Plant of the week: Watermelon

Watermelon is a significant source of pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), and it’s higher in vitamins B1 and B6 than other common garden plants.  It’s a good source of other nutrients too, such as vitamins C and A, magnesium, potassium, and fibre.  But who cares how good it is for you when it’s so delicious and refreshing.  🙂

Ideal growing conditions

Watermelon loves hot, long summers, and warm, well-drained, sandy soil.  Having said that, their leaves may get scorched if they are exposed to the hot sun all day, so they may benefit from the partial shade provided by corn or a similar plant.

If you live in a climate with four real seasons (like much of Canada), you will need to choose a smaller variety that has a shorter growing season, and start it indoors.  Typically, watermelon varieties take 75 to 110 days to mature.

After the threat of frost has passed, and the soil has warmed, transplant your seedlings outside.  Ensure to plant them about 6 feet apart so they have room to grow without crowding each other.  Try planting them in mounds, where the soil will be warmer.  If watermelons are exposed to cold, they may not produce fruit.

Keep the plants well watered; the fruits are, after all, 90% water.  Each plant will produce both male and female blossoms.  The male blossoms precede the females; they often fall off.  The females develop the bulbs at the base that turn into fruits.

As the fruit ripens, you may wish to place straw under it to keep it away from the soil, where it could rot.

Types

  • Giant watermelons with striped green rind are referred to as picnic watermelons (because they’ll feed a large gathering).  They need a long growing season, and are not well-suited to Canadian backyard gardeners.
  • Smaller watermelons with dark green rind are called icebox watermelons, because they are more easily stored in the fridge.  These have a shorter growing season, so they’re well-suited to backyard growing.  Try the sugar baby or mickey lee variety (pictured above).
  • Watermelons are not always red; they also come in yellow and orange!

Harvesting, using, and preserving

In the store, to test ripeness, people commonly tap watermelons to see if they sound hollow.  But what to do in your garden?

  • If the tendril nearest to the fruit is dead or nearly dead, the fruit is ripe.
  • Carefully lift the watermelon and look at its underside.  If it is ripe, it will be cream or yellow rather than white.

Cut the stem about an inch from the fruit.  You can store it inside for a few weeks at around 7 degrees Celsius.

Watermelon can be eaten fresh or used to make juices, smoothies, preserves, or even salsas!

Friends

  • Beans
  • Corn
  • Marigold
  • Nasturtium
  • Squash

Foes

  • Potatoes

Fun facts

 

Mindfulness grows in the garden

“Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.”

Mindfulness is not a new concept, but it’s one that’s becoming more and more relevant, as we find ourselves bombarded with information and requests from many sources, both at work and in our personal life.  Mindfulness is a practice we can adopt to manage the stresses of our everyday lives, and enable us to remain healthy and adaptable.

Large population-based research studies have indicated that the practice of mindfulness is strongly correlated with greater well-being and perceived health.[10][11] This is applicable to society at large as well as specific settings such as workplaces[12] and schools.[13] Studies have also shown that rumination and worry contribute to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety,[14][15] and that mindfulness-based interventions are effective in the reduction of both rumination and worry.[14][16]

In addition to providing us with nutritious food, our gardens can enable us to engage in mindfulness.  When you are in the garden, with your electronic devices off, you have a simple task to focus on–whether it be weeding, planting, harvesting, or something else.  It’s easy to be present in that moment, and to feel connected to the earth beneath your feet, the plants you are nourishing, the birds singing, the weather, and all of the elements of our life that it is sometimes easy to take for granted.

As mindfulness benefits you, it will benefit your plants.  Some things you may notice:

  • How the weather has affected your plants.
  • How well your plants are growing.  I know this seems simple, but how many times do you walk by the garden and not really see it, and then all of the sudden there are baby vegetables that seem to have sprung from nowhere?
  • If you have pollinators at work, or pests that you need to control.  Listen for the creatures that share your garden with you; look for them under leaves.
  • The quality of your soil–how it retains water and the nurtures plants tell a lot.
  • The overall symmetry of your garden.  If some plants are doing well and others aren’t–well, it could just be a bad year for specific plants, or maybe you need to adjust the soil or neighbours next year.

Stand back, then look at things up close, and be mindful–both you and your garden may benefit.

 

Supporting tomatoes

Most tomatoes need some kind of support to keep their fruit off the ground.  Left to their own devices, most tomato plants will sprawl in every direction except up, and produce a lot of fruit–much of which will be spoiled or damaged by pests.

Before you decide on what kind of supports you need, consider what kind of tomatoes you’ve planted or are planning to grow:

  • Determinate (bush) varieties do not exceed a specified height.  They can get by shorter supports, like tomato cages.
  • Indeterminate (vine) varieties continue growing until killed by frost.  They need tall supports.
  • Dwarf plants, especially those that produce cherry or grape tomatoes, may get by with little or minimal support.

