In search of “tangible”

People grow their own food for many reasons.  They may want to control the varieties of plants they eat, beautify their land, or save money.  They may want to improve their strength and get some moderate exercise.  In a modern city, though, I think there’s another reason why more and more people are becoming interested in growing their own food.  They’re searching for something tangible.

One doesn’t have to go back too far in memory to recall ancestors who worked hard all day.  I don’t mean in an office, at a desk.  I’m talking about manual labour.  The act of living was a series of manual tasks: growing, preserving, and preparing your own produce; tending to livestock; physically building and renovating your own home; and helping neighbours and communities with their projects.  Kids created things outside in the real world, in-between their chores.  The list goes on.

But now, for many of us city folk in office jobs, our work has very few manual elements.  We sit at desks and immerse ourselves in abstraction.  We cannot actually touch what we do (unless we  print it).  Our work is in a computer somewhere–a central brain with no body.  We buy food at the store, and assemble it; we eat the same food year round because we can.  We hire contractors to fix our homes.  Our kids play too many video games and don’t explore as much as we did when we were young, perhaps because it’s easier to be passive or pacified, or maybe because the world is not as safe a place.  Either way, each new generation is becoming more dependant on infrastructure to provide for it.

The side-effects of an overly technological world include: disengagement from the community and environment, inability to perform the basic manual services we pay for, lack of compassion for those who provide these services, and depression and disillusionment.  There’s an unhealthy dependence on technology and “likes” to fuel our self-worth, rather than feeling good about ourselves because we made something that we can smell, touch, or taste.

Growing one’s own organic food can reduce the negative effects of a technological world.  Through it, we learn to peacefully co-exist with our environment, and to nurture the soil and our plants, as well as the pollinators that are our allies.  We learn to build structures that we need to support and protect our plants, such as raised beds, trellises, and fences.  We make connections to experts and novices in our communities; we inspire and are inspired.  Most of all, we produce something tangible: vegetables, fruits, flowers, preserves, and more.  And then there are the positive intangible aspects, like knowledge, memories, and skills.

If you’re searching for something tangible, why not plant some edibles this year?  Go outside and get your hands dirty.

What are you planting in 2018?

The garden is covered in snow.  What to do?  Seed shopping!

Seedy Saturdays are happening now:  And, there is always online shopping!

It is always exciting ordering new (to me) varieties of plants.  Here are a few of the things I will be growing this summer.

Orach, Aurora Mixed

Aurora Mixed Orach
Photo from Baker Creek Heirloom seeds:

Can you imagine a salad made of these giant, beautiful leaves?  These plants can grow 5-6 feet tall.  They add colour and height to any type of garden–flower or vegetable.

Peas, King tut

King Tut Purple Pea
Photo from Baker Creek Heirloom seeds:

I admit, I like atypically coloured vegetables and fruits.  These are rumoured to have been placed in King Tuts tomb almost 5,000 years ago, to provide for him in the afterlife.  Howard Carter is said to have removed them from the tomb when it was rediscovered in 1922.

Gourd, birdhouse

dried bottle gourds make perfect bird house
Photo credit:

You can make long-lasting birdhouses out of these perfectly shaped gourds. After drying your gourd for approximately six months, drill a doorway hole in it, clean it out, then drill two holes for the ring you will use to suspend it.  You can paint it if you like.  Instant, organic birdhouse!

Quinoa, Brightest Brilliant

Quinoa is not just useful for its seeds – you can eat the leaves fresh or steamed.  And look how beautiful this variety is when it goes to seed!

Brighest Brilliant Quinoa
Photo from Greta’s Organic gardens:

Corn, Hopi Blue

I have to try a different variety of corn each year.  Hopi blue corn can be eaten fresh, or ground into flour to use in corn bread or corn chips.



Organic Non-GMO Hopi Blue Corn
Photo from Urban Harvest:



So, what new varieties of plants are you growing this year?

The perfect gift

It’s only December 4th, but shoppers are already rushing around, looking for the perfect gift.  For many, this is an electronic toy, video game, or other passive form of entertainment, which do not offer children much in the way of learning opportunities (unless a zombie apocalypse should strike).

Instead of buying toys, why not instill skills?  Building things, growing plants, making food, and the like are valuable skills that contribute to mental and physical health.  The habits that children develop early on carry forward into the choices they make later in life.


