Reflections on gardening and some winter planning

It’s been a little over a month since we closed down the better part of our warm weather garden, although at the time of writing several kale and chard plants in my small front bed are still going strong and happily resisting the frosts at night. Along with ridiculous amounts of parsley that I must harvest; I really don’t know how we came to grow so much parsley!

At the very end of September / beginning of October when it was time to deal with the tomatoes, I picked as many as wanted to come off the vine and ended up with several large bowlsful that came directly into the kitchen. One-third of that went straight into the batch of Green Tomato and Apple chutney that I made and canned (so good), and two-thirds were consumed as part of lunches and suppers, as needed. Sometimes fresh as a garnish or addition to a meal, other times cooked as part of the main event, like pizza sauce or chili. There remained on the tomato plants a number of tomatoes too green to be picked, so I cut those plants down to ground level and simply brought them into our cold storage room where I placed them on the floor on a sheet where they have continued to ripen. I’d got this advice from several different corners and it certainly works. Nothing beats the living warmth and flavours of a tomato right off the vine, but slow ripening in a dark room after the season has ended still beats anything from the grocery store.

This year in the garden was really a test – could we garden on clay, and we liked the result we got, documented here. Having satisfied ourselves that we could do this reasonably well and keep the deer out, the only thing left to do is expand by quite a lot the size of our beds. We fed ourselves from our garden quite decently this year, had enough tomatoes for a small amount of canning, and enough surplus to share some of the bounty with family and friends, which is all good. But there are more vegetables that we’d like to grow that we simply didn’t have room for and we want to increase volume by a lot for certain crops (eg tomatoes – next year I want to be able to can a lot of tomato sauce and chutney).

As part of clearing out the larger bed behind the house earlier this fall we also started the process of expanding it. We’re essentially taking a rectangular bed that nestled at the back corner (south facing) of our house and pulling it out and around the corner of the house. We’ve watched the progress and intensity of the sun in this space quite a lot and think it’s a good decision to expand in this location. The final bed will be between three and four times its original size and will build on some kind of terracing as it generally slopes up as it moves toward the front of the house. Unless on my return home today I find out that dam working is continuing, I’m expecting that we’ll be tilling the ground for the rest of this expanded bed.

I’ve got to get my head firmly back into garden for a bit after taking a break this past month; I started a new batch of greens that do well in cool to cold weather – arugula, radicchio, lettuce, chard and kale – in small pots in a sunny window in our mudroom earlier this fall and these are ready to go into the ground and spread their roots. I can’t do this until we have a mini greenhouse or other row cover solution sorted out and I’m starting to feel a little panicked, but we’ll sort something out. This is the first time that I’ve ever started a crop in the fall, so I need to get my skates on. We haven’t been able to find a large-ish (20 x 12 feet) coldhouse that we like enough and can afford yet, so growing on a larger scale this winter seems unlikely (we really need to know for sure one way or the other this week), but if we just have a go with the greens I’ll be happy as we will have tackled something new.

I also need to get my herbs moving again indoors; sadly I let the super happy and productive basil plant that spent the summer in our screened in porch die and I’ll have to start again with basil from seed. That’ll teach me.

Recently we remembered to pick some wild mint from the banks of our stream and have a batch drying for tea.

My ambitions for next year in summary:
– lots more tomatoes and some major canning
– more carrots
– more green beans and runner beans and a plan to freeze a number of batches
– less kale, more chard
– add zucchini/courgette to the list
– master growing some kind of squash (likely butternut for a cold storage staple): squash did not do well in our garden this year
– pumpkins
– cukes (the other crop that did not do well this year) and making pickles (that’s my husband’s job)
– add leeks
– add potatoes
– small batch of broccoli (I grew two beautiful heads of broccoli in my city garden a few years ago but lost both – their heads were mysteriously broken off just as they were nearly ready)
– have a better plan for harvesting/using hot peppers
– beef up growth of sweet peppers
– try a different variety of spinach
– apple cider making (again, something my husband is really wanting to do)
– make apple marmalade again, but triple the batch size!
– add at least one other preserve to the list

Apple Marmalade

I’m going to coast on last weekend’s accomplishments as I need to get caught up. After my first successful batch of preserving green tomato and apple chutney, I was really fired up. The mystery taken out of the canning process for me, finally, I kept going on Monday night and whipped up a batch of apple marmalade, which is absolutely lovely. I have to say I was knackered by the end of Monday night, having spent two consecutive days doing a lot of standing and tending in the kitchen, but it was worth it. And that second batch was a doddle compared to the first, thanks to the demystifying, which was entirely down to Mary Ann Dragan’s Well Preserved: Small Batch Preserving for the New Cook.

How gorgeous is this?

Apple Marmalade

Dragan’s excellent instructions even resulted in the perfect “gel” stage my first time attempting marmalade!

My one quibble with Dragan’s book is that she tends to refer the reader/cook back to the canning instructions included by the manufacturer of the jars, but my new jars came without any such instructions. I see now that the manufacturer, Bernardin, has great info on their website, but there was nothing in, on or around the box! Anyway, the info in Dragan’s book was really very good and I felt more than equipped with common sense by the time it came to deal with the jars in the process.

