Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sugar's end, Spring's beginning

I've decided that the end of sugaring - maple syrup making - is the official start of spring. The sap has run up to the branches and plans on staying there causing the flowers to bloom and the leaves to unfurl. With so many posts on making maple syrup featuring knee deep snow and taps intact, I thought it would be fun to show you what our forest looks like at the end of the season.

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Small wasps sipping from the tap.

Warm weather wakes up the insects which head to the taps to refuel. It's a fascinating way to do a bug survey. This is the big reason I removed the taps in some trees that were still not 'green' because they were swimming with bugs! Don't worry, I rescued them.

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Literally swimming in bees and wasps: all set free.

A closeup of a couple native bees:

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Small native bees: two types. Let's see (PS though I like bugs, I haven't had much opportunity to learn their names. There was also a plethora of flies: some shiny blue, some striped, some dull black etc...) um, I'm going with sweat bee and the cutest bee ever (no, not an official name). All educated guesses welcome.

Look at this cool one! Believe it or not, I actually loved bugs before I loved plants. In fact, I liked rocks before I liked bugs. Thankfully all these interests are intertwined and growing plants as a hobby is a much better conversation starter than check out the folding in this gneiss or wow a cow patty fly.

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Ophion wasp which are short tailed Ichneumon wasps is my guess

The variously named beer or picnic beetle. I guess it depends on what your outdoor tipple looks like:

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Glischrochilus quadrisignatus

The first bugs to the buckets are the owl-faced moths (P.S. This common name which captures their faces well, does not appear to correspond with pictures I found on google so it might be a local name). This one is passed on but you can see why people round here call it owl-faced.

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Recently deceased after I'm going to assume a short but hedonistic life.

Flower break - Hepetica:

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These are sharp leafed hepatica and they were quite colourful this year ranging from pink, to blue-purple to white.

Hoverfly 'crying wasp':

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Another tap shot:

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Um, Andrena (yellow-orange haired one) and some sort of little parasitoid wasp?

There were also mourning cloaks and comma-type butterflies along with assorted flies, fireflies, green stinkbug, a two spotted black and yellow ladybug, and tiny tawny metallic beetles along with moths.

Now we clean the buckets and spiles and put them away until next year's thaw. In the meantime, hard work and mother nature have filled our larder with many jars of delicious maple syrup!

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It really appears like the kids were helping in this photo doesn't it? Don't believe everything you see… They did have fun however.


Pollinator Partnership Illustration of Native Bees
Bug question? Bug net
Maple syrup insect survey PEI
Sugar Shack Bugs
David Suzuki pollinator guide
The Bee Genera of Eastern Canada
Parasitoid wasps from omafra
Microgastrinae Wasps of the World (those are parasitoid wasps - this person is really into them and hails from Ottawa! it seems. I should probably just send him my pictures.)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

New Permaculture E-Zine

Permaculture Ottawa's Christopher Bisson has started a new online permaculture magazine for Canada. Here's my contribution:

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Last Frost: An exposé

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2012 tomato seedlings hanging out in a small greenhouse. That was a warm year.

Now that you are diligently starting seeds, you may have googled last frost date and found that it is in the first week of May! Before you start counting back six weeks, remember this is the AVERAGE last frost date. This means that when all the last frost dates for last fifty years including those that occurred in April and those that occurred in June were averaged out, it gave May 6th as the middle point. This does not mean that we can rely on it as the day after which we can plant out tomatoes. To do that, we have to do a little speculating.

At the beginning of May, the risk for frost is still relatively high but as May fades into June, it drops off quickly to very little chance. Therefore every week waited, is less risky. This might be balanced off of other needs such as growing season, absences from the garden, ability to protect plants under plastic or a winter blanket or a particular microclimate.

Last frost is not 0C

But wait, water freezes at 0C like we were taught at school right? Well, yes, the freezing point of water is 0C however there are a couple complicating factors. Firstly, water is actually at its most dense at 4C. The molecules are then closest together and cannot easily move past each other. They start to arrange themselves into what will be their solid crystalline structure: ice. Unlike most solids, water expands as it freezes. One of the interesting consequences of this is that ice forms and floats on the surface of a pond. Imagine if it didn't!

Secondly, just because the thermometer said 4C on your house, does not mean that little hollow in the yard was not at or below 0C since cold air sinks. Air circulation, humidity and cloud cover all play a part. For example, wind can keep air moving around and prevent it from settling and open skies mean that ground heat may be lost. Also some materials, like metal, cool more quickly meaning you might have frost on your car but not on the ground.

I plant before last frost

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Bellis perennis - English Daisy - growing under lights for spring flowers and greens.

