Thursday, March 20, 2014

No spring yet, and not in my step either.

Spring Equinox 2014. 
We had some beautiful days and then some more snow/sleet/yuck. The snow is melting, but it has a long way to go yet. The last of the snow can leave the gardens here at any time between early March and late April. Obviously this will not be one of those early springs when we can get a leisurely head start. Too bad, I love it when I can spend a few weeks just poking around without hurrying. Remind self to be grateful we are not in drought-ridden California. 

We do have signs of spring.
Poor robin. The dramatic pile of snow is what slid off the roof. I love that roof.
As reported I lost my first batch of seedlings due to my own stupidity. That put a damper on the early enthousiasm. 
But a worse damper is coming from my body. 
My injured right knee (tibial plateau fracture in July 2012) has been acting up, after being fine for a year. Last year it allowed me to do absolutely everything I felt like doing, including feats of extreme digging. I walked up and down the hill between dwelling and garden and barn, I hauled what needed to be hauled, I had no pain, was full of energy and had a blast. Hips might balk once in a while but a visit to our wonderful chiropractor took care of that. Aging? Ha! Not yet! Scott Nearing didn't slow down till he was almost a hundred, right? Or so we thought till this week.
The path to the greenhouse is a half-thawed out trail through snow that is still halfway to my knees. That is the worst possible thing to walk on, even when you are careful. You take a few steps and without warning your foot slips off the trail into the soft mush to the side of it. Needless to say this is hard on the knees. It happened a few times yesterday when I took the compost to the barn through a different route. I thought I had gotten away with it, but on the way home from a walk, on the easy flat part just below our own land, I experienced a sudden sharp pain just below the knee cap and felt half crippled for the rest of the day and half of the next.

The plan had been to start some more seeds but it took me too long to move around. I got the planter prepared, that's all. This was one of the days when the thought of a cute house in the village with a small but perfect garden starts to be appealing.

I dug up some of the physiotherapy exercises I never did a lot of. The knee responded with gratitude. Stronger muscles help to keep the knee in place. I should have called this post "When in doubt, follow instructions, part 2".

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

When all else fails, follow instructions.

WAAAH!!! My first planting of leeks is damping off! And it is entirely my fault. Talk about being penny wise and pound foolish.

This has never happened before. I feel like someone working in a hospital, besieged by increasingly resistant bacteria, who has come to rely on the magic of antibiotics and gotten sloppy about hand washing.

What does every garden book tell you about starting seeds, which I have been doing for more than 40 years now? Use a sterilized planting medium. I usually make it a point of saving some from the big bales and keeping it handy so I can thaw it out come February. But last year I did not sell plants at the market, I ran out of potting mix and did not feel like shlepping another bale to the greenhouse. Instead I sieved potting mix that had been used in containers last year and used that. Sieved, but did not sterilize.

Fortunately I have lots more seed and it is still early. But still. There goes a full month of time advantage. The only other things I got going are leafy greens, that are very replaceable if they die.

Today we buy some bags of starter mix. Grrrr. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Asparagus to Zucchini aborted, and Wrapping it up, working ahead.


Asparagus: 30% win. 
Yup, that's all. They had been neglected in 2012. This spring there were some stalks of edible size but never enough for a meal. They were enjoyed raw on the spot, the gardener's reward. This fall they got a thorough weeding followed by manure and mulch, so let's hope for more in spring.

Arugula:80% win
Gaia bless the pungent trusty stuff. The only reason it did not get 100% is that I don't always remember to replant every few weeks.

Beans: 80% win.
Earlier I complained about the lack of snap beans. Once the Blue Lake pole beans kicked in they made up for it. We enjoyed them daily for weeks and I froze quite a few. They don't really freeze well, I should investigate pickling or canning.

Beets: 100% fail.
I only planted a a few golden ones and they never amounted to anything. 

Broccoli: 90% fail
The early transplants were demolished by slugs, overnight. I was left with two plants that yielded many side shoots. I do like this variety a lot. Pakman. The second batch was meant to mature in fall, but the timing was off. Close but no cigar. Will try again and start the late batch in late June instead of late July.

Brussels Sprouts: 60% win
The plants were splendid and well looked after. I did exactly the same things as last year, except better. But when it came to harvesting time the sprouts were still small. I heard the same thing from other people and have no idea why. Yes, I did top them off to encourage sprout growth.

