Posts Tagged ‘raised bed gardens’

It has been a long and ridiculously cold winter. Last week we were seeing temperatures of -40 C and this week, I’m thrilled to say, we’ve hit +5 C for several days in a row. For my foreign readers, +5 C is t-shirt weather in Canada. Another two degrees and it’ll be time to break out the shorts. Granted, there’re still several feet of snow on the ground- so it’ll most definitely be shorts with boots- but such is spring in Canada.

Like many of my cold compatriots I’ve spent the last several weeks poring over seed catalogues, dreaming of warmer days. Yesterday I finally got my act together and put my orders in. I ordered my seeds through Salt Spring Seeds and The Cottage Gardener, two wonderful Canadian companies with a wide variety of heirloom seeds. That was the exciting part of the day.

Now, I have to say- there are times when I still get comments on the “About” section of this blog and I think the reference I made to us as “city kids” as passé. We are so beyond that. We know what we’re doing now. We are country folk. And then I remember, “oh no you’re not”. The gardens being a good reminder- because I still have no real idea what I’m doing, other than that some of it is working out.

The one brilliant tip that I have put to good use is to mimic nature, mixing my plants instead of planting all clean rows of single species. For the last few years I have happily thrown seeds willy-nilly all over the place and had pretty amazing results. Last year I had such a bumper crop of tomatoes I was eating them like apples throughout the day. Still, I know that I can get even better results if I know a thing or two about the vegetables, herbs and flowers that I’m planting.

As much as I love the seed companies that I deal with they are miserable for providing useful information. Take this as an example, from a Cottage Gardener package of Horehound seeds: This herb takes its name from Horus, Egyptian god of sky and light. Folk legend through the ages attributed it with the power to break magic spells. Syrups and cough drops have been made from it since at least he 16th century. So if I’m Harry Potter or a seed-historian, this is great information. But what about planting and caring for the little f*ckers?

So after ordering the seeds, the next stage involved inputting all of my seeds into an Excel spreadsheet. I have about 65 species to sort and I want to know everything from when I can expect them to mature, sun required, soil preferred, how tall/wide they grow, spacing, whether I should be planting a second crop later in the season, which are good companion plants, which will do best in a hoop house, etc.

That took me all freaking day. I had to google most of the plants one by one, and then a lot of the sites only had partial information so I had to research multiple sites. I am not quite done yet but even if I get no further, I have a ton of useful information. And I know a lot more about my plants that I ever did before.

My next step will be plotting a map, so that I can design my space to get the best results. And then I’ll need to start moving earth again (once the snow melts) and preparing the different soils for planting, building a couple of pathways between gardens, and getting the hoop houses ready. All this with one arm tied behind my back- because spring has finally arrived and though it may not be recognizable as such to my friends from warmer climes, I am Canadian! Full of piss and vinegar and ready to get my game on!☺

Beets from years past

Beets from years past

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I don’t know where exactly a person has to live to be able to comfortably deny climate change but it certainly isn’t here, in a drought zone so desperate that the government bought land back from the settlers so that they could leave in the late 1930s, where it’s been raining steady since April. This following an extremely wet and early winter, with record snowfalls. Following an even wetter spring of 2012. Anyway- suffice to say this ain’t no drought area anymore and we’ve been adapting to the wet weather the best we can.


A lot of work has been delayed because of the rainfall but one thing it’s good for is gardening. Granted, the leaves of some of my plants are pretty pale and could use some sun but they’re doing alright so far and with any luck we’ll get sun some time in the next couple of weeks. (Not this coming week- another 50+ mm of rain is predicted.) Once again, I’ve moved the gardens around. I think I must just love moving earth because I keep changing my mind and move my gardens every year. The upside to that is with all that beautifully conditioned soil the grass isn’t competing well, and dill and mint and milk thistle is popping up all over the “lawn”.


I did a few bucket gardens again this year, this time with kales and mustards and zucchini. The Giant Red Mustard is delicious and the Tasoi is quite nice too, and I’m thinking in another week or so I’ll be able to harvest some of the kale varieties. I have French Sorrel in the garden and am hooked on the light lemony taste, and some broccoli coming along quite nicely, with celery, rhubarb, strawberries, oregano, basil, tomatoes, beets, string beans, and peppers all off to a good start.


I have a few smaller gardens too, with everything from carrots to turnips, assorted peppers, and more kale, a bit of mustard, poppies, and a few things I’ll remember once they’ve matured and I distinguish the leaves. I’ve found keeping everything mixed together keeps the pests down and the bees happy, is the best use of space, and looks just beautiful when it’s all in bloom. A couple of weeks of sun and the space will be transformed. I put some flax straw down thinking to keep the moisture in, but that was a premature decision.