A package of seeds, no matter how beautifully wrapped, may not seem to be a very interesting gift.  Young children are fascinated, though, when they first realize that watering a seed will cause a sprout to grow, then develop into a seedling that produces vegetables or fruits that contains the same seeds.  Bean seeds are a great choice for young kids; you can eat their sprouts throughout the winter, then direct sow them outside in the late spring, enjoy beans throughout the summer, and collect seeds for the next planting.

A few more ideas:

  • If you have older kids, give each of them a couple of unidentified types of seeds to sprout.  As the sprouts grow, have them guess what they received based on taste and appearance.
  • Give neighbours some attractive pots, seeds, and potting soil, and plan a co-operative neighbourhood patio garden.
  • Conquer the winter blues, and grow some plants indoors.


Let kids make their own containers.  There are tons of ideas on the internet for DIY planters and containers.  Depending upon their skill levels and ages, your children may be able to build or assemble containers, trellises, cold frames, and similar structures, or perhaps just decorate them.  Once a child learns how to safely use a hammer, nails, and saw, then give them some scraps of wood and see what they can build.


Nothing tastes better than homegrown, homemade food.  Why not do some extra canning to give away as gifts?  Children follow their parents’ examples and learn that canning is simple, cost-effective, and nutritious.  Recipients of your gifts realize the same.  And, let’s be honest, there is always one vegetable you grow too much of–why not share some of it?  You can use that giant zucchini to make pickles or marmalade.


If you’re fortunate enough to have the space to grow your own vegetables, then why not share your bounty with others?  Many communities have plant-a-row, donate-a-row programs whereby you can donate a row of vegetables from your garden to a local food cupboard.  Contact your local food bank to discover their needs, then plan how you will grow your contribution.  Your children will feel pride in growing plants that can feed others.


Fall gardening chores

Freezing temperatures signal an end to most of the vegetables, fruits, and herbs in a typical garden.  What to do with all of this newfound free time?  There are a few things you can do to prepare your garden for the next growing season.

Recycle your leaves

Rake up the leaves that fall on your property (or get some from a neighbour).  Leaves are an excellent soil amendment; they improve water retention and soil structure.  If you’ve ever dug up a pile of decomposing leaves, you’ll notice that they’re full of earthworms–which are your garden’s best friends.  Leaves also foster microorganisms that are beneficial to healthy, nourishing soil.

There are a couple of ways to add leaves to your soil:

  • Dig a thin layer of leaves into your garden.  Ensure that they’re not packed together, and they’re covered with a thin layer of soil or compost.  Thick layers of leaves tend to stick together like stacks of pages, and not decompose.
  • Put your leaves in your compost pile.  They should decompose within a year as long as they are not allowed to dry out.  Leaves need to be kept moist in order to break down.

In either case, you can expedite the process by shredding the leaves with a lawnmower or shears.

Dig up your compost

Empty out your compost bin, and spread the fully or partially decomposed matter on your empty garden beds.  The material will continue to decompose over the winter and into spring, adding nutrients to the soil.

Return to the compost bin the material that is still fairly intact and new, such as the plants that recently succumbed to the frost.  These plants will continue to break down over the course of the winter and into the new year, in time to be added to your garden the next fall.

Cut back perennials

Most vegetables are annuals or biennials, but some vegetables (and many flowers) are perennials.  Once the cold weather has killed their above-ground growth, you may want to cut them back down to the root, and put the plant matter into the compost.  If you use a cold compost system, avoid putting seeds into the compost, as they may germinate once the compost is moved to the garden.


Senior Organic Gardeners

Are you a senior interested in growing your own organic herbs, vegetables, and edible flowers using healthy soil, and no chemicals?  Are you living in a senior’s residence or an Ottawa Community Housing building?  The Canadian Organic Growers–Ottawa St Lawrence Outaouais Chapter (COG OSO) offers a program called Senior Organic Gardeners (SOG), which may appeal to you!

Read more on the Just Food CGN blog:

Preserving and cooking winter squash

Winter squash, as the name implies, is harvested in the late fall or winter (depending on where you live).  Its thick skin hardens as it cures, providing a protective casing for the flesh inside.  You can store it for many months in a cold room or similar environment.  Leave the stems on the fruits to keep them from drying out.  Place each squash on a few sheets of newspaper or a piece cardboard, ensuring that it doesn’t touch its neighbour.


