“What is a Food Forest?”, You Ask?

Remember I was telling you about a local guy who takes note of all the publicly available fruiting trees that are in our area and he makes a point to harvest the fruit rather than let it spoil and go to waste?  Such activity is called Urban Foraging and I talked about it here.

So guess what?  I’m not the first one to be amazed by the idea that there is food, real food, literally hanging off trees all around us that we could, you know, eat.  Others have come across this notion too and have totally taken it to the next level.  Check this.

The city of Seattle has devoted 7 acres of land less than 2 miles from the city center to create a ‘Food Forest’.  “What’s a food forest?”, you ask?  I know.  I didn’t know either.  But it is a community partnership which will eventually create a true woodland ecosystem made up entirely of edible trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials, nut trees and berry patches and fruit trees, and family vegetable plots from which anyone can harvest anything.  An urban forager’s delight!  What an incredible concept.  They broke ground early summer 2011 and now this is what the Beacon Food Forest looks like:

It is hard to believe that all this food is free for the taking.  Like, anyone can just walk in and pick whatever looks good to take home and eat that night.  Hard to believe, right?  Here is a recent news article that tells the story.  And for the more visually inclined, here is a great video by the founders of the Beacon Food Forest that explains it all.

I follow them on Facebook now and I love to hear all their news.  They hold monthly work parties that really do look like fun that I soooo want to be a part of!  They run summer camps for the kids, hold yoga classes, do seed swaps, provide lots of education on organic gardening and cooking from the food you’ve grown.  And they had rhubarb compote made from their own rhubarb at May’s work party.  Awesome.

All very 360 degrees and very well conceived.  I just love it and will (one day) definitely take a trip out to visit the Beacon Food Forest.

I think this is such an incredible community outreach project.  Wow, folks.  Just. Wow.

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Thinning the Herd

Do you have trouble pulling out plants that haven’t exactly died but aren’t really living up to their expectations either?  The ones that just struggle and struggle, are plain grumpy and don’t do what they’re supposed to?  I do.  I know they either have to be moved or they have to go to the big garden in the sky but it is always so hard for me to make the call (what is that about???)  Take these winter daphne for example.  I have two of them, one of each side of our front walk.  Here they sulk 😦

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Awful, aren’t they?  They are supposed to be blooming and amazing right now and just look at them.  Hurumph!  They’ve been in the ground in this site for 5 or 6 years and they just have never done well.  They bloom a little … but not much.

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They’ve grown a little … but not much.  They’re one of the first things people see when they walk up my front walk and they are thoroughly disappointing.  I’ve been looking at these things sideways for the last year or two thinking they had to go but … like I say, I have trouble pulling the plug.  I paid good money for these things, you know?  Maybe if I give them another year … Maybe a little more TLC …

This year I finally did it.  I ripped those ugly things up and tossed them away.  I don’t have another good spot for them and truly, I have so few sunny spots in my garden that plants need to earn their place and these things just weren’t cutting it!  I have to tell you, it was kinda cathartic.  Out with the old, in with the new.

My neighbour across the road has the most spectacular Endless Summer hydrangeas along his front walk which is really what I long for but I just don’t have the space here for something that wants to grow 5′ tall.  Booo.  I took a trip to my favourite garden center and came upon Mini Penny French hydrangeas that I thought might work instead.

Mini Penny Hydrangea Source: hydrangea.com

Mini Penny Hydrangea Source: hydrangea.com

So gorgeous, right?  They grow to between 3 and 4 feet tall so small enough for the space and I think there is enough sun/shade mix to keep them happy.  I have drip irrigation set up so they’ll have plenty of water which is the main challenge with hydrangeas … I thought to give it a go.

So here they are on planting day.  They aren’t much to look at, I’ll admit, but my hope is that they will be happy here and come the summer they will be gorgeous.  And let’s face it.  If they’ve not gorgeous then they’ll have to go the same way as my tragic winter daphne – Muwahahaaaa!

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Newly planted Mini Penny Hydrangea.  Grow, baby, grow!

Newly planted Mini Penny Hydrangea. Grow, baby, grow!

How do you handle plants that aren’t doing as they are told?  Are you ruthless and rip them right out or do you struggle?  Perhaps there is a 12 step program for me.  Clearly, I need help (sigh).

Keep Calm and Carrot On

Carrots are in!  I know you’ll all be so relieved to hear it but I finally got them planted yesterday.  As I type this my thoughts go to my gardening buddy Dan from vegetablurb who always seems to be conducting (and enjoying) different gardening experiments as this year my carrots are a bit of an experiment, too.  You see, I am totally living on the wild side and am using … technically … expired seeds (audible gasp!!).

carrot package carrot seeds

I know I know.  They were supposed to have finished being planted in 2013 but who can use so many teeny carrot seeds that come in the one packet?  There must be hundreds and hundreds in there!  I know the traditional planting method is to dig a furrow and then sprinkle all of tiny seeds in with the plan to thin 98% out once they grow but I feel like that is just so wasteful, don’t you?  And I know a packet of seeds costs just pennies but … I’m not certain that is the point.  Waste is waste and we are all supposed to be mindful of minimizing our waste, right?