Since making our big move out here there have been many firsts for me, among them pastry and canning, and in both cases I had allowed fear and apprehension to keep me from trying them for years. No more fear here!

Weekend work: cold, wet and productive

Saturday dawned cold and dreary. We had to pull on jackets and scarves before heading out to collect a pile of scrap metal from a junk heap in the far reaches of our property. Once that was delivered, we headed down to the treefort (where the scrap metal will be used as siding).
Boy driving lawn tractor

Fitting corner pieces to the upper walls was the order of the day.
Installing walls to a handmade, recycled treehouse
With the biting wind, it was a good day to pretend to be a little furry creature in a dry corner of the treefort.
Young child pretending to be a gerbil
A bit of measuring at the rear of the treefort was needed before we could head back up to the house.
Treefort construction with recycled windows and building materials
We had to check a few angles too.
Checking wall angle on a homemade treefort
Back up at the house it was time for a hot, late lunch/early supper.
Hot meal on the stovetop: fried eggs, shakshouka, potatoes
My take on shakshouka, full of tomatoes, parsley and peppers from our garden, as well as a local onion – an end of summer meal on a day that felt more like late fall.
Even though the house was perfectly toasty, the day demanded the first fire of the season in the woodstove.
Fire burning in the Esse Ironheart
We rewarded ourselves with a screening of the WWII film Desert Rats and then took a peek at the incredible sunset (the funny pink rectilinear shape reminds me that I still haven’t written anything directly about our solar panels – they are here, but not yet connected).
Pink sunset in Eastern Ontario
Sunday wasn’t much fairer, but I started the day by canning a delicious batch of Green Tomato and Apple Chutney (we’ve got lots of unripe tomatoes too!), my first effort at this kind of preserving. My heart felt good as I heard every jar lid make its “ping!” sound one after the other.

We fit in some more work on the treefort and my husband made good progress on his latest project: a burn barrel created to work like a wood gasifier (a super efficient way to burn wood and its gases, reducing smoke and harmful gases). Like the treefort, this is another nearly 100% recycled project. The outer barrel is a repurposed barrel from an ancient potato planter that we inherited when we bought our land. The smaller inner barrel was traded for the hydraulics on the same potato planter with a neighbour. Our youngest was thrilled to be asked to climb inside to help with fastening the two barrels together at the base.
Boy sitting in a barrel
Fastening two recycled barrels one inside the other to make a large wood gasifier
There is still chard and kale producing in the front bed, but the rear garden is done for now, so garden transition is also underway. But that’s another post.

Baking with raspberries and weekend work

The reason for this post is really to boost my Monday morning spirits with some great shots of the delicious raspberry cream cheese coffee cake that I’ve been able to make three times this summer, but it’s also a chance to record some progress around the place on the weekend, including:

– Walking around and photographing the apple trees that we feel should get our attention first: we’re faced with the task of reclaiming an entire orchard, and I’ll post more on this over time, but suffice it to say that this will be a multi-year activity.
– Rescuing one apple tree on the property: that’s a bit of an overstatement, really. We spent about 2.5 hours cutting brush and young trees from around one of the apple trees nearest the house, clearing the way to prune the poor thing later in the season.
– Reorganizing our garage and mechanical room to make way for the coming winter’s wood for our woodstove. My clever husband devised a simple slide or ramp over the stairs that lead to our basement from our garage and it’s the best toy we’ve ever given our eight-year old. That and the dolly that he used to cart the wood from the driveway to the top of the stairs.

Child stacking firewood onto a dolly
We agree that it's worth having a woodstove just to guarantee our kids this activity every year - forget about taking them to a fall fair or amusement park.

– Splitting and preparing a good-sized pile of kindling (no pictures; our 13 year old did a fine job here)
– A bit of garden tidying, including harvesting the last carrots and clearing out the finished stumps of lettuce

There was also laundry and housecleaning and baking and a swimming lesson for one child. But the raspberry cake. I’ve written about it before, but I’ve finally got pictures.

Bowl of raspberries
Our wild raspberry bushes are still producing and my husband insisted that they be used for this cake.

Raspberries and a cake base
The base is prepared, making way for the cream cheese layer and then the raspberries and crumbly coffee cake topping.

Raspberry cream cheese coffee cake
The finished cake...

Raspberry cream cheese coffee cake - inside shot
...and a close up. Yum.

Now we’ve got to get back to the treehouse, which is nearly done.

Red Malabar spinach

So, when I wrote my last post, I completely neglected to mention one of our new crops this year: Red Malabar spinach. We’ve successfully grown four plants (two in the front, two in back) this year, but it took me a while to realize that this would provide one of my “Duh!” moments in gardening this year. It’s a fast growing vine – not mentioned on the seed packet and I obviously didn’t research this one before planting it. I was wondering if it had bolted, and then thought I’d better do a bit more investigation.

At least I’ve now found a use for the bamboo stakes that I did NOT need to install for two of the three types of green beans that we planted (again, one of the three is a climber, so we merrily put stakes in for all three, without evening thinking). One of my other “Duh!” moments…

At any rate, Red Malabar spinach is a happy discovery for me this year. It’s astoundingly pretty and very tasty to boot. The leaves did marvellously well as a late addition in a lentil soup and benefitted from not being cooked for very long. Definitely one that I’ll be experimenting with over the next few weeks.