Category Archives: food

Growing your own, organically!

Earlier this season the folks over at Canadian Organic Growers approached me and asked if I would write a review of their latest labour of love, a COG practical series handbook called, The Organic Backyard: A guide to applying organic farming practices to your home or community garden.

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This publication, only 61 pages long, packs in all that you need to know to begin growing your edible plants organically on your own property, as part of a group in a community garden, on reclaimed parks or urban spaces across the country.

The hope is that this book will help “to engage more of the community in building the local organic food system.”  The editor, Sarah Chisholm Ryder, envisions this little book “spreading across our communities, turning every available space into one that produces good food that nourishes our soils, us and our environment.”

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The voluptuous Civic Garden at Lansdowne Park, Ottawa

Before you can truly garden organically, you must understand that the quality of your soil is your biggest ally.  Simply gardening without synthetic herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers is not the full picture.  Growing organically, especially food crops, means:

  • Understanding soil life
  • Building soil health and productivity of the land for generations to come
  • Protecting the environment by decreasing water pollution and increasing biodiversity and pollinator habitat
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by not using fossil-fuel based fertilizers
  • Protecting seed identity by not using genetically modified (GM) seed
  • Knowing the source of your garden inputs and how they affect the environment, your land and your neighbours land
  • Recycling nutrients within your garden system through composting, crop rotation and cover crops

If you’re new to vegetable gardening, this wide-ranging ideology might be overwhelming to you at first, but don’t worry.  This guide introduces you gently by providing you with easy steps to follow along your food growing journey:

  • where to site your food garden;
  • how to prepare your site, whether it is in an existing lawn, a compacted backyard (i.e. raised planters) or intended as a production market garden;
  • the tools you’ll need;
  • the seeds you should source, as well as a brief guide to starting seeds indoors;
  • the importance of keeping a journal;
  • the qualities of good soil and how to make it happen (i.e. making compost, the value of manure, compost tea and the use of cover crops);
  • helping your garden grow (managing weeds, intercropping or co-cropping, mulching, the pros and cons of tilling, dealing with pests and diseases, encouraging pollinators and beneficial insects and organisms);
  • the notion of crop rotation and how it helps to balance soil fertility;
  • the benefits of companion planting (with plant notes);
  • the value of succession planting (making the most of your space);
  • final thoughts on keeping things going when the weather turns cold.

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There is also a small section at the end that talks about community gardening, including tips to help you start one of your own, a checklist of what to consider and guidelines that will ensure everyone contributes equally and the garden’s management is not left to Mother Nature or chance.

Highly recommended as a tool for the beginner vegetable gardener, or someone wanting to have basic information available at their fingertips as they grow food organically.  If you’re a beginner, it is important to reach out to an organization like the Canadian Organic Growers and this book is one of many resources available to you.  Gardening sympathetically alongside the natural world and being mindful of our earth’s future is our duty in today’s fast-paced and throw-a-way world.  The sweetness of freshly pulled carrots or the burst of flavour in home-grown tomatoes is the end result of our commitment to following certain organic principles.  But it’s not just the harvest that can give us joy, it is the entire journey.

You can purchase your copy for $15.00 CAN here.

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Goldenrod shouldn’t be roasted and eaten with Thanksgiving dinner

Poor parsnip.  All it wants to do is be eaten.  And it should be!  It is loaded with nutrients, vitamins and cancer-fighting anti-oxidants….but its toxic sap just keeps grabbing all the headlines.

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But wait a minute?  What’s this?  The only other yellow plant more maligned than wild parsnip is the ubiquitous goldenrod, Solidago canadensis.  Believed to be the wild botanical culprit that causes our autumn sniffles and itchy eyes — but isn’t! that credit goes to ragweed — goldenrod is actually cultivated in Europe as an ornamental and used in decorative plantings alongside ornamentals (like grasses, sedum, Joe Pye weed as well as rudbeckias, asters and echinacea.)

