Archive for the 'garden' Category

Looking back on summer

By Tom Read

Basil is a summer staple of our kitchen garden, and Linda is particularly proud of this patch

It’s been a fine summer for us on Texada Island, for the most part. Mother Nature bestowed benign weather these last few months, so most of the wild plants and animals of the forest seem to be thriving. An exception: yellow jacket wasps, seldom seen this summer perhaps because of our island’s cool, wet spring. Meanwhile, our little kitchen garden grew well, even though often neglected by me due to other priorities. I’ll return to the garden in a moment, but first I want to mention a few thoughts about this just-passed summer:

First, I enjoyed my teenage nephew Lewis’ two-week visit. He lives in a suburb of New York City, and up to this summer’s visit with us at Slow Farm I believe he had no previous experience caring for farm animals, using basic construction tools, pulling weeds and generally engaging in sweaty manual labour for hours on end. He did well, and even got a bit of a tan — not something most visiting Americans might expect to obtain in Canada.

Texada’s 2010 Sandcastle Weekend recedes now into memory, but I recall a feeling of satisfaction in seeing so many happy people on the beach and along the parade route. Linda and I didn’t get to see the festival’s newly-introduced laser light show, but we heard lots of positive feedback about it.

Alas, the real estate business has taken it slow this summer on Texada, as in so many communities around the world this year. No surprise, really, since the market on Texada has been slow for the past few years.

But our days are brightened by our new puppy. We’ll introduce her somewhere down the line, since she needs more privacy to develop her manners before coming onto the world (wide web) stage.

Turning to our garden, we had a few surprises, both welcome and not. Take rhubarb, for example. This year it has already given us three abundant harvests, with one last cutting on the way. What’s different this year is that I decided to overhead hand-water our rhubarb for a few moments every morning, thinking that such a magnificent broadleaf plant must be designed for collecting rain.

In past years we used daily drip irrigation exclusively, knowing the soil to be on the sandy side and assuming that deep watering of this deep-rooted plant mattered most. This seemed logical at the time, but the results with drip irrigation were always disappointing. This year’s great crop stands as living proof that humble observation of actual plant design and behavior trumps over-intellectual “assumptions.”

The abundance of this year’s rhubarb stands in contrast to a downright disaster in the raspberry department. Despite great raspberry production last year and ample feedings of rotted manure in early spring, the berries came late and never quite seemed to mature to a sweet ripeness. Those relatively few that managed to ripen immediately became bird fodder. I vow to do better next year, a gardener’s rallying cry for all seasons.

Solstice snapshot

By Tom Read

Overlooking the kitchen garden at mid-day, just before the Summer Solstice, 2010

Time passes quickly for busy bees like me. Today I startled myself when I belatedly realized that the longest day of the year is but a few days hence. Many years ago I enjoyed a tradition of all-night bonfires on various northern California beaches with friends to celebrate the summer solstice. But in my present life on Texada Island that won’t be an option this year. From mid-May to mid-October, most outdoor fires are banned by order of the Province of British Columbia, regardless of weather or forest conditions. Thus, no summer solstice bonfire for us.

Instead, here are a few snapshots of what we’re doing at this mid-summer moment:

— Today we took a dozen fertilized chicken eggs to our friend An so she could place them underneath one of her broody hens. We are grateful for An’s help again this year — our sleek, young Dark Cornish hens seem amenable to Lord John Marbury’s amorous attentions (our rooster), but once again they have shown no interest in becoming mother hens. If the hatch-out with An’s surrogate mother hen is successful, we’ll raise the resulting brood as meat birds in one of our chicken tractors on pasture, and they’ll be in the freezer by late fall.

— Our pastures are awash in flowers just now, which reminds me of bees. I’m stewarding a couple of hives as a new beekeeper (coming up on two years).  This summer, I’m trying to encourage the bees to migrate from my existing, rather dilapidated hives into a proprietary type of beehive called a “DE hive” (named after David Eyre, who invented it). It’s working, slowly. Why didn’t I just follow the easy path and replace my old hives with additional standard replacements? Answer: the DE hive seems not only better designed all around, in my opinion, but it’s also smaller and lighter, thus easier to manipulate for a fellow like me with a trick lower back.

—  Our country homestead needs deer fencing on a new field, rock-picking of a new gardening area, expanded irrigation system, new dog run, and I’ve got to do something this summer about the moss that’s beginning to get established on our roof. Plus, we’re behind on planting our summer crops due to a cold and wet spring. We need every hour of these long days to make a dent in our “to do” list!

And that’s the way it is at Slow Farm on this mid-summer Solstice.

