Community Gardens

It’s 2011 and my brother Kevin is in. Libby and I have managed our community garden plot for the past three years, but now we add our brother, Kevin — vegetarian; Buddhist — and now, gardener. We taught Kevin the ins and outs of tilling this Saturday. We showed him the evil that is horse tail and how to hunt it down. He was triumphant in pulling out the Mother of All Dandlelions.

Kevin displays the "one that DIDN'T get away"

The garden is now completely turned. We had the whole crew: Libby, Kevin and his and their girls: Kathryn, Jacqueline and Elly. They entertained themselves remarkably while we wrestled with unwanted flora in the early spring soil.

Elly, Jacq and Kathyrn attest to their support

There was latent garlic already sprouting, so I pulled it apart and gave each little plant room. I’ve started leeks and Walla Walla onions at home in little baby greenhouses. And, on Sunday, I started our Roma tomatoes. Oh, so exciting. According to the package, we will have our crop on July 11. Let’s see how that turns out!

Casey, Kevin and Libby. We're grinning because we don't know how stiff we'll be in 24 hours!


I bit the bullet and slogged over to the garden with tools and my gardening bag today, girded for battle. I bagged all of the tomatoes and tomato plants I naively threw on the compost yesterday. That was a job in itself. Then I attacked the garden, finding a few more sick tomatoes and bits of vine which I added to the bags to make sure none of the fungus stays over the winter. Then I got into the backbreaking work of digging to get down a good 6 inches, then working by hand, breaking up clumps. My obsession is to pull as many roots out as I can — particularly those of the incredibly invasive horsetail. It drives me NUTS! There is a new, succulent sort of weed as well that seems virulent — kind of cute and clover-like, but I’m not fooled! No idea what it is, but I have a hate on for it. It cuddles up to my beets and my arugula, hoping I won’t notice it!! You need to get down about 1 1/2 – 2 inches to get at the roots (maybe it’s more like 4 inches?) pull out the roots and ditch them. Same for the horsetail which burrows much deeper, at least up to 6 inches and it’s EVERYWHERE. In this violent shifting, I disprupted some of our two beet crops, but carefully replanted anything I uprooted. It has been my experience in the past that they will take, given some rain, which Russ Lecate has promised tomorrow.

I planted a row of tiny French garlic and three rows of the much larger and more robust looking Russian red garlic. As per Mansur’s admonitions, I built up furrows and planted these about 2 or 3 inches apart along each furrow. I didn’t water anything as I’m now quite blight fearful and it will rain of its own volition soon enough.

I met Mansur’s wife for the second time today. We introduced ourselves this time and I learned that her name is Gaylene. She is calm and measured and she plants a TIDY GARDEN! Her green onions are like little soldiers waiting for review. She and her lovely little daughter harvested potatoes today. Mansur had planted them and then, above, had inverted 1 gallon black buckets with the bottoms cut off. Into these, they had poured nice soil. The potatoes shot up into the buckets, filling them with lovely, unblemished potatoes. What a great idea.  I offered Gaylene some of our kale, as we have been blessed with a bumper crop. She offered my rosemary, but I’ve been lucky in my home herb garden this year and have lots.

Final score on the garden trip today, I feel like I beat the coming weather. I’m very sore and tired, but the sick tomatoes are gone and the garlic is in. Bring it on, fall. I’m ready.

It’s blowing a gale outside today with the sun shining benevolently through it all. I seem to notice that every seasonal change (the real one, not the one on the calendar) is ushered in by a windstorm. As windstorms go, this one is downright pleasant, but a windstorm just the same. My instincts to batten down the hatches kicked into full gear this morning.

I ran into Ann at the SunOpta West organic market around noon. Ann is my “neighbour” at the garden. She eats predominantly raw food and tends her garden with great care. She’s been doing this longer than I have and is generous with her knowledge. I told her that a big bunch of tomatoes I had harvested last week had gone off. I must have thrown out about 10 lbs. of them. With the few remaining good ones, I made 2 lovely pizzas Margherita last night. The problem, Ann said, is blight. It hits your plants unless you cover them. Neil Bromhall’s blog here on WordPress explains blight well.

