Sunflowers are a remarkable plant. Thanks to the Laidback Gardener for reminding us that this is the year of the Sunflower according to the Illinois based National Garden Bureau .
After the awful year we have had the sunflower seems like a fitting symbol of hope for the year to come. I am reminded of a quote from author Morris West. In his novel, In the Shoes of the Fisherman, he states that the Russians believe that one can see the face of God in a sunflower. If you have ever looked into the face of a large, striped seeded Russian sunflower in full bloom, you will probably agree.
Planting sunflowers in most outdoor gardens is really simple. Dig a shallow hole put in some seeds, cover with soil, done. The sunflower seeds I plant are mostly for their beauty – both the beauty of the flowers and the pretty blue jays that come to eat the seeds. Pollinators love them too. I never worry much about saving the seeds for our own consumption. I could never beat the blue jays to the harvest anyway.
I usually cheap out on the seeds and just plant a few of the ones Grandpa has been buying in big sacks to use for winter bird feeding. The germination rate is often poor, so I plant some extras and thin out any excess seedlings, if I get them at the cotyledon stage, they can go into the salad bowl. I also grow out a few trays of them through the winter as microgreens.
They are a welcome addition to winter salads and stir fries. The bird seed has poor germination for this so I start the sprouts in a jar and transfer only the viable ones to a soil tray. It is sort of a boring job, but what else is there to do in the winter of the pandemic?
We must all be looking for some good news or at least something to consider in a positive aspect. Granted there isn’t much to celebrate between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is cold and Dark. That’s about it. Oh yeah, and we are in the middle of an ever-worsening pandemic. So maybe that’s why we have invented several definitely unofficial “holidays”.
Today, I am told, is Houseplant Day. OK, I’ll admit I occasionally talk to them, but a holiday for them? I don’t think so.
The CBC News site this morning carried a list of special dates of interest to children (and Grandmas). The first Saturday of February is Ice Cream for Breakfast Day. I’m looking forward to that one. Also, Cheese Day on January 25th and most importantly Pi Day on March 14th (3.14 …) I think I’ll make a Saskatoon-Rhubarb one this year with some stuff I put away in the freezer last summer.
Of course, we have celebrated a day dedicated to lovers for ages. This year, it might be particularly important to remember the person with whom one has a spousal relationship on St Valentine’s Day, February 14th. Spending so much time in isolation with them, or at least socially distant from others, makes our relationship with that one special person paramount. Love ‘em up! Maybe bake a pie!
After the year we have had, we are justified in looking at the new year with some trepidation. But the time will pass, and we will just have to make the best decisions we can based on the information we have.
One of the very few positive outcomes of the COVID19 pandemic is that many people who had never grown gardens and many who had not grown food gardens ever or for a long time decided to start growing food. Once bit by the gardening bug, this is likely to become a life-long habit. There is something addictive about the taste of garden-fresh veg.
More gardeners means more demand for seeds and gardening supplies. For seed companies, and plant nurseries 2020 might have been a much better business year than they had planned for. The number who had to take a time-out to restock their shelves meant that many gardeners did not get the seeds or plants they had hoped for exactly when they wanted them. I am sure the businesses have adjusted their supply and delivery processes to adjust to an increased demand … probably. Just to be sure, it might be prudent to order early and consider starting some of our own seedlings instead of depending entirely on purchased transplants. Happy gardening.
As I plan for the next gardening year I am always pushing the season, planting too early, expecting summer too soon. This year I am going to try to exercise better judgment and some restraint by making a calendar of when tasks should really be done instead of when I would like to start them. I’ll post the calendar as a blog page in case readers might like to share when it is a good time to plant in Zone 1b. Check out January here.
We are all looking forward to the end of 2020 and all the health, political and economic issues it brought with it. But right now, life might be a little too quiet: Christmas is over, New Years parties were a wash- out. It’s winter, it’s cold and dark. Really there is not much for gardeners to do except plan for next spring.
We can peruse the seed catalogues and inventory our left-over seed stocks, and it is a good time to draw some plans for where to plant what next spirng. While doing that, I’d like to encourage readers to consider planning for some seed saving. It needn’t take much extra space, will save some money for the next season and provide some very high quality seed. “Really?” you may ask, “can the seed I grow be better than the seeds I pay big money for?” Well, maybe.
