All Tucked In

Applying mindful laziness to your fall garden clean-up

I’m a lazy gardener. I don’t pull weeds. I don’t harvest the kale and lettuce that’s going to seed. I don’t till the plot where I’m planning on planting fall vegetables. That’s too much work, it’s way too hot, and, besides, the bees enjoy the weeds and kale flowers, and my chickens will gladly do the tilling for me. 

Despite being lazy in some respects, I put a lot of thought and planning into my garden. I’m not doing nothing, I’m working towards doing nothing. Do-nothing farming is an idea put into practice by Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, who grew rice by scattering seeds in straw mulch, and filled his mandarin orchard with perennial and self-seeding vegetables. He never tilled or used chemical fertilizers, and instead let nature guide his farming practices. Transitioning from gardening to farming, reading every book on the topic I could get from my library, I found that Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution spoke to me the most. Why sweat in the hot fields pruning tomatoes, or pushing a heavy, stinky, polluting rototiller, when I can sit in the shade under my cherry trees drinking homemade dandelion beer? 

I apply lazy gardening techniques to my fall garden. Starting in early August, after the garlic is harvested, I move my chickens onto those now-empty plots, where they quickly get to work weeding, fertilizing, tilling, and eating up ants and slugs. (Since I got backyard chickens three years ago, my garden has never had fewer pests). Then, two or three weeks later, I move the birds somewhere else. (We use hardware cloth and broken hockey sticks for a simple – and truly Canadian – portable fence system). Then I start prepping the beds for fall crops. 

Depending on how compacted the soil is, I may broadfork the plot, then I’ll layer composted chicken manure and municipal compost. Like Fukuoka, I’ll scatter seeds, gently rake them in, add straw and seaweed mulch, then water. In amongst the emerging seeds, I transplant fall and winter crops like kale, collards, and beets, which I have seeded in soil blocks around the time I harvested the garlic. Soil blocks are the lazy gardener’s friend – no plastic, no garbage, just a square of soil ready to be popped into the ground. Just before freeze-up in December, I put hoops in the ground, cover it all in plastic, and – voilà – instant greenhouse for four-season growing!  

Perpetual Kale

In some parts of the 6,000-square-foot yard around my company house in New Waterford, N.S., the food grows by itself. By fall, the kale and lettuce I’ve let go to seed (which fed my honeybees throughout July) have started to dry and fall over. Though I collect and save seeds, I prefer to let the seeds plant themselves. I’ll throw manure and compost on top of my “perpetual kale yard,” and just let the kale grow back on its own. The kale tends to move around, in part thanks to the chickens. Carol Deppe, in The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, advises that the only plants that really need to be rotated each year are tomatoes and other nightshades, so I don’t worry too much about rotating my other crops. 

As a four-season grower, I don’t really put my garden to bed for winter, but rather tuck it in. Instead of ripping up spent plants, I leave them in the soil to break down naturally; that way, as Fukuoka suggests, the nutrients those plants took from the soil go right back into the soil. The plants also add extra protection from winter erosion. The only time I ripped up plants was the year my beans got blight. It broke my heart to put something biodegradable into the trash, but thanks to better soil management, it never happened again. My summer and winter squash almost always turn grey from powdery mildew, which in our Maritime climate is unavoidable. I compost my squash vines and tomato plants only because, by fall, I’m tired of tripping over them. I snip the plants at the base of the stem, and leave the roots in the soil to rot – again, to add back nutrients. Everything else, I leave in the garden.  

Much Mulch

Fall is all about mulch – the blanket I use to tuck in my crops. The cheaper the mulch, the better. On Nov. 1, I place an ad on Kijiji looking for straw and hay bales used as Hallowe’en decorations. People text me their address and the location of said bales, then off I go to pick them up. The hay bales insulate my vegetables; the straw bales I use around the chicken coop and on top of my garlic beds. (A word of caution: don’t let your chickens get at the hay, as they could develop crop impaction problems.) No worries about introducing new seeds to my garden; the chickens take care of those. This past spring I planted zucchini and cucumbers in the leftover, rotting bales, and so far the squash seem to love it. 

Fall leaves are another favourite mulch. On my bale collection rounds I also pick up bagged leaves. How nice of my neighbours to do all that raking for me! Last fall I dragged home two giant bags of leaves from a Sydney cemetery, and they contained bonus apples that the chickens enjoyed. 

My favourite mulch has got to be seaweed – something coastal gardeners have used to build and amend their soil for centuries. Irish farmers with rocky land planted their potatoes directly in seaweed. Seaweed is full of nutrients that plants love. Late last November, after I’d planted my garlic, I mulched the beds with a layer of seaweed, then a layer of straw. The mulch was so thick that, once the ground froze, the chickens could free-range over the beds without damaging the garlic underneath. I had to loosen the seaweed come spring – it was a bit too much for the garlic to poke through – but the bulbs I harvested this year were huge! 

