Cultivate a Better World

Our food system has to change to be more sustainable. It has to respect the farmer, it has to respect the soil, it has to respect the animals, and it has to respect the fact that there is just way too much carbon in the sky already, to justify shipping food all around the world. In most places, food can be grown near where we live. We need to eat what is grown close, we need to eat what is grown without polluting the sky and earth, and we need to eat more whole foods to improve our health.

In short, we need to go back to the start. We need to go back to the way people used to farm, the way people used to eat. People used to eat food grown close to home, from their own backyards, from the neighbour’s farm that also sold to the local grocery store. Fertilizer was not used, GMO foods did not exist. Large and powerful food corporations did not exist.

Chipotle, an international food chain, thinks we need to go back to the start as well. That is why they filmed this short video.  To be honest, it left me a little misty, as it is an issue so near and dear to my heart:

*thanks to Scott at Batshite for sharing this video!
 

What do you think? Do we need a reboot to go back to the start?

Put it UP

I have been busy.

Most nights you will find me up to my elbows in food. Literally. Big pots of apples, simmering and tenderizing, getting ready for applesauce. Huge bowls of cucumbers, sitting in icy salt water, crisping up in advance of their pickled fate. Warm peaches, ready to have their skins effortlessly slipped off, after they have been blanched quickly in boiling water. Have you ever held a warm, skinless peach in your hand? I have. It seems to glow, with all its warm colours melding together, representing the very best of the harvest.

Then there were the cherries. Or should I say the pits. Or should I say pitting cherries is the pits. Or should I say, having purple stained fingers and fingernails for days is the pits? Mmmm but the cherry sauce and canned cherries they turned into look so divine. Y’know how with canned fruit cocktail each kid always wants the bowl with the most cherries? Now imagine a whole bowl of cherries. Nothing but cherries. Yes, life is good.

These ones were rescued by me, last night, through Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton, an awesome organization that matches volunteer pickers with neighbourhood trees.


Now how about peas? Crack, split, shell. Crack, split, shell. Forever. Half an hour of work will convert two pails into half a pail of little green peas, all different sizes. But damn they are sweet; my kids eat them like candy before we even get them on the table for dinner. Kids eating mouthfuls of fresh green vegetables? Eat away, my children, eat away. I did manage to save 2 lbs to blanch and freeze for winter.

But don’t get me wrong, there have been set backs. Those peas I picked at a local U-pick also came with about 25 mosquito bites. So. Many. Mosquitos. And the first batch of sweet cherries I spent hours pitting, ended up in the garbage because I was trying to dry them into cherry raisins and didn’t read the instructions correctly and did it all wrong…. I also broke a jar of cherry preserves when it was still in the canner – there were cherries everywhere in the water, such a mess.

And the canner. My big ol’ canner. It is a fixture on my stove these days. It is heavy, it is cumbersome, and takes up way more than its fair share on the stove. It takes forever to boil. So just when your recipe is ready to go – you’ve got to wait for that big ol’ canner to boil. So after a while, I decide to be smart about it and turn it on extra early, so of course it  boils all the while I am making my next batch, and then what do y’know, it has boiled down too far and I need to add more water which of course makes it stop boiling and I have to… WAIT.


Or how about those apples I picked from my neighbour’s tree? I picked and picked and picked and actually loved it. I LOVED it. It made me feel like a kid, 6 feet up in a tree. The branches were so thick that I could not even see the ground. I was so high up on my ladder, higher than I normally comfortable going – but I was not afraid because the tree was all around me, the branches at my knees and waist and shoulders, leaves and apples everywhere. I felt the tree’s embrace. I was being tree hugged.

I hauled down 200lbs of apples from that tree. I got to work quickly and processed about 60lbs of them into apple sauce (which turned out a pretty pink!), apple chutney and apple juice. I also gave a bunch away.

