Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Good Life Project: falling into winter

Some more writing I did last year for consideration for Isuni's "Living the Good Life" book project. A version of this appeared in our "Island Tides" newspaper last February. Here's a link to the paper:

My Garden Year: Falling into Winter (2nd week of November to Winter Solstice)

Next year, I'm going to have my best garden yet!

This is such an inspiring time of year for me. As winter solstice approaches, I'm feeling the beginnings of a new garden season, full of new ideas, promise and hope. I love new beginnings. I think I must really have it bad - the gardening bug - because in the fall, as I'm still cleaning up the past summer's garden, I get that familiar feeling of creative anxiety welling up in my belly. I start getting excited about planting and growing things in the summer sunshine again!

Visions of beautiful concentric circles of different coloured baby lettuces dance in my head. Tidy groupings of carrots and broccoli that grow big and wonderful with no wireworm or cabbage moth damage. All the weeds under control. Cabbages that look like giant flowers. Sunflowers standing tall and shining bright and sweet pea flowers that smell divine. I can't wait!

Enough of all this fanciful dreaming, there's a lot of serious planning that has to happen now. A wise woman once told me, "Walk the mystical path with practical feet." So let's start planning next summer's garden!

Crop rotation and companion planting are the first things I think about when I'm beginning to plan my garden year. When we garden year after year with the intention of growing our own food it's really important to rotate the crops. This is because if we don't, we'll deplete the soil of important nutrient balances and encourage plant and soil diseases and pests that are attracted to the area if we've planted the same thing in the same place year after year.

A happy garden that's grown naturally without synthetic chemicals is a garden where plants that are good for each other are planted together and plants that aren't compatible are kept at a distance. So in my mind, crop rotation goes hand in hand with thoughtful companion planting.

To garden with a crop rotation plan, we need to start with a basic understanding of the different plant families. This is a big topic and feels a little too much like biology class to me which really gets in the way of my more enjoyable and creative gardening thoughts so I'll just share how I try to keep it simple at my place:

In my garden, I focus on organizing my food crops into these groups:
1. the cabbage family which includes broccoli and cauliflower, and the lovely brussels sprouts too,
2. the allium family, garlic, onions, leeks and chives,
3. the legume family which in my garden is beans and peas,
4. the tomato family which includes potatoes, peppers and eggplant too,
5. the carrot family which includes dill, fennel, parsley and celery,
6. the squash family, cucumbers, melons and pumpkins too,
7. spinach, beets and chard,
8. lettuce and some other salad greens,
9. and corn stands alone.

The idea is that every year I'll plant each family in a different spot. After 4 years the families can return to the same bed they grew in 4 years ago. And around and around it goes.

I like to draw a simple map of my garden every year where I write in what grew where. At this time of year, in the late fall and winter when I'm dreaming of next summer's best garden ever, I take out my drawings from the past 3 years and get out my row markers that are labelled things like "carrots" and "green bush beans" and "garlic". I begin to place them in the new year's beds, making sure they don't go into a bed they were in on my last 3 years of drawings. Even though it's kind of like a puzzle, it works surprisingly well for me. There are many ways of doing this and probably the best way for each of us to figure it out is by doing it.

While I'm deciding on the different plant families I'll grow and how I'll organize the rotation I get to figure out which plants will grow side by side and which ones I'll keep away from each other. Companion Planting! Now this gets really fun. So many creative possibilities. Dream. Plan. Create. Herbs. Vegetables. Flowers.

There are some things I always grow together like cabbages and lemon gem marigolds. Not only do the marigolds discourage the cabbage moth from laying it's eggs on my cabbages, it makes my heart sing every time I look at it because the little yellow flowers peeking out from around the cabbages are just so beautiful.

One of the best known examples of efficient and beautiful companion planting is The Three Sisters plant combination, originally a Native American approach to growing maize, beans and squash. This combination is now found in modern home gardens everywhere. I love planting The Three Sisters in my garden! When I lived in the city I grew this combo in big half barrel containers. Last year in my Mayne Island garden, I grew my Three Sisters in a round bed about six feet in diameter. I planted 16 sweet corn plants in the center, a whole bunch of bush bean seeds all around the corn plants (3 of these were pole beans so they could climb the corn to show off their lovely red flowers but didn't smother it) and six winter squash plants around the edge of the bed, mingling with the beans and circling the corn forest in the center. This little garden produced a load of green beans for many of our summertime dinners, most of the corn plants produced 2 ears of sweet corn each (what a summertime delicacy!) and my squash plants yielded 9 orange beauties for winter storage. All from a teeny tiny piece of earth. One of my gardening successes!

The reason this companion combination works so well is because beans and other legumes have the miraculous ability to draw nitrogen from the air and bring it to the soil through their roots. Since corn needs a lot of nitrogen to do well, it loves growing together with the beans that supply it with the nitrogen. The corn in return, gives the beans something to hold onto and climb. Squash loves the nitrogen from the beans too. As the vines grow and spread over the ground, the squash serves as a living mulch, keeping the soil moist and keeping weeds from growing. Symbiotic relationship, the beauty of companion planting.

For some winter reading and learning, the classic and well known companion planting guide "Carrots Love Tomatoes" by Louise Riotte is a nice place to start.

Happy Winter Solstice! May your dreams of the best garden yet come true!

The Good Life Project: gardening my way to a good life on Mayne Island

I thought I'd finish off this year's postings by sharing this article that I wrote and submitted for ISUNI's "Living the Good Life" book project over a year ago.......

A couple years ago I joined a meeting with the Islands Sustainability Initiative (ISUNI) folks on Mayne Island and became interested in their "Living the Good Life Project".
The project's intention is to share ideas about how to create an island lifestyle where we consume less, lowering our carbon footprint and to look for local feedback and information that'll help us create the vision of a collective sustainable lifestyle.

Our discussion got me thinking about Scott and Helen Nearing and their well-known book "The Good Life" that tells the story of their years of self-sufficient living. I remembered a quote of Scott Nearing's I had read long ago that I never forgot.
It still leaves me with such a strong feeling:
"Do the best that you can in the place where you are and be kind."
Wow! Timeless. Inspiring. So simply said, yet so challenging to live day to day.

I'm hearing the word sustainable used a lot these days and so I've thought about what that really means to me.
For me, evolving my lifestyle into a more sustainable one means building a garden that can produce food and flowers for myself and my little neighbourhood. It's my way into a life where I can do the best I can, in the place where I am.
It gives me focus, a way to live more in harmony with my values.

As I work to make the garden productive and beautiful day to day, season in, season out, year after year, I notice myself being and doing with a stronger sense of my own place in the natural world. I'm more intimately connected with the cycle of life and it calms me.
I don't feel silly anymore talking to the owls that come to visit me as I hoe my rows. I also feel a deeper responsibility to the land.
The fulfillment and happiness that I experience as I achieve some of my gardening and food growing goals gets me feeling really good which makes being kind so much easier: kindness flows more often, more naturally.

"Do the best that you can in the place where you are and be kind."
It seems to me there are probably as many ways to achieve this as there are individual people. These days, my way is with my garden.

It can be overwhelming to think about the environmental and cultural changes humankind needs to make to lower our carbon footprint and live sustainably on this planet.
Sometimes it makes me fear that growing my own food is too insignificant.
But I don't care, I'm going to do it anyway.
Will you join me?

Let's build a small garden plot to begin, just big enough to start growing our own daily cut-and-come-again salads. (about 4'x6') Let's make some compost, let's gather some rainwater. We'll enjoy some home grown salad, we'll let some plants go to seed, save some seed, plant again.
It takes time. It'll be a process.
Let's trade the baby greens in the plastic boxes from California for some beautiful, tender and delicious morsels that we've grown in our own yard, in our own soil, with our own water, surrounded by the same air we breath and our own sparkling sunshine. Let's feel the joy while we massage our sore backs and try to get all the dirt out from underneath our fingernails. Let's reduce some of our negative impact on our environment.
Let's go grow some of our own food!

I open my garden to visitors in the summer and when folks visit, they often tell me about how they want to have a vegetable garden of their own and ask me how I knew where to start, how I did it and how they can do it. (Everybody wants to garden!)

I began building my garden on Mayne Island 7 years ago.
I made growing at least some of my own food a priority in my life and I remember giving myself permission to start slowly. I needed to learn to do by doing. It helped me to remember that creating a successful productive garden is a process, like life itself and that failures are an important aspect of learning.

One of my favourite easy low stress ways of creating a new garden bed is the way I did it when I started 7 years ago. I've found it ideal to begin in the fall since it'll sit over winter and be ready in time for spring salad planting. It works any time of year, though.

I cover my new chosen area (which usually starts out very grassy, weedy, compacted and rocky) with a layer of newspaper and then I cover that with compost and maple leaves, manure and straw, wood ashes from the wood stove, chopped up nettles from beside the pond, grass clippings, whatever is in season when I'm inspired to make the new growing bed,(or if I'm ambitious and organized, I stockpile good stuff all year). Then I put it out of my mind for a few months and move on to other things.
I come back to it in 6-8 months (even up to a year sometimes) with a pitchfork and turn over the mulches and newspaper (which have started to break down in place), mix them up, remove rocks, add more compost on top and that is the birth of a lovely new garden bed. Now the lettuce seeds can be planted!

For the new food grower, this will be the beginning of an exciting adventure of learning to do by doing. Do the best you can in the place where you are and be kind. Sow some seeds and see what happens. Start another bed the same way right beside the first one!

Mistakes and crop failures will happen. The first time I planted lettuce seeds in my new bed, the new seedlings began to wilt and die. I was very disappointed. That's how I learned that I had wireworms in my soil and now I know more than I ever wanted to know about wireworms. But even though many plants died, I still had some delicious salads!

I've noticed that for me, gardening is most enjoyable when I think ahead and give it lots of time. Maybe this is true for all of us.
So fine tune your new beds over a couple years. Over the years, as compost is added, the soil will get so beautiful, you can dig out the rocks little by little and you can find the way of gardening that is best for you.
It takes time.

Self-study is one of my favourite things. This year, during the dark and rainy days of winter, spend a few evenings reading a book about how to build a garden plot. Two good ones that I like are "Square Foot Gardening" by Mel Bartholomew and "Lasagna Gardening" by Patricia Lanza.
I'm wishing you fun and inspiration!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

potatoes in containers

I had such a lovely day working outside today. No wind, no rain, a little sun, thank goodness. When it came time to think about dinner, I decided to harvest a pot of potatoes that I planted for winter new potatoes and thought I'd share my year-round new potato growing idea here.
It all started last year when I experimented with planting some Yukon Gold potatoes in a garden bed on labour day weekend. In January the garden was covered with a foot of snow (we had an unusually cold winter on the coast last year) but I was surprised and happy to see that when I moved the snow away and dug through the soil I found a lovely crop of new potatoes ready to be harvested! What a fabulous treat.
That summer I had also experimented with growing potatoes in containers and it worked beautifully. Many of the city-dwelling visitors to the garden went away interested in trying this on their balconies! Below is a 1/2 wine barrel growing Russian Blue potatoes.

This year, I decided I'd try to grow Seiglinde potatoes in containers to help with the production for my weekly veggie harvest basket deliveries and also for our own food throughout the year. Below is a photo of the containers all lined up.

I begin by putting about 2 inches of soil in the bottom of the container. I then set 4 small seed potatoes (or pieces of potatoes that have sprouts on them if they're large to start with) around the edge and 1 in the middle. I cover them with another 2 inches of soil and wait for the seed potato sprouts to grow about 4-6 inches tall. I then add more soil to almost cover the new green growth and let them grow again and then add the last layer of soil to fill the container and give them the maximum room to grow. I plant up the containers at different times throughout the season so I have a constant supply. There are always containers at different stages of growth and this year each container got planted 3 times from late February to early September.
New idea for next year: instead of filling the containers up to the top with soil, I'm going to cover the new growth with grass clippings, old hay, straw.
Here's me harvesting my container of new potatoes for dinner....see how the potato growth has turned all brown and is decaying....

The potting soil has been used for all 3 plantings. I'm now dumping the container fulls from this last winter crop into an area where I want to create a new garden bed. It'll help create some nice soil there.

Just over 4 lbs of beautiful unblemished potatoes this time. One of these pots will produce anywhere between 4 to 6 lbs. depending on how big I let the potatoes get before I harvest them.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

a winter wind storm

Every year at this time, living and gardening for me involves cleaning up big messes after big wind storms. This week has brought us 2 big wind storms with a couple of big trees down. Last night was dramatically windy. Our power went out and we felt a big thump that shook our house. We're getting quite accustomed to this in November and this morning we went out on our morning-after walk to inspect the scene after the storm. An alder was taken down by a big fir whose root also involved a few smaller firs. Luckily this was far away from any buildings or fences or gardens. It was probably this that shook the earth last night.

