Monday, November 24, 2008

Harvest Day - cold snap and the coldframe

We have had a cold snap for the last couple weeks bringing temperatures significantly below freezing, even reaching the double digits at times and that's not even counting the biting windchills during the day which I saw as low as minus 16C. These plummeting temperatures have frozen the top layer of soil and killed off many of the cold hardy vegetables that remain in the garden, though some of the kales are still holding on. Tonight it has started to snow and by tomorrow we are expecting around 15cm.

Here is the ground in the garden today:

Pea shoots, mustard greens and kale in the frozen garden.

My polytunnel is usually a peaked structure that I can stand in but some changes meant that it is temporarily a low tunnel covered in vapour plastic over commercial coldframes. Next year, my hubby and I will be designing and building a more interesting and insulated greenhouse and I look forward to it!

Meanwhile, how are the plants inside?

Calendula in flower, coriander, bunching onion and a radicchio I think, along with others.


The florence fennel which some suspicious, though published, print sources say is hardy to zone 4 (I think the other quote of zone 7 is probably more on the money but we'll see) has broken tops and minimum cold damage and the chard, along with some other plants, have fainted but I know the chard for one will recover quickly. All in all, things look not too bad. This week the temps will be closer to normals for this time of year, hovering around 0C, which might allow for some recovery.

I'll be cleaning off snow tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

And another thing... season extension - edited

Edited: couldn't live with the typos and wanted to interject a great point from Bishop's homegrown.

Just thought of some other great ideas for season extension that I forgot in my previous post.

Garden 2007, I think. See the tree in the photograph - read the third paragraph to find out its important.

Site of garden

If you haven't already comitted to a place for your veggie patch then look for a place that gets at least 6 hours of sun (normally on the south / souteast corner). If you have a wind break on the north and west side then you'll create a sunny, sheltered microclimate. Evergreens make great wind breaks but some productive bushes work too. Another thing you could do is to add a stone or brick wall on the north side (this will be south facing as you put your back against it and face south) of your garden to catch heat. If you are lucky enough to have a brick walled house with a south facing wall then you could build a lean-to greenhouse against it and I will be very envious of you.

Other important aspects of citing your garden are that the soil is close to neutral pH and is well drained and fertile. A well drained area where the grass grows most lush often will work well, assuming that it has adequate sun. Of course if you have only poorly drained, partially shaded ground or concrete, edibles can still be grown. I'll write a post soon.

Raised beds

These will heat up faster in the spring. Also if you slant your beds so they create a slight south facing hill, you'll also increase the warmth and growing season.

Plant near a polite** tree

Okay, let me be contraversial for a moment. I have a garden that is on the north-eastern side of my yard with a giant oak tree due north, partially overhanging so you know that oak roots traverse the whole of the veggie patch. Produce grows with heady abandon in this garden nonetheless and the tree helps. Hey? Didn't they teach you that you shouldn't place a vegetable patch near a tree. Well, take heart urban gardeners who have no choose but to grow their food with loaming shadows of nearby trees, it can be done. My tree casts little shadow because it's on the north side and it isn't one of the greediest rooted trees, but best of all, its root system warms up the soil early in the season and keeps mild frosts at bay late in the season. Seriously, I have seen ground frost everywhere but around the root system of this oak. I guess it acts a little bit like a heating cable once the sap gets running in the spring and before the tree is dormant in the fall. Crazy cool eh?

It also drops an abundant mulch of oak leaves for my pathes. I have yet to notice problems with soil acidity though I do add add compost and manure so maybe it evens out. And if that wasn't enough, according to Roots Demystified, the tree can even help water the garden - but you'll have to read that book to find out the details. It's available at the Ottawa Library.

** Bishop's Homegrown made a great point and is one of my favourite reasons for comments - to improve and expand the web of information. Polite tree means one that does not exude growth restricting hormones such as black walnut and is not a greedy feeder so that very little has the luck to grow beneath it. If grass, perennials or other plants grow well 6 feet out from the trunk (right beneath the tree will be pretty shaded) then it'll probably be fine to plant a veggie patch nearby. Remeber, that if it is to the north, it won't cast as much shade.


paper on wind breaks

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fall Garden and Season Extension - a question

A fellow member of plantcycle recently came round to my house to pick up some tubers of Jeruselum Artichoke and Chinese Artichoke and to ask me about the techniques I use for season extension. I ended up showering her with seeds as is my way and thought that her question was worthy of a post.

Fall crops overflowing the soon to be covered coldframe.

Growing Season - frost to frost?

