Cold Frames – Waste of Time in Zone 5? – Episode 017

Cold Frames - Waste of Time in Zone 5? - Episode 017

There are plenty of gardening books and resources that speak to the merits of cold frames. At least in principle, cold frames can extend your growing season, provide produce in the winter, and give you an early start in the spring. With all that said, based on my experience, in terms of them being a means to increase your overall yields over the course of the year, I’m not sure if they are the best bang for your buck in zone 5, or colder zones, and in this episode I will discuss my reasoning for this argument.

What Is A Cold Frame? 

A cold frame is any sort of garden bed that has been framed in and has some sort of transparent material on all the areas that are exposed to the sun. The more insulative the design, and the more able it is to capture light, the better it will perform in the colder months.

Pros

  • Extended growing season
  • Produce in the winter
  • Early germination in the spring

Cons

  • They don’t water themselves – they are more labour intensive because the rain will not reach them
  • The plants really don’t grow in the winter – they just ‘hang on’ – so if you were harvesting produce from one cold frame for meals, all the plants would be used up in a week or so.
  • The materials can be costly, depending on how elaborate of a design you choose.

Alternatives

Thinking back to the days of the self-sufficient pioneers who depended heavily on their gardens for survival over the winter months, these were people who had a vested interest in getting the most out of the land that they had prepared for agriculture. Thinking from this point of view, I don’t think it makes much sense to go to the time and expense of preparing a cold frame to secure a few extra meals of greens, when far more calories can be harvested from root crops, legumes, winter squashes, or grains. Now I’m not saying that you should start growing your own wheat, but I guarantee that a 4×10 bed full of potatoes/carrots/parsnips/squashes will secure far more calories for the winter months than a cold frame planted with greens. All of these plants store very well if you have a cold room, or even a cool garage, and they will be there waiting for you when the snow comes down and your garden starts its long winter sleep.

Final thoughts

One of my takeaways from this growing season is that while cold frames are possibly not worth the time and effort that it takes to make them, they do have some value in the garden as a nursery/greenhouse, but only with a modular design that can be disassembled in July when it is absolutely warm enough outside for heat-loving plants. My thinking is that they are an ideal greenhouse for starting transplants, and can be very handy for starting heat loving vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplants and peppers – but the design needs to be such that you can remove the roof once it gets warm, so that the rain can get in, a mulch can be applied, and thus, the principles of permaculture can begin to go to work. I did a small experiment with such a design this year in my garden, and it has had very promising results, so I plan to do something more elaborate next season.

In conclusion, let me reiterate my main point here: I’m not saying that cold frames are a waste of time across the board; I’m only speaking to the value of cold frames as a means to maximize the caloric output of your garden space. From my experience, you will get a much better return on your investment of time and money by planting vegetables that can be easily stored, and that will keep well into the winter months.

Special thanks to The University of Missouri (http://extension.missouri.edu) which is where we found the sketch of the cold frame.

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Tomato – Tamaato – Episode 016

Tomato - Tamaato - Podcast Episode 016 Maritime Gardening

You will find few gardeners that do not grow tomatoes each growing season, and many treat this particular plant with extra special care. The entire growing season is spent in anticipation of fresh red tomatoes growing on the vine, destined to be the star of countless salads on the dinner table. In this episode I’ll talk about things that you can do to optimize the health and yields of your tomatoe plants. I will also speak to the best problem a gardener can have in August: what to do when your garden is producing more food than you can eat!

Indeterminate vs Determinate

Tomato plants can be either of a determinate or indeterminate variety. Determinate tomato varieties grow to a specific height – often around two or three feet high, and then they stop growing and switch to producing fruit. Determinate varieties are preferred among gardeners in regions with short growing seasons because they tend to set fruit much faster than indeterminate varieties. Indeterminate varieties grow very tall, and continue to grow until the frost kills them.

Pruning – Why Bother?

To begin, and speaking in general, pruning is about light, air and space, because good pruning ensures that all leaves have access to light, all leaves receive air and can stay dry (which makes them more pest resistant), and all branches have enough room to move in the breeze without rubbing against other branches. With that said, there are a number of key good reasons to prune tomatoes:

  • Pruning prevents/mitigates blight: prune blighted branches back to the main stem. They have no future and will ruin the health of your plant. Get them out of there!
  • Prune to increase your yield: Remove suckers, and ensure that your plants send the majority of their energy to the big, heavily producing branches
  • Prune to accelerate harvest: with indeterminate varieties, topping the main stem will send a message to the plant to stop growing stems and leaves, and start setting fruit. If fall is around the corner, top your indeterminates, because any new fruit will not likely have time to ripen before the frost begins.

