Hints of spring in Illinois

We are officially a week away from the first day of spring. (Is anyone else boggled by the fact that we’re already halfway through March?) Sarah in Illinois is here today, sharing some of the signs of spring that have popped up at her property.

The temps are still too cool to actually do any kind of gardening outside. But while taking a tour around my yard over the weekend, I could see many signs of spring.

First, right outside my backdoor was a clump of chives that looks like they could be used right now.

The daffodils once again have fought their way through the gravel that we put down.

The lilies are coming up through the old growth and reminding me that I still have a lot of yard clean up to do.

The plum tree has some promise of buds to come.

The magnolia out front has some beautiful buds starting.

Even my mums are reaching for the sunlight.

And finally out in the garden, my strawberries are reminding me that time in my garden is not that far away.

What signs do you have that remind you that spring is coming?

Can I say I’m glad I’m not the only one starting the season with garden clean-up yet to do, Sarah? Your lilies look like they could be any number of spots at our place. We’ve had snow flurries every day this week, so I haven’t done a formal tour yet, but I’m hoping to see some more signs of spring soon.


Growing fruit in a cold climate

Apples frozen on an ice covered tree in the winter

While our gardens may be buried in snow–and after freezing rain yesterday, ice–many of us are still planning, dreaming and thinking about what we’ll be growing this coming season (see Sarah in Illinois’ plans that she shared last week).

I recently wrote an article for The Canadian Organic Grower, sharing some tips for growing fruit in cold climates.

As hard as the snow, cold, ice and wind can be on humans, the climate can be equally harsh for plants.

Despite the challenges, many Canadian gardeners want to grow and enjoy fresh tender fruit right in their own backyards. Fortunately, a growing number of nurseries, breeders and researchers are cultivating trees, vines and bushes that can thrive in Canada.

Frost covered raspberry cane

In our own garden, I am excited by the prospect of hopefully picking our first crop of grapes this year and seeing our blueberries and blackberries return. These fruits are all cold hardy varieties that I specifically selected to ensure they survive (and hopefully thrive) at our farm.

You can read the whole article here.

For my fellow cold climate dwellers, do you have any recommendations of particular varieties that you grow at your garden? Or tips to help plants survive cold weather? What climate and growing challenges do you face in your garden?

Odds and sods

Whew. I feel like I could have slept all weekend. Of course, that was not what happened, but I did spend Sunday afternoon curled on the couch with Baxter. The fire was going, I was wrapped in a cozy sweater. It was a perfect low key few hours before we head into the final stretch of Christmas busyness.

Since I’m still feeling lazy, I’m starting this week simply, sharing a few tidbits of what we’ve been up to recently. And because I’m apparently feeling random, I’m throwing in a couple of favourite recipes. Also, dog pictures just because they’re cute.

Dogs hiking in the snow

  • Part of the reason for the couch afternoon was we spent the morning at the holiday dog hike our trainer organizes every year. There is something so special about watching dogs of all shapes and sizes running together–most of them off leash–and enjoying the outdoors.
  • This weekend included another treasured holiday tradition, a family potluck hosted by one of my (many) cousins. I took my favourite potluck dish, sweet cream cheese dip with green apples… or, as I sometimes call it, sugar on a plate (recipe below).
  • I started my holiday baking with a big batch of Matt’s favourite–peanut butter balls (recipe below). Up next, whipped shortbreads, which are one of my favourites.
  • Two new-to-me blogs that I’ve been enjoying: The Handmade Home and Arrows and Bow

Peanut butter balls

2 cups icing sugar

2 cups shredded coconut

1 1/2 cups peanut butter

(My grandmother’s recipe calls for equal parts PB, sugar and coconut, but I’ve been finding them way too sticky, so I’ve been cutting back the PB over the years. I fudged the quantities above a bit, as I make a much bigger batch. This year’s was 5 cups of icing sugar, 5 cups of coconut and 4 cups of PB, which resulted in approximately 140 balls.)

Mix sugar, coconut and peanut butter together. Roll into small balls (sticking the “dough” in the fridge for a few minutes helps to firm it up so it’s easier to roll). In a double boiler, melt chocolate chips with a bit of evaporated milk. Roll balls in chocolate and put on a tray to set.

I store mine in the fridge to keep them nice and firm.

Sweet Cream Cheese Dip with Green Apples

1 block of cream cheese

1 cup of brown sugar

Crushed Skor bars

Dulce de Leche (or caramel sauce)

Mix cream cheese and brown sugar together and spread on a large plate or platter. Sprinkle with Skor bits and drizzle with dulce de leche. Chop green apples into wedges. Scoop dip with apples and feel healthy ’cause you’re eating fruit.

And more dog pictures.

Our trainer giving instructions before we hike. (Don’t let Baxter fool you. He’s not actually listening. He just wants attention too.)