They’re not touching, honest!

If frost or winter necessitates picking a squash before it is fully ripe, it may ripen in storage so long as the ripening process started before you picked it.  A dark green, immature pumpkin, for example, may not ripen in storage. The spotted green squash on the above left is now, two months later, almost fully ripe.

Squashes can stay in cold storage for many months,  Check them periodically to ensure that they are not getting spongey or soft.  If this is the case, it is time to use them!

There are a few ways to cook winter squash, but here’s what I like to do:

  1. Cut the squash in half.
  2. Scoop out the seeds, but leave the stringy stuff inside.
  3. Place halves on a cookie sheet or baking dish, peel side down, so that they form two bowls.
  4. Bake at 350F until the flesh is soft.  The cooking time varies according to the type and size of squash.  Check it periodically, and if the halves fill up with fluid, drain that into the sink.

    Pumpkin halves filled with juice
  5. Let the squash cool completely.
  6. Drain any liquid that has accumulated.
  7. Use a spoon to scoop away the stringy innards.
  8. Start at one of the cut edges, and remove the peel in strips.
  9. Puree the flesh using a food processor, blender, or potato masher.

Now for the best part: the seeds!

You can roast and eat the seeds from all varieties of winter squash, not just pumpkins!  Don’t forget to save a few seeds for next year, unless you planted more than one variety of winter squash–in which case cross-pollination may have occurred.

  1. Place the seeds in a colander, and run them under cold water to rinse the bits of fleshy pulp off them.
  2. Spread them evenly on a lightly greased cookie sheet.
  3. Season with salt, or your favourite spices.
  4. Bake at 300F until the seeds begin to turn a light golden brown.
  5. Enjoy!


Pumpkin + squash seeds = delicious



Growing vegetables and herbs indoors

This weekend, the garden was hit by a hard frost.  Most of its plants are done for the year, but that doesn’t mean an end to gardening.  If you have the space, there are a lot of vegetables and herbs that will flourish inside.

What you need:

  • A south-, southeast-, or southwest-facing window, in an area that has good air circulation and constant warm temperatures (no drafts).  Herb and vegetable plants need at least 6 hours of sunlight per day, so if you have a sunny windowsil that gets at least that much sun, you’re well on your way.  As the sunlight in winter is not as intense as the sunlight in the summer, you may need to supplement natural light with artificial light.  Shop lights will work in a pinch, if you don’t have grow lights.
  • Containers that are sufficiently large to contain the plant and its roots, with room to spare.  Plants grow more slowly indoors than out, so consider planting dwarf varieties (such as cherry tomatoes and mini carrots), so that you don’t need large containers, and you don’t have to wait as long to harvest.
  • A good quality potting soil, which ideally has been mixed with compost.  Although you can use garden soil, it tends to be too compact to allow proper drainage.  Without proper drainage, your plants’ roots may rot.
  • Seeds.  As mentioned above, choose varieties that mature quickly or produce small vegetables or fruits.  You can start seedlings from plants you’ve harvested, by planting the seeds straightaway instead of saving them for next year.  For example, when making tomato sauce, plant the seeds as you remove them from the tomatoes.

In some cases, you can extend the life of plants you started outdoors by bringing them inside for another few weeks or months.  In the past, I have dug up broccoli plants that were not quite mature, and enjoyed broccoli florets in December.  This year, due to a very wet summer, my eggplants were very late, so I dug up the best plants and brought them inside to see if they will produce.  I am also keeping alive the parsley, ginger, and oregano that were potted all summer.  One thing that you do need to be cautious of when bringing plants indoors is that they may bring pests, such as aphids, along.  You can wash them off using a spray bottle filled with water or insecticidal soup.

You may need to water your indoors plants more frequently than you would if they were outdoors, as indoor air–heated by a furnace–tends to be drying.  But, ensure you don’t overwater them either, as that can cause your plants to rot.

Here’s a list of plants that you can grow inside in the winter.  Greens and herbs are the easiest to grow; plants that produce fruit, such as peppers and tomatoes, may need supplemental lighting and staking.

  • Beans
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Eggplants
  • Greens, such as lettuce, spinach, and kale
  • Herbs, such as basil,
  • Hot and sweet peppers
  • Onions
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes