Food Forest

There is a new trend or idea taking root among garden philosophers, it’s called a Food Forest. Maximum Yield says, “the goal is to implement a system of land use that behaves like a forest ecosystem and is designed to yield edible harvests through sustainable and low-maintenance agroforestry.”

The idea seems to be a fertile, productive edible garden where bountiful harvests of heathy food are there for the picking without any work. Sounds good huh? I’m all about more gardening fun and less gardening work (Principle #1) so I had to check it out. Turns out that by being a sort of “laid back” about the garden work (maybe “lazy”) I’ve created Food Forest without really trying.

Natural forests grow without any human intervention so applying the way a natural forest grows to a food garden should result in a work free harvest, at least that’s the theory. The proponents identify that natural forests grow in seven different layers.

Food Forest 1

So without even trying my garden reflects the layers that that mimic the way a natural forest grows:

  1. the canopy, which consists of fruit and nut trees
  • Got that – big old crab-apple in the middle of it all.

 2.  the lower tree layer, where you’ll find dwarf fruit trees

  • I hadn’t really intended the cherry and plums to be a dwarf trees but, but that’s what they seem determined to be.

3. the shrub layer, where you’ll find things like blueberries and raspberries

  • Yep, couple of red current bushes under the sprawling crab-apple branche

4. the herbaceous layer, where perennials, herbs, and leafy greens grow

  • Lots of self-seeded annual flowers and herbs (See “Eat the Weeds” and never plant Borage!)

5. the rhizonosphere, where root crops grow

  • .. maybe the parsnips I forgot to dig as well as a few escaped carrots I was growing for seed would count? Of course I will intentionally plant some root veggies as well.

6. the soil surface for cover crops

  • Uhm… too bad Quack Grass isn’t edible. Do you think Lambs’ Quarters and Pig Weed count? See point #4

7. the vertical layer, which includes vines

  • Often the nicest crop of various mixed breed squash grow from seeds in the compost pile.

It seems to me that one would have to understand the unique characteristics of the land and climate on which one wishes to create a food forest. Obviously the plants that make up a forest in, say, the Amazon region, or even the Pacific North West, would not be successful in my Zone 1b area. Even among the species I usually grow, some plants will grow with less attention than others. My garden loves to grow asparagus and raspberries, but struggles to produce beets; and of course many of the veggies I grow cannot reproduce unaided in this climate.

If I look at the natural forest around my farm (there is still a little of it) there are not all that many species that are edible by humans, and those that are edible have limited production seasons as they are adapted to the short growing season. A vegetarian would have trouble living off the land in this area without some tillage. Even in pre-Columbian times, humans here depended mainly on animal flesh for their sustenance. I really don’t think there are sufficient native plants or imported ones that can grow unaided to replace the veggies I grow here in Zone 1b.

While the Food Forest seems like an interesting idea, I expect I will have to continue to engage in some hoeing and digging to produce the bountiful crops I have come to expect from my little plot of garden. But that’s alright; it is a labour of love.

Food Forest 2

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Edible Flowers

edible flowers 1A few years ago a friend brought me a little jar of Pansy Jelly as a souvenir of her visit to France. I was intrigued enough to try and replicate the mild, sophisticated product so the next summer and each one since I have sought to grow some dark blue pansies for jelly making. In researching the recipe, I found that there are lots of edible flowers that one can use to add colour, spice and variety to both meals and the garden.

 

Next to the pansies, Nasturtiums are a must to grow for me. The flowers (and leaves) add an unexpected peppery spiciness to fresh dishes, or they can be dried to preserve that burst of flavour.

 

edible flowers 2

 

dandilion 2Of course, all parts of the ubiquitous dandelion including the blossoms are edible.  Eating them might be an effective method of weed control. I am not fussy about the flavour of dandelion, but if you want to give them a try be sure that the area you are picking from has not been sprayed with a weed killer.

The list of edible flowers is long, but not all flowers are edible and some are actually poisonous, so best reserved for bouquets. Check out the list of the good ones from West Coast Seeds.

