Happy Birthday Mom!

Ok, so my mom doesn’t really want to celebrate her birthday, but given that I recently celebrated Dads, I really don’t think it would be fair for this day to pass without comment, especially because my mom is the reason for my passion for food (and hence, for the existence of this blog).

My mom learned to cook at a very young age, and food and cooking became a large part of her adult life.  She worked in food service for many years, including co-owning and operating a small deli, and completed a degree in Home Economics, with a strong component of food biology and nutrition.  She did all of these things when my sister and I were small (and then older) children, so her work and attitude toward food provided formative experiences for me.

Some of my earliest memories are in kitchens, at home, but also in the institutional kitchens that seemed the most amazing places to me.  As kids, we peered over the sides of Hobart mixers bigger than we were and marveled at the dough hooks  churning through huge vats of dough and batter.  After long evenings catering events, Mom would bring home trays of leftover dainty petit fours and sandwiches.  Quite the midnight snacks!  I remember happy hours spent spreading jam over cubic yards of sponge cake to be rolled up into English trifle (still one of my favourite comfort foods), and stirring soup simmering over low gas flames.

Mom was convinced that knowing how to cook was an essential life skill, and like all essential life skills, training started early.  When I look at other people’s children now, I can understand why my grandparents were always a little nervous watching  my sister and I stand on step stools to reach the kitchen counters so that we could help chop vegetables with very sharp knives!  We learned to pick strawberries from the field, pick cherries and peaches from the trees, and to pick blackberries off the thorny bushes.  Food was important and working hard to get it was just fine.

Growing up in the city meant that it was hard to build confidence and a sense of achievement in the way my husband did–out in the woods unsupervised–and it was in the kitchen that we learned that we could make valuable contributions to our family by helping, that we could gradually deal with more complex tasks and instructions, and that both we and food were very important.

These experiences shaped my relationships with my parents and extended family, and they made the kitchen a safe place for me.  The kitchen is the place I go to relax, to have fun, to be creative, and to be ok when the world feels like it is not.  And, thanks to my mom, those feelings as an adult have always been channeled into cooking healthful food for me and my friends and family, rather than into emotional eating of junk food like so many other women.

Lastly though, I think my mom’s greatest food gift to me and my sister–though I don’t know how much of a conscious issue it was at the time–was to teach us what real food tastes like and to be interested in where it comes from.  Food in our home was made from scratch, and that was a priority.  If time was scarce–and both of my parents worked full time, so time was of course scarce–we simply all needed to help to make the meal happen.  And while my sister and I certainly went through phases of picky eating (I remember distinctly wanting one week to only eat broccoli tops, and then the next week only wanting to eat the stems 🙂 ), as adults we have absorbed the consistent messages and values that my parents wanted us to learn: that food is a gift to be treasured and given often, that food is a lifelong adventure, and that life is never too busy and complicated to cook real food.  And if life ever does start preventing you from eating properly, then life needs to change!

In our family, food is a barometer of every aspect of health: spiritual, physical, emotional, social, cultural.  As such, it needs careful tending and attention, and through food, the other aspects of life also receive their due.  This is one of my mom’s most powerful legacies to her children, and I know we are grateful for it.  Especially when someone visits my garden and tastes a strawberry and says, “That’s not what strawberries from the store taste like!”

Thanks Mom.  Have a wonderful day!

Harvest Monday: Peas and Beans

And it actually IS Monday, so I’m off to a good start.

Last night, I harvested 2 lbs 5 oz of fava beans, almost 1 lb (11.4 oz) of shelling peas, and about 1.5 lbs of snow and sugar peas (mixed).  That felt good!  The peas almost filled an ice cream bucket, and I know there will be more to pick every day for a little while yet.  So I guess we’ll be trying to freeze some!

The favas got mixed reviews; I shelled, blanched and then removed the skins before sauteeing them, just for a minute, in some butter and garlic.  I thought they were delish, Skipper thought they were good, but not at all worth the work.  Although I didn’t mind the work, I was a little depressed by the TINY bowlful that about 1 lb of whole favas became.  Considering the amount of space the plants themselves are taking up, that’s a pretty small havest!  As a cover crop, they are beautiful, and Skipper’s in favour of growing them just for the crazy plants and beautiful flowers.  I think I’ll try some different varieties next year, and only overwinter a patch–I won’t bother with a spring planting.  Seeds of Victoria sells a heritage crimson one that I’d love to try:

http://www.earthfuture.com/gardenpath/htdocs/2010%20catalogue%20images/BROADBEANSCrimson2.jpg

I’m pretty sure that the ones I planted in the fall were Sweet Lorane’s, which are generally recommended.  They’ve certainly been productive!

