Category Archives: my projects

Red Fife wheat and keeping our seedy heritage alive

This is my newest, favourist thing.  Bread made entirely with Red Fife wheat flour.  This loaf has loads of flavour; it is nutty and rich, with a texture that is dense and chewy.  The perfect kind of bread for cold, late season days. 

Red Fife wheat was named after David  Fife, my great, great, great grandfather (on my father’s mother’s side) who came to Canada from Scotland in 1820. 

David Fife's cabin circa 1820s, Otonabee Township, Peterborough County

Early records indicate a friend sent him seed from Glasgow that he had found on a ship originating from Danzig.  It turned out this was an ideal strain of wheat for the unpredictable and unforgiving Canadian climate.  It was the first wheat that was grown successfully and reliably on the prairies and kick-started the industry in that tough, colonial century.  It is, therefore, a heritage wheat, the parent of all varieties grown in Canada today.

Lang Mill; where Red Fife wheat was ground into flour from the 1840s onward

This wheat was, for the most part, lost by the end of the 19th century when other, earlier to harvest and therefore more industry friendly, strains became favoured.  But Red Fife remained a parent to many of these hybrids.  Throughout most of the 20th century, this oldest strain of ‘heritage’ wheat was only being kept alive in seed banks and by small scale seed savers.   It was all but unknown to Canadians until the beginning of this century when Sharon Rempel in Victoria, B.C. and a group of passionate slow food activists, chefs, seed savers and others sought out some of these old world grains to grow again. 

When Sharon Rempel planted her seeds she had a vision: someday Red Fife would be grown again commercially. To a considerable degree, that image has materialized. Red Fife is produced by small-scale farmers—mostly, if not exclusively, organic—who grow it outside the Wheat Board’s tracking system. The movement originated in the West and from there gradually spread across the country. In 2007, approximately five hundred tons of Red Fife was harvested, from as far west as the Gulf Islands in British Columbia to eastern Nova Scotia. Interestingly, it didn’t return to County Road 4 until 2005 when four women, all of whom live and farm on David Fife Line, decided to resurrect this forgotten chapter in their local history.

“We realized we lived on David Fife Line and very few people had any sense of what that meant,” commented Helen Knibb, a member of the Fife Line Sisterhood, as they christened themselves. “We felt compelled to acknowledge our agricultural history; it’s part of our heritage.”

They contacted Saskatchewan farmer Marc Loiselle (, who became interested in Red Fife in 2001, and has made it his mission to provide seeds for growers across the country. Virtually all the Red Fife seed planted in Ontario comes from him, although local farmers are starting to produce their own. The Sisterhood planted one-and-a-quarter acres their first year, and, with the help of local farmer Peter Leahy, who was growing a small amount himself, produced a second crop, but they didn’t have the infrastructure to grow the grain on a much larger scale and bowed out of the business. Leahy’s interest was whetted and he has gradually increased the quantity he grows at Merrylynd, his certified organic family farm just outside Peterborough, Ontario. Last year he planted fifty acres, a relatively large quantity in the Red Fife world.

Like others I spoke with, Leahy says he doesn’t have enough to keep up with the demand. “People from Jamie Kennedy’s called me recently,” he told me in early April, “but I couldn’t give them any flour. I need to keep some for seed.” At least two other farmers are growing Red Fife in Ontario—Patricia Hastings at the Centre for Integrated Pest Management (CIPM) in Madoc and Sean McGivern of Saugeen Specialty Grains in the Owen Sound area.

Today, you can buy Red Fife flour in bulk at select locations like the Wheat Berry on Main Street in Ottawa, or go direct to Patricia Hastings’ farm in Madoc.

Goodbye veggie garden! See you next spring!

Before we know it, October will be over and snow will be dusting the ground.  So there was no time to spare to make a last visit to our allotment garden and clean up.

Tomato carnage!  :c(  Alas, we planted so many that we just couldn’t keep up.  We did manage to eat a lot off the vine and then put the rest in the freezer for winter soups and sauces.

