Gleaning

Gleaning is the act of manually gathering produce from farm fields, either because:

  • The field was never harvested.  The produce is extra and will not be sold, or
  • The produce was missed by the harvesting process.

Many food banks grow produce on their own dedicated farms, but they also rely on volunteers to glean produce that has been donated by farmers.

Gleaning is a great way to give back to your community, while spending some time outside, and getting up and close with farming.  Check with your local food bank today to see what volunteer opportunities exist.  🙂

Forget “green thumbs”, and aim for multi-coloured thumbs!

A colourful garden is a delight for adults and kids alike.  Wouldn’t you love to go digging for these beautiful treasures potatoes?

Red, purple, and pink beans are green inside, and turn fully green once cooked–so there is a little bit of magic in them too.  Peppers and tomatoes come in a variety of colours, as do many vegetables.

The best part is that brightly coloured vegetables contain phytochemicals, or phytonutrients, which are plant nutrients that help us stay strong and fight disease.  Here’s a handy chart to keep track of where they’re found and how much you need of each.

Plant of the week: Basil

Basil adds delicious flavour to any dish, and is easy to grow on your balcony, deck, or windowsill.  If you keep it pruned, you can enjoy a bountiful crop from just a few plants.

Ideal growing conditions

Basil is like a lot of us; it loves warmth, and hates the cold.  You can start it inside or sow it directly outside, but don’t set your seeds or plants outside until the soil has warmed to at least 10 degrees Celsius.  You can also grow it on a sunny windowsill in your home.

Sow basil seeds 1/4 inch deep, in well-drained, fertile soil, in a location in which the plants will receive at leave 6-8 hours of sun.  If transplanting, space them at least 4 inches apart.  If direct sowing, thin the plants out as they mature.  Ensure that the soil is kept moist but not soaked, as they are susceptible to root rot.

Basil plants may mature to 6-24 inches tall, if you allow them to, but the secret in growing a lot of basil is to prune your plants.  Once they develop 6 leaves, pinch a couple off.  This will encourage the plant to grow outwards instead of upwards.  Continue to prune the plant each time it reaches 6-8 inches, and pinch off any blossoms that form.

You can also plant basil by taking a 4 inch cutting from an established plant that has not flowered, and placing it in water.  After it has developed roots, it is ready to be transferred into soil.

Types

There are many interesting and beautiful varieties of basil.  The most common types are sweet basil and purple basil.  You may also wish to try lemon basil, Thai basil (which has a licorice flavour), cinnamon basil, Greek basil, or other varieties.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

As you prune your plants, or after you harvest the whole plant, you can freeze or dry the leaves or sprigs.

  • To freeze basil, chop the leaves up and add them to oil or water, and freeze this mixture in an ice cube tray, or simply freeze whole sprigs in freezer bags.
  • To dry basil, place the leaves in a well-ventilated area out of the sun and let them dry naturally over the course of a few days, frequently turning them over.  Or, you can put them in the oven on the lowest setting, keeping the door open so they won’t overheat.  Drying diminishes the flavour.

Add basil to salads, soups, and sauces, or make pesto.  When adding basil to cooked dishes, add it last, as cooking diminishes the flavour.

 

Friends

  • Asparagus
  • Herbs
  • Lettuce
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes

Foes

  • Thyme

Fun facts

  • Basil is said to deter mosquitoes.  Plant it near places you spend the most time outdoors.
  • Basil has been cultivated for around 5000 years.

Grow your own sprouts

Seeds are full of nutrients that may be difficult for your body to digest fully.  Sprouting makes proteins, enzymes, essential fatty acids, starches, vitamins, and other important nutrients bioavailable for digestion.

It’s easy to grow sprouts in small spaces, and to suit any tastes: try mung beans,  radishes, sunflowers, alfalfa, lentils, and more.

What you’ll need

  • Seeds, specifically marketed for sprouting (available at your local health food store).  Sprouting seeds are sanitized; regular seeds may harbour potentially dangerous contaminants.
  • Glass mason jars with rings
  • Mesh that you can use to cover the ends of the jars, such as needlework canvas or cheese cloth.  Cut it to fit within the rings.  To assemble, place the mesh over the end of the jar, then screw the ring over it.

