Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Falling towards winter; the business of urban farming

I did a final harvest, and then another one in late October,

and now I think we're done. Except for the black radish - that is growing delicious greens - and the beets still fattening in their pots, and the kale (Red Russian and the one Black Kale plant that was spared by whatever has eaten the rest to sticks) and a few leeks and some celery.

The tomatoes are just about over as well - most of the ones I picked green are now ripe and ready to cook into something more durable: passato is one idea I have.

Meanwhile, the leaves fall and I've got them mostly chewed up and on the beds as winter mulch. Time to spend the winter learning more about growing.

To which end I happened to make it to Robin Tunnicliffe's talk last night (sponsored by LifeCycles' new Urban Agriculture Hub) about making money as an urban farmer. She has worked her way into a healthy business - one third of Saanich Organics - through apprenticeship, land leasing and collaboration, and does a lot of speaking and teaching besides.

She shared her views on where to begin: pointing out that you need to dream a little about what you want your farming business to look like, because it needn't look like anyone else's model. She suggested growing low-intensity, drought-resistant plants at first: squash and tomatillos for example. The key to 9-5 gardening, she said, was working with others. It's easy to overdo it when you start out, and everything else in your life can suffer.

When you come to the point of looking for land, she advised arming yourself with a plan: the more fully you have imagined what you want to do and what your farm will look like (e.g. can you afford a glass greenhouse or will you have to build one from reclaimed lumber and bits of plastic?) the more able you will be to sell yourself honestly to a prospective landlord. Start making friends with other farmers - cooperation and collaboration are central to her vision - and if you can get them on side, they may help you find available land, and also support your efforts by sharing advice and information. In BC, the leasing of farm land to a working farmer can pay big benefits to landlords.

On the question of how much land to lease, she suggested that smaller could be better: if you stick with a size of farm that you can tend yourself, you have the space to find out what you like growing, what sells best, and adjust your plantings and expectations as you go. The most profitable plots are those with tight successive plantings, and with several people working them. She makes a good living from her one acre, but she does get great marketing support from her partners in Saanich Organics.

And about marketing she had much to say, suggesting prospective farmers learn some business skills, including basic accounting. Keep in touch with other farmers to find out what everyone's growing, selling and charging, and remember that sustainable agriculture must sustain farmers too: it does not help the community of farmers to try to undersell anyone else, it simply erodes your own ability to make a living. With her partners, she sells broadly: to box scheme subscribers, restaurants, small shops and farmers' markets. She doesn't bother with supermarkets: not only are their requirements expensive (packaging, labels, logos, websites, barcodes), they don't like to sign agreements, and their quest for the bottom line can send a small supplier under very quickly.

She talked about organic certification and recommended local growers hook up with IOPA (Island Organic Producers Association) for a manageable certification fee. The organization is run by volunteer farmers who hire provincially-certified inspectors, so is cheaper than one run by all-paid staff. She said that certification forces farmers to maintain records that can be hugely helpful in assessing their own land use and profitability.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Crocus, purslane and tomatoes

Some of my tomatoes have been rather sculptural, like this Black Krim.

There has been no end of preserving activity as the summer bounty mounts up. Some of my tomatoes went into this oddity, Tomato Marmalade. It was excellent.

And there are tomatoes still on the vine.. playing wait and see with the early frosts.

Meanwhile, the autumn crocus is up and nearly over. Unlike cousin Shirley, who gave me these, I do not have thousands of them which would make an impressive display; but the few I have are lovely enough.

