Much Accomplished, Much to Do

We got a lot done on Sunday. The garden is looking much cleaner. Sunflowers and potted annuals have been planted and the kid’s gardens have been kicked off by the Sprouts. There’s still plenty more planting and cleaning up to do, though, so get your gear on!

Also, I shingled our shed. Doesn’t our shed look a lot better with singles? And what could Mother want on Mother’s Day that’s better than a shingled shed??

OK, so next time we’ll choose a better day.

Anyway, we still need to paint and move it, though, so please, please, please let us know if you can help out!


2013 Gardening Season Begins

At last! Who’s ready to get started?

Of course, some of you have already been preparing with the seedlings. And did you know there are lots of things that you can plant outdoors in Edmonton in April? Some plants germinate just fine in chilly soil and can take a light frost besides: peas, lettuce, kale, spinach, radishes, and green onions, for example. In fact, most years you can plant these things in mid-April. I have managed to get full salads out of cold frames by this time in previous years, but this year the heavier than usual snow and slow thaw have made things difficult. Warmer weather plants should not go out for a month yet, until the end of May – or better, the beginning of June.

On to business!

  • The shed is awesome (thanks again, everyone!) but not particularly beautiful. Over the next few weeks, we need to paint and roof it and move it back from the curb. We will plant scarlet runner beans in front of it and turn it into a wall of green. Please let us know if you can help! I can be reached through comments or at
  • We are also considering taking the composters down a slat or two to give them a less intrusive profile, and hiding those behind a wall of sunflowers. Please let us know your opinion!
  • Shortly afterwards, we will be holding our first work bee to clean up and plant the first greens. Details on that to come.
  • Plans for this year also include building some raised planters for better access for seniors, and filling our shed with tools to make the gardening easier. We are still working on the funding – almost there!
  • The WWF-sponsored Wild Wings project will be bringing habitat to the garden to encourage beneficial insects and birds to join our little ecosystem.
  • And of course, there will be plenty of gardening with like-minded people throughout the neighbourhood and beyond … and perhaps a barbecue or two!

And now, a couple of pictures for fun: on the left are some of the seedlings growing on my window shelves (artichokes, peppers, leeks, lobelia). On the right, the haul of seeds we got from Sustainable Food Edmonton. It’s going to be a good year!

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Raising Seedlings Part 2: Folding Paper Pots

Here’s another idea that is frugal, space saving, and environmentally friendly: grow your seedlings in pots made out of folded newspaper. It’s quite simple and you get to reuse *and* recycle while producing your own local food. What could be better than that?

In the past, I have used old seed catalogues and flyers for this. This year, I grabbed a bunch of copies of the Metro out of the recycle bin at my kids’ school. I also cut strips off the edges of the page so that the final product would have nice flaps, but that’s not strictly necessary. You’ll have to experiment.

You want to start with a rectangle, not a square, so that you will have flaps to hold the pot open when you fill it with soil. I also like to double the paper over to make it stronger, since a few weeks of wet soil will make the newsprint quite weak.

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Crease an X through the middle of the paper by folding it first one way and then the other:

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Now collapse it in on itself, like this:

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Now fold in the flaps on both sides in two stages:

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Flip it over and repeat on the other side, so you end up with this:


Pick it up and pinch it closed while you fold down the top flaps:


And now gently open it up, and you have a pot for a seedling:


I make these in batches. They wrap themselves nicely in bundles of ten, like so:


Well, I make a few more than that, actually!


Hey, I didn’t build those shelves for decoration, you know!

A few notes: because they are wicking paper fibre, these pots can dry out quite quickly once the seedlings form a good root ball, so keep an eye on them. You may also want to plant the seeds in plastic trays to begin with for the same reason, but I have grown strong tomato and peppers seedlings by sowing them directly. However, at the beginning, you are more likely to have a problem with too much water, so I recommend that you poke a small drainage hole in the bottom of them as you plant.

When you plant your seedlings out, you can either peel the paper off entirely, or just take off the bottom. In either case, you will disturb the root ball a lot less than you would by pulling a seedling out of a plastic pot.

Happy folding!

Building Natural Light Shelves for a Small Space

I love winter as much as anyone. Skiing, skating, and tobogganing keep me going through the deep cold and long nights. But it is awfully long in this corner of the world, so what’s a gardener to do – I mean other than the annual browsing of the seed catalogues, hot drink in hand?

Here’s an idea – how about growing your own seedlings? You can save yourself a bit of money and get your fix of dirt in the warmth of your own home! Not only that, but if you buy the seeds from a reputable place (I suggest mail order from Vesey’s or Stokes) you know exactly what you are getting.

Seedlings need a lot of light. My place is small and I have only two (also small) south-facing windows, so the first thing to do is to build some shelves to fit them.

Step 1: Find a window. Here’s a likely looking spot:


All that juicy light, plus the steam from the shower? My future seedlings are smiling already!

Step 2: Decide how big the shelves should be. This little pepper plant (don’t we hope all our seedlings look half as healthy?) seems to suggest that 8 inches would be a very reasonable size. That gives us room for four shelves.


Step 3: Gather the materials. In this case, that’s a pair of 8′ 1″x4″ planks. Cost: $7. Oh, and a 1.5″ screw. You’ll want a screw.


Step 4: Cut your shelves. The basic design is two planks on the side to support the weight, with four shelves going across. They will be held in place by tabs in the shelves fitted into slots in the sides. This is known as a mortise and tenon joint. Plan carefully to use the wood best for the dimensions of your window. You want it to fit the window fairly snugly, but leave a bit of room for error. Maybe a quarter inch. In my case, I cut one 35.5″ side and two 27″ shelves per plank.