But 6 days later, the apples were no good. Rotten. Over half of them left, now a big problem to deal with. I put some in my composter and overwhelmed it. They started to ferment. The rest are still in my backyard, what do I do with them? I am so sad they did not last. Next time I will pick earlier in the hopes that a less ripe apple will be a longer lasting apple.

As for the cucumbers – I bought too many. Want some?


I processed 20 pounds into 20 jars and then could do no more. I still have 5 lbs left. What to do? I cannot look at another cucumber again, I just can’t.


But overall, it has been great fun. I am finding that canning food is becoming – dare I say it – addictive. It is a bunch of work yes, but when you pull those hot jars of food out of the canner and set them on the counter, you just feel so proud of yourself. Like – I accomplished something here today and I have the jars to prove it! I didn’t know what I was doing when I started this whole process, and now – I’ve got jars. Pickles. Applesauce. Peaches. Jam. Cherries. I fill up my counters with them, batch by batch. When my counters fill up, I take them downstairs, flat by flat. I keep going back to the store for jars – I need more jars! I need more jars!

So what is the tally so far?

24 jars of applesauce
6 jars of apple juice
5 jars of apple chutney
18 jars of peaches
6 jars of cherries
3 jars of strawberries (frozen)
2 jars of raspberries (frozen)
13 jars strawberry jam & sauce
10 jars saskatoon jam
4 jars cherry jam
20 jars pickles

Okay, so that is about 111 jars of produce that I mostly picked myself (except for the peaches and pickles), washed, cut, processed and canned. Am I a crazy lady? But just think how it will look on my empty shelving unit downstairs! I can’t wait to line them up, one by one and look upon the whole thing, all at once. I will be one of those people who have a stockpile of locally preserved food for winter.  I will also have something in common with grandmas everywhere.

But wait, I am not done.

Tomatoes are next. We cannot forget tomatoes, in all their home gardening glory. They are the ruby-red prized jewel of the garden, the vegetable we most look forward to eating, and perhaps the vegetable that tastes so much better from the garden than from the store. Now imagine that as pasta sauce, salsa and canned tomatoes. I know, I know, I can’t wait to see how it turns out, either.

After that - corn, to be cut from the cob and blanched and frozen for winter.

Then raspberry jam and saskatoon syrup will soon follow, these little berries are waiting their turn patiently in my freezer. I also have bags and bags of frozen local strawberries and raspberries and cherries that will make their way into smoothies and baking all winter long.

Then our good reliable root vegetables – potatoes, carrots, beets and onions – will be hung up, packed up and put away down low, somewhere cool. I just need to get some sort of cold room/root cellar thing going on in my basement.

THEN I will have a pantry and freezer full of local food.

I just put up the harvest. Imagine that. J

Apple Tree

I feel like I am finding my way. Things are coming together, unfolding more or less how I hoped they would. I had a dream and a desire to localize my eating, and now that the growing season is underway, I am learning more and more about how it actually can be done.  I can play an active role in provisioning food for my family.  I started on this journey last year, wanting to make a difference for the environment, for climate change, for our future.  This has progressed into looking at the world differently, looking at nature differently, and looking at how we sustain ourselves with food differently.

I want to go and pick an apple tree. Last year, the idea of picking an apple tree that was not even mine, would have seemed ridiculous and even a waste of time. Why would I spend time in a tree, when I can buy as many apples as I want at the grocery store? Besides, what would I do with all those apples anyway? Where would I put them, how could they possibly not go to waste?

My neighbours have a beautiful old apple tree that they inherited when they bought their house, and it produces hundreds of small, sweet, crispy apples. Last year they picked a few but left the vast majority of them up on the tree to rot and shrivel. All winter I looked up at the dried fruit on the branches and wondered – could I pick their tree next time for them? Could I split the harvest?