A very practical food security workshop

By Tom Read

A lot of Texada-grown vegetables and even some local chicken went into the lunch served at our recent Micro-Farm Workshop, thanks to a dedicated group of Texada Garden Club volunteers.

Farmer, author and teacher Robin Wheeler came to Texada Island last Saturday to lead us in a six-hour “Micro-Farm Workshop,” sponsored by the Texada Garden Club.  Linda and I found the experience quite rewarding, and so did many others from what I observed. Here are a few highlights of the workshop, from big picture stuff to fascinating (to me) details.

By my count, 47 people came to the workshop on a mild, sunny morning, with 31 from Texada and 16 from Powell River (who arrived 30 minutes late due to an ambulance run that delayed the ferry). The Garden Club, of which I’m a member, had estimated a maximum of 50 participants would attend. So we were a little tense as people kept streaming into the Community Hall — would we run out of food at lunchtime? As it happened, there was more than enough food for everyone, and many of us felt pleased to see such a strong turnout.

Why so much interest in learning about growing food year-round, and building more capacity in our community to provide for a reliable local food supply? The term “food security” is not exactly a media buzz-word these days, but I think the concept is on folks’ minds in this community even if not in those exact words. In conversations I’ve had with fellow islanders over the last few months, many seem to sense that there’s a certain economic, environmental and energy-related volatility afoot in the world, where food prices and even availability might become a concern quite suddenly.

Robin briefly mentioned better food security as a key reason for the workshop, then she moved into specific ways we can do more to create a local food supply for our individual households and as a community. Here are some samples:

We learned how to understand our land better, including mapping of wind and water flows, soil types and most important, sun exposure.

We learned that seaweed is great for soil conditioning, but that we should collect it only in the fall, not in spring. That’s because spring seaweed contains fish eggs and provides both shelter and food to young marine organisms. If we take seaweed at that time of year, we could disrupt marine life-cycles. Besides, there’s lots more seaweed on local beaches in the fall, and it contains less woody debris, too.

We learned how to start a garden on heavy clay soil: use “sacrificial” deep-rooted plants first for a few years to break up the clay chunks, plus add more organic matter to the soil. Then plant vegetables.

We learned about the “spiral cut” on trees adjacent to a garden. This technique lets in some sun without killing the trees, as occurs with cutting off tree tops. The spiral cut removes selected branches in an upward spiral all around the tree, leaving the tree in balance and growing normally. This preserves the trees while letting in filtered sun, changing a fully shaded area where nothing will grow into a partially shaded garden that can grow some types of food plants.

We learned the critical necessity of planning at planting time how to preserve and store a crop so that you’re ready with adequate space and tools when the moment arrives for harvest.

We learned about the simple, affordable deer-fence building technique of using scrap wood, such as fence posts made from cedar tree tops left over after logging, and slabs from a local sawmill to fill the space between posts. Yes, this requires some annual maintenance, but it’s a really quick and cheap way to build a fence that otherwise might cost thousands of dollars.

There was so much more to this workshop — these few samples simply don’t do it justice. As I review my notes from that day I can see many more ideas and suggestions that I’d like to put into practice here at Slow Farm. Seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

August planning pays off in November

By Tom Read

I uprooted these carrots yesterday. They not only look lovely, but they taste really good, too. The standard-sized teaspoon gives a sense of scale. Linda assures me the spoon was clean when she took this photo, but the lights reflecting on it make it look kind of grungy. She cut up these Nantes-variety carrots shortly after taking the picture, and we enjoyed them in our yummy chicken-and-dumplings dinner. Yours truly made the dumplings!

It’s the third week of November and our kitchen garden is still providing a fine harvest. The carrots are sweeter than they were this past summer, thanks to the onset of colder weather. Also yielding well are parsnip, kale, arugula, bok choy, romaine lettuce and various other greens.  Most of our potatoes are still in the ground, but they will have to come out in the next few days because their bed has become waterlogged given the last two nights of torrential, deafening-on-the-roof-for-hours rainfall.

Our attempt this year to grow food through the winter started last August when I attended Carolyn Heriot’s excellent workshop on winter gardening, sponsored by the Texada Garden Club. Looking back over my notes from that day, I can see that with a little more foresight and investment, we might have planted a much larger and more diverse winter garden. Alas, we’ll probably have only enough fresh greens and root crops to last perhaps another few months, for which I’m nonetheless quite grateful. Next year’s goal will be to have ample harvests all year long.

Along those lines, I’m pleased that the Texada Garden Club has also decided to sponsor Robin Wheeler, Roberts Creek, BC, resident and author of Food Security for the Faint of Heart, to give a “MicroFarm Forum” workshop here on Texada on Saturday, February 20 of next year. I’ll have more to share on that topic as we get closer to the date.