But not tomatoes. I plant all sorts of greens, roots and peas even though there is the possibility of last frost. Plants' frost tolerance vary (sometimes even within a particular plant's life cycle) so that though peas can be planted even though there may be dusting of snow in the future - assuming the soil is workable - beans will rot in the ground or die if they sprout. Peas and parsnips are amoung the most frost hardy seedlings I know. Others will take a little cold such as lettuce and carrots though not a heavy frost. And still others are fair weather plants and must only be planted out after chance of frost such as tomatoes and cucumbers.

What this means is that when a seed package says start 4-6 weeks before planting out, they may not be referring to after last frost. Violas, for example, can be planted out when the temperature are still cool. As they need quite a big headstart, you'll be starting those in early winter and planting out in mid-spring!

Knowing what to plant when will keep it from being a one-stop weekend of planting fury in late May as well as extending your season. Another planting of frost hardy greens, for example, can be sowed to mature after first frost in autumn.

Of course, there is frost and there is frost. A light frost above -2C is different from a heavy frost below -4 where the ground freezes and different again if it is a one night thing or continuing for weeks. 

Frost as a helper

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'Grow-boxes' are my little mini-greenhouses with frost hardy seedlings.

Many seeds have built in dormancy mechanisms that keep them from germinating until conditions are right for maximum success. This is quite common with wildflowers and trees that have evolved in temperate areas such as around Ottawa. Needing a period of cold before popping roots means they'll germinate in the spring. Some even require oscillating temperatures. If you have some wildflower seeds that you haven't stratified (in the fridge or seeded in the garden in the fall or by wintersowing), then you can try putting them out very early in the spring. The soil will be moist and cold temperatures are probably still in the forecast. You may also have time to moist stratify in the fridge using the baggie method.

Sometimes, plants are started very, very early in order to get them out when it is cold so that you trick them into thinking they have already gone through one complete growing season including winter. This is done to get certain plants to flower the first year when they would normally wait until the second such as globe artichoke or sweet william.

Even a few frost tender plants can be planted out a few weeks early (if you want to risk it), including potatoes. As these are under heavy piles of insulating mulch/dirt, their foliage usually takes a while before it is exposed to the air above so you can put out a few weeks before you are absolutely sure there will be no more frost. 

Thwarting last frost: plasticulture

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Inside the grow-boxes above are some seeds and seedlings. Here are some crowded swiss chard in need of a little thinning. Look at the temperature inside. Outside it was about -2C but sunny.

Some people plan on putting out their vegetables under season extension devices such as walls-o-water, cold frames, polytunnels, cloches or beneath floating row covers. These can all help moderate the temperature though they are not fail-safe. I like to use these for plants that are frost tolerant. They won't be killed if temperatures do drop but they may grow faster and experience less stress with their blankies overtop.

If you did plant your tomatoes and think that a frost blanket will not be enough AND you don't have a pile of plants, you can dig them up and replant again later. It's not the best solution but it will save your plants.

When is last frost REALLY?

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Litchi tomato or vila-vila, a nightshade with yummy fruit and ouchy spines. It will withstand light frosts when mature (not tried with seedlings)

It varies from year to year. That is the joy of gardening. We are working with nature who is not always so predictable. Generally it is safe to put out tender starts somewhere around the end of May though occasionally I've had to wait until the first week of June. So when calculating when to start seeds, count six weeks back from mid-late May rather than early May. However, if you've given your tomatoes a couple extra weeks head start, it's not a problem. As long as they are in big enough pots, they can wait until the weather warms. If you have really big tomato babies, plant a portion of the stem under ground as they will root along the stem. This is a trick for a sturdy plant. 

I wait to plant out tomatoes around the third week of May and then look at the longterm forecast. The risk of frost drops precipitously as we approach June. If it looks fair, then I'll plant but with the proviso that I might have to cover if the weather takes a sudden turn. Also weather trends can help you determine if it will be a late or early year. Looking at the long-longterm forecast for spring 2014 suggests lower than average temperatures. Stormy, cold weather has been the norm since last fall and it doesn't seem to be letting up. I would probably not even contemplate planting out until near the end of May unless we get a sudden reversal of fortune. 

What kind of planter are you?

1. May is spring:
* Lives in a sheltered place
* Has lots of seeds or plants of frost tender varieties
* Doesn't really care if everything needs replanting
* Gardens in pots that can be moved inside
Will plant at the beginning of May.
Risk Taker

2. Middle May:
* Plants when it's getting warm 
* Lives in the city or a sheltered location, not a frost pocket
* Has to go away on a trip at the end of May (my usual reason)
* Will happily cover if there is frost
Plants when the weather is fine

3. Late May:
* May 2-4 weekend is when you plant tomatoes!
* I have to plant. My seedlings are crawling out of their pots!
It's worked for generations!