In the spring my neighbours and I were chatting about gardening as I planted my vegetable seeds and seedlings. They mentioned their tree in passing, and that I could pick it this year if I wanted. I gladly agreed. This weekend I noticed that the apples were now turning red and that they should probably be picked soon. While I was watering my plants my neighbours came up to the fence and mentioned that I could pick the apples now, if I still wanted to. I did not even have to ask them about it again, something I was working up the courage to do… it’s like they read my mind or something! I thanked them and told them I would pick them a box as well. They did not seem that interested… Then I told them I was going to make apple sauce and apple butter – would they like some jars? They jumped at the suggestion and were really excited about the exchange.

So last night I looked up at the tree, with its big dark green leaves and rosy apples dripping down in clusters from every possible branch, and thought of the possibilities. This afternoon I hope to be up in that tree, with leaves in my face and the smell of live apples all around. I will come down from that tree with more apples than I can imagine – boxes and boxes of them. They will represent a good portion of my fruit stores for winter, when local fruit will be impossible to find.

I can see this tree from my bedroom; I watch it through all the seasons. I can stand in my garden in spring as the blossom petals flutter down over me and my yard. I look up at the limbs in the summer as I pick my own raspberries along the fence, and notice the little green globes growing bigger and bigger on the heavy boughs that droop down over. I see its bare branches for most of the year, reaching upward and out, in stark contrast to the snow all around and the bright blue sky. Now this tree is heavy with apples, ready to be picked, ready to be stored. How many boxes can I harvest? How long will it take? How many little red spheres will prove impossible to reach from my ladder? I have no idea.

The plan? Dole them out as crispy, sweet snacks to my children for as long as they will last fresh. Make apple crisp. Make apple butter – something I have never tasted but have heard amazing things about. Make apple juice perhaps? The vast majority though, will be converted into apple sauce. My kids love the stuff, and I hope to be eating homemade apple sauce in January, when the memory of this green tree bobbing with apples is all but a distant memory. I even bought a food mill last night to make the work easier and faster. Peeling and coring? Not required with a food mill, apparently.

I have never done any of this before, but plan to have fun trying. How many jars will I be able to put up? Time will tell.

In the meantime, if you will excuse me, I have a date with an apple tree.

Berry Me

Out here on the Canadian prairies, we can’t seem to grow much fruit other than berries. We can squeeze out apples okay, and the odd person has a pear or plum tree that manages to survive, but other than that – it is berries all the way. Raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, choke cherries and Saskatoon berries, to name a few. Because I want to eat as local as I can, I am getting in on the berry action by growing some in my yard and picking some at local U-pick farms. There is nothing better than live berries off the vine!

Raspberries - we have grown raspberries in our yard for a while as a raspberry patch came with our house, lovingly planted by the family before us. It has been a good year for them due to all the rain, making those berries relentless in their need to be picked. Everyday new ones ripen, and if you miss a few days you kick yourself, as they start to wilt and rot. It was a goal of mine to have very little raspberry wastage this year. Alas, waste did occur. Sometimes I just didn’t make it out in time, or was out of town… I did manage to pick quite a few though, and my kids have had freshly picked raspberries on their cereal for weeks.

This year I topped up my raspberry collection by going to a U-pick (Roy’s Raspberries) and picked 5 lbs in only 30 minutes, all for only $18! These berries were so easy to pick (unlike my patch where the canes are falling all over each other). I will make some of them into jam, and will freeze the rest for winter smoothies and baking.

Now for strawberries – I planted a patch this year of 16 plants, some June bearing (which is actually July here), some ever bearing. They are doing marvellous! With their big shiny triple leaves, lots of white flowers, and now suckers everywhere ready to make new plants for next year – what’s not to love? Here are the plants earlier in the season:

I pinched off some of the flowers this year (on the advice from a book I read) to strengthen the plants to ensure a bountiful harvest next year. We will see! As it stands, my kids love these berries so much that every time we are outside they go snacking. They call it the strawberry store. Let’s just say that precious few berries ever even make it into the house. So I want to expand the patch next year, I just need to find/decide on a spot.