Don’t look at pruning as reducing the amount of plant you have – view it as removing the deadweight, because your tomatoes will thank you with healthy growth and far better yields.

Let the garden drive your diet

One of my favorite times of year is when my garden is producing so many different things that I have to practically become a vegetarian to keep up with the production. There is something wonderful about changing your eating patterns for a while, and just letting the soil tell you what is on the menu. Over time, the effect of just giving yourself over to this process will be that you learn many new ways to prepare food, and greatly broaden your diet.  With that said, sometimes there is too much to eat, and you need to either give it away, or find some way preserve your surplus. Most resources on canning/pickling/etc. tend to deal with very large quantities, and such endeavors tend to be overwhelming for beginners, or difficult to fit into a busy schedule. Over time I have found it far more convenient to just can a jar at a time, at my own convenience. If you search the internet you will find a number of easy ways to do this. Another very easy way to preserve things like beans (I have them coming out of my ears right now) is to quickly blanch them (drop in boiling water for 2 minutes), then cool them off in a cool bath, then spread them out over a cookie sheet and place in the freezer over-night. The next day, you can put them all in a plastic bag and you will find that they will not stick together in the freezer, and will store nicely like that for months.

Enjoy this time of year try to let your garden drive your diet. It will save you money, broaden your culinary skills, and benefit your health!

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Saving Seeds (Part 2) – Episode 015

Episode 15 - Saving Seeds - Maritime Gardening Podcast

Saving seeds continued…

How To Save Seeds

The right way to save seeds is different for certain kinds of plants, so in order to keep it short, I’ve simply outlined the generalities below.  If you want more information, a good online resource is the “International Seed Saving Institute” website.

When Are They Ready

  • The leaves will turn yellow and start to die
  • The seeds/pods will start to turn yellow/brown
  • The pods will be dry, and the seeds will start to rattle in the pods.
  • The plant will generally start to fall down, wilt, etc.

What Do You Do?

  • Cut the stalk off at the base
  • Find a place that is dry and out of the weather
  • Hang the stalk upside down and let it dry out for a couple weeks
  • When the seeds or seed pods are nice and dry, remove them from the stalk
  • Put the seeds in a container and store them somewhere cool and dry until next year.

Seed saving has been a part of human agriculture for thousands of years, and this ancient practice is no less relevant now than it was before the time of Caesar, Hammurabi or the time of the Pharaohs. If you happen to have planted any heirloom vegetables in your garden this year, leave some to go to seed and try saving some seeds this year, you will not regret it!

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Saving Seeds (Part 1) – Episode 014

Maritime Gardening Podcast Episode 014 Saving Seeds Part 1

Imagine if you could buy a steak at a grocery store, and then use that steak to make more steak. Well, with many garden plants, that’s exactly how it works if you know what you are doing and have a little foresight. Saving seeds not only saves you money, it will also give you a better garden over time.

Why Save Seeds?

Many years ago, seed saving would have been the norm, and buying seeds, to most gardeners, would have seemed a little extravagant, if not inconvenient. These days the opposite seems to be the case, and I would imagine that most gardeners view seed saving as far too inconvenient to be worth the trouble. I can admit that I too fell into this category for many years as a gardener. For me, the first seeds that I ever saved were beans seed. The first year I tried it, I was successful, and every year afterward, I tried saving other kinds of seeds. To date I’ve not had one batch of seeds fail to yield a successful crop in the subsequent year, and I have never found the process to be difficult, or time consuming. All it requires is that you be constantly mindful of what is going on in your garden, and the various stages of development your plant. Over time, this becomes second nature, you really get a feel for it, and it starts becoming a wonderful experience that you thoroughly enjoy. Here a few reasons for saving seeds:

  • Money: saving seeds saves you the cost of buying seeds in subsequent years
  • Volume: when you save seeds you save ALOT of seeds. This can be very handy if you lose a crop in a subsequent year, because you will have plenty of seeds to re-plant, but this can also lead to far more successful garden (see ‘optimization’ point below).
  • Sustainability: It’s very pleasing to grow food from seeds that you saved in a previous year.
  • Education: It’s great to learn about the life-cycle of plants, and if you have children, very wonderful to involve them in that process.
  • Optimization: When you save a lot of seeds, then you can plant a lot of seeds the following year, and thin them out in order to favour the more successful plants. Over time, this approach will result in strains of seeds that are ideal for your particular growing conditions, and you will get more pest resistant plants that have higher yields.

