Random Gatha of Gratitude…

I’ve had a wonderful week after a long, dreary year.  It feels like I’m emerging from a long hibernation.  Particularly today was filled with productivity, good conversation, stimulation from learning a new skill (by which I mean realising how much I have to learn and being excited for the challenge) and to top it all off meeting the man who’s garden I’ve envied for years.  Literally his whole backyard, fence to fence, front to back is vegetables.  Not just any veges, but lush, healthy, soul filling plants that set my little heart a flutter.  I hope I have his energy & passion when I’m 80.

So in gratitude for all the joys I’ve experienced, I thought I’d share a gatha from one of my favourite books, “Mindfulness in the Garden; Zen tools for digging in the dirt” by Zachiah Murray.  Its a marvellous book, from the beautiful wood block prints, to the simple evocative poetry.  Even the quality of the paper and tactile feel of its cover bring me joy.  In case you’re wondering, gathas are short verse meant to make to help be present in the moment.  I read it cover to cover, but more often then not I prefer to flip to a page and contemplate it as they come.  So today’s random gatha that I offer out of gratitude is this:

Too Soon To Tell

With awareness & curiosity
I grow from not knowing
And the lotus of true understanding
Blooms beautifully within me

Strange how fitting it is as I get ready to embark on yet another new adventure, far removed from my previous path and one that I have no idea where it will lead me.

Growing Together, the Garden

Rhythms of Nature

Barely a couple days and I’m posting again, a sure sign the growing season is getting closer.  I realised while pouring over moon planting calendars that it would fit in nicely with my last post.  Like the lessons learned from the weather about being flexible, a more personal discovery has been to follow the cycles in nature by planting with the moon.

For those who haven’t heard of it before, the core idea is pretty simple; by timing your plantings with consideration to the phase of the moon you can benefit the seedlings growth.   There are a couple different systems, the big three being: synodic, biodynamic & sidereal.  There are a lot of esoteric beliefs around moon calendars, considering the effects of other “cosmic” forces on seedlings, which I haven’t yet formed an opinion about.  So that is about as far as I’ll go in explaining them as I’m at the beginning of the learning curve and don’t want to spread half truths.  There’s more then enough inaccuracy on the net as is without me adding more to the pile…

I will speak of my personal experience with it & why I’ve decided to follow this moon calendar for my plantings this year.  I noticed last year there were highly variable germination rates between the different plantings.  Over the winter, mostly on a whim, I decided to see if there was any correlation to biodynamic planting calendars.  While not perfect there was a pattern of the best/worst plantings matching the corresponding days suggested as being beneficial or detrimental.  While I fully acknowledge there was enough other uncontrolled variables to be wary of putting too much stock in it, it’s motivated me to try following them more closely this year.  Within reason that is, the weather outside will ultimately determine when I plant, transplant & harvest.

Which brings up another point of contention I have; extremist gardening.  By that I mean people who adopt a specific gardening theory to blindly follow, whether it’s; biodynamics, bio-intensive, permaculture, etc.  At their heart they are only theories of how to garden, not doctrines to be followed blindly. I can understand why people, including myself, fall behind recognised “authorities” so readily. Gardening is complex and simplified black & white answer make it less intimidating.  What’s important is integrating what’s useful to help you relate to your plants in order to improve their life & your yields.  I pick & choose from all of them, seeing what works for my regional ecosystem and discarding what doesn’t.  It’s too easy to be enchanted by a book, speaker or philosophy about their glorious success.  Without adapting & fitting their lessons into the conditions of your local ecosystem, it’s more likely you’ll end up fighting the greatest teacher of all instead.  Mother Nature can be a harsh disciplinarian when people ignore her lessons…

Luckily for me, tomorrow is an auspicious day for planting both roots & fruits.  So I have the moons blessing to go ahead and get my leeks & long flowering tomato varieties planted.  With everything that can go wrong in a growing season, I’ll take any & all help I can get.

news, the Garden

As the Seasons Change

You could feel the season begin to turn this week.  There was a warmth in the air as the sun broke through & whispered of an end to winter.   It would be naive to think winters done with us already though, it never gives up without a fight.  Living in Canada is a lesson in being flexible, working around the weather, enjoying it when we can but also knowing the value of curling up indoors to enjoy the downtime  in between.   Which is a valuable skill, learning to adapt as needed instead of lamenting an obstacle in the way of your plans greatly reduces your mental turmoil.

