Through the Seasons in a Quadra Food Garden: Blog #4

By Valerie Barr

Vegetable gardens are built in many different styles. There are container gardens, fruit and vegetables grown in hanging baskets, raised beds, raised mounds on the surface of the ground, and in-ground areas with deep soil.

On Quadra there are all sorts of native soil conditions, from sand, to alluvial stones, to blue clay, to areas where forest has been removed for housing, with a toss of glacial deposits thrown in here and there. And we don’t call the island ‘the rock’ without reason, there is plenty of rock. How you develop a garden depends on which of these conditions you have to work with. Grant and I are very lucky to have an area that was originally Alder bottom, with years of leaf mould composted in an area that would originally have been alluvial soil. Our garden is at the base of the south end of Heriot Bay Ridge on a level area near West Road where alluvial material has deposited.

Grant, and his then-wife Janis, moved to the property in 1990 and started the garden in 1991. They fenced a large garden area, planted the orchard, and began building up the soil in one section. They removed the Alders and stumped the area. Janis says she pulled Salmonberries forever. The resulting Alder bottom soil was amended so there were good crops grown in those first years. Lots of hard work in the early days of the garden.

Grant and I, over 26 years, have continuously built up the soil with every type of organic material possible. We have added local animal manure when available (horse, chicken, alpaca) and multiple loads of fish compost. We have green manured areas of the garden, usually with winter rye. We found winter rye was not a good practice for us since, to our benefit, there is excess water in our garden soil. This makes growing anything in the cold season difficult.

Leaf Dressing

Every autumn we collect Maple leaves and top dress all of the soil areas for the winter. Maple trees (Acer macrophyllum or native large-leaf Maple) send their roots deep and are able to bring minerals up from deep in the sub soil. The minerals are present in the leaves, which drop each autumn, and ultimately feed the soil at the base of these giant trees. An indicator of this mineral content in our local Maple are the licorice ferns that are seen on the ‘big old’ Maples around the community. Licorice fern also grows on rock bluffs where it can absorb the minerals it wants.

To chop up the large Maple leaves, Grant runs the old lawn mower over them after they are spread out on the ground, and while they are still dry enough to go through the mower chute. The chopped leaves break down quickly during the next summer and become humus in the soil. We also use Maple leaves to protect winter crops like carrot, leek and beet.

Compost

We put everything that we take out back into the soil, and then some. To be efficient at composting, a balance of Nitrogen or green plant material, and Carbon or brown plant material, is combined in the mix. Brown leaves and green grass are a perfect example of balanced compost materials. We collect the grass clippings from the orchard and use them as a mulch around established plants, covering bare areas with the grass cuttings as we mow. We no longer have compost bins, preferring to add the coarse material directly to the soil. During the growing season we collect the weeds in tall circular wire cages and allow them to dehydrate through the summer. Then, with the natural moisture of winter rain, the weeds compost. The product from these cages and all of our household compost is put on the soil each year before we turn under the collected winter material with a rototiller.

The ‘no dig’ style gardeners think rototilling is a mistake, but it works for us because of the size of our garden, and the fact that we treat the soil more as a growing medium than a native soil. We have healthy vegetables, healthy worms, and plenty of ground beetles. I think the ‘no dig’ gardens are a great idea for small areas. If you are starting a new garden with poor soil: then lasagna gardening (Google it) is a very practical way of quickly building soil for growing food.

We have lots of annual weeds that come up each season. This is the result of ours being an older garden (30 years of cultivation). We do not keep on top of good maintenance at the end of the summer because by then we like to play instead of work. The weeds have had enough neglect time to propagate generations of seed yet to come. When still young and small, the weeds are easily removed so I keep on top of them early in the season.

We enjoy our time and the routine in the garden – the food we grow is not necessarily the goal. If you are wondering if this is too much work, then perhaps you should keep buying your vegetables at local market farms or at the store.

Starting some Heat Loving Vegetables: Eggplant & Tomatillo

We have been growing Eggplant for a few years in small quantities. I thought I would start them from seed for the first time to see how well they develop between seed and transplant. Eggplant needs heat both in the germination stage and the growing stage. The variety we chose is Black Beauty, an heirloom selection from West Coast Seeds. I like the size and texture of this variety and such a beautiful colour. We have also grown a longer, narrower variety that did not have the same meatiness as Black Beauty. When the Eggplant are first transplanted, I can use a homemade cloche to protect them from the cool nights. They will be planted in the same area as other heat and sun loving vegetables.

I roast Eggplant with other vegetables (carrot and onion) from the garden with a spiced olive oil coating. I no longer fry Eggplant – you can not keep enough oil in the pan, the Eggplant soaks up every drop. This summer I will have to try a Moussaka recipe to see how we like a new dish.

Grant likes Tomatillo and has grown them for a few years from purchased plants. This year we purchased seed for Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry which is a Tomatillo. This is a sweeter variety than the Salsa Verde variety. You know they are ripe if they are falling off the plant and have turned yellow. Like Tomatoes, the Tomatillo likes a hot spot in the garden and does well with night time temperatures of at least 9C before planting out. They reportedly store in their tissue covers for up to three months once picked. I will have to figure this out at harvest.

Purchasing Great Tomato Plants Locally

Grant is also the Tomato grower and prefers the early varieties: Early Girl, Oregon Spring, and always one Cherry Tomato (probably Sweet 100). He also likes to throw in a Beefsteak which is not early and is often picked a bit green at the end of the season to ripen indoors. We get the dreaded blight on the tomatoes at the end of the season, depending on how cool it gets at night and if there is dew. Blight spreads with moisture on the plants.

Grant grows them within wire cages made from large opening fence wire. The wire cages give support and easy access to the fruit. These preferred varieties are both determinate and indeterminate which is something to learn about when choosing your varieties. How the plant grows decides how the pruning is done, to give the fruit extra light and more air as they mature.

We eat a feast of Tomatoes in season, cook and jar Salsa, or just throw the ripe fruit into plastic bags and freeze for later use. We only need one Cherry Tomato because they are prolific fruit producers. If you are just learning to grow Tomatoes, the Cherries would be a great start. There are many growers on the Island who sell Tomato plants in May and June and we choose from their selection at the Farmers Market or at On Root Greenhouse.

Update on Previous Posts

I have started (March 16th) to get the Sugar Snap Peas hardened off by putting them outside on a shady protected deck for a few hours each afternoon. I will increase the length of time the plants are outside each day until they stay out overnight.

Grant rototilled the garden on March 15th and I can plant things that are cold hardy as soon as the night time temperatures get about 5 C.

The Leeks and two varieties of Onion are doing well and I will start hardening-off the Leeks in the next week.

I have been getting a bit of white fungus on the surface of the seedling soil in the Onion trays. The seedling soil I use has wood fibre and debris as part of its’ mix which encourages this fungus. I must have been over-zealous with the water at some point: the white fungus is a result of too much moisture. This happens every year to some degree but does not seem to bother the seedlings. I have tried putting a little Cinnamon on the fungus as an anti-fungal but it did not kill it off. With time the white fungus will stop growing.

The Peppers are germinating after 10 days. As soon as the majority of Peppers have popped up their cotyledon leaves, I will remove them from the heat pad and let the Eggplant and Tomatillos have their turn being warm.

Next post I will discuss starting lettuce plants.

Grant Hayden and Val Barr are happily retired to play in their garden as they like.  Val worked in horticulture for almost 45 years and started her first food garden at 18.  Grant grew up as a prairie farm-boy and his last occupation was in forestry.  He has planted thousands of trees and cut quite a few down as well.

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