Saturday, May 29, 2010

Adventures in Wine

Yet another cool, damp May day & I'm finding other things to do instead of the yardening projects waiting warmer weather.

Today was for finishing up my peach wine project. Last summer I had purchased a large quantity of very bruised peaches with the intention of making the 'best wine ever!' It started out great but when it was ready for bottling later in the fall, I found it was very close to being a disaster.

I had left the skins on the peaches when they went into the fermenter. I guess that was the mistake, because after the wonderful aroma of peaches filling your nose, the smooth, velvet sweetness that tickled the tongue came this horrible bitter aftertaste that made me want to throw it all out!

So, I kept siphoning the wine into clean carboys over the winter in the hopes that as the wine settled, that bitter taste would somehow magically disappear. Each time I siphoned, I would loose a bit of wine - due to the sludge in the bottom of the carboy, so there came a time when I had to go from the 5 gallon carboy to the 3 gallon carboy & I was left with about 2 litres extra. I put that into a pop bottle & shoved it under the skin next to the dishwasher.

This spring I remembered it was there & decided to test it. Wow!! Like golden honey on my tongue!! The bitter taste had disappeared! So, I quickly found some empty pop bottles & siphoned the rest of the wine into them & put them under the sink.

Today I thought I would check on my little wine salvaging experiment & it has worked! So I managed to bottle up 11 wine bottles with this heavenly nectar & have learned my lesson: remove the skins!! That is, if I ever decide to try this flavour again...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Herbal Oils & Vinegars

As I'm typing this, about to lament the horrible cold & wet May weather we've had here on the coast, the sun is momentarily shining brightly against the dark clouds. What a tease...

What to do on these spring days now that the gardens are all seeded, the flowers are all weeded & the yardening projects are put on hold due to rain & the threat of severe bug swarming at any hour of the day?

I thought it time to restock my supply of homemade herbal vinegars & oils - especially since I noticed that I'm down to my last bottle of lavender olive oil & sage-lovage-wandering onion white wine vinegar!

I raided the gardens - all of them - for a supply of fresh herbs.
Back Row: sweet cicely, Egyptian wandering onion tips, flat & curly leaf parsley
Front: Bronze fennel, rosemary, lovage, sage & thyme

It's a rather straight forward proceedure to make your own herbal vinegars. I was introduced to the idea while web-wandering last winter & stumbling across Susun S Weed's Wise Woman web site that delved into all things magical in the garden - mostly about how to eat weeds. But, the advice & suggestions for herbal vinegars had me intrigued.

Also - what better way to get through the dull-drums of winter than with homemade salad dressings that use your own herbs grown that year!

I mix & match my herbs & really should pay better attention to what I absolutely love combined together, but that's half the fun of making your own - it's different every time. I use apple cider vinegar, white wine vinegar & this year have made use of some rice vinegar, as I ran out of apple cider. I don't suggest using white vinegar, that, while being very inexpensive, just doesn't do justice to your herbs. I use red wine vinegar strictly for berry vinegars - which will come later on this year once the berries start ripening.

Today I made 4 herbal vinegars & used some very handy snap-lid jars. I could have used a whole lot more fresh herbs (finely chopped), & will add more in a few weeks if I think the flavour needs to be stronger. If using jam jars with metal lids, I would put a piece of plastic wrap over top the glass before putting the lid on to stop any potential corrosion between the vinegar & metal.

My blends today are: (left to right) - 1) rosemary, wandering onion & thyme. 2) thyme, sage & wandering onion. 3) lovage, thyme, parsley & wandering onion. 4) fennel & parsley. The predominant flavour for each blend is the herb listed first. They were made with apple cider vinegar, with the exception of the last jar; I used rice vinegar.

My herbal oils today are: (left to right) - 1) sweet cicely & grapeseed oil. 2) lovage, wandering onion & parsley in olive oil. 3) thyme & sage in olive oil. 4) sage & wandering onion in olive oil.

With the oils, you would want to poke a knife or chopstick down into the jar as you are filling to ensure that there are no air bubbles & that the oil covers the top of the herbs. If the herbs aren't covered, there is the potential for the herbs to start to mold & hence, ruin a potentially wonderful batch of oil. Same with the vinegars. Also, with oils, try to make sure they are not wet - put them through a salad spinner if you had to rinse them (before chopping them up) because oil & water don't mix & might start molding in the jar. I used plastic wrap on the metal lids with the oils too.

