Learnings from the dirt: A mid-season garden review

On exactly the same day two years ago (unintentionally), I wrote a “mid season review” post, complete with proud photos of everything growing so successfully. I just re-read it, and to my total surprise, the weather has been similar and the garden is fairing almost exactly the same. I could have sworn that we’ve had less sun and more garden annoyances this year, but it appears that an “un-seasonally” hot May and miserable June are actually quite standard around here. So I’ve had a closer look at what’s worked, and what I could learn from the problems and failures. To start, here’s what I planted when:

Early – mid April – Spinach, Chard, Arugula, Kale, Basil (indoors), Tomato (indoors), PeppersKale
Late April – Potatoes, Kale #2, Spinach #2, Carrots, Little Gem lettuce, Chard #2, Cukes, Zuchs
Garden in July
Early – mid May – Yellow bush beans, purple beans (from seeds we started harvesting 4 years), tomatoes (from plant) and tomato from last year’s self-harvested seeds, indoors.Tomato From Seed

Little Gem lettuce

Little Gem lettuce – soft like butter lettuce

And here’s a few things I learned or have discovered consistencies with:

  1. Lettuces almost always deliver! If planted early and continuously, you can have greens for your salad all summer, and into fall.

  2. Spinach and chard don’t! I love spinach in my smoothies, but when planted in April with a hot May, they seem to either not come up, or start to flower (bolt) in the heat before they even grew larger enough to eat. I guess I need to plant spinach FIRST and EARLY. The chard is still limping along, but after 2 months and no real discernible growth, I have to assume the same rule applies.

    Flowering Potatoes

    Flowering potato plant

  3. Give everything enough room. I really thought I’d learned this previously, but I can’t help it – I get greedy or sometimes I forget how much space each veggie needs. I figure I’m still ok as long as I thin the kale and carrots out to about 12″ and 2″ apart respectively, by the time they’re a few inches tall.
  4. Aphids seem to like kale and fruit trees, and ants like everything else!
    (note: another post to come on this subject!)
  5. Not all potatoes flower – I figured there was something wrong with my first plantings, as they didn’t flower, and then I remembered that in a panic to get something in the ground, I just threw in some old potatoes left over from the cupboard. I also forgot to hill them up after 4 weeks and just did it recently at about the 8-10 week mark (I didn’t keep track – what can I say, I’ve been busy this year). I only discovered this once my second planting (from a bag of purchased potato seedlings) started to flower – they’re so pretty, but if they both produce good spuds, I guess it doesn’t matter!  

    Finally, here’s a few photos of some relatively happy spaces in the garden around mid-season. Not too much to harvest just yet other than kale and lettuce, but with a little more sun, we should be on our way. Enjoy!

    Growing basil

    Hurry up tomatoes, so I can make tomato-basil-feta salad!

    Zucchini flowers

    First zucchini flowers – love watching them open up

    Non prickly blackberry bushes

    Our non-prickly blackberry bushes (unlike the weedy ones you find beside railway tracks ;-). The passersby seem to like them as much as we do, but hey….spread the love.

    Harvesting blackberries

    Blackberries and raspberries in my bowl – yay! The blackberries are 1-1/2″ long, I kid you not!


    Although not a flower gardener, I just can’t ignore the gorgeous hydrangeas in the yard right now!



Tomatoes in our space and outer space!

This was the first year I’ve tried my hand at “Heirloom” tomatoes. I don’t even know if I can call them that, as Heirloom is described in most places as “seeds passed down through generations”, and I just harvested my seeds last year, haha. At any rate, the idea of getting FREE seeds and using them to grow FREE food the following year really excites me. I know the word “sustainable” is overused too, but seriously, this is it!

In my usual completely un-fancy way, we took a few seeds out of some of our favourite tomatoes from last year, dried them on a paper towel, folded it up, put it in a baggy, labeled it, put it in the cupboard and promptly forgot about it.heirloom tomato seeds

AIMG_7196a few weeks ago, I tapped a few of the seeds just below the surface of some manure-y dirt and placed them in a sunny spot on my windowsill (my de facto greenhouse). Here is the result after a few weeks.
I was so excited something actually came up, although they sure don’t look like the tomato plants I usually buy (because they’re easy) and plant outside around this time.

