Category Archives: Food Gardening

Our First Potato Harvest

This year we decided to give homegrown potatoes a try. We purchased a couple of assorted seed potatoes from West Coast Seeds, along with a few potato bags to grow them in. I have to say that everything worked out really well!

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Growing the potatoes was very easy. The seed potatoes we purchased were a tri-colour mix of yellow, red and purple, so we planted one of each colour in each potato bag. The neat thing about planting the tri-colour mix is that we could tell which plant was which by the colour of the stalks. The purple potato plant had a deep purple stalk, while the red one had slight red streaks to it. The yellow potato plant had a basic green stalk, but it was easy to spot when compared to the other two.

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The plants grew very well in the growing bags, and eventually we had tiny purple flowers on top of all three types. We even grew a few potato fruits, which look like tiny green tomatoes! However, beware, because potato fruits are actually poisonous so make sure to pick them and throw them away (especially if you have little kids around who might be tempted to pick them, or mistake them for a tomato).

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Since we only grew a small amount we planned to eat them fresh, instead of storing them long-term. After the flowers died off and the plant stalks started to wither, the potatoes were ready to harvest. Voila!

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It was immensely satisfying cutting through these crisp, fresh potatoes with a sharp knife. It felt like cutting butter, or a soft piece of fruit. Once cooked, they were deliciously creamy too!

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I will definitely grow more potatoes in the future again. Next year I think I would plant less in each bag, but gardening is always about experimenting and it’s tough when you’re dealing with limited space on a balcony. If I owned a piece of land, I’d devote a nice big square to them. 🙂

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How to Grow Your Own Sprouts

My brother recently got me hooked on growing my own sprouts. Now that I’ve discovered how easy it is, I grow them all the time. If you enjoy eating sprouts, but you hate buying them only to have them wilt and wither in your fridge, then you should give this a try. I promise you, it’s very easy.

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Why grow your own sprouts?

Homegrown sprouts are better for you than the store bought variety because they’re grown without using any soil. Sprouts grown in soil run the risk of containing harmful bacteria like E. coli and salmonella, but when you’re not using soil, you don’t have to worry about getting sick.

Homegrown sprouts are also very cheap to grow. You can buy a bag of sprouting seeds for under $10 dollars and even if you grow them continuously, the bag will last you awhile.

And, of course, homegrown sprouts are guaranteed to be fresh and delicious because you can pop them into your sandwich or salad the very second they’re big enough to eat.

Growing supplies

Thankfully, you don’t need a lot of supplies or a lot of space to grow your own sprouts. Here’s what you need to get started:

  • One large glass mason jar with a two-piece lid,
  • One square piece of mesh that’s roughly 6″ x 6″,
  • A dish drying rack that drips into the sink,
  • A mix of sprouting seeds, and
  • Water. That’s it.

To Grow Your Own Sprouts:

1. Add a few tablespoons of your sprouting mix into your clean, empty jar. (I use a one litre glass jar and 2-3 tablespoons of seeds.)

2. Place the square piece of mesh over the mouth of the jar and tighten the metal ring from your jar lid over the top. You now have a screen to keep your seeds inside the jar.

3. Fill the jar up with room-temperature water and swirl the seeds around inside.

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4. Dump the water out and repeat the rinsing process again until you are satisfied the seeds are clean. (Two or three times is probably enough.)

5. Fill the jar up again with water, but do not dump the water out. Leave the jar to rest like this for at least 12 hours, or overnight, to give the seeds a good soaking.

6. After 12 hours has passed, swirl the jar of seeds around again and dump the water into the sink.

7. Re-fill and then rinse the seeds a few more times with room-temperature tap water until you’re satisfied that they’re clean.

8. Now, invert the jar so the mesh screen is on the bottom, and rest it on an angle on your dish rack. The excess water will drip out the bottom and your seeds will begin to germinate in their own little greenhouse.

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9. For the next three days, rinse the jar of seeds in the same manner at least twice a day, leaving them inverted after each rinsing. You can rinse them more if you want, it really doesn’t matter. Just pay attention to them periodically and make sure they remain hydrated. In between rinses, condensation will build up on the inside of the jar. This is a good thing.

10. The seeds will usually begin to sprout after the first full day. You will notice the seed casings splitting open with little, white roots sticking out.

