Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Collecting Mustard Seed

A few years ago someone gave me mustard seed.  I don't remember who was responsible for the gift.  What I do remember was that I wasn't sure I wanted mustard seed.  I had never eaten mustard as a green and didn't know if I would like it.  But I can't resist a seed and so it was planted one spring with low expectations.  

Look what appeared.

Giant Red Mustard
From a tiny reddish looking seedling giant red leaves grew.  This plant is so pretty you might just want to have it as an ornamental.

red mustard  leaves
But does it taste good?  The answer is yes.  It's got a bit of that horseradish kick so we don't eat it in large quantities but when you want to add a little zing to otherwise bland salad greens this is the way to do it.  Ever since that first planting I'm hooked.

Most salad greens are pulled in summer because they bolt and go to seed.  But I'm a lazy gardener so I let the plants grow and grow.  Now I know why it's called Giant Red Mustard.  Not only are the leaves large but these beauties can reach 4 feet tall in mid-summer.  Like other plants in the mustard family they produce clouds of tiny yellow blossoms.

Bright red and green leaves with yellow flowers.  Pretty stylish plant I'd say.  Once it's done blooming the show still isn't over.  Even the seed pods look good.  Green pods ripen to red and then brown as they dry.

Now if you're going to let you plant flower and produce seed you might as well collect some of it.  Dried mustard pods are easily cracked open to reveal small round seeds, around 10 seeds per pod.

So many seeds in a pod makes for easy collection.  I simply grabbed a paper bag and ran my hands up the stem of the plant pulling the pods off and into the bag.  Some pods broke as I did this releasing the seeds.  I wound up with pods and seeds in my bag which I brought indoors and sorted.

Using a screen to separate pods and seeds
Screens are handy tools when cleaning seeds.  Drop the bag of seed on your screen.  Smoosh it around a bit and the seeds will fall through the screen and the pods will lay on top.

If you don't have a screen don't worry.  Just drop the lot on a piece of paper.  The seeds are heavier than the dried pods and will fall to the bottom.  Scoop the pods off the top, scraping out any excess seeds that haven't fallen out.  Even if you miss a few you will easily have mustard seed for yourself and all your friends.

Mustard is very easy to germinate and grow.  I plant it directly into the garden in early spring as soon as the snow has melted.  The plants prefer cool weather and sprout within a week or so for spring salads.  Pair it with young lettuce to spice up your dinner plate.  or if you prefer plant it just because it's darn good looking.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Gardening for Wildlife

Another great gardening year is long past.  There were many accomplishments this year but the best by far was the continued and increased presence of birds and bees amongst the posies.  I judge my garden by the life it encourages.  A thriving garden with healthy plants will naturally support wildlife.

Each year I plant sunflowers.  I love the big nodding faces.

but what I really love is bluejays.

look close, who's up there?
Every fall as the seeds ripen a cloud of blue birds appear overnight and the feast begins.

Bluejays aren't the only birds around here.   We have mature old birch trees that attract woodpeckers and this year we found a nest.

We didn't manage to capture a picture of the little guy inside but I believe he was a downy woodpecker.

There was another photo I wish I could have captured but alas you'll just have to believe me.  I kept going into the garage to get my garden tools and finding a pair of dark eyed juncos.  They were coming in the cat door and flying around in there.  Occasionally birds come in and get confused.  I usher them out the door and I don't see them again.  Not this pair.  I couldn't understand why they kept coming back in until I heard the peeping.  Eventually I walked in one day to see a tiny little ball of fluff run past my feet.  We were harbouring a nest.  I did finally get a good look at him one day and he was full of feathers and then he disappeared.  Success!  Later in the fall while cleaning up the wreckage of another gardening season I accidentally found the nest.  A tiny thing, just scraps of newspaper, it fell to pieces as I lifted a box off the ground. (p.s. the cats haven't been using the garage lately, they prefer the couch, so the birds were quite safe)

There is something about butterflies that just makes me happy.  The intricate patterns, the delicate wings.  To have butterflies you must have flowers and my garden is still new.  Not many flowers to choose from but oregano has really taken a shine to my veggie patch and is attracting butterflies by the dozens.  The Common Wood Nymph has been visiting the oregano for the last couple years but this year they really outdid themselves.

