Friday, August 15, 2014

Stephen Barstow coming to Ottawa

I'm very excited (so much so that I actually wrote a blog post) that my dear friend Stephen Barstow is coming to Ottawa for a visit. I've been corresponding and seed trading with him for many, many years. It is a delight to finally meet him in person. Even better is that he is offering to give a talk on his upcoming book Around the World in 80 Plants on Edimentals (edible ornamentals). When I was just a little seedling asking questions or sharing my wide eyed plant joy, Stephen (also known as Stevil on the forums) would be sure to answer with his own joy and generous advice. If ever there was someone who I wanted to write a plant book, it was he.

Email me if you'd like to find out more about the details of this talk:

Around the world in 80 permaveggies!

Workshop with Stephen Barstow, the man who cultivates 2,000 vegetables in his own garden outside Trondheim in Norway.

This workshop will be in the form of a powerpoint talk about 80 of Stephen’s favourite perennial vegetables, including several historic Norwegian vegetables. A number of familiar ornamental perennials that can be used in cooking (edimentals), for example Hosta and daylily. Stephen takes us on a trip around the world from Norway, through Europe and the Mediterranean countries, through Asia, the Himalayas, Siberia, East Asia, South and North America. Many of the plants were and still are local wild foraged vegetables that became domesticated locally. We will hear the stories behind the plants and how they were used in their country of origin as well as experience from growing them in Norway ....many are ideal for the forest garden. There will be plenty of time to ask questions as we follow the plants around the world.

The journey around the world will take roughly 3-4 hours....

Stephen main job is with the sea (ocean wave climatologist) but has in recent years also worked on projects for the Norwegian Genetic Resource Centre, mainly collecting old Norwegian perennial vegetables and herbs! Stephen has led the Norwegian Seed Savers since its start in 2006.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Forest Garden Update

This year, I can see, that the forest garden is turning a corner. We inherited a homestead orchard containing apples, pears, serviceberry, chokecherry, currants, grapes and plums. It had been tilled and planted up with squash. There was also a tilled veggie patch beside. I have been converting the orchard into a forest garden and the veggie patch into a sunny demonstration garden.

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Grape planted with golden garlic (Allium moly), and oregano. Some bread seed poppy (Papaver somniferum) is also making itself at home in the area. 

September 2010, I fall seeded a bunch a lot of plants including good king henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), nepeta, kale, perennial sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), bloody dock (rumen sanguineus), alliums, mustards, chicory, parsnips, lupins and much, much more.

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Yellow: Zizia aurea and golden alyssum (Aurinia saxatilis) in the distance and goji berry.

Season 2011: Wonderful growing season though I did have quite a few brassica flea beetles mid-summer. Little would I know that was my initiation into what was to be the zoo of flea beetles. Garden was expanded. Paths and beds put in.

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Perennial leek 'Oeprei' with little violets (Viola cornuta) as part of the sunny demo bed.

Season 2012: Season started early followed by late frost, once in 100 year drought and hungry pests. Then we added another baby to the family and it finally rained. Garden was messy at best though I did get some produce.

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Viola odorata 'bicolor' with English daisy (Bellis perennis) and rhubarb.

Season 2013: Still ansy from 2012 and with a new baby in tow, I try covering the ground with limited success.

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A hairless version of Sweet Cicely (Myhrris odorata) beneath an apple tree. On the other side is my tallest Hablitzia and wild ginger (Asarum canadense) too.

Season 2014: Perennials like Blue chives (Allium nutans), buckler leaf sorrel (Rumex scutatus), hablitzia, walking onion, rhubarb, strawberry spinach (Chenopodium capitatum), patience dock and more are really starting to shine. The ground is growing more edibles, beneficials and beauty than it is weeds (which have their edible, beneficial and beautiful side of course). I feel we have turned a corner.

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I rather like how Seakale 'Lilywhite' (Crambe maritima) and Blue Alkanet look together. I imagine they'll be even more spectacular in bloom.

I was happy to see good survival of soldier mallow, poppy mallow, monkey flower, and overwintering of roots like turnip, fennel and parsley for seed. Lots of new plants to the garden too like udo (Aralia cordata), Beetroot bellflower (Campanula punctata) and variegated daylily (Hemerocallis sp.). Any plants that don't go in nursery sales this year, will be planted either in propagation beds or in the forest garden proper. The forest is really filling in now!

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Dear followers,

I feel like one of those bloggers that's falling into the trap of constantly apologizing for why they haven't written in a while. I wish instead that I could put together pretty pictures into the posts I plan in my head while getting plants ready to go to market, edging and weeding the garden, harvesting and making stuff and taking care of the food. Sleep? Don't be silly. No time for that.

Anyhow, if you would like to talk gardening with me, join me on at one of the dates below. Theoretically I'll be less busy in July…

Ottawa Gardener

In other news:

May 24: I bring a tray of purple plants (perilla, orach, basil, kale and amaranth) to the market along with other stuff (perennial leek, sweet cicely, lovage, salad burnet, poppy mallow, red bunching onion, anise hyssop, mint, oregano etc..)
May 25: Kids in the Pumpkin Patch Begins!
May 25: Join the COG-OSO demo garden team
May 27: Aster Lane Edibles on farm sales
May 28: Join me at the Demo Garden On Weds am
May 31: Market Day!
June 1st: Join us for a morning of fun in Kinburn. Morning we plant sweet potatoes. Afternoon we talk figs with Thyme to Cover.

And more throughout the summer!

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.