Monday, September 17, 2012

The Best Laid Plans... Require My Mother (Reflections from a First Time Gardener)


Growing up, I would sometimes join my parents at their seed shows to help out. I figured I’d do some cash sales, hang out with the folks, maybe they’ll buy me a hamburger later - you know, easy peasy!  After my first jam-packed Guelph Organic Conference, I knew this wasn’t gonna be easy. I was being asked questions, like “What was this?” and “How do I grow this?” and “Why don’t you know what zone this is appropriate for?” I would stare back at the inquisitive soul, smiling, completely at a loss for words. Sure, if asked, I could sing the entire score of The Phantom of the Opera on the spot to this gardening aficionado , but tell them which tomato is good for making sauce? Oh heavens no. You need to ask my mom. So to assist our customers best, I made myself a name tag that said, “I’m friendly but useless. Ask my mother.”

Fast forward to this year, and I’ve officially joined my parents at The Cottage Gardener handling a lot of administration and customer relations. Slowly but surely, I am learning about dirt and all the wonderful things you can do with it. And with the new house I had just purchased with my new husband, I knew what I had to do: build my first garden .I surveyed my yard. Typical, suburban greenery. Easy, right?

I made my garden plan and proudly showed it to  my mother. She looked at my plan: squash, herbs, tomatoes, ground cherries, and peppers. She paused. "Can I dig now?" I asked her, impatiently. She smiled - uh oh - and began to explain the litany of things I needed to consider. What is my soil quality? (Cement-like) How much sun do I get? (6 hours - a good thing) How far apart was I going to plant things? (I needed more room) What tools do I already have? (Tools, you say?)

I redid my garden plan. Four raised-bed 4x6 gardens, plus some containers for last minute things I just couldn’t resist growing. To fix my soil, I carted home bins full of compost dirt from my parent’s house every night after work. I made a detailed shopping list for these "tools" she spoke of and on a Friday in May, my husband and I trekked off to Canadian Tire - plan in hand. There we stood in the Gardening section, amidst all the tools and gnomes and decorative pots. The pressure was on. I had to make some snap decisions in Aisle 12. After living in a box in the sky in downtown Toronto for many years, I was ill-equipped to navigate this enticing but confusing section of the store.

For example:

1) Question: Do we get a wheelbarrow?  
Considerations: My husband wanted it.
The Final Decision: I said no. “Our yard is so small, and the wheelbarrow is so expensive!”    
The Repercussions: The grueling task of carrying load after load of discarded weeds across our yard in a old laundry hamper.

2) Question: Which of these pole-like tools should we get?  
Considerations: I’m very short.
The Final Decision: Purchase the tiniest shovel in the world. “I’m tiny and this shovel is tiny and it’s so cute!” I say.
The Repercussions: After several hours of digging up the raised beds, I look to the sky and cry, “Why why why did I pick the tiniest freakin’ shovel in the world?! This is so hard!” Painful regret. Even a tiny person needs a big shovel in this world.

3) Question: We need to till the garden. Should we get the The Garden Claw?
Considerations:  “I’ve seen this on TV!”, I say with excitement. “It looks amazing!”
The Final Decision: Made for TV means made for me!
The Repercussions: It was too tall for me to use. In fact, I would shove it in the ground and then could do acrobatic balancing work on it because that thing was NOT gonna move. Oh yes, it’s all fun and acrobatics until someone breaks The Garden Claw.  Which I did, trying to be funny.  

And outside we went, our loot in tow. After three hours of exhausting work just harrowing the garden, we took an omelette break. Back to it. Three more hours. It was getting late and the sun was waning. I stood up to assess our work and a furrow came across my brow. With a whimper, I dropped to my knees and dug my hands into the dirt and looked up at my husband with glassy eyes, “Isn’t this supposed to look like dirt? How the hell are we supposed to turn this grassy mess into nice brown dirt? This should look like dirt. This isn’t dirt.”

After a moment, I knew what to do. I took a picture of our gardens so far and sent it to Mom.  “Is this right?” I texted her. “Yes! Everything looks good! You did it!” she texted back. I smiled, relaxed, and looked upon our gardens with satisfaction. See? I just had to ask my Mom.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cooking with Heirlooms: Patty Pan Pizza

I might have the best job in the world. The other day at the end of the workday, my mother comes to me, in her hands this gorgeous green thing – Benning's Green Tint Squash – a perfect patty pan squash. “Would you like to take this home?” she asked. Do I want to take it home? Has she met me? Of course I do!

Side note: When I first started working here, I stood before the wall of 700 varieties of seed, trying to fill an order for Cocozelle Zucchini. Minutes passed and I was frustrated (patience was never one of my virtues), “Where is the zucchini?” I called out. “It's in the summer squash.” my mom called back. Well, that doesn't make any sense, I thought to myself. At least another month would pass before it was explained to me that summer squash and zucchini were the same things. Oh dear.

