Gardening in a Pandemic

This is my back yard garden, or what I like to call my little urban farm, after a mild winter and a l-o-n-g, not quite sprung spring. New paths have been laid down, compost has been worked into all the beds, and we grieving humans wait for warmer weather.

IMG_1306
Bones of the garden

If you look closely, you can see the perennial foods have started their journeys above ground — rhubarb, walking onions, spinach, sylvetta, sea kale, chives, strawberries. The garlic I planted in the fall is up too. All the berry bushes are in bud or, as in the case of the haskaps, already flowering and swarming with bees. I’ve started some seedlings inside, the ones that need a longer growing season — tomatoes, melons, cucumbers — and in a week or two I’ll start direct sowing seeds more tolerant of the cold.

It is always the case that gardening is my sanity. Gardening in the midst of a pandemic takes it to another level. It gives me some balance and perspective when I might otherwise be spinning out of control wondering if I actually have the disease. Yes, OK, I sometimes worry about things over which I have no control. But gardening also keeps me from spinning out about things that overwhelm me but might in fact be solvable if I can just take a breath. Like when I KNOW we can do better as a society. How do we solve THAT problem? The pandemic has given us a huge opportunity … to slow down, to really see each other and care enough to do things differently on the other side. Gardening helps me think through problems by showing me a path. It is the only place where I feel quiet in my whole being, where I observe nature with a complete reverence and often don’t realize until later how it’s shown me a new way to think about something that’s been bothering me. But back to the physical act itself …

IMG_1252
Bamboo mulch

The photo above is a picture of the Japanese Maple at the entrance to our back yard. I’ve just given it some delicious compost and a new layer of mulch which is from the bamboo bush on the other side of the yard. This is a first — I am starting to generate my own mulch from biomass in the garden. It’s been a slow process but it’s exciting. And if this pandemic lockdown ever lifts, I’ll see if the tool library has a wood chipper I can borrow to make even more mulch from my stack of old stems and twigs and branches (oh my) stacked up in the back of the yard.

How much better it is
to carry wood to the fire
than to moan about your life.
How much better
to throw the garbage
onto the compost, or to pin the clean
sheets on the line
with a gray-brown wooden clothes pin!

                  The Clothes Pin by Jane Kenyon

Plant Lessons

The big lesson so far this season has been to think ahead when planning the annual beds and match the trellis to the plant. So in the first group of pictures, it all looks kind of sweet and under control. The beans and peas have been staked and the carrots have lots of room to spread out in the rest of the bed. (click the pics for larger images; mouse over for caption.)

Then in this group of pictures, you see what happened later: a garden gone wild.

But they’re producing and that’s what counts. Earlier harvest of fruit (haskap), veggies (garlic), and herbs (oregano) below.

And where the garlic was will be new lettuce and other various greens.

Summer19 8

Lettuce starts about to be planted in the already harvested garlic bed.

Meanwhile, around the front of the house, the daylilies have a thing or two to tell us.

The thing I love about daylilies is they always look like they’re shouting.

Sometimes with joy, sometimes good morning, sometimes HEY, I’M HERE!

Summer19 7

Daylilies and hostas. Everyone plays nice together.

Peaches Don’t Lie

Denial is a powerful thing. Today is June 22nd and I refuse to turn on the heat because I should not have to turn on the heat on June 22nd. I should be begging for mercy from the heat and humidity gods. Instead I dress in layers: sweatshirt, wool sweater, heavy socks, a toque for god’s sake. But I do NOT turn on the heat. It is summer.

It is somewhat warmer outside so, despite being sick, I go out to the garden. When I return, my partner asks me what I’ve been doing and I tell her I’ve been weeding and thinking. I tell her I’ve been thinking about survival of the fittest and how sad that really is because who and what is fittest seems to change from day to day. Or maybe that’s actually good because whoever is down one day might be up the next? These are the places my brain goes.

I was weeding and thinking about a film I just watched about walruses. Used to resting on the arctic ice after feasting, they now have to swim hundreds of miles looking for a place to hang out because their beloved ice has melted. When they finally meet land, they climb up the highest cliff and are so exhausted many fall back down to their death. Hundreds of them lie dead or dying on the rocks at any given time.