Which ties into my current situation, unfortunately by the time I applied most internships were filled up.  Those that were left are not what I was looking for.  So instead I’ve cast my eyes and ambitions northwards.  I’ve instead committed to spending the summer on my friends farm, living off the land & off grid as well.  The opportunity to learn from a more experienced farmer was appealing, but as an autodidact I feel more comfortable learning on my own.  There was a sense of tension around being an intern, now replaced with one of pure excitement over the challenges & triumphs to come.  Failures as well, nothing teaches you more then falling flat on your face sometimes.

There’s a lot to do between now & then though.  This means I’m behind on planning my garden, although I still have lots of time to get seeds started.  Tomorrow will be leeks (king richard, a nice early variety even if it is a awfully English sounding) and some of the longer growing tomatoes (pruden’s purple, cuostralee, possibly amish  paste).  Luckily I have all the room I want, so planning is more an issue of deciding how much space I can work and not trying to cram everything into a given size.

I will be focusing on root crops and other cold hardy veggies as the climate fits their needs.  It’ll be more of a challenge to get good production from tomatoes and cucurbitaceae though.  Between cold frames & mini hoop houses I’ll get something from them I’m sure, more then just a learning experience that is.  I’m curious to see how ground cherries & cardoon grow up there.  I don’t expect nearly the level of production as I get here farther south but that’s all part of the learning curve.

My initial plan for building the gardens is to have the land disked once its possible to work, then I’ll mound some beds 30″ wide & as long as I can make them.  Why 30″ you may ask?  That way in the future if I start using a walk behind tractor or other more mechanised tools, the beds will match their width.  I’ll let the root crops loosen the soil as they grow, for others I’ll double dig the soil to aerate it without disturbing those lovely little microbes.  Compost teas will compensate for any disruption & get the soil buzzing with goodies.

I’ll have to harvest some smaller trees to make supports for peas, beans & tomatoes.  Hopefully I can learn the basics of coppicing to provide a good source of such material for any future endeavors.  A covered compost heap will be an excellent project to learn how to safely build with marginal timber.  Compost is very forgiving if something collapses on it, people less so. Once it’s completed, harvesting weeds from the edge of fields/roadways will fill any free time i have, with such a heavy soil the more compost I can add, the happier the garden will be.

How much free time I’ll have is the big question though, between taking more time to do all the basic chores like laundry & cooking off grid, collecting firewood to fuel the stove, plus fishing to supplement protein and and those precious amino acids, I expect downtime to be few & far between.  Ideally I can find an affordable data package so I can keep this blog up to date.  If not it may be the odd post here & there, sharing from my journal which luckily takes no electricity maintain.

Now I’m off to scheme seedy things and dream of little joys & big challenges to come while living off the land, connected to natures whims. Or will it be “at the mercy of natures whims”?

the Garden

Seedy Goals

I don’t know about the rest of you, but around this time of year I tend to take stock of the last year and make some goals for the coming season.  Last year my push was to grow on a larger scale, specifically 3600sq ft locally as well as helping with my friends farm, which had mixed results. Generally things went well and what got planted was very productive, unfortunately finding the balance between working enough to support myself vs putting the work in to support the plants was hard.  My friend sadly was abandoned, which was one of the bigger mistakes I made.  After much debate and angst, a very hard decision was made to change careers so my lifestyle fit my passion, instead of fitting my passion around my career.  Which admittedly was made a bit easier by my previous employer refusing to pay us what we were entitled under the law, so I guess I should thank him for that?  Somehow I doubt he’ll thank me when the ministry of labour is done with their investigation, but that’s beside the point.  Focusing on the positive, I’ve used this turmoil to propel myself fully into a career in agriculture by applying for farming internships.  Suffice to say I’ll get plenty of experience this summer working on a larger scale, while also developing a much deeper understanding of the issues involved therein.

On a personal level this means I have to evaluate what I’ll be growing this summer for myself.  If I’m working 5-6 days a week, from sunrise to sunset, I can’t see having the energy/motivation to grow all 100+ varieties that I currently have packed away.  Not well at least, just like owning a pet I strongly feel that if you can’t take proper care of a plant it’s not fair to them to assume that responsibility.  That being said, I know there are some varieties I’d miss too much if I didn’t grow them.  So I’m debating only growing a few plants & focusing on breeding them instead.

Which brings up my next point, seed saving and population size.  I worry about the effects of inbreeding depression when it comes to seed savers & small companies.  The Hardy-Weinberg equation shows that plants will reach and maintain a homozygous state assuming there’s no external selective pressure & a big enough population to represent the diverse genotypes.  Basically plants will continue to breed true if there’s enough of them & they’re left alone (very simplified, I know, but understandable).  Talking to a couple seed companies, I worry about breeding practices, some seem to think that self pollinating plants don’t need diversity.  While it’s true that they’ll mostly self pollinate, there will be the occasional cross pollination, which can prevent genetic drift by avoiding bottlenecks.

