Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Breaking New Ground

It may be an act of pure insanity, but I have decided to add new beds to my already large, barely manageable garden.

More flowers beds? Actually, no. This time, I am breaking new ground so-to-speak. I am going to try my hand at vegetable gardening!

As well as adding to my workload, I will also be putting my gardening skills to the test. If experience is any indication, my prospects for a bountiful harvest of homegrown vegetables is not promising. In the past, I attempted to grow herbs and tomatoes in my Circle Garden at the back of our property with limited success. A few unstoppable herbs like oregano thrived, but sun-lovers like dill, and tarragon always faded and disappeared. In the end, I put my failure to produce anything but a limited variety of herbs and the scrawniest of tomatoes to the lack of sufficient sunlight in this area of the backyard.

Last summer, I figured it was time for a new location, so I tried to grow my tomatoes in a pot. I have no idea where I went wrong- the pot was generous, the soil, rich and the sunlight, ample. I even watered them religiously! Despite my best efforts and intentions, the plants languished and failed to produce a single tomato.

Given my track record, you might think that I would stick with flowers, but that stubborn streak in me refuses to wave the flag of surrender just yet. Seeing impressive harvests on other garden blogs has inspired me and dreams of toasted tomato sandwiches has motivated me further.

This spring I am starting afresh, with new raised planting beds (more on that later). And to insure greater success with this bold new plan, I have decided to consult with two gardeners with years of experience in successfully growing vegetables in a limited urban space.

The first is Andrea Bellamy, a garden writer and the founder of the blog Heavy PetalShe lives in Vancouver, British Columbia,where she grows a wide range of organic edibles on her balcony and in a local community garden. She has recently published Sugar Snaps and Strawberries, which focuses on growing organic vegetables in an urban space.

Q: Congratulations on Sugar Snaps and Strawberries. It's a great book. Tell me a little bit about the transition from blogger to published author.

A: I always loved to write, and I have always wanted to write a book. After university, I began working as an advertising copywriter, but it wasn't all that fulfilling. I began writing about gardening because it merged two of my great loves--gardening and writing. In 2005, I started the blog Heavy Petal, and three years later, was approached by Timber Press. At the time, I was hugely pregnant, and wasn't sure how I'd handle writing a book and having a new baby, but I knew that I had to do it. And now, I've got a toddler and a brand new book! It's been an incredible experience.

Q: Tell me a little about Sugar Snaps and Strawberries.

A: My book walks you through the basics of planning, creating and tending an organic food garden in a small space. This is the book that I wished I had when I was a new gardener. And that's who I wrote it for: the new gardener. Someone who wants inspiration, as well as the straight goods on how to successfully grow food. But I also wrote it for the advanced food gardener. It's meant to be a long-lived reference book that you will pick up year after year. I am particularly proud of the A-Z reference section, which lists most of the common edibles from apples to zucchini. I even referenced it when planning my spring garden!

Andrea's garden

Q: Gone are the days when the utilitarian family vegetable patch was discreetly tucked into an unseen corner of a suburban backyard. Tell me about what you describe in your book as the "grow your own revolution."

A:  We're undergoing a huge cultural shift surrounding our relationship with food. People are moving away from processed foods, and becoming more aware of where their food comes from. There are so many great reasons to grow food. Foodies want to enhance the dishes they're preparing; locavores want to eat more sustainably; the thrifty DIY set wants to take matters into their own hands. Growing edibles allows you to know exactly what went into producing them, far more than any "organic" label on your produce. And of course, you can't get much more local than your own backyard or balcony. But the bottom line is that growing food is satisfying. It can be challenging, but it's also a lot of fun.

Q: This spring I am planting a vegetable garden for the first time. Any sage words of advice?

A: Plant what you love to eat. If you are invested in and excited about what you are growing, you're more likely to give it the care it needs to thrive...and be eaten. Also, it's easy to get carried away and plant too much. Take it easy until you know just how much garden you can handle. Finally, have fun! Plant easy-to-grow edibles (there's a list in my book), and just look at the whole thing as an experiment. You'll have successes and failures-learn from both and apply that knowledge to next year's garden.

Q: Now that your book is published, what are your next projects?

A: I'll be doing a lot of speaking on edible garden topics this summer, and may also be writing another book, but right now, I'd just like to spend some time in my poor neglected garden!

On the other end of the country, in Nova Scotia, is my sister-in-law Elizabeth, an avid vegetable gardener. By day she is Elizabeth Peirce, modest and well mannered writer, editor and sometimes-professor. However by night, on weekends and yes, sometimes when she calls in sick, she is furiously at work in her kitchen and garden. Her most recent book, Grow Organic: a simple guide to organic vegetable gardening, has just been nominated for the "Best Atlantic Published Book"award. Who better to turn to for a little advice?