To supplement our strawberry store, I went U-picking with the kids twice – once around town (Happy Acres U-Pick) and once near my parent’s cabin at the lake (Moe’s Gardens & Greenhouses). We jammed some, ate some, froze some.  Here are some berries mid-jam:

On to Cherries – I have a Nanking Cherry tree in my yard that I bought about 7 years ago for its display of flowers in spring. It delivers on the flowers alright – it is my absolute favourite part of my yard in early spring!

But I never knew until this year that its berries were edible. No idea! So I tried them for the first time this year. Pretty good! A bit tart, but very juicy and succulent. My kids also liked picking these off the tree and popping them in their mouths, although my three year-old had problems with the pits. After considerable snacking, I picked the tree clean and got only 2 cups, from which I made a single jar of jam. Maybe the bees forgot to visit my tree?

Blueberries – the low bush variety grows wild here, and as kids we used to pick them in the pine forest next to my parent’s cabin. They are really tiny though, and took a long time to pick. Plus the bears really love them, so depending on the time of year, you could run in to one… So I decided to plant my own and got 2 high bush varieties that produce lots of slightly bigger berries. I bought special ones that are hardy to -35ºC (-31ºF) so that they would stand a chance here (Polaris and Northland, with Polaris being my clear favourite). Unfortunately, my two bushes together have produced a grand total of about 15 berries. I know it is the first year and all – but 15? Come on! I think I planted them in the wrong spot, they need more sun. I plan to buy 2 – 4 more bushes next year, but need to weave some magic in order to find a spot for them in my small urban yard. Back alley? Next to the sidewalk? Crammed into a garden bed?

A maturing Polaris blueberry (Vaccinium corymb...

Image via Wikipedia - Polaris Blueberry

On to Saskatoon berries – these grow wild! There are dozens of trees at my parent’s cabin, something I had never realized before. I have grown up there in the summers, and never knew the bounty of fruit that lay hidden in the forest! But this year I have been noticing nature around me more, appreciating it, looking deeper in the forest to identify different types of trees. Hidden amongst all the others, there they were, standing tall with dark purple berries aplenty. Can you spot them?

So there is no need to find a place in my yard to plant these – I can forage! I picked enough for a batch of jam in July, my mom picked bunch for another batch of jam this weekend, and my sister and I picked even more. What else should we do with them? Saskatoon berry syrup? Freeze for baking? Maybe a bit of both. Saskatoons have a unique tart flavour that is quite decadent when sweetened. Plus they are native here, they grew here first. I like that idea, we don’t get much of that here… So as I picked them in the forest, listening to the waves lap up on the beach a few meters away, I imagined myself 300 years ago… would I be gathering berries for my family this way?

All in all, it has been a berry good experience (I know, I know, I couldn’t resist).

Food Grower (me)

Check out what I pulled out of the garden a few days ago.

I went in for some maintenance thinning on the carrots and beets. The square foot gardening book said to plant two carrot seeds in every hole, so I did. Two carrots came up, pretty much in every hole. So the book said to thin them out as baby carrots, when the carrot greens are about 4 inches high, which they were, so I did. So now, I have baby carrots!

I gave them to my kids, greens and all, laid across their plates, greens hanging over. We heard a lot of “ehhhhhh, what’s up doc?” at the table that night. Carrots were munched up and gonzo before they had eaten anything else. I asked them if they remembered planting them as tiny tiny seeds (somehow tiny fingers do a better job at this).

“Yes! We did!”

Did you remember when they poked through after all that waiting?

“Yes.”

Now that they have grown into a yummy carrot, what do you think?

Crunch, munch, smile. “Ehhhh, what’s up doc?!”

As for the beets, it is interesting how the seed is actually a seed cluster, so more than one is always going to come up. Time to thin! In doing so I have discovered that beets have a great side benefit – beet greens. They are tasty and soft and so interesting in mixed salad greens. What other vegetable can you eat the whole thing – root, greens, stems?

I know – onions! I chopped off some of their greens for green onions as well.

Raspberries are also just starting to come out, won’t be long and we will have enough for jam and freezing.