Heirloom Seeds

When you are saving seeds, make sure that you are doing this from plants that are heirloom varieties. Unlike hybrid varieties, the seeds of heirloom plants will grow into plants that resemble their parent plants, and this is very important when you are saving seeds.

Annuals/Biennials/Perennials

As we mentioned in the last episode, plants are either annual, biennial, or perennial. Annuals live out their entire life-cycle in one season (seed germinates, plant grows, plant flowers and goes to seed, plant dies); biennials complete their life cycle in two years; and, perennials live for multiple years. For the purpose of this episode on seed saving, I’m talking about annuals and biennials, because for the most part we have perennials in our gardens because we don’t need to re-plant them each year, and thus, do not need their seeds.

  • Annuals: These plants flower and got to seed in one growing season. Spinach and lettuce (greens that bolt) yield their seeds during the growing a single season, as do squashes and tomatoes.
  • Biennials: These plants flower and go to seed over the course of two growing seasons – so they need to be left in the ground over the winter. Kale, parsnips and carrots are good examples of biennial vegetables.

Tune into the next episode (Part 2 of Saving Seeds) next week.

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Perennials – Episode 013

Perennials - Maritime Gardening Podcast

Whether it’s fruit trees, berries, rhubarb or herbs, perennials are the plants that just keep giving! In this episode we’ll talk about the numbers, and why it makes so much sense to get your perennials in the ground now. Many perennials all take a number of years to get established such that you can start harvesting them, so some patience is required, but once the plants are mature, you have a free food source for years that only gets bigger and better each year.

What is a Perennial?

Plants are either annual, biennial, or perennial. Annuals live out their entire life-cycle in one season (seed germinates, plant grows, plant flowers and goes to seed, plant dies); biennials complete their life cycle in two years; and, perennials live for multiple years.

Why Grow Perennials?

  • Ease of Maintenance: You plant perennials once, and as long as the soil meets their requirements, they just get bigger and better each year with practically no work on your part. I can’t think of an easier way to grow food than in the form of perennials.
  • Great Investment: Whatever the perennial costs, you will get far more back over time. You will find few investments that yield the kind of return that perennials will offer. A quick back of the envelope calculation that I did revealed that $12 worth of bare root strawberries (everbearing) will yield $15 of strawberries in the first year, and then $30 worth in every subsequent year, and possibly more if you allow the plants to propagate.

Some Varieties

  • Some vegetable varieties that grow well in zone 5 are rhubarb, lovage, Jerusalem artichoke, and asparagus.
  • Some berry varieties are strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. Many people also grow elderberries, hascap berries (blue honeysuckle) and goose berries. My advice, based on taste, is to at least have the first four I’ve mentioned here. They all are ideal additions to a salad, and they all ripen at different times, so you have a perpetual source of sweetness in your salads while you are waiting for your tomatoes to start ripening.
  • Fruit bearing trees are also full-value perennials. Whether you are growing cherries, apples, pears, plums, peaches or apricots, few things will give you more satisfaction than the annual blooming of your trees, and the subsequent harvest that follows.

Totally Ripe, Totally Organic

One final benefit that goes along with perennial plants is that you get to enjoy the benefit of eating them when they are perfectly ripe, and you get the peace of mind knowing that what you are eating is absolutely organic. You will be amazed at the difference in flavour between the plants you have grown, and the poor imitations of fresh fruit that you have been buying at the store. Ripe

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Rainy Day Gardening – Episode 012

Rainy Day Gardening - Episode 012

We usually associate rainy days with staying indoors, and either getting caught up on work or household chores, or just taking it easy and watching a movie. I associate rainy days with gardening, and I call them ‘moving days’, because rainy days are ideal for moving and rearranging your plants. In this episode I will talk about how and why I do this, and I will also speak to some listener questions.

