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.


  1. Excellent post! I enjoyed reading the Q&A for both authors. They are inspirational. Good luck with your garden! Last year was a bad year for tomatoes for a lot of people I know. This year looks to be better. Be sure to plant some flowers nearby to attract the pollinators!

  2. Best of luck Jennifer! Loved the interview format and enjoyed learning a few tips!

  3. So excited to hear you're thinking about growing some vegetables and even more excited to hear there's a new Atlantic vegetable growing book available. I'll be on the lookout for this as my own veggie garden will be going into the ground soon. How lucky you are to have a sister-in-law to pester with questions. I'm sure you'll get some great advice from her as you start your new garden.

  4. I think my comment was lost as I got up to answer the phone. Anyway, I said that one year I rented a plot to plant vegetables and had so many that I supplied my whole block.

    I have a raised bed veggie garden now, not very big, but I only grow what we eat. I grow herbs in a large fancy metal container so they don't over grow the garden. I have been through many dissapointments with my veggie garden, having too much shade in my old old house.


  5. Yeh!! You are going to grow veg!! Don't the sound of it you have two great books and women to help you along (own the second one and love it). My only advice is...soil soil soil...use the best you can get, and keep it healthy...and know the ph plants know..lime for peas, acid for tomatoes. Can't wait to see the progress. Cheering for you!!

  6. Wonderful sharing! I learn some very important information. Green crowds out the weeds and spinach bolt in the sun. I need to make some adjustments. I am sure you will eventually do well in vegetable gardening. My first tomato plant didn't give me any yield either. I asked my neighbour about it and he told me to put in some bones in the ground. I didn't do that but I understood his comment that some plants need certain minerals that will ensure the roots are strong. I tried clam shells amongst other things. It worked but I won't brag about it as there are no proper studies.

  7. What a marvellously informative and thoroughly inspiring post, Jennifer! Thank you so much for sharing this and these two incredibly gifted gardeners with us. I would so love a garden like they have and can fully understand why you're so determined to succeed. I do think it is about situation, as a veggie garden does need plenty of sunlight. This is my problem, too...just not enough sun, as my garden is so shady. I am looking forward to following your journey with you as you embark on and progress with this exciting new enterprise :)

  8. I hope your vegetable garden is a success. I think raised beds are the answer. As the recession takes hold, I think more and more people are going to try their hand at vegetable gardening, even on apartment balconies. And, of course, once you do, you're hooked - veggies without chemicals - the best! I'm working to get enough harvest to be able to can to have winter vegetables from my garden, too. Good luck - and enjoy your fresh veggies!

  9. Good Luck. Hope you have fresh vegetables from you garden to your kitchen this year!

  10. Great post, Jennifer! Thanks so much for featuring me and my book. Good luck with your new veggie garden!


  11. So informative post. Good luck on the new garden may your tomatoes be laden with bright red orbs.

  12. Well done. Very informative for us newbie veggie gardeners. Thanks for leaving a comment today, I have been AWOL lately and have missed your posts. How did you do the first photo for your Easter post?

  13. An excellent post, thank you. I learnt a lot!! Good luck with your new veggie garde. Look forward to seeing how you do :)

  14. Thanks everyone for your comments and encouragement.
    Patty, I created the first photo in my Easter post using photoshop. To do something similar yourself, you need a good working knowledge of Photoshop layers and blending modes. Other than that it is relatively straightforward- there is a very clear "recipe" and textures on Kim Klassen's blog here: Let me know if you need any help.

  15. Many thanks for the photoshop information Jennifer. At present it is beyond me but should I ever decide to indulge I know where to go.

  16. What a great interview. I have found vegetable gardening to be harder than flowers, but there are always some successes and they make the effort worthwhile.

  17. This was a great post Jennifer. Many good tips and lots of vegetable growing and eating info. I really enjoyed the interview format too. Nice Photoshopping too.

  18. Jennifer, I enjoyed this informative post. I always love hearing about other authors who have actually completed their book projects! I hope I can say the same some day. Good luck with your new project. I like the advice that says to plant what you enjoy eating the most. I might try some tomatoes this year. I don't have much sun in my yard, but there must be some location that might work!

  19. Great post!! These are women after my own heart since I avoid processed food and try to buy only humanely raised meat. You CAN grow veggies!!! If they can do it, you can do it! Throw a Tums in the tomato pot. It will add needed calcium. :o)

  20. Enjoyed your post and your blog. I will return.


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