Cabbage: 100%WIN!
Alcosa hybrid savoy yielded the nicest cabbages ever. I even got a second batch in November, smaller but  worthwhile. They were eaten fresh, frozen, and honoured as a main ingredient in giant batches of borscht. Our first home in B.C. was in Christina Lake, in Doukhobor country. We have the fondest memories of delicious Russian food in the Yale Hotel in Grand Forks, now burnt down. A search for Grand Forks style borscht turned up this beautiful blog with traditional Doukhobor recipes and memories.
I follow the recipe almost to the letter, except I do include some cubed beets, and I poke the stick mixer in at the end. It tastes like the best restaurant borscht. The blog says you can halve the recipe. No way! It freezes beautifully and I double it. Note to self: must grow and freeze dill next year.

Carrots: 30%win.
I seeded early and carefully in one of the fortresses. The lined raised boxes may be a deterrent to voles, but slugs get right in there anyway. The first sowing was about 90% eaten. The carrots that survived were excellent, but too few. The second seeding in July was still a bit small, and to add insult to injury, we got a hard frost before the snow and I couldn't get them out of the ground. Next year: sow in the main garden again, the voles seem to have died down to a manageable number. And never mind the square foot method, it doesn't leave enough for the predators. Back to rows and laborious thinning.

Cucumbers: 50% win/fail
They are always an iffy proposition and I won't waste too much garden space on them. One tripod in the greenhouse yielded enough for fresh eating, but not the abundance I was expecting and they fizzled out early. My bad for planting a bush variety? 

Egg plant: 10% win
I only put in one plant, in a tub in the greenhouse, as much for beauty as for fruit. That tub also contained marigolds and nasturtiums, just for the joy of walking into a blaze of colour. I don't know if it was the company or something else, but I got exactly one aubergine. Two years ago I got 5 from a single plant that was in a smaller container, go figure. 
__________________________________________That's all she wrote. I must have been planning to continue this back in the fall and never did. It is now the end of February 2014 and time to plan ahead instead of looking back.

I also had a half finished post on wrapping it up, working ahead. 
This was the first October in years that I had the chance to just carry on gardening and working ahead. It was quite wonderful. I am, of course, nowhere near ready, but there is no such a thing as ready, is there? 

The small flower garden by the stairs was totally prepared. When the snow drops and eranthis appear I won't have to remove slimy stalks from the previous season.
The big flower border got tidied up. Some daffodils were planted where they are meant to go, others are waiting in containers in the ground in the greenhouse and some in the veg garden.

I made enough good rich COF for 400 square feet of garden.
Before I can make more I need a trip to Nelson.
Last year's compost heap yielded at least a hundred gallons of garden gold, sifted and ready to go. This year's heap was turned and enriched. There is still some manure left from the gifts of my friend Els, whose sheep and horse produce more than she can use. It is covered with a tarp and happily curing.

Last but not least: I got my hands on 25 bales of hay for mulching. Supposedly spoilt and only $2 per bale, but it had no discernible mold and smelled delicious. I did not put it on the garden because the voles would enjoy it too much as a winter home. Slugs likewise. It is also kept under a tarp and  will be nice to have handy in spring.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Imbolc has come and gone. Lazy season is over!

Imbolc,  for those unfamiliar with the old Celtic calendar, is February 2, better known as Ground Hog Day. It marks the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the beginning of the last section of the darker season in the Northern hemisphere. In more temperate regions the first signs of spring are possible. Snowdrops live up to their name.

In my personal calendar this marks the end of the yearly retreat to indoor leisure. I work hard in summer and have big plans for this year. I might even do the farmers market again, with perennial bedding plants and reflexology. The dark time is a welcome break from outdoor activity. I have enjoyed it. Now it is time to stop indulging in carby treats and work on getting back into gardening shape.

More to the point of this blog, it is time for garden plans, the earliest starts, and the ordering of seeds.
On February 3 the first seeds went into pots, Bandit leeks from leftover seed. Supposedly leek seeds have a short shelf life but I noticed no difference between 2011 and 2013. Nothing is lost by planting these, I am ordering more. On the same day I placed a small order for early greens and tomatoes with Stellar Seeds, a small Kootenay start-up. They have to be supported.

The bulk has been ordered from William Dam, who I have been dealing with since my first pathetic efforts in the early seventies. I was glad to see them on the Steve Solomon approved list. I like the way they have been refusing to treat seeds with fungicides long before organic became a bandwagon. And, let's face it, there is a bit of ethnic sentiment involved. How can an old Dutch woman resist a catalogue that includes Glory of Enkhuizen, or Langedijker winter keeper? Not that I grow those, I stick to short season cabbages.

My order is a bit like a theme song for a TV program "Market Place", "Where the folks are saving money spending money they ain't got".
William Dam offers a selection of size in their packages. Choose from your basic retail size to seed by the kilo for professionals, with sizes in between for substantial savings. 
Ideally a group of gardeners should get together, it may come to that in years to pass. Meanwhile, I have ordered extra large packages of leeks and certain brassicas and carrots. I still have beans and peas from doing that in other years. I have offered to share them on the Nakusp Communicator Facebook group. We'll see what comes of it. And then there is the TEOTWAKI factor. I like having at least one year worth of extra seeds around.