The shelling peas are Green Arrow, and I had decided a couple of weeks ago that I wouldn’t bother growing them next year.  The snow and sugar peas–where you eat the whole pod–are so tasty, and you can eat them sooner, because you don’t have to wait for the peas themselves to fill out.  You eat them at an immature stage, which in June is a good thing!  It’s been agony not picking the huge pods on the Green Arrow vines and waiting for them to have sizable peas inside them.  Last night, I decided some of them were big enough, and it was time to start picking.  WOW! I remembered why I wanted to grow these!  The flavour and sweetness is just like nothing else.  So even though the pound of pods also only gave us a small bowl of shelled peas, they WERE worth the wait and the work.  They are too good to even cook, which is too bad, because as a heritage crop, there are a lot of great recipes out there.  Oh well!

Besides the peas and beans, there are still lots of strawberries, LOTS of lettuce and salad greens, some chard and scallions, raspberries and currants to graze from.  Lots of herbs too, and still some garlic scapes that I’ve been saving.  I also read over the weekend that you can also harvest green garlic (immature garlic bulbs) any time now too.  I’m not surprised that hungry gardeners over the centuries have decided that immature plants are tasty while they count down the days until the real crop is ready. 🙂  So we’ll try some of that too. Dinner tonight: stir-fried carrots, mushrooms, peppers, tofu (not our own) with the garden’s peas, scallions, scapes and greens.

I’m slowly getting my head around the food cycle of my garden in this climate.  I’m aware that the peas will be done in a couple of weeks (although I did succession plant a little, so we’ll still have some plants producing well for weeks after that, I suspect), and yet it will be some time yet before the real summer crops are producing–the tomatoes, cukes, peppers, etc.  In summers past, we’ve eaten so much salad that I didn’t bother planting summer brassicas–who wants to eat broccoli when there are ripe tomatoes around?!  Save those for the fall when there’s nothing else to eat (I love broccoli, and brussel sprouts are the Skipper’s favorite vegetable.  But at Thanksgiving). I thought I was eating seasonally.  But I was really still eating from a stretched season, thanks to warmer climes in the Okanagan and thanks to the Fraser Valley greenhouses.

Now I see.  We could be watching our brassicas get tall and fat right now after the long, slow spring, and be munching them through July and early August while we lust after the ripening tropicals.  Instead, we’ll keep eating peas, and the bush beans will hopefully pick up the slack until the late summer harvest of pole beans and nightshades kick in.  Carrots will be around all summer too, which is great, but I need a bigger bed to keep them going!

On the plus side, we’ve done pretty well with our potatoes.  We’ll still have lots to eat over the next month or so, and then there will probably be early potatoes ready from our main crop, if we’re judicious.  We may yet get a continuous supply for the summer and into the fall/winter keepers.  Fingers crossed.

On the minus side, although the strawberry patch looked promising, we’ve been keeping up just fine with its productivity, and I think the moment where it looked like we might get some jam out of the small bed may have passed.  There are lots of raspberries and currants, though, so we might get a few jars.  But it looks like we might have to do a small U-Pick after all.  Jam is one of the Skipper’s staples all year :).

So that’s the report this week; I’ll do my best to track the bounty a little better for next week, and get some photos along the way. Stay tuned!

Restaurant Review: Genoa Bay Cafe

A friend of ours had a birthday this past week and at the spur of the moment, she decided she wanted to come up to our neck of the woods and do something.  Conveniently, there was something we’d been wanting to do, and without knowing it, she gave us the perfect excuse.

We have a very small sailboat moored just outside of Cowichan Bay.  Our closest destination across the bay is another small bay, Genoa Bay.  It’s a tiny spot, with just a few houses on the point and a marina with some float homes and sailboats.  But it has a not-so-hidden secret: the lovely Genoa Bay Cafe.

Genoa Bay Cafe

Skipper and I had a lovely dinner here years ago, but had heard that things had gone downhill more recently.  Until new owners and a new chef took over in February–since then it’s been nothing but raves.   On a beautiful afternoon a few weeks back, we sailed over and had no luck getting in for dinner; even with the patio, they were booked solid.  Lesson learned: call ahead, even on a weeknight.

So we did!  Got a reservation for 6pm, all arrived at our place at 5pm, we set sail at 5:30pm, and even without high winds, we docked up at the marina’s transient finger at 6:01.  After a warm greeting, we were off to the patio to admire the view and begin the relaxation process.

First up, beer.  Unfortunately, this was the only complaint.  They have the usual suspects, but for a restaurant of this caliber, we were surprised that their only craft or micro brew was Vancouver Island Brewery.  So Piper’s it was.  Not my first choice with all the amazing beer out there these days, but as I said to the server, if I HAVE to sit on the patio on a summer night and enjoy a beer, I guess I can manage whatever they put in front of me!

