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?

Seed starting plan from Sarah in Illinois

Sarah in Illinois is being very methodical in her garden planning this year. She’s here today sharing how she’s mapping out what she’s going to grow and when she’s going to start planting.

We’d love to hear your tips for starting your garden. What works for you? How do you  plan what you do when?

We still have below freezing temperatures down here, but it hasn’t stopped me from daydreaming about being out in the garden. One way to fill that void is to make a to-do list or game plan for the spring. Here are a few things that I have planned for the upcoming weeks.

1. Make a list of what I want to grow in the garden this year and divide them up into 3 categories: start indoors from seed, sow seed directly into the garden and purchase as established plant.

2. Place order for any seeds purchased through mail order.

3. For seeds started indoors, plan what day I should start them.

To do that I searched online for last frost date for my zip code. One source said April 17 and another said April 14. I decided to just use April 15 since it is an easy date to remember (tax day for us Americans). So for example I want to start my Black Krim tomato seeds indoors. The packet says to start 6-8 weeks before planting outdoors. So I should start it indoors sometime in between Feb. 18 and March 4.

4. Set up indoor seed starting area.

I have mentioned before that I have a lot of trouble starting seeds indoors and transferring them to the garden. So this year I am going to take it more seriously than just throwing some seeds in the dirt. I purchased a seedling heat mat and I am going to set up a grow light. I plan to post about it as I go along both to help others and to get advice.

Do you place seed orders through mail order? Or do you have another source for your seeds and plants? Do you start your seeds indoors? Do you have any advice for me on transferring them outside?

You seem very organized, Sarah. Well done. It’s been great to see your garden evolve through the years. I love how you learn and adjust each season and keep working to improve your approach. I’ll be interested to hear how your plan works out this year.

How to make a shovel scraper

It may still be winter outside, but Sarah in Illinois is already looking ahead to gardening season–or at least her Mom is. Today, Sarah’s sharing how to make a simple tool that can help keep your other gardening tools in good shape.

It’s been two weeks since I posted that we were having such low temperatures and, as I write this, it is the first day that we have made it above freezing. My wood shop is not heated but thankfully I had a super easy, super fast project that I could finish before my fingers got frostbite.

The idea for this project came from the magazine Mary Jane’s Farm. I highly recommend this magazine if you have any interest in farm life, recipes and simple living. My mom showed me this picture from the October-November 2014 issue and said that she would really like a shovel scraper.

It’s a simple concept. Just a pointed block of wood used to scrape the bulk of mud off of your shovel before you put it away. I will give the dimensions that I used, but every single measurement is adaptable to your own needs. Feel free to adjust them as you see fit.

I started with a scrap piece of 2×4 lumber. After taking out old staples I cut the board to 12 inches in length.

I set my miter saw to cut the end of the board at 22.5 degrees. Again, this is just the angle I chose based on what looked appropriate for my use.

I then drew a guideline of where I would cut my handle. Note my crudely drawn measurements.

I then cut along these lines with my jigsaw.

I drilled a hole at the end of the handle to make it easy to hang up and all I had left to do was sand down the corners to make the handle more comfortable and to prevent my mom from getting splinters.

Remember my post back in October where I was longing for a new sander? Well, when my dad told me that he didn’t know what to get me for Christmas I had the perfect suggestion!

I’ve only used it this one time so far, but I am very happy with it. I don’t know if my old sander was really worn out or this Hitachi is that much stronger, but it feels like it has twice the power of my old sander. You can see we went with the hook and loop attachment. I just have to get used to the fact that this is pretty much what the industry is going to.

Back to the project, it didn’t take long to sand down the edges and make the scraper quite comfortable to hold.

I decided this morning after looking at it again, that I am going to coat it with a light coat of linseed oil to protect it just a bit, but other than that, it is ready for my mom.

Have you ever used a shovel scraper? Do you have a quick and easy wood project to try? More importantly, is your project area heated?

Thanks for this tutorial, Sarah. I’ve never heard of a shovel scraper. I think my Dad would appreciate me making one of these for myself. When he taught me how to sharpen my shovels, he grimaced as he looked at the dried mud on my shovels and began the lesson with a lecture on taking care of my tools.

Looking back at Home Goals 2017

Thanks everyone for your good wishes on our new addition. We’re excited–and I will admit I’m still a bit nervous about this whole baby thing too. We had our pre-natal class this weekend, which was informative and encouraging, and I have (yet another) ultrasound this morning (this baby is going to have supersonic hearing after all of our scans). Overall, we’re feeling pretty good about where we’re at.

As you can see, 2017 was quite a year for us. Today I’m taking a minute to look back at the year that was from a personal, professional and farm point of view.

After thinking and planning for quite awhile, I took a leave of absence from my communications job at the end of August to spend some extra time with family and see if I could build my own communications consulting company. I love working from home and love working for myself. I’m still working on building my client base, but I’m so grateful to have this opportunity.

The timing for my leave turned out to be very fortunate, as at the start of July we found out we were going to have a baby and at the end of September Matt was diagnosed with an ocular melanoma. It’s been so helpful to have a more flexible schedule for appointments and most importantly to have the mental space to process and reflect on all of the changes in our lives.

Along with all of that, we’ve replaced both our cars–my 14-year-old girl finally died and Matt’s year-old car was written off after he was hit by a driver who ran a red light. Matt ended up with a broken arm courtesy of the airbag, which derailed some of my plans for projects around the farm, but was a small hardship when he could have been much more seriously hurt.

Amongst all of these changes and challenges, the farm has been our constant and our refuge. 2017 marked five years at the farm, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else. It gives both of us peace to be here, and also gives us an outlet when we need to distract ourselves with tractor therapy, digging in the dirt, painting something or just walking the property.

I have a feeling we’re going to be saying, “What a year!” for the next while (perhaps the rest of our lives?) as we watch this baby grow, adjust to our new family reality and continue with life on the farm.

As many of us do at the start of the year, I like to take a moment to look back and reflect on the year past. Beyond all of the personal changes in our lives, I also started 2017 with my usual list of Home Goals I wanted to accomplish at the farm over the year.

Looking back, we didn’t do too bad.

My office

Turquoise craft room

I was very happy to finish the final bedroom at the farm and finally unpack all of our moving boxes–only five years after moving in. Reupholstering my grandmother’s vintage slipper chair is a project I’m still very proud of. What I called my office ended up being more of a craft room and it was such a great space for creativity.

I say “was” because my office ended up seeing another makeover just a few months later when I decided to turn it into the baby’s room. I’m finding other spaces to be creative around the house, and I love how the baby’s room is coming together. I’ll be sharing all of those details soon.

Clean up the pond shore

Red sky over the pond at sunset

The pond shore was my one and only outdoor land clearing goal for the year (and we have plenty of spaces that I want to clear). Mid-year, I gave up on it happening, but then an enthusiastic nephew and a generous husband went to work over a few weekends, and we made more progress than I ever expected.

There’s still more to go, which might be difficult as I don’t think the baby will be as helpful as our teenage nephew, but Matt and I may be able to divide and conquer on this one. And regardless, every time I look out the kitchen window or walk past the pond with Baxter (which happens at least once a day), I’m grateful for the improved view and access to the water.

While I had planned to focus just on the pond shore, I did give the area right behind the house a bit of attention, and cleaned up (most of) the jungle that’s been there since we moved in.

New lawn

Vegetable garden

Green tomatoes growing in the garden

At the start of last year, I said I was going to add rhubarb (check), a second row of berries (check–ended up being blackberries) and maybe some more grapes (check). I also put in four blueberry plants to try. As usual, I’m crossing my fingers that everyone survives the winter and bears fruit this year.

My biggest goal was keeping the weeds under control. I can’t say I was successful in that. I tried to find some old hay bales for a deep mulch but didn’t have any success. And in terms of weeding by hand, most of the season, I didn’t feel like weeding, and I gave into that feeling… a lot.

We capped off the year by covering two of the quadrants with tarps, and my tentative plan for the coming year is to leave the tarps in place. This will decrease the garden size by not quite half, which might just be manageable in our new reality.