Here on the Atlantic coast where I’ve been living for the past seven years, young people I know in their 20s and 30s have decided they will not have children because of climate change. I ask and am told that yes, they would have liked to have children but feel they cannot, in good conscience, bring children into a world that is burning up, into a world where the youth will have to struggle in ways that we in North America cannot even imagine.

And yet still, they have not given up. They fight every day to make a difference, to get the rest of us to pay attention. So when I am in the garden, I have hope too. Especially in the spring. I see the pollinators that overwinter here in the north struggle to survive. And while some of them don’t, many more do.

It’s been a tough spring and a lot of pollinators are still hiding out in the mulch. Luckily, there’s a lot of food for them.

I started ground cherries indoors this year where they grew beautifully. When the time came to transplant them, I think the wet windy weather caught them off guard. I thought they were done for as they shed one leaf after the other. But I put them in the ground anyway and most of them have rallied. Most of them look like maybe, just maybe, they’ll make it.

First day out for the ground cherries when they were still at their healthiest.

And then there’s the peach tree. For 5 years now, I’ve watched a pit thrown on the compost pile root into a seedling and finally into a tree that is at least a few feet taller than me and produces the most delicious fruit I think I’ve ever had.

Whatever goes on in the world at large, nature goes on. We humans tend to forget we are part of that cycle. We’ve lost some of our grace but I’ll continue to hold onto hope.

And look at that … the sun just came out and it looks like summer again.

The Big Picture

It’s been almost a year since I wrote anything here and in those last musings I promised I would write next about how permaculture gardening makes for less work overall.

Springtime planting takes a lot of intense work and certainly 6 raised beds, which is what I have now for annual veggies, is a lot less work than the 12 I used to have. You can get a refresher on where the redesign all began at this ch-ch-ch-changes post.  But the two photos below are a quick look at the design in the off-season before all the growth hides the lines. Everything except for the 6 raised beds up front is perennial. Click on the pictures for a larger image.

Not being in as much of a frenzy about planting annuals leaves more time for cleanup after the kind of heavy duty winter of ice/rain freeze/thaw craziness we had this past winter. But even taking that into account, the rewards of the permaculture part of the plot outweigh the work of the annuals.

When it was still too cold to even start sowing warm weather plants inside (tomatoes, tomatillos, and ground cherries this year), we were eating Sea Kale, Sylvetta, and Good King Henry Spinach from the garden. The young fresh leaves on all 3 of these plants are to die for. No less spectacular in their own special ways were the Egyptian Walking Onions and the doing-its-own-thing, ever ubiquitous rhubarb. I’ve already made rhubarb peach jam (peaches frozen from last year’s harvest), rhubarb crisp (well, of course), and multiple iterations of stewed rhubarb. I let one of the plants go to seed just to bear witness to the flower which I’d never seen before. At least not in our rhubarb patch.

Sea Kale

Spring is also the time to take a step back and look at the big picture. What are the plants telling me? Any fruit trees/bushes with weakened, damaged, or broken branches that need to be pruned? Anything obviously unhappy where it’s living that would benefit from a geographical? And which plants need some organic plant food? (answer: all of them)

For every success story, there is also a challenge. Peach leaf curl comes to mind. Leaf curl, though not necessarily fatal, looks really horrid and can, in fact, impact peach production. It often happens when the spring weather is wet, cold, and windy which ours certainly was. The kiwi had a bad case of powdery mildew for the same reason.

Just as the kiwi is now happy and in full bloom, I’m hoping the peach tree will also recover. I’ve had to deal with it one other time and after picking off every effected leaf, had a hugely productive harvest. I’ve done the same thing this year so I’m hoping we get the same result!

 

Hot and Humid

I’m not crazy about the humidity that’s knocked us off our feet but the garden seems to be thriving in it. This year’s harvest is the biggest I’ve had so far. The freezer is full of fruits and veggies, I’ve canned pickles, relish, and jam and the garden is still out there producing.

One of the things I’ve really loved this year is that not only are we filling our pantry (so to speak) with fresh fruits and vegetables to enjoy well into the winter, but we’ve given lots and lots of food away.