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11. You will be surprised at how fast your sprouts become fully formed. Mine are usually ready on the third or fourth day. Once they’re between one to two inches long with their first two baby leaves at the end, they’re ready.

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12. To turn your sprouts nice and green, place the jar on a sunny windowsill for a few hours. Try to rotate the jar at least once.

Once the sprouts are fully formed and green you can store them in the fridge for about a week, sometimes longer. But… don’t forget about them in your fridge! Try and remember to rinse them every now and again to keep them fresh and crisp.

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This may seem like a lot of steps but really the basic principle is to rinse them a couple of times a day until they’re ready.

Sprouts are delicious in sandwiches, salads, stir fry’s and even soups. Sometimes in a pinch, I eat them in forkfuls directly from the jar. However you decide to eat them, just remember to give them a good rinse first.

You can buy sprouting seed mixes at gardening stores or in some grocery stores, but I order mine online from West Coast Seeds. I grow a mixed variety called the Go Go Blend that contains organic alfalfa, red clover, radish, mustard and fenugreek seeds, but there are many other options out there too.

Good luck, and happy sprouting!

Making Maple Syrup

During our recent visit to Vancouver Island a friend showed us the simple art of making maple syrup. We don’t eat real maple syrup too often, but having it freshly pulled from the tree was too tempting to resist.

Armed only with a large metal pot, we put our boots on and headed out the door. The owners had tapped a handful of bigleaf maple trees a few months ago and lines of PVC tubing were steady in place, dribbling fresh sap into large glass jugs. Our only task was to collect it and bring it back to boil.

Our friend had already collected the sap a few days prior to our visit. At that time, thanks to some heavy fluctuations in barometric pressure, the sap was running out of the trees more freely. After he’d boiled down the drippings from 5 or 6 trees he was able to make almost a litre of syrup out of it. We’d eaten some of it that morning for breakfast and it was exactly how you’d imagine fresh maple syrup would taste, sugary and delicious. On the day of our syrup making lesson it was sunny, so the sap wasn’t running much at all. Nevertheless, we made the rounds to the half dozen tapped maple trees and poured the sap into our pot.

In total we collected about 1.5 cups of clear, watery sap. I hadn’t known this before, but apparently the ratio of sap to syrup is about 40:1, meaning it takes 40 litres of maple sap to produce a 1 litre bottle of syrup. This explains why the stuff is so expensive.

We transferred the sap to a smaller pot and left it on the wood stove to boil down for awhile. After about 4 hours of slow simmering the sap had transformed into a thicker, amber coloured syrup – about a tablespoon’s worth!

Even though we didn’t make much it was still neat to learn how easy it is to make maple syrup. One day, when I get my own plot of land, I’ll be sure to plant some bigleaf maples on it.

A Taste of Farm Life

My husband and I recently took a trip to Vancouver Island to visit a friend who was house sitting on a farm. Our friend had worked on the farm many months before so he was already familiar with the required day-to-day activities and the owners needed someone to look after their chickens, dogs and gardens while they headed down south for some mid-winter sun. We jumped at the chance to visit him for a long weekend.

The farm was situated just outside the town of Duncan, down a logging road on a heavily wooded mountainside. The property, about 15 acres, was a mixed farm with a large farmhouse, a second smaller guest house, a varied collection of animal pens and coops, massive vegetable gardens, two greenhouses, and two healthy sized ponds full of fresh water.

As a child growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I spent many summers enrolled in day care on farms. Walking around the property, with their two large guard dogs by our side, really brought me back to my childhood. So much seemed familiar—the sound of the chickens clucking gently in their pen, the smell of freshly chopped cedar by the woodshed, all the small side projects scattered about in various stages of completion. It may not sound like much to some, but I could definitely settle in to a life like that. Even before taking this trip we’d spent many late, wine-filled nights talking about a simpler farm life with our caretaker friend. Experiencing it in the flesh stirred up those thoughts even more.

Even in the cold winter months the farm was still running in some areas. The owners had two large greenhouses and one was planted entirely with garlic, the other with sections of kale, beets and kohlrabi. It was so hot and humid in the greenhouses that we lingered inside for awhile, basking in the warmth as we sipped our afternoon beer.