We managed to tear ourselves away from the view and the conversation and take a look at the menu.  It’s small–the kitchen must be tiny!–but reasonably varied, and very fresh.  Note to vegetarians, though, you might get lucky with the specials, but otherwise you’re out of luck.  I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if they would accommodate you upon request when you call ahead.

We started with Saltspring Island mussels in white wine and BC Calamari.  The mussels were delicious, but the calamari was a revelation.  Tender strips had been “ginger marinated” and then deep fried.  They had a very light batter of some sort (not often I’m stymied, but this might have been just a light flouring), so they weren’t crispy like calamari often is, but wow.  Fantastic.

For mains I tried the halibut and chips, our friend had a burger, and the Skipper decided to splurge on the 8 oz Ribeye with garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal veg.  Though the prices were comparable with many higher end restaurants we’ve been to, the portions were definitely more generous.  The fries, and you’ll have to trust that we are connoisseurs in this regard, were outstanding.  Kennebec potatoes, again very lightly deep fried, not greasy at all, just light and crispy with lots of flavour and not overly salted.  The burger was approved, the steak was cooked exactly as requested, veggies were not just a pretty side, and the garlic mash was creamy and savory.  My halibut, like the calamari, was deep fried almost without batter–not a finger food because of it, but delicious, tender, and as fresh as it gets.  My only quibble was the apple-fennel slaw, which was a little goopy with mayonnaise, rather than the julienned, crunchy, vinegary freshness I was hoping for.

Despite the portions, we decided we couldn’t resist homemade dessert.  Warm berry crumble and Callebaut chocolate terrine were worth being stuffed to the gills as we stumbled out.

The service was outstanding, the view second to none, the food worth paying more for.  A friend was recently cranky about paying $16 for a burger at the Canoe Club in Victoria.  I think we all get cranky when we’re getting basically the same meal that we could have had cheaper somewhere else.  But when food is so well-prepared, and goes beyond the care that we might take at home (no matter how passionate I am as a home chef, a Tuesday night is not usually quite this extravagant 🙂 ), then we are happy to pay the extra.  And by the way, the burger here was $13.50.

And the best part?  Not having to drive home!

I know. Life is awful. 😉

(Yes, we do have extra life jackets on the boat.  Why, would you like to come too next time? 🙂 )

Predator and Prey (or Do Bugs have Tastebuds?)

In conventional gardening and farming, pests are a serious topic of conversation.  Pests that are specific to particular crops can be disastrous in a monoculture: one plague of locusts and that’s the year’s income gone.  Gardening information over the last 60-70 years has generally trickled down from farming, and the panic set off by the sight of pests has often been the same in the home garden.  Panic leads to chemical warfare against pests, and chemical warfare leads, inevitably, to devastated landscapes that nature tries desperately to repair with weeds and other “undesirable” means.

When I first started reading about organic gardening in preparation for my own efforts this year, I was disappointed to see that one side of the movement was really just about substituting less harmful methods for the chemical ones.  In other words, people advocating the same approach as conventional gardening, just with different products.  It seemed a bit like the “buy your way out of economic disaster” or “become more environmentally friendly through buying more products”  or “import a bigger pest to eat your small pest” lines that we hear regularly everyday.  Doesn’t Einstein or someone have a saying that you can’t solve a problem with the same tools that created it?

Luckily, there are lots of people writing, teaching, and practicing a better way.  I’d like to call it a new approach, but that’s hard because it’s both new and timelessly old.  I’d like to do some exploring and research, one day, into just how old some of these practices are.

The alternative approach begins with recognizing that, despite our North American bias toward the focus on the individual, right down to the patch of land that belongs to ME and ME only, we cannot isolate our gardens from the wider ecosystem.  We cannot get rid of pests.  Pests (including weeds) are critters that live in our region and are everywhere.  No matter how many fences we put up and chemicals we use, we’re at best coming up with temporary reprieves.  Ecosystems are dynamic and interconnected, and birds, wind, rain, insects, etc, don’t recognize the barriers of property lines.

Second, we don’t want or need to get rid of pests.  All these critters exist because they are occupying a necessary ecological niche.  So pest management is actually not about the pest, it’s about understanding your ecosystem.  And when the system is healthy and balanced, pests cease to be a problem.  And the good news is, creating a healthy and balanced system is LESS WORK and MORE JOY than the conventional method, which requires us to be constantly second-guessing and intervening to replace the natural mechanisms.  I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t have enough knowledge to artificially recreate natural cycles!

Here’s my most recent lesson on this.  An English visitor to my veggie garden in early spring commented on my huge, overwintered fava beans (known as broad beans and much enjoyed by the English).  He said, “my father always swore by overwintering broad beans as the only way to control black aphids.”  My West Coast Seeds catalogue (Bible #2) also commented that pinching back the tips of favas covered in black aphids would keep them at bay.  I filed that away, and didn’t see any black aphids all spring.  I saw a lot of wasps around my favas, though, and I wondered if these predators were keeping the aphids under control so well that I was never going to see one.  A tad idealistic, as it turns out!

