Monday, January 31, 2011

The Sweet Smell of Compost

Here on the coast, we are lucky not to be covered under a blanket of snow & have the ground frozen solid. [Well, not having a consistent snow cover does hamper the traditional concept of winter gardening, but we have other ways of overcoming...] But this time of year - especially February - is a great time for many of us to get outside to check on the state of our gardens.

One of the first things I like to do is empty out my compost tumbler. It's been stewing for the past 4 months, so I give the barrel the last few good turns & then dump it all into my wheelbarrow.

I would like to sift the compost, but at this stage, it's still a bit wet & clumpy, so I just add a bit of wood shavings (not too much as it will alter the pH of the compost) & let the compost mellow in 2 totes til I have need of it later on in the spring. There is no benefit to adding it to the gardens now as the spring rains will just leech all the nutrients away.

I find it fascinating (as a compost geek would, I suppose) to see what has actually ended up in my composter. You know the ends of the cucumber you chop off & then fight with the plastic wrap around them - I think I've become lazy because I find these little plastic bits in my compost all the time. I hate throwing vegetable matter into the garbage - maybe I figure eventually the plastic will disappear. Well it doesn't. Also, those stickers they put on practically every piece of vegetable & fruit we buy in the grocery store - they don't break down either! I've found quite a few in the mix. And it looks like this year, I thought I would try to compost swamp grass clippings!! Eek! I have found some of it growing in my veggie beds, but I think it from blown in seed & I'm quick to yank it out - it's next to impossible to remove from the yard.

I've also been noticing certain veggie materials that don't work too well in the composter. Corn cobs & avocado pits are my nemisis... As you can see, the avocado pits look quite solid & whole. I wonder how long it would actually take for them to disappear?

Well, this is spring chore #1 done. Time for me to get back out there & see what has survived the winter foraging of the deer...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Winter Reading - Part 4

Ok - so technically, I received my West Coast Seeds catalogue in the mail AFTER I had already received my order (the wonders of on-line shopping), but I do adore this seed catalogue.

This will be the 3rd year in our 'new' house, so the third summer I will be working with my gardens. Let's hope that 'third try's a charm' because while I've heard about West Coast seeds & their quality & have seen the results in my neighbours' gardens, this is my first year to actually order all new seed from them. I'm very excited & may have gone a bit overboard with my order.... more on that later.

A few things about this catalogue:

Check out the planting calendar they have developed for Coastal BC. All the vegetables (& there is one for herbs too) are shown when they can be started indoors, or direct-seeded in the garden that will allow for better planning of garden space & how to prolong your harvest into the winter & with a bit of luck (& cover) allow for winter gardening. I refer to this calendar a lot.

Another wonderful tool are these 'Growing' boxes that help any novice or rusty gardener to grow pretty much anything. They break it down very simply into: when to plant, requirements (soil, space, fertilizer, diseases) & how to harvest. They also provide other tips to aid in having success in the garden - things such as dealing with bugs: how to attract the beneficial ones & how to deter the harmful pests.

Honestly, this is like an encyclopedia - a Gardener's Bible, if you will. I hold on to my copy & have it near-by all year round. It's inspiration during these last few weeks of gray winter days.

The Seeds Have Arrived!!

A sure sign that I will be busy this year are all the NEW seeds I've purchased this year. I hope, that with proper storage, I'll be good for a few seasons, but it sure is nice to have all these new & exciting seeds sitting on my counter.

I think what I will try to do this year - now, this is NOT the official Garden Plan for 2011, but I've a rough idea of where I'm going & that is spring/overwinter beds & then summer beds.

So, what am I exploring this year? Well, after such a success in growing my own lettuce last year, I'm going to work on trying staggered plantings with different varieties: purslane & wild arugula with 2 blends (a super gourmet & an oriental saladini blend). I'd really like to learn about harvesting wild greens (you know - WEEDS) to add to the mix -we'll just put that on my to-do list.

I'm also renewing a bunch of my herbs this year - and adding them where ever possible as that might be (according to my first initial flip through my new Deerproofing your Yard & Garden book) a good way to re-direct deer from the other tastey treats in the garden. I'm going big this year with herbs:
  • summer savory (my favourite - too bad it's an annual), 
  • winter savory, 
  • Italian parsley (actually prefer the taste of that to the curly stuff), 
  • creeping thyme (strictly ornamental & for ground cover along my hillsides), 
  • sage, 
  • marjoram (another favourite - preferred to oregano), 
  • chervil (a new one this year mainly for use in salads), 
  • Siam Queen basil & red rubin basil - staples now that I have figured out how to grow tomatoes!

I'm going to be a bit of a glutton for punishment this year with my tomatoes. I wasn't impressed with last year's variety - very bland - not the tomato flavour I was hoping for (I have many bags of frozen tomatoes in my freezer still & have not bought a store tomato all winter). This year I will try:
  • taxi (early yellow bush), 
  • yellow pear (vine) & 
  • moneymaker (vine). 
I'm hoping for the early variety to get me through the early part of the summer until the other 2 start to ripen. I've heard it suggested that on the coast - unless you have a 'proper' greenhouse (whatever that is), it's best to stick with tomatoes that are smaller (cherry varieties & such) so that they ripen properly & you should get better results. Yeah... we'll see... I'm also going to try Toma Verde tomatillos - just in case I end up with a bunch of unripe green tomatoes again; I'll make a green tomato salsa or chutney, anything other than green tomato raspberry jello jam...

I hope I have enough garden space for all my veggies:
  • 3 types of peas (mammoth melting sugar, cascadia snap peas, little marvel shelling peas), 
  • radish (easter egg blend for early spring & black spanish round for fall harvest), 
  • bush beans (a tricolour blend of green, yellow & purple), 
  • peppers (a new thing for me for the greenhouse - this variety is Red Bull's Horn - a sweet bell pepper), 
  • lemon cucumbers, 
  • yellow zucchini (Soleil variety - love yellow zukers), 
  • beets (the Detroit Supreme), 
  • carrots (Little Fingers - hopefully they will be true 'baby' carrots as my last attempt at a 'baby' carrot variety gave me monsters), 
  • kale (Lacinato - a winter variety),
  • parsnips (wanted to try these last year, so we shall see what Gladiator will do for me this year) and finally Buttercup squash (another new one for me). 
 Whew! That's a lot of veggies!

With my budget blown, I opted for only 1 package of annual seeds: beautiful sweet peas. I guess I'm a romantic at heart - most of my flower choices have been from the traditional 'cottage flower' bed & after trying them a couple years ago, I do enjoy their scent, colour & the way they keep blooming throughout the season.

The other package was a 'freebie' - I love free things! I have no idea what will pop up, but it contains annuals, biennials & perennials that should satisfy all the pollinators in the neighbourhood.

Now to start planning the actual lay-out of the beds....

Friday, January 28, 2011

Winter Reading - Part 3

Am currently trying to wade out from underneath a pile - a mountain! of neglected paperwork & a backlog of emails & blogs & articles... It's so great to leave home for a few weeks in January & forget about 'normal' life for a while, but it's so great to come home & feel the tingle of spring just around the corner.

I hope to submit quite a few blog updates in the next week - mainly as a way to keep myself organized, but also because there are some new & exciting developments coming along to my green thumbs & once again... spring is almost here.

Just before we left on vacation, I put in my seed order (more to come in the next blog or 2). One of the items I requested is a book that will hopefully shed some light & new ideas on how to combat the DEER!!!

I picked this up from West Coast Seeds & have (as of yet) to even crack the cover, knowing that I will dive into this book & not emerge til I'm finished. Right now, I've got a little too much on my plate to loose myself so easily. But I've very excited - it probably has a lot of information that I've already researched for myself or had shared with me by others, but there HAS to be one bright & shiney gem in there that I can use & succeed at.

As of today, I've not seen the fuzzy little buggars for quite a few weeks, but the kale has finally succumbed to the munching & is bare & twisted. I wonder if it will make a recovery later on this spring for some much needed fresh greens in our diet?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My Green Thumb - Tales of a West Coast Gardener - Winter 2010

This article is now published in the Barkley Sound Community Journal - The West Island Quarterly.
Sunshine is delicious,
Rain is refreshing,
Wind braces us up,
Snow is exhilarating;
There is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather."
John Ruskin (English poet 1819-1900)

     Winter along the West Coast is always an interesting time for those of us with ‘green thumbs’. We spend quite a bit of time pouring over our libraries, digging out those seed catalogues & staring out the windows in search of a bit of sunshine. I’ve come to realize that I’m a ‘fair weather’ gardener. Unlike a few people in town, I’d rather not suit up in rubber during these months to get my fix of dirt under the nails—clingy wet rubber, water dripping down the back of the neck & off the nose & soggy, mud-caked gloves just aren’t my ideas of ‘garden fun’.
     Part of the whole planning process for gardening is trying to predict what Mother Nature will throw our way. I play this game every year & this past year I failed quite splendidly when we got hit with frost on May 1st. The beans & peonies just couldn’t recover.
     From what I have been able to find during my research, the West Coast is labeled as Zone 7—meaning we have approximately 225-230 growing days with the last frost in late March & the first frost in early November. The average for low winter temperatures is –20 to –12 degrees. I actually don’t record any of this data (other than frost) but find that we are more like Zone 8 (fewer growing days, but much warmer low winter temperature of only –6 to –12 degrees). Either way—the frost dates are important to know if you want to plant early in your veggie beds or get playing in the greenhouse.
     I’ve also searched out weather predictions for the coming year & this winter the predictions have been for colder temperatures & more snow (specifically very cold mid-January through mid-February & a good dumping of snow for late February). I wonder if that means we’ll have lots of sunshine in January & February like we have in the last few years?
     This means you will want to put some protection around your prize rosemary plants (but not touching the plant) & put your over-wintering containers in a sheltered area so they don’t freeze, dry out or crack.
     Looking ahead to spring, we will once again experience cooler & drier than normal weather—except for June, which will be wet. Don’t plant things too early (such as beans, which need warm soil to germinate) but do set up water collection barrels for when the rains come again; it looks like the summer will be dry again. 
     Check out the precipitation & temperature graph from The Old Farmer’s Almanac (long-range weather forecast for Southern British Columbia).
     Just a thought about water collection containers—whether you are using totes or large plastic barrels, make sure you have some sort of screen or cover available to keep out insects (mosquitoes) & leaf litter & cover it up once it is full to help prevent algae from growing or evaporation of the precious water. A fun way to integrate your barrels into your garden-scape would be to put stakes in the ground around the barrel & install netting to allow sweet peas, snow or snap peas or even runner beans to grow up & around the barrels. There is easy access to water & the barrel will absorb solar heat that will then warm the ground up longer into the evening, providing lush early growth (of peas).
Early Spring Check List:

õ Start feeding indoor plants with 1/2 strength fertilizer in March. 
õ Give your perennials outside a quick-start growth stimulant such as a blend of bone, blood & kelp meal or alfalfa pellets in March.
õ Start seeds for annuals, tomatoes & peppers indoors (start tomatoes on Valentine’s day on top of  fridge).
õ Clean up yard of winter debris.
õ Set out irrigation hoses before the perennials & ground covers start growing—inspect first & patch or replace any leaky hoses.
õ Install plant supports such as peony rings, sweet pea netting and wire supports for berry canes.
õ Plant cool weather crops such as sweet peas, onions, cabbage, radish & leeks in late February to mid-March, under a row cover to protect them from too much rain.
õ As long as the lawn isn’t too soggy, dethatch with a rake for improved lawn health & use debris as moisture retaining mulch under shrubs, hedges & berry plants.
õ Start weeding the flower & vegetable beds!
õ If you neglected to winterize your garden tools, now is the perfect time to clean, sharpen & oil up blades on pruners, loppers, lawn mowers & even shovels.
õ Watch for crocus to start blooming the 1st of February—the yellow ones are usually the first ones out.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

Can't believe it's 2011 already! Where did the last half of yester-year go? Well, I don't really plan on pondering all the events of last year - in the garden or in life in general. I feel good about my experiences & all the things I learned, either with success or failure involved, all the people I have encountered in my quest for garden lore & knowledge & that I got to make some serious life-style changes that I hope to share with those around me.

We went for a walk down to the beach today to watch some crazy people partake in the Polar Bear Dip. It wasn't a swim unless you were wearing a wet suit...
These brave souls did us all proud & the funny thing is that the water is really only a few degrees colder than it is during the peak summer season. Well, 6 degree water feels colder than 15 degree water...

This is our future generation of dippers.

When we returned home, I walked around the gardens in the remaining afternoon rays of sunshine. There were still pockets of heavy frost - hoar frost - but I knew that I'd find some green growth out there somewhere.
My fall crocus are start to poke their leaves up already. Typical for this time of year & I hope the deer don't notice them.
I have lots of parsley in the gardens still & most of it got hit hard by the frost. I hope to salvage some for salads this week & then that might be it for the rest of the winter.
Yellow primula! I love these hard working plants! They bloom pretty much year round out here & I'm going to have to get some more to tuck into little pockets here & there for hits of colour now & again. Really brightens your day when you find them.
My rhubarb thinks it might be time to come out - a little early, but I think it's in a warm patch & the abundance of mulch & compost around it has allowed it to fare better than the other 2 plants I have down in the yard. My mouth waters just thinking of fresh rhubarb...
Sedum buds. I tend not to leave the sedum flowers for too long in the winter garden. With all the rain we get, the stalks turn mushy & I'd not like to damage the new growth underneath by having them covered with a layer of slime in the winter.
 The year has started out in a grand & glorious way & I'm looking forward to what 2011 brings - lots of changes are on the horizon, some of which I will write about in the coming months. Right now I want to sit back & read through my seed catalogues & gardening books in order to create the 2011 Plan - which usually is never fully organized nor followed. It just feels good to have something to follow instead of going all willy-nilly.

The count-down is already on for starting my tomatoes indoors (7-8 weeks) and snow peas outdoors (10-12 weeks). Yeah - this makes winter very much more bearable!!