When a rogue pattypan sprouted in my garden last year, producing pounds and pounds of squash, my search for an easy, lazy method of preserving led to my newest passion: fermenting. No boiling, no hot-water baths; just chop, salt, toss in a crock, weigh it down, and wait. A week or so later, I’d produced almost five gallons of a unique fermented spread that tasted great on pizza. This year, with all the heat we’ve gotten, I have a bumper crop of basil and hot peppers, so I’m looking forward to making fermented hot sauces and pesto – which I’ll get to, eventually. The fall sunshine has got me feeling lazy, and I’ve got another glass of dandelion beer to finish.  

This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Rural Delivery (Volume 43.4).


Well-Seasoned

Banish blandness by planting a wide selection of herbs

The first food I ever attempted to grow was herbs. One winter while living in Toronto, I bought some small clay pots, soil, and chive seeds. I planted the seeds, watered them, placed them on my south-facing windowsill, and waited. My mouth watered at the thought of adding fresh chives to my soups, rice, eggs, and salad.  

One week passed. And then another. A month later, still no chives. Eventually, I gave up, replaced the unsprouted seeds with spider plants, and didn’t attempt to grow food again for several years. Now chives grow in quite a few corners of my garden. I’m happy I didn’t give up on my chive dreams (I wonder if this is the real meaning behind “Keep calm and chive on”?), because chives, one of many perennial herbs, are an extremely welcome sight in spring, often popping out of the ground when it’s still cold and snowy in April. Turns out, chives can be rather tricky to grow from seed; it’s much better to plant transplants.  

By persevering, I also learned that herbs are extremely rewarding to grow. They don’t take up too much space, they grow well in pots, they complement other vegetables in your garden, they offer health benefits, and they can even keep pests away. In fact, despite my early, failed attempts, herbs are the first thing I recommend new gardeners grow. After all, a few fresh leaves of basil, snips of chives, or pinches of thyme can really add some zing to staples like eggs, meat, soup, and grains. Even a small, simple salad of fresh, cold-hardy parsley – with a basic vinaigrette – is incredibly energizing when the temperature drops and the days grow short.  

If you’re just starting out, you can get herb transplants from a garden centre or a farmers’ market vendor, or you can grow them from seed. Common transplants include savoury herbs like thyme, rosemary, basil, chives, and parsley. Perennial seeds, as I said, can be a bit tricky to start yourself – but once they’re established, you essentially have a lifetime supply of chives or thyme. For annual herbs – plants that live and die in one season – it’s much more cost-effective to start the plants from seed. Besides, a seed catalogue offers a far greater selection than you will find in most nurseries.  

Heat-lover

Basil is my favourite herb to grow from seed, but because it is native to tropical regions, it takes a few tricks to get big, healthy plants in our cooler Maritime climate. Jo Ann Gardner, in her book Living with Herbs, suggests buying seeds that boast large leaf sizes, such as Genovese, or Mammoth, or a crinkly-leaved variety I grew this past year called Napoletano. Basil hates the cold; even cold soil and cold wind will stunt or burn this sensitive plant. So I start my seeds indoors about six to eight weeks before the last frost, then gradually harden them off in my cold frame or under plastic.  

Basil is considered an excellent companion plant for tomatoes, but when I tried this I found the tomatoes would eventually engulf the basil, keeping the tiny plants in perpetual shadow, which they do not like. Now I grow my basil exclusively in pots on my hot, sunny deck. This keeps the soil much warmer (especially if you use black pots), allows for more consistent watering, and makes it easy to move the basil under cover or even bring it inside if the temperature suddenly drops.  

I also make sure to pinch my basil – meaning I snip the leader stem when it looks to be setting flowers, which encourages the side stems to develop leaves, ensuring a bushier plant and a longer harvest. My basil loved the hot, dry summer this past year, and in September I harvested my biggest crop ever, filling a large garbage bag with the pungent green leaves. 

Most herbs dry quite well if hung upside-down in a relatively dry room out of direct sunlight, but dried or frozen basil can get brown and ugly. The best way to preserve basil is to use it as an ingredient. In the fall I make large batches of pesto and zucchini-basil soup, which I freeze, to be enjoyed throughout the winter.  

This past year I adapted Pascal Baudar’s salted herb recipe (from his book The New Wildcrafted Cuisine) by combining one part salt to four parts chopped basil, which resulted in a very flavourful bouillon-type mixture; I add a spoonful or two to soup, or as a salt substitute in other recipes. The salted herbs keep well in the fridge, and as they very slowly ferment, the saltiness diminishes. You can use any herb in place of basil. 