Looks like the aphids were just waiting, like the rest of us, for the spring to warm up, because in the last week or so, the tips of several of my fava plants have indeed become covered in black.

I considered my options.  First option, do nothing and just watch.  I have two types of favas planted, the giant over wintered ones and some much smaller ones I planted in February/March.  They are two different varieties, too.  Here’s what these look like at the moment:

Hardy, healthy plants.. and rose photo teaser!

Yep, these puppies are more than 6 ft tall.  It seemed a distinct possibility that the aphids at the top might not be more than an annoyance.

Option number 2 was to give them the ol’ aphid jet spray of water.  I did try that on one plant, with some success, but the whole time, I kept thinking of the predators.  See the key to keeping pests under control is to remember that they are often the food at the bottom of the food chain.  You know, like plankton, or grains.  You need a lot of that bottom food to feed the next level of consumer, and that next consumer is always bigger, fewer in number, and has a longer, slower life cycle than the level below.  In pest terms, this means that to attract a healthy population of predators, you have to maintain a healthy level of prey, and the prey has to stick around long enough for the predator to go through its life cycle.  So even as I sprayed off a few aphids, I wondered if I should really just be looking at these guys as the potential ladybug buffet.

I looked a little closer at the blackened fava tips, and here’s what I saw:

Dun nah.. dun nah (think Jaws)

The ladybugs were on the case.

Option number 3, also do nothing.  When I looked even more closely, I noticed that some plants were covered, and, as often happens, some weren’t touched at all.  The plants that were covered were generally the same ones that didn’t have many bean pods on them, whereas the ones with lots of bean pods seemed less affected.  Besides being food for others, pests are also often the critters in charge of culling the herd of the sick and weak.  I decided that I had no trouble sacrificing the few plants–all of which are almost at the end of their time in my garden anyway–in favour of the bean harvest, which is, after all, why these favas are in the garden at all.  If I pulled out the affected plants–took over nature’s role of culling the herd–where were the aphids and ladybugs going to go?  To the healthy plants is a distinct possibility.  If I leave in the weaker ones to be munched on until all of them are coming out, hopefully everyone will stay happy.

I now understand the “trap plant” concept: keeping plants pests love to distract them from the ones you love.  Many folks suggest this is a good reason to leave some weeds around–if you’ve got nothing but your perfect, special plants about, what are the pests going to eat?

My last thoughts as I walked away, pleased that once again my solution was to “do nothing” :), was about timing and the seasons.  The aphids obviously showed up at a very specific time, I assume connected to temperature, etc.  The ladybugs were clearly happy about this.  They have been munching on the green aphids here and there on the roses for the last month or so.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the ladybugs were not like us waiting for the strawberries to ripen!  “I wish the temperature would warm up just a bit more so that those black aphids would show up; they’re my favorite spring time treat!”  As the Skipper pointed out, the birds ignored our many grapes last year until they were ripe, and our green blueberries are completely safe at the moment…. So to me, at least, this does suggest that critters might have tastebuds too, and also be guided by pleasure?  Too radical?  Anyone with pets knows that they love some foods and won’t touch others.  The goldfish in the pond LOVE the frozen bloodworms that the Skipper feeds them, and are indifferent to other foods he’s tried.  Why should humans have all the fun? 😮

Mmmmm...I love it when the black ones are in season...

Harvest Thursday update…

Now with more potatoes!  The purple ones are volunteers, likely legacy potatoes from gardeners gone by.  We haven’t eaten any in the past year, and I wouldn’t have thought that the elderly woman we bought the house from was a purple potato eater, but you never know, I guess 🙂 .

Potatoes! Purple is a yummy flavour, right?

And, although we’ve been snacking and putting strawberries by the handful on breakfast in the morning, here’s our first official harvest bowl (ie more than we could stuff in our mouths in a moment!).  It weighed 1.5 lb (now I understand why grocery stores sell berries by the pint and not by the pound), but Skipper thinks with all the extra ones he ate after I thought I had picked them out, there were probably 2 lbs harvested tonight ;).

Summer's finally here...

Harvest Monday…I mean Wednesday

Yes, I know it’s Thursday. 🙂  I’ve got lots to catch up on: rose photos, book reviews, restaurant reviews, notes from our trips to Saltspring, and on my trip to Courtenay and the Shellfish Festival. Busy week!  I’ve now finished teaching my summer course, so I should have time to post a little more often–just in time, too, as the garden is really taking off and desperate for more attention.  But in the meantime…

I’ve joined a group of gardening blogs, hosted by Daphne’s Dandelions in Massachusetts, that are reporting on their home garden harvests each week.  I’m joining way late–Daphne started reporting in February!  Here’s hoping I have something to report on through the winter as well!  And of course, it’s not Monday :).  But yesterday I decided to check on our early potatoes that didn’t seem to be moving anywhere near flowering.  The bed was theirs only for the short term for new potatoes, so I decided their time was pretty much up–the fall veg need a place to live!  Finding the few new potatoes was the best Easter Egg hunt I’ve ever gone on–I’m hooked on digging for my food!