My guess is that’s what’s going on with Pruden’s Purple and why few seeds tend to match the description, ending up more red then pinkish.  If the alleles that express that trait are recessive, it would be easy for them to recombine after a bottleneck & become dormant.  To test this theory I plan on sourcing as many different versions of it, growing them all out & actively cross pollinating them. Hopefully that’ll allow the alleles to recombine and express the traits I’m looking for.  Not to mention it’s fun to get down & dirty with some plants and let the pollen fly, is their a plant equivalent to bestiality?  If time allows, I may do that with a couple other cultivars as well.  Having a broader gene pool withing one cultivar will make them more resilient.  Which I feel is very important as we face more issues due to climate change.

Then there’s learning how to pollinate all those plants that aren’t self pollinating, which is an art & science all it’s own.  Hopefully that’s something I learn from this internship, if not it’ll be an excellent way to whittle away the hours at night after the day is done.  Assuming of course I don’t simply fall asleep as soon as suppers done.

All this begs the question, “Am I biting off more then I can chew?” Time will tell I suppose but at least it’s filling my winter days with summer dreams.

the Garden

Winter Duldrums

We’re well into winter now and I’m sure most gardeners can relate to the urge to  see green things growing again. Instead we have to be content with dreaming of next summer while pouring through catalogues, reading their lurid descriptions enticing us with promises of bigger, tastier produce.  This time of year also brings the Guelph Organic Conference to town, with workshops covering all aspects of gardening and farming, as well as a marvelous expo.  It’s become a yearly ritual for me to chat with the seed vendors & pick up new stock for the coming year.


This year my purchases were a modest 4 packs as I still have seed left from the 100+ I picked up last year.  This isn’t the end of my purchases as I still have to grab some goodies from Hawthorn Farm seeds at the Resilience Festival in March.  Plus I’d be crazy to cut short the joy of stewing over catalogues while there’s still months of snow to go, as my favourite company I prefer to speak with them in person as I really value their advice.

That didn’t stop me from grabbing these gems from the show: some Blue Coco pole beans (aka purple podded), a pack each of Pruden’s Purple & Jaune Flamée tomatoes, as well as one of Canada Crookneck squash.  For the former three it was simply a matter of having had good results with those varieties previously & needing more stock, the latter was just too tempting to pass up.

Blue coco is incredibly productive,  while also a delicious fresh or as dried bean, plus it’s loaded with anthyocyanins for an extra little health kick if eaten right off the vine. Easy to grow as it does well in all conditions, I hope to grow enough to put away more dry beans this year.

Jaune Flamée was the darling of last year, beautiful fruit that produced well with a taste beyond words. Picked at the right time there was a sweetness to them which did vaguely remind me of apricots.  For fresh eating I can’t imagine anything better.

Pruden’s Purple is the one that got away.  It was probably 4 years ago that I first grew it and fell in love with the slightly tart, slightly sweet lovely pinkish tomatoes, juicy but perfect for slicing on sandwiches.  Since then I’ve tried 3 other versions that have all been more reddish and tart, more like a traditional Brandywine. So this year I’m trying as many versions as I can find.  If I’m lucky enough to reconnect with that pale beauty, I’ll be sure to save seeds for posterity this time.

Finally the new addition, Canada Crookneck squash.  A very old variety which was traditionally grown by the Iroquois, also referenced in Thoreau’s “A Yankee in Canada”, how could I pass up such a noble history?  OK, so maybe it had less to do with that & more this snippet that caught my eye, “When long distance shipping became the norm for many vegetables, it was found that the necks had a tendency to crack when being shipped. The squash was therefore used as a parent to develop Butternut, which remedied the shipping problem”.  After last years (highly informal & unscientific) comparison between determinate vs indeterminate tomatoes, I came to the conclusion that flavour has fallen off along the way.  The heritage cultivars consistently won taste tests, whereas the modern ones, bred for uniform harvests and good shipping qualities tended to be more bland. So I actively search for  cultivars from when food was still being grown regionally and selected for flavour not for how well it can be shipped.

I always find it interesting how or why people choose new varieties to grow. I know I have my own clear bias, specifically towards growing French, Canadian and definitely French-Canadian heritage varieties.  Partly logical as Canadian/French Canadian cultivars are well suited to our climate and a lot of French cultivars were developed for high intensity market gardening. The other part is purely emotional, I connect my passion for gardening to my Father & his Father, the French side of my family. Regardless, I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels a sense of both wonder & joy looking at a handful of seeds.