Here’s the thing about a good rainy day

If you have a permaculture garden, and the whole garden is covered in mulch, the rain is like a shot in the arm for the whole garden. Whereas conventional gardens get a short term dose of water, permaculture gardens get a long term watering, every time it rains. The mulch swells up with moisture, and the organically rich soil absorbs the water, and for days, the soil is rich and moist, facilitating growth at an optimum rate for every plant in the garden. In all the ways that matter, a mulched garden is an automatic watering system, because the moisture levels in the soil stay constant due to the mulch, and the wonderful effect that it has on the soil. But it doesn’t stop there:

  • Automatic Fertilization System: Every time it rains, the mulch releases nutrients into the soil. Because the mulch is constantly breaking down, rain brings the available nutrients down to the roots, giving everything a safe, balanced little boost.
  • Automatic Watering System: Gravity is a wonderful thing. A good hard rain tends to provide more moisture than the soil can absorb. The beauty of a good mulch is that it can absorb the excess rain, and then over time, by virtue of the force of gravity, it will release that moisture down to the soil, to the benefit of your plants.

Moving Day

When I plant things that I intend to move at a later date, I plant thick. I put more seeds in the row than I really want there, because I know that at some later date, I will pull out some of the plants, and put them somewhere else. That’s where the rain comes in! Moving any plant causes stress to the plant, and only rainy days have the right conditions for this sort of thing, because dryness and hot sun do not facilitate the process of adaptation that is required of any plant that has been moved. When a good rain is in the forecast, the stars have aligned for you, and you need to take advantage of the favourable conditions.

That having been said, even when you do everything right, no plant likes being moved, so it takes weeks for the plant to recover. While that might sound like a negative thing, it’s actually good because it stretches out the timing of your crops, so that everything doesn’t ripen at the same time. For instance, if you are planting greens, that might all start coming in at some point in June – that means that sometime in July you will have too many and be overwhelmed with too many of that plant. By contrast, If you move some of them, they will stall for a few weeks while they recover, and then they will start coming on strong just when the original plants start running out of energy and vitality. In this way, the timing of your harvest gets spaced out in a way that is easier to match to your diet.

You Can Beat the Heat

In the height of summer, rainy days give you a break from the heat, and this is a perfect opportunity to do anything that is strenuous that you’ve been putting off due to the oppressive heat.

  • Build trellises for any plants that need support
  • Mulch anything that still needs cover. Do not leave your soil exposed to the sun!
  • Pull any weed that have been accumulating in your garden.
  • Move any plants that are crowded.

Trellises

A listener asked the question of how to make easy, simple trellises, for beans, so here are a few things that I use depending on the situation. For all of the options below requiring twine, I use either jute or hemp (from the dollar store) these twines are cheap, biodegradable, and vine type plants seem to find it easy to grab onto them.

  • Branch: A branch off a tree is the simplest trellis of them all. Just break a branch off a tree that is the size that you want, jam the thick end into the ground, and train your plant up the branch.
  • Florida Trellis: Put a stake at either end of the row where your plants are growing, then tie a string to one stake, about 6 inches off the ground, connect it to the other stake along one side of the row, then bring it back to the original stake along the other side of the row. As the plants grow, just keep doing this every 6 inches.
  • Bean Trellis: Put a stake at either end of the row where your plants are growing, then attach a beam across to top between the two stakes, either with twine, nails or screws (it will look like a soccer goal when you are done). For every bean in the row, tie a piece of twine directly above the bean, then stretch the twine down to the plant, and twist it around the stalk of the plant. The plant will then attach itself to the twine, and then climb it all the way to the beam. Very fast easy trellis.
  • Concrete Wire Remesh: You can buy this stuff at any building center (for about $10), it’s just a heavy 4’ x 8’ mesh wire fence.  Either prop it up with poles, or of you have planted near a wooden fence, attach it to the fence somehow. Vine-type plants will climb it on their own, plants like tomatoes can be easily attached to it.
  • Tripod Trellis: Get three poles that are the length needed for your plant, tie them together at the top, and then spread out the legs at the bottom around the plant until it feels stable and will resist the wind. Next, tie a long piece of twine to the top, and then wrap it around the tripod, continuously in a Logarithmic spiral, all the way to the bottom.
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Hodgepodge – Episode 011

Hodgepodge - Episode 011 Maritime Gardening Podcast

It’s early July, and the time of year that many might be making the traditional dish “hodgepodge”, so I thought it would make sense to do and episode on a bunch of unrelated topics that have been on my mind recently, that are relevant to this stage of the growing season. I’ll talk about lawn maintenance, dealing with pests, herbivores, and whatever gardening failures that you have experienced so far this year, and also about ‘vermicomposting’.