Then, much to my delight, my youngest daughter arrives home from school with two tiny potted seedlings that look exactly like the ones growing on my windowsill and announces “these tomato plants were in outer space for 50 days!”

TomatosphereWith some prodding, I got some of the story of the project their school’s science classes are involved in, called Tomatosphere, which according to their website, “uses the excitement of space exploration to teach the skills and processes of scientific experimentation and inquiry. Students investigate the effects of the space environment on the growth of food that will inevitably support long-term human space travel.”

Apparently the seeds were distributed to about 18,000 classes in Canada and the US during the 2015-16 school year. They were launched to the International Space Station on April 14, 2015 and spent 5 weeks in space before returning to earth and being distributed to classrooms, along with a package of “placebo” seeds so students could compare the germination rates of the two groups of seeds. My daughter indicated the ones from space actually grew quicker. You can learn more about the program on the Tomatosphere site.

I’m hardening off our seedlings this week, and they’ll go in the garden along with the purchased plants which are much further along. Now, how to get them to grow quicker…..

It’s May and the garden is underway

Forgive me, for I have sinned…it’s been a YEAR since my last post. I’ve had reams of material idling in my brain for months, even during winter, but as I’m sure many people can relate, life gets in the way, so I’ve focused my energy recently on my yard instead of the writing.

Grow your own veggiesI’m happy to report that the garden IS underway, with green bits popping up all over, and I continue to try to push seeds into whatever soil I can get my hands on, trying not to be too greedy and plant things too close together, as I’ve learned it doesn’t pay off in the end.

Pictured here is the back garden featuring tomatoes (from plant), kale and arugula, and the light green bits in the front are little gem lettuce that I planted last fall and we’ve been enjoying since March! I did plant the tomatoes close to them, as they’ll be finished as the tomato plants grow and start to shade them. And the little spec of yellow is a marigold – I like to pop those in between the tomato plants to keep the bugs away a bit.

The front garden is also getting a facelift this season. Until a week ago, it was one big weed pit, except for the veggie boxes of course, after having pulled out most of the grass and weeds last year and running out of time to do anything with it. Instead, this year, we’ve hired our friend’s Garden landscapinglandscape company, Ecologik, to make magic out of the dirt. Nothing fancy – just some ground cover to keep the weeds out (or down), some gravel paths and a few pavers. Our kids use the BACK yard for running around, so we had no need for a maintenance-heavy lawn, and I’ve taken up every inch of sun-touched space for growing. I’m a happy woman. I’ll post “after” shots soon!

Hopefully there will be a bit more “green” in the garden by the time the landscaping is done in a few weeks. I’ve been experimenting with trying to stretch out my intended harvest a bit more this year. Just planting a few things every week, and waiting till they pop up to plant more. It’s been 7 weeks since I put the first seeds in, our May long weekend is coming, and I usually like to have everything in by then to ensure a good harvest by August, so we’re on the right track! The best part is seeing a little bit of growth every day now, with the tiny seedlings becoming stronger and thicker, so I can start thinning them out. The daily progress is what keeps me going, and I stave off the antsy-ness by planting greens and herbs early so we can enjoy them in our salads now while we patiently await and tend to the rest of the hopeful bounty.

Hope to see you here again soon.

Quick, it’s not too late to plant!

It’s garden season, and I didn’t even get around to posting in April. Sadly, my garden is in about the same shape as the blog. I got so busy with work and life that I literally didn’t notice that the sunshine (and showers), weeds and no-jacket-weather meant I should start planting! Heck, even the local Farmer’s Market started up already this weekend!

So much for my advice about planning ahead, reviewing my past calendars or setting alerts for myself.

I did manage to get some lettuce, kale and potatoes in the ground a month ago, which are now popping up.

Growing Potatoes

Early potatoes..and my old pink gardening crocs…for good luck.

Kale seedlings

I planted spinach too, but it didn’t bother coming up. I think my seeds were old, but I’ve also discovered that spinach is finicky and only likes just the right combo of cool and warm weather. However, I will persevere, as it’s a high yielder when it does flourish, and the first thing I would choose for my daily smoothies.