I use the square foot gardening technique where the advice is to plant 2, maybe 3 seeds per hole with a view to eventually thin to one carrot per hole, so we are still thinning 1/2 to 2/3 out but it is far less wasteful than traditional methods.  And since I have such a small vege patch my carrot patch is also very small which means I always have lots of seeds left over once planting is done.  What to do?

In response I have started cold storing my seeds in the fridge – I blogged about that here – and have had much success. Although each year that goes by I feel like it is really just an extension of the experiment.

Cold stored seeds waiting for next planting season.

Cold stored seeds waiting for next planting season.

Surely there will come a time when germination rates will drop and there will come a point of diminishing returns.  My hopes are that won’t be this year.  I did add an extra seed per hole as insurance – hehehe.

What do you do with your left over seeds?  Throw them out and eat the cost?  Has anyone else tried storing them year over year?  How long will that work?  I’m up to my 3rd year running now.  Hmmmm.

Keep Calm and Carrot On

Urban Gardening Inspiration

North Londoners Have Got It Going On!

During my recent blog surfing I came across the most extraordinary tale.  It started back in 2009 when Islington Council in North London offered free wildflower seeds to local residents for use in the ‘tree-pits’ on their streets, the little spaces of soil at the base of each tree squished in by the pavers around it.  Inspired by the free seeds and the concept of beautifying their little part of the world two neighbours, Naomi Schilinger and Nicolette Jones of Finsbury Park, joined forces to start something of a gardening revolution.

Planting tree-pits

Planting tree-pits

Together they created the ‘Veg Growing Project’, a community initiative that supplied materials, trained, and encouraged their own neighbours to grow vegetables, fruits and flowers in their front gardens.  But that’s not where they stopped!  Folk were encouraged to think creatively and maximise whatever space is available including spaces in the pavements, in the tree pits, and in window boxes.  Before long over one hundred households (100!) in the neighbourhood had joined together as a community to grow, to produce, and to beautify their area.  They have won awards and much acclaim for their initiative but best of all they have created a more tightly knit community.  From Naomi’s blog Out of My Shed:

Not only have our gardening activities greened up our streets, but by spending time in front gardens and organising ‘Cake Sunday’ get-togethers, neighbours have got to know one another, really building a great sense of community and belonging.

outofmyshed.co.uk/btg/

The grow pots here have corn, runner beans and squash all growing together.  Known as the 3 Sisters , growing the three crops together is a Iroquios tradition that seems to do well in North London too!

The grow pots here have corn, runner beans and squash all growing together. Known as the 3 Sisters, growing the three crops together is a Iroquios tradition that seems to do well in North London, too.

(Swoon!)  Who doesn’t love that?  Just amazing.  And so inspiring!  Their Cake Sundays sound amazing.  I wonder if my neighbours would join with me to do a Cake Sunday?  Sigh.  I miss that kind of neighbourly connection.

Don't they look divine?  I'm totally eyeing off those sweet little fairy cakes with the blueberry centers.

Don’t they look divine? I’m totally eyeing off those sweet little fairy cakes with the blueberry centers.

One of the other big deals (to me, anyway) is that now the program has been up and running for a while the organisers are able to collect seeds from their own plants, year over year, to give away for next year’s plantings.  So not only beautiful, productive and community enriching but self-sustaining and economical, too!

Gorgeous hollyhocks grown from seed collected the previous year.

Gorgeous hollyhocks grown from seed collected the previous year.

There is just so much fabulosity here I can’t stand it!  I’m totally looking up flights to London where I will track down the amazing Finbury Park neighbourhood and start door knocking until someone lets me in just so that I can bask in all their reflected awesomeness.  Yes, it is a little stalker-y and for that I apologise in advance.

To the good citizens of FInbury Park, North London I give you mad props and snaps!  You guys are amazing!

Does your community get together to eat cake and garden?  I’d love to hear about it if you do!  You can continue to follow this amazing story on Naomi’s blog Out Of My Shed.  They have also published a book, Veg Street Book, that cronicles their community gardening adventures.

10 Mid-Winter Ways to Prepare Your Spring Garden

 My Mid-Winter Top Ten

The days are dreary and cold and there isn’t much growing in the garden.  Perhaps this is Mother Nature’s way of giving rest to the weary gardener after the hard year just past.  I find this sounds great during the holidays but come New Year and I am itching to do something in the garden again.  Here in Charlotte, NC (USDA 7b) we are blessed to enjoy relatively mild winters.  We may have a few days of snow but nothing that sticks for longer than a day or two.  Our ground doesn’t freeze either which means that Winter is the perfect time for us to be preparing our garden beds for the upcoming growing season.

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My sad and weary Mid-Winter vege garden; deflated potato pot in the foreground, empty raspberry barrel in the back.