Clouds of these brown spotted beauties flocked to the tiny purple flowers.

do you see them resting on each branch?
I sat so long watching them that Jody took a photo of me photographing butterflies

They aren't the only ones that appreciate oregano.

I thought these were monarchs at first glimpse and got pretty excited.  Then I wondered why monarchs would feed on oregano when I've read milkweed is their preferred food.  With a little research I discovered they were Viceroys.  Monarchs are poisonous to birds and so the Viceroys disguise themselves as Monarchs to appear less tasty.  Smart insects.

I see bumblebees everywhere in the summer.  Our field of weeds makes them very happy.  Big fat bumbles, smaller honey bees, and wee flies and assorted flying critters take advantage of the clover and asters, goldenrod and yarrow.

Purple asters in fall are perfect bee food
This summer we discovered where bumbles nest.  We were mucking about in the shed, moving boxes and whatnot when suddenly a cloud of bees rose up.  RUN!!

A clump of dead grass that had dropped off the lawnmower is all you need apparently.  Inside that clump of grass was a lumpy yellow mass that looked a bit like insulation.  Yet it was clearly a nest as bees were frantically running all over trying to put it back together.

I didn't want to get too close so the picture is a bit fuzzy
Unfortunately the damage was done.  We were able to get a reasonably good look at it.  Bumbles are so gentle that they didn't even attack us.  They were more confused than anything.  We put the nest outside next to the shed in another clump of grass and hoped for the best.  Sadly I think that was the end of it as I didn't see bees around the shed again this summer.

Overall it was a productive year.  We have more birds, bees, insects, and animals joining us in our yard and I can't imagine anything nicer.  Lawns can be pretty but sterile.  Gardens thrive, creating food and beauty for us, as well as food and shelter for the bugs and critters.  What do you do to encourage wildlife in your garden?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2014 Heirloom Tomato Review

If you read my last post and wondered why I hadn't grown any tomatoes this year - well here they are!!  I grow so many tomatoes, most of them heirloom, that I write a separate post dedicated just to them.

It's always a colourful harvest
Heirloom tomatoes vary so much in colour, shape and taste that we often find ourselves spending hours comparing them for flavour, suitability for cooking and storage.  I try new varieties each year and then we have to compare against old favourites.

Let's see what this year's crop brought us and how they stack up against past years.

To start I should mention that once again the garden was hit with early blight.

The tell tale spots on tomato leaves indicates early blight
Black spots appeared on the leaves close to the main plant stalk in late July.  Those leaves began to die back and then the spots spread.  Eventually it will kill the whole plant.  The good news is that early blight can be dealt with.  Plucking the affected leaves and properly disposing of them can help to stop the spread of the disease.  Also dispose of the mulch around plants as that can harbour the fungus.  I didn't bother plucking leaves and I think that has contributed to my ongoing problem with this fungus.  I need to be more diligent in future.  Even so, the fruit still forms on the plants and is edible and by properly fermenting the seeds you can still collect seed for planting.

Thus far, the only tomato that shows any resistance to this fungus is Mexico Midget.  It isn't entirely resistant but it's better than most.  I actually didn't plant Mexico Midget this year but I had plants regardless.  This plant is more shrublike than any tomato I've ever seen and it produces fruit in the hundreds.  Tiny currant sized fruit that drops all over and replants itself year to year.  I found about 3 Mexico Midgets hiding amongst the onions and the beets, and in bed with the cucumbers.  The only downfall is that these self seeded plants start out late and never fully mature enough to provide a good crop of fruit.

A bowl full of 'cherries'
Yellow Pear also weathered the fungus storm slightly better than most of the other plants.  Beautiful little fruits, they are adorable to look at.  Not terribly sweet, meaty as yellows tend to be but they don't 'taste' yellow Jody says (whatever that means!)  I found them sweet in comparison to a regular large tomato but not so sweet that is really noticeable.