Lawn Maintenance

I’m not sure why, because nowhere in nature does such a thing exist, but people seem to love lawns, and the greener and more homogeneous they can get them, the better. To be honest, I could care less, and would love to just let it go wild, but the reality of contemporary home-ownership is such that one’s lawn must be maintained in order to retain, at least to some degree, the value of the property, as well as the relationship with one’s neighbours. So, bearing that in mind, the question is, how do we employ permaculture principles to make lawn maintenance easier?

The fact that I’m putting lawn maintenance and permaculture in the same sentence would probably offend some permaculture practitioners, because nothing could be further from the permaculture ideal than a lawn. Think about it: a lawn is just a field, with all of the elements that make a field maintenance free and sustainable removed; the diversity of flora is reduced to almost nothing; the diversity of fauna is routinely upset and interrupted by mowing and chemical applications; and, our preferred height of the grass (short) is the exact opposite of the height that the grass wants to achieve (tall).

Nevertheless, we can use our knowledge of grasses, and their preferred growing conditions, to make lawn maintenance a little easier. Here’s a few tips to make your lawn healthier with less work, and to help your lawn thrive during the hottest, sunniest months of the year.

  • Use the highest setting your mower has. Grass wants to be tall, so when you cut it, leave it as high as you can. This will increase the amount of shade that the remaining grass throws on the soil, thereby helping the soil retain its water. This will also probably kill a few less bugs, so the balance and diversity of the living things in your lawn will be a little less upset.
  • Use a mulching blade on your mower. Everything that the grass took out of your soil should go back into your soil. This way you will need less fertilizer. This will also feed the worms in your soil, and act like a mulch, further shielding your soil from the sun, and aiding moisture retention in your soil.
  • Cut your lawn in the evening. Mowing is a stress on the grass, and if the grass has the whole evening to recover after being mowed, it will fare much better the next day when it is being hammered by the sun.

Keep Calm and Garden on

By now in your garden, you’ve probably had some things go your way, and some things go wrong.  I’ve had seeds rot in the ground, pest problems, and animal problems this year, and it’s all been frustrating, but it’s important to view all of these setback as learning opportunities.

  • Don’t let the setbacks get to you, there’s still time to grow lots of things.
  • If your seeds rotted, replant.
  • If pests or animals are a problem, read up on the solutions and try them. Replant if necessary.
  • Even if it turns out that you lose the whole season, make a record of everything that you did, and try something different next year. Keep adapting to your environment, and eventually you will learn how to work with it to get the results that you want.

Gardening in the Wilderness

My property backs onto a forest, and every year the animals pose new challenges to gardening that I’ve never experienced before. Last year I lost so many plants that I put 200 feet of fencing around my garden, but even despite that fence, I have animal problems again this year. Here are a few lesson’s learned from my experiences:

  • Don’t waste time with traps (live or otherwise). You can’t trap every living thing in the forest, and it’s a real pain to have to check them all the time, and then to have the awful task of dealing with whatever is in them.
  • Don’t kid yourself, you need a fence, and the higher it is and the finer the mesh the better, because you’d be surprised at how easily animals can squeeze through small openings.
  • If something does get through your fence, figure out how it got in and close that hole! If you can’t figure that out, you need to trap it and relocate it, because it will keep coming back until there is nothing left. If it has babies, the whole family will be in your garden before long.
  • Electric fences seem like a great idea, but they cannot touch the ground, or anything else connected to the ground (like grass/weeds) or they lose their effectiveness, so this means that: (a) you can’t use your electric fence like a trellis for tomatoes/beans/etc.; and, (b) you have to keep all the grass/weeds/etc. mowed all the time, and to a height that is less than the height of a rabbit. If your garden is large, that will mean regular mowing and trimming – for me that’s just too much added work.

Vermicomposting

Last week on the episode about composting I forgot to mention ‘vermicomposting’, which, simply defined, means composting with worms. Now, all composting that happens outdoors is basically vermicomposting because there are always worms present in the soil, but what I wanted to speak to was the practice of doing this in containers in one’s garage.

The basic technique, without going into too much detail, is the following:

  1. You get a large storage container, say 10 gallons or more
  2. You poke a few holes in the bottom and put a drip tray under the bin to capture any liquid that drips out (liquid worm manure – essentially a top of the line fertilizer).
  3. You put soil and worms in the bin.
  4. You put all of your non-meat table scraps in the bin every week.
  5. Every so often, when it starts getting full, you take out the rich dark soil that has been created by the worms to make room for more table scraps.

