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Welcome to the Jungle

 

Since the spring got predictably delayed by our stellar climate, all my seedlings have sprouted into a veritable jungle. All the tomatoes are approaching a foot tall, with lush, green and fragrant leaves.

 

Fragrant forest

Fragrant forest

 

The pepper has glossy deep green leaves, with supremely cool purple lines running up the stem.

 

Shiny pepper

Shiny pepper

Purple stem

Purple stem

 

The basil no longer looks so oddly lopsided – and he now has a friend.

 

Bushy basil

Bushy basil

Baby basil sidekick

Baby basil sidekick

 

But the it’s the cucumber that stole the show, as if to rebel against the death of his comrade, and opened up a delicate flower in a glorious flush of yellow. I was as proud as a parent whose child takes a first step. I think I spoke baby talk to it. The other two cukes are budding, and I’m sure will soon explode into bloom of their own. I absolutely cannot believe that these short little plants that grew from tiny little seeds are actually growing and thriving.

 

First bloom!

First bloom!

 

(She seems to have no interest in eating it – unlike Alfie)

I’m sure the tomatoes cukes and peppers as the veterans in this garden would love nothing more than to see the light of day, so this week will be the week of hardening them off.   The most excellent guide I found was online and here is the link for your pleasure. 

Happy Gardening!

All about zucchini

 
 
 

 

Baby zucchini
Baby zucchini

 

 

 

In a moment of synergy I’ve had three people ask me for tips on growing zucchini this week. Even though I clearly and patiently explained to them that this is my first gardening season and they’re taking their zucchini’s life into their hands when they listen to anything I say. But I am good at synthesizing information from various sources and since I crammed my brain full of gardening knowledge I figured I’d post it here for anyone else who is even more clueless than I am.

  

 Zucchini Growing Guide

 

If you’re starting zucchini from seed anywhere in the second week of May to June 1 is a good time to start. Zucchini grows fast and you don’t want to start it too early like tomatoes or you’ll have a huge bush on your hands in no time. You only need to give it a couple of weeks head start if that, and really given how fast it grows (my package of seeds says 40 days to maturity), it may be better to direct seed it since it doesn’t particularly like to be transplanted.

 

To start the seed follow the very basic instructions common to all seeds – take your peat pod, moisten it, make a small pencil hole in the middle and plant the seed about ½ inch down. Cover it with peat on top, press the peat all around the seed and place in a warm spot – say over your fridge, or an empty oven. That you won’t forget to check before turning on. Zucchini seeds like a really warm soil to germinate in, so a chilly window sill may not be the best spot for it.

 

Immediately as it germinates (which may take 4-10 days), place it under a bright fluorescent light, at least 25 watts strong. I found great inexpensive T5 sunlight tubes at Spruce It Up Garden Centre which is the only place I’ve seen them so far, and one will work for a whole tray of seedlings.  Make sure it doesn’t ever dry out, and after it gets its first set of true leaves begin feeding it with a mix of kelp and fish fertilizer at one third to half strength every couple of weeks. If it grows more than a couple of inches before the weather is nice, replant the whole peat pod into a four inch container.

 

About ten days before going outside, let your plant acclimatize to the great and dangerous outdoors by hardening it off. Since so far the plant has led a pampered life – warm, sheltered and moist it will have broader leaves than an outdoor plant to capture more light, and weaker stems from lack of exercise due to wind motion. Many plants take transplanting hard enough, zucchini being one of them, and transplant shock will set them back severely – they may not grow for a week or two, produce less fruit, and succumb to diseases and predators. To harden it off place the plant outside in a shady spot for a couple of hours, and repeat for two or three days, increasing its stay outside each day until it’s outdoors most of the day. Then place it under morning sun for a couple of hours and put it in shade for the afternoon. Repeat increasing time under the sun for three or so days until it’s spending most of day and evening outside. I know it seems like a pain, but it’s far better than having your plant keel over from shock and die.

 

Zucchini is not ready to live outdoors until the soil temperature is reasonably warm, the sources say at least 18-20 degrees Celsius (64-68 F). How the heck would you know what temperature your soil is? Well you can either purchase a soil thermometer – here is one from Lee Valley, or simply leave a comment below if you’re in the Calgary area, and I’ll tell you what the soil in my raised bed is at for a rough reference.  To warm up the soil you can use a black plastic mulch which you can get in any garden centre – it’s cheap.

 

Once it’s ready to go outside (which this year looks like might be July), there is non-proven advice out there. One of my books suggests a floating row cover over the plant if the temperature drops below 18 degrees Celsius (64 F). Since that includes every single night in Calgary, I think it may be more realistic to cover it if the night temperature approaches say 10-15 degrees (which is also sadly every night). Did you know where you can get row covers? Lee Valley among others.  I swear I could live there. Or at least have my paychecks redirected there. Point is, zucchini likes warmth, so don’t plant it until there’s at least a resemblance of summer outside.

 

The planting should be done on a cloudy day or towards the evening to minimize the plants’ stress.  Prepare a small  bucket of full strength fish and kelp fertilizer before planting.  Zucchini is a heavy feeder, so to prepare a spot dig a fairly large hole and mix in some complete organic fertilizer (found at a garden centre or mixed yourself following a recipe here). Mix the fertilizer in so that most of it ends up under the plant. Refill your hole back up with earth, and dig a small hole about two times larger than the root ball of your plant. Ever so gently, trying not to lose any earth, with two spoons if you have to, remove the plant from the container and place it in the hole. If you have a biodegradable container feel free to simply trim off the top lip so it’s below the soil (otherwise it will wick moisture from your plant), slit open the sides with an x-acto knife, remove the bottom and plant the whole thing. From what I understand the reason you want to keep the soil on the root ball is to avoid damaging tiny root hairs that feed the plant.  Take some of your pre-mixed fish and kelp fertilizer solution and pour it all around the new plants roots – aiming to mix a slurry that you gently push around the roots as it settles in.  Say a little prayer of hope because you just went through some serious labor to get this baby settled.