Q: First off, I have to congratulate you, Elizabeth, on your recent nomination. Tell me a little bit about the premise behind Grow Organic.

A: Thanks! The book is part guide, part autobiography and was a joy to write. it came about partly as a result of my love of gardening books of all kinds and my concurrent frustration that everyone of those books seemed to be written in California or some other fantastic growing climate. One day, a friend and editor at Nimbus Publishing asked me to write a book for her and other beginning gardeners from an Atlantic Canadian perspective and everything came together.

Q: There seems to be a general movement to people not only eating more locally grown produce, but also to growing vegetables and herbs in their own backyards. Tell me how this trend is taking hold in Nova Scotia.

A: Urban farming is in the news a lot in Halifax these days, with the demolition of the old Queen Elizabeth High School and a proposed community garden to be built on the site. We are also lucky to have two urban farms in our area: the Spryfield Urban Farm Museum and the Cole Harbor Heritage Farm - poignant reminders of the era before urban sprawl covered farmland.
At book signings and garden shows, I'm always happy to see how many 20 and 30-somethings seem inspired to dig up their lawns and attempt a first vegetable garden. It could be the bad economy, a burgeoning green consciousness, or just a desire to eat more local food; whatever the motivation, it's been lovely to witness.

Q: As an enthusiastic foodie, you have been quoted as saying that we have been "corrupted by food systems where convenience and ease reign." With women leading such busy lives, working both inside and outside of the home, most of us struggle to get dinner on the table at the end of a long day. Why do you think it is important to balance convenience with quality?

A: It is my belief that our health suffers when we fall under the spell of "convenience". When we pop convenience foods into the microwave, with no thought as to their provenance or nutritional content, we are harming ourselves and our local farming economies in a profound way.
As a new mother, though, I can appreciate the struggle to prepare good food. In my neck of the woods, savvy pregnant women are now having "freezer-filling" parties rather than baby showers: this is a great way to stock up on decent food before you get too sleep-deprived that you don't care what you are eating!
I also think that it is a myth that healthy food is somehow too complicated to prepare to be convenient. What's easier than putting a piece of fish under the broiler, steaming some broccoli or boiling a pot of brown rice that you can eat all week?

Q: You and your husband are great environmentalists. The installation of a wind powered generator on the roof of your home in Halifax, Nova Scotia was a first for the city. Most recently, I understand that you have built a solar greenhouse. Tell us about this exciting project.

A: The solar greenhouse came about as an adjunct to the new garage that my husband, Ian, built (the quintessential male place of refuge!). An engineer and marvelous carpenter, he designed the greenhouse himself after we took a course in passive solar design and construction offered by local architect and solar visionary, Don Roscoe.
The back wall and floor of the greenhouse are concrete slabs, which act as a thermal mass in absorbing the sun's heat. In mid-February, the temperature inside the greenhouse reached 25-30 degrees Celsius on bright days! That's when we started our peas and salad greens-- now, in early April, it's closer to 40 degrees in there--too hot for greens. I am now starting about 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in old paper cups out there right now; they should be ready to set out in early June.

Q: It seems that picking is a dying art, yet you have set out on a one woman mission to restore the almost lost art of preserving food. What has lead you to be such a devoted advocate of picking and preserving food?

A: I am genetically predisposed to picking: my grandparents were masters and taught me everything they knew about preserving the harvest. Older generations seem to have a far better grasp on the horrors of wasting food--perhaps because they lived through the Great Depression. In any case, my family had a large vegetable garden in the summer and there was always a surplus of produce that we canned, froze, or dried for the winter. Potatoes lived through the winter in a specially-built cold room: carrots were packed away in crates of sawdust in an insulated nook in the garage, onions were laid out on clothing racks to be dried, and more perishable items like peas, Swiss chard, beans and zucchini were blanched and put in the freezer. Nothing went to waste, in my recollection.
Pickles were my grandmother's specialty: bread and butters, dills, icicles, mustard pickle, tomato ketchup-she did them all! I remember the special shelf on which she kept the many sizes of Mason jars-I loved to look at them and imagine the many kinds of pickles and jellies they must have contained in their lifetimes. To this day, I never buy ketchup or gherkins, if I can help it: why bother if you have got some spare cucumbers lying around in September? Pickling is a cost-effective, easy, and delicious way to preserve food- no refrigeration needed! And pickles look gorgeous on kitchen shelves in winter.

Q: Now that your book, Grow Organic has received such a positive response, what's up next for you?

A: I'm actually about to start a book on preserving! My publisher is interested in the subject and so (obviously) am I. That and trying to keep up with our two-month-old son's exponential growth ought to keep me busy for a while!
Elizabeth and her son William

Q: Any advice for my vegetable garden?