In the meantime, Linda and I are busy harvesting animals as well as plants. Last weekend we “did” the chickens with our friends An and Seneca; next weekend we’ll be on our way to our first pork harvest, as well.

Who would have thought November could be such a busy month?

What really matters

By Tom Read

There's just one store-bought food item in this photo, namely the bell pepper in the foreground. It's not easy to grow such big peppers here on the cool coast because they thrive on sustained heat. But we like 'em in our salsa, and for now they're still relatively cheap and available through the industrial food system. That's a conscious compromise, eh?

There's just one store-bought food item in this photo, namely the bell pepper in the foreground. It's not easy to grow such big peppers here on the cool coast because they thrive on sustained heat. But we like 'em in our salsa, and for now they're still relatively cheap and available through the industrial food system. That's a conscious compromise, eh?

Texada’s almost ideal mix of mild temperatures, ample sun and just the right amount of rain this past month has given our garden a shot of warmth leading to lots of ripe tomatoes.  So today we turn our attention to converting our ripe Romas into salsa. Most of the ingredients will come from our garden; we will use only a few store-bought items. If we were to consider the amount of labour we’re about to expend on making this salsa, it wouldn’t be “economical,” but what matters to us is the satisfaction of creating a very personal taste of summer that will last us through the coming winter and spring.

Preserving our harvest is a deliberate act of resilience-building for our household. We know that the world around us swarms with economic, ecological and political stresses, but we pretend they do not affect us. After all, we live on an island! What matters to us at this moment is that a friend has loaned us her pressure-canner (we’re keen on trying this food preservation approach), while another friend has offered us an opportunity to glean more apples and pears. And all the while our garden and domestic animals are thriving.

I feel a sense of well-being by living in a place where the world’s problems seem far away. This feeling may be an illusion, but the accumulating supply of home-grown food in our pantry and freezer are real. From time to time I like to write about the politics and economics of Texada Island, but what really matters is being part of a network of friends here, and learning how to be more self-reliant.

Summer heat

By Tom Read

Our garden is using less water overall, but going strong at 2:00 pm on this hot summer's day.

Our garden is using less water overall, but going strong at 2:00 pm on this hot summer's day.

Yes, it’s been hot and humid here on Texada Island lately. Just a few days ago we recorded 31 degrees centigrade (31C) in the shade on our front deck at 5:00 pm, a new high for us.  Friends about a mile west of us endured 38C in their house on the same day, while the City of Vancouver hit 33.8C, a new all-time high, apparently.  Do these numbers mean anything, other than some temporary discomfort?

While no particular heat wave should be linked to the concept of climate change, it’s hard to dismiss the possibility that our near-record snowfall and cold last winter and the current heat blast are part of an increasingly unstable climate pattern.  I’ve read somewhere, but can’t remember the citation, that climate change will manifest itself hereabouts as more frequent extremes: colder colds, hotter hots, windier winds, rainier rains, etc. “Extreme” is becoming the new “normal,” it would seem.

So how do we cope with greater heat than we’re used to?  Texada is fortunately surrounded by an ocean buffer that usually moderates weather extremes.  But for now we’re stuck in the middle of a vast heat-trapping high-pressure ridge, according to Environment Canada, that shows little sign of leaving soon. The major consequences for our homestead include the following:

—  Careful conservation of electricity, because the creek stopped flowing enough to make power some weeks ago. We’re relying on solar power during the day, and a nightly 2-hour generator run to charge our battery bank to carry us through the night and morning.

—  Careful conservation of water, because the level in our (shallow) well is down about 50% from two months ago. At the moment we can only pump for 30 minutes at a time, once a day, or risk running dry. I’m checking the well every few days.

—  Water our garden at more frequent intervals but use less water overall. This is possible for us because for the first time we’re using watering timers with our drip watering system. So far it’s working extremely well — we should have installed watering timers a long time ago.  By planting a diverse garden we’re assured that at least some vegetables are thriving (notably the tomatoes, beans and squash), while others bolt, particularly cilantro.

—  In addition to pumping well water, we’re using our pond as a backup source for watering the garden, chickens and pigs.

—  We work outdoors only in the mornings, up to about 11:30 am, then go indoors until after 7:00 pm. It’s not just the heat and humidity that compel this schedule, it’s the deer flies. These flesh-and-blood-eating tormentors can be held at bay temporarily with insect repellant, but they’re a very persistent  nuisance during warm days at mid-summer.