But there is nothing sadder than a veggie garden after everything is finished.  Tomatoes fallen, shrivelled vines and broccoli gone to flower.

I am clearly not proud of this sight.  In the background you can see forgotten bales of straw that weren’t used and bamboo supports that were meant to showcase a stunning variety of colourful sweet peas (why, oh why do I keep thinking you can grow sweet peas in Ottawa??).  My attempt at growing beans, watermelon and squashes were really more of an afterthought (they really should have been planted earlier in the season); next time they’ll go in the ground much earlier. 

But work today was swift and productive.  It was a sunny day, around 9 degrees celsius and almost no one else was around.  Many of the allotment gardens appeared to have been abandoned; few of the plots around ours had been fully harvested and put to bed for the season. 

After clearing out all the beds, we hauled the debris over to our new compost heap!

And then we laid the bales of old straw atop the planting beds and spread them out.

The partially composted straw will break down over the winter and when the ground warms in the spring, worms will work this organic matter into the soil. 

As you can see, when we were finished we were left with four beds (three horizontal and one vertical at the back).  The remaining garden on the rear right is full of ragweed that has gone to seed — oh no!  But this will be our project next spring.  There are several bales of straw remaining and they will get used to topdress these new beds, as well as the pathways — that will probably be quite soggy again in the spring of 2012. 

My lessons this first year of our allotment garden are:

1.  Plant more variety.  This spring I planted tomatoes (four varieties), broccoli, peppers, beans, sweet peas, onions, watermelon, patty pan squash, melon and pumpkin.  Of these, the tomatoes and broccoli were the best producers.  If I had planted more beans and done it earlier, they would have been prolific as well.  We harvested two Ailsa Craig onions (I’m sure I planted more…) but probably should have left them over the winter because they are still quite small — more like shallots!

I had packets of greens, carrots, etc. but didn’t get to plant them.  Good news is that I’ll sow them next year.

2.  Plant less of some and more of others.  Less tomato plants (less with little fruit – we just don’t eat them…) but beefsteak varieties are always popular, especially my favourite ‘Rose’, which was juicy and flavourful; more onions, squashes, melons, etc.

3.  Plant earlier.  And here I mean the squashes and melons.  That way I’ll actually get a better, more mature crop.

4.  Plant more flowers!  The only flower I planted this time was Tithonia or torch flower.  Stunning orange flower but a little lost all by itself.  I had seeds for varieties of sunflowers, cosmos and hollyhocks, which I’ll plant next year.  I’ll also look for some good edgers like Little gem marigolds and a variety of charming cutflowers.

5.  Plan more visits in mid-summer when the heat pushes everything out of the ground like gangbusters!  Especially the weeds! 

6.  Get better supports for those monster tomato plants.  The 6′ bamboo stakes just didn’t hold them up.  Anyone have any ideas?  I don’t want to invest too much money because they might be tempting to someone else…

All in all, I’m very happy with our first season.  And very satisfied with our clean up effort so that next spring we can get right at it.

Hortus Urbanus re-visited

It occurs to me that some of you visiting my blog might not have seen my store, Hortus Urbanus, before I closed it in 2007.

Was it really that long ago?!  It seems like yesterday.

When I first opened up and had custom window boxes built for the front, some naysayers warned that:

a) they’d be vandalized;

b) the city wouldn’t allow them; and,

c) in the winter, the sidewalk plows would rip them off.

But none of that deterred me and I filled and re-filled those planters every season (more than most because they were regularly vandalized) – a heart-breaking occurance whenever it happened!

Because, after all, containers full of seasonal plants were one of our specialties!

Not to mention hand-made statuary, stone benches, interesting wall fountains and lots of plants.

And my personal favourite, lots of pots…

We always had the front door open, if the weather allowed, to draw customers in:

It was a real thrill finding beautiful items to sell and placing them around the store so that they would be irresistible to everyone, including me!