So, I went to the garden this afternoon to see what the state of affairs was on the plants and was very disappointed to see that every piece of fruit had blight, even the green tomatoes. Bucking my usual tendency to simply walk away and hope it all goes away somehow, I pulled up all the plants. I gathered and stacked the 18 cages and then took all of the rotting tomatoes and added them to the compost. Post script here, after reading Neil’s blog, I realize I’ll have to go pick up everything out of the compost and bag it tomorrow otherwise, next year, the blight will just pick up where it left off. Tomorrow I’ll go and dig up everything well, get rid of the horsetail (yeah, right….) clean things up and plant garlic. That will soothe the sting of losing my beautiful plants, grown from seed this spring and lovingly tended all summer. They served us well, though. I would guess we’ve harvested about 70 lbs. of tomatoes in all. I’ve given them to friends and neighbours, made sauce and tomato paste and about 6 pizzas. There were salads and sandwiches. They were all yummy and sweet and tasted of summer.

But fall is coming. I’m determined to see it not as an end, as I always have, but as a beginning. I’m breaking the meme I’ve grown accustomed to serving. Fall will be about warmth and light and family and food. The beginning of the together times. So, blow all you like, wind. I’m ready for fall.

My sister, Paula, is a bit of anachronism. Once my baby sibling with a firey attitude, she has become a proficient “mountain woman” who laughs at cold (I, on the other hand, do NOT laugh at cold). Paula cans things, dries things and she pickles things.

Ray and I went to Winfield (just a few ticks north of Kelowna in the Okanagan) to stay with her this weekend. I brought about 15 pounds of our little plum tomatoes and an armload of fresh sage. I always knew that Paula canned peaches and made jam and pickled beets. She’s dried enough cherries to feed a small town, but she’s run up a few new tricks. She had dried sliced leeks and chopped peppers — of every colour. Fabulous! The smell of these little treasures was amazing and they will bring happiness to soups, stews and fried potatoes all winter. She set me up with one of her five driers (all purchased for a song at garage sales) and I broke all of the sage off the branches and set those up to dry.

We went to the Kelowna public market on Saturday morning and bought massive Walla Walla onions and perfect little carrots from Zelaney’s Farm. The Zelaney’s handle and sell vegetables like they’re hand-raised puppies. It’s like they know and love everything they grow and it shows in the exceptional produce and the beautiful faces of everyone who works there. Then we discovered smoked garlic at another little stand that sold Italian, French, Russian Red and several other fresh garlics as well as this exotic smoked stuff. Stick your nose in THAT brown bag and tell me you don’t have an out-of-body experience! Paula put some of that with carmelized onions on pizza that night. What a treat.

Some of the peppers before they were chopped and dried. Paula Diakiw 2009.

Some of the peppers before they were chopped and dried. Paula Diakiw 2009.

Paula also bought about 10 lbs. of leeks and more peppers. So I spent Saturday afternoon cleaning and chopping these and into the drier they went. Within 10 hours we had oodles more of both to add to her bounty and we parsed some out for ourselves and a few lucky family members. It’s amazing how much flavour and aroma gets trapped in the dried food. I crunched some of the leeks onto fried potatoes on Sunday morning and they added so much!

Spectacular Mount Robson, near Tête Jaune Cache in B.C.

Spectacular Mount Robson, near Tête Jaune Cache in B.C. t%EAte%20jaune%20cache.htm

On Monday (Labour Day) more friends arrived with their harvest from Tête Jaune Cache (pronounced by the locals as “Teejon”). JP and Alisha live “off the grid” on 9 acres of undeveloped land — no running water, no electricity, no roads. They had picked up JP’s mom, Josée from big-city Montréal at the airport and, after canning and drying at Paula’s, were headed up to show her how the other 1/99th live.

Paula (left) and Alisha in Churchill, Manitoba to see the Polar Bears. Jim Baldwin, 2008.

Paula (left) and Alisha in Churchill, Manitoba to see the Polar Bears. Jim Baldwin, 2008.

They brought beets the size of turnips, huge cucumbers and various other harvested treasures, all awaiting Paula’s expert advice on how best to process them for a winter that will make them a necessary staple along with the deer that JP can kill by the time the snow gets serious. They live in the wilderness with a moose of a dog named Hilo. He earns his keep intimidating nosey bears and thus protecting his people. He appears to be an Akita in the front and a St. Bernard in the back. He’s all muscle and brute force, but he is a real pussycat for affection. However, we were required to sequester Paula’s kitty,  as Hilo is in the habit of eating cats in a bite or two…literally. They also have a new puppy named Leon with the cutest ears. He looks like a husky cross and is as smart as a whip. Both dogs eat only raw food. In the summer, that’s whole raw chicken backs, bone and all. In the winter, it’s the waste from the deer that JP butchers himself. Hilo’s massive jaws make the bones look like marshmallows. I asked JP how he learned to butcher the deer. He says a Métis friend of his taught him the ropes, and now he butchers with so much more care than someone you might hire. He’s careful with how close he cuts to the bone to make the most out of a cut. He sounds passionate about the craft.

It was an interesting education, meeting these seemingly normal people who choose to live with only the barest essentials and make their way as a lifelong learning process unfolds. It was serendipity that they happened by this weekend, when I was really starting to understand how Paula’s harvesting instincts can tighten the 100-mile diet circle.

The end product of Paula, Josées and Alisha's canning on Labour Day. Paula Diakiw. 2009.

The end product of Paula, Josées and Alisha's canning on Labour Day. Paula Diakiw. 2009.

So, I got “schooled” by a gentleman named Mansur on Saturday. I commented on his fabulous corn (looks like the stuff real farmers grow) and that opened the floodgates. Turns out, Mansur is a scientist (of what sort, he did not expand upon, only that it wasn’t botany). He told me (are you writing this down?) that nitrogen starved soil will be rife with clover. He said something about what shortage caused the nasty, low-lying dandelions we get, but I was distracted and didn’t catch it. He also reinforced something I’ve heard before — never walk directly on your soil. Lay down 2X4s between rows and walk on those. He promptly examined my garden and, even though I had pulled out all of the clover, he pronounced it short on the middle number of the fertilizer — nitrogen. I told him I had some organic fish fertilizer and he said that it was “OK” but far too expensive.

Turns out, I Don’t Know Sh*t
Chicken manure is the answer to my prayers, he tells me. Mansur instructed that chicken poop is added to cattle feed to enrich it (who knew?) and so, by the time it’s been through the cow (insert bad visual here), it’s wasted a lot of its nutrients. So you gotta go with the chicken manure itself. But, oh, there is a METHOD!

You need furrows (the ones between my eyebrows were deepening as he spoke). Mound up the soil around the plants. This conical formation allows better root development. This develops furrows beside the plants. This is where you must put the water and, when the time is right, the chicken manure. I asked him if the time was right for my tomatoes. He said “two weeks ago…”. Great. He told me that tomato plants go through three complete cycles. They form green growth, form flowers and then form fruit. They do this exactly three times. When Mansur examined the new flowers on my tomatoes, damned if they weren’t a bit pekid looking…perhaps even a bit shrivelly. I wasn’t about to have my beautiful babies go into the dark night. I scrambled back on Sunday with my fish fertilizer and carefully fed them underneath their leaves. Mansur had made it quite clear that you should not put this stuff or any water on the leaves, especially this time of year. I heard this from another very experienced gardener (who I *think* was named Trudy?) who said that if the leaves don’t have time to dry before nightfall, they get blight (which originates in the soil).

More of Mansur’s wisdom
Mansur harvests his green onions, uses the tops and then replants the bulbs and gets more green onions. I’m not sure why he doesn’t just lop off the tops and leave the bulbs in, but maybe they like an outing now and then. He tells me he uses his beet greens in borscht (I did NOT know that middle eastern people knew borscht from ham soy gah).

I told him I stir fried mine. He didn’t seem interested. He has an incredible variety of food in his garden. Oats (I must ask him about those next time), arugula, basil, tarragon, rosemary, beets, corn, beans and more. He says that it’s really his wife’s garden. He was contemplating disentangling the beans from the corn (apparently she envisioned some sort of symbiosis here) but he was afraid she’d kill him. Apparently she’s on a road trip for two weeks. I said, well, you could start running now and you’d have a really good head start! Apparently, Mansur’s fear of the fairer sex didn’t filter down to his daughter. If she so much as showed up at his side, he told her to get away and not interrupt, chalking a point up to my mother who’s current crusade is to have all children mute and immobile in her presence…but THAT is another blog entirely.

So, I’m harvesting about 18 gorgeous romas a day from our plants. I guess that makes one per plant, per day. We’ve eaten them sliced (SOOOOO sweet), I’ve made sauce and I’m toying with canning my own tomato paste. They have been a great joy. The arugula babies are coming along as are the striped beet babies. The weather is perfect. I’d swear I was in San Gimingnano. Other than the looming deadline of teaching starting in a week and a blessed increase in work for us, I’d almost believe it.

My idealized garden, the view from San Gimingnano. photo by Casey Hrynkow 2006/

My idealized garden, the view from San Gimingnano. photo by Casey Hrynkow 2006.

Just a few days from my last post and, even though it is still very warm, you can feel fall coming. I don’t know if it’s the colour of the light, the angle of it, or the slightly shorter days but it just feels different. So I’m getting excited about the winter gardening and thinking back to what worked this past spring and summer.

