April 2010

I was intrigued to see a story in the LA Times on wild strawberries which had a picture of the little berries that are just like ones that seem to be growing everywhere on our property. I pull them up like weeds, because they literally are a weed here.

They’re alpine strawberries — I called them yellow alpines, but the Times says they are white strawberries — that originally came from a gorgeous mixed planter someone gave me years ago. It had one alpine strawberry plant in it, a pretty little thing that produced lots of  small, fragrant sweet berries, most of which ended up eaten by birds or falling of the stems. Their peak, when they taste sweet and smell heavenly, lasts about a minute, as the Times story points out, and after that they become overripe and mushy. Picking them at their peak is a constant job that I’ve never really pursued with any vigour. When I see a few perfect specimens, I will pick and eat them right then and there and then forget about them. Maybe I should rethink my strategy.

The berries do not reproduce by runners, as standard strawberries do. Each berry is covered with tiny seeds and each seed can turn into a plant. Many did and I began to spread them out into their own little bed. The birds helped, too, as more and more strawberry plants began popping up in the strangest places all over our property.

Now they are everywhere and I have been pulling them out with great abandon. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hasty, if the Times story is right. These strawberries, because of their delicacy and flavour, are attracting the attention of chefs and other foodies, the paper says. The problem is that they are the devil to keep picking. So my dreams of a swell alpine strawberry business can have only one response: Dream on!

It’s just another example of the old saying: A weed is just a plant where you don’t want it. Go figure!

My favourite little Jossie with some of our chickens.

Having a flock of chickens in your backyard is the in thing this year. The New York Times recently ran a story in its weekend Magazine on women who call themselves femivores.

They embrace the life of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers, which is that of  a farm wife. But, god forbid! Do not ever call them that. They are femivores.

And the pinnacle of femivoredom is to have a flock of egg-laying chickens.

Yes, these are women described this way by NY Times writer Peggy Orenstein: “All of these gals — these chicks with chicks — are stay-at-home moms, highly educated women who left the work force to care for kith and kin. I don’t think that’s a coincidence: the omnivore’s dilemma has provided an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper.”

It’s all part of the trend of knowing where your food comes from. In Ontario, a battle is developing between those who let their chickens run free to grub for worms and fresh grass and those who mass-produce and market their eggs — those controversial caged hens who have never felt sunlight or  scratched real earth or felt the fear of a predator swooping down in search of a quick and tasty lunch — through the egg marketing board. The eggs laid by pastured hens just taste better (and I can vouch for that) say the customers who are willing to drive out of their way and  remember secret passwords to get those eggs, according to the Globe and Mail.

In Vancouver, the city council recently drew up a bylaw permitting every resident to have up to four laying hens in their backyards. It’s a “green” initiative which is a small part of that city’s attempt to support  something called “food security” — the ability of the populace to always have a guaranteed, nutritious food supply.

Does this sound crazy? Not to me. I’ve grown my own veggies and fruits for years, foraged for wild mushrooms, and now have chickens that lay a steady supply of eggs. Some day, we’ll try raising a pig. I adore eating good food, and these things keep me connected with where a lot of that food comes from. I am in love with the process as much as the end result. That’s not to say I am fearful or suspicious of imported food. I crave mangoes, and Asian fish sauce and fine coffee. I can’t do without my drawer full of exotic spices. And unique and well-made artisan foods from anywhere in the world are a temptation I often can’t resist.

But, femivore or not, I’m all for growing your own. More on how to actually go about starting your own little flock later. For now, there are eggs I must gather.

It’s raining today so there is a welcome break in my feverish attempts to get our two acres into reasonable shape. I had to crawl up the stairs yesterday after more than six hours of weeding and cleaning out the many beds around the property — a job that takes up most of the dry days at this time of year — but the old chassis is feeling just fine right now, thank you very much.

Everything is starting to look good, and the seedlings I’ve started under my new grow light — 12 kinds of tomatoes, three kinds of zucchini, several squashes, tomatillos and my summer favourite, sweet basil — are looking vigorous.

Most of those seeds were saved from last year’s harvest. All of the tomato plants are from seeds of heritage tomatoes I’ve tasted and decided I want to grown again, and the squash pictured here is some kind of Spanish variety that has dense flesh and very sweet flavour, so I saved a few seeds from it as well, along with kabocha, mini-hubbard and delicata seeds.

Unfortunately, most of the squash seeds I planted (and some seeds I had saved in open containers for spring planting) were raided by a mouse in our supposedly mouse-proof garden workshop.  Mr. Mouse met his own unfortunate end by trying to unjam a peanut we had stuck in a mousetrap placed under the table where the seedlings are. I only hope he isn’t part of a larger family, but just to make sure, more mousetraps are at the ready. And more squash seeds have been planted.

Saving seeds is not only economical. It’s also a way of helping our planet’s biodiversity. If you’re interested in finding out more, check out Seeds of Diversity where you’ll find “descriptions, stories, history, cultivation details, and real gardeners’ comments on 19,000  cultivars of Canadian garden vegetables, fruit, grains and  ornamentals”. That’s a whole lot of eating!

The site also lists all the fruit, vegetable and other food seeds for sale in Canada and who offers them. For example, there are 34 different kale varieties, more than 130 varieties of carrots, and more than 320 squash varieties (Mr. Mouse would have been ecstatic!), plus listings for oriental and specialty greens and vegetable seeds, quinoa, amaranth . . . the list goes on. Makes you hungry just reading through it.

Happy gardening!