Especially peaches. And here’s what I learned about this magnificent fruit … you have to thin them early in the season like you would carrots or beets or anything else. Our tree was so overloaded with fruit I had to pick the fruit to save the tree. But the other thing I learned? Peaches ripen after they’ve been picked.

Peach Tree

Peach tree started from a pit 5 years ago.

I’ve also had this crazy little love affair with the way peas, beans, and cucumbers send their tendrils out to wrap themselves around whatever is nearby, thereby helping them climb rather than crawl. When I have more time I’m going to write a whole essay about that. And the peach tree. Click the pics for a better view.

Of course there’s been the usual shenanigans with bees and flowers.

Next post I’ll talk more about the food and how last year’s redesign to include more perennial foods made for an easier season work wise.

Our Arctic June

So I know I’ve only lived here a few years but everyone says this has been the weirdest, coldest June they’ve EVER seen. Given the warmth at the end of May leading up to it — we’d had a week of lovely warm spring weather hovering from mid to high 20s — I got crazy and planted my tomatoes and squash and excitedly went off to Montréal for a week. I’d only been there 2 days when I heard Nova Scotia, including Halifax, got hit with a surprise freak frost that killed all our tomatoes and most of the cucumbers that had just started to push up from the soil.

But what can you do? I’ve now replanted tomatoes and cucumbers and thrown in some collard greens and zucchini to boot. And even more exciting … I found some sea kale to add to my perennial beds! To read about this amazing plant, click on the plant name. I’ve also added 2 dwarf cherry trees from the ‘Romance series’ out of the University of Saskatchewan: ‘Juliet’ and ‘Valentine’. Click here for information about them.

Mouse over pictures below for caption; click for larger photo.

Despite the arctic June, flowers are budding, insects are pollinating, and we’ve been harvesting lots of delicious greens: lettuce, a few different types of mustard, kale, arugula (my fave). And alerted to the ripeness of certain berries by the noisy, thieving starlings, we’ve been eating lots of haskaps, always the first berries in the spring.

And our side garden, that little strip between our house and our neighbours’ driveway, that I pay hardly any attention to since installing it, seems oblivious to the weather and is looking gorgeous! This used to be nothing but lawn and most plants were gifts from gardening friends and strangers alike. So despite the wind and the cold and this crazy June, I am nothing but blessed. I am now hoping for a beautiful hot summer (well maybe not TOO hot). Mouse over pictures below for caption; click for larger photo.

Annuals & Perennials: working together

Today would have been my mom’s birthday so it seemed like a good time to plant some veggies in her honour. Not that she was the gardener in our family, that was my dad’s specialty, but she could always find a way to feed us with whatever he grew. My cousins, to this day, talk about how my mom taught them to eat cucumbers instead of bananas in their peanut butter sandwiches. So what could be more appropriate than planting cucumbers on her birthday?

IMG_7943

I’m trying a new thing this year in my attempt to keep out unwanted creatures. In the bed above, there are 2 hills at each end into which I sowed probably 10 cucumber seeds each. The rest of the bed contains 4 rows of yellow wax beans. The straw is good on the beans until they start showing themselves and that usually discourages any cavorting but I wanted the cuke hills uncovered. I have no idea why. Just seemed right. So the prayer flags keep the birds off and the stakes surrounding keep the cats out. Or that’s the idea at least. As an aside, I don’t think I’ll ever have to buy stakes again as I have so many of all sizes from the stems of the tall flowers/grasses I can use for biomass…echinacea, sunflowers, filipendula, miscanthus, and so on and on. It’s exciting to see all aspects of the garden come to fruition.

And speaking of fruition…

This is the first year I’ve grown saskatoon berries and those bushes are now in bloom. Ahead of them were the haskaps giving the newly awakening bees something to live for. The currants and blueberries have just begun to show buds and even the kiwi are coming alive.

IMG_7948

One of two Saskatoon Berry bushes in bloom. That’s mugwort in the lower right corner and strawberries upper right. The strawberries actually surround the berry bush.

IMG_7953

One of two Black Currant bushes with 3 Good King Henry spinach plants to the right. These are all part of the perennial beds so, believe it or not, that spinach survives the winter, popping up early with the first greens of the season. Bit of Lemon Balm showing on the left.

