Tag Archives: winter gardening

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.

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?

Broccoli – Signs of Life

Some might say it’s overly ambitious to attempt to grow broccoli on a balcony with only partial sun. Some might say this, but not me. Nuts to that.

I hatched this plan back in August after discovering the Purple Sprouting Red Spear Broccoli variety available through West Coast Seeds. The plant’s description got me excited:

These extremely cold-hardy biennial plants grow over the winter months ready for early spring harvest. Purple sprouting broccoli provide very small, sweet purple flowering shoots in the spring. Sow in late summer for February to March harvest.

It was already late summer. Why not give it a shot?

I began my mission by germinating and planting 10 seedling. Over the next months the plants grew taller and leafier and broader, and several of the stalks turned yellow and died. I have a habit of overcrowding all of my pots, so I figured this probably wasn’t a bad thing. This was nature weeding out the weaklings for me.

The plants got taller and broader still and by January my mind began to fill with questions: Had I started my seedlings too late? Or was it too cold, too dry, or too dark? Would these plants ever produce any real, edible broccoli?

Then came the snow.

One month later I spotted the very first semblance of a broccoli crown at the apex of the biggest plant. Exciting! Now that it’s almost April, I’m astounded by the plant’s progress every day.

Though I’ve yet to taste this home-grown vegetable, I’m satisfied that my experiment has been a success. My only remaining question is, how will I know when the plant is ready to harvest?