Gumboot Adventures

gowing and growing green

Hey Kids, We’re Growing Kiwis May 27, 2011

Hey Kids – we’re growing Kiwis!

Really? Where?

Growing What?

When I showed them the vines, planted happily in our West Coast garden, the excitement set in.

Kiwis are Good!

I have to admit that despite the fact that our Kiwi plants are currently little stubs with a few leaves, I share completely in their euphoria. The very idea of growing kiwi fruit in our cool West Coast climate is boggling and beautiful. I had planned on apple trees, plum trees, blueberries, raspberries, maybe even grapes – but I had no idea that we could have productive Kiwis. Apparently we can. And here’s the skinny:

Kiwi plants are aggressive woody vines that grow to be about 20 ft. They require strong support and like all fruit, good soil along with love and attention, including regular applications of fertilizer. (Remember, you’re going to eat the fruit, so keep it organic). Kiwi plants on the West Coast are reputed to be productive as early as their second year – though this is variety dependent.

Kiwi plants are dioecious – both a male and female plant is required for fruit production. For the patient guru male flowers have stamens, and the female ones have carpels. For the rest of us, plants without flowers look identical save one distinguishing feature –

Kiwi Plant - Male

The tag. You’ll need one male and one female. And obviously, you need bees and butterflies to make sure that those flowers come in contact with one and other. If not, the plant will need your assistance. And honestly – whose got time for that! I’ve planted our kiwis near a flowering plants that the bees love so fingers are crossed for nature doing what it does best.

I’ll keep you posted!


Strawberry Beds and Buttercup Weeds May 20, 2011

Strawberry Flower

Strawberry flowers are blooming.  It fills me with hope for a summer of bounty.  It’s also a call to action!

Our house came complete with the most deliciously sweet strawberries.  Truly.  It also came complete with buttercup. For those of you who don’t know, buttercup is an incredibly invasive weed that makes pretty little yellow flowers, is almost indestructible and mildly poisonous. As an aside, in our first garden years ago, I planted buttercup on purpose after finding it in our front garden and thinking that the yellow flowers would add colour to the back.  I should write and apologize to the current owners of that home.  Regardless, we’ve been here almost a year now, and for that time, the strawberries and the buttercup have shared a bed. No more.

We’ve started anew, so to speak, creating a new strawberry bed and hoping for increased yields with all that root space to themselves.  Strawberries require healthy soil and lots of light. They love the sun and heat, and also enjoy being planted near onions. Strawberries shouldn’t be planted where previous strawberry beds have been, as rotten roots left decomposing can pass disease to the productive plants.

Since we’ve no shortage of strawberry, I’ve actually created a proper bed in the back (following the steps outlined below) and also transplanted some plants to the front yard – where they occupy a sunny patch in our newly converted grass-free yard.  As with all plants, it’s nice to try them in a few places and see where they thrive.

Strawberry Bed Before

Here are the steps taken to create a “proper” strawberry bed:

Step 1: Remove Weeds – in our case, Buttercup

Tedious work! I dug deep and loosed the roots, separating the strawberries from the darker buttercup roots. Buttercup is bagged and sent to the city green waste – no way that horrible little weed is setting root in my compost.

Step 2: Separate Runners

Strawberry runners are clipped and separated from the main plant.  Strawberry plants are generally productive for about five years.  With plants younger than this, remove the runners to send the energy towards fruit production instead of reproduction.  With older plants in need of replacing, allow the runner to take root, then remove the parent plant. In our case, we opted for a combination of the two and saved some mature plants, while also setting up for a good yield next year with younger plants.  If you’re starting from scratch, save the trip to the garden store and instead opt for a friend’s clipped runners.

Step 3: Build Raised beds

Raised beds provide an optimal growing environment.  To maximize strawberry yield, set a raised bed in a hot, sunny location and fill with garden soil.

Strawberry Bed After

Step 4: Plant

We follow biodynamic gardening principles which means – among other things – that plants are grown on mounds, spaced more closely than traditional gardening methods and are planted in combination with beneficial companions.  Our strawberry bed has a lovely chive plant  and will have a few daffodils near the edges when I get there.  Plants are spaced about 1 ft apart, in staggered (offset) spacing.

Step 5: Pinch flowers – sad I know!

The first year of plant’s its flowers should be removed so as to divert all the energy towards plant growth and health, instead of fruit production.  Which means, no fruit year one. But lots of really fabulous fruit thereafter.  Since our strawberries patch is a combination of mature plants being transplanted and new runners, I’ve pinched the flowers on half the plants and am letting the other half produce. Also, if I pinched all the flowers  my kids would think I was a complete failure when they had no strawberries this summer, and I couldn’t have that.

All in all, strawberries are a relatively simple fruit to care for and the reward is oh-so-sweet.  Here’s hoping the blasted buttercup can be kept at bay!


Raised Beds are Better May 8, 2011

Raised Beds

Raised Beds in the Making

We’re building raised beds in the vegetable garden.   Half way through the third enclosure, my husband asked me

“Why are we building these?”