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Best to know the difference between the two — wild parsnip, as well as its relatives giant hogweed (uber toxic sap), dill, coriander, carrot, parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, and others — are members of the Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae) family.  They share the same flower-structure, which appears as a flat-topped umbel:

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So be aware, but don’t be fearful.

After all, parsnips are yummy with your Thanksgiving dinner!  Goldenrod, not so much.

A whole new meaning to the word “foster”

“I’m not ashamed of what I did.  I just don’t understand how it happened.”

That was my husband, who after months of care, attention and making sure I didn’t inadvertently vacuum it up or knock it down, safe-guarded this hibernating creature from September 2013 through May 2014 on the stairs down to our basement.  In my husband’s defence (in his own words), it’s dark down there. IMG_0571

 Yesterday, he set it free.

Yes, it is a dried up maple key.

But I’ll bet that maple key never saw so much love and compassion.

Allotment review and dreams for 2013

As many of you already know, we began our journey into allotment gardening two years ago with a large, sunny plot at Ottawa’s city-run allotments in the Alta Vista neighbourhood.  The garden is 25′ x 50′ and when we arrived in the spring of 2011, our designated plot was boggy (ok, under water!) and unkempt.

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When we were finally able to access it after the water had subsided, we carefully pulled up all the sturdy tomato stakes, piled them in a corner and waited for our delivery of mushroom compost.

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Of course, when we returned, the stakes were nowhere to be found.

We started slowly and methodically and finally had a significant portion (say, two-thirds) of the entire plot prepared and then planted.  At the end of Year 1, we had tamed much of the space, leaving it top-dressed with straw to await the spring of 2012.

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Then, this past year we had a relatively dry season.  But miraculously, we still had a bountiful harvest.

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Not least of which the cutting garden – it was rapturous!

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Of course, this is from someone who has a relatively small city plot, mostly shade, where it has never been possible to seed annuals simply for the joy of cutting and filling vases in the house.

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But now I present you with the real reason for this post.  Behold:  the epitome of veggie gardening — the gardens at Longwood.

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Honestly, a girl can dream can’t she?

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Now I know that Longwood has an army of gardeners working on these display gardens, and a wealth of knowledge, but it’s good to have something to aspire to, no?

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Meanwhile, in our own allotment, I will have to make crisper edges, organize my veggies better as well as place ornamental flowers and vegetables so that they make sense visually (my nasturtiums last year looked lovely as young plants but soon overran both the plants next to them as well as the path) — I think I’ll use the ‘Lemon Gem’ and ‘Tangerine Gem’ marigolds as an edger next to the leafy veggies.

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Image from: http://www.flower-gardening-made-easy.com/edible-flowers.html

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I’ll also think about constructing more efficient and effective plant supports, something that Longwood does spectacularly.

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And growing monster sunflowers ….just for the joy of it (and to feed the birds)!

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Now don’t be telling me that veggie gardening is all about the harvest because yes, I am in agreement with that.  But as an ornamental gardener primarily, I am determined to make my allotment a feast for the eyes as well as for the belly :c)

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As it stands, I have a long way to go!  I can’t wait for the spring …. I’ll keep you posted.

Allotment garden memories: Summer 2012

I thought I’d take a look back at our 2012 allotment garden season.  Such a clean slate back in May!  Still there are some straw bales left over from the first year, but much has already been laid down on both the beds (to keep weeds suppressed and the moisture in) and the pathways.

Our virgin outing on May 24th, 2012.  Armed with forks, home-grown seedlings and bonemeal.

Tomato plants laid out much further apart this year than last.  And only about 6 or 8 plants this year instead of double that from last year!

And greens seeds are going in!

A few weeks later there is already bounty… ‘Monet’s Garden Mesclun’ from Renee’s Seeds was insect-free.

Not so much with the ‘Spicy Greens’ mix, where it looks like slugs or earwigs have been leaving their mark.