My peas are finally flowering, and I have tomatoes forming, with lots of blossoms to come. My potato plants are huge in one part of the garden, and small in another. Live and learn. I am already dreaming up places I will put them next year. Tucked in with some perennials in the front? Against the garage in the alley? In pots on the patio? Look what this guy did with a pot, look how many potatoes he got!

I am one of those people now.

Check it out, I can grow food. Me, with food growing, in my tiny backyard. It is possible.

Strawberry Fields Forever

Local strawberries, grown here – have you ever tried them?

Now that I am in the process of converting to eating local food year round, I have got to plan ahead for those long winter months. So when local strawberries come into season, I have got to get them now, while the getting is good!

The strawberries that grow around here are small, sweet and juicy. When you bite into them they are red throughout, with no white bits on the inside like the grocery store variety can have. They do have a shorter shelf life, which is why you can’t find them in the grocery store. You can find them at the farmer’s markets though. Even better – you can pick them yourself!

This week we are out at my parent’s lakeside cottage with my Mom, so I looked up some U-pick farms in the area, using the Alberta Farm Fresh website. I called, and the lady told us to come on down! There are berries on the plants! The season is just starting up! So my Mom and I loaded up the kids and off we went.

The farm was located about 15 minutes from the cottage, set in among rolling green hills. It had rained earlier that morning, and the sun had just come out, making everything shine brightly. We each grabbed a pail and the lady showed us how to pick the fruit – you just pull back green leafy top cover to reveal large clusters of red fruit underneath, lay the fruit in your hand and grasp the stem with your thumb, and the strawberry just rolls into your hand. She had lined the rows between her plants with straw, keeping the berries clean and our boots mud-free. She also told us that her plants were not sprayed and that everything was organic.

The kids loved it; they thought it was cool that they were on a real farm! Where real food grows! They were very excited about the prospect of eating berries that they had picked themselves. In no time at all we had picked 4 pails, which turned out to be about 20 lbs of fruit.

When we got them home we all had a strawberry snack. Then my Mom and I started scouring cookbooks for recipes for strawberry jam. Let the preserving begin!

My Mom made 6 jars of strawberry freezer jam. The strawberries are frozen in fresh, creating a brightly coloured jam that is not cooked.

Lacking freezer space, I started off by making a classic jam recipe, the kind they used to make back in the day before you could go to the store and buy a box of pectin off the shelf. With this method you cook the berries to release their natural pectin. This recipe used 2 cups of sugar, lemon juice and 8 cups of berries. The result was a wine coloured jam, with a deep flavour and caramel tones.

Next I made a jam with a higher amount of sugar, using the classic method again (no pectin). This recipe used 4 cups of sugar, 4 cups of berries and lemon juice. The added sugar added extra brightness and clarity to this jam, making it look like the berry bits were floating in ruby red jelly.

I finished off with making some preserved strawberry sundae topping. This recipe called for orange juice and orange rind, along with a bit of syrup instead of sugar. The idea was to hold back on the sweetness, to allow the fruit flavours to come through. This preserve was the lightest in colour, and the berries were left almost intact. I plan to use it over ice cream and also to stir into yogurt. Who knows, maybe I will even try making yogurt myself!

I froze the rest of the berries, hulling them and laying them out on cookie sheets to freeze individually first before bagging. I got two large sized freezer bags out of it.

We ate lots of berries fresh as well, as snacks, as desert, in a bowl full of milk, overtop cereal, in fruit salad. Delish. These berries were so sweet it was like eating fruit candy.

This was my first attempt at realizing my goal of a pantry stocked with local food for the winter - thirteen pretty red jars of local sweet strawberries.

Mmmm.

Greeny Blues

Do you ever feel like being green makes you blue?

When I first started out on this green journey 7 months ago, I felt powerless and alone. What a massive problem – what can my tiny voice do? I am just a regular mom. How is changing my actions going to affect anything? I am just one person among billions.

Then I found a community of like minded people, first with fellow bloggers, then among family and friends. I needed to try, to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. I committed to change my ways.