—  Rocky, our nine-year-old canine companion, has always lived outdoors and in his own insulated dog house no matter the weather. But his obvious suffering became too much for us a few days ago, so we’ve let him spend afternoons indoors with us, where it’s 10 degrees cooler. Our house’s straw bale walls, clerestory vents and ceiling fan provide ample “air conditioning” to keep us all reasonably comfortable.

—  Conversely, our feline companion Penny prefers to remain outdoors during the summer heat. She’s eating very little of the food we put out for her, but I’ve found the remains of several mice on paths near the house, so I’m sure she’s not lacking sustenance.

Another coping tactic is that we are keeping all this in perspective.  After all, 31C is actually perfect for many garden plants, even if it (temporarily) stresses us, animals and the surrounding forest. We’re fortunate to have enough water in our well and pond to see us through, at least for this year. But what about the future? Will 31C become typical for a Texada summer’s day in a few decades, or even sooner? “Don’t borrow trouble,” Linda tells me, and rightly so. But don’t take anything for granted, either.

Seed-saving adventures

By Tom Read

My apologies for this focus-challenged photo I took today. We'll soon be awash in carrot seeds, even if they're a bit blurry at the moment.

My apologies for this focus-challenged photo I took today. We'll soon be awash in carrot seeds, even if they're a bit blurry at the moment.

Texada Island is a good place to grow carrots, once you dig the rocks out of your garden and if you’ve got enough good seeds. Given the converging economic, energy and environmental uncertainties besetting the world today, we do not take for granted our access to good vegetable seeds. So, last summer we grew a Nantes open-pollinated carrot variety from West Coast Seeds. One difference between carrots and some other vegetables is that you have to let carrots continue into their second year of life to harvest seeds. Thus, we over-wintered the best carrot plants from our 2008 garden in hope of saving seeds this year.

Meanwhile, our friend Fred gave us about 30 scarlet runner beans last fall after I made admiring noises about their colourful long seed pods in his garden in Van Anda.  After decades of saving these runner bean seeds, Fred has noticed a gradual darkening in their colour.  Before planting, I soaked all the seeds overnight in a bowl of tepid water, then the next morning I set aside for planting only the seeds that had sunk to the bottom of the bowl. I had read somewhere that if a seed floats, then it’s not as vigorous as one that sinks. This may be a mistake in regard to scarlet runner beans, but I’ve soaked other types of bean seeds before planting, with good results.

I’m no expert in plant genetics, but of the 30 scarlet runner beans I planted (some more black than brownish-red), only about half germinated, which seemed a bit low compared to the store-bought pole bean seeds we planted about two weeks earlier elsewhere in our garden.  The store-bought seeds showed an 80% germination rate and are already six feet high, while the scarlet runners are barely above knee level, so far. This is probably a result of sun exposure and weather differences in the different garden locations, and each variety’s planting time requirements. I should have tried some side-by-side same-time planting for a truer comparison. Maybe the scarlet runners will catch up by September.

My point is not that Fred’s generously donated scarlet runners are somehow deficient.  The point is that I haven’t learned how to run valid plant genetics experiments in our garden. This matters because if we don’t learn how to keep our own food plant seeds viable generation after generation, we will remain dependent on an increasingly tenuous seed supply from a shrinking number of reliable seed companies.

We’re not alone in thinking about this issue. The Powell River Farmer’s Institute co-sponsored a 2009 seed-saving venture, which was promoted on Texada by PR farmer Wendy Devlin. Last winter, Wendy visited the Texada Garden Club and handed out seed packets for several types of garden vegetables to anyone interesting in seed-saving. I took 15 Styrian pumpkin seeds provided by a volunteer in the Powell River region, which we have since grown into six rather happy pumpkin plants.  They’re perched on well-fertilized hills containing rotted chicken manure and seaweed, about five feet apart.  Growing like crazy in the mid-July heat! We’ll have Styrian pumpkin seeds to share come October, if all goes well.

But our attempt to grow pumpkins in 2008 utterly failed due to several obvious-in-hindsight errors which could have been avoided by doing more research or having guidance from an expert. Confirmed optimists like myself call that a “learning experience.”  This year we’ll make different mistakes, no doubt. I believe that you can’t truly garden successfully just from reading about it on the Internet or in gardening books; experience counts, especially hard-won experience.

Which brings me to another, somewhat sobering thought in closing.  After several years of gardening, Linda and I are still really novices. We get some pretty good crops every year, but we make lots of mistakes, too. What will happen when the global price of oil takes another sharp turn upwards, making store-bought food a lot more expensive, so that people with even less experience than us must try to grow their own? Yes, we can help each other, but that will amount to novices leading other novices. That, and sustaining vigorous seed genetics, gives us something to ponder as we continue our adventures in seed-saving.


Post facto

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