I set aside one whole bed for seeding annuals and other cutting flowers.  I scattered the seed in the last week of May and a few weeks later, the fruits of my moderate labour were sprouting.  It’s hard to tell what’s a weed and what’s worth keeping at this stage so you just have to watch and wait.

By late July, the garden is bounteous with flowers ready for cutting for the next two months.  Borage, cosmos, zinnias, nasturtium and others, with hollyhock putting on a first year’s growth.

A bucket full in the back of the car!

Fresh cut flowers in the house make everything better.

All the yellow surrounding our plot is goldenrod; not the source of my terrible hay fever last year since that was courtesy of ragweed.  I believe the mechanical cultivation of the rear of our garden last spring gave the goldenrod seed a chance sprout, making the section that we didn’t weed full of it by the late summer!


Even with extra muscle, digging the mid-summer weeds out of the ‘last frontier’ was back-breaking work.  And don’t be thinking I didn’t do any of that labour; I was the dirtiest, sweatiest one there!

This past summer was very hot and dry.  Despite the parched lawns and droopy plants elsewhere, our allotment didn’t seem worse for wear.  We didn’t have any regular irrigation other than putting on the sprinkler every so often – and this was mainly to soften up the soil that we’d be weeding.

Goodnight allotment garden.  See you next spring.

Painting and panting: what have you been doing in this heat?

Where the heck have I been?

Well, I thought logically, that if we were stuck in the house for a portion of this heat wave that Ottawa has been having, we should be doing something constructive.

Painting anyone?

No, I said ‘painting’ not ‘panting’!

It’s been so hot and dry that lawns are looking like this.  The only bright spot here is the chicory, with its luminous blue flowers, not showing any ill effects from the lack of water.

You would think that our allotment would also be showing signs of serious thirst.  We visited in the middle of the drought and found that the annuals and biennials that I grew from seed were looking no worse for wear.

The zinnias and clarkia are stealing the show, but the borage is also looking stunning.

The allotment so far has produced some really beautiful produce:

This ‘Bright Lights’ rainbow chard has been harvested several times for an excellent vitamin-rich vegetable.  I saute it with garlic and onions, and serve it alongside a broiled salmon filet.  Yum.

And these beets are a variety of jewel-toned specimens – red, gold and candystripe!   I’ve harvested a few (haven’t found the gold ones yet), cooked them up and had them in a lovely beet salad with locally made goat cheese that I purchased at our local farmer’s market from Clarmell on the Rideau in Manotick.

Many of the veggies I’m growing in the allotment are from seed I obtained from Renee’s Garden, a seed producer in Felton, California.

Renee Shepherd has been in the seed business since 1985.  After completing a PhD and teaching Environmental Studies she opened Renee’s Garden in 1997.  Through her work with Shepherd’s Seeds (1985 – 1996) and Renee’s Garden Seeds, she has made many ‘exotic’ varieties of vegetables and herbs just a phone call or email away to us gardeners around the world.  She says:

This seed line is my personal selection of new, exciting and unusual seed choices of time-tested heirlooms, the best international hybrids and fine open-pollinated varieties. I  harvest and use the vegetables and herbs in my kitchen to choose the most delicious, and cut the flowers for bouquets tColorful seed packetso select the finest colors, forms and fragrances. Our varieties are tested and guaranteed for every major US climate zone.

We have been clearing more and more of our allotment as time and the weather allows, making space for some new shrubs that I am trialing (more on that later) and a spicebush (Lindera benzoin) that I obtained from Connons Nursery from my friend Dan Clost (who along with working at a very large and well-known nursery also happens to be an excellent tale spinner and writer).  It is a native shrub that is the host plant for the caterpillar that transforms into the swallowtail butterfly and is a great alternative to the comparatively loud forsythia – if you can find it, that is!

Of course the other imperative necessitating finding space to grow large shrubs is to provide shade for said companion, Skye-dog:

For our allotment has none.  And Skye spends much of her time while we’re there sitting in the car :c(

So, the painting is complete, the heat wave has subsided just a tad, and more work in my own garden (and those of my clients) beckon.