To go with the potatoes, I figured I’d pick some peas and thin the beets and onions.  Before I knew it, this is what I’d harvested:

Dinner and lunch from one evening's pickings!

Starting in the bottom left and moving clockwise, there’s Red Sails looseleaf lettuce (I’m a new convert), a mystery lettuce that volunteered in an empty bed (wish I knew what it was; it’s tasty and this is my second head from it), the new potatoes (Warba), baby Redwing onions (now I understand the meaning of the “spring” onion!  Sweeter even than scallions), really baby carrots (napoli), scallions, Bordeaux red spinach (by far my most reliable and prolific type from the 3 I tried), Bull’s Blood beet thinnings (can you tell I have a thing for red versions of veggies?), red chard and white Fordook Giant chard, and a mix of Dwarf Grey Sugar and Sugar Ann snow and snap/sugar peas in the middle.  Yum!

Suddenly, of course, I see the issues with abundance.  Everything grows so slowly for so long, and then all of a sudden there’s more than you know what to do with :).  For dinner we did manage to get through a fair bit; we ate the chard, beets, and some peas and carrots with the potatoes.  We added some eggs (from down the street) scrambled with some basil tips and the spring onions.  Delicious!  Lunch today for both of us is salad with some bread from True Grain and various accompaniments.  If we can keep up with the garden, we’ll both be models of health, that’s for sure!

Some gardeners are organized enough to do a weekly weigh in to track their garden production; I don’t think I’m up for that yet.  But it should be fairly easy to track from the perspective of our grocery bill–I can’t imagine buying any more produce any time soon!

Father’s Day Pie

The Skipper and I were both blessed with wonderful fathers.  Loving, generous, kind, spiritual caregivers of their families and communities, we have benefited beyond words from them as role models.  They both died too young: Skipper’s at 61, mine at 57.

Their legacies are strong and mysterious.  I never got the chance to meet Skipper’s dad, but even from photos I can see the resemblance.  And it’s so clear to me that Skipper’s values–that generosity toward others is an abundance that will be returned in spades, that work is something to take pride in and not something to avoid, that working with your hands is a timeless pleasure connected to generations of craftsmen who came before, that living close to nature is good for the soul, and that life and love should be playful and fun!–come from his remarkable father.

My own dear dad has been gone just two years, and so I’m still learning how much he and I were connected.  I get my deep sense of belonging to Britain from him and his family (and a similar sense of belonging to Scotland from my mother and her family).  I can sit and dream and look very unproductive for many hours as I ponder the mysteries of the world, and I’m usually more preoccupied with the possibilities of life 5 or 10 years from now than with the tasks immediately in front of me.  That’s definitely from him, as is my curiosity about people and how they live, and about the next house we might live in (no matter how happy we are in the one we’re in now).  I hope that I have inherited his compassion.  I know I may not have recognized the miracle man that is my husband without my father’s modeling of what a man can be, and that is a legacy I am thankful for every day.

But this is a blog about food, and both of our dad’s had that in common too–they loved to eat, and chose women who cooked to keep them well fed throughout their adult lives.  And they both LOVED pie.

The pie gene must run through the male line in our families, because the women folk that I know in our two families like pie, but not with the unbridled perfectionist passion of the men.  I thought this was a quirk of the Skipper–he loves pie so much that he has become a master pie-maker himself–until I spent some time with his brother.  One of my favorite memories and stories is of when we were visiting brother and sister-in-law at their home in Moncton one morning.  We were all chatting and sipping tea/coffee as brother puttered about the kitchen.  Long into the conversation, I suddenly realized that I was watching a scene I thought only happened in my own kitchen: brother was in the confident, automatic process of rolling out pastry and mixing fillings as he assembled SIX pies on the kitchen counter!  This is a pie-serious family.

Last night, after Skipper and I had spent the day going in very different directions, I was thinking about having not celebrated Father’s Day, and that we should have a toast to our fathers at some point.  But we were in bed, munching on some slices of store-bought cherry pie (what? Doesn’t everyone end the day that way? :)) and catching up on our adventures, when I realized that we were already recognizing our Dads in the most appropriate way.  With pie.

Our Dads never met in life, but if ever two men were going to meet and enjoy each others’ company in the beyond, it would be those two.  I love the idea that they might have been sitting over a fruit pie, still warm from the oven, looking down on us with pride as we enjoyed the same pleasure.  How lucky are we all in those moments shared around the food we love.