Now I'll let them sit for about 5 or 6 weeks (more if I get busy & forget), in a cool & dark place. I'll stir or shake them around about once a day for the first week & then less frequently afterwards once I see that they aren't molding & the herbs are starting to sink & break down a bit. I actually stored my oils in the fridge - mainly because the fridge is empty & I'll remember to check them more often & also because I picked the herbs today in the rain & I'm not too sure I got enough water off - so there might be an issue with spoilage.

Once you think they are ready - it's all about how strong you want the herb flavours to be - I strain out the oil/vinegar through a fine mesh strainer, squishing the herbs as much as possible to get it all out & then bottle them up for use. I've got a handy supply of glass beer bottles with snap-lids (Grolsh - a pretty green bottle) & I just make sure to put a label on it & have it handy for cooking or making dressings. If you want, you can put a sprig of fresh herb into the bottle for decoration.
 Here is my last bottle of oil (lavender olive oil) in a handy spot along side my herbal salt & pepper grinder. Mmmmmm, I think it just might be time for lunch!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Royal Rhododendrons

I finally have a few photos to share. The rains have returned for a few days & I can almost see things growing right before me! But it sure does freshen things up!

Right now we are in rhododendron blooming season & while I don't know much about how to grow or tend them, nor any of the varieties' names, they are beautiful to behold!

~ February blooms ~

~ April ~
This rhodo is about 25 feet tall & probably 25 years old. The blooms are huge & blindingly bright. Perfect in our rainy April weather.

~ Azalea in April ~
Related to rhododendrons, azaleas have a more compact growth habitat, leaves & flowers. This particular azalea usually blooms twice a year; early spring & then again in September when the weather warms up after the summer fog. Azaleas also tend to have fragrance while rhodos don't. They can be over-powering in small spaces.

~ Azalea in May ~
Azaleas come in so many different colours, it's hard to choose a favourite!

~ pale mauve in May ~

~ pale cream in May ~

~ hot pink in May ~

~ coral red in May ~

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Companion Planting

I've wanted to write about this for a while since I've had a few of my local gardening friends ask me about it. Companion planting can be used as an alternative to or with crop rotation. It really depends on the size of your garden space, what you grow & how badly your gardens are infested with insects.

Yes, insects. This is a whole other topic (of which I wrote an article that will be published in the July edition of the West Island Quarterly, so I'll share that with you once it's out).

Companion planting can be done with veggies, herbs, annuals & perennials. It's a great way to fill up empty holes in all your gardens, allows for diversity (which insects love) and utilizes your soil nutrients in a much more efficient manner.

I'll talk about veggies first. Believe it or not, some veggies will flourish when planted with others or they will just rebel & refuse to do anything for you no matter how much manure, compost or fertilizer you give them.

One of my favourite combinations begins with tomatoes. Now these have a whole health regime unto themselves, so why not give them a bit more help by planting things around them as aids. Borage will help repel the tomato worm, basil is said to aid in flavour while keeping mosquitoes & horn worms away (plus if you are eating a tomato, most times you'll eat it with basil). Because dill requires rich soil to be productive, it makes sense to place it close to tomatoes too & by planting lettuce around the base of the tomato plants, you are providing a mulch cover for the tomatoes & a bit of shade for the lettuce.

~ greenhouse bed - May 13 ~
This is my year to conquer my tomato demons & to do that, I'm using companion planting to it's fullest. I've got my lettuce crop a little further away from the tomatoes than planned, but they are larger than I had anticipated. I guess I need to start eating them! Along the left I've got borage starting to come up & just finally planted the dill. On the far right will be calendula - a pot marigold which is supposed to repel nematodes (a type of roundworm that is parasitic & will eat your plants from the bottom up) & certain beetles. Of course, the way my calendula grow, they will start to flower sometime in September - just in time for fall sowing of lettuce, but of no use for the summer tomatoes.

Other combinations include: beans & summer savory (which is supposed to aid in the bean flavour while growing) but don't plant garlic or onions or peppers by your beans or they will not be happy with the competition.