We also planted close to 900 trees, and when I say “we” I’m kind of going with the royal use of the word because Shane was entirely busy with work when they came in. That was a lot of work. With the soil being so bad out here, each hole has to be dug deep and amended with compost to prepare for the seedlings and it was the one week we didn’t have rain so I had to haul buckets of water along with me. This year we planted more lilac, Siberian larch, oak, green ash, hawthorn, Scots pine, spruce, and crabapples.


That’s a little over 2,000 trees planted since we moved here six years ago. I am so pleased with the growth of the previous years’ trees. I was told there were certain trees that wouldn’t take out here (like maple) but it just goes to show what a little extra care will get you- they’re doing beautifully. (That pretty 3′ tree in the middle photo was an itty bitty stick when I planted it 2 years ago.) It’ll be several years yet before the property really transforms because we’ve started almost all of our trees from tiny seedlings but I’m already excited just having them in the ground.



And some music for you, for no other reason than I’ve been listening to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album (again) and I can’t be the only one to end the day leaping around and playing air guitar (again). 🙂


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Just a quick update… We haven’t commenced building yet as winter drags on until the bitter end. We’re still hitting lows of -10 at night and have been hit pretty hard by blizzards a few times in recent weeks. Still, the weather has been nice enough (relatively speaking) to get some things started outside.

With four cats it was difficult to keep the gardens free of cat shit last year- and we’ve since added a dog- so fencing seemed appropriate. We fenced off one large area to which I added a good bit of garden space and started fencing another with preexisting gardens. Hopefully those will help. I’ve started a bunch of seeds in anticipation that are coming up nicely.

We also decided to add a pond, to take advantage of a naturally low spot on the property and divert some of the run off. It’s working out nicely so far. The last heavy snow fall we had melted to fill the pond nicely rather than leaving behind a more general flood plain as it has in past.

Say what you will about scavenging- we picked up a nifty couch and chair set with matching foot stool that I’m pretty happy about. A little cleaning up and voila– good as new. The especially nice thing is the narrowness of the couch. I think I mentioned that we accidentally built some of our doorways on the narrow side and I was beginning to think we wouldn’t get anything through there, when lo and behold we came across the perfect size furniture at the dump. We also grabbed a decent heavy wood coffee table that I may refinish to match things and loads of rain gutters for future projects.

Speaking of rain- we picked up four 55 gallon rain barrels on the cheap in Calgary. Much better deal buying used soap drums (fully cleaned and outfitted with taps) than had we bought “rain barrels” sold as such at the hardware store. I’m quite looking forward to installing them out front.

We also finalized our building plans after much discussion and consideration. A bit of a departure from our last plans but we’ll stick with one large, bi-level room at the back of the house to keep things as tight as possible. That’s a little more in keeping with our original plan to distribute heat as evenly as possible and keep electric and water distribution to a very simple plan. A small wood storage alcove off the living room will finish things off nicely.

That’s about it for now- busy, busy. Can’t wait to start building but in the meantime we’ve got plenty o’ work to keep us going.

living rm set

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I might just have easily titled this blog, “The Seeds I Tossed on the Ground and Forgot About”. I had very (very) little time for gardening this year and we had that water concern part way through the summer that left me feeling very stingy with the rainwater. Our well water is very heavy in salts and iron and I don’t like to use it on my freshly built beds so without rainwater- well, the gardens were pretty dry a lot of the time.

Luckily it didn’t seem to matter all that much, if the results were anything to go by. I mixed things up, yet again, with an interest in what companion plantings would work best. Had my labels lasted more than a few weeks in the blazing sun, or my knowledge of plants in general been stronger, it might have been a better exercise. As it was I wasn’t entirely sure what some of the plants were- other than tasty. (I still have that old childhood habit of eating anything that looks pretty, or interesting. Mixed results on that practice.)

I do know that I threw a lot of different seeds into a relatively small space and got pretty good results. Some of the plants that I did recognize were the pumpkins, squash, green beans, yellow beans, soy beans, turnips, beets, leeks, onions, milkweed (gorgeous!), borage, cabbage, tomatoes, amaranth (though it took looking up on the internet), dill, nasturtiums and peppers. And of course the potato patch, with lots of golden and red potatoes.