This propelled me for several months. It was exciting! I was changing my lifestyle left, right and centre. Lights off, laundry hung up to dry, heat turned down, no more plastic bags, no more food in boxes, more bus rides, less mall shopping, more local shopping, more farmer’s markets, no new clothes, more gently used clothes, no more Styrofoam, no more paper napkins, way less food waste…

And then finally – I built myself a real vegetable garden to call my own.

It was fun. I did things one way for a decade, then bam I changed it all up. It threw my husband for a loop – why all the change?  He thought I was crazy. But for me it felt really good, I was doing something about this problem called climate change. I didn’t feel powerless anymore. I had a purpose. I had a reason for my actions. This was incredibly fulfilling.

However along the way I also learned a lot more about the state of our little planet Earth, this small marble of life in a Universe so vast…

The Earth flag is not an official flag, since ...

Image via Wikipedia

I learned that we need to be really scared about the future. I learned that there are great political, social and economic forces against the reduction of CO2, forces so strong, and so well-funded, and so engrained in our very culture. These forces happen to be also very good at spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about the science of climate change.

I also learned that we don’t have much more time. I learned that our window for turning things around is not measured in decades, but in mere years.

We only have a few years to change.

On one hand I am defiantly hopeful, that there will be enough of us on the good side, on the side that chooses life and sustainability, over convenience and consumerism. That more and more people will figure out what I figured out 7 months ago, and make changes, and inspire others to make changes, who will inspire others, and this whole thing will tip, so that more of us want to do something about it than don’t want to do something, that more of us will look beyond the borders of our little lives and realize that we are part of something bigger, something magnificent and fantastic and we will collectively realize the power we have to change. We will act for each other, for our children and our children’s children. We will act for humanity itself.

On the other hand I am scared. What if enough people don’t join in? What if the governments of the world take just a bit too long to act? What if we keep burning and burning oil, putting more C02 into the sky, and don’t stop before it is too late? We all know that the oil is going to run out one day, and we will have to transition to something else. What if we don’t make that transition when there is still a world worth saving?

Hence, the blues.

Have you ever just cried … for the world? Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed about it all, and it saddens me so deeply and greatly, that I just cry. I cry for the children. I cry for their future.

Am I crazy?

I want to do more, I resolve to do more, I have long lists of things that I want to accomplish, letters to write, actions to take, committees to join. But I struggle. Being a busy working mom, there is just not enough time in each day to do all that I want to do. My minutes feel like tiny raindrops of gold, so precious, so few, so easily lost.

How will I live this life? How will I make a difference? How will I contribute to this groundswell of people now growing steadily, of those committed to living green, spreading green and building a sustainable world for our children? Imagine being a part of something so amazing and magnificent? Imagine being part of the movement that ushered in the solution, in the face of the greatest problem to ever face humanity? I know the stakes are high and the hour is late, I just need to find time between doing the laundry and doing the dishes to pitch in.

Plus I look around me, and everywhere I go, there are constant reminders of how far we need to go to turn this thing around. Pick a category: Food. Transport. Consumerism. Energy. Economy. It all has to change – radically.

We will get there. We have to. The enormity of it all though, has this greenie feelin’ a bit blue.

Make Your Bed – Part III

My garden is now growing.

I constructed my garden beds (Part I) and filled them with dirt (Part II). Then it was time for the fun part. Planting!

Planting is definitely pretty easy. The hardest part is deciding what to plant where. There are so many choices, so many combinations. Some plants are good companions, some are not. Some plants grow big and create shade for the others. Some plants like hot sun, others prefer cool temperatures. Some will tolerate some shade, some will not.

So I planted a mixture of heat lovers, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in my hot spots. I planted my cool weather friends, such as peas, in my cooler spots. I planted some lettuce and carrots and onions in a less sunny spot, where they will still grow, just not as big. I planted two large self-watering bins of summer salad fixin’s right out my back door – carrots, lettuce, peppers, basil, parsley beets and a tomato. I also found spots for potatoes, pole beans (to climb an archway vine!), bush beans, cilantro and dill.