To grow sprouts

  1. Sterilize your jars as you would for canning.
  2. Place one type of seeds in each jar.  The amount varies according to the type of seed; refer to the instructions on the package.  Generally, you can place ~2 tbsp. of seeds in each jar.
  3. Cover the seeds with water, and ensure that there is at least an inch of water above the seeds.
  4. Place the mesh and ring on the jar and tighten; place the jar on a sunny countertop.
  5. Let the seeds sit in the water for 8-12 hours.
  6. Drain the water through the mesh lid.
  7. Rinse the seeds, gently shaking the jar to make sure the water reaches all of the seeds, then drain the jar and set it on its side so that the seeds are more or less evenly dispersed.
  8. Repeat step 7 twice a day until the sprouts reach the desired size.
  9. Use your sprouts immediately, or put them in the fridge in a plastic bag or sealed container for up to a week.

Sprouts aren’t just for salads, stir-fries, and smoothies!  Sprouted bread is a nutrient-rich an alternative to traditional wheat-based breads.

 

 

 

Saving seeds, part I

Vegetables that produce quickly, such as the radishes photographed above, will quickly go to seed if allowed to.  These little pods contain seeds that you can plant right away (if there is time for a second crop, as there is as of this writing) or save for next year.

When we talk about saving seeds, we often talk about collecting seeds dry or wet.  Wet seeds are contained within fleshy fruits such as tomatoes and squash.  Dry seeds are often contained within pods, such as beans, peas, and radishes.  Dry seeds can remain on the plant until the pod is dry (or until the frost hits).

Saving seeds using the dry method

  1. If possible, let the pods dry on the plant.
  2. Pick the pods on a hot, dry day.  You don’t want them to be damp to start with.
  3. Shell the pods, and spread the seeds out on a screen or paper to dry fully.  I like to place a screen on a laundry drying rack to maximize airflow, then gently shake the screen now and then to rotate the seeds.  Obviously, some seeds will be too small for screens, so paper will have to suffice.  You can also use little mesh bags that garlic is sold in if you don’t have the space to lay out a screen (try tying the bags from above so that the seeds can hang to dry).
  4. After the seeds are completely dry, put them in an airtight container and store them in a dry place.  I liked to use mason jars because it’s easy to identify, by looking through the glass, what type of seed is inside (but label accordingly).

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Plant of the week: Raspberries

Raspberries are an excellent source of vitamin C and phytochemicals, as well as calcium, iron, and potassium.  They contain more fibre than any other fresh fruit; their seeds contain vitamin E.

Ideal growing conditions

Raspberries are robust plants that tolerate a wide range of climates and soil, however, they prefer soil that is neutral or slightly acidic, rich in compost, and that drains well.  They do not like to get their feet wet.

Raspberries are extremely prolific.  They produce underground runners that will shoot  up new plants all around your original plants (which is why it is important to carefully plan their location).  In the first year, the plants will grow vegetation only; in the second year they produce fruit on canes that may reach four feet in height.

Do not plant them in areas in which potatoes, tomatoes, or peppers recently grew.   You can purchase raspberry plants as potted plants, or dormant, bare-root plants.  Better yet, get some runners from a friend.  Plant bare-root transplants in the spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. Potted transplants and runners can go in any time after all threat of frost has passed.

In the spring, weed and mulch your plants.  In the fall, cut back the dry, dead canes.  They’re easy to distinguish from new green canes.

You may wish to train your plants to grow on trellises or other forms of support to make it easier for you to pick the berries when they are ripe.  They also do well in raised beds, and some varieties can be potted.

Types

Raspberries may be red, yellow, or black.

Summer-bearing raspberries produce fruit in the summer, on two year old canes.  You should remove canes that are three or more years old.

Everbearing or primocane-fruiting raspberries produce fruit in the spring, on two year old canes.  In the fall, they produce berries on the tips of the new canes that grew over the summer.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Raspberries are easy to pick; if the fruit does not come off easily, it’s not ready.  They will not continue to ripen after they have been picked.

Raspberries spoil easily, so don’t pick them if it is wet or too hot.  Use them immediately, or put them in the fridge or freezer.  They are best when eaten right away.