I have since regretted that I didn’t take more of these beautiful things home myself; many of them probably won’t be found again since the makers are no longer in business, or the pieces were one-of-a-kind.  Another reason for us to grab things when we see them!

But of the items I did snag, these two gorgeous and incredibly heavy Italian terracotta pots and the hand-made bench are among them.  I’m still enjoying them years later…

September harvest

When I was little, the new school year meant fresh, empty Hilroy notebooks, virgin pencils and never used pens.  Each of these things meant this year, it could be different.  Everything presented to me in class, I would remember.  I would score perfect 100s in my tests.  My notebooks would have perfect penmanship (pen-wo-manship?) and there would be no crossing outs or ink splats. 

This is the way I felt about our allotment garden this spring.  A clean piece of real estate with no failures, no weeds, no damaged crops or eaten fruit.  I can dream, can’t I?

Instead, the tomatoes we planted burst forth, bending and finally taking down the stakes that held them upright, the broccoli flowered and left us behind (we did get some good harvests anyway), the sweet peas just sat there and refused to grow up their trellises and the canteloupe — where did it go?

We didn’t water and we underestimated how large the tomato plants would grow (how did they get that big?  One look at the size of some of the tomatoes and it’s clear…) and I wondered if we would ever get a perfect pepper and a watermelon big enough to actually eat???  But still, things grew — and the gardens look wild!

These beautiful peppers are called Beaver Dam, a Hungarian heirloom variety brought to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, in 1912 by the Joe Hussli family.  I obtained them from the wonderful people at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa.  They are described as being mildly hot and I am here to tell you that this is true.  So from someone who can’t stomach spicy food, this is the perfect pepper!  I just chopped some and put it on some whole wheat fusilli pasta with stewed tomatoes (yes, ours), broccoli (yes, I grew that too!), wilted arugula (nope, but I should have) and sauteed shrimp.  Yum!

The tomatoes you see are largely the Rose variety, also from SSE, and in my opinion, one of the best tomatoes I’ve ever eaten.  It is an Amish heirloom and is a large, softly coloured, but very meaty fruit.  The other winner from SSE is called Black from Tula, and yes, it’s black and ugly.  But wow!  What flavour.

Some of the tomatoes grew and grew and didn’t seem to want to turn red.  So I picked some and ate them anyway.  I had forgotten that I had also planted a variety called Gold Medal and had chosen it because it was picked as the 2008 Seed Savers Exchange tomato tasting contest.  All I can say is ‘Yes.’

And this beautiful creature is a Cream of Saskatchewan watermelon, also available at Seed Savers Exchange.  Betcha didn’t think we could grow those here?  It was brought to Saskatchewan by Russian immigrants and comes to maturity in an astounding 80-85 days. 

Oh and did I mention — it has white flesh!  This fruit is 4-10 pounds at maturity and up to 10″ in diameter.  Our bigger one was only 4″ across but I harvested them anyway because their stems snaking along the ground, looking all the while like shrivelled umbilical cords, looked to me like they were wasting away into nothing.

As a consequence, I don’t believe my taste analysis is accurate.  Although these melons were juicy and fresh, they weren’t particularly sweet and reminded me of a cross between an old-fashioned watermelon and honeydew melon, before sweetness was the holy grail.  And I have to admit — like pomegranates, I find the seeds irritating.  But they are a refreshing and beautiful thing.

Stay tuned for more harvest news….

Shady yellows in the late summer

Creating a garden in the shade is, according to many, a fate only dealt to you if you have been bad in a previous life.  I used to have this opinion when our backyard was shaded by a mature plum tree, a huge oak tree, two garages and a tall cedar fence.  So when the plum tree came down in the famous ice storm of 1998, the prospect of having a sunny garden thrilled me. 