Meanwhile, the first tiny leeks are poking up. Bad news: the cover on the greenhouse is showing serious signs of wear and tear. I am hoping to get one more season out of it, but will probably just buy another one next time the Clearview Car shelter comes on special at Canadian Tire. Remind me again why I do this? Because it keeps me sane in a mad world is why. My bottom line was blogged about earlier.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Garden infrastructure: something old and something new.

I am quite pleased with myself. No matter what else gets done this fall, next spring we will be further ahead than we were at the start of this season.

Project Raspberry is coming along. A third row is being created in between the two rows I already have at right angles to the veg beds. Many high-quality plants have already moved there of their own accord. I was dreading the digging of holes for posts. I'd either have to force my aging hips, or organize help, both a pain. Then a light bulb came on: use cement blocks made for 4x4s and just place them on top of the soil. Yes! I can DO this! The black currants can use this too, though they may have to wait till spring.  
The boxes dilemma in the top garden was solved by a workable compromise: buy new short ends, and bang the long ends together from whatever is lying around. Since 4x4s only come in lengths starting at 8 feet, I had the store cut them to 5 and 3. The 3's made a perfect base for the future garlic bed. Yes, this is treated wood with toxins etc. Guess what. We are old anyway, I am so not going to obsess about it. I would not use these for the long sides and would not use them anywhere if I were feeding toddlers.

The long ends are made of 2x6 boards that used to be part of the old greenhouse, combined with some of the slabs that started the whole boarded up bed thing. It is not nice and tidy, but it works to hold the soil in place and deter the weeds. Good enough!
 Below: board and slab detail. Board alone was too high off the ground. The overlap makes it work.
In the greenhouse on the other hand I splurged on bought 2x12s to make two 3x4 boxes. The space was dug out, lined with hardware cloth weighted down with rocks to deter the voles, then filled with sifted soil. In this small space we can aim for perfection.

The first one took days. The second one went much faster.
This time I did not try to use the electric drill/driver bought special for this use. How-to Youtubes make it look so effortless. PRRRRT and the screws are in. Who knew that it takes major muscle power to hold those things steady? After struggling mightily in the pit with a screwdriver that would run away on me and just turn inside the screw hole, making it useless, I resorted to a rusty manual screw driver. Progress was slow but steady. I also took a tip from Erica Strauss of NW edible fame and built the second box in two sections, putting the halves together on the deck, then assembling them in situ.
There we are, 24 square feet of enriched soil, ready for planting. Still to be added: copper coil to keep out slugs. It is probably too late for seeding anything, but I stuck in some multiplier onions and have some chard and kale that is just the right age for transplanting. Next year one of these beds will be leeks and carrots for overwintering, square foot style. I am itching to build a long 3x10 one on the left side,  but have to wait till the tomatoes are done. Let it freeze, I am ready.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Flower gardening for the design challenged.

My name is Ien van Houten, and I am a plantaholic. 

I admit it, I suffer from CHAD: Compulsive Horticultural Acquisition Syndrome. Thanks for that wonderful term to John of heritage perennials. If you love flowers, get their newsletter. I have never met a flower I didn't like, and certain plants bring out the collector: I'll take one of each colour of pansy please!
I am also design challenged. I can combine two or three plants that look good together, but lack the talent to instinctively create a pleasing whole. There are piles of books on the topic, but learning cannot replace the artistic touch that one is born with or not.

Even so, we are getting better. Here are some lessons I finally learned: 

1) Keep it Real. 
That means accepting the limitations of both garden and gardener.
The garden has poor sandy soil and is besieged by voracious deer. 
The gardener is not the most efficient worker, especially around flowers. I cannot visualize and am always changing my mind and moving plants around. Poor babies. 

Another reality is too much garden. This year I had no farmers market, plenty of energy, and some money to spend. The only excuse for not achieving more is that we started the year behind after 2012's aestas horribilis. It has become clear that either the fenced food garden up the hill, OR the gardens at dwelling level would be enough to keep one busy.

Be it resolved that growing food has priority, and flowers are a hobby and will have to take second place. 

2) Keep it simple. Less is More.
CHAD may cause stamp collection syndrome. It must be resisted, or limited to a small section of the garden. Large colourful blocks of a few kinds of flower will show up better than a bit of this and a bit of that. It took me years to learn that.