The purslane is growing leggy and starting to seed. I had thought it would flower and then seed, but I guess this is the purslane equivalent of a flower:

Each of what appear to be flower buds are actually seed pods, which open spontaneously and spill what looks like poppy seed. I've been trying to collect it which is a bit laborious but should be worth it as I'm guessing it grows easily and then propagates itself endlessly, since it was considered a weed (until its value as a source of omega 3 and other antioxidants came to light). Rather glad I planted it in a pot.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Potatoes and permaculture

Felt kind of smug seeing the output yesterday from my volunteer Norland potato - which yielded three or four jumbo spuds - and all of them, from first inspection, wireworm-free, which is most exciting, since this was the main place in my garden that seemed to have them. Also dug up a Yukon Gold that I'd already harvested from, so only little ones from there and could have been left a while longer if I'd looked carefully at the base. Oh well. I got an ice cream pail full anyway.

And the tomatoes continue to ripen; my big beauties have now been identified as Black Krim rather than the previously supposed Costoluto Fiorentino.

Even the slugs like them, alas, so some of the riper ones end up with little slug bites. But I'm going to be canning them over the next few weeks so hope to stay on top of them.

Someone from my neighbourhood gardening/food security group sent this great link to an Introduction to Permaculture, by its father, the Australian naturalist Bill Mollison. In his intro, written in 1981, he observes
The real systems that are beginning to fail are the soils, forests, the atmosphere, and nutrient cycles. It is we who are responsible for that. We haven’t evolved anywhere in the west (and I doubt very much elsewhere except in tribal areas) any sustainable systems in agriculture or forestry.
Too bad he's still right. Given the failure of will on the part of our governments, we can only make our own backyard food systems as sustainable as possible, buy only (as far as possible) from farmers who do likewise, and hope that a wave of consumer concern - voting with our minds and our wallets - brings positive change.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Grow, baby, grow

The September chill is in the air, and we've had a week of rain and now some sun, so those plants can put on a spurt before the frosts.

Gypsy peppers ripening in their pot:

Lots of scarlet runners still, and more flowers coming:

The German lunchboxes have been trailing some of the other varieties, but are looking healthy:

My pot of purslane:

I now have five baby eggplants growing for all they're worth:

Monday, 7 September 2009

Tomatoes love... wood ash and... er... human urine?

A Finnish study published this summer in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry has tested a sustainable fertilizer of urine and wood ash on tomato crops and found high yields. This will not be news to Geoff Johnson, a local permaculturalist here in Victoria, who has long advocated the application of home-made nitrogen supplements (urine diluted 10:1) to crops and compost.

Tomatoes have been on my mind a lot lately; it is the season after all, and there's even a Slow Food tomato brunch event to celebrate them this weekend.

As for mine on the vine, they are ripening one by one. My big beefy guys are grown from seed I saved last year from a plant Tom gave me, which was a Costoluto Fiorentino, but it's looking a little dark now so we wondered if it might have crossed with something else? (Late-breaking news: it is quite likely a Black Krim) Delicious but misshapen. So big and heavy - some of them are just under a pound in weight - it's been hard to stake the plants adequately.

Also in the bowl is a San Marzano, from a plant Tom gave me; haven't got enough ripe yet to use but looking forward to tasting them.

These are the little guys, scarpariello, a small sweet roma from Italy.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Late summer in the garden

My miracle acorn squash looked so lovely

I had to pick it the other day. And botched the job! I broke its little handle off, which is a bad, bad thing to do - it won't keep if you do that. So I have another squash on my menu (and two more on the vine, phew!). It's a miracle squash because it grew from a seed from a particularly delicious one I had in my seasonal veg box last winter, from FoodRoots. I heard after I planted it that I wasn't supposed to do that because squashes are a bit promiscuous and will cross with anything; but then I read that it's ok for your current crop, but the next round of seeds won't grow true. And that the two I'd planted (acorn - Cucurbita pepo - and hubbard - Cucurbita maxima) were different varieties and should be safe from wilder crossings as long as nobody else in the area was growing them. Or something like that.

Nice flowers anyway, and the bees like them.

The popular wisdom is that you should only sow squash seeds that have been properly bred and saved. One reason is to prevent disease, and all my squashes (including the one legitimate number I got elsewhere) are mottled with evil powdery mildew.