A couple of years ago I noticed how much the local bumblebees loved the few basil flowers I neglected to pinch, so I now make sure to let some of my basil plants go to flower, to share with the bees. My honeybees are indifferent to my savoury basil, but they love my tulsi (Sacred basil) flowers. With its potent smell, a unique flavour resembling bubble gum, and prolific growth, tulsi has become one of my favourite tea herbs. Plus, like a lot of herbs, it’s loaded with health benefits; it relieves stress, alleviates cold and flu symptoms, and is even good for oral and dental health. I harvest my tea herbs in the summer and fall, dry them until they’re crispy, store them in Mason jars in a dark, cool place, and make healthful teas or use them to flavour kombucha all winter.   

Tea Time

Other tea herbs I enjoy growing include chamomile, lemon balm, and chocolate mint. Another bee favourite, anise hyssop (aka liquorice mint), is a tall-growing perennial that I plant at the northern end of my garden beds. I love growing as many perennials as I can; unlike fussy annuals, my chives, oregano, lavender, mint, and lemon balm come up year after year once established, with little or no work.  

A lot of herbs will also self-seed, so you may find chamomile, cilantro, or dill popping up in unusual places all over your garden. Be careful, though, because a few, such as mint and lemon balm, may threaten to take over. Not that I mind, however. My lemon balm has become a lovely ground cover, and in the summer it’s delightful to roam through and enjoy its bright, citrusy scent. 

And that’s just the tip of the basil flower when it comes to herbs. There’s a vast number of varieties and flavours to grow and experiment with. If at first you don’t succeed – well, keep trying and chive on! 

This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of Rural Delivery (Volume 43.7).

How to Garden in January

Harvesting vegetables from a winter garden takes a bit of planning: gardening in January really means doing the bulk of the gardening before January. That means planting the right veggies at the right time of year. It means paying attention to maturity dates and hours of sunlight each day. Once sunlight drops below 10 hours per day (usually around mid-November in Cape Breton until mid-February), everything stops growing. The trick is to get everything in the ground with some growth on before then.

Steps

1. Plant the right veggies. 

You want cold-hardy and cold-tolerant veggies. You’re not going to harvest tomatoes in January. Winter is all about kale and its cousins (the brassica family). Look for mâche, mizuna, and claytonia. Don’t forget root veggies (carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, etc). Some herbs, like parsley, are cold-hardy, too. 

2. Plant cold-hardy veggies at the right time

Eating veggies in January often means planting them in the spring, summer, or fall. Some veggies, like Brussels sprouts, are started indoors as seeds/seedlings in April or May. Others, like kale, are either planted early or not planted at all—new greens shoot off older green plants in the late summer/early fall when the temperatures cool and rain returns. 

The best timing for winter greens is to plant greens in the plot where the garlic is harvested in late July/August.

3. Pay careful attention to “mature by” dates on seed packages and know when your first frost date is for your region. 

Niki Jabbour, in her book The Year-Round Vegetable Farmer, goes into this in a lot more detail, but basically you gotta time your late summer plantings for fall/winter harvests with the date the plant is expected to mature. So, say you wanna plant some spinach. If the maturity date is 45 days, then count back from your first expected frost date (and add a week or 2 just in case). Since I live in Hardiness Zone 5b/6a my first frost date is usually around October 15-31 (proximity to the ocean usually gives us a later frost date—sometimes well into November). So, for an Oct. 15 harvest, I need to plant my spinach seeds around the first week of September or the last week of August. 

This part takes a bit of planning and it’s tough to get it exact ‘cause there’s so many things that can affect the growth of a plant.

4. Cover your veggies to keep them “warm.” 

There’s lots of ways you can cover your plots for winter: cold frames, row cover, low or mini hoop tunnels made of plastic, straw bales, or a straw/leaves mulch (again, check out Jabbour’s book for more details on covering your crops). I usually use a low tunnel: thin wire with plastic over top—though the wire can get pretty smushed by snow. Because the plants are cold-hardy, you’re not really trying to make sure they don’t freeze—you’re just protecting them from the elements. Also, once it snows, snow acts as an insulator. I’ve been making sure I dig out my tunnels after each snow as I want the sun to warm and eventually grow the veggies. If you’re not gonna eat the veggies till spring, you can keep the tunnels buried in snow until spring. 

5. Harvest your veggies at the right time of day. 

Pick veggies between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. That way they have time to defrost, slowly, outside. Harvesting earlier or later means a much faster, indoor defrost which also means mushy greens.