Which has inspired my crazy idea to shake the winter blue, why not start gardening now?  The original plans of starting some greens has blossomed to full scale lunacy.  Why not dig out my old hydroponic gear & try tomatoes, squash & peppers too? If I’m doing that, may as well set up a light, in which case there will be enough light/heat for some beans as well…

Stay tuned as my sanity devolves over the remaining winter months…


Back to Bread

Now that the bulk of the holidays have passed it’s time to really unwind.  Which is very different from social unwinding with family and friends.  Today is all about cutting loose, filling every desire and replenishing the stores for round two of holiday celebrations. I couldn’t think of a better way to rejuvenate my soul then by spending a day baking bread.  Especially as I’m baking in a new apartment, with a new flour.

Technically it all started Wednesday afternoon, once work was finished for the year. I fed 5g of a very old, mature starter with 25g hard whole wheat and 25g water.  Then left it to ferment until it had doubled & was highly active. Which apparently was 24 hours, 4 times longer then I’m use to. So after juggling baking schedules with holiday celebrations, then giving up entirely when it kept stalling, then coming home last night to a happy bubbly sponge after all hope was gone, I added another 50g each of flour & water.

This time though I built a little incubator with a light bulb in a cooler and left it over night. Roughly 9 hours later, it was ready to use. So I mixed up my dough, altering my standard recipe a bit because of the new flour.  As I mentioned at the beginning, I recently found a new flour, “breaking bread” from 1847 Stone Milling. They’re a local farm that stone grinds organic wheat for the freshest and highest quality flour possible.

This is my second time using their bread flour & I’m highly impressed. Much better gluten formation with a lot less kneading and it had a marvellous taste last time, even though nothing else worked out in even the vaguest sense of the word. I did learn that it needs a bit more water though, as it ended up drier then I was use to. Which began a whole cascade of other mistakes, but that’s a story for another time though…

Recipe variation #1
200g “breaking bread” flour
200g red fife wheat
340g water (up from the usual 310g)
7g Himalayan salt

-mixed dry together, added water & mixed, left to autolyze for 45 mins (normally 30 but I screwed up my morning coffee, dumped it out & started again, so I was 15 mins late)
-kneaded until cohesive, stretch & folded, tension pull, bench rest for 20 min
– stretch out dough into thin sheet

Add: 145g starter, 5g back slopped with 25g red fife and 25g water.

– spread thin over dough, then fold dough over layering dough & starter, knead until cohesive, stretch & fold, tension pull, bench rest
-after 5 mins it had spread out too thin, so I dusted it with red fife, another round of stretch & fold, tension pull, bench rest…
-after 30 mins it was a pancake again (lost track of time writing this post), again dusted with red fife, stretch & fold, tension blah blah blah…
-after 22 mins (did better, still zoned out) still a bit too thin/wet, very light dusting & repeat.
-after the typical 15 min bench rest (Yeah me! Finally didn’t forget, one out of three isn’t bad right?), the dough had the proper look/consistency. So one final round of stretching, folding and shaping, then into the banneton to proof.

Two hours after being refreshed, give or take, the starter is showing some small bubbles forming, the surface has smoothed out & it’s starting to get a yeasty, ever so slightly sour smell.


Now I’m off to run some errands while it proofs and my anticipation builds…

Growing Together

Rubber and Road part II

Well if you’ve managed to plough through the first part without falling asleep on the keyboard, this one will be much more manageable.  Well, more manageable at least as I’m pressed for time and can’t spend as long typing out overly verbose prose just to sound intelligent.  Not that I’d ever admit to using big words to sound smart, even if it’s true…