4. Beginning of June:
* There is always a late frost (not so)
* These are my precious babies and I'm not risking them.
* Too much work to cover
* I just bought these seedlings. That's okay right?
Plants when danger of frost is a distant memory
Nervous Nelly or Nettle if you prefer

Mid June:
* Oops, I have to plant a garden?

Right, okay, so just tell me when to plant them!

As I said, gardening, like nature, is a wonder of patterns and variation. If I were to advise someone, I'd say around the long May weekend but that every year is different. Many, many times I've planted out in mid-May with excellent results especially in the city. In the country, I try to wait until around the end of the month as I have a lot more plants than I want to bother to cover. I have seen last frost as early as the end of April and as late as the first week of June. If I had to pin a number on it, I'd say around May 20 but if I had to guess for this year, I'm going with May 31st.

Lastly, the proper wording on seed packets for planting out should be 'after all danger of frost' rather than after last frost.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Nursery News

Would you like to know more about plant sales, events or other fun stuff from Aster Lane Edibles? Excellent! We're tweeting @ Aster Lane. In the meantime, here is an eggplant picture:

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Summer BBQ'ed eggplant here we come!

P.S. Join me at various speaking events, workshops or at the Canadian Organic Growers demo garden this spring. If you are in the Ottawa area, you might want to join the conversation at Edible Ottawa Gardens Group on Facebook too. We're currently discussing what plants we are starting, when will spring end (if ever) and indoor light setups.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Business Card Saga: Aster Lane Edibles

Why it took me so long to get a business card: a conversation with myself (and a few others).

Me: You need a business card.
Myself: Why?

Me: People expect it.
Myself: But they just bury those things at the bottom of their bags to be thrown out when they get around to cleaning them. They pick them up and say "Who the heck was that and where was I?"

Me: No that's just you.
Myself: I'm pretty sure it's not just me.

… 6 months later…

Me: You should really get around to that card.
Myself: Let's talk honestly here. Cards are boring.

Me: Then make an interesting card.

… months later…

Me: Why not a planting schedule? That would be useful. A little reference pocket thingie.
Myself: On a card? 

Me: Yeah.
Myself: Good luck.

… a month later …

Me: You're right, that was tricky. Now to the printer. But what if they screw it up?
Myself: Have some faith.

… Months and months later …

Me: Do you think your graphic design husband would help me create an exact document of something? 
Friend: I'm sure he will.

… visit to a common copy place that shall remain nameless …

Them: What? Folded? Like a gift card? But you want a business card right? I think we're going to have to send this to our specialty print shop. And what are these other lines for on the file? We can only print what we can see.
Me: They are formatting lines. I figured that you could remove them with your fancy programs. Will you have them ready like within a week. I want to have them for an event I'm going to.

Them: -incredulous look-

… several phone calls later, an independent print shop …

Me: I have these files and I need them to transform into a business card through the magic of computers and large printing machines by tomorrow.
Them: Why certainly.


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This is the front, inside is a planting calendar and on the back is contact info.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Experiments with hot and cold

I'm in the midst of two experiments dealing with two of my favourite vegetables that like different weather regimes.

Experiment I: Cool Cabbage

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Flowerbuds on rooted cabbage cutting.

*If you have no idea what I just wrote below then go to the bottom*

The first is my San Michele x Red Rock Mammoth cross. If you haven't heard about me gone about it before, well then, welcome to an odyssey. I haven't managed to yet get f2s so I figured I'd try rooting cuttings and overwintering. All was going well but then I realized that I will have to vernalize in order to get flower. Generally I plant out cabbage early without inducing flowering and those heads that have overwintered, so far, have not produced seeds but more heads (part of why I don't have f2s, along with the bugs and freeze-thaw of spring). So I thought they would need a rather long exposure to cold. I started off with sitting them in my shoe room near a window. It gets cold in there but not horribly. They were there for a week. Then I put them in the garage window where I had planned on leaving them until the end of winter but only managed they were only there for a few days before it dipped into minus double digits so I moved them back inside planning on doing the shoe room treatment again. Mistake. They immediately started elongating and producing flower buds. Dang it!! Now, I have a few that are further behind and some that I did not attempt to vernalize so all hope is not lost. Not only that but in the spring, I will take cuttings from the plants emerging from the snow before they get all freeze-thaw-mushed on me. However, now the experiment has taken a turn. I plan on potting on again and hand pollinating with the hope of getting viable seed. Lesson learned I guess. Hold off on the vernalization until March.

I *could* potentially remove flower heads until spring. Maybe I'll do half and half.

Origins of this Cabbage

Experiment II: Hot (Sweet) Potato

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These are freshly slipped sweet potato plantlets, doing some branching which I hope to cut off and root.