My eggplants are taking their sweet time and I fear will not bear fruit of sufficient size by the time the frosts come. Still, three cheers for pretty flowers and this game attempt against the odds and limitations of light:

And as for my garden - testing ground for plagues and pestilence - all manner of wickedness in the stunted corn...

Ugly onions (could it be wireworm?)

And those poor chard plants. No sooner do we vanquish leafminers but we get these wicked things, some kind of aphid I suppose:

Sunday, 23 August 2009

More bug identification & spicy pesticide

Another site for bug identification: check out Bug Guide, for "identification, images, & information for insects, spiders & their kin for the United States & Canada".

And a fragrant way to deal with the evil ones: a nice little piece from the National Geographic tells us that the oils from common herbs such as thyme, rosemary and mint can work as pesticides if sprayed on plants.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

More harvest

This is what I picked the other day and I was reflecting on what a revelation it is to know the origins of what's in my basket.

It includes Kate's celery, my carrots and fennel and onion and yukon gold potatoes, Tom's tomatoes, Brian's scarlet runner beans, Carolyn Herriot's physalis, a volunteer red norland potato (from a sprouting spud I bought at Michell's a couple of years ago), Alexis's overhanging plums, and Steve's tomatillo.

The beans and celery were seeds from our urban farmer group's seed swap; tomatoes and tomatillos and physalis were seedlings I was given. The tomatoes (Costoluto Fiorentino) are actually grown from seed saved from tomatoes I grew last year from seedlings. The physalis never achieved much last year so I brought it indoors in its pot, where it survived and grew leggy and has been an enthusiastic producer - still in a pot - all summer.

Am in awe of the scarlet runners, which I think are fantastic - tender and prolific, but next year I will anticipate properly their enormous sprawl. I know how Jack felt with his beanstalk.

These two pictures show the haul from my three different bean varieties, including some Tendergreen seeds I bought in Saskatchewan last year and forgot to plant till this year; I've been delighted by the leopard-spot appearance of some of them.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Tomato season and its perils

I have been pleased and proud of the tomato crop which I grew this year from seed saved from one heirloom tomato plant I grew from one of Tom's heirloom starts last year. They seem to be doing well despite mystery leaf curl in the potted ones. Those in the ground are looking lush and healthy. But it's started raining now, and I am living in fear of blight.

The farmers at Haliburton Farm no longer grow their tomatoes outside, because their crops were devastated by blight a couple of years ago. This terrific article about blight by farmer-chef Dan Barber explains why blight is on the rise.

Home gardening, the article says, is one cause of the spread, because novice gardeners will go to their usual shopping haunts - the article names major retailers Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart - in search of plant starts, only these stores are importing plants from thousands of miles away, and some of these carry the infections with them. (Tomato blight is spread through airborne spores from infected plants and soil that get delivered in rainfall; it can affect all the nightshade family which includes your potatoes, eggplants and peppers; and spores can travel up to 20 km on the wind.)

Ways of reducing your plants' vulnerability include starting your plants from seed, or getting them from growers who raise them locally. Stay away from the likes of Wal-Mart which ships them in from parts unknown. Try to water the plants without wetting their leaves, particularly when the weather is damp and leaves won't have a chance to dry quickly. Under no circumstances plant tomatoes or potatoes in the same soil where you've had afflictions. And raise them in a greenhouse if you can.

Taking care is not just for your own satisfaction; buying infected plants can have repercussions to you and to people growing - some of them perhaps very seriously - around you. Barber nails the problem: "As we begin to grow more of our own food, we need to reacquaint ourselves with plant pathology and understand that what we grow, and how we grow it, affects everyone else."

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Summer harvest

Returned from a few days away and picked this lovely basket yesterday morning. I am definitely sold on scarlet runner beans - beautiful, prolific and delicious. Also featured are tendergreen beans, coco beans, beets, radishes, broccoli and yellow transparent apples.

