16 Days…

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

…until the last frost! We’re coming down the homestretch to spring, to digging in the dirt, to sowing seeds. But we’re not there yet so, as I mentioned in a previous post, I’m still depending on CBC Radio to keep me sane until the snow melts, and, specifically, this morning, it was a Spark interview that I enjoyed with my morning coffee – an interview with Ingrid Fetell and her research into the “aesthetics of joy”.

I felt she made a convincing case for the importance of designing for joy but it’s probably because I already believe that we need more joyful spaces – more places that lighten our mood, make us smile, engage our hearts. It’s why I designed my kitchen garden the way I did.

Believe it or not, but I’ve gotten flack for my kitchen garden. I’ve been told it’s not efficient, it doesn’t make the best use of the space, and some parts are too tight to work easily in. These things are all true, to a certain extent, but only if the goal of my kitchen garden is to produce the most amount of food in the allotted space with the least amount of effort.

Hear that sound? That was the sound of joy being sucked out of my garden!

That’s not my goal for my kitchen garden. My goal always has been for it to bring me joy – in the looking at, the working in, and the eating of.

I designed the garden with raised beds because I like tidy edges; with bamboo trellises because I like the feeling of walls; and with lots of flowers…because I like flowers. These things also allow me to control the type of soil I use, provide support for tomatoes and climbing vines, and attract pollinators, but that, to me, is secondary to the joy it brings me to see these elements.

I decided to lay down gravel for the paths – I love the crunchy sound it makes when I walk on it and raking it smooth reminds me of those Japanese sand gardens. Okay, so it’s an inexpensive and easy to lay surfacing material – that’s so not the point.

I plant things we love to eat fresh – peas, radishes, tomatoes, lettuces, beans. These are almost all consumed during the course of the growing season because to me, the flavor of food harvested right from the garden, sometimes still warm from the sun, brings me intense joy. Frozen beans eaten in the dead of winter don’t always produce that same intense sensation – although the Romano bean I grew last year tasted better after being frozen, which was a joyful discovery (Ingrid talks about surprise being one of the elements in creating joy).

And the other thing that gives me joy in my kitchen garden, when the snow is white and thick on the ground, is the designing of it. Below, is this year’s plan for the garden. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

2011 Kitchen Garden Plan; click on plan for a larger image

2011 Kitchen Garden Plan

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NOT a Definitive Guide To Growing Microgreens

Monday, February 7th, 2011

Tidying up the seed-starting shelving took longer than I thought it would – it always does, doesn’t it? I had to figure out where to move the microwave which meant moving the cookbooks…and I still haven’t found a good place for the basket of cooking onions and potatoes…or my kitchen scale. And the end result, while tidy, isn’t exactly pretty…

Shelving Winter 2011

The 'before'.

The 'after'.

The 'after'.

…but it gave me some elbow room to plant some microgreens. I first read about the growing of these infant plants in the Fall 2010 issue of Urban Farm magazine and thought that they’d be an encouraging thing to try when the previous growing season was a distant memory and the upcoming season still too far away to be excited about. From some other reading I did on the subject, it seems that it’s also a good way to use up leftover seed – because I garden on a small plot of land, one small seed packet can last me several years and will most likely lose viability long before I use it up, so this seemed an ideal solution for me.*

Since reading the article, I’d been collecting those plastic containers that salad greens come in which, note to self, is not the most economical way to collect containers. At $1.50-$4.00 for a box of leaves, it’s a shocking price to pay initially, so I hope I can get a lot of use out of these things. They’re nice and deep so I can probably grow some good-sized herb plants, like basil and cilantro, in them for cutting in the winter.

I decided to use the lids of the containers as trays (other people used the lids to keep moisture in the soil until the seeds germinated) and just cover the containers with plastic bags if I needed to prevent soil evaporation. I just didn’t have enough plates and such to use as trays if I kept the lids only as lids (and plus, I labelled the containers using popsicle stick markers and the lids wouldn’t fit over top of them).

In case you really needed to see what holes drilled into a plastic container look like.

In case you really needed to see what holes drilled into a plastic container look like.

Of course, the containers needed some drainage holes in the bottom. I found it easiest to use my cordless drill to provide some since the plastic is quite soft (and hammering a nail into it would have meant going outside into the cold winter air to find a block of wood to stabilize the plastic with). I didn’t have a set formula for the holes – just drilled enough so they weren’t more than 5cm apart.

I had some potting soil left over from last year’s container plantings and had brought it inside the day before from the unheated garage to thaw out. Ideally, I would have supplemented the soil with compost but my pile is buried under many feet of snow (and is obviously not working properly since I haven’t seen any steam rising from it). Tip: it’s best if you plant your seeds in fairly-close-to room temperature soil – the seeds will germinate a little quicker and some of them, like basil and cilantro, can’t handle cold soil anyway.

After filling the containers with soil to about 5cm from the top, and misting the soil heavily (if your soil is quite dry, you might want to water it well at this point), I sprinkled my seeds over the top of the container, covered them very thinly with soil, and misted again. I use leftover grocery bags to cover any container I’m starting seeds in so that the moisture doesn’t evaporate too quickly (although, with this movement to use reuseable bags for our groceries and other purchases, my stash is getting really low). Once the seeds have sprouted, remove the bag, and make sure the seedlings have bright light, or put them under a grow light. Mist when the soil dries out and harvest when they develop their first set of true leaves (unless it’s sunflowers and then you harvest before the true leaves).