Here Chris and the dogs are inspecting another tree down in an old compost pile area that I'm planning to make into a new garden area for cut flower the prep will take much longer. It smushed a plastic compost bin, pails I use to collect manure in, left over fencing and rebar and a bunch of other stuff that I was temporarily storing here 'til I could find a proper home for them. A nice mess that someone with a big chainsaw will have to come help me with. Winter has arrived!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

falling leaves

It's the season to collect fallen leaves and I've been raking up a storm.
In our neck of the woods, we have a lot of big leaf maple trees.
Visions of rich brown crumbly leaf mould for next year's garden are on my mind these days.

Leaf mould is simply composted deciduous tree leaves.
In my garden, I leave many of the tree and shrub leaves to decompose where they fall, just as nature intended but I also want extra leaf mould for my veggie beds.
Since I decided I wanted to make lots of it this year, I've been collecting leaves at my place from around the edges of the forest....

....and because I need more leaves than I have at my place, I'm collecting from my neighbour's yard as well. Below, we're unloading a truckful of leaves onto a tarp and will drag it to the wire enclosures where the leaves will sit and rot. After about a year, it will become a beautiful super-duper premium soil amendment that I'll add to my garden beds. An abundant renewable natural resource!

Leaf mould is not high in nutrients like garden compost. It improves the quality of the soil because it's full of beneficial organisms and earthworms love it. It also keeps the soil light and helps with water retention. I'm really looking forward to having a nice combination of homemade compost and leaf mould for my garden next year!

Below is one of my new leaf collection areas. I've hammered the rebar stakes in place and now all I have to do is fit the wire mesh around them to create the wire enclosure. Then all the leaves will get stuffed in. I've composted leaves without an enclosure which works fine too.

The beginnings of another leafy pile in a different area of the garden. Eventually I'd like to have a few of these sculptural installations placed throughout the garden so I have the lovely stuff available to spread on my beds near wherever I may be working.

When I want to use my collected leaves right away, I put a little more work into it and run over the leaves with the lawnmower. This creates a beautiful mulch of dry leaves and grass clippings that can go on my beds right away. When the leaves are shredded into smaller pieces and mixed with nitrogen rich grass clippings, they'll break down faster over the winter and will become part of the soil in the spring. The photo below shows what my shredded mulch looks like.

I think creating valuable leaf mould mulch is something every gardener might want to try. It's so simple!

Friday, November 13, 2009

A beautiful sunny fall day today

The plum tree has lost all it's leaves and now we can see the beautiful winter-time shape of it's branches. I love the shadows the branches and sun create on the cob wall.

The beautyberry shrub has lost all it's leaves too but not it's gorgeous berries. (these branches are so fabulous in fall arrangements)
The cardoons are still leafy. They're really nice in fall arrangements too.

The smokebush leaves are changing colour and are beginning to fall. These will be good to add to the leaf mould piles.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

building the new greenhouse beds today

I'm so excited about my new greenhouse.
My imagination is running wild with visions of delicious salad greens in the winter-time and sweet, juicy tomatoes of all colours in the summer-time.
Here I am today, preparing my beds and creating a center pathway. I'm amazed at how different the climate is inside than outside....can't wait to grow stuff!!
In October, Brian Steele and his helper Bill installed this awesome 10' x 40' poytunnel in my garden (I wish I had thought to take pictures) and I'm SO happy about it! I think Brian has designed and fabricated the answer to the serious food gardeners' prayers with this wonderful polytunnel!
His website:
Soon I'll be seeding spinach, cilantro and lettuces.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The garlic is planted!

This year I planted my garlic on the 2 days after the full moon. Some folks believe that when the moon wanes after it has been full, a strong gravitational pull is created that draws more energy down into the soil and into root growth. That's why the few days after a full moon are believed to be the best time to plant garlic which is a bulb and needs to develop it's roots once it's planted. I don't know that much about it but I'm attracted to the idea of following the phases of the moon while I garden. This year, the 2 days after the November full moon, the 3rd and the 4th seemed like really good timing for planting garlic here on the coast.

Many folks who visit the garden tell me they'd like to grow garlic and ask me how to do it.

So here's what I do:

1. Prepare a growing spot. Garlic likes rich soil with lots of organic matter. I add composted manure, garden compost and complete organic fertilizer to my growing beds.

2. In late October or early November I separate the cloves of the planting bulbs. I try to do this just before I plant. Be careful not to damage them...I have read that a little nick can encourage disease in the soil to develop as the clove sits during our long wet coastal winters. You can buy planting garlic from organic farmers in your community or from seed companies that sell it.

Here's a snapshot of some garlic cloves separated and waiting to be planted.