But, over time, I had amassed a collection of shade loving perennials and now in a south-facing garden with no shade they were struggling.  I quickly took a 180 degree turn and planted not one, not two, not three but six trees/shrubs – over time.  One has succumbed to squirrel damage (my lovely Acer griseum, a paperbark maple that I had purchased through the mail) — 

— so I decided to plant a golden clematis (Clematis tangutica) at its base.  I couldn’t bring myself to chop it down (and yes, it is dead :c( ) but it does make a perfect support for this clambouring climber.

The other trees (two pyramidal cedars, a golden cedar, a serviceberry and a weeping purple birch) are going strong.  I have learnt through this journey that incorporating plants with yellow foliage and flowers help brighten shady spaces.  Here are a few that I’ve planted in my garden:

This is a close-up of a Kirengeshoma palmata (Golden waxbells), with Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ to the left and a golden cedar (Thuja occidentalis ‘Sunkist’) in the background.   Although the gold cedar keeps its colour best in the sun, I have found a spot where it does receive a fair amount of afternoon light, keeping it, so far, with good colour.

The gorgeous golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa) is a must for a shady spot.  I just planted this one and it is cascading through my Rusty Girl fencing (that, in theory, keeps Skye out of the garden) with some waxbells flower buds dangling above.

Yellow fumitory (Corydalis lutea) is an opportunist.  A delicate texture but a non-stop performer, this perennial has lovely glaucous foliage and all-season yellow blooms.  Give it a start in your shady garden and it will decide where it will spread.  Easy to remove  if it seeds where you don’t want it, this plant remains a staple in my garden.

Although my preference is for more subdued yellows in the garden, this rich golden colour of a dark-leafed Ligularia dentata is a stand-out in the late summer shade. 

What yellow plant do you grow in your shade garden?

Veggies & ragweed make for sneezing

Well, actually, only ragweed makes for sneezing but the fact that the newly tilled soil this spring — next to where we actually planted — has resulted in a bumper crop of ragweed makes visiting our allotment garden *achoo0* very sneezy.  But, if this is the reward —

— then *aahh….choo!*  it’s definitely worth it.   These patty-pan squashes (Cucurbita pepo) are called Patisson Panache (with an accent on the ‘e’), Verte et Blanc and came from Seed Savers Exchange.  They are a French heirloom that date back to the 1800s.  The monster tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) — a whopping 5″ wide — is named Rose and it is also from SSE.  An old-fashioned variety from the Amish in New Holland, Pennsylvania, it is considered one of the best tasting beefsteak tomatoes EVER.  I’ll let you know.  And the mini yellow pear-shaped tomato is called Yellow Pear (go figure) and came from Renee’s Garden.   It is also an old variety and has a mild, sweet taste.

But let’s back up for a minute. 

Boy, life sure is full of good intentions.  Case in point:  our veggie allotment garden where this spring I had big dreams.  I had contacted two very well-known and excellent seed sellers for packets of seeds to trial and was sent a generous variety by both Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa (I wonder if that photo op of Obama last week was indeed in front of their iconic red barn…oh yes, I see it was!) and Renee’s Garden in Felton, California.  Both of these seed purveyors specialize in heritage (and often rare), untreated, organically grown, and non-genetically modified seed.

This growing season has been a challenging one.  First, it was too wet.  Rains came and stayed for weeks on end in April and May, leaving the earth soggy and impossible to work without sinking into the slurpy muck.  Despite this, we managed to prepare a section of our garden before the mushroom compost was delivered and then got our seedlings into the ground. 

Then the drought.  June, July and now August has been hot and dry, making it great for long-season crops but the hardened soil makes weeding almost impossible.  Without supplemental watering, the ground is like cement and our attempts to weed our allotment garden was, for the most part, defeated.