Here’s to Dads and pie!

Hope everyone had a wonderful father’s day.

Gardening for Groceries

Despite our long, COLD spring, the veggie garden is coming along nicely.  I did put most of my tomatoes in the ground a week or so ago (and thanks for all the reassurance that tomatoes like to be in pots!) and they are continuing to grow nicely.  The peas are starting to appear on the vines–next time I’m trellising them even if they are dwarves; it will be much easier to find the peas themselves in the curly tangle!–the carrots seem to be coming along, and the chard, kale, and beet greens are growing inches a day.  I planted more spinach, lettuce, beets, and mesclun mix in a slightly less sunny spot probably 3 weeks ago, and they are also coming along fine.  Most exciting–the strawberries are getting riper, and the fava beans are loaded with pods that should also be ready within the week.  Hurray!

I had some hopes for the ways in which having a big home garden would impact our lives.  Besides some emotional, ecological, and spiritual goals, I have been hoping that our grocery budget will decrease significantly through the summer and into the fall as we mostly eat out of the garden.  I’m still working on that assumption, though I’m going to really have to keep on top of the succession planting.  Succession planting is when you have a crop that takes a specific number of days from seed to maturity, and when it’s mature, you eat the crop and it’s done.  So a carrot, for instance, grows to the right size, and then you pick it and eat it.  This is different than peas or beans or vine tomatoes, where as long as you keep picking, the vine will keep producing, sometimes for months on end.  In order to keep eating the former crop regularly throughout the season, you plant a patch every couple of weeks, so that you have crops ready to eat consistently for months.

The problem so far for me has been partly busyness, but also partly that after 2-3 weeks the previously planted seeds don’t look particularly inspiring.  As a new gardener, some crops have surprised me in how long they take to germinate, and it’s been at times an act of faith to keep planting.  Then, a month or so later, the first planted crops look AMAZING, and I’m kicking myself for not planting 3 times as much and for succession planting  like crazy!  Lessons learned :).

One of my friends suggests that all of my university training, combined with some inherent personality traits, makes me a person who’s very concerned about doing things “right”.  I know that she’s right–although I fight the tendency intellectually because I don’t believe that most of the time there’s only one right way to do things.  But it’s true that I tend to be fairly conservative when I approach something new; I want to learn the rules/conventions first, and then when I’m comfortable with them and the reasons behind them, then I start changing things according to my own instincts.

Such has been the case with the garden.  As I’ve begun, I’ve read a ton, asked lots of questions, joined some online forums.  But much of gardening is so changeable and fluid, with variables like weather, temperature, micro-climate, goals, varietal choices, etc etc.  So at times it’s felt like I’m stumbling around trying to pin the tail on the donkey.  I’ve had take everything I’ve learned, and then take action according to all that information and my best educated guess.

To my surprise, I’ve been reasonably successful.  Certainly I’ve learned some lessons–both to take more risks and to be more consistent 🙂  in planting.  I will be a little more reckless with my seeds from now on, planting more and earlier because eventually stuff does grow, and it is a treat to have a gamble pay off (see the self-sufficient gardener on the garden tour testing the limits below).

How else do I know that I’m on the right track?  Because of how my grocery shopping habits are already changing.

I love to shop at the farmer’s market, and Duncan has a great one.  When we moved to the valley last year, I started learning as much as I could about where the local farms are and how they operate, because following the un-beaten path down to the farm gate is one of my great pleasures.  As the garden has been new, and the crops not yet ready in the last couple of months, I’ve eagerly headed to the farm markets to supplement the backyard feast-to-be.  And so I’ve experienced one of many D’oh! moments.

I’ve come home empty handed from most of my trips.  Why?  Because the produce that the farms have for sale, I’ve clued in, is the same produce that I have growing in my garden, and at roughly the same phase.  I’ve been doing things (mostly) right!  That’s the good news.  The bad news (and the D’oh!) is that we’re all–home gardeners and farmers–growing the same stuff at the same time, because we’re all subject to the same growing conditions.

Eliot Coleman has built a substantial farm business based on selling produce through the winter in Maine when no one else is farming at all.  I’m a little surprised, actually, that no one’s doing that here.   Or perhaps they are, but it’s really greens and fairly simple things being grown under simple covers, rather than large overwintering crops.  Surely some farmers could have been selling broccoli, brussel sprouts, and cauliflower for a couple of months with enough planning?  That’s what I’m planning for us to be eating next spring.