Yet to ripen are a few acorn squash, a few improbably small cobs of corn, various tomatoes, tomatillos, wonder berries, some peppers; purple sprouting broccoli, leeks and kale lining up for winter harvest.

Also ready to pick now: lots of random onions, more beets, carrots, fingerling potatoes, physalis, fennel, kale and chard. The plants that probably won't produce this year (though I live in hope) are artichoke and eggplant. Not a huge surprise since the garden area is a bit short on sun exposure.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Apple pollination, management & pruning

When I bought my house, I inherited a yellow transparent apple tree which had been pruned and tended over the years, for which I am extremely grateful, since it's pretty old and could easily have become unmanageable if past owners had neglected it.

I've maintained it as best I could - and despite the ministrations of many caterpillars, the appetites of the birds

and the cack-handed interventions of a tenant who lopped off all those unsightly fruit-bearing branches while I was in Italy, it has flourished and fruited reliably.

Every spring I climb up into the tree to nab the water shoots, and when I can organize myself I give it some dormant spray in the spring as well, but that's about all I do.

Apple Tree Care
Things I've learned this year about helping it further include:

understanding pollination - because most apple trees must be pollinated with another variety (or must they..?) I guess I owe the fruiting health of mine to that of the neighbours' trees; not sure of the varieties but there must be something compatible nearby. My mason bee boxes have provided me with some good little vehicles for neighbourhood pollination.

grafting - my brother's experiments in grafting have given him some interesting variation, and I suppose makes a tree self-pollinating.
don't mess with nature - fruit trees need to pay attention to the season, so no pruning or fertilizing in the late summer or fall, as these will cause it to keep growing instead of hardening-off to protect itself from cold weather.
regular watering - fruit trees need an inch of water a week, same as the grass, and do better with one weekly deep watering than frequent sprinkling.
root space - grass and fruit trees are not, despite human interventions, good bedfellows, since grass wants to crowd everything else out. A dense root structure in your grass means less water gets through for the tree, so you should have an ungrassed region around the tree's base to let water through. Not sure how to approach this since the tree is mature now and its roots must have pretty wide reach. Perhaps the easiest thing to do would be to mark out a big circle under the canopy, bring in some chickens to bare and fertilize the soil, and go from there with the mulching, planting something low-growing, shade-loving and food-producing that will let the water through. Now I just need to borrow some chickens...
feeding - like all plants the tree needs nourishment, though is more resilient than most garden plants. You can apply perhaps some form of (non chemical!) fertilizer in the spring (but not later). Organic mulches and compost are recommended. Same problem as watering in the mature tree in that you might not know where the roots have spread. I've heard that spraying the tree with compost tea will protect it from insects and nourish it as well.
summer pruning - I heard that pruning the water shoots while the tree is in leaf can help it focus efforts on growing nice fat fruit, so I did that this year. I'm not sure the result is any better than in previous years, but I did get some nice leaves for my compost -- although some of them came with freeloaders:

Like most things to do with gardening you get wildly conflicting advice everywhere. Although I was told that summer pruning would enhance fruit development and also bring more light into the ripening fruit in the tree; I also read that removing these shoots removes a nutrient source for the tree ("decreasing canopy photosynthetic efficiency and carbohydrate production") so not everyone recommends it as you're then diverting the tree to replace that lost food. We'll see what happens.
thinning - hard but necessary, removing excess nascent fruit in order to get better, bigger apples

I've been looking up information on pruning in general as it's a complicated business, and my property also includes a neglected plum tree that has not been maintained, no longer produces well and is almost impossible to harvest because of its position and height. Here are a few sources I checked out:
Cognition (now called Canadian Organic Grower) had a helpful article from which I learned the useful issues around renovation vs. maintenance pruning.
Fruitwise has some video tutorials (and a website on heritage English apples) which give great advice on the basics of pruning including choosing the right tools for the job and proper secateur technique.
Oregon State University Extension has an article on restoring a neglected apple tree. has one with notes about pruning issues specific to tree types, including plums.
Wikipedia has a nicely illustrated article that lays out what to do to trees at different ages.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Shoot before you spray

Some wonderful things come of the web. The Pest Identification Photos page, from Pest Control Canada, is surely an example of what the internet does best and is endlessly interesting. People send in photos of bugs and someone identifies them (Ed Saugstad, retired entomologist, Sinks Grove, WV surely deserves a knighthood for answering so many of the questions).

