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.

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!