In principle this sounds like a good idea, but to me, it seems so much easier to have the worms where they want to be – outside in the ground – rather than in a container in your garage. It seems like a lot of time and energy for a very small amount of soil. On the other hand, I’ve never done this, so maybe it’s a great way to compost indoors when you have bears and other critters that make this impossible to do outdoors. By all means, if any listeners have tried vermicomposting, please leave a comment and tell me about your results. Maybe I’m missing out and need to give this a try.

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Composting – Episode 010

Composting - Podcast Episode 010

The many benefits of compost in a garden are worth discussing, but more importantly, how to set up a composting system in your backyard that makes sense is even more worthy of discussion. Composting should cost nothing, take minimal effort, and give back huge returns to your garden. In this episode I talk about strategies to make that happen.

Good Gardens Are All About Healthy Soil

One fundamental difference between conventional gardening and permaculture gardening is that the former is based on a principle of broken soil, while the latter is based on principle of building healthy soil. Conventional gardening requires constant amendments with chemical or other fertilizers. Permaculture gardens, by contrast, only require an annual addition of organic material to the top layer. Just like a forest floor, the organic material is in a constant state of being broken down into rich, healthy soil.

Advantages of Compost:

  • Nutrients (not only from the compost itself, but from the activity of beneficial fungi & micro-organisms)
  • Improved soil structure (just the right amount air,  and the loose soil facilitates root growth)
  • Ideal water retention and displacement. Healthy soil with lots of organic matter retains water very well, but it also displaces water, you will rarely see the water pooling and running when the soil is full of organic matter.

How to Compost the Easy Way

There are two basic approaches to composting, “hot composting” and “cold composting”. Hot composting works the fastest, but takes the most work, involving constant turning and ongoing management of moisture levels. Cold composting works much more slowly, but basically involves throwing everything in, and walking away – that’s way easier, it’s what I do, and that’s what I’m going to talk about in the paragraphs that follow.

  • In your gardens beds

The simplest way to compost is in your garden beds. Add a layer of rough organic matter on top of your garden each fall, and just let it work and break down all winter long. I do this buy emptying out my compost stations in November, running them through a pretty loose screen, and then spreading that on top of each garden bed. For a 4’ x 10’ area, about half a wheel barrow will do (3 – 4 cubic feet).  I don’t do this with all my gardens beds, just the ones that seem to need it based on their performance the previous season. Some beds have soil that is so healthy, they get all they need from the layer of mulch that is breaking down. In fact, in some of my best garden beds the soil is black, loose and fantastic, and all I do is add a few inches of old hay to them each fall. That’s the ultimate goal for your soil: to have soil that is so healthy and full of life that the mulch itself is all that is needed, with the worms and microorganisms doing everything else.

  • Make piles

No need to buy a big plastic container or build a box. If you have the room, just make a pile of organic material (leaves, grass clippings, etc.) and leave it. Every fall, take the rotten stuff from the bottom and put it on your garden, and leave the rest to continue to break down. If you have the space, make a number of piles.

  • Make boxes

If you must have a box, just bear in mind that whatever you make it from, it’s going to rot or wear out over time, so it’s really not worth the expense to get too fancy. My property backs onto a forest, so I used fallen trees to make my compost stations – it cost nothing and took an afternoon. Old pallets also work great if you can find them, or any ready-made box-like thing that you may see at someone’s curb on garbage day. At the end of the day it’s up to you, your wallet size, and your individual of taste, all I’m saying here is that it can be fun to use your imagination and repurpose something that might be on its way to the landfill site.

  • Composting in the Wilderness

If you are like me and live on the edge of a forest, then you know that putting food scraps in a box in the back yard is probably a bad move. Not only do the wild animals make a heck of a mess, but this will also attract bears to your property, putting you and your family at risk. You can still compost in such a situation, you just have to compost thing that carnivores and herbivores don’t like to eat. I put layers of yard waste and fairly green horse manure in my compost bins each fall (horse manure is typically free). After a year, it’s mostly broken down, and gets spread over my gardens the following fall.

  • The Compost Garden

I’ve already talked about composting in your garden beds, but you can also garden in your compost bins! I grow potatoes in mine because they are outside the fence that encloses my garden, and because they are about the only plant that the deer, rabbits, raccoons and porcupines seem to leave alone. Potatoes also add a lot of organic matter to your soil with their elaborate root structures. If you don’t have animal problems, then the sky is the limit, although I would say large plants are easier to deal with, such as potatoes and squashes. Since I have four composting stations, I typically leave one with nothing growing in it, so that I can throw weeds into it all summer long. If you’ve never tried this, you will be amazed at how well plants grow in a compost bin!