We had one more 'cherry' sized tomato and that was Chadwick Cherry.  These small red tomatoes had good disease resistance and were quite prolific.  The fruit is a little larger than normal for a cherry, and not very sweet but instead has a tangy flavour.  We did enjoy them and they produced a decent haul of fruit in a bad year but I'm still looking for a cherry tomato that will blow my socks off.

The tomato with the worst resistance this year was Copia.  Most of the plants were killed outright.  The couple that survived produced beautiful fruit.  Big fat globes striped in orange and yellow. A champagne of tomatoes Jody called them.  A very bright, light citrusy taste that I adored but considering how badly they did in my garden I'm not sure I would grow them again.

Copia produced large yellow and red striped tomatoes
I have had good disease resistance from Black Plum tomatoes in the past but this year the blight proved too much for them.  We collected only a small amount of fruit but regardless this is my favourite tomato and I will continue to grow it.  The small fruit is perfect for dicing onto salads and the strong smoky flavour is fantastic in everything from soups to salsa.

Kellogs was my least favourite this year.  These large yellow tomatoes ripened early and while not bad to eat I much prefer German Gold and Woodle Orange which we have grown in previous years.  In addition to inferior taste they also suffered from blight and blossom end rot.

From the Left - Clear Pink, Kellogs and Bison
On the other end of the spectrum, Paul Robeson was probably my favourite tomato this year.  They took forever to ripen but when they did we loved them.  This is an excessively large purple tomato with that strong smoky taste that the purple tomatoes seem to have.  That strong taste is delicious in soups and chilli.  Jody called them the merlot to Copia's champagne.  Blight knocked them back but didn't utterly destroy them.

From the far left - Paul Robeson, Clear Pink, Chadwick Cherry, Yellow Pear and Mexico Midget
A bowl of Bison and Copia in the background
For those more interested in traditional tomatoes we had a good year with Clear Pink.  These are rosy pink fruit of regular size and shape.  They had reasonable disease resistance and are just a good all round tomato for whatever needs you have.

The final contestant is Bison.  and really, it's not much of a contest.  I've grown Bison in previous years and Jody keeps begging me to plant them every year.  Bison is a traditional red tomato, good for fresh eating, cooking, whatever you need.  It's best trait is that it's a bush type tomato that  produces vast quantities of tomatoes early in the season and all at once.

There's always plenty of Bison to go around
If you're making soup this is what you need.  A large haul of tomatoes to fill the pot.  The plants were a mess from blight but we still did collected a great number of fruit so it's still a win in my books.

Do you grow heritage tomatoes?  Do you have a favourite variety?  I would love to hear your preferences and recommendations.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 Vegetable Garden Review

I started planning for next year's vegetable garden over the Christmas break.  Figuring out what seed I need to order, where to rotate the crops to next.  I always find it helpful when planning ahead to look at the past year.  Reflecting on what went wrong and what went right helps to plan for what to do next.

A sample from the summer garden
Some plants I have *somewhat* mastered and know what to expect from year to year.  Once again I harvested more carrots than we could eat.  Beans, garlic, basil, dill and lettuce were in abundance as well.  The amount of cucumbers I grew was unreal.  We give away cucumbers like some people do with zucchini.  I grow Tasty Jade cucumbers and they seem resistant to mildew, bugs, hot, cold, wet - anything you can throw at them.  One plant produces a half dozen long english style cucumbers per week in peak season.  We did so good that I took bags of food to the Upper Room Food Bank this year on an almost weekly basis.

Pole beans covered the trellis in no time
Speaking of zucchinis, we didn't get a single one this year.  Not one.  It seems impossible.  They are one of the easiest plants to grow and they produce in vast numbers.  So what happened?  Well the plant grew and started to flower and just when I thought we would get a zucchini ...... I found mould. Fruit rotted, stems dropped off and the whole plant died.  Powdery mildew was to blame.  I had only planted a single plant so we didn't have a back up.  I was reduced to purchasing zucchini at the Farmer's Market.  the shame.