It’s still early here for the annual plants and even for the perennials to be showing any kind of good growth…that’s why there’s still so much straw mulch down. Some of that will come up as the plants take over. In other words, better pics next time! But I can’t resist a few more…

IMG_7961

Hazel nut tree. This was basically a stick when we put it in the ground last fall and I had no idea it had such beautiful leaves.

IMG_7962

Hazel nut tree. A different variety and not as pretty as the one with red leaves but I’m hoping it will make up for that with plenty of nuts! Walking Onions (perennial) in the upper left corner.

IMG_7946

Peas starting their race to the top. Yes I know, the trellis not pretty.

IMG_7947

About 2 week old onions (annuals). The flags are to protect the carrot seeds planted between the rows of onions from the birds. Supposedly.

ch-ch-ch-changes

So I had a garden this year, just like every other year, but I haven’t written about it or posted many (any?) pictures because, well… every other year. For a couple of seasons now I’ve been thinking about taking the garden to the next step, I just never knew exactly how to start. This year after talking to Jenn at Halifax Earth, I knew what that next step was.

I want to start following permaculture principles as I think about how I move forward with our back yard garden. So that means more perennial food crops that are low maintenance because the plants are taking care of each other. Basically it means an edible landscape for both the humans who live here and the visiting birds, butterflies, and other pollinators. And it means giving back to the soil in a natural, sustainable, organic manner.

Since I already have beds installed, I decided to change them to a horizontal position and move them to the front of the yard, making the annual veggies more accessible to the house. That would leave the back for the new perennial foods. But first I had to get rid of the grass. So with a little bit of lasagne gardening and horse manure from the local stables…voila!

IMG_6904

Here we see the beds still travel the length of the property though I’ve started pulling the old beds apart. And other than the beds that have not been harvested yet (I think this was in September), the back has been mulched with horse manure and the middle path is on its way.

IMG_6894

The beginning of the new beds. I treated myself to raised beds from Free Spirit Farm who make gorgeous sustainably grown and harvested wood products. And the beds couldn’t be more simple to put together.

Meanwhile, these 2 really great guys were framing up a new house next door. I’d never heard construction guys singing and laughing and having so much fun building a house. So we asked them if they would build us a shed when they were done. They checked out the space and now, yep, we have a shed. Ask and you shall receive.

Then Jenn came over and started in like a mad woman digging and designing as she went…she is fast and strong and really knows her stuff. I was just trying to keep up planting and transplanting behind her. It’s impossible to show the bigger design right now because there are no brightly coloured plants filling in the edges (most are losing their leaves and going dormant) and I don’t have a drone camera but I’ll try again in the spring. So far we’ve planted Saskatoon berries, air potatoes, perennial spinach, Hazel (yes, we’ll have nuts in our back yard!), walking onions, strawberries and so much more to come. Mouse over for captions or click for larger pics.

Meanwhile, we had a pretty good harvest this year including at least 50 peaches from our pit-from-the-compost peach tree and a bunch of sunflowers that we shared with the birds.

The birds are so used to me now that they chow down even if I’m standing right next to them.

So have a great winter! Share with your neighbours. See you in the spring.

Spring 2017: freaking cold

So winter wasn’t too bad this year and, while I know I’ve said we somehow seem to skip spring and go straight to summer here in Halifax, this year I do believe we have spring! I don’t know how to explain it really, maybe I’m just getting used to it. That said, it’s below normal cold. But hey, the garden grows!

IMG_6084

Peas coming up under protection of prayer flags (they keep the birds out).

Beets under the Wire

Beets, slowly but surely, pushing through. Chicken wire keeps the cats out.

Lettuce Seedlings

Lettuce. Chicken wire will stay on until the plants are big enough to take up their space.

IMG_6081

Garlic, planted last fall, off to a good start.

Meanwhile, pain in the ass that it is because they take over the house, tender veggies have been started indoors. I should be able to plant them out in a couple of weeks. Click the pics for captions.

Other than the veggies, I’ve been keeping busy with post-winter cleanup and welcoming the perennials…

So snow shovels are away for another year and gardening tools have been resurrected. Now I’m going to go plant the onions.