In the meantime, I’m realizing that my grocery shopping and approach to eating seasonally is going to change in ways that I’m still processing.  If we’re growing what the market farmers are, then we’re not going to be supporting them financially.  And what we’re supplementing our produce with–some greenhouse-grown crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers are available reasonably locally, but it’s mostly soy milk, dry staples (rice, pasta, flour, etc; I am growing dry beans, and we’ll see what size crop we end up with), nuts, cheese, and sometimes oranges, etc in the winter–is not easily produced locally and will probably always need to be purchased at a chain supermarket.  Although we’ve shopped at farms for years, and considered ourselves seasonal eaters, it’s a very different feeling to look at the garden in the backyard with many crops almost, but not quite ready and to realize that this IS what’s locally available–not just to buy, but also to produce.  Again, I suddenly understand the pleasurable gardening obsession with pushing the zonal boundaries!

After years of feeling like part of the consumer movement, where personal purchasing choices are the daily political statements that comprise much (if not all at times) of my activism, I’m going to have to re-think my strategy.  Gardening for some level of self-sufficiency has long been appealing as a way to opt out of the bind of consumer choices that sometimes seem always already tainted by global capitalism.  But I’m realizing that opting out is also giving up the consumer currency that feels like a voice and practical action within that system.  If I am invested in changing the system, and opting out removes one way to effect change, then I’m going to come up with some new ways!

If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them! 🙂

Ode to the Columbine…

When we started getting acquainted with our garden in earnest this year, I wondered how I would know the difference between the weeds and the flowers.  It’s amazing, though, how distinctive the perennial leaves and shoots look; I’ve almost never been confused.  And if I am, I just wait and see.  So far, so good!

One of the first, most prevalent leaf patterns to emerge in the spring was the lacy, circular leaf of the columbine.  They had, as the seed packets like to say, self-seeded prolifically.  We knew that they would be pretty, and generally we are happy to have more flowers, so we let them grow pretty much wherever they wanted.  And now, deep into spring, we’re so glad we did.  Who knew there were so many different kinds?!

These lovely, delicate flowers are beautiful, apparently attract predatory insects, and provide our many resident hummingbirds with yummy food.  And for some weeks at the beginning of the spring, they were the only blooms.  And so, without further ado, enjoy the pictorial ode to the columbine.

Hmmm…I’m missing photos of the deep, dark purple ones.  Hey Skipper!  Where are the purple columbines?

In other garden excitement, the roses are blooming!  More on those coming up…

Cowichan Vally 2010 Garden Tour: Observations and Inspirations

So I’m turning into a gardening geek (or maybe I passed that phase a long time ago? :)) .  It was my birthday on Sunday, and all I wanted to do was go on the garden tour.  It was a great day, despite a downpour in the middle of it!  There were 6 gardens on the tour, all very different: a couple of conventional, 1/2 acre sized properties, a large, but still conventionally styled garden that specialized in rhododendrons, two neighbouring beautiful ocean-view properties with integrated veggie and flower gardens, and a hobby farm.  Something for everyone!

The Skipper was in macro-flower-photography heaven, with stunning and unique specimens galore.  The irises, in particular were amazing:

Dirigo Black Velvet Iris
Frilly!
Batik Irises
My Favorite!

The first few gardens were lovely, with some really interesting plants.  But we were also there to look at design choices, as we continue to learn about our own garden, and to think through some of the areas that we know we want to change.  What struck us more than anything in those first few homes was that our garden is not a conventional garden already, and we like it that way.

The conventional gardens have perfect lawn spaces, carefully edged.  The flower beds have precisely defined borders, and each plant in the bed is carefully positioned with plenty of space around it, so that it can be appreciated by itself.  The beds look like they are first covered in landscape cloth, then bark mulched, so that there are few, if any, weeds, and each plant is striking against the brown backdrop of the mulch.  Everything is beautiful, but feels, to us anyway, sterile and manicured.  Definitely not what we’re going for.

Gardens like these require strong attention to detail, a value of precision and uniformity, and above all, chemicals.  Killex on the lawn, Round-up on the weeds, fertilizers on the plants to keep them “healthy”.  We’re not interested in these complex artificial life support systems.

Our garden was clearly designed as a riotous English country garden, and that’s what we love about it.  It needs some tending–the mature perennials need to be tidied up and divided, the soil needs to be improved, and in the last few years the weeds weren’t really dealt with, so we’re infested with grass, creeping buttercup, morning glory and horsetail.  The Skipper has been rebuilding pathways that had become overgrown and in some cases almost impassable.  We will probably add some bedding edging over the seasons to come.  But we love the roses that are climbing over everything, the mature daylilies, crocosmia, peonies, and irises.  Now if we can just figure out how to tame the Bishop’s Weed!

So that was good to learn about ourselves and our garden.  Anyone surprised that we’re not conventional? 🙂

On to the veggie gardens!  To my surprise, everyone had one.  In some gardens they were a small aside, in others a main focus.  But I was pleased to see that even the most manicured space had some food in it.