Outside in their vegetable patch the soil was mostly dormant except for a few rows of leeks, Brussel sprouts, and overwintering herbs. Their brood of a dozen chickens was enough to give them a constant supply of fresh eggs but the turkeys and pigs were no longer around. Inside the farmhouse in their food pantry were seemingly endless rows of dried, prepared and bottled herbs and vegetables, obviously grown and preserved by the owners themselves. I can only imagine how satisfying it would be to produce that much food by our own means.

I have always loved the idea of life lived on a farm, working the land for a living. As a child I would pretend we were in pioneer times, building log cabins and churning pretend butter, planting and harvesting crops as the seasons passed. Now, even though we live in a very urban condo complex, I still try to keep one foot in that world by growing my own container vegetables, a balcony farm of sorts. It’s satisfying in many ways but I still yearn for my own plot of land. I know that dream will come true, one day.

My mother-in-law always tells me that I’m a repressed farmer at heart. I’m beginning to think she’s right!

Pumpkin Pollination Woes

Last summer, after devouring Lorraine Johnson’s book City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing, I felt inspired to try vegetable container gardening myself. Johnson’s book was filled with countless examples of creative gardeners maximizing their tiny window boxes, back stoops, and unused garden nooks with tomato plants, peppers, creeping snow peas, runner beans and herbs. For a two bedroom apartment in Vancouver, our balcony is actually quite large. We’d already had success with tomato, basil and herbs in previous summers. Why not bump up the food crops on our patio instead of spending a small fortune on pretty, but temporary, summer flowers?

Soon enough I was flipping through the pages of the West Coast Seed catalogue like a little kid in a candy store. As a beginner, I followed the advice of City Farmer and stuck to easy-to-grow varieties like snow peas, Swiss chard and lettuce, but some of the more ambitious seeds also caught my eye. Why not try Brussel sprouts, broccoli and pumpkins too! Since Halloween is my favourite holiday, the idea of growing my own pumpkin sounded too good to resist. I decided to order some Little October seeds since they matured in the shortest amount of days (85) and I liked the smooth skin and perfectly round shape. By the time I actually planted the seeds it was the last week of July. Technically I still had 85 days until October 31st, but technically clearly isn’t everything.

If you’ve visited my blog before then I’m sure you’ll remember my pumpkin fiasco from last year. I did grow some pumpkins last year… just itty bitty little tiny ones! After having such a hilarious failure last year, I knew I’d have to give it another try. This year Operation Pumpkin Patch started earlier… way earlier. It’s now the end of July and I’ve been growing the pumpkin plant for nearly three months now. I wish I could say that it’s been smooth sailing the second time around, but that’s definitely not the case.

Apparently, pumpkin pollination is tricky business. The pumpkin plant itself – coated with rough spikes on the leaves and stalks, and bursting with creeping curlicue tendrils from every leaf joint – has both male and female flowers. Not surprisingly, the female flowers need to be pollinated by the pollen from the male flowers. The surprising part is that the pumpkin blossoms remain open for just one day, and the best way to insure success is to hand pollinate the plants directly using a small, dry paintbrush. If pollination is left only to the bees, it might not happen if a bee doesn’t buzz around your plant on that one fleeting day.

For weeks and weeks I’d come home from work to check for new blossoms, then diligently rub the male pollen onto all the female flowers or unopened flower buds. After a few weeks of doing that, small green pumpkins started to appear beneath the female flowers. At one point we had seven growing, then nine, ten… it seemed we’d hit the pumpkin jackpot! I was impressed with myself, especially once they started to turn the slightest shade of orange. At this point, I thought my work was done.

But then… the largest pumpkin fell off the vine! I was mortified. Even more so since the pumpkin broke off right into my hand as I was brushing an aphid from it’s surface.

A few days later, a second pumpkin dropped effortlessly off the vine again. A third died a few days after that. Strangely, they appeared to be slowly rotting around the connecting vine, turning squishy and moist.

My pumpkin dreams were literally shriveling up.

After searching on the internet I realized the problem. Turns out I’d been pollinating the pumpkins incorrectly. It’s true that the male pollen must meet the female flowers. My timing was just off. I should have been pollinating the female pumpkin flowers once they already showed a pumpkin bulge growing beneath them. Apparently the blossom stays open even while the fruit is beginning to expand and that is when they should be pollinated. If proper pollination is not achieved then the fruit will wither and die. Damn!

