Archive for Spreading Garden Joy

Delicious Autumn – part 2

Yesterday I blogged about unexpected harvests from the compost garden. Perhaps the sweetest surprise we had, however, came from a completely unexpected source: a retirement home’s flower garden.

Here’s a tip: don’t throw out the browned-out ornamental pots sitting on your front porch too quickly. If you’ve planted sweet potato vine do some digging for the sweet potato (they’re not called “sweet potato vine” for nothing). We got two small spuds from our two pots this year, but nothing compared to the mammoth 8lb beast that maintenance staff dug up at the retirement home where my mother volunteers.

the biggest sweet potato I've ever seen

Since the skin of these sweet potatoes is pink and the insides white, the maintenance guys didn’t recognize it as a sweet potato and didn’t know what to do with it. They pulled several monster spuds out of the ground and were ready to throw them out before my mom got her hands on one. I made scalloped sweet potatoes out of 1/3 of the one pictured, which gave our family of 5 two meals. Here’s the recipe:

  • approx. 2 or 3 lbs. sweet potato
  • sliced or cubed ham, sausage or cooked chicken
  • parmesan cheese
  • mozzarella cheese
  • white sauce:
    • melt 1 Tbsp butter in a medium saucepan. Thoroughly mix 2 Tbsp flour with 2 cups milk and add to saucepan, stirring constantly. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

 

Arrange potatoes in a glass baking dish. Layer ham, sausage or chicken on top. Spoon ½ the white sauce over the potatoes and meat. Sprinkle generously with parmesan cheese. Repeat. Sprinkle mozzarella cheese on top, cover, and bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees. Uncover and bake 10 – 15 minutes more until the potatoes are soft and the cheese is golden.

This recipe beats regular scalloped potatoes because the sweet potatoes have more flavour (in my opinion, anyways).

 I’ll bet you never knew you were growing food in those urns!

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Delicious Autumn – Part 1

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”
George Eliot

It turns out that George and I think a lot alike (probably because “George” was actually “Mary Anne” and therefore female). The fall chill has finally set in after a beautiful Indian summer and I say “bring it on!” It was sunny yet blustery this morning as I dropped our son off at school and turned to walk back home, and each person I met offered some comment about the weather: “cold today!” or “winter’s coming…” Folks, we have a cast iron woodstove sitting in our living room, so I don’t have a problem with fall, or winter, for that matter. Still, embracing the cold weather is one sure way to get strange looks from fellow Canadians.

The obvious and first autumn wonder is, of course, the leaves. When does one ever see a flower garden on a larger scale than in the fall? By the way, while I understand that the leaves change their colour for a biological reason (they produce an “antifreeze” to protect the tree throughout the coming winter), I fail to see how anyone with any level of sophistication can deny that there had to be a creative Genius behind it all. (I’m sure were Monét alive he would take great offense to the suggestion that his work was the result of an accidental explosion inside his paint supply cupboard. Kaboom! There! A Masterpiece!) But I digress. Hiking through colourful forests and pausing on hilltops to admire the vast and perfectly-executed landscape design is one of life’s simple yet awe-inspiring delights.

Fall also means harvesting the last of the vegetable garden’s produce and putting the garden to bed. Our compost garden (link here) (the one we didn’t plant but that just came up on its own out of the compost heap) yielded 4 small melons, 14 full-sized acorn squash, 3 pumpkins, several pounds of tomatoes and 2 lamb’s ears (perennials!). So as it turns out, you really don’t need to know a thing about vegetable gardening to bring in a harvest. As long as you can toss kitchen scraps onto a pile and work that pile properly (composting does require some know-how) you stand to harvest as much as the next door neighbour does who starts with transplants!