Back to the patty pan squash. If you've never seen these before, you'll be amazed. They are beautiful, colourful round squashes with scalloped edges. “What do I do with it?” I asked her. “Well, I usually chop it up in a stir-fry. What else do you think we could do with it?”

With our creative thinking caps on, we came up with the Patty Pan Pizza.


1 Patty Pan Squash, sliced into ¼ inch thick pieces.

¼ Teaspoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil

2 Small Heirloom Tomatoes (I used Morden Yellow and Pomme D'Amour)

1 Heirloom Sweet Pepper (I used Marconi Red)

¼ Cup Extra Old Cheddar Cheese (Mozzarella could work too – but this cheese is my personal favourite)

2 Tablespoons Parmesan Cheese

1 Teaspoon Summer Thyme

… and any other pizza toppings that suit your fancy! I added Montreal Smoked Meat to mine for a bit of a protein boost.

  1. Preheat oven to 375 c
  2. Lightly grease a baking sheet with olive oil
  3. Lay squash slices out on baking sheet
  4. Add your toppings
  5. Cook for 10 – 15 minutes, or until cheese is slightly browned.
  6. Remove from oven – enjoy!

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Monday, September 3, 2012

Grower Visit: Feral Fields Farm

Dan and I recently visited one of our growers – Bethany and Sebastian from Feral Fields Farm. We met Beth and Seb when they were students in Fleming College's Sustainable Agriculture Program, in which we are adjunct faculty teaching seed-saving. They caught the seed-saving bug and contacted us after they graduated to explore grower opportunities with us. 
Heading to the barn

Bethany and Seb are currently growing lettuce seed for us and we recently took a day trip to take a look
at their crops. Since they don't have land of their own yet, they have a unique arrangement with Green Being Farm, outside Neustadt, Ontario – they work half the week for the farm in exchange for a section of land to farm for themselves the other half of the week. Since access to land is one of the biggest challenges for young farmers, I think we need to encourage more innovative arrangements such as this one. They have named their operation “Feral Fields Farm”. Currently, they are focused on market gardening with a small CSA, bee-keeping, chicken and duck raising and seed crops. They are also starting a small orchard of native nut trees (a long, long range plan!).

I love visiting our growers: we get to see first-hand how they are growing our seed crops, we discuss tips and techniques for getting a good seed harvest and it gives us an idea of the size of harvest we can expect. We believe in building our relationships with our growers – it enriches us all. We also always come away with a few ideas ourselves that we tuck away for future reference. In Seb and Beth's case, we found them using a neat type of electrified netting to protect their flocks and their crops. The whole netting is electrified and it has smaller holes at the bottom to prevent chickens from sticking their heads through it. Its chief attraction, though, is its portability. It's very light and can be moved easily by just pulling up the stakes. It's also expandable so it's perfect for pastured flocks that need to be regularly moved. 

Portable electric netting in the background

They also use the netting around their market garden, as it's a fair distance from the farmhouse. We're thinking of trying it around our corn, powered by solar, to protect it from raccoons since nothing else has worked!

Examining the lettuce seed crop. This is Brune d'hiver, a rare French heirloom. We originally obtained the seeds from France & have been growing it out to get a sufficient  seed crop. This year we were able to hand it over to a grower for larger scale production. You can see the protective garden netting in the background. 

Bethany & Seb are also growing some seed crops for themselves. This is dill gone to seed, which they'll harvest for planting next year. By the way, Dan really was there, too – but someone has to take the pictures!

Green Being Farm, which is “hosting” Feral Fields this year, is an interesting farm unto itself. The owners, Tarrah Young and Nathan Carey, specialize in pastured livestock and a winter CSA. This combination allows them to focus on their animals in the spring and early summer and their market garden in late summer/fall. Running a winter CSA means growing a lot of crops that can be stored during the winter, such as turnips, carrots, beets, onions and squash. This means you need a fairly large cold cellar for crop storage. Tarrah and Nathan came up with a brilliant idea – they used the old in-ground pool on the property! Covering it with a roof gave them an instant HUGE cold cellar that has worked beautifully.

The in-ground pool cold cellar. My favourite part: the stairs!

Dan and I have an old above-ground pool that years ago we turned into an above-ground pond. The kids had grown up and left home and we had no further use for the pool. So we stopped adding pool chemicals and just let nature take its course. Within a short time, frogs had taken up residence. Dan put objects into the pool that allowed the frogs to get out and sunbathe and, lo and behold, we had a little ecosystem. Now there's a whole frog community in our “pond” and on spring nights, the cacophony of mating calls is enough to make me wonder why the neighbours don't complain of noise violations! I love it – there's nothing better than falling asleep to the myriad sounds of frogs “ribbeting” (and our mosquito population has declined significantly!).

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