Butterfly Gardens

 

Aren’t butterflies just the loveliest things? Like little, floating flowers; all colour and graceful movement.

butterflies 1

Unfortunately many of our prairie butterflies are endangered species. Loss of habitat and pesticide use have not been kind to these natural beauties.

Aside from beauty, butterflies have some other beneficial characteristics for gardeners. Many of them are effective pollinators in their own right as they search for nectar to sustain all that pretty dancing. They are harbingers of the knowledge that our gardens are attracting other pollinators too. However, all is not wonderful. The lovely butterflies are the adult phase of the insect which, like all other bugs, goes through a larval stage as well. In the case of butterflies the larva are caterpillars that feed on plants.

Fortunately not all butterflies like to eat all plants. By planting the specific preferred food plant of each species one can attract the type of butterfly that wants to lay its eggs on that plant to provide nurturance for its young.

butterflies 4For example to attract the lovely Monarch, one could plant some perennial milkweed. Naturally, the commonly described butterfly milkweed (Asclepias speciosis) won’t survive in Zone 1b or even 2b. An article from the Saskatchewan Perennial Society suggests that the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) might; although the plant sources for this species that I was able to find seem to think Zone 4 might be a better fit. Shirley Froehlich of Prairie Originals suggests it is being widely planted in Winnipeg which is reputed to have some pretty nasty winters too.

butterflies 2I am still looking for some more definitive information about a cold tolerant variety of milkweed. In the meantime, to generally attract butterflies and other beneficial insects I will be planting several varieties of flowers that bloom at different times throughout the summer among the edibles in my garden. Researchers with University of Georgia observed that “CelosiaGauraLantana, and Nepeta xfaassenii were some of the most-visited plants by both pollinators and beneficial insects.”

There are of course a few butterflies that are real pests to prairie gardeners and the cabbage butterflies and moths are some of them.

butterflies 3 I have to admit when it comes to butterflies, I am a racist or perhaps it is ageism I am guilty of. While I love the colourful “Flutter-by’s”, I abhor the green larva that want to devour my cabbages.  Those ugly green worms eating their way through the brassicas are probably not the sort of butterfly garden anyone had planned on.

Gardening Ergonomics

 

ergonomics 1Chris Callahan is a researcher at the University of Vermont. He recently posted an article about using good ergonomics (working using positioning that protects one’s body) that he learned from his grandmother.

Ergonomics 2Well since I am also a grandmother that promotes some “Principles of Gardening” I thought I really ought to share Chris’ Grandma’s principles of good ergonomics. I’ve copied Chris’s notes below and added a few notes from my own experience in italics.

There are some general principles of ergonomics that we can all apply regardless of the task.

 

Maintain a Neutral Posture – be comfortable, put things within easy reach to prevent strain on the neck, back and joints. Put lots of seating around the garden. I use benches, kneelers and lawn chairs. I even have a wheeled seat for berry picking and other tasks that I can reach from a seated position.

Ergonomics 3

  1. Set Yourself Up – be organized, have all your supplies handy, think about what might happen, and be mindful of trip hazards (throw-rugs, cords, hoses, thresholds, etc.) To this I will add “never go empty handed”. There will always be something that needs to go where you are going as you set up your work area.
  2. Lift Easily – lift only what you can comfortably and ask for help lifting heavy objects.
  3. Use Your “Power Zone” – lift and carry with the core of your body.  Think about cradling a baby or carrying firewood. Keep it close to your body and don’t extend your arms.
  4. Use Handholds – use a bucket or a bag to carry things, a good example is a firewood sling.

Ergonomics 4I have noticed that it is much easier for me to carry anything by using a pail or tote that I carry in a downward position from my hand than in a box or basket in front of me.

6. Push, Don’t Pull – things are easier to push than pull, try to find ways to move things by pushing them.

ergonomics 5Well that depends. If it is pulling or pushing something through deep soft garden soil, pulling might be easier than pushing! Either way if it is something heavy I like to use a wheeler.

7. Task Rotation – switch between tasks when one of them is repetitive, take frequent breaks to change position, stretch and think about something else.

ergonomics 6

Absolutely! I take a break when it feels like I need one, not just when a task is completed. See Principle of Gardening #1.