Water is the next level of complication to add in, tying both lighting and air together neatly and tying this post back to the first part. The more we’re aware of their interactions the more we realise how we don’t control the plants, only the environment to get the plants to meet our goals. The stronger the lighting, and more active the air flow, the more water the roots will suck up, increasing the amount of resources they have access to in order to grow more. If we have good lighting but a really high or low humidity, transpiration will be limited, which means those photons don’t get used as efficiently. Either too much water around the leaf makes it hard transpire or not enough humidity causes the leaf to dry out too quickly forcing the stomata to close for self preservation. Beyond bringing up nutrients and being a building block of photosynthesis, transpiration cools the leaf and keeps the plant from drying out. If the temp gets too high, or the humidity too low, it’ll shut down to prevent damage until the climate is closer to ideal. As you can see, we aren’t dealing with separate mechanistic aspects but an integrated series of interactions that determine growth. That being said, now lets look at water by itself. For the average person, most tap water will do fine, although it’s a good idea to look at your local source. In Guelph our water comes from a limestone aquifer, which means it has a high amount of dissolved calcium in it, so high that it can interfere with the absorption of other nutrients. In general as long as there’s 300 ppm or less of dissolved minerals in your water you’ll be fine, if it’s higher then that and you’re having problems with nutrients, that’s probably the cause. Most nutrients are more available in a slightly acidic solution, so a pH of 6.5 is a safe bet. A simple litmus paper test will give you enough info to work with, try and find one that’s specific to the 6-7 range if you can though, they’re much easier to work with. The most confusing aspect of water for a lot of people is how often to water, with how much water each time. Roots need air to breath so it’s important not to drown them, they also die if they dry out too much so it’s important to keep them wet. Which sounds contradictory but by creating a good wet-dry cycle we encourage root growth, which allows plants to absorb more nutrients as they transpire, which are processed by light into more sugar, which grows bigger, healthier plants. The ideal is to water a plant the day before it starts to wilt, practically though I water when their pots are starting to feel light. As water weighs roughly 8lbs/gallon, a wet vs dry pot feel significantly different. The best way to learn that for yourself is by keeping an pot filled with dirt nearby without anything growing in it. Keep it saturated with water, then simply hold it in one hand and your potted seedling in the other, when the seedling feels light it’s time to water. Soon enough your body will be trained and it’ll know what it needs to do. As too how much to water them, that nicely ties in the last element, soil. I love a good segway…

Which brings us to what our budding little buddies need to keep their feet happy.  Ok, so roots as feet are a poor analogy but how else am I suppose to get a cartoon reference in?  I digress, the essential aspects of good soil are it’s ability to retain water, air and nutrients.  As I mentioned, roots need air as well as water and can drown if over saturated.  Which is why it’s important that the soil holds not only water but also maintains it structure so they can breath.  Ideally when we water there should be 25% of it’s volume run off from the pot to avoid excess build up of minerals in the pot.  A good soil structure will allow this without leading to compaction, which deprives roots of air.  You can test for good structure as it’ll hold it’s form when wetted and squeezed in your hand, but also break into chunks easily if poked.  I’m not just saying that as an aficionado of poking all things, big and small.  Peat or coco choir are good in that manner, although both are devoid of any significant amount of nutrients which mean they either need to be amended or supplemented with some form of fertilizer.  Which is the other essential aspect of soil to consider, both how many nutrients it contains and how easily it both gives them up as well as retains them.  The technical term is cation exchange capacity, which is just a fancy way of saying that the soil will hold lots of nutrients but will easily release them as needed.  Most commercial soil mixes are more then adequate for starting seeds, partly as seedlings don’t require much fertilization for the 2-4 weeks on average they spend indoors.  For longer growing seedlings like tomatoes, you may need either a more complete soil mix or you’ll have to add nutrients part way through.  I’m a big fan or worm castings, partly for the convenience of turning household waste into a valuable soil amendment, partly because they’re a very balanced and highly available nutrient source that’s hard to over apply.  That’s not to say they can’t be, too much of anything is never good.

That concludes the essentials of giving your seedlings a good start on their short lives, which is something to keep in mind, from start to finish most veges only have 100 days give or take.  With such a short span to birth, mature, flower and produce “fruit” it’s important we keep them healthy and happy as much as possible so that they’re energy isn’t wasted dealing with stress.   With that in mind I’ll end with a couple simple tips to help them along even more.  I’m not a big believer in buying “additives” as it’s an aggressively marketed area but there’s a couple that are worth their weight in gold.

-Kelp; is a wonderful additive for young seedlings as a root drench (i.e. added to the water before watering them) as well as a spray as they grow.  It contains a lot of micro nutrients as well as hormones like cytokinin’s and auxins to keep them growing strong in the early days.

-Neem Oil; a cold pressed neem oil is rich in azadrachtin which is a powerful insecticide that’s harmless to humans, the oil also contains anti-fungal properties.  The neem plant has bee used as toothpaste for a long time and is one of the few pesticides I commonly recommend.  Especially if you keep other house plants, it’s important any lingering micro beasties don’t get established on your young and delicious seedlings.

-Heating Mat: although not essential they drastically speed up germination and keeping the root zone a couple degrees warmer will increase root growth in early plants.  Just be careful the soil doesn’t get too hot as cooking the roots is much worse then a slightly slower growth rate.

Good luck and keep it green, at least until all the snows gone and you can let mother nature take over the mothering of natural things…