beetles eat flowers and leaves, and their larvae attack roots.  The best defence against them is to apply row covers to your plants.  You can also try applying a spray made of cedar oil.
  • Borers, as the name implies, bore holes in stems, which causes wilting and then death.  They attack plants such as melons, cucumbers, and squashes.  You can carefully cut them from the stem with a knife and then place the wounded part of the stem under the soil to encourage it to heal.
  • Caterpillars may eat plant foliage and fruit, and sometimes their roots.  Pick them off and destroy them.
  • Earwigs like to burrow in peppers and corn cobs and eat the tips of buds before they flower.  There are many ways to trap them, as they like small spaces.  They are nocturnal so you can empty the traps during the day.
  • Millipedes damage potatoes and may eat seedlings.  They like soil that is rich in organic matter, so be sure to regularly cultivate your soil.
  • Scale suck on plants and leave tiny bumps.  Remove these damaged parts and destroy them.  A soap and oil spray is effective against them when they are in their crawling stage.
  • Slugs and snails eat leaves and small seedlings.  They’re best controlled by birds and frogs, but you can also set traps for them.
  • Thrips suck sap from the upper leaf surface, and they may damage flower buds and prevent them from opening.

The variable

  • Ants aerate the soil and clean up debris and weed seeds, but they also consume the sticky substance created by aphids, and thus transport pests between plants.  If the aphids are controlled by the beneficial insects mentioned above, ants should not be a problem.
  • Nematodes are microscopic insects.  Some varieties feed on insects, and others, such as root knot nematodes and potato cyst nematodes, damage plants.  Crop rotation can prevent these from taking hold in your garden.

It’s not as dire as you think

Sure, there are a lot of insects that can harm your garden, but if you rotate your crops, attract beneficial insects and animals, and practice companion gardening, you’re likely to avoid most of them.

 

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