The plants that produce seeds in your own garden have proven they can grow under your soil and climatic conditions, so it stands to reason their seeds will too. You know these seeds will be fresh, and you will know how they have been stored through the winter.
So how do you do that? It is easy to get started. Legumes like peas and beans are some of the easiest ones to save. If you have a nice crop of peas or beans growing and would like to save some seed from them, just identify a few of the nicest plants and don’t pick the pods. Let them stay on the plants until they are old and wrinkled and starting to dry up. Then pick the pods and spread them out somewhere warm and dry and forget about them for several weeks. When the pods and the seeds in them are completely dried out, shell the seeds out, label them and store them someplace cool and DRY. Legumes are mostly self pollenating so isolation distance between varieties is not too important and the mature seed producing plant is no bigger than the food producing plant, so they are a good place for novice seed savers to start.
Some other vegetable varieties that one might like to save seed from take more space. For example that row of crunchy radish that needed a couple inches between plants, can’t mature into a good seed crop without about two feet between plants. But you probably only need a couple to grow out to the end of the summer to get enough seed for a year’s worth of radishes so that might be OK. In the meantime, the radish blossoms will attract beneficial insects to your garden, and you can snitch a few of the green pods to toss into a salad or stir fry when the roots have mostly gotten too big to be good eating.
How many plants are needed for seed production depends a little on the species and how fussy the seed saver wants to be. To maintain really good gene pools, one has to have quite a few plants of any species, but to just grow enough seed to plant again for food, not so many. Three or four peas or beans, a couple radish, and maybe just one lettuce plant will provide as much seed as you would get in a purchased seed packet.
Isolation distance is how far apart plants must be to avoid cross pollination, and how far that is really depends on the species and how it is pollinated. Most legumes and nightshades like tomatoes are self pollinating so don’t require any extra space for the home gardener to save some seed. Cross pollination is possible but unlikely. The bees would have to work extra hard to accomplish it.
Cucurbits like squash on the other hand will easily cross with each other so need about a mile of isolation distance. The implication for the home gardener is that if you or your neighbor down the block grows different kinds of squash, the seed you save from your butternut will likely be crossed with the pumpkin or zucchini that grew anywhere near it. Bees just don’t respect property lines. It is too bad because cucurbits are some of the easiest seeds to process for replanting – just clean them up and let them dry.
Tomatoes are also easy to save seeds from, and you still get to eat the tomato. That first early one that tastes so good on your morning toast would be great to replant. Just slide a few of the seeds off your plate and onto a bit of paper towel and set it somewhere safe to dry out. Done.
One word of caution though, it is probably not a good idea to save seed from hybrid plants. These are already cross pollinated, and their offspring will often be throwbacks to some mixture of their parent stock that might be very different from the first cross. You can try it but be prepared for some mixed results.
Just a little advance planning and a bit of garden space is all it takes to try some seed saving. It might be fun!
Last spring, I bought this neat planting tray from Lee Valley. It holds twenty-eight 2inch pots so can grow quite a lot, but the really great thing about it is how easy it is to water. Its cells are all connected to each other so pouring water into one of them waters the whole tray from the bottom. It came with peat pots, but I have found some little plastic pots that work well too. My plan was to use it to start salad greens that will eventually move into 4-inch pots to grow out for winter use.
However, my first flat of seedlings was ready to transplant much sooner that I had hoped. I just couldn’t restrain myself from putting some found seeds into soil. Anyway, I had just finished cleaning up a smaller capillary mat tray that I thought might have a better chance of getting enough light reflected from the Aerogarden to actually grow. They did well enough but eventually the limited soil and space restricted growth and became a baby greens salad.
I just finished moving some new seedlings from a plug tray into the slightly larger Lee Valley tray. My plan is to bottom water with a dilute hydroponic solution to supplement the smallish amount of soil in each cup – a sort of modified hydroponic setup that has worked well for me in the past.