Let it grow.

Here is a peak into what we were doing on May 1st.

Planting peas:

Planting onions:

Covering our onions up with dirt:

A couple weeks passed, and this is how things looked on May 17th:

Sugar peas popping up:

Onions showing their stalks:

Pretty shelling peas showing their leaves:

Carrots peaking up:

Lettuce and beets on the way (love the red stalks!):

My backdoor bins in the sunroom showing their shoots (clockwise from left: peas, peppers, carrots, lettuce, beets, basil, and tomato):

There you have it. All the seeds and seedlings are planted; everyone is safely tucked into their garden beds.  In the next post I will show you how they look now!

I loved this process. I felt like a builder, creating goodness in my yard. I felt like a novice farmer, planning crops and setting seeds. It felt good to show my children how to plant food. I felt inspired by nature – putting a tiny inert speck of a carrot seed in the ground and then watching it actually push through the dirt and reach up for the sun.

Life. It is amazing, isn’t it?

I loved the time spent outside with the kids, in the sunshine and fresh spring breezes – building, digging, exercising, creating, planting.

Now we wait.  Now we watch it grow.

What is your garden growing?

Make Your Bed – Part II

The garden beds have been constructed (see Part I) Whew. After long winter months of dreaming where I would put them and what they would look like – they are done.

Now I have to fill them with dirt.

I should mention that I decided to follow the Square Foot Gardening method, developed by Mel Bartholomew. I read several books over the winter on backyard gardening, and this one really stood out. This type of garden takes up less space, is totally organic, doesn’t need much weeding, and produces a relatively large amount of food in a small space.

The idea is that you build a wooden raised bed, 4 feet long and wide, giving you 16 square feet of growing area ( I did a 3 x 5 and a 3 x 7 to fit my spaces). You mark off these square feet using thin strips of wood or string, creating a grid. Within each square you grow a different vegetable. So for example, in one square you can grow 16 carrots or 16 beets or 9 onions or 8 peas or 9 bush beans. So if I designate 3 squares to carrots, I could potentially get 48 carrots out of it. For the larger plants, like peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and potatoes, you grow one plant per square. It saves space because there are no rows between plants. You also never walk on it, so the soil stays light and fluffy. The bed is raised, making them easier to reach.

I like how this system works. I can grow whatever I want in whatever square I want. For some reason, my brain likes the combination of spontaneity, combined with the systematic organization of a grid.

The other thing about Square Foot Gardening is that you use a different type of soil medium. You don’t use dirt from your garden. You make your own dirt. The soil medium is made up of 1/3 peat moss (or its more sustainable counterpart – coir), 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 compost. The peat moss keeps the soil light, the vermiculite holds a tremendous amount of water and also aids with breaking up the density of the soil, and the compost gives your plants all the food they need – organically of course.

I totally bought into this idea. I want my garden to be organic. I want my soil to hold the perfect balance of water and air. I want my plants to have enough water to sustain them. In addition, I won’t have to worry if my soil is too acidic or too alkaline. I won’t have to worry if I have too much clay, sand or silt. I won’t have to worry about all the weed seeds in garden soil.

So, I went on a mission to find my ingredients. Mel says to use at least 3 different types of compost, to ensure that you get a balanced mix. In the end I used about 4 types. The peat was relatively easy to find, but if I could have done it again I would have looked harder to find coir (peat bogs are not very renewable and hold 10% of the world’s fresh water and coir is simply the left over husks from coconuts).

Vermiculite was another story. I phoned around to almost every greenhouse, garden centre, hardware store in my area. Most did not carry it. If they did carry it was only in small 20 litre bags. I needed 550 litres! I found one supplier that carried it in 110 litre bags, so I bought up 5 huge bags. It turned out it was the wrong type – fine grain instead of medium or coarse grain, which according to Mel is a very important distinction. So I returned those and purchased 25 of the 20 litre bags. I purchased 18 bags of compost and 4 bales of peat moss. Here is what a few bags of it looked like before I got started:

With the ingredients finally in hand I set out to make dirt. The idea is that you dump equal amounts of peat moss, compost and vermiculite onto a tarp, and then roll it around.