“Because they are better,” I replied without missing a beat. I loved having raised beds at our last home and am eager to get them finished here.

“But why?” He persisted. I hesitated, ever so briefly, and in that moment I saw the swing of his hammer slow, the skepticism flash before his eye and the seed of doubt be planted that is ever so difficult to undo when the alternative means less work on the part of the doubter.

So here’s the lowdown on why raised beds are better:

1. First and foremost, they increase garden yields.  Raised beds accomplish this increased productivity in a number of ways, they:

  • Hold more heat – raised beds warm sooner in the season and hold the heat more efficiently. They are typically about 4C warmer than flat beds. This means an increased growing season, in more ideal conditions.
  • Facilitate easy coldframes – raised beds make it easy to install garden covers with PVC piping to keep the heat in and the elements out. With the use of a cold frame, the growing season is further expanded.
  • Prevent Soil Compression – when properly proportioned (we like 8ft x 4ft), raised beds allow for all planted space to be reached from garden paths.  This means that the gardeners (or the gardeners’ children) avoid stepping on the soil.
  • Promote dense planting – by reducing the space between crops traditionally needed for paths, raised beds favour dense planting, reducing the space for weeds.  This is a huge factor in our plot, which is completely overrun with buttercup from last year’s neglect!

2. Raised beds simplify garden planning and maintenance. Here’s how:

  • Clearly defined “plots” facilitate crop rotation,
  • Mulching pathways minimizes weeds

3. Raised beds are pretty.  I like a pretty vegetable garden and find orderly raised beds aesthetic pleasing. Especially when flowers are incorporated into the overall design – a key ingredient in attracting those very beneficial bees and butterflies.

And if those aren’t enough reasons, well, mother’s day is around the corner and I want the lovely raised beds.  So keep swinging that hammer handsome husband.


Starting Seeds made SIMPLE March 25, 2010

Filed under: garden,planting,seeds,sustainable living — gumbootgarden @ 6:07 am
Tags: , , ,
Seed Starting - A Couple of Tomatos

Seed Starting - A Few Dozen Tomatos

A lot is made of seed starting.  I’m going to simplify the process for you: start some seeds! For the most part, nature has perfected the seed and all you need to do is put some semblance of the right elements together to encourage relatively good performance.  Which is not to discredit the more systematic tried and true seed starting methods, which I will describe below.  But rather, to encourage gardening.  Imperfect, messy, good gardening.

I was surprised to learn that seeds actually germinate more consistently in a relatively low light environment.  Ideal germinating conditions for your little bundles include low light and consistent warmth.  I like the top of my refrigerator – where the the fridge’s heat is being put to good use and where the seeds are safe from curious and impatient child fingers.

If you want to be a true planting rock star, you may consider soaking seeds for 8 hours prior to planting. You may also consider germinating seeds in damp paper towel, then transferring to seed starting dirt once germination has occurred.  These are, in my humble opinion, gardening techniques for the above and beyond gardener. I only engage in such thorough behavior when planting older seeds that I fear may have a low germination ratio (they might not grow well).

I do however, use soil-less seed starter mix until I run out.  At which point I plan to purchase more, but never do, and resort to regular old garden dirt (which, in my case, is really nice dirt), with almost as good results.  I’ll return to this point shortly.

Red Pepper Seeds

Red Pepper Seeds Germinating in Paper Towel (they're covered with another piece)

First, Seed Starting 101:

1. Soak Seeds. Fairly self-explanatory. Soak seeds. Eight hours is the oft quoted number. Skip if desired.

2. Germinate seeds. Germinate either in paper towel or in seed starter mix.

(a) Germinating in paper towel adds an extra step, but is only mildly more complicated.  Soak paper towel.  Place seeds (soaked seeds if you are a real keener) between the two sheets of wet paper towel on a flat surface.  Keep paper towel consistently warm and damp until seeds germinate.  Transfer seeds to individual pots. This is sort of fun with kids as they can really see the germinated seeds.

(b) Alternately, you can germinate seeds directly in plugs using seed starter mix. Mix should be warm and wet.  As with the paper towel method, seeds need consistent warmth and water to perform their magic.  I like to use egg cartons as plugs.  They are about the right size, completely recycled (thus free and environmentally friendly) and can be popped right into the garden when the plant is ready for transfer.

3. Transplant up and harden off.  Also simpler than generally conveyed – afterall, plants want to grow.  They work with you to thrive. But that’s a post  for another day…

Having now advocated seed starter mix, and admitted to skipping it later in the season with little ill effect, here’s the lowdown and the why it’s worth your while.