Here are a few tips for newbie growers based on my previous experience growing lettuce (and other greens) indoors in the winter.
Use a rich potting soil with really good drainage.
Start seeds in a small flat. Not too thickly. Give them some room.
The tiny lettuce seeds need some light to germinate so don’t cover them with soil but do use a clear plastic moisture cover.
Transplant seedlings into a plug tray as soon as possible – when there is one true leaf coming out between the cotyledons.
Pot on from the plug tray once the root ball is holding the plug together. One cut or baby lettuce can stay in smaller setups, but plants intended for multiple harvests need at least a 4 inch pot.
Bottom water with a dilute hydroponic solution.
Indoor plants give us a bit of cheer in the cold winter months. Growing some edible ones give us some hope of spring to come, and salad!
This morning I heard an ad for Idaho potatoes that suggested, “Potatoes are not just a side dish anymore.” It needed some research.
Most of us think of potatoes as a source of carbohydrate, a nutrient we all need for energy. But a balanced diet needs lots more than carbs. We also need vitamins, minerals and protein. So, how do spuds shape up in those respects? Well, most middle-aged adults need between about 50 and 70 grams of protein a day. Your average spud yields 4.6 – not enough. Actually that’s a bit less than the protein content of most grains, our other most common carb source.
However, they are a surprisingly good source of many other nutrients including fiber, vitamin B6 and potassium. and about half the Vitamin C of an orange. Couple that with less than 100 calories in the potato itself, no fat or cholesterol and minimal sodium unless you add it in cooking. The bottom line is that if one could add some protein the common spud might be a very good main course dish.
Add a bit of cheese:
Top a baked potato with cottage cheese or plain yogurt instead of sour cream for more protein, less fat, same taste.
Easy potatoes au gratin: mix shredded cheddar into mashed potatoes or top a casserole with shredded cheese
Mash with cream cheese and chives for a casserole that also freezes well.
Add some animal protein:
Boiled eggs in a cold potato salad
Eggs in a potato pancake batter
Fried potatoes with onion and ground meat for a hash.
Meat sauces like a hamburger gravy or beef marinara over mash.
Creamed soups made with milk and thickened with pureed potato
Fried potato cakes made with leftover mash and canned fish, ham or chicken flakes.
Add some vegetable proteins
Potato based soups with added pulses like lentils, or peas
A bean-based chili or lentil sauce with mash
Mild flavoured chickpeas mashed right into the potatoes.
“Do you think we would have to take out a mortgage to buy some lettuce?” Grandpa and I were at the Co-op on our monthly, masked, sanitized and socially distant trip to Big Town. $3.18 a head for iceberg, more than $5 for a package of romaine hearts – not the organic ones. I’m not sure if it is a result of the pandemic or just what, but produce prices seem to be really going up. (Don’t even think about fresh peppers!) One happy exception are the things coming out of the greenhouses in Alberta. Cucumber and tomatoes mostly but they are almost as good as fresh-from-the garden and much better than anything coming in from the south. Thank you, Cucumber Man!
The seedlings I planted a few weeks ago are coming along, but s l o w l y… It will be a few more weeks before they are ready for the salad bowl. There are three different set-ups. One in a Kratky hydroponic set up is demonstrating the poorest growth. It looks heathy, but small. The ones in the capillary mat seed starting tray are doing best and a few left in the germination flat are a close second. Actually I am surprised any of them are doing as well as they are in the low light, short day situation they have right now.
We opted for the biggest, freshest looking iceberg we could find and by supplementing it with some grated carrot and sprouts it is serving four suppers’ worth of fresh salad.
December is probably a good time to think about soil. It is the skin of Mother Earth that sustains us all.
Most gardeners in Zone 1b will be looking out a window at a heavy layer of snow covering their resting gardens. No need to worry about tilling or mulching for a few months yet. It is a good time to curl up with a cup of hot tea and plan for the next growing season.
There is lots of info out there about what to do if one is starting with poor soil, but in Zone 1b we generally have the advantage of starting with some very good soils. Not that we should take them for granted or fail to do what we can to sustain and improve them.