Gardeners often describe their growing season as lasting from the last frost to the first frost but another way to look at it is from when the ground is workable until it is frozen in the fall. The frost to frost season in Ottawa is 4-5 months long but the workable season is around 7-8 months long. That's a heck of a lot more time to grow stuff. If you add some simple season extension devices like coldframes, tunnels, row covers and plastic mulch, you can add another month or two to that season bringing the possible amount of growing season in Ottawa to 9 months of the year!

Tomato - the gateway vegetable

When it comes to growing your own, tomatoes rank high in my list of gateway vegetables. As people often start their veggie patch on things like pumpkins, tomatoes and cucumbers, they make a habit of not planting or seeding until after the last spring frost date which in Ottawa happens sometime in mid-May (occasionally as late as early June and as early as late April). As the snow hangs around in Ottawa sometimes into April, it may mean that the ground isn't really diggable until the beginning of April anyhow so people just wait until the magic long May weekend to seed their carrots and lettuce as well.

By the time those tomatoes are killed off by the first frosts near the end of Sept, the lettuce has long gone to seed and those cabbage starts bought at a garden centre in those first warm spring days have been eaten up. The leaves fall and the season seems well and truly finished but it does not have to be that way.

parsley in coldframe
Coldframe with a healthy crop of parsley inside.

Some like it hot, many take it not

Members of the tomato family which such as potatoes, tomatillos, ground cherries etc... take no frost so transplants are placed out after the last frost date. Most vining crops such as pumpkins, squash, and beans are the same so they are also seeded when temperatures exceed 4C at night.

However, there are some vegetable families that will take it a lot cooler and these include most of the brassica family (mustards, cabbages, kale, rocket), spinach/goosefoot family (orach, spinach, swiss chard, beets), and the composite family (chop suey greens, chicory, lettuce). Many other root crops can be started a few weeks before last frost and several varities of legumes can be planted as soon as the ground is workable such as peas. The allium family has lots of examples of cool weather lovers from garlic, leeks to wild and perennial onions.


Cabbage started transplanted early with cutworm collars (those toilet paper rolls and cups) and pop bottles filled with water to help catch some heat for release at night (crossed fingers) to help moderate the temperatures. On really cold nights, I cover with a row cover or frost blanket.

Most good gardening books will have a calendar in the back which tells you when you place crops in the ground but here are some rules of thumb that I use.

  1. Peas and parsnips as soon as the ground can be worked
  2. Cool weather greens like spinach seeded under cover (coldframe and greenhouse) when soil is no longer frozen which can be as early as March 1
  3. Plants that can take it cold like broccoli or leeks but will bolt if exposed to temperatures that are too cold planted very early but under cover
  4. Fall gardens are planted mid-summer and include brussel sprouts, short season cabbage, kale, mustard, rocket, endive, lettuce, root crops, chicories like radicchio, mache, claytonia, florence fennel etc... I don't plant all of these out July 1 but plant according to how long it takes to mature a crop either outdoors or in a coldframe if that's where they are going. I also tend to start the cool weather loves in the light shade of a taller plant so that they are not exposed to full force of the summer sun. Some of the very fast baby leaf greens are started in August or even September.
  5. Some plants started way in the spring can be left in the ground until very hard frosts or heavy snow threatening such as long season cabbage, parsnips and celariac.
  6. I leave roots like carrots and jeruselum artichokes in the ground until frozen ground is on its way. You can also heavily mulch the ground over carrots, and beets etc... so that the ground is diggable later into the season. I use autumn leaves for mulch but eventually I bring in all my roots so I don't have to uncover them in the freezing cold outside. They are kept in a cellar under our stairs.

A list of cold hardy plants can be found in The Four Season Harvest by Coleman.


Polytunnel, Ottawa Gardener style - it will be changed into something all together different next year. Notice that it has a peaked roof. That's to prevent it flattening under our sometimes really heavy snow falls. A gothic roof is supposed to work too.

Under Cover

Some days it looks like I am growing plastic in the garden what with the polytunnel, cloches and row covers covering everything. I use coldframes and low tunnels to grow salad greens earlier and later into the season. A coldframe is a box of some sort made of wood or even straw bales with a top that is called a light and is made of any material that can let in sunlight such as an old storm window or plexiglass. My current coldframes are aluminum frames stretched with a kind of clear tent material. A low tunnel is nearly the same as a high tunnel except for - surprise surprise - the low one isn't as tall. They are both simple greenhouse structures that are made by stretching clear plastic (I use vapour barrier) over a frames - normally a hoop shape. Most years, I build a polytunnel / hoophouse / high tunnel overtop of my coldframes to increase the warmth inside. This is a technique I first read about in The Four Season Harvest by Coleman. Depending on your climate, you can just use a polytunnel to protect your winter crops from inclement weather and to increase the warmth for hot season crops like melons.