Step 5: Cut the tenons (tabs): Measure this very carefully. You will want the tabs to be just the depth of the wood they are going to slot into. I just cut these with a hand saw.



Step 6: Cut the slots (mortises?). This is trickier. I used a 3/4″ spade bit to carefully cut two holes at each end of the slot, and then cut out the corners with a jigsaw. Be careful to account for the width of the wood when you are measuring!





You probably can’t see it from this picture, but I gave the top shelf an extra inch and a half because it gets the least light (the window frame shades it somewhat).

Step 7: The bottom is a special case. If you have a level windowsill, you don’t really need to do this, but mine slopes in a weird way, so I put a shelf at the bottom and pinned it in place with a bit of doweling.


Step 8: Put it all together, fit it in the window, and pin the top of one of the sides to the window frame with the screw so it doesn’t fall out. Just a quarter inch will do. The landlord won’t mind.


Note that by this time, it is dark. Ah, winter!

One final thing: because this is all push-fit (i.e. no screws, nails, or glue), once you are done with the shelves, they can be taken apart and stored under your bed, like this:


Happy winter gardening!

Too Many Tomatoes? Ain’t No Such Thing!

We’ve certainly been lucky this year with the weather. Tomorrow is the last day of September and amazingly, there is still basil growing in my garden and my pepper plants are laden with big, crispy fruit. Still, no two ways about it: when October begins summer is well and truly over. What to do with all the green tomatoes? Let me share my own favorite way of preserving the summer in the cold months.

Most people probably know that you can ripen green tomatoes indoors. I just put them on a shelf, but I hear that many people get better results putting them in a box with apples and bananas – the ethylene gas they put off is a plant hormone that will help them mature. Here’s my tomato shelf right now:

Notice that they are at various stages of ripeness. Whenever there’s a batch (maybe twice as many as are red-ish in this picture) ready to go, I cut a small X in the blossom (ie bottom) end of the fruits and put them directly into a large pot of boiling water about three at a time. Let them boil for a few seconds (20 or 30 is usually enough, but they may take longer) until you see the skin start to split all the way around. Then, take them out and plunge them into cold water and put in the next batch. This process is called “blanching” and is used to deactivate enzymes when processing a lot of foods for preservation. In this case, though, you mostly just want to make it easier to remove the skin.

Next, take a sip of your wine (forgot to mention that – this process goes marvellously well with a full-bodied red) and begin to peel and core the tomatoes. Just grab them one by one and the skin should slip right off. Take a sharp paring knife and take out the core, and if you’re fussy, cut the tomato in half and scoop out the seeds and juice. I sometimes do this for extra finesse if I’m making soup, but it’s not completely necessary. Then, just cut the tomatoes roughly into quarters. Don’t forget to put the cores, skins, and juice into your compost. Your garden will make them into more tomatoes next year!

Now, my favorite part: Turn the heat on medium high and stir gently once in a while until they start to simmer. This will make your house smell awesome, but will also reduce the tomatoes into pulp. How long you cook them depends on what you plan to do with them. If you want to make tomato soup (I recommend gazpacho) then simmer until they are mushed and leave it at that. Usually, though, I let them simmer for half an hour to an hour until they are reduced in volume a bit.

At this stage, I put the paste into small ziplock bags and freeze them without adding anything else, because I like the versatility – you can use it for Indian curries, pizza sauce, soup, or salsa. However, if you know you are making pasta sauce, for example, you might want to add parsley, oregano, garlic, and thyme while they simmer.

So get out to the garden and pick as many as you can carry before the frost makes them go to waste! Of course, you can also dry them, can them, and freeze them whole. Pasta sauce made with home-grown tomatoes and parsley in January will lift your mood, guaranteed! Mmmmm…

Speaking of parsley, does anybody want any of mine? I have a LOT!

Raising Expectations

Shedtemberfest was productive beyond what we dared hope! Even though we didn’t quite manage to finish the shed itself, we got the foundation, frame, and walls in place and the roof mostly done. In addition, thanks to the dozens of volunteers who showed up we were able to build some large compost bins, big enough to hold all of the autumn garden wastes and more besides. All this in a little over five hours total work.

Incidentally, we welcome any and all help with finishing the work over the next few weeks before the snow flies (yes, I said it). We are considering having a second work bee to side and roof the shed, and perhaps we can add the door and lock while we’re at it.

The pictures below sum up the outcomes of the day, although they can’t capture the magic of seeing so many former strangers come together to work for a common goal. Personally, I think the memory will help keep me warm in the winter! Thanks to all our lovely volunteers who cut, nailed, carried, dug, leveled, screwed, measured, barbecued, babysat, and served the beer. You guys rock!

The shed as it stood late in the afternoon.
The composters are complete and ready for the fall’s harvest.
It was this kind of day.

Shedtemberfest is Coming Up Soon! We need volunteers!

Hello Gardeners big and small!

The shed raising event is coming up fast – just two weeks, and there is a lot of preparation to do. We will have several stages of preparation before we can do the actual shed raising and we are asking for at least 10-15 volunteers to help us out. Please let us know ASAP if you are interested in helping with any of the following:
  • Providing a pickup truck for fetching the materials
  • Measuring and cutting raw materials – we are making our own “prefab” from our own design
  • Bringing and laying out the construction materials at the site two hours before the shed raising begins
  • Bringing the food and drink to the site
  • Providing and operating a barbecue
  • Providing a boom box and some appropriate music
  • Cleanup
Of course, anyone who can make it is welcome to attend the actual shed raising at 2PM on the 22nd!
The day’s schedule will be as follows:
12PM: Setup and layout
2PM: Shed raising!
5PM: Beer and bratwurst and a celebration of our (hopefully) complete shed
Don’t miss it!