Raspberries can be used in salads, desserts, and all manner of preserves.  Throw them in a freezer bag and enjoy them in the winter in fruit crisps, smoothies, fruit salads, and more!

Friends

  • Chives
  • Garlic
  • Legumes
  • Turnips

Foes

  • Blackberries
  • Potatoes

Fun facts

  • Each raspberry is made up 100-120 tiny fruits called drupelets, which are clustered around the core. Each drupelet contains one seed.
  • When you pick a raspberry, the stem of the raspberry remains with the plant. When you pick a blackberry, the core comes away from the plant (it stays in the centre of the berry).  This is an easy way to distinguish a black raspberry from a blackberry.
  • Raspberries have been used to create new types of berries.  For example, a theloganberry is a cross between raspberries and a blackberries, and a boysenberry is a mix of red raspberries, blackberries, and loganberries.

 

Harvesting baby potatoes

Not only are potato blossoms beautiful, but they’re a signal that your plants are producing tubers.  A couple of weeks after your plants blossom, you can start carefully digging around for baby potatoes. Baby potatoes are sweeter than full-grown potatoes, as their sugars have not yet been converted to starch.

 

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Potato blossoms

 

If your soil is loose and dry, it’s easy to remove baby potatoes.  Starting several inches away from the plant, root around in the dirt with your fingers, careful not to break the roots, and remove the larger potatoes, leaving the smaller ones to mature.  If your soil is compact and or wet, you’ll need to use some sort of tool to gently pry up the dirt, while minimizing disruption to the roots and avoiding damage to the tubers themselves.  I prefer to use a hand weed digger to gently loosen the clods of dirt and then use my hands to find the tubers.

 

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Baby potato, weed digger, and uh – weeds!

 

Whichever method you use, ensure that you gently place the roots back in place and fill the soil back in.  Potatoes that are exposed to the sun will turn green, which makes them somewhat toxic!

The potatoes you leave in the ground will continue to grow, but you will not increase your harvest of potatoes overall by harvesting some as babies and the rest later, when the plant naturally dies off.

 

How’s it growing?

Well, it is mid-way through July, so that means it’s mid-way through the growing season for eastern Ontario, assuming that you started the first of your plants outside in late March or April, and the frost will arrive in October.

How are things growing?

This summer has been unusually cool, and very, very wet.  Last year, we were in the midst of a near-drought.  This year, the corn and soy fields around here are standing in water.  The slugs and snails are taking up residence in my gardens.  Oh, and some of the gardens were hit by hail.

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Hail, not a welcome sight in June

But all’s not lost.  Actually, nothing is lost yet.  We planted a wide variety of species and types.  If a few varieties don’t do well with the excess rain and cooler temperatures, others will likely be okay.  Meanwhile, monoculture crops are much more vulnerable.  A diverse backyard garden will endure climate irregularities much better than a farm that grows many acres of one or two varieties each of corn and soy.  So, don’t despair–diversify!

Our status report:

  • The hail machine-gunned anything with a broad leaf, as well as the corn, and knocked over a few celery stalks, but 2.5 weeks later, everything has perked back up, other than a few unsightly greens that we weren’t planning to eat anyway (rutabaga leaves, etc.).
  • The strawberries loved the cooler weather.  We had a bumper crop until the hail came through and shortened the season.  But, they’re everbearing, so they’ll be back.
  • The celery is loving all of the rain.
  • The peppers are not happy with the cool, wet weather, so the plants have remained small, but they’re still producing large fruit.  There is still time for them to put more energy into their plants, if the rain ever stops!
  • The brassicas are happy with the cooler weather, and don’t seem to have suffered too much due to the hail.  The cabbages are starting to form.

 

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Purple cabbage

 

  • The carrots and potatoes are much bigger this year than they were last year at the same time.
  • The snails and slugs are getting fat.  I keep the gardens weeded and check for them under leaves, where they take shelter from the sun.
  • I should have planted rice!  Just kidding.  Maybe.  🙂

What about you?  How are your crops faring this year?

 

Plant of the week: Cucumbers

Cucumbers are around 95% water, but they’re a decent source of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as potassium and fibre.  They’re also one of the lowest calorie fruits (yes, fruits!).