Perhaps the best part about fall, though are the leaf piles. Not only are we the fortunate stewards of 3 mature Maple trees on our property, we are also located down-wind from every other Maple tree on our street. (In our first year living here we put approximately 60 bags of leaves to the curb. Now we keep many of those leaves and use them for mulch and the compost pile. Though Maple leaves provide little in the way of nutrients, they improve soil structure which is equally important.) Our kids welcome fall with squeals of delight because of the enormous leaf piles we build. Raking leaves and then jumping in the pile beats the Wii for several reasons: kids learn to do useful work with their little purple plastic rakes, they entertain the neighbours who like to sit on their front porch to watch “that crazy family across the street,” their immune system is strengthened as it is forced to deal with a barrage of air-born foreign particles, they get lots of exercise for a long time, it’s totally free entertainment, and it’s super-fun. At our house they even help bag the leaves when they’re done! It’s a win-win situation for the whole family.

How can anyone not love this season?!?

 “I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. So I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Compost: From Yucky to Yummy

Our corn patch

A few years ago my husband Oliver read a book about composting which has forever changed the landscape of our yard. I grew up with a father who, after having read the same book, began to compost on a scale that rivals our municipality’s mammoth piles of smoldering organic matter at the local dump. While I do admit to some slight exaggeration, Dad claimed a parcel of land for his composting pursuits that equaled the size of what most people in suburbia call a backyard.

For most of us, the notion of compost involves a Black Earth Machine (or some other black barrel) into which we deposit our kitchen scraps and hope for the best. For years we “composted” in this way and really only harvested a few shovels full of compost each year (if we even harvested any compost at all).

After reading the aforementioned book (which I would recommend here if it weren’t German and probably out of print) Oliver built a simple 3’ x 9’ wooden enclosure that resembles a small animal pen of sorts. The walls are three feet high with no lid. One of the long sides of the enclosure is made of horizontal planks which can be removed when the compost is ready to be harvested in the Spring.

Surprise squash among the corn

Oliver has a compost “recipe” which includes leaf mold from last year’s raking effort, kitchen scraps from our Black Earth Machine (where animals can’t access it), assorted yard waste, agricultural lime, and blood and bone meal (available at garden and home centers). After harvesting the previous year’s batch by shoveling it through a chicken wire sieve into a wheel barrow, he puts together his organic trifle, covers it with come clay (if available) and dried ornamental grasses (a remnant from our “winter-scape”) and lets it sit for a year. Because we do not include meat or dairy products and all the fresh kitchen scraps are safe in the Black Earth Machine, we do not deal with rodents or a stench of any kind.

This year we turned a section of lawn into a new corn patch and added large amounts of Oliver’s compost to the soil before planting the corn. The corn patch, incidentally, belongs to the kids. I’ve found it to be more fun for kids to watch corn grow than carrots, for instance, since the rate of growth is unbelievable, and there’s a real sense of satisfaction for them. Each day we headed out to our little patch (no bigger than 36 sq. ft. or so) to see whether that corn had germinated. After about 14 days we rejoiced to see little green spikes sticking out of the soil. Success!

After a few days we weren’t just watching corn grow anymore. Other than oodles of crab grass (which Mommy ended up weeding, of course), what came up out of our “compost garden” were around 10 little squash plants, 3 or 4 melons (we suspect) and about 80 tomato plants. Squash is a great companion plant with corn since it grows along the ground among the stalks, shading the roots and helping with moisture retention. The melons we’ve allowed to stay as well, just to see what will happen. But what about the tomatoes?!?!? Why did I ever buy transplants?

I decided that it was criminal to pull them out as weeds, so after letting

Our chemical-free green space

them establish I offered them on freecyle.org, a group that lives by the motto that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. I’ve been able to adopt my little tomatoes out to several new homes, although by now they’re getting to be so big that I probably won’t be able to transplant all of them anymore. So, despite the fact that corn and tomatoes aren’t the best companions (they are susceptible to the same worm) we will live and let live in the compost garden, and see what happens!

Composting has truly changed the landscape of our yard. It’s not so much the heap, which I had dreaded would be an eye-sore in the beauty of our green space. As it is, the heap is obscured in front by corn and on top by a few squash plants spilling over the edge (another uninvited yet welcome garden guest). Looking around at what’s growing in our garden, most of what we see has to be attributed to the silent workings of the compost with its nutrients and microorganisms. I think there is a beautiful broader illustration here of how even the yucky things in our lives, in the hands of a capable Gardener, can become something outstanding and fruitful.

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