Dogs hiking in the snow

All the sniffs.

Dogs hiking in the snow

When you show up at the holiday party wearing the same outfit as someone else (although the little guy also had on pants and socks).

Dogs in matching plaid coats

The afternoon after a hike.

Baxter sleeping on the couch

Trials and errors in Illinois

Sometimes, we cross our fingers and give something a try. We’re hopeful that it will work, but not quite sure how it might turn out. That’s the case in many aspects of life, but especially DIY. Sarah in Illinois is back today to report on the results of two experiments.

There have been a few projects in the past that I have posted about and said that I would report back how they turned out. I thought I’d report back on two of them today.

The most recent was the storage tomatoes. You can see the process I used here. But unfortunately, it didn’t work at all. Two weeks after I put them away, they looked like this:

My best guess is that the garage that I stored them in was too warm. Next year I plan to try again but find a cooler storage spot. I may also try another variety like Longkeeper.

My second follow-up is for the table that we refinished for the deck.

I said in my original post that the epoxy we used stated that it wasn’t for outdoor use, but we chose to use it anyway.

They are a few small issues that popped up after a summer of outdoor use.

There are small cracks appeared in the epoxy which allowed moisture to sleep down underneath.

Also something that sat on the table, possibly a pot of plants, held moisture against the epoxy and made a cloudy ring where it should be clear.

I wouldn’t consider this a complete failure for the project, but it tells me that the finish won’t hold out as long as I hoped. My plan is to see how it looks after using it again next summer then possibly trying a different method to coat the wood.

So unfortunately, both trials didn’t go perfectly, but that is why they were truly experiments for me. Most things in life are trial and error. The best thing to do is learn from it and move on.

That’s about the only choice, Sarah! I’m sure these results are a bit disappointing, but they are absolutely learning experiences.

I have to say I’m bummed about the tomatoes and the table for you. We lost a bunch of our favourite potatoes this year just a couple of weeks after we put them in storage. There wasn’t anything to do but move on, but it was frustrating that we’d had such a good harvest and then so many didn’t keep–and especially that it was our favourite variety that was hit. Also, the last time you shared that table, it was so shiny! 😦

How to organize all those bags of spices

Spice organization? What blog are you reading?

Yeah. I know. Not my usual topic.

I wanted to add my 2 cents to the spice organization conundrum though. My solution is not particularly fancy or photogenic. However, it’s quick, practical, easy, useable and maintainable.

Matt and I both enjoy cooking, and my husband (who’s also chief grocery shopper) doesn’t hesitate to stock up when he’s buying a particular ingredient. That’s how we end up with a spice cabinet that looks like this. Particularly, all of those bags of spices crammed on the top shelf.

Disorganized spice cabinet

How to organize bags of spices

It was next to impossible to quickly put my hands on the spice that I needed, and as a shorter person I usually had to pull out a step stool to dig to the back of the cabinet and find what I was looking for.

Also, because we didn’t know what we had, we often ended up buying more or opening another packet. That (along with Matt’s Indian kick) is how we end up with eight (!) bags of curry powder, four of which are open.

Bags of curry powder

The situation was all round annoying.

When I was organizing my office, I found some great bins at Solutions (the Canadian version of The Container Store). They have straight sides so they fit tightly into a drawer or cabinet and are clear so that the contents are easily visible. Plus they were the right size for the spices and the cupboard.

Bin to organize spices

I bought two and started sorting (and combining bags where I could).

My technique was alphabetical. First half of the alphabet in one bin, second half in another. I didn’t bother labeling the bins, because I think it’s pretty easy to figure out what bin you need based on the packet at the front.

Bags of spices organized in a bin

Two bins fit perfectly side by side in the cabinet.

How to organize bags of spices

I did a quick pass through the rest of the cabinet too, putting all of our bottles and tins of spices together, and grouping like foods together. Thanks to the reorganization, I was able to move a couple of items off the counter and into the cabinet, which felt like a major win.

Better organized spice cabinet

Obviously, I’m not Martha Stewart, but while it may not look like much, this simple system makes a big difference in how easily we can find the ingredients we’re looking for.

What’s your organizing nemesis in your kitchen? Do you have any tips to share for organizing spices? Please tell me someone else out there also has multiples of a certain ingredient?

Squash harvest 2017

Wheelbarrow full of butternut and acorn squash

Squash seems to have become our signature crop.

The first year of the garden, we harvested 39 butternuts and about 70 acorns. Last year we intentionally planted fewer plants, but we still ended up with a tonne of squash (although I didn’t bother counting them… or at least didn’t record the count).

This year, we’re finally approaching a manageable number. This year’s squash harvest was 35 acorns and 11 butternuts.

Wheelbarrow full of butternut and acorn squash

Plenty for soups, side dishes and more. (Along with being our signature crop, they’re our signature food that we love to eat). I’m looking forward to trying this for my lunches.

Garden clean out is happening slowly. I pulled all of the vines off of our A-frame trellis and sent them to the compost pile. (I did not do any weeding.)

Squash A-frame trellis

Weeds or not, I’m calling the centre axis of the garden done for the season (as good as it gets is how we’re rolling this year).

Looking across the garden from the raspberry row to the squash trellis

Four quadrants and the perimeter raised beds still to go.

Hopefully I wrap those up before the snow arrives.

Long term tomato storage

It’s finally starting to feel like fall here in Southern Ontario. We had an unexpected frost on the weekend that made me fear for our still growing garden, but we made it through fairly well. Sarah in Illinois is feeling the coming fall and looking to prolong her garden too. She’s here today to talk about how she’s trying to store that favourite garden fruit, tomatoes, for as long as possible.

Fall-like temperatures have finally hit Illinois and the cooler weather is a sure sign that the days for getting fresh vegetables from the garden are numbered. I posted earlier that I am learning the ropes of canning, but there are other methods for storing vegetables well after the frost arrives.

When I was choosing the tomatoes that I wanted to plant this year, I had on my list “Long Keeper.” Long Keeper is a variety of tomato by Burpee that is supposed to be great for winter storage. I tried to plant some from seed, but I am still struggling with the hardening off process.

A friend provided me with several varieties of tomatoes that she grew from seed, I was excited to discover that one plant was a “Red October” which is another variety of storage tomato.

Thankfully, this plant did very well and had an abundant supply of fruit.

So now that I have all of these tomatoes, what is the best way to store them?

The info I have gathered from several sources has a few things in common.

  1. Store tomatoes so they are not touching.
  2. Store in a cool (but not cold), dry spot.
  3. Check often for spoilage, since one bad tomato can cause the others to spoil quickly.

When I picked the tomatoes to store, I made sure to pick only the healthiest, firmest tomatoes. I figured that if they are already showing signs of over-ripening there was no reason to attempt to store them. I also picked them in varying degrees of ripeness. I am not sure if they will ripen well in the box or not.

Blitz quickly figured out what I was doing and added his red tomato-colored ball to my bucket. Man, it amazes me how smart he is!

I have a seemingly endless supply of cardboard boxes at work so I picked a shallow box and made a cardboard grid to keep the tomatoes from touching.

To make the grid I cut pieces of cardboard the height of the box (4 inches in this case) and then I cut them the length of the box. Some I cut the length of the short side of the box, and some the longer length. I ended up with 4 longer pieces and 6 shorter pieces. Each box of course will be different and you can adapt it to your needs, but in this case my box was 15 inches by 21 inches. So when I evenly spaced the slats I had 3 inch squares for the tomatoes to sit in.

To get the slats to fit together in a grid I cut slits evenly across each piece. I made sure to cut each slit more than halfway so that the grid fit together nicely.

I was able to fit my slats together fairly easily. None of my measurements were exact so thankfully cardboard is forgiving and I could work everything into place.

Once my grid was in place I was able to fill it with tomatoes.

I have chosen to store the box in the garage attached to our house. This way I can keep a close eye on them to check for spoilage and I know that it will be a while before it freezes out there.

This really is an experiment. I have no idea if I will have garden tomatoes in January, or if they only last into October. So I plan to report back on how it is going and anything I learn along the way.

Have you ever stored tomatoes long term? Any advice for me? Have you ever grown Red October tomatoes?

I feel like this is as good a technique as any, Sarah. I’m curious to see how it works for you.

I received an interesting preserving cookbook last Christmas called Batch, and it talked about how there are so many more preserving techniques than just canning. Cellaring (like what you’re doing) and freezing were two additional techniques along with several others (and yes, there’s a whole section on tomatoes).

I slow roasted a batch of cherry tomatoes on the weekend. They’re super simple to toss in the freezer and then toss onto pizza in the middle of winter. Unfortunately, I got distracted and didn’t check them soon enough and they were beyond roasted by the time I pulled them out. I’m still mourning them a bit. But they’re in the composter now, so I may have some volunteer tomato plants next year.

September summer keeps the vegetables coming

The first weekend of fall was not at all fall-ish. Temperatures were over 30 degrees (85F), and it felt like 40 degrees (100F+) with the humidity. Matt and I both agreed that it felt like the hottest weekend we’ve had all year.

The good news about summer continuing into fall is that our garden is continuing to grow.

In fact, our blackberries have started blooming.

Blackberry blooms

I don’t think we’re going to get to the berry stage before the weather officially turns–it’s going to happen eventually–but we’ve managed to successfully get to the bean stage with our yellow bush beans.

Matt and I braved the heat on Sunday afternoon to pick our first couple of quarts of the year.

Yellow bush beans

Like our berries, the other crop I’m extremely skeptical about is our first try at eggplant. We were so, so late getting these plants in the ground. We have some beautiful purple little babies finally, but I’m not sure they’ll have time to grow up. (Isn’t the colour amazing?)

Baby eggplant

We picked and froze 35 jalapeno peppers over the weekend and have a whole lot more coming. I’m watching our bell peppers closely hoping they turn red soon.

Our tomatoes are still battling, and I managed to salvage a few dozen cherry tomatoes. I’ll be roasting these off tomorrow.

Zucchini are slowly persisting, although a few got away from me and grew a little too large for my liking. Zucchini bread coming up.

Basket of zucchini

We got such a late start on planting the garden this spring. I’m grateful that the weather has held, so that we actually are able to have a decent growing season. Summer’s my favourite season, so garden or not, I’m really hoping that the hot weather hangs around a little bit longer.

What’s the weather like where you are? What do you think my chances are of harvesting eggplant this year?

Not so rosy results from this year’s tomatoes

Unfortunately we’re ending garden week on a low note. I was very optimistic about our tomatoes this year. We had beautiful big green tomatoes. I was just waiting for them to turn red and then I would be devouring my favourite tomato sandwiches.

Green tomatoes growing in the garden

From what I’ve heard from other gardeners in our area, tomato blight is pretty prolific this year. Many people have lost their crops.

I thought we were going to squeak through, but the blight has now hit us as well. It started with our Black Krim tomatoes–this year’s new variety. The plants died first. The stalks developed brown patches, then the leaves withered. And now the fruits themselves have started to shrivel, darken and fall off the plant–even as a few of them have tried to turn red.

Tomatoes afflicted by blight

Tomatoes afflicted by blight

I thought the blight might be limited to the Krims, but it’s now spreading to the Mountain Merit beefstakes and even our usually resilient cherry tomatoes.

Tomatoes afflicted by blight

To try and curb the blight for next year, I will be ripping out our plants and throwing them on the burn pile rather than composting as we usually do. And rotation is a must to ensure that next year’s tomatoes are away from the blight.

I did stock up for my tomato sandwiches, but I did it at the grocery store, rather than the garden. 😦

Have you had any blight issues this year? How have your tomatoes grown? What’s your favourite way to enjoy tomatoes?

Potato harvest 2017

Garden week is continuing here on 129 acres. This post is all about the high point of the whole gardening season so far–the potato harvest.

Picking potatoes

You may recall that we decided to devote a whole quadrant of our 2,500 square foot garden to potatoes this year. We had a whole bunch of seed potatoes–all from our own pantry–and I ended up putting in about eight rows.

The results were pretty much as expected. A whoooooole lotta potatoes.

Potato harvest 2017

We grew four varieties: Kennebec, Russian Blue, Basin Gold and red. The Kennebecs are by far our favourite. They fry up nice and crisp for hashbrowns, but stay soft and potatoey inside. Their flavour is also wonderful. It’s a good thing we like them because we had so many we ended up picking them into the wheelbarrow.

A wheelbarrow full of Kennebec potatoes

The Kennebecs also grew big. One potato will make more than enough hashbrowns for breakfast for both of us. For comparison, Matt wears a size 13 boot.

Giant potato

The Russian Blues are fun purple potatoes. We got a decent crop of them. The reds are the first potatoes we ever tried growing. I think some of the plants were choked by weeds this year because the number of reds that we got this year was not great.

However, the greatest disappointment ended up being the Basin Golds. These were an experiment. When Matt is looking for giant baking potatoes to go with our steak dinners, he picks up Basin Golds.

We had a couple of potatoes that sprouted by the time spring arrived, so we stuck them in the garden. They definitely did not live up to our expectations of giant baking potatoes. First, we only got six potatoes. And second they’re small. Here are our measly six taters with their size 13 Kennebec relative.

Different size potatoes

The potatoes are all different shapes and sizes.

There was a Russian Blue that Matt enjoyed particularly. Ahem.

Mishapen potato

And the much more G-rated Mini Mouse potato.

Mini Mouse potato

We dried the potatoes for a little while on a tarp on the driveway–supervised by that omnipresent puppy–and then loaded them into sacks and put them in the cold cellar. Last year, we followed a pretty similar process, except we put them in cardboard boxes, and they lasted fairly well.

Potato harvest 2017

Hopefully we will be enjoying homegrown potatoes for many months to come. I’m expecting breakfast for dinner–complete with hashbrowns–will be on the menu one evening this week.

Do you grow your own potatoes? Do you have a favourite kind of potato? How do you like to eat potatoes? Any tips on storing potatoes? I’m really hoping that our sacks work well.