Flower gardens

Garden in bloom in June

The flower gardens got some half-hearted attention this year. I can’t say I met my goal of keeping them weeded and filled with beautiful flowers, but I did get in them a few times and they didn’t look too scraggly most of the time (I don’t think).


Uh, yeah. I still have empty picture frames leaning against the basement walls waiting for art. I didn’t get to this in the first half of the year, and, since I left my job, I’ve been careful about spending money on extras, even inexpensive posters. So we go yet another year with some unfinished areas in the basement.

However, I did finally share the transformation of the basement TV area and all of the details on how we decorated it. I love this space so much and am so proud of us for doing it ourselves.

Basement TV area

New barn cat

Our barncat Ralph

After talking to a few people, we decided not to add a new barn cat to our family. Ralph has things under control and she’s content. She doesn’t need company, and I’m not confident that expecting her to train a young cat would work. So Ralphie gets to be mistress of the barn. She can live out her years in peace, and we will take our chances with adopting a new cat when we need it and hope that the newbie lives up to Ralph’s high standard.


As always, a few extra projects sneak into every year. I can call another room completely finished–the guest room–after refinishing a vintage metal bedframe. Spoiler alert, the guest room has since seen a few more changes as it’s become guest room/sewing room as I’ve given my office over to baby.

Antique brass metal bed frame

The living room also saw a few tweaks with a new mirror on the mantel and new pillows on the couch. I’ll be sharing our new coffee table soon too.

How to mix and match throw pillows

So around the house, 2017 was a mix. Which is okay and pretty normal for us.

We had enough abnormal in the year that I’m grateful that projects and the farm are such a refuge for us.

How was 2017 for you? What was your big accomplishment for the year?

Garden wrap-up from Illinois

Sarah in Illinois is doing better at her garden wrap-up than we are. In fact, she’s here today with her end of year recap of how her garden grew in 2017.

Last year I did an Olympic style recap of our garden in honor of the summer Olympics 2016. So I will continue that tradition this year.

Overall, I am very happy with how our garden did. We kept the weeds fairly under control, most plants were productive. I think my number one complaint is I wish I had planted more variety. So on to the winners.

Gold Medal recipients


No question: tomatoes thrived in our garden. If you remember, I canned 45 quarts of tomato juice, 4 quarts of whole tomatoes and 4 quarts of salsa. We ate fresh tomatoes as much as we possibly could, gave many to my parents, and we still have tomatoes rotting on the vines because we couldn’t use them up.

The only thing I will change next year is that I wish I had planted Roma tomatoes. Also my cousin planted Amish Paste tomatoes that she said were excellent for juice and sauce so I may look in to planting some of those next year.

Green Beans

I canned 24 quarts of green beans, froze 4 gallons and ate some fresh, gave some to my mom and we still had beans that went to waste on the plant. I planted two separate times about 3 weeks apart. This worked really well. Next year I just need to plant less by about 75%.


I’m going to toot my own horn here: my peppers were gorgeous this year! I had the best crop of peppers that I’ve ever had. My change for next year would be planting less hot peppers and more green peppers. I had about a 50/50 mix of sweet and hot. However, based on what we ate, I should plant 85/15.

Brussels Sprouts

Brussels Sprouts also got a gold medal. There is really nothing I’d change in variety or quantity.

Sugar Snap Peas

I had an abundant crop of sugar snap peas this year. I think shielding the strong sunlight by planting sunflowers in front of the row of peas helped to extend my harvest by not drying up the vines too early.

Silver Medal


Cucumbers got a silver medal this year. The plants provided several cucumbers and bloomed until September. The only drawback is I only planted one variety and wish I had planted pickling cucumbers for their compact size and smaller seeds.


The sunflowers grew nice and tall with most 8-10 feet in height. Again, lack of variety was my only complaint.


We planted a small sweet variety called Sugar Baby. Steve and the kids are the watermelon eaters in our house. They said that the one they ate was good, but the vine only produced 3 total melons. I think lack of rain was a factor in the poor output.


