Growing Your Own


Photo by Ric Ernst

I’ve been growing garlic for nearly 20 years, and for a number of those years, I had no idea the scapes – or “flower” heads – were good for anything but compost. In fact, at first I left them on and wondered how you could possibly peel and slice the tiny cloves each flowering scape had yielded.
It turns out, those tiny cloves were seed garlic – also known as bulbils — which apparently is one way to “purify” the strain you’re growing. Garlic doesn’t actually reproduce by seed, so there’s no cross pollination but over time, you might grow from bulbs that have certain characteristics – for example, large but fewer cloves, or multiple cloves within single skins – and you want to get back to the original. Apparently you can do that with the seed garlic, though it will take several years before you have a full-sized crop to harvest. (more…)

From left, collards, kale, Swiss chard and Japanese mustard greens. Photo by Ric Ernst

Although some things did not do well in the garden this year, our patch of greens, which included Tuscan black kale (sometimes called dinosaur kale), rainbow chard and collards, did flourish. I’m particularly fond of the kale, as were the many bugs that invaded our garden this damp and cool growing season. Yes, eating insects is trendy in some places, but not on our farm. And the dimpled, curled leaves of  Tuscan kale are perfect places for them to hide, so my habit of blanching the leaves for 30 seconds or so before rinsing in cold water, squeezing dry and chopping helped flush these little critters out very nicely.

I’ve found that blanching kale and collards before cooking them up in other dishes also helps remove the cabbagey smell and bitter flavour that the longer cooking they require brings out. My favourite way to serve these super-healthy greens is by simply sautéeing the chopped, blanched kale (remove the stems after blanching) for about five minutes  in a little olive oil and bacon fat (this adds a wonderful rich and smoky flavour, but if you’re not into bacon, use a drop or two of liquid smoke for similar affect or skip this altogether; it’ll be just as good) with minced garlic and a splash of broth. Salt and pepper to taste plus (more…)

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!

Some of our multi-coloured eggs. Aren't they pretty?

We lost a chicken a couple of days ago, one of our best layers. She was also one of our biggest hens, with a crooked foot that didn’t seem to stop her from running with the rest of the flock whenever I came out to the meadow to throw them some scratch — chicken candy, we call it — or collard leaves culled from spring-tender plants in the garden.

A hawk got her, the second time we’ve lost a chicken to a predator. That’s not bad, considering our little flock spends all day foraging in a fenced but open-to-the-sky meadow that measures about half an acre.We are out in the country and large birds — hawks and eagles — are a common sight around here.

Over the four years we’ve had chickens, we’ve lost most of them to natural causes. We started with about 20 chickens, many given to us by friends who wanted to thin their own flocks, others bought from a hatchery, others still purchased at a livestock auction.We have four left from that original group.

The others have found their own way to that big meadow in the sky. We’ve had to slaughter several birds because they became egg eaters, a bad thing when you want the eggs but they have first crack (no pun intended) at them. Once they develop a taste, they become like addicts and can’t stop themselves. Others became sick – some kind of genetic chicken disorder – and died, while the others just reached the end of their life spans. Some chickens, they say, can live up to 10 years, while others lay big beautiful eggs almost non-stop for a couple of years, then keel over, because they are bred to lay big beautiful eggs, not live a long time. Nature is a stern taskmaster that way.

We added eight or nine Ameraucana chickens to our flock last  year. They are distantly related to a South American pheasant from whence they inherited their best trick: they lay blue-shelled eggs that look so pretty nestled in the carton next to the pale tan and darker brown eggs of their sisters. Their eggs are just like the others, once the shell is cracked. But when I first saw the blue-shelled eggs in a shop in Napa, Calif. a few years ago, I knew I wanted those chickens in my flock, too.

The chicken who fell victim to the hawk added even more to the rainbow in our egg cartons. She was part Ameraucana (blue eggs), part brown-egg layer and we got her by trading a rooster we didn’t want. I am not yet good at scientific chicken names, so bear with me. Her genes gave her the ability to lay eggs that were bluish-green. We have one bluish-green egg layer left, now — also traded for a rooster — so I am trying to find another.

All our chickens give us eggs that taste wonderful. We sell the surplus when they are laying full-tilt and people tell us they love our eggs. Their little kids complain when the supply dries up — usually in the darkest depths of winter — and they have to make do with store-bought eggs.

But it’s the colours I love to see when I go out to check the nesting boxes. So pretty. It’s like Easter every day. Now, if I could only get rid of the wild bunny that sneaks into my flower beds and eats the pink lupines . . . Where is that hawk when I need him!