Our raspberries and strawberries did well again, though we welcomed some little critter that took to the strawberries in a rather ambivalent way- eating half a strawberry and moving on to the next. We had gooseberries as well this year, off a little bush I bought. And we bought a couple of apple trees with an eye on the future. An added bonus- some red clover found it’s way into my garden and yet more wild roses are popping up in random places around the property. And we had a brilliant crop of pin cherries that I’m still making my way through.

I didn’t weed much, or at all for periods of time. My reasoning was two-fold. One: I’m lazy, or would like to be if I had the time. I was far too busy on the site to want to spend my nights kneeling in front of a garden weeding. So I didn’t. And the other reason is that I noticed last year (or the year before?) that the pests don’t seem to care whether the plant is edible to me or not- they’ll eat it. So I found leaving at least some weeds in (especially leafy ones) keeps damage to the other plants down.

All in all not bad for a no-maintenance garden. I think that even though I didn’t follow through on my plan to monitor how the plants interacted with each other (whether they benefited each other or had a negligible effect) I can safely assume that variety is the way to go. Had I neglected my gardens so badly in previous years, when I followed the more traditional planning of straight rows and single crop groupings, they wouldn’t have survived. And I did notice that while some plants were hit by pests (my turnip tops and cabbages got hit hard by cabbage moths, even with the placement of borage I’d heard might repel them) they didn’t decimate the entire garden. So that was nice. Bats next year, I hope.

How about you? How did your gardens fare this year? Any companion plantings that you swear by, or won’t try again?

tomatoes & clover

borage and cabbage

before things got wild

early plantings

milkweed, turnips, leeks

dill, borage & squash

leeks, beans & milkweed

amaranth, turnips & onions

nasturtiums borage corn

Squash, corn & borage

mid summer wildness

our gooseberry bush

little Macintosh apple trees

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We’ve had a wonderfully productive weekend so far and lots ahead of us yet. Yesterday a friend visited with his bobcat and dug three wide arched trenches. We’ll be digging the holes for our 225 trees in the trenches and filling them in with straw and mulch. This should help us with water capture and retention in our (normally) extremely dry environment. The arches themselves will create little microclimates on the property in addition to blocking some of the extremely cold north winds. Of course that’s dependent on the trees growing to full size which will require some time and deer proofing.

A neighbour also dropped off a tractor bucket full of manure for us. Most of it is a couple of years old and perfectly black and crumbly. Gorgeous for the gardens! So I spent yesterday moving compost into the gardens and turning it over. I expect the gardens will be even more productive this year than last and can’t wait to see them overflowing with life.

Shane asked if we could pay for the compost, or do anything in return. The farmer didn’t want any payment but suggested if we really wanted, we could help during calving season. Are you freaking kidding me? I’m in! I can’t wait! I’ve never done anything like that and am beside myself with excitement! It’s like asking someone how much you owe them and being offered a fifty dollar bill instead. Sweet!

dropping off manure

flooded but getting better

new garden ready for planting

getting started on the trench

one of several arched trenches

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Come on spring! I’m ready to get building and planting but the snow just won’t let up. On a positive note, many of my seeds have sprouted. I have three kinds of tomatoes growing, two kinds of squash, pumpkins, goji berries, and leeks. Quite a bit hasn’t managed to break the soil yet. I’m anxiously waiting on peppers, onions, strawberries and some potted herbs. We’re getting a good amount of sun, just not much heat.

I also built another raised bed garden I’m working on filling. It’s quite a large space, spanning 2/3 the length of the domestead, and we’re still getting blizzards so it’s slow going but I’m getting there. Today is clear and the wind has died down so it looks like a good day to work on the next layer. With winds between 40 and 70 kilometers an hour, putting straw down hasn’t been in the cards the last few days.

Next year I’ll build a more permanent frame for the new garden, probably earthbags or rammed earth, with a bench on the north side. This year is all about efficiency and getting as much done in as little time as possible. My very rough attempt at carpentry with wood that hasn’t been earmarked for other projects will have to do for now. Can’t wait until it’s booming with life!

Oh, and I’ve sustained my first injury of the year! (It’s kind of a ritual I have going, signals the start of the season.) Managed to pound my thumb not once but half a dozen times with the hammer. It feels pretty wrecked. You’d think I’d have been more careful after the first thwack but then you wouldn’t really know me. The good news is that I won’t lose the nail like I did on my toe last year. And I think with the first injury out of the way, we can officially call the season begun!

tiny little gojis

first frog of spring 🙂

start of new garden

mostly tomatoes

tomatoes and herbs

gojis, tomatoes & pumpkins

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Our weather has me a little concerned. At this time last year we were digging the foundation and rubble trench but here we are buried under several feet of snow with no sign of spring yet. Nevertheless I have started my seeds indoors hoping that any day now we’ll have fantastically warm days that will melt away the snow and allow me to start several new gardens before we start work on the house again.