It’s been about two weeks since I made this discovery. Since then I’ve been hand pollinating the flowers at every opportunity that presents itself and I’m hoping (fingers crossed) that a few of the presently growing pumpkins will stick around. But just in case I don’t get my homegrown jack-o-lantern this year I thought I’d make the best of it.

Feast your eyes on the world’s smallest, most premature token of Halloween ever…

At least it’s good for a laugh!

10 Reasons to Grow Your Own Brussel Sprouts

About two months ago my husband and I indulged ourselves on our homegrown Brussel sprouts. We grew two plants in a pot on our deck, and we harvested them over a series of weeks in the spring. By the end of the season we’d grown enough sprouts to cook with them four separate times even though our plants were relatively small compared to those grown in an actual garden bed (as opposed to containers).

Even after we’d eaten all the sprouts, the plants maintained a striking presence on our deck. As the temperature increased the plants started to bolt and the new sprout buds went to flower – gorgeous golden yellow flowers. Our two plants got so big and bright we could spot them from several blocks away!

I enjoyed growing Brussel sprouts so much throughout last fall, winter and spring that I’ve committed to growing them again this year. I just put two seeds into some dirt tonight, actually.

If you’re thinking of growing Brussel sprouts yourself, here are 10 reasons why you should go for it:

1. Brussel sprouts are good for you! They’re loaded with vitamin A, folacin, potassium and calcium, and they’re high in fiber and low in fat and calories. They also contain phytochemicals that may protect against certain cancers.

2. Brussel sprouts are relatively easy and cheap to grow. The plants are super hardy by nature since they grow through the cold months of the year, and there isn’t much cost to growing them yourself. All you need is a pot, some dirt, a couple of seeds and some water. Nothing too fancy.

3. Freshly picked Brussel sprouts taste WAY better than anything store bought or, dare I say, frozen. We actually did a taste test to compare our green gems to their frozen counterparts and the difference was impressive. Ours were crisp and fresh and had a slight sweetness mixed into their bitter taste. The frozen ones looked pretty pathetic by comparison, and they tasted about as good as they looked: mushy, starkly bitter and generally unsatisfying.

4. Your own sprouts will have a much lower carbon footprint than anything you buy from a store. Think about all those transportation miles you’re eliminating.

5. It’s fun to watch the plants grow and change, especially once the sprouts start to form in the fall.

6. Come wintertime your friends, family and neighbours will be impressed to see that you still have plants growing in your garden even though it’s snowy and cold.

7. By growing your own Brussel sprouts you can ensure that you grow them organically, if you wish.

8. Even after you’ve eaten the sprouts and the towering stalk starts to bolt, it will continue to impress you with it’s abundance of golden yellow flowers for weeks.

9. It’s a general rule that everything tastes better if you’ve put some effort into it. After you’ve nurtured your plants through several seasons, your first bite of crisp Brussel will delight you more than you might realize.

10. Above all else, you’ll make your mother proud. Every mother wants their children to eat their vegetables, and if you had any sort of childhood aversion to Brussel sprouts I guarantee the best way to get over it is to grow some delicious fresh ones for yourself. You won’t be disappointed!

Our First Broccoli Harvest

Only one week has passed since my first post about our budding broccoli plants, and already they’re ready to harvest. I’m always a little sad when it comes time to chop my plants up, but I was also really looking forward to finally sampling some homegrown green goodness.

For our first harvest we decided to cook a beef and broccoli stir fry, one of our favourites. We sliced off four of the heartiest crowns and accompanying side shoots and piled them out on the cutting board. I hadn’t really realized just how much darker this homegrown broccoli was until I looked at it under our kitchen lights. The plants, true to their name, had very dark purple crowns, nothing like what we traditionally bought at the vegetable stand.

The stalks of the florets were also much longer and thinner than all the store bought broccoli I’ve eaten. The crowns were not nearly as dense. Instead they felt light and delicate. After we extracted all the edible bits off of the massive crowns we had one big purple pile!

To accompany the broccoli we chopped up some carrots, mushrooms, and garlic and sliced two sirloin steaks as thin as we could manage. Since the broccoli florets were so much smaller and lighter than usual they cooked a lot faster. Once all the vegetables were cooked we added a cup of fresh bean sprouts, a cup of stir fry sauce and, voila! Our first home-grown broccoli feast was ready to eat.

It was delicious! And more than that, it was satisfying to eat something that we’d been growing since August.

Next up, what broccoli dish should we cook for our second harvest?