In the spring, I mulch the ground with clear plastic to warm the soil for some crops that are marginal for Ottawa including melons, and sweet potatoes (old blog). This also greatly improves the growth of peppers, eggplants and tomatoes as well. Ken Allan, from which I learned about this technique, also uses it for basil.


Black tire was covered with plastic to start melons (plastic mulch next picture).

As I often try to push the envelope and plant out my tomatoes in mid-May or even earlier, I put up a simple low tunnel frame around the bed so I can toss on some plastic if a late frost threatens.

I also use row covers to exclude insects and to improve growing conditions of early crops of leeks and brassicas like broccoli. A row cover is a light floating poly spun material. It can either be laid loosely ontop of the crop, with the edges secured or be laid over a frame. It will offer a couple degrees of frost protection. For cabbage, lettuce and sometimes vining crop transplants, I have used large water bottles, or just pop bottles, that people toss in two ways. With the bottoms cut out they make great cloches which are essentially mini coldframes and with filled with water and placed around plants or in the polytunnel the water inside gathers the day's heat and releases it at night. I have also used frost blankets (the kind used to wrap evergreens) to throw over my coldframes on extremely coldnights as insulation. Speaking of which, if you have solid insulation laying about, you can also put this over a coldframe when the mecury drops to ridiculously low levels.


Plastic mulched ground, low tunnel and bricks to catch heat.

A list of frost hardy plants that have worked for me

1. Mache / corn salad - amazing! It will last through the coldest weather in a coldframe and in mid-summer, it will reseed itself to start next winter's crop.

2. Claytonia

3. Beets and beet greens. I find these will last until the true winter cold hits but then the root starts to become mush.

4. Swiss chard - under double cover (coldframe plus high tunnel), this has survived extremely low temperatures.

5. Kale - dies back in the middle of winter but resprouts in the spring. In the garden, I have had several kinds overwinter under the snow.

6. Brussel Sprouts - survived and cropped under the high tunnel

7. Cabbage - I have never tried to overwinter a cabbage with a full head but those that have been cut and are reheading will survive under snow cover fairly well. In the polytunnel, I have had them do well until I pulled them mid-January.

8. Chinese cabbage will live until the really cold weather

9. Bok choy types grew well when seeded early in the coldframes

10. Tat soi types seem to take snow and freezing

11. Collards lasted most of last winter outside until the -20s with depleted snow cover.

12. Turnips - grow fast and crop well in the fall / early winter in coldframes but can't survive extreme cold.

13. Kholrabi - grew well but froze solid and was unusable in the height of winter. Can be seeded early in a coldframe.

14. Egyptian onion / green onions - do well in a polytunnel / high tunnel

15. Leek transplants survive extreme temperatures in my high tunnel as baby plants and later in the early spring garden under a row cover. I didn't have any bolting which sometimes happens when exposed to long periods of cold.

16. Broccoli - cropped a pop bottle cloche and coldframe while there was still some snow outside.


Pop bottle cloche.

17. Cabbage - does well if planted while still a threat of snow but ground is thawed under a pop bottle cloche.

18. Spinach - does very well seeded early in the coldframe or in the garden

19. Peas - can be started very early in the high tunnel or garden. I grow a late crop for pea shoots in the fall.

20. Carrots - about 3/4? overwinter if given half the chance. They are often useable once the ground has thawed in the spring.

21. Parsnips - cold hardy is their middle name

22. Chicory - Green leaf types seem to overwinter in my garden - I'll write more after some more experimentation ;-)

23. Lettuce - Can be seeded early in the coldframe but grows slower than spinach. Good to transplant with long season cabbage as they are harvested while the cabbage are still small.

24. Rocket - handles the cold.

25. Parsley - Only had to plant this once and it has maintained a very cold hardy troop in my garden ever since, reseeding itself.

26. Mizuna - In Ottawa this crop is ideal as it seems to take the modestly warm summers we get and extreme cold under the coldframes

27. Dandelions - If you enjoy these, they will survive quite nicely in the coldframe.

28. Minituna - related to plaintain - perennial, self seeding (I haven't seen that yet), cold hardy and good in salad. I also use it as a pot herb.