The first consideration is that of tillage. Daniel Webster is credited with the quote that, “When tillage begins, other arts follow”. I wonder what he would think about No-Dig gardening? Creating a loose seed bed has been something gardeners for generations have strived for and they’ve grown a lot of good food with the annual working of soil. On the other hand, there is the idea that disturbing the soil destroys much of the microbial life that feeds our plants and uncompacted soil that is undisturbed will actually outperform tilled soil. My own practice is moderation in all things. I have proven to myself that I don’t need to work my garden beds every spring and fall, but occasional tilling may be needed to facilitate better growth in some situations. E.g. trenching for water hungry veggies in arid summers.
Mulching or not. Many garden sources are encouraging mulching around plants and over beds at the end of the growing season to prevent bare earth being exposed to the ravages of wind and weather. In Zone 1b there is very little opportunity for the earth to be bare. It is covered with snow almost until planting time and again shortly after the harvest. A bit of mulch around established plants will preserve soil moisture during the summer, but excessive mulching keeps the soil from warming in the spring.
An annual application of well rotted compost of kitchen waste, leaves, or manure is a different story. Whether it is placed atop the planting beds and left undug or worked in, it will provide a boost of nutrition to facilitate a healthy biodiversity of microbial life in the soil. Composting in place by dropping garden and kitchen waste on the garden or burying such material is another way to feed the microbes that eventually feed our plants.
One other advantage of adding organic matter to the soil is that it creates a carbon sink. Each bit of carbohydrate that is incorporated into the soil, either by tillage or the action of microbes, locks a bit of carbon away from the atmosphere and reduces that bit of potential greenhouse effect for our environment. One potato peel won’t make a huge difference, but collectively, returning organic matter to the earth may help to save us all and make good soil to pass on.
For some time, I have been working on some research into growing food indoors at home when outdoor gardens are not possible. The point of the research has been two-fold: 1) to find a simple cost-effective way to produce some fresh veg for Grandpa and myself in the winter.; and 2) to identify strategies that could allow anyone to grow some fresh food economically and so supplement diets that might be nutritionally deficient because of cost.
I have to admit this picture of people lining up to receive a handout of food from a Texas food bank really tugged at my heart strings; but it also made me wonder just what is going on here. Yes, there is a pandemic and the resultant unemployment is rampant. Both of those factors are disproportionately affecting poorer people, and political disruptions are impeding governments’ abilities to alleviate the situation even in one of the richest nations in the world. But… Texas has a climate that allows year-round plant growth. Every city has acres of vacant or unused land. Even landless locations can grow food in containers or hydroponically. What is missing? Is there just a lack knowledge and support that could build self reliance? Is the agri-food business-model/profit-motive exerting enough pressure that societies are paralyzed from helping themselves? Have people just forgotten they can help themselves?
Perhaps one of the few positive outcomes of this terrible time will be that we all remember what is really important. This quote from Tom Sterns, founder of Highmowing Seeds, a Vermont seed company that like most others was almost overwhelmed by the demand for garden seeds and supplies this spring seems to indicate there is a change happening.
” It’s been an intense month that seems to go along with an intense year, and we hope that you are doing things that bring you a sense of stability, hope and a renewed resolve to make this world a better place. Seeing the way you’ve used our seeds to care for your communities has made us feel that no matter what happens in the weeks, months and years to come, the future will be built by caring, resilient and skillful hands. Your work in our world is a powerful, regenerative force and we are grateful for your continued commitment to action.” Tom Stearns, Owner & Founder
There are tons of resources and information out there on how to manage gardens in small spaces, but precious little about what to do with really large spaces; especially how to reduce the workload associated with large gardens.
Well, I’ve decided that my large-garden hoeing days might be a thing of the past and I am looking for a way to still produce most of the vegetables we need without all the yard work associated with our big outdoor space. In my Front Yard Garden, which has not been tilled for 3 years now, No-Dig beds have proven to be significantly less work than traditionally tilled rows.
Next spring, I am going to reduce workload by transitioning the old garden to No-Dig beds. This fall Grandpa used the front-end loader and the big tractor mounted rototiller to incorporate a heavy application of well rotted manure on the whole planting area of the old garden.