IMG_5884

Winter’s over, spring has sprung…the gardener and her extraordinary assistant.

When We Need it Most

Last week a copy of the Whole Seed Catalog arrived in the mail for me. The Whole Seed Catalog is a catalog unlike any other. It is nearly 400 pages of stunning photographs of plants along with guides to growing and harvesting said plants. It includes stories of farmers and seed warriors around the globe. It’s filled with how-to’s on gardening. And of course it has that little white form that allows you to pick and choose and order seeds for yourself.

As if all of that isn’t enough, the whole idea of this catalog holds special resonance for me personally because I was one of a team of people who worked on a project digitizing the real Whole Earth Catalog in the late 1980s. Don’t remember the Whole Earth Catalog? Too young to have even heard of it? Google it. I am feeling transported.

And who amongst us could not use some transporting right about now. I mean every winter, gardeners look forward to thumbing through seed catalogues as we anxiously await spring’s warming soil. But this winter many of our heads are spinning and splitting from the racist, xenophobic, misogynistic coup that is taking place in the united states right now. Our hearts are breaking from the attack on Muslims in Québec City, the ranting of alt-right leaders in Europe. Sometimes you need a flower to soothe your battered soul and when all you have is this…

… it feels wondrous to flip through something like the Whole Seed Catalog. Though don’t get me wrong. I spent close to 20 minutes in below zero weather wandering through my garden of winter detritus. It is still a heart warming event to bear witness to Mother Nature and her always continuing cycles of life and death. There is always something new to see and learn and there is always beauty.

So as we do what we can to bring justice and love into our worlds, let’s also bring refuge. Let’s not forget that Mother Nature is a never-ending sanctuary of life lessons and serenity. Take it wherever you can find it. And pass it on to someone who could use a little peace and love.

Flowers

This is a new daylily, the ‘Niki Jabbour’, named after local gardener, Niki Jabbour. It was grown by Harbour Breezes in Jeddore, Nova Scotia. Shown here are 8 different blooms from 8 different days from July 28-August 12. There appears to still be 2-3 buds to go.

Then there’s the ubiquitous Echinacea purpurea, also known as Purple Coneflower. The bees go crazy for these, sometimes just sleeping in them (or so it seems to me). Butterflies and hummingbirds also love them and they’re a good herb for humans as well.

And speaking of hummingbirds, their favourite actually seems to be the scarlet Bee Balm. At this point, they’re nearly finished but both the bees and the hummers are still visiting.

A bit of a wilder view below… that tall white flower in the back (L) is Yucca and the tall pink flower in the back (R) is filipendula. Monarda, aka bee balm, and some kind of daisy in front.

I’m all about the food growing but what I love about the flowers is not only their beauty but the fact that they’re food for the pollinators. Whatever feeds the pollinators ultimately feeds us.

Top left to right: Iris, ‘Oscar Peterson’ Rose, pink tubular flower (?), a bee hugs a bean, lupins, dahlia, hops.

Introducing…baby veggies

What can I say? We
started late but here they come.
Let’s appreciate.

(It not only rhymes, sort of, but hey, it’s also a haiku.)

babyBROC

Baby broccoli.

babyPEPP

Baby peppers.

babyTOM

Baby tomatoes.

babyBLUE2

Baby blueberry that seems to be calling for some food of its own.

babySQUASH

Baby squash.

babyKIWI

Baby kiwis.

1stGARLIC

Test harvest of the garlic. They’re ready.

So that’s the next big task… harvest the 2 beds of garlic, dry it briefly in the sun, hang it in bunches in the basement until it’s ready to be stored. Meanwhile we continue to harvest all the various greens and herbs as we wait for the babies to grow up.

Spring Came for a Minute and Handed Us Summer

Before moving here, a friend warned me that Halifax really only had 3 seasons. I waited for the punchline but there wasn’t one. She explained that spring basically skipped this part of the country and that one day Haligonians just wake up and it’s all summer humidity and hurricane winds. There is not one part of me that could grasp this at the time. How could you not have spring? How could you just wake up one day and the trees are full of green leaves? How could you miss the budding part? She was just making some point, right? About long winters? Well, yes and no. We do have spring but it’s only about a minute long and you have to work quickly to get your food planted. And it’s all about timing. This year I was late.