Ideal growing conditions

Cucumbers like heat and water, and rich soil with a pH of around 6-7.  Start your seedlings indoors.  A couple of weeks after the last frost, prepare a site for them in the sun, or in a sheltered spot (if the heat in your area is extreme–they don’t like to be scorched).  Build a mound of compost that is about a foot wide and a foot deep.  For vining varieties, refer to the instructions to see how much space they need between them (typically each mound will need to be about 3-5 feet apart).  Bush varieties will need less space.

Vining varieties require support in the form of trellises, fences, or stakes.  These also help to keep the fruit clean, and reduce pests, such as cucumber beetles (see that yellow and black-striped guy in the middle of the photo?).  You may wish to mulch your plants with straw to reduce pests such as the aforementioned beetles, and slugs, neither of which like straw.

To encourage stronger growth, you may wish to cut the tip of the vine after a half a dozen leaves have formed, and also after it’s reached the top of its support.  The plants will form both male and female flowers.

Ensure that you water your plants regularly, but avoid getting the leaves wet, as this can lead to disease.   If the weather is too hot or cold, or plants do not get enough water, the fruit may be bitter.

Types

  • There are two types of plants: vines and bushes.
  • There are a few types of fruit:
    • Pickling cucumbers are picked when they are around 2 inches long, and used for sliced pickles.  They have less water content than slicing cucumbers, and tend to get bitter if allowed to grow larger.
    • Dill cucumbers are used for dill pickles.  They are picked when they are 4-6 inches long; otherwise, they are similar to pickling cucumbers, above.
    • Slicing cucumbers are eaten fresh, and occasionally pickled.  They are picked when they are 6-8 inches long.  They have a higher water content and more pleasing flavour and texture than pickling cucumbers.
    • Burpless cucumbers are sweeter than the above varieties, and have a thinner skin.  They are nearly seedless.
  • Cucumbers can be green, white, yellow, or striped.
  • Some varieties of cucumber, such as the Spacemaster variety shown above, can be used for pickling or slicing.

 

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Carefully twist the fruits off the vine when they reach the size indicated above.  Don’t let them get yellow; they’re best when uniformly green and firm.  They will keep in the fridge for a week or so.  Keep the fruit picked, or else the plants will stop producing (they are really good at hiding under their canopies of leaves!).

Cucumbers are excellent in salads, soups, smoothies, and even for facial applications!  We will feature some pickling recipes later this summer.

Friends

  • Beans
  • Cabbage family
  • Carrots
  • Corn
  • Dill
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Radishes
  • Tomatoes

Foes

  • Sage
  • Potatoes

Fun facts

  • Dill and cucumbers get along in the pickle jar and in the garden; dill attracts insects that feed on the pests that feed on cucumbers.
  • Cucumbers are believed to have originated in the northern sub-Himalayan plains of India.

Hügelkultur

Hügelkultur is a method of growing plants in conditions similar to that of a forest floor.  It involves building a mound that consists of the following layers, from bottom to top:

  • Logs, branches, and twigs
  • Old leaves and/or straw
  • Grass clippings and other plant cuttings
  • Mature compost
  • Topsoil

You can make it as big or small as you like.  Depending on how high you want the mound to be, you can place these layers directly over soil, or dig a trench in which to build it.  With time, as the materials break down, the mound will sink.  I built a Hügelkultur with a small mound of branches, leaves, grass clippings, aged horse manure, and soil, and the pumpkin plants are much larger and prolific than in previous years.

The benefits

  • As the materials in the centre of the Hügelkultur decompose:
    • The temperature of the soil rises, which means you get a longer growing season (for the first few years).
    • Nutrients are released into the soil, improving its fertility.
    • The rotting wood becomes more porous, allowing it to store water like a sponge, then gradually release it to the nearby plants.  Hügelkulturs can even be used in deserts.
    • Air pockets are created, which improve for drainage and encourage healthy roots to grow
  • You can use up your yard waste, fallen logs, grass clippings, and pruned branches–it’s a great way to recycle (just don’t use cedar or black walnut branches).  You will need to feed it more compost as it ages.
  • You can cover up poor soil, even cement, with a nutrient-rich garden.
  • It’s a simple way to make a raised bed.  You can add edging to it if you like.