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Raised beds, Are They All They’re Cracked Up To Be? – Episode 009

Episode 009 - Raised beds: Are They All They're Cracked Up To be?

Raised beds seem to be all the rage these days. From community gardens to backyards, they seem to have taken over the landscape as the preferable method for growing vegetables.  Well, I’m going to let you in a on a little secret – the plants could care less. It’s not about the lumber, it’s about the soil.

Advantages:

  • Height: Depending on how much money you are willing to invest in lumber (how high you are willing to build them), raised beds can make gardening easier for anyone with mobility issues or back problems.
  • Good drainage: If the existing soil on your gardening site has areas where the water pools or it gets a little swampy, then raised beds can solve that problem by moving the soil above grade.
  • Aesthetics: Raised beds give your garden a very neat, organized, and geometric look.

Disadvantages:

  • Height: The higher you go, the more lumber and soil you need – so it can get costly. Moreover, in order to really save your back in a meaningful way, you have to build quite high, so the material cost could be triple or quadruple what it might be if you were simply building a low box to define the space.
  • Good drainage: That excellent drainage will become a liability in July and August when everything is trying to grow rapidly and your gardens are starved for water. Here’s the thing: the water is always in the ground, not in the air. No one has to water a forest, because everything grows in the ground. If you plant above grade, you are planting above where the water is most readily available. The higher you go, the more of the problem this can become, and the more work your will have to do all summer long to deal with it. Conversely, if your gardens have a good mulch, and are at ground level, or only slightly above it, you may not have to water all summer long.
  • Temperature: Because raised gardens are exposed on all four sides, they are not as well insulated as ground level gardens. In my experience, this means that they cool a little faster, and freeze up a little harder than ground level gardens. I have a couple 12″ high beds in my garden, and in the early spring, these are always the last to thaw.
  • Unsustainable: At the end of the day, when you build a raised bed, you are most likely building it out of wood. You don’t have to be Mike Holmes to know that if you build something from wood, and then fill it with wet soil and bugs, it will eventually rot. Even if you use treated lumber (which is kind of toxic by the way, and I would not advocate growing food in a toxic box) it will still rot, and only at a slightly slower rate than untreated lumber. You also have to remove soil from somewhere, and then put it in your box, so your garden comes at a cost to whatever ecosystem from which the soil was initially gathered. No judgement, I’ve done it in the past too, just some food for thought.

Discussion/Alternatives/Solutions:

If you bought yourself a Delorian, scrounged up a flux capacitor, set the dial to 1970 and floored the thing until you hit 88 mph, you’d find yourself back in the groovy past, looking at all kinds of incredible back yard gardens, and no raised beds. Why? The raised beds are about us, not the plants. We like them – but it’s not really about us. Think like a plant and ask yourself: What resources does the plant require?  How do I make those resources as easy for the plant to collect as possible?

In the end, it’s all about healthy soil, sun, and the ready availability of water.

The main theme of all my arguments against the raised bed comes down to one of the key design principles of permaculture which is to copy nature. Think about it. You want healthy soil, and in order to have that you need all the living things that create healthy soil to be in your soil, and your soil needs to have all the conditions and resources that they need also. Well, all of those things are in the ground, so it’s so much easier to build that healthy soil when you are working with nature, rather than against it. It will be less costly and more sustainable to work with what you have and try to simply amend the existing soil with compost or manures.

If you like the way a box looks, and are able to knell or bend down, consider just making low beds, and consider other options for bordering, such as rocks, which last forever, leach beneficial minerals into your soil and also gather heat. I have found that even if the existing soil is terrible, a six inch high box is all that is necessary to add the amount of good soil that is necessary to dramatically improve growing conditions, and this is still low enough to the ground that the roots can still get to the water in the soil once the plants are large and the summer heat is on full blast.