After two failed plantings, I finally got two bunches of kale to grow. My step-daughter and I make some kale chips with what we could pick.


I posted about radishes earlier in the year. I planted a lot more manageable amount. I think too much rain was kind of hard on them early, but they did okay.


Remember that we planted 150 red onions? Well as you can guess that was way more than we can use. They did really well. I think the rain compacted the ground to the point where they did not grow as big as I would have liked. Adding compost next year should help with the quality of the soil. I also would like to add a sweet onion to our mix.

Bronze Medal


I almost placed these in the “did not finish” column because the output was terrible. We did get one or two little messes of new potatoes but overall a terrible year for them. Next year I plan to try again and also add sweet potatoes back into rotation.


I really expected some big beautiful carving size pumpkins to decorate my front steps this year, but instead I got about 6 pumpkins that were just a little bit bigger than a softball.

Spaghetti Squash

My vines only produced about 4 squash compared to about 20 last year. When I felt like they were ripe, they were actually soft inside. I did eat one, but threw the rest on the compost pile.


Even with planting our carrots on mounds, the ground was really hard and compacted around the carrots and it was really hard to pull them up without a shovel. They also did not seem as sweet as they have in years past.

DNF “did not finish (produce)”


If you look back to August, I mentioned how beautiful my tomatillo plant looked, but that it had no fruit. I did a little research and found that I have to have more than one plant for pollination. So this wasn’t really as much a problem with the plant as my failed research.


I planted 3 varieties of blueberries this spring. However, not one of them survived. I think a combination of too much rain, then too little rain, then one incident with the weed trimmer getting too close was too much for my little plants.


Most years I have to find people to give extra zucchini to. This year the plants grew about 3 inches tall and then died.

Honorable Mention goes to our new fruit trees and grape vines. None of them are mature enough to produce any fruit but they look nice and healthy and will be ready in the next few years.

Once again we are very happy with our garden. Growing a vegetable garden takes knowledge, patience, practice and a whole lot of luck.

There are some things to improve on like planting more variety and planting more according to what we use to reduce waste. But unfortunately, some of the factors in our poor or failed crops are out of our hands. If I ever find a way to change the weather to our advantage, I will sure let you know.

Keep us posted on that, would you please, Sarah? Congratulations on the productivity and also the lessons learned. So much of gardening is absolutely due to luck, but there’s a lot of hard work in there too, and the results of your efforts are impressive.

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.

How to prune raspberries

How to prune raspberries

Pruning the raspberries was one of the items on my “putting the garden to bed” to-do list.

Pruning removes dead canes, opens the rest of the canes up to light and air and gives new canes room to grow.

The best time to prune is in the fall. The canes have finished fruiting. Leaves have died and fallen off. New growth won’t start until the spring.

The first step is to identify which canes are dead. You want to look for the canes that are woody. For our berries, that means I can see actual bark and it looks like the outer shell of the cane is peeling a bit. The cane in the centre of the picture below needs to go. The two on either side can stay to bear berries next year.

How to prune raspberries

Using sturdy clippers, cut the dead cane a couple of inches above the ground. Pull the cut cane out of the row and throw it on your compost pile. If your canes are very thick or tangled, you may need to clip the dead cane in half so that you can extract it from the row.

How to prune raspberries

It’s okay to have a little stump left behind. In a year or two, this stump will rot away.

How to prune raspberries

While you’re in your raspberry patch, now is also the time to weed (the last time this season). I also tuck the canes back under the wires of our trellis (here’s how we built our raspberry trellis). This contains the plants, helps them grow upright rather than flopping over and makes it easier for picking and care next year. You can see in the picture below one guy is on the wrong side of the wire (while his neighbour has bent over nearly backwards to grow within the row).

How to prune raspberries

At this time of year–especially while temperatures are still warm–the canes are pretty flexible, so it’s easy to bend and coax them under the wires. The result is a tidy row of plants with plenty of space to walk between the rows.

How to prune raspberries

How to prune raspberries

Has anyone else been pruning raspberries? Any tips to share? How are you doing on your garden clean up this fall?

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?