Here is my TOP TEN List of Mid-Winter Activities to Prepare Your Spring Garden

  1. Clean out anything dead or diseased.  Compost the dead leaves and spent remains of the vege garden but do NOT throw anything diseased in the compost.  You don’t want the virus spreading through the rest of your garden.  Dispose of it in the municiple trash instead.
  2. Add compost to replenish and revitalise the garden.  Doing it mid-winter gives it time to mature and season so will be ready for Spring planting.  While you are there turn your vege garden soil over to refluff and to seive out any roots that remained behind after the old plants were removed.
  3. Mulch over tender perennials such as hydrageas and over root crops that will be stored underground for the winter (potatoes, carrots, turnips)
  4. Wrap young fruit trees in burlap to protect them from frost and cold (fig, pomegranate).  Once they are established the winter shouldn’t bother them anymore.
  5. If you are not planing a winter garden plant a cover crop such as winter wheat or clover. Cover crops convert nitrogen gas in the atmosphere into soil nitrogen that typical vege garden plants can use next season.
  6. Transplant or divide larger plants or perennials such as rhubarb and artichoke.  Winter is generally a good time to transplant as plants are already dormant and it reduces transplant shock.

    "Rheum rhabarbarum.2006-04-27.uellue" by Dieter Weber (User:Uellue) - own work, photo taken in a private garden in Kiel. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rheum_rhabarbarum.2006-04-27.uellue.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Rheum_rhabarbarum.2006-04-27.uellue.jpg

    “Rheum rhabarbarum.2006-04-27.uellue” by Dieter Weber (User:Uellue) – own work, photo taken in a private garden in Kiel. 

  7. Start planning for the coming growing season and dream.  Order catalogues.  Think about what you want to grow.  What did well last year?  Did your family actually eat what you grew or did they refuse it?  Order seeds now.  Think about your hardscape plans.  Do you need more space?  Do you need new beds?  Want some chickens this year?  Now’s the time to build that coop in preparation for the Spring chicks.
  8. Check your systems.  Did your irrigation system work well?  Are there cracks or leaks in your water barrel?  Does anything need adjusting before the new growing season?  Once plants are in the ground hardscape adjustments can be difficult.
  9. Raise seedlings indoors to get a head start on Spring plantings.
  10. Make repairs to gardening tools ahead of new Spring season.  Naval Jelly, steel wool and elbow grease will bring your rusty tools back to a brand new shine.  Make a note of any that need replacing.
  11. BONUS: Think about putting out some bird feeders and birdbaths to help our feathered friends through the cold winter months.  The cardinals and blue birds have recently returned to my garden and it is so nice to see their bright colours flitting around the glum garden.

With a little forethought and planning your efforts now will pay dividends when the busy Spring planting season rolls around.  And above all enjoy your garden!  There is still much to learn and see even during its quiet and still season.

"Cardinalis cardinalis -Columbus, Ohio, USA-male-8 (1)" by Stephen Wolfe from Columbus, OH, USA - Northern Cardinal IUploaded by Snowmanradio. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Cardinalis cardinalis -Columbus, Ohio, USA-male-8 (1)” by Stephen Wolfe from Columbus, OH, USA – 

The Catalogues are Coming! The Catalogues are Coming!

Spring Garden Planning

The seed catalogues have started to arrive in the mail.  Have you been getting them too?  When they first arrive, the first week of the new year, it is always a bit startling don’t you think?  Like, we’ve only just survived Christmas and you want me to think about Spring planting???  It’s just too far away.  But then I flick through a little… And then something pretty catches my eye… And before I know it I am sucked in and pouring over onion sets and garlic bulbs and row covers.  I’ll admit, it’s a sickness.

My favourite seed catalogue is from Peaceful Valley.  They’ve always been great to work with, their products have always arrived safely (including the multi-graft fruit tree I bought from them) and the plants and seeds have always done well in my garden.

Oooh, my fav catalogue! Peaceful Valley.

Inevitably I buy too much for my little vege garden and it feels wasteful to have all these seeds and nowhere to put them.  But what am I to do?  The packets cost so little and there can be hundreds of seeds inside.  Even when using the Square Foot Gardening technique where the garden area is intensively planted I just don’t have enough square footage to use up all the seeds in the packets. Sometimes I get lucky and can find a friend who will split the garlic bulbs or the seed potatoes with me but for most things I’m on my own.  So this is what I do … I store them in the fridge for next year!  I kid you not.  Look.

Top shelf in my fridge. See the large mason jar in the back?

I’ve done this for the past three or so years and truly it works.  I take a large mason jar and add a teaspoonful of rice grains to the bottom to absorb any moisture that might be lurking.  Then after planting I bundle up whatever seeds are left in the packets, stick them in the jar, shove it in the back of the fridge and forget about them until planting time next year.  I do add an extra seed or two per planting hole once the seeds get to be a couple of years old but I’ve found that they still germinate just fine despite the long cold sleep they’ve had.  Amazing, right?  And economical.

You can see the grains of rice in the bottom – a natural desiccant.

I’m thinking about ordering yellow and red onions, Italian Purple Garlic, and Russian Fingerling potatoes.  Anyone want to split the volumes with me?  What are you planning for your Spring garden this year?