3. I plant the cloves into trenches I've made in the soil or sometimes I make holes with a dibble and place each clove in the hole, pointy end up. Each plant will need about 4-6 inches between it and it's neighbour to grow into a nice big bulb. I put each clove down about 4-6 inches and cover the hole with soil.

Below, I'm placing the cloves into the soil.

4. When the cloves are all planted and covered with soil, I mulch with a nice thick layer of compost. I don't mulch with straw over the winter.
Later in the season, (April or May) I'll add more compost and mulch with straw to help keep the soil from getting too dry. I have to be careful to conserve water and am fortunate to have a garden in a very wet area. If it's a really dry spring I may water 2 or 3 times but last year I didn't water at all. My garlic probably would have been larger if I had watered it but it's still good. You'll have to plan for water collecting if you garden in a very dry spot.

5. Around the beginning of June, I'll remove the scapes which are the curly flower stalk of the garlic plant. I've read that if this is removed, the plant puts it's growing energy into producing a larger bulb underground, rather than producing seeds. Some people have told me that they don't think this makes any difference but I love the pesto I make from the scapes, so I remove them for a tasty late spring treat!

Removing and collecting the scapes from the garlic plants.

6. I do my best to keep the bed weeded and in July, I harvest my garlic bulbs when I see that the bottom 3 or 4 leaves are dead and the top few are still green. I often pull a couple just to make sure it's ready.

7. After the garlic is pulled, I cure it in my shed that is cool, protected from the sun and well ventilated by an occasional sea breeze. I don't think it's a very good idea to cure it in the sun. After 3-4 weeks of this curing, it's ready to clean up and take to the kitchen.

Below is a photo of the harvested garlic curing on racks under the garden workshop roof. For some folks, it's more convenient to bundle the plants up in groups of 6-8 and hang them from the ceiling to dry.

One of the things I love about my garlic crop is that it gives me 3 harvests during the growing season:

1. Early in spring or sometimes even in late winter I harvest some new little plants and use them as I would green onions, mostly chopped up and thrown into something, even just a salad. Yum! What a welcome taste of fresh green flavour at that time of year.

2. In June, I harvest the scapes and make Garlic Scape Pesto.

3. And in July, I finally get to harvest the bulbs!

The first year I grew garlic I was so excited to realize that I could keep the stalks on some of my bulbs and use them as kitchen decoration first, before we eat them. The stalks can be put in a vase with the bulb up, displayed as a garlic bouquet. It looks lovely! Folks love receiving this as a gift too.

I'm wishing you great success with your garlic crop this year!

How Christina's Garden began

Many folks have asked me why and how I started this garden so here's an answer, sorta simplified:
In 2001 we moved to our new place in the forest by the sea. In the beginning, I set up my jewellery studio in the garden with the intention to continue my work as a designer and maker selling at shows and to shops and galleries. I also planned to open the studio to summer time visitors while I began building the garden environment around it.

I was certain that I needed and wanted to grow alot of our own food so I began to do that by turning the grass into growing beds, installing fencing to protect my gardens from all the deer and planning other infrastructure. It became clear to me that I was taking on a massive project.

Visitors visited, looked at the jewellery, bought some jewellery, walked around the garden and soon began asking if they could buy flower bouquets and some of the garlic they saw growing.
So I made bouquets and sold them and sold some garlic too. I learned that I really liked growing food and flowers for the folks in my little neighbourhood so I did more of it the following year.

Nowadays I grow enough vegetables and flowers to make flower bouquets and vegetable baskets for delivery to weekly and biweekly customers. I also do flowers for weddings and other events that take place on the island. I have a wonderful regular clientele that keeps growing every year. I grow lots of our own food too! My jewellery studio is in disarray, waiting for my attention.

There's still so much I need to do in order to create the sort of beautiful and efficient production garden that I dream of and I continue the work of developing that many ideas to work on for the future!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Christina's Garden blog!!

The full moon is here tomorrow and I have a new blog for the garden. I'm so excited!

As I endeavour to live life in harmony with nature, I make my best efforts to pay attention to the phases of the moon.
The New Moon is said to be a powerful time for setting intentions and the Full Moon is the time when those things come to fruition.
This month, at this Full Moon time I'm so grateful for what has emerged from my intention setting at New Moon time.....this blog!

My hope is that I'll enjoy sharing my garden-growing lifestyle related experiences here and that others I connect with will also enjoy it. And maybe we'll all learn a few things too :)
Thanks for reading!