Thursday, June 2, 2011

Edible Gardening Workshop

Because I love going on and on about edible gardening, I gave a workshop for the Ottawa Homeschoolers. As they gave me the mandate of 'talk about gardening from seed starting to seed saving,' it ended up being borderline for T.M.G.I. or Too Much Gardening Information! So here is a synopsis of my endless stream of words, with links.

Where can I grow edibles?

Do you have clean dirt? No, then you can grow in pots. Otherwise, these are things you do NOT need to grow edibles:

1. Full Sun - Lots of edibles, including traditional vegetables do just fine in 4-6 hours of sun, even in 2-4 hours of sun or dabbled shade. I write lots of about shade crops here.
2. Well drained soil - the soil texture you have will effect how plants grow but choosing wisely will allow you to grow edibles practically anywhere.
* Dry soil - xeriscaping edibles from this blog.
* Wet soil edibles from Plants for a Future
* Mother Earth News on Shade Vegetables

When do you start seeds?

All year round! Other than this link to Seed Starting, An Irreverant Primer where there is lots of info and a link to a spreadsheet created by I Wet My Plants, here are some other things we talked about.

1. Wintersowing - the technique of using crafty mini-greenhouses to start plants outside
2. Half winter sowing or indoor/outdoor growing - fun way to start tomatoes
3. Fall Gardens - why give up on the garden after summer? Grow snow to snow! If you are feeling especially adventurous, season extension in a cold frame may even allow you to harvest most of the year.
4. In situ fall sowing - Lots of hard to germinate plants such as some edibles (sweet cicely, turnip rooted chevril), wildflowers and fruit trees need a period of moist stratification. This can be done inside but is super easy to do by enlisting nature's help. Just sow in fall in a marked bed. Tada! If sowing something tasty to rodents such as fruit pits, you'll want to use small gage chicken wire to exclude them. I use a pot filled with sand that I bury to germinate fruit seeds.
5. ... and not everything is a tomato - How the other vegetables are grown.

The four season harvest (or anything else) by Coleman. Keep in mind that he is an intensive market grower but he has lots to say to the backyard organic veggie gardener too.

What should I grow?

We didn't go into as much detail on this as I would have liked so I will expand. When choosing what vegetables to grow, especially when you have a small plot, there are (at least) three options.

1. Grow vegetables that are easily contaminated by deathicides, are expensive bought and taste significantly better when homegrown. Funnily enough, these are often the same ones as thin skinned fruits meet all three criterea. A good example: raspberries. Tomatoes too are fantastic homegrown.

2. Calorie crops is an option for someone that really wants to grow their own. It focuses on using legumes and easy to thresh grains along with starchy vegetables such as potatoes. Some literature about 'calorie crops' talks about intensive gardening/farming which may or may not be feasible depending on your access to resources. Some techniques also tends to rely on double digging and intensive water use which may be short sighted in the long term.

3. Favor perennials or self sowing annuals whenever possible. Why not try a food forest? This is a technique that combines useful trees, bushes and plants into a layered system. It can be resistant to diseases and pests because of its diverse nature, can be very attractive and has a good productivity when plants are chosen wisely compared to work required after the initial set up.


* Gaia's Garden by Hemenway - intro book to permaculture techniques
* Edible Forest Gardens by Jacke and Toensmeier - never read but looks good
* Perennial Vegables by Toensmeier - fun!
* The New Food Garden by Tozer - excellent!!
* Unusual Fruits for Every Garden by Reich - enlightening.
* HomeGrown Whole Grains by Pitzer - good resource
- how to process Amaranth (for C.)
* The Resilant Gardener by Deppe (about self sustainability and calorie crops. She's a great author and I'm sure it is full of useful information. I have not had the opportunity to read this highly rated book but she's made excellent contributions to gardening literature before so I'm going to recommend it anyway.)
* Culinary Herbs by Small

Sources for Fruit & Nut Trees
- I don't have these down yet in a convenient list so this is my next post, swear.


Plants for a Future - perennial edible and useful plant resource, double check info as it is European skewed and remember that there is almost always conflicting info so it's best to get more than one independent source.
Urban Farmer - permaculture design resource

Soil Secrets

Good dirt is a symbiotic creation of numerous organisms including invertebrates, fungi and plants. Without plants, in fact, you would not have the sort of 'soil' that supports the growth of complex systems such as forests. This is why when you expose dirt, you get the germination of weeds. It is not because there is a problem with your soil. It is a function of the metacreature/ecosystem 'soil' to repair the scar that has developed across its surface with more growth. Without a cover of plants or mulch, the humus is exposed to the elements speeding up its breakdown, as well as being subjecting to erosion by soil and water. This is why overtilling degrades the soil. Over digging will also breakup good soil structure that allows for water and root penetration.

Sometimes, such as when starting or improving poor soils, you dig. Some people also insist that they have to expose heavy soils to early spring sunshine or they won't warm sufficiently fast enough for certain crops to grow well. Also, certain difficult weeds need to be removed or smothered if there is any hope of an easy to care for garden. Otherwise, normal digging such as when a plant is removed or tubers are harvested is all the digging that should be required. I also recommend edging gardens to keep out invading sod/grass twice a year.