IMG_4081

Starting to sow this year’s garden beds and last year’s kale is already going to seed.

I took advantage of the lateness to just go easy and try some new things…

garden 017

This is an espalier apple tree that I’m training along our neighbour’s fence. Not just any kind of apple tree… there are 6 different varieties of apple grafted onto the one tree.

The haskap bushes are now 3 years old so I decided it's time to harvest the fruit. First step was to protect them from the birds while the berries were ripening.

The haskap bushes are now 3 years old so I decided it’s time to harvest the fruit. First step was to protect them from the birds while the berries were ripening. I left the male bush (to the left) because the berries were fewer and smaller. One day I looked out and every branch was filled with squawking fluttering starlings swallowing up the little pieces of fruit that I’d left them. 

garden 019

Just a handful of the haskap berries harvested. They’re the first of the various berries to ripen and we had them fresh, as vinaigrette, and as jam. We’re also growing currants, raspberries, and blueberries. More on them later.

garden 015

The peach tree that I started from a pit 3 years ago is now bearing fruit. This was the first fuzzy little peach bud that showed up.

 

This is that same peach about a month later. There are about 4 or 5 others as well. A neighbour commented that next year the tree would be so laden with fruit, I would have to prop up the branches. He said it like this was a problem.

 

garden 013

The not so good new thing this year is that there appears to be way more aphids, earwigs, and ants. Between the ladybugs and insecticidal soap, I may have them sort of under control. Note the scepticism.

garden 006

I have never been very good with roses. But this year, for the first time, my lovely partner and I decided to proactively buy and plant a rose bush. And not just any rose. This is an Oscar Peterson Floribunda Rose, part of a Canadian artist series.

 

The In-Between Time

So it doesn’t really feel like winter anymore and yet it is definitely not spring. It’s raining but there’s the odd big-flake snow flurry mixed in with it so I don’t quite trust that snow is done for another year. In fact they’re threatening a Nor-easter for next week. Winter does not let go easy here. But I’ve started thinking about spring anyway and gardening is on my mind.

Sadly, I have to be away for most of May this year. Well, not sadly because the time away will be fun but May is, of course, prime gardening time. I’m nervous about getting everything prepped and planted and wondering if I should just let someone else take over for awhile. But to remind myself not to worry about things and to remember that it is Mother Nature in charge after all, I want to share a story I just read in Thomas King’s book, “The Truth About Stories”. He tells about the grandfather of a good friend that he went to visit when he was travelling through Alberta. They were sitting inside having tea when the old man asked (and now I quote King)…

‘You see those tomatoes out there?’ From the kitchen window you could see his garden. The tomato plants were just beginning to produce fruit. ‘When that last storm came through, I was just getting ready to pick my tomatoes. They were big and red. Real ripe. But the storm beat me to it. First the rain. And then the hail.’ And here the old man stopped and helped himself to more tea. And then he sat back and looked at the table. I tried to be sympathetic. ‘You must have been upset’, I said. ‘Nope’, said the old man, without even the hint of a smile. ‘Always good to have some ketchup.’

I laughed hard reading that and decided there was no way to go but easy, to do our best day by day and then let it go. I’ll be back here when it’s spring. And it will be spring before we know it.

Autumn Light

When the afternoon sun shines on the plants at the front of the house which, I’m embarrassed to admit, I pay very little attention to, it is as though they’re saying they’ve had enough of my neglect. They’re tired of playing second fiddle to the gardens in the back. And they put on a show that stops me in my tracks. It is their last hurrah before winter. I stop and thank them. You are beautiful, I whisper, and the kids on the street playing hockey pay me no mind as they know now I’m just that crazy neighbour who talks to her plants and lets them “steal” snow in the winter for their forts.

sedem 001

Purple Fountain Grass in leaf mulch.

sedem 002

Nearly transparent autumn leaves of the Hosta. Probably my favourite season for this plant in particular. It seems rather plain and common in comparison during the other seasons.

Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus), hostas in the back.

Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) I’ve had 2 of these bushes for a few years now and, for some reason, only noticed this year that they have berries.