On top of this, I am busy busy busy during the week, nevertheless weekends still saw regular visits to keep on top of things.  But over the last two or three weeks we seem to have been too busy even to make one visit to the garden.  As a result, this was what we saw today:

How did everything get so BIG?  The tomatoes, of which we had planted four varieties, were falling over resulting in some lying on the ground with very large bites having been taken out of them.  The broccoli (from Renee’s Garden, called All Season Blend, and is supposed to continue producing with side florets even after the central one is harvested) was bursting forth like this:

— and I might as well ‘fess up now that this was not my first broccoli harvest.  I had taken some on our last visit a few weeks earlier and made this:

Yes!  That is broccoli that we grew ourselves … and the peas too.  I can’t claim credit for the carrots and mushrooms, however.  Sorry for the poor quality – I think the heat emanating from the stove (yummm) made my camera all blurry.

Anyway, this is what else we found today —

Still too little to harvest but a joy to behold.  This is Cream of Saskatchewan watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) from Seed Savers Exchange that was “brought to Saskatchewan by Russian immigrants” and “does well in cool northern climates.”   It has beautiful white flesh and black seeds. 

This poor, imperfect pepper (Capsicum annuum) is nonetheless putting on some nice colour.  It is a Hungarian heirloom called Beaver Dam, and according to the packet it was “brought to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin in 1912 by the Joe Hussli family” and can be purchased through the Seed Savers Exchange.  It is described as being “mildly hot” when seeded — good thing since I’m a wimp when it comes to hot food.  I’ll let it stay on the vine a little longer…

Stay tuned for more in my veggie allotment garden saga…..

A garden to enjoy — in every season

This was a backyard that I first met last autumn.   The homeowners, both busy professionals, were eager to make it into an all-season refuge but didn’t want to be a slave to the plantings.  The garden is small and we agreed that only a few plants were worth keeping:  a mock orange in the corner, one of several sentimental shrub roses and a cedar hedge.

The hedge had been well maintained but the grass was pretty well a losing proposition.

The large maple in the neighbour’s property ensured that this corner of the yard was going to be difficult, if not impossible to plant due to root competition.

The plants not worth keeping were primarily ostrich ferns (they are nubs here in the late fall) that thrived in the all-day shade alongside both sides of the house.

The homeowners wanted a patio, preferably in flagstone (although we did investigate whether interlock surfacing would be a) cheaper and b) an acceptable aesthetically-pleasing alternative).  There was an existing flagstone path into the garden but it petered out at the base of the stairs to the small, raised porch.

In the end it was decided that natural stone couldn’t be beat.  So a flagstone patio, a planting that would be easy to maintain and provide visual interest in every season and easy access into the garden as well as to and from the shed were what was needed to create their ideal garden. 

We were really lucky to get Jo Hodgson to construct the flagstone patio and paths.  Here she comes!

Jo Hodgson is the dynamo behind the flagstone work here in this garden.   Her primary love is dry stone walling but she can do anything with natural stone.

She uses traditional techniques, chiselling and manipulating stone rather than cutting with a blade.  In advance of this, she lays all the stones out and masterfully picks and chooses which stone goes into which space. 

The work is quite labour intensive but with it comes a love of the job and an intrinsic understanding of and respect for the natural material:  in this case, Wiarton limestone.

So, after Jo and her helper had done their work, this —

… began to look like this:

… and finally, after I and my “mulch specialist” had done our work, it looked like this:

Now, isn’t that better?  This is my favourite view — it really beckons the visitor into the garden.  This shady planting incorporates Geranium macrorrhizum and a pair of specimen hosta.

Plants like Cotoneaster, ‘Gro-Low’  fragrant sumac, ‘Brilliantissima’ chokeberry will all ensure striking fall colour and various evergreens (glaucous blue and green) will provide all season interest.  ‘Hallward’s Silver’ spirea and sweet woodruff will be awash in delicate white blooms in the spring and early summer.  And fragrant hostas as well as a dark-leafed snakeroot will provide perfume in the late summer. 

Even the dark corner with the shed is now a workable and attractive space! 

All that’s left to plant is a Boston ivy and climbing hydrangea to help integrate the fence into the garden.

And, I have to say, such a beautifully crafted patio deserves a lovely teak patio set.

Thank you Susan and Alan for being such wonderful clients.