Has anyone heard of the Three Sisters? I've come across this many times in my web research & am intrigued. It involves corn in the center, pole beans around the corn & finally squash around the outer edge. The beans will grow up the corn & the squash will provide a ground cover preventing weeds & the corn will use the nitrogen in the soil that the beans add. I would love to try it if I didn't have such a love-hate relationship with corn...

I'll list off a few other combinations that I hope to try this year:
* kale & sage
* lettuce & beets & peas
* onions with beets, carrots

You can use herbs too to aid in plant health. As mentioned with tomatoes, basil will repel mosquitoes & horn worms, borage keeps the tomato worm at bay, but if you are infested with aphids trying growing some sacrificial plants such as nasturtiums (which actually attract the aphids to themselves) or catnip (in a pot to keep it under control). You can remove the infested pots & treat them away from your precious tomatoes & basil & replace them again. Leeks grown with carrots will tame the carrot fly population & mint or rosemary deals with certain moths (cabbage moth), mosquitoes & beetles.

I've read that fennel - the leafy variety vs the bulb variety, as far as I know - is disliked by most veggies, so put it in the perennial bed towards the back - but where you can still reach it, as the leaves are so delicious in salads or as a cheat for dill.

Every garden & gardener will find different things that work well together. Those are usually closely kept secrets, imparted only with care & lotsa trust. Now that I'm starting to pay greater attention to how my garden grows, I can't wait to find out my own winning combination that allows me to let nature take back control...

Check out on-line resources as well for plant preferences, companion planting & natural insect repellents (or insect attractants because if you are growing food to bring in the predatory insects, they will take care of those other ones for you!)

The Farmer's Almanac - Pests & Problems
Farmer's Almanac - Plant Companions
Farmer's Almanac - Three Sisters Companions

West Coast Seeds - Companion Planting

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is generally something I think about with farmers who have large fields of commercial cash crops.

Definition: Crop rotation or crop sequencing is the practice of growing a series of different (dissimilar) types of crops (vegetables) in the same area in sequential seasons for various benefits such as: to avoid the build up of pathogens & pests that often occurs when one species is continuously grown. Crop rotation also seeks to balance the fertility demands of various crops to avoid excessive depletion of soil nutrients. A traditional component of crop rotation is the replenishment of nitrogen through the use of green manure in sequence with cereals & other crops. It can also improve soil structure & fertility by alternating deep-rooted & shallow-rooted plants. (Wikipedia: Crop Rotation)


In other words:
1) rotate vegetable families to break up disease & insect life cycles. Do not grow plants from the same family in the same place more often than every 3 or 4 years. This is especially important for the Cole (Brassicaceae - kale, broccoli, cauliflower) family, the Tomato family (Solanaceae) and the Onion family (Alliaceae).
2) make the most of soil nutrients. Plants that make big roots use different nutrients than plants that have lots of leafy growth. By rotating groups of plants that use different soil nutrients, you can optimize nutrient use. (means a cost saving in fertilizers & manures)
3) some plants do better in acid soil (like ours on the coast), and others like limed soil, so you can rotate according to when you limed the soil.
     Here is a possible 3-year rotation for 1 area: begin with adding compost & lime to the soil, then plant:
         Year 1: Cole family, lettuce & spinach
         Year 2: peas, beans, onions, squash & flowers or buckwheat
         Year 3: root crops (carrots, beets, parsnips) and tomatoes
     Now add lime & compost to the bed & a cover crop & return to Year 1.

Still sounds confusing!!

Well, I went back through some of the gardening notes that I made up last winter when I decided it was time to make an actual plan of the raised veggie beds I was going to build in the spring. A big under taking, but made much easier with some sort of format.

April 2009
I had 3 beds (the 4th one to the left was not filled in time for planting & is reserved for asparagus which need a permanent spot). I could practice a 3 year crop rotation sequence. Essentially, each bed gets planted with 1 of 3 groupings of vegetables. Roots (carrots, beets & potatoes), Brassicas (kale & radishes) and Other - which is everything else (beans, peppers, cucumbers, leeks, spinach, lettuce, onions, peas, corn & tomatoes). 

Bed #1 - the first year it will be limed & fertilized 2 weeks before planting the Brassica veggies, the next year it will have manure &/or compost added at digging in time & planted with any veggie from the Other group & the last year it will be fertilized 2 weeks before sowing or planting members of the Root group. 