3) Grow plants who like your terrain. 
The motto here is: No Prima Donnas! I stick to plants that put up with poor soil and some neglect. 
A good example is old fashioned Yellow Loosestrife, one of my all-time faves. It blooms for weeks in early summer and is one of the most generous souls in the flower kingdom. Deer nibble it in spring but it bounces back. Yes, it spreads. It is also easy to rip out where it is not wanted. Cherry coloured yarrow has a similar temperament and the two play nicely together. 
Beth's primrose is another favourite. Tulips are a lost cause because of deer, and daffodils have to be planted fresh every fall because some wormy critter in the soil burrows into the bulbs. But these beauties liven up the spring for weeks, reliably, sun or shade. As a bonus they remind me of the friend, dead too young, who gave them to me.

4) Don't try to make the whole perennial bed look great all at once. Let islands of colour take turns. 

5) Annuals in containers are a great way for the design-challenged to fill gaps. Containers also slow down the slugs. (a bit) It seems to be a law that any plant not devoured by deer is particularly adored by slugs. Marigold and dahlia come to mind.
Above: Crocosmia finally became a real presence. I have loved it for years. Sometimes plants will just sit there for a while and suddenly take off. Next year I want some purple annual in front of it, unless there is a low perennial that blooms at the same time? Unfortunately the deer have taken a liking to verbena, they left it alone before. Maybe heliotrope.
 Extra annual tip: annuals like petunia and lobelia enjoy a mid-season haircut followed by a generous application of fertilizer when they get straggly. They will respond with a bushier shape and increased flowering, amazingly fast. 
6) No plant is deer-proof. The white-tailed rats will enthousiastically eat a plant one year that they never bothered before. Campanula conglomerata used to be safe, now it gets eaten.
7) Nothing stays DONE. Just when you have a section exactly the way you want it, something will go wrong. One perennial dies out, another needs dividing. This lovely combination of silver and magenta never looked quite as good again. The lamium in the container got too big and had to be replanted, and the cerastium tomentosum over ran the creeping cranesbill.
8)Forget perfection, ENJOY the moments!
And finally, with wild flowers like these, who needs gardens?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Machine and I

I should have known better than to fall for the seduction of another machine. In this case, a brand new shiny red Stihl weed wacker, complete with all the trimmings. Ear protectors, safety goggles, little fuel thingies, etc etc.

From now on we will get real, and stop playing If Only games. You know the ones: "If only I had.......then I could...." or its corollary: "If only I didn't have to, then I would..."

In the past I have had little Mantis tillers, and once a large rotor tiller. I never liked working with them much. The main goal was to have them chop green manure into the soil, but long stalks just get tangled in the tines even with the powerful machine. The expensive tiller got damaged when the shed it was parked in collapsed in a snowy winter. It was sort-of fixed but felt even more awkward. It also suffered from fuel-left-in-over-winter syndrome. I finally sold it to a handy guy who makes use of the engine and parts. 

I have also had electric trimmers. One was second hand and didn't last long. The other one was new, cord-free, and lasted about 5 minutes on our tough terrain before it would whine for a recharge. I guess those things are designed for postage stamp urban lawns made of actual grass.

But that was a few years ago. Last year in May I got seduced again. I was feeling great. The chiropractor had fixed my hip, and iron pills had revived my energy. Visions of the perfect gardens of my dear friend Beth James of blessed memory were dancing in my head. Beth didn't have a lawn mower, just a heavy duty weed wacker that she used both on her lawns and on the grassy paths between her garden beds. Beth was also a tough wiry athletic type and all-over handy woman, all things I am not.

A few days after the purchase my energy dropped again, and a bit later yet life took a very different turn. Fast forward a year. I feel better than I have in years. Time to revisit The Machine.

Took it back to the shop to remove gummed up old fuel and put in fresh, made sure it started. Smiles all around. This time I am going to DO it, right? I actually did study the thing, managed to get it started, whizzed around a little bit. Indeed, much grass can be trimmed in a short time, but it seemed the strings break off just as soon as you start. In previous encounters with electric trimmers I seemed to spend half my time untangling the spool. That's why I opted for a head with stick-in strings. Turns out you have to soak them. OK. Next time. There was tons of other things to do, and I kept postponing my next session with the Machine. 

I finally admit that I am just not a machine person. I drive, but that's it. The two stroke engine and I do not get along. To choke or not, to rev but not too much.....I just don't have the feel for it. 

Last week I made a casual remark on Facebook about needing an extra pair of hands. My neighbour and occasional barter-partner Rick took it literally and came over to help. 
He was frustrated by the wimpy strings but otherwise loved the thing, and did a great job clearing the edges of the yard. He still owed me an hour, now I owe him one again. Barter works!
And since I am into decluttering these days, Rick took the machine home. He is a tinkerer and a machine guy. My husband is good at it too, but this thing hurts his back. Rick will come over to do any wacking that I may need in the future. Hallelujah, there is more than one way to get things done!