If you still want height, either for aesthetic, health, or mobility reasons, consider building a raised bed that is a ‘hugelkultur‘ garden. This involves piling old rotten wood and logs into a row – say 2’ high X 2’ wide X 10‘ long, then piling leaves and small sticks over the logs, and then soil over the leaves. This a traditional approach to gardening that has been used in Germany and Eastern Europe for hundreds of year, and very space conscious because it actually increases the area available for gardening per square foot due to its geometry. Never the less, if a mound of soil sounds awful, and you must have a box, then just employ the same principle in your box. Pile lots of dead logs, sticks and leafs in your box until you have reached about one foot from the top, then fill the rest with good soil. What all that rotting material does is capture and hold water like a sponge, in addition to providing an ideal habitat for microbial life, and well as slowly leaching many nutrients into your soil. It’s a great solution to the height problem because on the one hand it saves you the cost of all the added soil, and on the other, it decreases your need to water. I guess an added bonus is that once all the wood that you used to make the box starts to degrade and rot, you can simply use it to make a new hugekultur garden. Zero waste! That’s permaculture at its best!

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Things to Try That Your Parents Never Grew – Episode 008

Maritime Gardening Podcast Episode 8

Many of us get locked into what we are used to planting, and never try new things. In my experience, a garden can be something between a laboratory and a playground. You should always be playing around with new plants and varieties, and comparing results. In this episode I’ll discuss a few things that I’ve found to be very productive.

1) Vietnamese Coriander (wikipedia link)

Coriander and ‘cilantro’ are the same thing. In North America, we tend to use the term ‘cilantro’ to refer to the leaves, and ‘coriander’ to refer to the seeds, but elsewhere in the world other conventions are used. Regardless of what it’s called, it’s a key ingredient in many popular dishes such as curries, soups, and salsas. One problem with coriander is that the plant grows very quickly, and then has to be used before it goes to seed, so succession planting is necessary if a steady supply is desired, and this can be annoying. I stumbled across Vietnamese Coriander a number of years ago, and have been planting it ever since. The thing is, it’s not really ‘coriander’ at all, it just tastes like coriander (or cilantro rather, given that it’s the leaves that you eat), but instead of growing quickly and going to seed, it just keeps growing and getting bigger all summer long – so it’s ideal if you desire a regular supply. One other benefit is that it’s is at its largest and best when your tomatoes are ready harvest, so the timing is perfect for preserving salsa!

2) Lovage (wikipedia link)

If you’ve ever tried to grow celery, you’ve probably noticed that our short summers are not ideally suited to the 100 days usually required by celery. An easy alternative is Lovage, a perennial herb that can grow to two meters tall! You can lovage seeds, or simply buy it as a transplant in a garden center. The leaves and stalks have a taste that is very similar to that of celery, so the plant gives you a perpetual supply of this essential culinary ingredient. Lovage is also one of the first things to grow in your garden, poking out of the ground before rhubarb and asparagus, so it’s a wonderful sign of spring, the beginning of the gardening season. This is my kind of plant: buy the transplant for the price of once bunch of celery at the supermarket, put it in the ground, and you have free celery every spring summer and fall for years.

3) Kohlrabi (wikipedia link)

I’ve mentioned kohlrabi before, and I’ll keep mentioning it because the greens are just so wonderful. While this plant is primarily grown for its root, which tastes somewhere between a turnip and a radish, for me the greens are the star of the show. The greens are somewhere between collards and cabbage, but they taste better than both, and only require a couple minutes to cook. They also keep for a ridiculous amount of time in your fridge. Like most plants, the greens taste even better once there has been a frost, both don’ let that stop you, harvest them all summer long as you need them. I like to mix them with kale and Swiss chard when cooking, as all the flavors and textures seem to work well together, and this way I’m only harvesting a little from each plant at a time.

4) Delicata Squash (wikipedia link)

The ‘delicata squash’ is a winter squash, meaning that it stores well for later use when winter has arrived. This squash grows well in the Maritimes, and can produce a lot of squash if your soil is fertile. The flavour is somewhat like that of a sweet potatoe, except unlike the sweet potatoe, it can actually mature in our relatively short growing season. I’ve tried growing sweet potatoes, and trust me, stick with these squash – you’ll get much more back for far less effort! The gourds are also very interesting in appearance, and make a nice (and edible) decoration in the fall.

5) Costata Romanesco (Zucchini Squash) – (halifax seed link)

My general opinion of zucchini used to be that they are not very big on flavour, but they make a nice relish. Once I tried Costata Romanesco, I changed my mind on the whole flavour thing. These zucchini are very flavourful relative to other varieties, and they are also an heirloom variety so you can save the seeds if you are so inclined. Costata Romanesco have a very dramatic appearance, and the plant is also dramatic in its size, growing to outrageous proportions when conditions are right. If you are in the mood to try something new this year, gives these wonderful squash a try, you will not be sorry.

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