A: A few things that I tell beginning gardeners: I maximize the space I have by planting intensively; greens especially seem to work well when thickly sown- you can thin them by harvesting, and the greens will crowd out the weeds, making less work.
My second tip is to use the sunniest spot that you have available for sun-loving plants like tomatoes, peppers and herbs. Reserve the shadier spots for greens (especially spinach plants, which bolt in the sun), peas, onions and brassicas.

To learn more about Andrea's book, Sugar Snaps and Strawberries, and to visit her blog, click here: Heavy Petal. To find out more about Elizabeth's book, Grow Organic, and her seasonal classes in pickling summer produce, visit her website here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Soft Side of Easter

While I naturally tend to gravitate toward vivid colors, I also like the whisper of soft pastel shades. 

There is something beautiful and romantic in the muted voice of delicate shades of 
pink, yellow, blue and green.

I bought this bunny a number of years ago. Isn't he a handsome fellow?

These are tissue paper roses my Mom gave me once upon a time.

To create the eggs above, first remove the contents through a small hole of either end. 

Years and years ago, I took a quilting class with my Mom. At the end of the course, a fellow student invited all the ladies over for a luncheon at her home. 

This woman's husband had been in the services and so they had traveled extensively in Europe. As souvenirs of the countries they visited, she had collected colorful, hand-painted eggs. I remember being struck by the beauty of these eggs, which had been gathered into large bowls. Scattered throughout the living room, the clusters of bright colored eggs were as fresh and cheerful as bouquets of spring flowers.

The quilting did not stick with me, but the egg painting did. Every year, I paint a few new Easter eggs. 

The three eggs in the foreground of the picture above are created by painting a natural egg with light washes of watercolor paint. I finish them with a clear coat of water-based varnish. (I prefer a spray application for this project.)

These eggs were made using a decoupage method. Cut out pretty floral illustrations with a fine pair of scissors and glue them onto an egg shell. (You could easily use papier-mâché eggs for this method.) Finish with clear water-based varnish.

The eggs in the jar were purchased, but you could easily replicate them by first painting an undercoat of a deep colored paint. Then, apply a transparent crackle medium ( Michael's). When the crackle medium is dry, apply a lighter colored top coat of paint. Cracks will appear as the top coat dries. Finish with clear, water-based varnish.

The eggs in the foreground are made using artist's pastel crayons. Color the eggs with a few complimentary shades of the crayons. Smudge the crayon lines with a tissue or soft cloth. Then, take some acrylic watercolor paint and apply a light wash over top of the blurred crayon lines. The crayon will act like a resist. Finish with clear, water-based varnish.

Today I am participating in Texture Tuesday with Kim Klassen. I added her Sweet Treat and Silence textures texture to my images. Click the link here to see the other entries.

Friday, April 15, 2011


With spring so late this year, there is not a blessed, bloody thing blooming in my garden, but a few diminutive crocus. There are no pretty daffodils, no colorful tulips. Even my magnolia has refused to open in the cool weather.

I figure, that if I was to present pictures of my pretty, but oh-so-common crocuses for GBBD, you would probably roll your eyes, while struggling for the words to write in a comment about blooms that are so profoundly unexciting. So, in search of a more interesting post, I made my first foray to the local nursery to see what was blooming there.

Money for new garden flowers is in short supply this spring and I want to try to stay within a very limited budget. I am determined to stick to the spring wish list I have drawn up. (We will see how long that lasts!)

So when I arrived at the nursery, I quickly walked by the displays of Easter flowers, so as not to get distracted. 

Okay-I got a little distracted! I stopped for a second to admire the paper thin blooms of some Ranunculus bulbs in flower.

I have been admiring all the hellebores in everybody's blog posts and really would like to have some in my garden. The selection available at this nursery however was disappointing however, so it wasn't hard to pass them by. (My favorites have been dark plum hellebores.)

The first plant to wink at me was this Jacob's Ladder. What is not most striking about this plant is not the flowers which are a soft blue, but rather the foliage, which is a soft green, with a rose colored accents.

In the end, I decided it was a toss up between 'Jack Frost' and this variety called 'Looking glass'(shown above). I couldn't make a decision, so I decided to wait and get one on my next visit.

White Bleeding Heart 'Dicentra spectabilis alba'

I so pleased with my white and pink bleeding hearts, that I want to add one of the more unusual varieties to my collection. Sadly, I have tried these smaller varieties in the past, with limited success. I am not at all sure where I have gone wrong.

At my garden clubs monthly meeting, we had David Tomlinson as a guest speaker. He has the most amazing garden (called Merlin's Hollow) in Aurora, Ontario and is a plantsman with years and years of experience. David grows most of his perennials from seed. 