Cilantro, almost ready to eat.

Cilantro, almost ready to eat.

It seems like you can grow almost anything as a microgreen; the tiny sprouts are reputed to taste like the most intense version of the grownup plant so I kept that in mind when choosing what to grow and went pretty banal for my first attempt – a mix of corn salad (or mache)/red leaf lettuce/oakleaf lettuce/tatsoi, a mix of Genovese and lemon basil, Sugar Snap peas, cilantro, and dill.

The sowing step is where I need to do a little tweaking. It’s obvious to me now that I didn’t sow my seeds dense enough – one grower suggested a sowing density of 60% – but I had trouble gauging how much that was when it came to tiny, dark seeds. It is also obvious to me that I needed to plant the snap peas deeper since they sprouted long stems and seemed to develop mature leaves very quickly. I may have missed the harvesting window on the peas which is disappointing – my local grocery store sells a small bag of pea microgreens for $6(!) and I wanted to see what the exorbitant price was all about.

The (thinly) sown pea seeds.

The (thinly) sown pea seeds.

The overly mature snap peas.

The overly mature snap peas.

I think that’s going to be my stumbling block with microgreens – I’m not used to such instant gratification when it comes to gardening and it’s going to take me a couple of tries before I find the rhythm of it. But I have time…spring is still many months away and this is going to be all the gardening I can do for a while.

* I found these bloggers to be of great help…

Vertical Veg posts about growing food in a small, small space. Ingenious, really!

Otter Farm posts drool-worthy photos.

National Gardening Association post by Maggie Oster on how to grow microgreens.

Seed Starting: The Container

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

In preparation for starting my seeds (March 9, 10, and 11 is when I start my peppers this year), I began making my pots to hold the little seedlings.  We have a small garden and I’ve found that, because I don’t need to start a lot of plants, sowing seeds in flats isn’t an efficient method for me.  In order to fill a flat, I have to sow a small number of each variety, which can get confusing, and I find pricking out (transplanting tiny seedlings into a larger container) an endeavour fraught with tension as I hold my breath and gently, gently tease the little plant out of it’s snug home, into a new pot, and gently, gently tamp it in.  Frankly, I don’t need that kind of stress!

Simple tools required to make a paper pot.

Simple tools required to make a paper pot.

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The newspaper pots filled with soil, planted with seed, and watered.

So I sow my seed directly into a little newspaper pot that I create with this handy tool.  The pot goes onto a water-catching tray, gets watered (just enough to dampen the soil), and then the tray and pots get covered with a plastic bag to prevent the soil from drying out while they sit in a warm place waiting for the seeds to germinate.  I check on the pots several times during the day to make sure the soil is damp enough.  If not, I find misting the pots and soil is a better way to increase the moisture than directly watering the soil – it’s easier to control the amount of water and it won’t create little pockmarks in the soil surface.  Note: When watering seedlings, use only filtered, room temperature (or slightly warmer) water – you don’t want the tender little things to be absorbing chlorine or lead or other toxic chemicals, and you don’t want to shock them with cold water (at least, not yet).

Once the seeds have germinated, I remove the plastic bag, and place the emerging seedlings under a grow light.  When the plants look like they’re outgrowing the newspaper pots (indicated by roots starting to push through the newspaper walls), and if it’s still too cold to transplant them directly into the garden, I pot them up into larger plastic containers (about 20cm diameter size), newspaper pot and all.  I find this to be an easier method of starting seeds for a small garden.

There can be, however, the occasional problem.  If I’ve watered too much, the newspaper disintegrates – although you’d be amazed at how much water that takes.  If I’ve watered too little, the newspaper crumbles, usually at the bottom, which necessitates transplanting the threatened seedling into a 10cm plastic pot.  These things don’t happen frequently enough, though, that I feel the need to change my method.

I’ve been asked whether the inks in newsprint are toxic and I’ve yet to discover a definitive answer to that question.  All I know is that they are less toxic than they used to be, for whatever that’s worth.  From what I’ve read, the amount of heavy metals used in the ink has been severely reduced and, in the case of lead, been almost eliminated.  There is still concern, however, about benzene, toluene, and napthalene (among others) although the good news is that many newspaper printers have been moving toward soy-based ink rather than petroleum-based, thereby reducing the toxicity even more.  As I understand it, if you’re unsure of what ink your newspaper is written in, your safest option is to use only the black and white part of the paper and never, ever the glossy, colorful inserts since these contain the highest amounts of lead, cadmium and chromium.  Although I’ve never tested my plants for heavy metal contamination, I’d hazard a guess and say that it’s probable; but whether that contamination comes from newspaper ink or simply from the air and water that plants absorb from our toxic environment would be impossible for me to say.  What I can say, is that my plants have never shown any visible sign of contamination and their health seems to depend more on the quality of the potting soil than whether I’ve started them in plastic or newspaper pots.  I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has more knowledge than I do in the printing process (and an unbiased opinion).

In addition to being able to grow more interesting varieties than you might find in your local nursery, starting your own seeds can be an inexpensive alternative to purchasing plant starts – I’d love to hear how other gardeners start their seeds, particularly any frugal, stylish, and/or sustainable ideas.