When starting a garden, it is easiest to use no-dig methods such as Lasagna Gardening or Sheet Mulching or the Stout Method. Raised garden beds to will solve a multitude of problems.

So if you want an easy to care for garden, remember to leave no soil bare for long because nature will fix that problem for you rather quickly by filling in the gaps using its soil seed bank. By the way, you can change the balance of the soil seed bank by allowing desireable plants go to seed. That way, when you disturb the soil, you'll get a high percentage of plants you would like to see growing, along with the weeds. I've seen this develop in my old garden. What a pleasant surprise. Otherwise, mulch and plant. Work with the metacreature: soil.


There are lots of reasons to love weeds, especially those that are relatively easily controlled. Beyond keeping the soil covered and protected, they can act to improve it.

1. Green Manure: If you pull weeds before flowering and they aren't the kind that easily reroot or set seed anyhow - such as purslane but then again it is edible - just throw them back on the soil surface. You'll be working with nature by covering the soil but also adding those nutrients back.

2. They provide a habitat for lots of beneficial insects and creatures (along with the occasional pest). Reseacher Hida Manns writes about the benefits of leaving strips of naturally occuring plants between her vegetable rows. She manages these by cutting them back so they don't compete for light with her vegetables. She also uses a version of sheet mulching to build gardens. If you thought the other methods of sheet mulching were easy, you should see what she does. As she said, several of her babies were born at the beginning of the growing season so low care gardens were a priority.

3. Many weeds are edible. Purslane, lamb's quarters, wild amaranth, dandelion etc... are among the most common garden weeds are all edible!

Pests and Diseases

When it comes to having a healthy garden, think good soil (remember the metacreature I'm going to call ploilsant - sounds exotic right?) and diversity. Plant lots of different plants together to break up sight, scent and other signals of pests, rotate where annual plants are grown but keep in mind that diseases sometimes stay in the soil much longer than the often quoted 4 year cycle. Here's more the difficulty of using rotation in a small gardening situation.

Before freaking about a new pest, use the three year rule. First year, identify the pest and do your best to exclude it from your plants or remove it using hand picking. Second year, use the methods of exclusion, inclusion, rotation and removal,* along with observing the pest. If it is still a problem in the third year, strategize about how to live with it. You may need to keep certain weeds or habitats out of your garden which are allowing the pest to overwinter. You may need to use row covers, trap crops or you may choose to stop growing the plant all together in favour of something easier. In a heatlhy, diverse garden, I've noticed, that most pests are not plagues every year but fade in and out depending on conditions.

* Exclusion, inclusion, rotation and removal? Exclude the bug using barriers like cutworm collars and floating row cover, include lots of habitat for beneficials and mix up plants, rotate plant groups including growing types (roots versus heavy feeders for example), and remove pests when you see them.


Keeping Bugs out or is that in?

Hot Season and Cool Season Crops

Read more about how to heat up your soil to grow sweet potatoes or peppers successfully here. On the other hand, if you can never get a descent broccoli, go here. And lastly, think fall gardening for lots of cool season crops that bolt in the dog days of summer.

Season Extension


Anything by Coleman or other books on 12 month/four season gardening
Sweet Potatoes for the Home Garden by Allan

Seed Saving and Plant Breeding

We didn't manage to go into too much detail on this very interesting subject but to recap, I think everyone should save seeds. It's fun and it's pretty easy! The common obstacles to overcome are knowing what plant you're growing. Does it self fertilize or need others of its kind to make seeds? Does it need bugs to move pollen around or will wind work? Will it cross with another vegetable and do I care? How many plants do I need to produce healthy offspring? Here I go on about seed saving, the rules and breaking them.

Another useful thing about letting plants go to seed, beyond the fact that many volunteer and create semi-feral populations like kale and orach, is that many provide food or habitat for useful insects.


Seed to Seed by Ashcroft - authorative
How to Breed your own Vegetable Varities by Deppe - great and fun


Looking for someone to talk on any of these subjects or on my favourite subject, ornamental edible gardening, feel free to contact me at Ottawa Gardener at live dot com, no spaces.


Chantal said...

I didn't get a chance to read the whole thing but from what I did read, MAN I WISH I WAS THERE! Too bad this was on a Wednesday because I was really looking forward to it! Maybe next time!
Lots of great info... I'll be printing this out!

MikeH said...

Sources for Fruit & Nut Trees
- I don't have these down yet in a convenient list so this is my next post, swear.

OK, here's a few to help get you started.

Golden Bough Tree Farm
Rhora's Nut Farm and Nursery
Grimo Nut Nursery

I've dealt with the first two. Golden Bough is great. We lost one of the hazels we planted and they replaced it. Everything they sell, they grow. Much of it is native. We bought from Rhora's this year for the first time. Each type of tree comes with its own inoculant to help it adjust. Everything looks fine so far but it's too early to tell. Mr & Mrs Rhora are not young so I wouldn't delay buying from them if you have been thinking about it. Many of the trees they sell cannot be found anywhere else in Canada.

I've not dealt with Ernie Grimo except by email. He was prompt and generous with the information he provided.

Ottawa Gardener said...

Thanks! I've actually ordered from the 1st and 3rd on your list and had good experiences so far. Grimos send nice looking trees that leafed out well.