When he does buy plants at a nursery, he takes them home and washes all the soil from the roots. He is convinced that the perlite, in the growing medium that most plants are potted up, with is hugely detrimental to the new plants chances of over wintering. Apparently, the perlite encourages air pockets to form and that puts the young plant's roots at risk when the ground freezes. After he washes the roots, David re-pots the plant in good soil and allows it to recover, before planting it in the garden.

This is the first I have ever heard of this, but I wonder if he is not correct.

Dicentra Formosa 'Adrian Bloom'

I really liked the deep rose color of this variety called "King of Hearts', but in the end, I decided on the variety named 'Luxuriant'. Given my poor success rate with these varieties in the past, I wonder if I should I re-pot it as David Tomlinson suggests.

Foam Flower Tiarella 'Sugar and Spice'

Here is a pretty temptress. Foam flower is great plant for shade. I have had limited success with it because it is so dry here in late summer, but if you have a shaded, consistently moist spot, it is real charmer.

I saved a visit to the vast display of pansies for last. Who can resist their happy faces? I bought several colors for my urns and window boxes.

Next month, I hope to have some blooms in my own garden to show you. Many thanks to Carol for hosting GBBD. To see other gardens have in bloom click here.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Pussy Willows

Spring is finally here!

Despite the fact that she is late this year, spring is not offering any explanation or making any apologies. She is, after all, a force of nature who does just as she pleases.

On Saturday, we enjoyed a wonderful sunny day here; the first really warm day of the season.  With the last of the snow now gone, my spring bulbs are finally brave enough to poke their heads up out of the soil.

Pussy willows have appeared along with the fine weather.  Every spring, the lady across the street gathers them in bunches and puts them out for sale on her front lawn.

What kind of good neighbor would I be if I didn't buy a few bunches?

 So soft and furry! Were you fond of pussy willows as a child too?

I took a few of the branches and twisted them together. I fastened each of the ends with a twist tie, bent the branches into a gentle curve, and inserted the ends into a small bucket of water. The pressure of the curved branches against the side of the bucket seemed to be enough to keep them in the shape of a handle. Then to finish it off my little arrangement, I added purple hyacinths.

The rest of the pussy willows went into a tall, cylindrical, glass vase.

In the past, I always put my pussy willow branches into water. Tiny yellow flower buds and leaves quickly emerged. 

When I bought my branches last Saturday however, I noticed my neighbor had them standing in empty buckets. No water. I surmise that this method keeps the branches in stasis. So I am going to give it a try.

Pussy willows (salix discolor) are easy to grow from a cutting. Give the branch a fresh cut and place it in water. When roots develop, plant the branch in the ground. (You don't take my word for it- visit Martha for the goods on multiplying pussy willows.)

Today I am participating in Texture Tuesday with Kim Klassen. I added her Warm Sun texture to my images. Click the link here to see the other entries.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Color Essay Number 11: Burgundy

The bouquet of carnations in my front hall has got me thinking about the color burgundy and its uses in the garden. (Carnations are so common that you can forget to appreciate them for little beauties they are. Not only are they inexpensive, I find they last forever as a cut flower. I always try to pick a bouquet that have a rich, spicy scent.)

In the garden burgundy is a color that can be found not only in flowers, but leaves and stems as well. Without further delay, let's take a look at great places to find burgundy in the garden. 

In my garden and elsewhere as noted, I hope you will find a few ideas of how to inject a bit of burgundy into your planing schemes.

Burgundy hollyhocks in a neighbor's garden.

Burgundy hollyhocks look pretty mixed in with different shades of pink here in the Lucy 
Maud Montgomery garden in Norval, Ontario.

A daylily from my own garden. Sorry, I am not sure of the variety.

Japanese Blood Grass in the background with the burgundy stems of Heuchera (coral bells)
 in bloom in the foreground. Private garden in  Eramosa Township.

Deep burgundy mix with peachy pink dahlia in this bouquet from the local farmer's market.

"Purple Petticoats"a new Heuchera that I added to the front garden last fall.

I have been trying to resist Barberry because I hate their fine, sharp thorns, but when I see a planting like this, I find my resolve weakening. Lost Horizon's Nursery, Acton, Ontario.

In terms of trees, Japanese Maples are a great way to add a hit of burgundy into an 
expanse of green leaves. Lost Horizon's Nursery, Acton, Ontario.

A final bit of burgundy in my front garden. Mums, which I add to my beds in the fall, help to keep the flowers going into late October.

The dark stems of my Dogwood carry the color burgundy right through the winter. 
This shot is from Canada Blooms.

Have a great weekend!