Equally important is the size of the tomato that you’re growing.  I one made the mistake of placing a plant that produces 1 – 2lb tomatoes in a conventional tomato cage, then had to tie the cage to a fence when it fell over.  Save the flimsy cages for plants that produce smaller fruits.

Here are a few ways to support tomatoes:

  • Ladder trellises are good for tall, vining tomato plants.  Weave the plant through the rungs as it grows, and prune its side shoots to keep it on an upward trajectory.
  • Conventional tomato cages are good for indeterminate varieties that do not bear too heavy of fruit.  Unpruned, the plants will grow a lot of foliage, which protects the fruit from sunscald, but means it takes longer to mature.  Cages take more space than other supports, and unless you buy or make heavy duty ones, tend to get bent and misshapen with time.
  • If you are growing tomatoes in rows, you can employ the Florida weave technique using stakes and string.
  • Tomato spirals, such as the one photographed above, are ideal for plants that need a lot of support because you can wind the plant around it as it grows, thereby reinforcing it rather than just giving it something to lean on.
  • You can make your own stakes from any sturdy materials you may have, then loosely attach the stem of the plant using foam ties, special plant ties, or old cotton t-shirts or stockings.  Staked plants take less room than caged plants, but may need pruning to keep them growing upward.  Their fruits are more susceptible to sunscald; however, they are easier to locate, and they ripen more quickly.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with what you have on hand–you can build supports out of wire, wood, or metal pieces that you have lying around.  There are plenty of ideas on the internet that you can use to recycle your scraps rather than purchasing ready-made supports.

Plant of the week: Cilantro/Coriander

Cilantro and coriander are the same plant; the leafy green cilantro is an herb, and the coriander seed is a spice.  Cilantro leaves contain antioxidants, essential oils, vitamins, and dietary fiber.  It is a great source of vitamin K and potassium.

 

 

Ideal growing conditions

Direct sow cilantro seeds 6-8 inches apart in well-drained soil that receives full sun, or partial sun if you live in a hot climate.  Cilantro bolts easily and quickly, and does not do well in the heat of the summer, but if you let it bloom and produce seeds, it will reseed itself during the season (and in the spring).  If you do not let it go to seed, re-seed it every few weeks to maintain a steady crop.

Keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate; don’t overwater them once they are established.  You may want to pinch back young plants to encourage their growth.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

To harvest cilantro, pick the taller leaves, and leave the shorter leaves to mature.  Or, you may pull the entire plant.  To freeze the leaves, place them in a Ziploc bag, or encase them in ice cubes or cubes of oil.  To dry cilantro, hang the plant upside down in a paper bag in a warm, dry place, then store the dried leaves in a container.

Cilantro is best eaten fresh, though.  To maximize flavour, add it to dishes at the last minute.  It is delicious when added to Mexican or Indian dishes, and soups.  Try adding it to guacamole or hummus.

To harvest coriander, hang the entire plant, seeds and all, upside down in a paper bag in a dry, warm place.  Once the plant is dry, shake it to remove the seeds if they do not fall off.  Place the dry seeds in a container.  You can also store fresh coriander seeds in the refrigerator.

Friends

Cilantro attracts beneficial insects to the garden and discourages pests such as aphids and potato beetles.  To use it for pest control, let it develop blossoms.

It’s also a good companion for:

  • Asparagus
  • Basil
  • Beans
  • Mint
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes

 

Foes

  • Fennel

Fun facts

  • Cilantro has been used for centuries in many cuisines across the world, though it is thought to originate from North Africa or the Middle East.
  • It is used as a sleep and digestion aid.

Garlic scapes

Although we have to wait until fall to harvest garlic bulbs, in spring, garlic plants produce another delight that we can use–scapes.  These tender, mild-flavoured loops emerge from the central, tough stalk of hardneck varieties of garlic.  When you remove them, the plants direct their energy into the bulbs rather than into producing bulbils from the end of the scapes.  Bulbils can be planted to grow new garlic, but this process takes a few years.

When to pick them?

Pick scapes before they circle onto their second loop.  If left too long, they become tough and wooden.  You can cut them or snap them off where they break naturally.

How to use them

  • Chop them and add them to salads.
  • Sauté them and add them to stir-fries, or any dish that calls for garlic.
  • Toss them with oil, salt, and pepper, and grill them.
  • Pickle them.
  • Make scape pesto.
  • Add them to soup.
  • Be creative!

 

Strawberry shortcake

It’s strawberry season, and the berries have been loving this cool and wet spring; they’re big and sweet.  So–it’s time to make strawberry shortcake.