It helps to have a helper, preferably an adult. However, my 5 year-old boy was ready and willing to get the job done, so help he did! He dumped the vermiculite (it is really light), watered the pile to get it moist, and held up two ends of the tarp while I held the other two ends and tugged and pulled and kicked it until it was mixed.

I did this 12 times, and made 12 batches of dirt. I hauled each one over to my garden beds and pushed and heaved the tarp until the dirt was deposited within.

For the container garden we filled each of the six bins with a pail, scoop by scoop. We got our hands really, really dirty.

The neighbours came by and asked what we were up to. “We are making homemade dirt!” my son told them. “It has compost, vermiculite and feet moss!”

At last it was done. My driveway was a complete disaster, dirt remnants everywhere. Every muscle ached. But it was a good thing. I felt good. My body felt good.  I set out to accomplish something that weekend, to create garden beds in my tiny yard, and I made it happen.

Now look:

Stay tuned for Part III – planting!

Make Your Bed – Part I

My muscles ache. I feel a heavy tiredness within my body, and an excitement of what lies ahead.

That’s right. I am setting up my garden.

Over the last few weekends, I have built my garden beds. Two weekends ago, I built my wooden raised beds. I went to the hardware store (kids in tow), purchased lumber, and the nice guy at the store cut it for me on the spot. Then we had a flash snow storm. Undaunted, I built two wood frames in my sunroom, and as the snow fell all around me, I switched back and forth from feeling crazy for building a garden when there is a foot of snow outside, and excited that I was pushing through with this project, despite the weather. My son helped – he handed me the screws as I needed them.

When they were done I felt pretty proud of myself. I had dreamed up this idea back in December, and here I was, making it happen. I did it all by self. I drilled, I fastened, I built. 

Here they are, propped up waiting for the snow to melt.

The weekend before that, I got busy making 6 large container beds that can sit on my patio. My patio receives the best sun, so containers I must have. These are self-watering, a premise I had not heard of until I found the Urban Organic Gardener - he grows food on his balcony in home-made containers. Intrigued, I read The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible and Fresh Food From Small Spaces and they both explained how to build containers yourself and both told tales of all the great food you can grow. In some ways they preferred a container garden to an earth garden, as the soil warms up earlier in the spring, the water is easier to control, and the plants are easier to reach. You can make them yourself or buy them. There are commercial self-watering containers available, such as the Earth Box, which some farmers even use. There are also basic pots available at garden centres that have the self-watering feature. It is the new thing!

To make my containers, I got the largest bin I could find, cut down edges of the lid so that it would fit inside the bin to create a false bottom, cut two large holes in the lid, and then inserted a small colander under each hole. I also placed 3″ pots upside down in each corner, to help hold up the false bottom. The idea is that the reservoir below is filled with water, and the water seeps into the colanders that are filled with soil, and then wicks up through the soil in the colander and then into the container. So how do you get water into the false bottom? Well you can either make a hole in the bin near the bottom, or you can insert a pipe that is watered from above. I decided on the pipe, as it would be easier to water and would not interfere with the reservoir size.

Sounds great right? Well it turns out that cutting the plastic lid is pretty hard. I used industrial cutting snips with no avail. Total bust. So I decided to try sawing it, and that worked better, although it was slow going. In the end, I sawed 5 of them, and my husband (through some Tom Sawyer trickery) sawed one. I went through two blades on a hack saw.

My son also “helped” with these. I would not let him operate the saw, but I let him help me cut the pipe, tandem style, back and forth. He liked that. Then at one point he took my marker and drew a picture of me cutting all my boxes:

Yes, I am a builder mama. The garden beds are built.

Next stop… dirt.

Stay tuned for Part II!