At the beginning of this season, we were plagued with slugs eating tender young leaves on our beans. Libby found out that egg shells sometimes help. They really do! We crunched up washed egg shells and spread them as a perimeter around each plant. It stopped the slug damage immediately.

I have planted arugula in the last week and I know the slugs will be looking for it, so I’ve been saving egg shells for a few weeks and just putting them in plastic bags in the freezer. It will give me a great stock of them right when I need them. I’m thinking about putting some arugula under my kitchen window as well. Might do that this week.

The other growing problem at the community garden is the less than ideal soil. We’ve taken two actions on this one. One was to get my daughter Cass, who works at Starbucks, to save me coffee grounds every few weeks. We used these to side dress plants and, just like the rest of us, they seem to thrive with the coffee! We can also get inexpensive compost at the solid waste facility in Delta. We do compost at home, but the harvest is meagre and I generally use it in my home gardens. At the dump, we drop off some junk, then pick up some compost in the empty garbage can. Libby worked this in around the plants and that has helped a lot.

I found out from New Moon Acres that one mustn’t plant garlic beside onions…so I’m sizing up the lay of the land, deciding where I can put the garlic where it can lay undisturbed through the spring and into next summer, without taking away real estate we’ll need next spring. It’s a bit like garden chess…

Meanwhile, I made yummy bruscetta tonight with some of our beautiful tomatoes and basil which I grow here at the house. And even with using up quite a few tomatoes, I have a lot left, so tomorrow we make sauce again!

OK, I have totally failed as a consistent blogger, but I resolve to do better from here on in.

We got going a little earlier this year and were spared any over-helpful neighbours, so it’s been a real joy and an opportunity to actually learn. The weather has been completely on our side — no June-uary this year. Long, warm (and some VERY hot) days. Arugula would have failed miserably, bolting out of control. I have just planted this past weekend as it is apparently much happier in cooler weather.

When we got to the garden in the spring, we found that last year’s leeks were perfect and ready to harvest. We both made wonderful soups with the bounty and I’ve discovered the wonder of slowly sautéed leeks. They carmellize and become sweet enhancements to savoury dishes. Libby and I planted separately and decided to see what worked. I put in beans this year — bortolottis that I dried from last year and favas. I started them in the back yard in little starter pots, along with tomatoes from seed. I bought the tomato seeds from Bosa Foods, an entirely Italian superstore in Vancouver that is a foodie’s nirvana.

I planted 18 tomato plant babies, lovingly watering and then caging them. I couldn’t bear to not plant one, even though there are so many. I gave a few to other gardeners in the community, but my 18 stayed with me. They are now a forest of fabulous and fruitful roma tomatoes. I get about a dozen a day right now. I’ve made two batches of beautiful, basic tomato sauce to freeze. The plants are quite close together, their cages touching. I didn’t know what that would do, but they have seemed to love it. I was worried when they started bearing fruit that they might be too crowded, so I transplanted three away from the group to test the results. Honestly, if there is a difference, it is that the ones with more room have done less well. Tomatoes appear to be very social — at least Italian ones!

My favas grew fast and strong and then — I had no idea that this was de rigeur — the aphids appeared. They are, apparently, like butter to popcorn. You can’t have one without the other. Aphid damage is evident on all favas, no matter where you find them. It doesn’t affect the beans except in extreme cases, but it makes harvesting a gooey and itchy affair. Next year, to avoid this, I will plant nasturtiums and sunflowers to distract the little suckers. It won’t eliminate them, but with a bit of strong hosing and brave wiping, I should be able to keep them at bay. I managed to get enough beans to make wonderful paste to smear on toasted garlic bread…absolutely marvellous. I have done this many times over with the additional beans I’ve bought at the local market. I can’t get enough of them!

The bortolottis were a bit disappointing. I got about two good bunches, but the aphids plagued them, too, to a lesser degree. I will plant them a bit earlier, directly in the soil next year and give it another go.

Now Libby, on the other hand, went with beets again. They have been fabulous. Sweet roots and gorgeous greens to stir fry. She also put in baby broccoli plants and damned if we haven’t had stir-fried broccoli from our own plants! She planted bok choy which we had every intention of cooking, but never got around to it. It bolted and was gone. Green onions were great. Paula gave me some beautiful walla walla onion babies and we are still harvesting these. They are great garden participants and I plan to put more in this fall. And that brings me to now. I have garlic from New Moon Acres to put in and I’ve planted baby brown onions that I found languishing in the back of my local produce seller. I put in more beets and some arugula. Let’s see what year-round gardening is all about!

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