If Bed #1 had the Brassicas, then Bed #2 would have Other veggies & Bed #3 would have the Root veggies - that way rotating through all the veggies I wanted to grow & eat, while also making sure each bed was utilized efficiently.

Looks great on paper, but never turns out the way you hope or plan. First off - Bed #3 was too shallow to be very successful in growing root vegetables, so it immediately became my herb garden. I've always wanted a selection of fresh herbs just outside my door & this was a logical choice.

Then I had a rather disastrous indoor seedling season (started the wrong plants at the wrong time) which meant that I actually didn't have much growing in my gardens come summer. 

When I write up my raised veggie bed plan this year, I will try to make sense of what I did last year (other than put whatever was growing in whatever spot was available) & get working on crop rotation techniques. They really make sense & even though it sounds like a lot of fertilizer is being added, I think with a combination of compost, sea weeds & cover crops (green manure) that I won't actually have to purchase much.

* cover crops will be discussed later *

Now it is May & I've pretty much planted all my seeds - with the exception of kale & chard & a few herbs which I hope to get in this week if I can find the energy that this spring cold is draining from me. The weather has been much cooler than anticipated, so germination has been slow & I believe we actually had a hard frost the first week of May! 

{Sorry I don't have any photos at this time. I tried this morning, but believe it or not, the sun is a bit too bright & the pictures didn't turn out so well.}
Bed #1 has carrots & beets, beans & peas with some sorrel & parsley spread around as I had so much of it left from last year.

Bed #2 has chick peas with lettuce, more beans & radish with some Egyptian wandering onions and more sorrel & parsley. I think I will be making a lot of sorrel pesto this year (great on salmon or with crackers!)

Because I don't actually have asparagus plants & the bed has been filled, I thought I should make use of the space & nutrients & so I planted more peas, radish & lettuce in that bed. I'll see what I can do about acquiring asparagus crowns this year - growing from seed is just not going to happen...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Things to do in the May Garden

'There is so much to be thankful for,
The drops of rain that take on new meaning,
Bear the promise of new life
And renewed energy to the rootlets and buds.'
- Helen Keller (1880-1968), deaf-blind American author and activist
 ~ forget-me-nots ~
  • Divide primrose plants after flowering is finished. Pull the clumps gently apart to separate individual crowns for replanting. I find my primrose never really stop flowering during the spring, so if you handle them gently, you can divide them up at any time.
  • Lightly cut back early-blooming perennials such as yellow alyssum after flowering. This prevents them from self-seeding all over the place, keeps them compact & might possibly allow for a second bloom.
  • Pinch back the stems of Michaelmas daisies to produce denser plants and better flowering later. Stake tall varieties, and fertilized very lightly. Do this with almost any kind of later flowering perennial - I will do it with my Helenium when they start to pop up as they can grow up to 5 feet tall!
  • Continue planting gladiolus corms.
  • Plant corn in blocks of short rows for the best pollination and the fullest possible ears.
  • Thin early spring sowings of carrots, lettuce, beets, calendula, poppy and larkspur. If you handle the seedlings gently, you can replant them in-between the existing rows for a slightly later harvest (as it takes the replanted seedlings a bit of time to recover).
  • Consider a flowering potted plant as a Mother's Day gift. Mums, New guinea impatiens, Chinese hibiscus, miniature rose, gloxinia and Martha Washington geranium are a few of the highly desirable gift plants commonly available now.
  • Where space is limited and no trellis or other major support is available, try growing vining cucumbers in wire tomato cages. You can also grow zucchini, melons, pumpkins & other ground vines this way too - just carefully adjust the leaves & vines in an upward pattern. Will also save them from slugs, other bugs & rot.
  • Keep unwanted strawberry runners cut off.
  • Pinch out the tops of broad bean plants if they are infested with black aphids. Better yet - grow nasturtiums with susceptible plants as nasturtiums will attract the aphids to them & away from the other plants.
  • Earth up early potatoes. As a space saver & for easier harvest, try growing potatoes in buckets - drill holes in the bottom & lower sides for drainage & plant one or 2 potatoes, mounding up the soil as the leaves grow.
  • Remove faded flowerheads from Rhododendrons by snapping the stems off at the base of the flower cluster, immediately above new green growth buds. Take care to leave these buds intact.