I'll add more as I think of it.

PhotobucketFall planted garlic beats the weed competition by starting growing again very early in the spring. I replace this early.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Harvest Day - cool cabbage, leaves of plenty

Oak leaves from the two very generous trees overhanging our yard.

This harvest day, I took in the last of the leaf bounty. The end of my driveway lacks the usual row of 10 yard waste bags as mine are spread out on my perennial beds and on the pathes of my vegetable gardens. I had quite a surplus this year as I raked up all my neighbour's leaves (they were ill and as I usual scam their leaf bags after they've done all the work, I figured it was karmic time for me to help collect them) so I also have extra high piles of leaves in the back turning into leaf mold.

Cabbage versus hand. Oh and that's no petite feminine hand, I outspan some guys.

I would also like to draw your attention to this massive cabbage. I know that they can grow bigger but I grew this one. Even with those chew marks, isn't it gorgeous? Most of my cabbages were the normal 2 year's old head size or smaller, which I expect with my tight spacing. But this one was planted near the edge of the patch and if I remember correctly, its neighbour was eaten by something so it had more room than the others. So now that I've managed to grow this Mammoth Red Rock, what the heck am I going to do with it?

For more on my befuddled and often mismanaged well planned and executed cabbage growing instructions, see Cabbage as Big as My Head from last year.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Brassica names - perennial biennial, oh what the h*ll

Sorry for the vulgarity but when searching perennial kales, I sometimes feel a headache coming on. In order to sort through the names and mystery, I went on a search and came up with some though, by no means, all the answers. All knowledgeable readers are encouraged to share their expertise on this subject.

The Intro - useful for seed savers*


Let's start with the basics. Brassicacea is a large family including ornamentals such as sweet Iberis, and honesty plant (lunaria) and weeds such as hedge mustard and pepper grass. It also includes many common garden vegetables such as broccoli, and turnips.

The brassica genus -

interjection: The cross-language snob talk plant is like this 'Genus species'

- seems to highly represented in the safe and tasty category of plants across many different species. Plants that are in the species can cross pollinate one another creating weird (and sometimes wonderful) hybrids. However, the general rule is that those are different species, even though they have the same genus, will not cross (rules were made to be broken ;-).
These veggies fall under the following Genus species names - by no means a complete list:

Brassica oleracea: cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, 9 star broccoli, sprouting broccoli, chinese kale, broccolini, white flowering broccoli, marrow stem kale, jersey kale, walking stick kale, palm leafed kale, perpetual kale, curly kale, brussel sprouts, European kale, collards, kholrabi and wild cabbage.

I am sparing you the variety name as they are quite complicated but, for examle, brassica oleracea var. botrytis is cauliflower versus Brassica oleracea var. albogladbra for white flowering broccoli. As these are all members of the same genus and species, they can all cross with each other. For more information, go to Sorting Brassica oleracea names.

Brassica napus include Siberian kale, hanover salad, rutabaga, rape and canola.

Brassica rapa (synonym campestris) include turnip, seven top, italian kale, mustard greens (some forms are in Brassica juncea), rapini (some forms are in brassica oleracea), broccoli rabe, chinese cabbages, bok choy types, tat soi type greens, holland greens, and mizuna.

Brassica juncea: Indian mustard greens

Presumedly as mustards in the Brassica juncea and Brassica rapa are different species, they will not generally cross with one another so you could save one of each type in your garden assuming that both can flower at the same time and yet still come true from seed.

Other edible Brassicacea include:

Eruca sativa: rocket / arugula - sylvetta can be perennial
Barbarea verna: land cress
Raphanus sativus: common radish
Armoracia rusticana: horseradish - perennial
Crambe maritima: sea kale - perennial

Possible perennial brassicas

9 Star Perennial Broccoli
I have never grown any so called perennial brassicas but I have heard of them. Representing the edible flower head form of brassica, commonly known as broccoli/cauliflower is 9 Star Broccoli. I understand that it is only perennial as long as you prevent it from going to seed. In plant terms this is sometimes known as monocarpic. Even then, I hear that it only lives for about 2-3 years. It has loose, white heads which look to me like cauliflower. I don't know if it could overwinter in Ottawa but heck if my mother living in Paradise... I mean, BC gets some seeds, I'm going to give it a try.
Source: Seeds of Victoria, Thompson-Morgan

Sea Kale
For blanched shoots, you can try Crambe Martima or Sea Kale. It is a true, long lived perennial with white, wavy silvery leaves and typical sprays of brassica flowers after 4 years or so. It is mentioned in an old time book on Ottawa Gardening so I know that at least one variety is hardy around here.
Source: 'Lily White': La Societe des plantes, Bountiful Gardens

Perennial Kale
A perennial leaf verison of brassicas was by far the hardest to track down. I got my first lead at the Plants for a Future website, which uses the latin Brassica oleracea ramosa (or branched kale?) that details useful perennial plants. They listed three cultivars Ragged Jack, Thousand Headed Kale and Daubenton. The first is a bit mysterious because it is a synonym for Red Russian Kale which as far as I know is generally a biennial unless this is some other purple, wavey leafed cultivar of perennial kale rather than the usual 'ragged jack'.