Here are some of the more prominent veggie plots:

The elaborate, decorative veggie garden

This spot was beautiful; given as much care as the rest of the garden.  I loved that it had prominence and attention to aesthetics.  On a practical level, I liked that there were flower beds close by and integrated, and a large herb bed.  I also thought it was very clever that some of the beds had the tall frames that you can see in the back.  These frames were permanent, and meant that plastic could be easily attached to make instant cold frames, or netting could create instant trellises.  Very smart.  I’m also a sucker for the wooden obelisk for runner beans and climbing peas.  I haven’t figured out how to get one of those in my garden yet!

Here’s exhibit B:

A Self-Sufficient Plot

This garden was one of the stars of the show.  On a sunnier day, I would have cornered the gardener and tried to learn all of his secrets.  Unfortunately, this is when the downpour hit, and the photographer was not happy, so our visit was brief.  But I’ll try and find a way to get back!

This is a garden tended to by an English gardener who is legally blind.  He writes that they are self-sufficient in vegetables, and I believe it.  This wasn’t a super-large space, and there were some fruit trees and berry bushes outside of it.  But his vegetable garden was WEEKS ahead of anyone else’s.  He had actual ZUCCHINI on his plants!  Peas!  Flowers on his potatoes!  It was shocking!  I (and when I chatted to the Master Gardener on site, she said the same thing) haven’t even planted my cucumbers and zucchini yet, because it’s been so cold!  The power of a micro-climate.  The Master Gardener suggested his secret was two-fold.  The lot is closer to the ocean, so that creates a warmer zone, and the veggie plot is in a very sheltered area of the lot (note the solid fencing around the sides, too).  It’s possible that he was growing substantial transplants for some of the veg too.  But wow!  The inspiration to really go for it in terms of micro-zones, etc, to just keep pushing the envelope and to keep experimenting.

Also interesting to me, for our space, is that the size was not that big, and yet the plot didn’t seem to be really intensively cultivated.  One key was that even though it’s a raised bed system (the owner commented that he’s on rock), there is really only one main pathway, and pretty much the rest is cultivatable, with depressed areas used for temporary pathways where necessary.  An amazing space that definitely inspired me to be more organized and timely in my planting schedules, regardless of what the weather looks like outside.

Veggie Plot number three was the hobby farm, which was also an interesting place.  The farm is run by a small family, and has a small commercial production that they sell for a few weeks at the Duncan Farmer’s Market.  They also say that they are self-sufficient in produce.  But their set up is much more elaborate:

Raised Bed Section 1

They have inherited an unbelievable greenhouse; note the ROCK beds–perfect for keeping tomato and other tropical roots toasty year round without heat.

In the Greenhouse--those are olive trees in front of me

Then they have a second, large hoop house–good construction tips here:

Winter veggie production in the hoop house

The hoop house is built to allow ventilation and is unheated, and serves a couple of useful purposes: winter salad and other greens are kept at the right temperature to hold well through the cold season, and this is also where tomato and other warm season seedlings are hardened off, or perhaps grown in?  Not sure if they move them out or not.

The farm also has a second, very large raised bed space:

Very large Garden #2

One of the things that was interesting about the farm was that as idyllic as all this looks now, in fact it was clear that they had had some pretty serious challenges when they went to set up their growing area.  The paths to the raised bed areas are over dykes or ditches; it looks like they had to built up significantly to get above the water level!  This would have been a reason not to buy the property for me, if I was looking for a small farm, but they have done the work and with amazing results.

I’m struck by how much bigger this space is than the other self-sufficient veggie garden, too.  The difference between the serious home gardener and the hobby farmer, perhaps?

One of the big lessons for us in studying all these spaces was that although we’ve been tempted to think that our plot is too small for some of the dreams that we’ve had, it actually suits us well, and that it’s worth the effort to keep tweaking it to make it work better.  We know that we want to re-work the main veggie area, and between those changes and other places where we can continue to take out lawn and put in more veggie beds, I think we can really get the space we need.

Another lesson was that everyone has raised beds.  We had been struggling with the idea that maximum use of our main space meant taking out the raised beds and moving to a more traditional “farm-like” plot in the ground.  The problem is that the main growing area is actually right over our septic treatment system section (hard to explain quickly, but actually great!), which means that about 8″ (?) below the raised beds is a plastic liner, and then in those 8″ is sand and some imported topsoil.  So we’d been trying to decide what to do.  Seeing all these raised beds gave us a better idea of how bigger and deeper raised beds could work well for us, and we’re happily imagining the possibilities.  Stay tuned for the big winter project!

What I didn’t see was a lot of permaculture-style planting, but I’ll save that for another post.  For now, I’m pleased that touring these beautiful gardens in fact made us happier about where we are, and has inspired us with visions of how we might be able to make our own garden even more joyful and productive.