This old garden area is easily 1000 square feet. 250 of that is taken up by the asparagus and grape trellis which is no longer tilled. That leaves 750 sq ft to hoe. By installing 4 beds 3 feet wide and 20 feet long, I will reduce the planting area to 240 sq ft and still have room to plant as much as I did this year. The remaining 500 or so sq ft will comprise a soil mixing area for the greenhouse about 4’x4’ or 16 sq ft and the permanent walkways between the beds.
Making it Work
Most of the advocates of no-dig are gardening in higher rainfall areas than Saskatchewan. E.g. Charles Dowding’s Summerset garden in the UK gets about 30 inches of rain annually compared to the 15 inches typical here. The implication of that is that I usually have better crops of plants with higher moisture demands by planting them in trenches. I make the trenches with my rototiller. That would be a serious “NO NO!” in a No-Dig garden, so I am going to add one more Principle of Gardening, “Do what works!”
My plan is for four beds in my new no dig garden that will be level (i.e. not raised) with the surrounding ground, excepting the bed for carrot and celery which need to be planted in a trench to facilitate better watering. I’ll rotate that bed on a 4 year rotation. Each fall when the carrots and dug, I’ll put a heavy layer of compost or manure that bed and rototill it in, filling the trenches and leveling the bed. Thereafter the bed will be a no-dig bed, until its turn for carrots rolls around in the rotation. The old garden has lovely, fertile soil rich in humus so an application of nutrient rich compost every four years will be sufficient.
It’s not a truly No-Dig method, but it will probably work!
I had planned to limit winter growing to sprouts and micro greens until about six weeks after the winter solstice when there is better sunshine coming in the south windows, but…
While sorting out the seed boxes I came across a few lettuce seed pods in an unmarked envelope. I had no idea what variety they were but they looked like very strong, healthy seeds. I must have picked them off one of the many plants I let grow out for seed production this summer. I put them in a flat of potting soil, and I think every one germinated. At about 3 days after sprouting, I pricked them out into a capillary mat seed starting tray. So far they seem to be doing well under a single bulb grow light. They are leafing out well and not getting too leggy, even though the rate of growth is a bit slower than it would be with better lighting.
I used this model of seed starting tray for some onions last spring and was so impressed I ordered a couple more from Lee Valley. I have also been experimenting with some home-built models in the green house over the summer. Everything except peas did very well with the consistent watering that the trays provide. Peas had about half the germination I expected because several seeds rotted. I guess they were too wet.
It will be a while before there is any lettuce to put in the salad bowl from this planting. In the meantime, we have some salads made from stored cabbage and grated root crops. They seem even more comforting in the early winter when we feel like hunkering down!
We have had a few lovely days just lately, but the forecast is for a heavy snowfall on the weekend. Alas… it is Zone 1b. Alright so we have to get on with it. There are tasks for next season that must be done in fall. Most of them are taken care of.
I got away without much work on the big garden patch. Grandpa put the big roto tiller on the tractor and mulched in all the residuals from the summer’s growing. Leaves, roots, stems and about a tonne of manure all disappeared into the soil and the surface was left smooth and ready for next spring’s plantings. The front yard no-dig patch was also easy. After two years of fall application of well rotted manure, I decided the soil is rich enough to go a year without spreading any compost. It’s an idea that is contrary to no-dig philosophy but might keep the soil pH from getting too high. The bean cage and raised beds all got a good dose of manure and need some raking to prep for spring planting…. it can wait for spring.
The greenhouse needed some house keeping. Wicking tubs were cleared, and pots and pails sorted out. I would like to leave it in good enough shape to walk right in and start planting in the spring. Anything I do now will make the spring that much easier.
On the last day above freezing I pre-seeded a bit of lettuce and a few other things for some early summer veggies: Purple sprouting broccoli, a hardy variety of fava bean, a bit of spinach and some lettuce. I’m counting on the radish to self-sow where I grew some out for seed.