This is not a very serious experiment, I have to say. I am just starting my shoots really early so that I can cut them into sections producing more plants than usual for spring with fewer tubers. So far, roaring success. Sweets root easily from cuttings. Nothing further to report yet. The danger, I suppose would be if I get an indoor bug infestation. Not to fear, I have more roots that I can force later which is good as I am predicting a late spring (sorry folks). Don't cry though, I'm using my 'intuition' rather than probabilistic forecasting. That and the amount of accumulated snow and cold weather patterns.

 Extra Experiment: Craggy 2 year old, broken sweet potato tubers will sprout. Go figure.

*** For those that didn't know what the heck I was going on about because your plant obsession hasn't quite reached critical levels, here is a translation. P.S. There is plenty of room in the rabbit hole for you.

I let the bees frolic in the flowers of two types of cabbage. One was called San Michele. The other was named Red Rock Mammoth. They made seed babies. As this is the first generation of the cross, they were called f1s. I loved the variety and wanted to see if I could get it to be stable. This is because when I let these babies flower and set seeds, the characteristics will all jumble up again making for lots of variation. I would have to select plants that I liked and save seed for generations until the babies produced were more or less the type I wanted. But to start, I need the second generation or f2s. Cabbage usually flowers in the second year after winter. I have been trying to overwinter my first generation of the cross but had problems. These were 1) eaten by bugs, 2) turned to mush because of oscillating temperatures in spring and 3) didn't both to flower and made another cabbage head instead. Now, I plan on trying a frost blanket, also called a floating row cover this year, (duh) but foliage emerging from snow is very tender so I'm not convinced it will work. Cabbage heads always mush out for me in winter but I do get a lot of leaves growing out of the stems in spring and sometimes flowers which is why I was able to make the cross in the first place.

As an insurance policy, I decided to take advantage of a trick that many members of the cabbage family have which is that they can grow roots from sprouts off the stem. I plucked those and put them in moist soil. Some, I cut a bit of the stem off too with the sprout. They rooted and grew very well but they were inside not exposed to any cold. The aim was to get them to flower not make more cabbage heads. So I tried to give them some gentle cold in order to get them to spring where I could plant them out and they could flower for me. Fail. They flowered early.

This means that to rescue the experiment, I am going to have to move pollen from the male parts of the flowers to another plant's female flowers in hopes of getting some mature seed that will grow. Wish me luck!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Things are sprouting in my fridge...

…on purpose. I'm stratifying which means giving seeds a period of moist cold to overcome germination  inhibition so they will sprout.

I place seeds on paper towels or coffee filters then put in a plastic baggie. This takes up very little space in my fridge or other location that I am giving seeds special treatment. You can also use your baggie to give seeds oscillating temperatures or warm treatment. I use the latter to get peppers to germinate faster.

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Baby with breakfast on his face helping.

For very large seed that won't be in good contact with the paper towel, I've heard of people using cotton balls but I use vermiculite. I also use vermiculite with very, very small seed so that I can sprinkle the whole mix in the seeding tray when ready. Sand would probably be a good substitute.

They would stay in the fridge for a certain period of time say six weeks or whatever is recommended (yes sometimes there are no specific recommendations). During this time, you are telling the seed that it is winter and when you take them out of the fridge, they are experiencing spring so it's a good time to sprout. Only, many seeds will not wait their allotted time. Whether this be because those particular seeds or that variety does not really need the cold stratification AND also does not need high temperatures to sprout or because they prefer to germinate in the fridge-like temperatures of early spring, is something to speculate upon. Therefore, I check my baggies frequently.

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Wild plums from a local source

Here, some wild plums - perhaps Prunus nigra - started to germinate after six months in the crisper whereas their cousin nanking cherry - Prunus tormentosa - jumped into growth after only a few weeks messing my plan of holding off until spring to plant. Instead I put the sprouting seedlings in the ground in fall.

Hablitzia tamnoides is reputed to prefer cooler temps to germinate though it seems somewhat adaptable. Here is my own seed crop throwing roots.

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Hablitzia tamnoides, our seed for Aster Lane Edibles

I'm using the baggie method because I want to grow some of these plants big enough to sell in the spring otherwise I'd probably just wintersow. This is using a recycled (or not) plastic container with drainage and air holes partially filled with soil and seed that acts like a mini greenhouse. It is great for cold hardy greens, plants that volunteer, wild flowers and other plants that need a period of cold to germinate or at least don't mind it.

You can even snow sow. Yes, that's tossing seed on top of snow. This is a version of stratification and seems to me that it would be most effective if done in the fall or early spring just before a snowfall that would insulate the seeds and help work them to the ground.