Seed Starter Mix Tablet

Seed Starter Mix Tablet

Seed starter mix is relatively inexpensive and offers a couple of advantages to the dirt from your garden, the most obvious and most important of which, is that it is disease and pest free.  This ensures a healthy start for your plants.  These mixes are generally made predominantly of  sphagnum peat moss, which is well draining but water retentive.  They are also mildly acidic, with a PH of around 5.8 – great for starting seeds. Some starter mixes have additional ingredients such as vermiculite, perlite or bark to increase drainage and water retention; limestone or gypsum to adjust Ph; wetting agents to increase the water retention; or fertilizers. I’ve honestly not noticed a difference in result from brand to brand, but caution against wetting agents because they are by definition non-organic and against fertilizers, which are not required for seed germination.

My favorite seed starting mix is the one that is available in bulk tablets from the gardening store in or neighbourhood.  The pellets mix 1 pellet to 1/2 cup of warm water and require about five minutes to transform from rock solid to mud. They are as tidy as anything in the garden can be, and because they are sold in bulk, are more environmentally friendly than their ultra packaged relatives.

For reference, three tablets (at 25 cents a piece) provides plenty of “dirt” for a dozen egg carton plugs, pictured above.

Seed starting is simple enough that even the most novice gardener can manage.  It’s also much much cheaper than purchasing plants.  And better for the earth. You need a consistently warm place (top of fridge) for germination.  And a sunny spot for your little plants to thrive after germination.  You need to water often.  And worry occasionally.

Stop fussing, start planting!


Urban Potatoes September 23, 2009

a new potatoe from the garden

a new potatoe from the garden

I begrudge buying potatoes.  Whether we’re talking about 5 lbd bags from the grocer or exotic purple potatoes from the market, I resent the very act of purchasing these stables. In my mind, potatoes are cheap sustenance.  Which is not to detract from their deliciousness – there is nothing quite like fresh baby potatoes or fluffy mashed potatoes or perfectly roasted russets. I do like potatoes.  I just don’t like buying them!

But I’ve also never grown them. Potatoes don’t have the luster of sweet tomatoes.  They can’t be trained to climb like our nibble squash.  They don’t demand the spotlight like peppers or corn.  And so, despite my resentment, I have always bought potatoes.  Until this year. It was with a light heart that I set about planting potatoes in tires this spring. I’d learned about the solution to my urban garden potato dilemma earlier in the year and with a renewed vigour for local eating, I happily set about stacking tires and shoveling dirt.

layers of potatoes growing in stacked tires

layers of potatoes growing in stacked tires

Ironically, or not, it was my mother-in-law who first suggested that I plant potatoes in tires.  Ironically, because she doesn’t garden. Perhaps not so ironically because it seems more often that not the keys to sustainable living lie in knowledge of generations past. When my mother in law was a girl, tires were stacked, filled with dirt, and planted with seasonally appropriate varieties of potatoes.  When the early potatoes were ready, they were harvested and the top tire was knocked to the ground, and so on.  After a trip to the neighbourhood mechanic with a request for old tires, we spent an afternoon building our potato tower.

Now here is where things went not-as-well as they could have gone. We planted potatoes stacked in tires four high, with an early variety in the top two tiers and a later variety on the bottom two tiers.  We planted all four layers at once, per my mother-in-laws instructions. I should have researched instead of following blindly! About six weeks later, the top layer of potatoes had flowered and was ready for harvest.  Unfortunately the second layer of potatoes was sending shoots into the top layer, but hadn’t yet produced mature potatoes. It was nearly impossible to harvest layer one without damaging layer two.  The harvest was somewhat tedious, and the yield not as substantial as it could have been. None the less, we’ve enjoyed a fabulous crop of home grown potatoes this year, and since they flourish in the cooler weather of the early fall, we will continue to do so for another couple months as we dive into the bottom rung.

kids helping to wash potatoes - yum

kids helping to wash potatoes - yum

A little research has revealed the proper tire-potato technique, which will surely help with smooth potato adventures next year:

1. pick a nice sunny spot.

2. lay couple inches of dirt in the bottom tire. place about 5 seed potatoes (of a late season variety) in the tire, with the “eyes” (buds) pointing up.  These potatoes will benefit from chitting (storing them in a dark place for a week or two so that they start to sprout shoots), but they can do without since they are late season varieties. cover with dirt until it is level with the top of the tire.

3. when the shoots are about 8 inches tall, add a second tire and repeat the process, again using a late season variety.

4. repeat step 3 for the top two tires, using early or mid season varieties, which require chitting

5. water potatoes really well twice a week.  potatoes don’t like to swim, but they do like a good drink all the way to the bottom of your tire stack. potatoes are very resilient and will grow in almost anything.  that said, they prefer a slightly acid soil (ph 5.8-6.5) that is light and loose.

The tires act as a “heat sink”, which causes lateral roots to grow.  What that means for you is more potatoes.  It’s a good thing!  Plus, the tires are saved from a truly sad fate in the landfill.

A final tip for good potatoes – dig around in the dirt with your hand and pull some of the baby potatoes to make room for the others to grow. I know you are supposed to let your potatoes dry out for a day or two before eating, but we’ve taken to boiling the baby potatoes for dinner the night they are pulled, and they are a thing of beauty with a little butter and a dash of salt.



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