This year’s attempts at saving seed were quite successful: beans, peas, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumber, several varieties of lettuce and a bit of corn are all put away, but there is a really big box of radish plants still sitting on a greenhouse shelf. I’ll need to pick off the seed pods so they can be processed. It’s a time consuming and rather boring job, but pleasant enough to sit in the greenhouse on a sunny winter day. There will be enough seed for sprouts all winter. The biggest task might be convincing Grandpa that he really likes them.
The early spring can be a difficult time to harvest very much from the veg garden. In some places it is referred to as the hungry gap. The fall saved veg are used up and the spring plantings are a long way from ready to harvest.
One way to fill that gap is with some fall planning for the springtime. Early maturing varieties can be started very early indoors and planted out as soon as possible. Salad greens, rapini, and a few summer brassicas like sprouting or regular broccoli can be grown indoors to the stage where they can be mature enough to harvest before the cabbage moth and white butterflies are hatched.
And we mustn’t forget the perennial veggies.
Asparagus, lovage, rhubarb, perennial onions, and Jerusalem artichoke are all ready for harvests very early in spring. But keep them out of raised beds in Zone 1b. Raised beds, even just slightly elevated, will freeze more easily than surface plantings, killing perennial plants more easily.
There are few vegetables that will actually overwinter. Parsnips are the only one I can grow here, but their fresh roots are available as soon as a fork can be pushed into the soil in spring.
Also, there are a few things that will self seed or can be seeded so late there is no chance of germination in the fall. Lettuce, spinach and radish have all self seeded for me, so I am trialing some late plantings. Jackie Bantle is a Saskatoon based horticulturist with some advice on getting a jump-start on spring by planting in the fall. I’ll choose varieties with demonstrated frost tolerance for outdoor plantings. This might be the last few days to do that before the ground is too frozen to get the seeds into the soil.
It’s an interesting headline and not one we are likely to see any time soon; but the possibility is an hypothesis we might consider and the topic of an article I recently read. Michael Pilarski’s 2009 article, The Role of Home Gardens in Feeding the World & Sequestering Carbon is probably more timely now than when he wrote it. He provides some thought-provoking facts and ideas about how we are currently feeding ourselves and how we might do so more democratically.
Eating democratically? Democracy is all about allowing us to manage our collective wellness so that we all benefit. What more basic form of wealth distribution is there than managing our own food security with a garden; rather than depending on globalized agri-business.
If readers are motivated to think about gardens in this off-season, this long-ish read might fill an evening when COVID19 prevents more social activities.
Getting back to Grandmas Principles of Gardening, #2 is that gardening should save money not cost it. Seed saving is one of the easiest ways to save money on gardening costs, but sometimes it is difficult to grow out seed bearing plants in sufficient isolation to avoid cross pollination.
One easy trick is to grow them out indoors in the winter. Annual brassicas (rapini, broccoli, kohlrabi etc.), and herbs can be seeded in small pots placed in a sunny window to grow and bloom. Flowers will have to be hand pollinated and there will not be a huge amount of seed – but how many do you really need? I did this with some rapini last year to grow out some seed without danger of cross pollination from the gazillion acres of canola growing around me every summer. Biennial root crops like turnip and carrots potted into larger pots after a brief “winter” of a few weeks in the fridge will also bloom and set seed with a little pollination help from a small paint brush. I used a rutabaga last winter to get some fresh greens and eventually some seed. It takes a BIG pot tho’. Carrot, beets and cabbage have few same-species cultivars growing to blossom stage around me so I let them make seed outdoors in summer.
Seed companies and garden writers are all ga-ga over seeding cover crops this time of year. It’s an interesting consideration that just has never seemed to work out for me.
Cover crops are something that gardeners and farmers plant to either protect a more delicate seeding, like planting oats over a grass crop; or to keep weeds down when a first crop has already been harvested and lots of summer remains. The former is something that can work in Zone 1b, but the later never happens. By the time I have harvested any veg crop there is just not enough summer to consider growing anything else.
I have also been hesitant to plant anything that might fail to germinate in the cool weather of autumn, overwinter and become a weed problem next spring. In my Zone 1b garden adding a layer of mature compost or well rotted manure is more effective and even the weeds have the good sense not to germinate in the fall!
So no, I wont be planting any fall cover crops… besides the blue jays need the old sunflowers.