In the back of my mind, the Victoria Day long weekend (May 16th this year) is always a marker for when almost everything should be in the ground if I want to be eating it by July/August. I just hadn’t been cognisant of how close it was (a week away!)

So finally this week, I rustled up my old notes, where I had noted what I had planted where and when, and made a quick plan on my calendar for what needs to happen next in order to ensure a decent harvest this year.

I usually wait to plant the heat lovers like squash to ensure a harvest when I get home from our time away in mid August, but I decided to experiment and just get to it. We should get to enjoy it before we leave, but if not, the house sitter can have her fill.

So today, I planted tomatoes (from plants as always), basil, yellow beans, purple beans (from seeds I harvested last year), half my cucumber seeds, some yellow (patty pan) squash, carrots and another round of spinach and lettuce (which I hope to plant every few weeks, time and space permitting, to ensure a continuous harvest).

So…the message here?
People are always telling me they don’t have a clue about gardening, what to plant when, and they think they need to be experts before they ever plant anything. But I maintain that it’s ALL experimentation, every year, and I am giddy and consider myself lucky when I get to enjoy anything I’ve grown. So even though I was slow on planning this year, all was not lost, and it’s really a matter of prepping your soil and just getting something in the ground. See where the sun likes to lie, what grows best where, and that knowledge will become part of your plan for next year. No PhD needed.

Are you early or late this year, or if it’s your first time growing, what have you planted so far?

A new name for spinach?

I’ve just arrived home from California. It’s only 2 hours away by plane, I’ve been there many times, and on the surface the culture seems virtually the same as here. But I was surprised at the differences I noticed in food labelling and packaging (aka marketing) at the local grocery chains.

The example I found most astounding was the labelling of a bag of kale and spinach as “Juicing Greens”! With juicing as one of the latest fads in health and weight loss, someone must be making money by promoting basic greens as so exciting and trendy! And note the yellow box on the label – “Healthy” too? Imagine that.  US GroceriesThis got me reflecting on the food marketing I’ve likely been susceptible to here in Western Canada. I guess we’ve been hit harder with the “Paleo Diet” as a food consumption concept, where in its most simplistic description, animal fat and protein are good and grains are bad*. Conversely in California, I couldn’t even find higher fat table (or coffee) cream, the presumably undesirable homogenized (3.25% fat) milk was disguised with a lack of labeling, and most of the other dairy products were labelled “fat free”, “low fat” or “fat reduced”.  

I often see labels for “Gluten Free” on items that have never contained gluten, but on this trip, I also noticed products labeled “No High Fructose Corn Syrup” on items that likewise wouldn’t have had any sugar anyway.

I appreciate the desire and commitment of the food industry to educate people about what’s in their food, but I question the motivation when grocery shopping seems to be more about marketing promises or the latest buzz words than nourishment. As a lot of our popular culture stems from our southern neighbours, I’m curious when “juicing greens” will show up on the shelves here in Vancouver (where we tend to be a bit righteous about how healthy we are). Is it already in other parts of Canada? A little marketing research anyone?

*This is my own description and perception of the Paleo Diet concept, not backed by any research.


Spring has sprung?

It’s with mixed emotions that I look up at the local mountains, usually covered with snow this time of year. It is barely past Valentine’s Day, and my daughter is playing soccer in shorts and it’s 13 degrees outside!
And despite my yearning to get a few more good days of skiing in this season, I’m taking the glass-half-full approach and allowing myself to relish in the fact that spring might actually be here…at least a month early .

Normally, February is fairly miserable in Vancouver, and I dread the “February Blues” that usually ensue with seemingly endless days of rain, cold and dreariness.
Not this year! I assumed it was because I was so busy with work that I’ve hardly noticed the weather. But discovering the first crocuses of the season made me realize it’s been so warm and dry that the weather just hasn’t negatively affected me at all this year.

I’m not going to be naïve and assume I can start planting my garden yet, but it has given me the groundhog feeling (pull your head out of your hole (hehe) and embrace the light!), and I’m excited to start planning. Bring on spring!