 

Zucchinis are notoriously prolific, and should be picked every day should you wish to encourage further fruit production. Pick the fruits when they are four to five inches long for best flavor, but I easily exceed that, and since it’s so fresh, the zucchini still has that sweetness and firmness that young squashes are prized for. Water the plant deeply as needed.

 

If all that seems like a good deal of finicky work – it is. Which is why many garden guru’s recommend simply waiting for good weather, warm soil and planting right outdoors. And frankly, many people will simply not bother with babysitting plants, just throw seeds down and watch what happens. I think the outline above is a Platonic ideal of zucchini’s life – something that you would take under advisement if your food supply and life depended on it. There’s nothing wrong with either approach depending on your personality and goals, so mix and match the advice above to fit your circumstances.

 

 Otherwise, if you followed the planting directions above, you will soon have one of these:

 

THIS IS ABOUT A FOOT TALL

THIS IS ABOUT A FOOT TALL

And then it will set these:

All about zucchini - flower

 

Which will turn into this:

 

All about zucchini - fruit

 

My zucchini bush ended up being about three feet wide, and close to three feet tall. Despite what I said above about zucchini being very prolific, which I’m sure they are, on a bad year, like this one, this plant only bore about one squash per week.  Hardly an overabundance. Next year I’ll plant two or three as we eat a great deal of zucchini and I will pick them a bit smaller.  This is a variety called eight-ball zucchini, so perhaps regular plants produce way more?

I’m sure some experienced gardeners would have more to say about growing zucchini in this cold clayey city of ours, so feel free to chime in with your experiences, memories, tips and tricks!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Culture shock in the land of plenty

 

cornucopia1

When my family and I immigrated to Canada we happened to arrive in Newfoundland in December. I won’t even attempt to recoup the shock of coastal cold after three years of basking on a tropical island, but needless to say it was formidable. After being installed in a temporary apartment, we waited for the courts to hear our case and decide whether we’d be an asset to this fine young country. A new country is always a very exciting place to explore, especially if you haven’t seen too much of the world and become thoroughly jaded. Culturally, climatically, and historically Russia, Cuba and Newfoundland were very different indeed.

One of the first things we did, after unpacking our few suitcases, is go to the local grocery store. If memory serves it was a Dominion, and it was a small supermarket, the kind that thrives in many urban neighborhoods. I clearly remember the awe of that first trip. The bright lights, the sheer amount of food, the choices and the selection were simply overwhelming. I think we wandered around the store in a kind of happy daze, just window shopping and having the pleasurable feeling that no matter how long you shopped you could never try all of it.

We purchased some staples – milk, bread, eggs, cheese, potatoes, pasta and a few condiments – ketchup, mayo, sour cream and the like. Having never seen any of the brand names in our lives, my parents guided their decisions strictly on cost so I’m sure we ended up with some variant of a store brand for many things. We also bought some veggies – some year-rounders like potatoes and onions, and some items that seemed wonderfully absurd in December – melons or strawberries or something. Hauling all the bounty home we settled in to prepare our first few meals and compare these newfangled packages of shiny colorful labeling to the stuff that we’d previously only seen in paper, colorless tubs or in bulk.

Soon a slight puzzled look was exchanged by us as first suspicions and confusion set in. As we chewed and tasted there was a definite disappointment in the air as slowly the realization came that all this wonderfully packaged, shiny or out of season bounty simply tasted bad. The dairy was flat and bland tasting, as anyone who’s traveled to Europe and had European dairy can vouch for. (In fact the only Canadian dairy brand I’ve had that compares so far, is the justly renowned Liberty). The mayo had none of the rich, eggy taste that we later discovered in Hellmann’s, the cheese was also – well like every overprocessed, supermarket cheese. The out of season fruit were woody, tasteless and watery and the bread was fluffy and sweet. Somewhere along the line we realized that the food we’d eaten all our lives had way more taste and we should not feel bad over the opportunities we missed not having a supermarket nearby all our lives.

Over many years we discovered some fine supermarket brands, farmers markets for fresh fruit and vegetables, went to eating more seasonally again and for me, at least, found other wonderful local food producers that cared enough to deliver a delicious product. There were other compensations too – the rice no longer had to be picked through to weed out the debris and weevils, the flour came pre-sifted, new spices could be explored and wonderful new condiments to be discovered – hello soy sauce! Not to mention the foraging – oh the foraging. Every single summer without fail finds us in the woods near Calgary foraging for wild mushrooms. Since most of the population fears getting sick or dying (cause driving is not way more dangerous), the only foragers out there are fellow Europeans who can’t believe the bounty. Some years the forest floor teems with mushrooms that grow as thick as carpet and you can fill your trunk within a four foot radius. Forest berries though less frequent, can also be found and wild saskatoons, raspberries, blackberries and currants round out the wild pantry.

We’ve come a long ways since that first supermarket shopping trip, and some days I still think that someone should print a small guide to supermarket brands so that newly arrived Canadians have a hope in navigating the morass.