Another disaster was the asparagus.  I planted asparagus seedlings the first year we started this garden.  I've been hoping for asparagus every year since and I am finally throwing in the towel.  Next spring I'm digging them up and giving them away.  The plants are healthy enough but the perennial weeds in my garden keep choking them back so that they never produce enough spears for eating.  I can't get rid of the weeds without dousing the whole place in chemicals so the asparagus will need to go.

Each year I try to grow something new to me and stretch my abilities.  Sometimes it's a small change.  Like garlic.

I discovered a garlic grower here on PEI last winter.  Eureka Garlic grows around 70 varieties of garlic and I just had to try some of them out for myself.  I planted my usual crop of Music.  Then I purchased French Rocambole and Chinook to trial.  Another variety, Susan Delafield, was gifted to me.

Chinook was a miss, the bulbs never formed properly.  But I loved French Rocambole and the extra large bulbs of Susan Delafield.  Some of the best bulbs were put aside and planted in the fall for next year's crop.

A new variety of pumpkin was also grown this season.

Queensland Blue Pumpkins 
I've grown a new variety of pumpkin almost every year we've been here and have yet to decide on one I love.  I first tasted blue pumpkin years ago when I travelled in Australia.  It was my first exposure to pumpkin as a vegetable for eating and not carving.  My memories of those pumpkins drove me to search out Queensland Blue Pumpkin seed for this year's garden.  The vines were large and the yield was low but what a pumpkin!  Beautiful flavour when used in soup.  I am saving seed from these and will continue growing them in future.

I also tried watermelon this year.  It was a long shot but I thought some fruit would be a nice change.  The Yellow Doll seeds sprouted but the plants just never took off.  I collected a couple watermelons the size of golfballs and that was all.  Too cold perhaps.  I picked up some melon seeds at a recent seed exchange and will keep trying for melons next year.

Something completely and entirely new to me was soybeans.  I've never grown these before but will definitely be trying them again.

Gaia Soybean
I found these seeds at a seed swap and planted a half dozen plants to test.  My only problem was I didn't pick the beans early enough and they were starting to harden when I finally got to them.  These are best picked young and eaten with a little salt and butter.  YUM!

Another new to me plant was kale.  I know, this isn't new to most people.  For some reason though I've never eaten kale in my whole life.  Don't know how I missed it but there you go.  At the same seed swap I took a packet of kale seeds on a whim.  and now I love kale.

I've struggled with onions for the past few years.  Starting my plants from seed in the depths of winter, coaxing the seedlings along for months only to see half of them die as soon as they hit the ground.  This year I bought seedlings instead and although it was expensive it was worth it.

messy garage and string upon string of onions
We ate onions all through the summer, donated some and then I dried around 50 or so of them in the fall to keep for the winter.

You know what else did well.  Beets.

Bull's Blood beets have beautiful red leaves
Beets are one of those things I don't seem to have the knack for.  This year was an exception.  I bought new seed for Bull's Blood beets and they grew like I have never had beets grow before.  Maybe it was the fresh seed, maybe the soil is finally healthy enough to support them - I don't know the reason but we had beets galore....  and we discovered we're actually not all that fond of beets.  We don't dislike them.  They're lovely diced fresh onto a salad or roasted with other root vegetables.  But we don't like them enough to eat handfuls of them throughout the summer.

Same went for parsnips.  I finally grew parsnips and I was so pleased.  Not very many but more than we needed.  Parsnip is nice occasionally but not regularly.  Not sure I'll bother with these again.  I would rather plant extra of things we love than waste space on things we only eat occasionally.

Another veggie I try and try to grow well is rutabegas.

This rutabaga looked exactly like a pair of dancing legs to me
I had better success this year but my soil still isn't healthy enough to produce good specimens.  Brown-heart can be found each time I slice one open.  The issue is lack of boron.  I've read about adding Borax to the soil to alleviate this problem but it sounds dangerous as too much can be toxic.  I'm hoping that manure and seaweed additions to the soil will eventually solve this issue.

Overall it was another good season and we collected loads of food to eat fresh and store for the winter.  Today the weather is cold and the garden is sleeping for the winter but we're still enjoying steaming bowls of soup and slices of apple pie.

It doesn't get better than that.