Stuff I’ve discovered in my yard that is UP and growing already:
Rhubarb, kale and carrots hanging around from last year – I LOVE veggies that re-grow!

What’s UP in your yard, on your balcony or in your garden?

The Nostalgia of Food: An art exhibit review

  Studio 126 event

I quite enjoy art exhibits. And when a talented friend and colleague is exhibiting her work, I LOVE art exhibits! I’m like a new mom, so proud of and excited for the potential this may bring a deserving person. And when the theme is food….well!!!!

This was the case when I attended “The Nostalgia of Food” last week, an exhibit hosted by Studio 126 in Chinatown (the installation of which continues all month).

In addition to being in an amazing, inspiring but completely unassuming space, the exhibit promised to showcase what “the nostalgia of food” means to the fifteen different artists on display, from painters to photographers and more.

Helena McMurdo Photography

Photo: Helena McMurdo Photography

Presumably the theme “the nostalgia of food” would be about the memories and connections associated with food and its traditions from our families or our experiences. Let’s walk through one of the artists, Helena’s, take on it.

Helena McMurdo Photography

Helena McMurdo – “Weight and balance” – giclee

“This is the scale that used to sit in my grandparent’s bar in Spain. It stirs up very personal memories for me as I remember when their bar was a lively place with neighbours and customers coming and going to have a drink and to buy food. I think of the stories it could tell, and of the conversations between my grandmother and her customers, how the weight might have been ‘just over’ the requested amount. Contrast that with how we shop for food today, mostly alone, helping ourselves and with less interaction with the shopkeeper. The social and communicative nature of the trading of the past is changing. Now with her shop long gone, the scale sits as a sort of fruit bowl, not fulfilling its true potential, but as a beautiful reminder of a time and a way of consuming food.” 

Helena McMurdo Photography

Helena McMurdo – “Pickling”

It seems like pickles are essentially a nostalgic item. Mention pickles and everyone remembers their grandma’s pickles. Or do they? I never made pickles as kid and nor did anyone in my family but this is how I imagined it would be if I had. I’m interested by the cultural iconography of nostalgia as it relates to food. Does a home-made pickle made by a grandmother taste better than one made by a professional in a state-of-the art facility? Are we responding to the taste of the pickle or the experience or memory? How is that we can imagine these cues from experiences that may or may not have occurred. Are we being true to the real experience?  Or do we all attribute meaning to our memories that may not be there?

Helena McMurdo Photography

Helena McMurdo – “Rashers and eggs”

The simplicity of these ingredients recalls a simpler time, when these items were the product of the farmhouse, not the factory. How many of us have actual memories of eating this way? Or are we responding to a collective imagined experience?

I hadn’t thought much about the exhibit before getting there – heck, I barely got out of the house after a full day of work, picking up kids, throwing dinner at the family and slapping on a coat of lipstick! So I let the above and other artists’ impressions and inspirations guide me, and soon I was conjuring up my own images of what this theme means to me.

For example, I didn’t realize until I was an adult how much nostalgia I generated from my parents having a garden when I was a kid and how the values locked deeply in that eventually propelled me to start a garden once I had my own family.

Think about Christmas dinner! That’s fodder for another post, there’s so much nostalgia tied up in certain Christmas traditions carried on mostly by my hubby’s side of the family.

And even on a much less obvious note, food nostalgia in our family could be contained in a notion as simple as the fact that we always take tuna sandwiches “in the pack” for our lunch on the ski hill. In fact, my sister was heard saying the other day that, “Skiing wouldn’t be the same without tuna fish sandwiches”! I’m not sure anyone besides my dad even likes them, but it’s a constant in an event that we hold dear and have greatly enjoyed together since childhood.

What sparks food nostalgia in your life? 

ps, In addition to her food photography work, Helena is the author of the blog, My Endless Picnic, and co-author of the South Granville Inhabiter blog. You can also find her on the usual social media spots: Facebook: Helena McMurdo Photography, Twitter (@missilenth) & Instagram (@missilenth). Because the “H” in her name in silent. 🙂

Studio 126 is located at 126 E Pender Street in Vancouver BC.