Ladybug larva, from the Pest Identification Photos page

The site also includes a helpful page on Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and some tips on Borax in the Organic Pest Solutions (although nothing else; for more organic pest control, check places like Suite101 for do-it-yourself, or Extremely Green for manufactured but allowable solutions or Pest Information for good general all-purpose information).

Monday, 20 July 2009

Wasps, leaf miners and ladybugs

My feelings towards wasps have softened since I saw one nibbling on aphids one day. I'm still nimby about having their nests in my backyard though, as is my allergic neighbour, so I'm afraid we shot this one down with a garden hose.

No change in my attitude to spinach leaf miners. My new skill this year is spotting the eggs before they can hatch and eat the greens.

My last greens harvest included this little feller, an Asian Lady Beetle larva. It's tragic and lethal to our gardens that we are more often than not unable to recognize the ladybug larva than its cuter adult version; it's an important thing to learn to identify. Ditto the eggs. Aphids for lunch!

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Urban gardening

I belong to a neighbourhood urban farmers/food security group and we often pass around articles of interest. Someone spotted this one, which is all about Will Allen and the Growing Power project, which involves 10,000 fruit, herb and veg container plantings in the Milwaukee site alone, and also produces fish, eggs, meat (chicken, goats, rabbits, turkeys) and honey. And a looooot of compost, many worms.

My urban garden has already produced a few tasties this year. I've never grown garlic before so was thrilled to bits today to dig up the first bulbs. They'll hang in the shed for a while - a couple of weeks I gather- to cure.

And here are my containers looking more lush now, in mid-July.

I went tomato crazy this year. Saved some seed from a big tasty heirloom beefsteak last year, grown from a seedling Tom gave me, and was taken aback by how many sprouted. didn't have the heart to do away with them so I have around 25 plants in pots, barrels, a Topsy-Turvy planter,

and an area of my garden I refer to as the Tomato Forest. So far, so good, though I'm still concerned about the leaf curl. It's been too windy to try my spray-on potions.

I have three other tomato varieties in slightly smaller numbers, plus a new one my brother gave me (wonder berries);

and a couple of relatives (tomatilloes and ground cherries/physalis), all in pots for the moment.

Some celery that's been growing in the wading pool. It was a strong and happy seed that I got from Kate and I've planted it all over the place as I heard it was good for deterring pests. Luckily I had it growing already by the time I heard it was hard to grow or I might not have tried.

Not sure if the eggplant will fruit, but I live in hope. Some is in pots and some in a barrel, with a bush bean for company. It's come along a lot over the past couple of weeks of hot weather.

The potatoes-in-car-tires have grown very tall. I'm curious to see what I might find in the layers. I'm a bit skeptical, as it does seem to me rather damp in the straw layers, but who knows.

I planted some more potatoes in the borders and when they started to sprawl I shored them up in cages, thinking the same concept as the car tires might work for them. They've grown very tall and gangly and unmanageable, dwarfing all around them.

Another occupant of the wading pools: radishes.

Everything in my garden is an experiment as I try to learn what grows where and how big and how well or badly and what eats what. Here are some purple sprouting broccolis outgrowing their pot. Honestly they looked so lame and weak when I planted them I put two in thinking maybe one would last. They have lasted well and are now much chewed by cabbage worm with lots of cabbage moths fluttering around them during the day looking for new parking places for their brood.