There are a few ways to make strawberry shortcake.  Some people use biscuits, and others use sponge cake.  I follow my mom’s recipe; this delicious cake has a texture that is somewhere between a sponge cake and a pound cake.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt (optional)
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • strawberries
  • extra sugar to juice the strawberries
  • whipping cream

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Grease and flour two 8 x 8 cake pans. If you only have one pan, you can bake the entire cake in one pan, then slice it in half height wise.
  3. Sift flour, backing powder, and salt together in a small bowl.
  4. Heat milk with butter until it is just scalding, then let it cool slightly.
  5. In a bowl, use an electric mixer to beat eggs until they are foaming.  Gradually add the 1 cup of sugar until the mixture is thick and fluffy, then add the vanilla.
  6. Sprinkle flour mixture, a third at a time, over eggs, alternating with the warmed milk and butter mixture, until all three mixtures are combined.
  7. Equally distribute the mixture into the two pans.
  8. Bake for 25 minutes or more, until cake tests as done.
  9. Slice some strawberries and place them in a bowl.  Add a bit of sugar, if desired, to make them juicy.
  10. Whip the cream.
  11. Assemble cake:
    • Start with one cake.
    • Add a layer of sliced strawberries, followed by whipping cream.
    • Add the second cake.
    • Top with more whipping cream and some whole strawberries.
    • Try not to eat the whole cake yourself.

Anyone else have any great strawberry recipes?

 

Plant of the week: Honeyberries

If you haven’t yet heard of honeyberries (also known as haskaps), you’re not alone.  These members of the honeysuckle family are native to Russia and parts of Asia, and have only recently begun to become common in Canada.  They look like elongated blueberries, but they taste like a cross between blueberries and… well, you decide!  They have higher level of antioxidants than blueberries, and can be eaten raw or used in recipes that call for blueberries.

Honeyberries will grow just about anywhere, and for a long time–a plant may live for 50 or more years!  They can survive temperatures of -48C.  They’re disease and pest resistant and they yield a lot of berries.  They’re also the first berries of spring.

 

Ideal growing conditions

Honeyberries can be grown in the sun or partial shade.  Most varieties require that you plant a second unrelated specimen for pollination.  Purchase plants from a reputable nursery and plant them in spring or fall–5 of 6 feet apart, in rows that are separated by 8-10 feet.  The plants may grow up to 8 feet in height, so they will need a lot of space.

Water them heavily for the first few years, until the plants are established.  Once they are settled, you probably don’t have to tend to them much unless you want to prune them.

Honeyberries can be grown in containers too.  Ensure that the container is large enough to accommodate the plant as it grows, and enables proper drainage.  The soil should be allowed to dry out between waterings.

 

Harvesting, using, and preserving

When the berries are a dark blue colour all of the way through, they are ready to be picked.  This usually happens three weeks after they turn blue on the outside.  You can pick them individually, or place a large container or tarp under the plant and gently shake it to drop the ripened berries.

Use them as you would use blueberries.  Freeze them raw in Ziploc bags.

 

Friends and foes

  • Honeyberries, like most fruit shrubs, get along with everything.
  • Birds like to eat the fruit, and deer and rabbits like to nibble on the leaves.

 

Weeding tips

Oh, the dreaded weeds, which often seem to fare better than the plants you’ve lovingly sown.  Weed seeds are buried in the soil; the act of digging brings them up to the surface where they germinate, and, if not removed, compete with your plants for nutrients, water, and sunlight.  Here are a few tips on how to keep them under control:

  • If possible, weed after a rainfall, or after you’ve watered the garden.  Weeds are easier to remove when the soil is damp.  Walking on damp soil, though, compacts it, so be careful where you step.  A sunny, windy day after a heavy rainfall is perfect if you also want to avoid mosquitoes and the like.
  • Weed frequently.  It’s easier to remove small, immature plants than larger plants with extensive root systems.
  • Remove the entire plant.  If the plant breaks off above the root, it will likely regrow.  You may need to dig out stubborn weeds or cut their roots with a sharp hoe.
  • If you can’t remove a weed, at least cut off its seed head so that it won’t spread.
  • On hot days, you can leave the weeds you’ve removed on the bare garden earth as mulch, so long as they do not contain seeds.  They’ll break down and release nutrients back into the soil.
  • Sow plants as closely together as is recommended for each type.  The less bare space between them, the less room for weeds to take over.  If possible, use mulch on these bare spaces to shield weeds from the sunlight that they need.
  • Be careful of what you plant next to your garden beds.  Seeds from adjacent plots will drift into your garden.  Having said that, consider leaving some dandelions in your lawn because they’re the first food for some types of bees.
  • To kill weeds that are growing in-between cracks in cement, bricks, and the like, pour boiling water onto them.
  • Consider planting cover crops in the fall.  A bare garden is an invitation for invading seeds to take root.  Cover crops protect the soil from weeds and erosion, and improve its composition once they are tilled under.

As your plants mature, they’ll begin to shade out the weeds, and so the time you spend weeding will decrease.  The time you spend eating delicious produce will increase!