Thousand Headed Kale is, according to one supplier, a fodder kale. My search has lead me to believe that it is a) not that winter hardy or b) in mild areas can live for years? One growing source called it 'hunger gap kale' which is promising and it seems to be grown for its flowering shoots produced early in the year hence the 'thousand headed' name. Pentland Brig is a plant produced by crossing Thousand Headed Kale but I have no idea of its perennial status, however, this website, suggests that it shows promise.
Source: B&T seeds, The Organic Gardening Catalogue (pentland brig), Country Plan, Bountiful Gardens (penland brig)

Lastly, I tried hunting down the most infamous of these three: Daubenton Kale. It is oft' quoted that it can be propogated by cuttings and I gather that it roots where it touches the ground? At any rate, putting Daubenton Kale in a search engine yields primarily results about trying to hunt down this cultivar... not very helpful until I ran across a mention of its French name. Chou d'Aubenton or simply Chou Daubenton. So I figured I'd use mediocre french skills for second time this month (read my recent discovery of La Societe des Plantes) and do a biligue search et voila! I found a source!! It sold seed for two varieties!! The first is simply named Chou Daubenton and says that indeed it is vivace (perennial) with the latin name Brassica oleracea and the second is Chou Daubenton panache or Brassica oleracea varigata. However, it does not seem like they ship them to Canada. Sigh.
Source: Plantes aromatiques (may only ship in Europe)

Tree Collards

This is another leaf vegetable version of the brassica known most commonly as walking stick kale or brassica oleracea palmifolia (though some claim this is not the same plant but that tree collards refers to brassica oleracea ramosa or even Brassica oleracea viridis, another kind of fodder kale) because it grows to a very tall height with a tuft of leaves at the top. The stem is dried to harden into a strong, light weight walking stick. I am not sure if this is a true perennial or simply that it can live on more than 2 years if it doesn't flower. In other words, I'm not sure if it is monocarpic like 9 star broccoli. It does look very impresive in flower though.

Source: Thompson & Morgan

How brassicas behave / flowering

My experience with brassicas is that if you cut off the flowering head (cabbage head, broccoli or rapini spears) then the plant will reform new heads. In cabbages this takes a bit longer but eventually you'll get several smaller cabbage heads reforming where the original was cut. If flowering does not happen then the plant, at least in my garden, has a good chance of making it to the next year assuming the root system survives and with reliable snow cover this often happens. I've had curly kale, and red rock mammoth live for more than 2 years in my garden. Anyhow my suspicion is that brassicas can be kept 'young' by preventing the barring of young at least for awhile.

* Seed Savers: You may be wondering how many brassicas you need of each variety to save seed. Well, that answer depends on what plant you are trying to save and who you talk to. I have heard as few as 6 plants quoted but generally for the highly bred brassicas (read cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts), it's more in the range of 50-200 (to quote off the top of my head - my copy of Seed to Seed has gone walkabout at the moment). As for the wilder cousins (like kale), I've heard as low as 20 to maintain vigour. Of course, in order to save seed from a brassica that flowers only in its second (or later) year, the plants will either have to overwinter or be stored and replanted.

** This will be an updated post as information on, or seed sources of perennial of long lived brassicas become available. If you grow any of the above varieties and have a blog post on them, I'd really love to include a link!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Harvest Day - Strange Mustard?

I noticed that after my Osaka Mustard had finished flowering and the thin stems had bent to the ground that new leaf rosettes started forming at the leaf axils. Some of these even look like they might reflower.

I also found this?


What is it? The petioles appear swollen which is a characteristic of some mustards and this bit of the plant was more cold hardy surviving a frost that wilted the rest of the plant. Not only that but it looks to me like a gall?

I broke it open and it is made of spongy tissue with no buggy inside that I could find. What is it? From the information I have found, I think it might be a gall from a swede midge.

Any clues?