I’ve mentioned before that our soil is absolute crap necessitating the building of raised bed gardens. Apart from hauling the materials- which can be a little labour intensive- they’re ridiculously easy to build and the plants loved them last year. I’ll be adding another couple hundred square feet altogether this year. My design is complete to make the most of rain capture and ease of maintenance and I’m ready to go! Anytime now…

Last year I built frames for the gardens using discarded wood, as well as some with rock borders, and a few very small ones using wagon wheels. Eventually I’d like to build up the walls using earthbags and plaster but given the limited time this year I’ll probably go with rock walls. We have a zillion rocks on the property and I like the look of rock besides.

Rather than just filling in the beds with purchased soil, I do sheet mulching which is basically a kind of ‘composting in place’. First I break up the soil. I don’t really turn it over, just break it in place twisting a shovel. Then add a little manure (just an inch will do), then about half an inch of newspaper (just the black and white- no glossy or color pages). Hose it down really well and top the newspaper with more manure or fresh grass clippings- just a bit will suffice. Top that with about eight inches or so of mulch. I have straw and leaves on hand so that’s what I use but wood shavings, broken down bark, or the like will work as well. I also threw in veggie scraps last year. On top of that goes a couple of inches of soil mixed with compost and then the final mulch layer- about two inches of chopped straw or whatever you have on hand. When you’re ready to plant you just pull back the top layer of mulch and plant your seeds in the soil/compost layer. (I skipped the final mulch layer last year, allowing some weeds to invade the space.)

Sheet mulching is really forgiving- you don’t have to be precise and you can throw a lot of stuff in there so long as you try to keep a relatively even balance. You do have to water the bed really well when you first build it. It shouldn’t be overflowing with water but quite damp and it’s amazing how much water the layers will absorb. Other than that, combined with some basic polyculture garden design, it was pretty much maintenance-free. I pulled a couple of weeds here and there but never actually applied myself to the task. I particularly enjoyed pulling up the carrots which slid easily from the nice fluffy beds, perfectly fat and intact.

The other thing I want to try this year is hugelkultur which involves collecting dead fall branches, piling them about two feet deep, stomping them down (I intend to dance on mine, no sense wasting the opportunity to dance), adding some straw and grass clippings and topping it off with about an inch each of soil and compost. According to Gaia’s Garden (one of my all time favourite books) potatoes, squash, melons and other vines do exceedingly well in this environment. I imagine raspberries and blueberries would probably do well too and I’ll perhaps try those next year.

Yet another option that I probably won’t get to this year is a dead wood swale which involves digging down about a foot and a half, dropping in dead fall, rotting stumps, and firewood, and backfilling the trench. Berries are particularly partial to this type of garden as it mimics their preferred natural environment. I would just love to have lots of blueberries on the property reminiscent of my days in the East.

Ah- I can’t wait! Soon I’ll be back in my element- in the mud, covered in bruises and cuts from hauling materials and building, sore but oh so satisfied at the end of the day. 🙂

wagon wheels

several styles of raised beds

rock bed, early summer

rock bed, mid-summer

surveying the scene- not quite ready!

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I went a little crazy ordering seeds and seedlings. Have I mentioned that moderation just isn’t my thing? I keep meaning to do ‘just a little’ of something but so far in all my years haven’t managed to pull it off. Granted, I went with way less than I would have liked to and I think that counts for something. Maybe common sense is not long to follow. I hope (if that is the case) that it comes in small doses because I am greatly reliant on my abject refusal to believe in the impossible. It’s a lifestyle.

So- what we have on the way this year… 50 Manitoba maples, 100 choke cherry bushes, and 75 hawthorns- courtesy of the Agroforestry Development Centre. We had hoped for some Siberian crab apple trees and red osier dogwood but they were out of stock, so they’re on the list for next year. Still, that’s a lot of digging for this year.

From the Cottage Gardener, we have received seeds for mule team and Czech select tomatoes, fordhook giant Swiss chard, spaghetti squash, potimarron winter squash, common chives, Greek oregano, purple coneflower, Roman chamomile, dark Italian parsley, anise hyssop, borage, cilantro, feverfew, lemon balm, milk thistle, white sage, and Oriental poppies.