Let’s add Number 8: Get some help for the most difficult chores.

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Easy Asparagus Soup

asparagus shoots

It’s that time! We are enjoying asparagus fresh from the garden. About 30 or 40 years ago my farm neighbor gave me some asparagus roots that she was removing from her garden. Those plants have been a blessing every year since and even though she is no longer with us, I am thankful each spring for her life, love and generosity. The sandy loan that is our garden’s natural state is just what asparagus loves to grow in, so each spring the plants perform amazingly well.

Many resources will say that one should not pick asparagus after June first, but in Zone 1b that is about the time they are just getting started. To allow the plants time to recover, I do not pick it after July first and I never cut the fronds in the fall. Left thick and tall they form an excellent snow trap; so the spring soil moisture level is high and the roots are protected from the freeze and thaw episodes of early spring.

Asparagus is one of those plant species that keeps the sexes separate. New varieties of asparagus sold as root stock have been sex selected for male plants which supposedly produce better shoots. My row is an older variety and contains some male and some female so there are always some fertile seeds in the fall that form new plants the next spring. I leave the ones that are growing in the row but the ones that are out in the garden I give away or repot for the farmers’ market.

We have probably about 30 plants producing each year. Which is a few too many so I have to do something with the excess. I have not found a way to preserve the garden freshness of asparagus as a vegetable but we do enjoy it in a cream soup. This is my easy recipe for freezing it.

asparagus soup with creditIn a large pot mix 1 package of dry chicken soup mix with the amount of water specified on the package and an equal amount of washed, chopped fresh asparagus. Add a good shake of pepper, a clove of garlic and three or four green onions cut into pieces. Bring to a boil, stir well, and then simmer until the noodles are mushy. Cool and freeze in plastic containers. When you want to serve the soup, defrost it and blend to a smooth consistency. Heat without boiling. Add a cup of sour cream. Stir well and serve.

Dryland Farming/Gardening

drought

It may be our lot in the climate change lottery but springs seem to be colder and dryer these last few years and this one is exemplar. We have had no measurable rainfall since the snow melted. If this is the new ‘way it is’ Zone 1b gardeners are going to have to adapt to some dry land growing techniques.

dust fieldBy definition dry land farming is non-irrigated agriculture in a climate where there is 20 inches of rain or less a year. In my garden, the average annual rainfall is 450mm = 18 inches vs. Vancouver with 1283mm or Toronto with 785mm. (The Canadian average is 1611 mm of precipitation.) Combine that with a 1b temperature zone and you’ve got some pretty challenging growing conditions. And yet, people have been growing food in these conditions for a long, long time now; and Mother Nature has tended her own garden here for millennia. The trick is to make the most use of any available moisture.

Here are some of the techniques I have found successful:

  • Choose drought resistant species and varieties. Most seed catalogues will note which varieties have more drought tolerance than others. I look for those that are noted to be “hardy”, “early”, “prairie”, or “dwarf” cultivars or locally grown seeds; and I save seeds from the plants that have proven they are adaptable to my local conditions by growing in my garden.
  • Save the rainwater and use it sparingly. I have a large tank that collects rain water and snow melt from the roof of my house. The tank itself is situated at a very slight elevation from my garden. By gravity, water will flow to the garden and the pressure is low enough that it sinks into the soil exactly where the end of the hose is. By watering where the plants are, not where they aren’t, I can water my garden plants deeply without watering all the soil. I also use this rainwater to fill the tank in my greenhouse from which I can water both the greenhouse plants and the garden with a watering can. It is amazing how little water my garden can get by with when I have to carry it.
  • Trap the snow. Fortunately much of our 18 inches of precipitation falls in the form of snow which sits on the soil all winter waiting for spring. This means that instead of spreading evenly over 12 months, our precipitation is all available in the 5 or 6 months of the growing season. I encourage the snow to stay on my garden rather than blowing over it by leaving some trash out. Asparagus ferns and corn stalks make a great snow fence.
  • Improve the soil with lots of organic matter. Sandy soil loses water quickly through erosion. Clay soils become too hard for plants to root into or emerge from. Organic matter helps to hold water in the soil, but also assists with drainage when there is too much rainfall. Much of our rainfall comes in the form of violent thunder storms. Good drainage can be really important when an inch or two falls in 20 minutes!
  • I mulch where I can to protect bare soil from evaporation. Cardboard and black plastic sheeting are some of my favorite mulches for this purpose. I lay planks over the walkways in each year’s garden.
  • Plant in a trench. This is one area where I am conflicted about planting. I like the idea of raised beds (raised high enough to reduce bending over) but I haven’t had a great deal of success with them. They seem to need a lot of watering. I have had much success by planting my rows of vegetables is a trench. Putting a juice can over the depth finder on my rototiller creates a trench about 6 inches deep and a foot wide. Planting seeds or transplanting seedlings into that trench results in the plants growing in an area slightly deeper than the surrounding grade level. (Water runs downhill.)
  • summerfallowSummerfallow is a debatable technique. It involves growing nothing on a field for a whole year and tilling it whenever anything tries to grow. It was common practice in dryland farming until fairly recently. There were two benefits: reducing weed burden as each flush of weeds was killed by tillage before it had a chance to produce seed, and saving up some of this year’s moisture for next year’s crop. (Possibly as much as 70%). There were also some downsides. Obviously one has to have more land if a portion of it is to be uncropped each year. Additionally, deeply worked loose soil is more prone to both water and wind erosion, e.g. the effect of plowed summerfallow in the so called “Dirty Thirties” drought.
  • A better option might be shallow cultivation or “dust mulching” between the rows of crop which interrupts the capillary action of water evaporation. I guess that is essentially what I am doing as I use my stirrup hoe to cut off each new flush of weeds that pop up after a rain. This shallow cultivation also helps to break up any crust that has formed on the soil so the next rain can sink deeply into the ground. Some research contradicts this theory.
  • Shelter from the wind reduces the amount of evaporation from the soil, and helps to catch more of the snow in winter. I have a few trees and bushes in and near my garden to create some windbreaks. Of course a large number of mature trees too closely adjacent to a garden will also steal a lot of the moisture.
  • Weeding. Plant cells, like our own, are mostly water. Weeds are plants; so keeping them under control is imperative in protecting soil moisture for my planted crops. Sometimes I am better at that than others.
  • Plant further apart. By giving plants within the rows more space and making the rows further apart plants have more soil from which to draw water. This may mean thinning crops as well.
  • Transplant in the rain. Another little trick I have learned that saves watering and work is to plant out my seedlings in the middle of a soaking rain. I put down a plank to walk on and just poke the little plants into a prepared row or bed. The rain has saturated the whole ground so there is no need to water the seedlings in and by the time the soil has dried up the little plants are well rooted, have no heat stress and are ready to grow. (Sometimes I have to do it in bare feet and a bathing suit – it’s messy, but it works..

Whatever challenges nature gives to gardeners there are probably some tips and tricks to make growing happen if we share our wisdom and learn from others.

 

Head Starts

There are a few veggies that are usually direct seeded, but can do much better if I give them just a little head start.

soaking peas

An overnight soaking will encourage big seeds like peas, beans and corn to wake up and get growing if you can maintain a nice moist soil environment for them once they are planted.

 

Summer turnips, kohlrabi, beets and especially carrots will pop up quicker if they are sprouted before planting. The way I like to do that is to let them germinate in a jar of moistened sand until they have actually sprouted and then plant them into a muddy row bottom and keep them moist until they are well established. Check out the details in the Gardening 101 page on carrots.

calabrese-seedlingsRutabaga, also called Swede turnip, can be direct seeded, but can also be started in a plug tray three or four weeks ahead of planting. In my experience this results in far superior growth. Check out the Quickcrop video on how to Grow a Swede (really!)

It is getting a bit late in the season to start tomatoes, cabbage etc. for transplanting but there’s still plenty of time left to buy some and set them out. Happy growing!