From Salt Spring Seeds we ordered, and received, quinoa, yarrow, evening primrose, purple amaranth, tomatillos, and sweet rocket (aka dame’s violet). And from PR Seeds we ordered onion, carrot, leek, quinoa, soy bean, and amaranth. We placed the order some time back and I am starting to get a little concerned having heard nothing yet. I’ll give it until next week and then ring dude who runs the place. We also ordered goji berry seeds from a place in Saskatoon and I’m quite excited to see how those turn out.

In addition to those, we have nasturtium, Swiss chard and red onion seeds harvested last year, as well as partial packages of beets, dill, bush beans, turnips, lupine, and lettuce. Ah, and I hope to separate out some of my rhubarb this year. And see if I can’t get those fern seeds that I harvested in Oregon started… Yep, so- quite the plan considering that I have to build most of the gardens that will house these wonderful plants. Of course, this in advance of starting the build on our earthbag domes with the intention of finishing this year. It’s alright though- I’ve been working out in preparation. (I shit you not.)

It’s been really interesting, planning the garden this year. I played around with companion planting last year, and with soil building and raised gardens, and it was pretty successful given the very limited amount of time I had to dedicate to it. By successful, I mean that we got a lot of meals out of it. And some decent seeds saved. This year will push the envelope a little further, with a concentration on plants that not only do well in our environment and with our soil type, but serve multiple purposes (as most of our herbs do, and even our trees and bushes). And we’re trying something a little different with shapes and contours. Some of it we’ve read about, some we’re just going to try and see what happens.

I can’t wait to get started- it should be a lot of fun! And plenty o’ work. There’ll be whining later, I’m sure. 🙂

still a ways off of planting anything but my bum in the ground


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It’s been a while since I’ve written and it may seem that’s because I haven’t anything new to report but it’s been quite the opposite- too much on the go and not enough hours in the day. Add to which at any given time, I have a dozen ideas on the go and it’s just painstakingly difficult to focus on one thing long enough to write. Our seeds have been ordered (one set already received), we received confirmation of our order for trees and bushes, we bought our power system (less the batteries which we’ll buy closer to the move-in date), we’re busy making firebricks, experimenting with vegetarian meals, and- of course- loads of studying going on.

Since we went ahead and committed to a system, I figured I should learn everything that I can about off-grid systems- PV arrays, batteries, wiring, chargers and inverters, gensets and so on. Holy f*ck. This isn’t my first round of studying this stuff but it might as well be- I feel so overwhelmed. I’ve often thought that stupid people must have such relaxed, pleasant lives but I’ve reconsidered that position. My experience with it is that it’s downright frustrating.

Today I decided to break away from the power side of things and examine landscape design in more detail. It has to be decided by spring as well. I’m thinking of adding a few keyhole gardens to the mix, possibly with the intention of bringing them all together down the road as one big mandala garden. I started soil building last year and will continue with raised beds this year given the condition of the soil out here, add to which with the exception of last year we have limited rainfall at best. Keyhole gardens sound like my best option for maximizing use of available space and limited water.

Well, my head is swimming. Just thought I’d touch base and let you know what’s going on with the Canadian dirtbags these days.


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Winter is well upon us here on the prairie and while I lament the passing of summer and ability to work outdoors, I know that a thousand tasks lay ahead and spring will be here before I’ve had time to accomplish everything that I’ve meticulously added to my “to do” list. It might be easier if the list wasn’t an ever evolving thing but I know from experience that I’ll no sooner finish one item than six new tasks take it’s place.

One of my shortcomings is the need to research everything to exhaustion. I suppose this is an attribute that served me well as a scientist but does not always make for the most productive day- depending on your definition of ‘productive’. Right now, I’m interested in measurable goals and let’s just say I’m falling short. I’ve decided, completely against my nature, to ask for assistance. Your assistance.

Of the many tasks ahead of me is to order seeds for our garden next year. I started building the gardens this year and have big plans for next spring. Okay, not so much ‘plans’ as ideas. Landscape design is on my list of things to do. So I need to find a company that sells heirloom seeds.

I’ve come across a site that features many Canadian companies that sell heirloom seeds. Too many companies. I find myself pouring over site after site, unable to make a decision. It’s quite possible that one’s as good as the next but I have trouble believing that and as seed purchases can be expensive (and by ‘expensive’, I mean in terms of financial investment but also cost in time and effort over the growing season) I’d like to feel comfortable with my choice. I hope to do a lot more seed saving next year than I was able to this last season.

Have any of you purchased heirloom seeds and, if so, what (Canadian) company would you recommend? Also, do you have a favourite book on seed saving?


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