On strawberries and optimism

Loved this article from the Lee Valley gardening newsletter by Karen of The Art of Doing Stuff: Strawberry Planter Update

The moral of this story? It doesn’t matter. Because by next spring, we’ll all have forgotten it.

This explains, pretty perfectly, the blend of ignorance and optimism that informs many of my own gardening decisions.

My own strawberry planter, which was planted with similar high hopes back in the spring, is not faring particularly well. It has been very hot and dry here this summer*, and many of the plants in here actually burned to a crisp when I didn’t water them for a hot day or two. I’m not exaggerating for comic effect or anything. I literally did not water them for a couple of days and their leaves turned into crispy little brown kale chips of failure. So my overall strawberry plant population has been reduced probably by a third, and there are no berries left on my plants, because there were only like 3 and we ate them already.

Here’s what we are eating from the garden: very spicy greens! Almost all the greens have bolted, but there’s nothing else to eat, so we keep picking them.

*Actually, I described Edmonton last week as a “nightmarish hellscape,” and I stand by that. It has been too hot to go outside, really, let along perform gardening tasks. It felt like the end times. When the heat broke with a rain storm on Sunday night I almost started to cry with relief.

Confessions of a guilty waterer

I’m pretty self-righteously eco-friendly about watering my garden. We have two rain barrels, with plans to add a third one this year, and my usual rules are (1) if I don’t eat it, I don’t water it (SORRY GRASS); and (2) Use city (hose) water only when absolutely necessary. In a typical summer, I might water with the hose 8 or 10 times total. Usually my rain barrels more than do the trick, and to be honest I love lording that fact over people.

Until this year.

We actually remembered to flip our rain barrels over in the fall for once (yay for very minor achievements!), but that means that in the spring they didn’t capture all the snow melt they usually do. And then since then it’s been a very dry spring, with a few sprinkles and only 1 or 2 proper rains that actually saturated the ground. So I just decided that until the barrels are full again, I’m just going to not worry about it. I’m going to ignore that little bar graph on our Epcor bill and go to town.

As a result, I’ve been watering with impunity. Putting the sprayer nozzle on and just spraying everything. And I can see why people love doing this. It’s so easy. It takes almost no time (compared to painstakingly refilling the watering can a dozen times from the dumb rain barrel). And it’s fun. It makes me feel like a firefighter, or like I am working at a bikini car wash*. When it’s on the mist setting, it makes this pretty kind of sheen in the air and drops of it get on your skin and it’s refreshing. I do feel a little guilty, but I also feel gleeful.

It’s going to be hard to go back. At least I’ll have my memories of the June I watered with the hose to keep me warm at night. That, and my righteous indignation.

*What I imagine this would feel like, as I have never worked at a bikini car wash. Opposing the objectification of women + lack of extra curricular activities I guess.

Unsolicited Advice, Pt III: Grow What You Like To Eat

This is another one that seems obvious, except SO MANY OF US AREN’T DOING IT. I think many gardeners are guilty of the occasional rote-planting of something because it always grew in family gardens growing up, and we feel like it’s not a garden without it. This is silly. I choose vegetables based on a complex and ever-shifting array of considerations, including food yield compared to how much space it takes up (SORRY CABBAGE, YOU’RE OUT), how good the garden-grown variety is compared to what you buy at the store (Hello tomatoes! Hi, strawberries! You guys are awesome) and how expensive the same vegetable is when bought elsewhere (when you consider this, growing potatoes feels like a losing proposition compared to the farmer’s market, but that’s just my opinion).

But most importantly: What will you actually eat? What will you get excited about going outside to grab right before dinner? What is the easiest to pick and snack on? What can go in your lunch bag easily, and better yet, what will you be happy to find in there? If you love homemade salsa, then you should grow nothing but peppers, tomatoes and cilantro. If making pickles is your jam (little food preservation joke there!), then grow a football field’s worth of cucumbers. If you’re a superhero and you only eat superfoods (that is how that works, right?), then grow acai berries and kale. It doesn’t matter. There’s no final gardening exam, and you can’t flunk if you don’t have all the categories represented.

So I grow: tomatoes, greens, peppers, pumpkins
Not: cabbage, beets, turnips, or squash

Unsolicited Advice, pt IIb: Your garden should be working for you

morninggloryI think we’ve probably all been guilty of buying an enticing-looking plant at a garden centre because it was in bloom and giving us a come-hither look.

< I bought these morning glories because of the way they were looking at me across the bar.

But, I firmly believe that garden plants should be working hard for me in addition to looking pretty, especially if they’re taking up a coveted full-sun position in my yard. The main way plants work for me is by letting me eat them, but there are other ways plants can be advantageous: they can fix nitrogen from the air and put it in the ground where other plants can use it (some perennials do this, as do peas and beans); they can attract pollinators like bees and butterflies; they can have a nice smell that you catch a whiff of every time you walk by, or that helps keep cats and other pests out of your garden, or that repels mosquitoes*; or they can be good companions to other plants (by confusing bugs that might otherwise eat their companions, for example). Plants that are only doing one thing are lazy, and by encouraging them and babying them, we’re just going to make them live in our garden-basements forever.

*Is there such thing as a plant that repels mosquitoes? I kind of don’t believe it, but if we all believe it, maybe the placebo effect will keep the mosquitoes away.

Unsolicited Advice, pt II: Grow the good stuff

The positive version of my “if it bails on you, bail on it” rule: Grow the plants that work here.

They might not be the plants you’re used to buying at the grocery store, or even the plants that you find at your local big-box gardening centre. They might be weird, or have a taste that people describe as “herby,” and you might not see them in any gardening magazine. But there are plenty of plants that will take cold winters (plus whatever other climate issues you have) in stride.

These are perennial greens like good king henry, sorrel and bloody dock; fruits that grow on canes or bushes like saskatoons and raspberries; and self-sowing leafy greens like orach and arugula.

I wrote about this issue in more depth on my previous blog: pt 1 | pt 2

Unsolicited advice, Pt I: If it bails on you, bail on it

Some of my classic unsolicited garden advice. Part of a continuing series, with no definite end point.

june5 (3)I’ve experienced a lot of gardening failures over the years. I’ve probably lost more perennials than I have currently alive in my garden. (If you find yourself asking, do the dead outnumber the living? This article from BBC News has the answer for planet Earth. In my garden, it’s yes.)

< These asparagus are all dead now. All, all dead. Like in this poem:
“Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.”
-Mary Elizabeth Frye

In the first few years of my garden, when a plant died, I would then go out and buy another one of that plant and plant it in the same spot, like some kind of glutton for punishment. In recent years, I’ve realized this is crazy behaviour. A plant that can’t survive in your garden is not the plant for you. Whatever the spot, something will grow there. But if you keep trying the same crappy plant in that spot, you’ll never find the amazing one that will stun you every [season] with its [attribute]. And in the meantime, the dead plant will not have its chance to fully become diamond glints on the snow (see poem, above), because you’re forcing it to keep re-living its failure.

The exception is if you have a passion for rare orchids or fancy hybrid roses or something; or if, like me, you’re trying to collect seemingly every hardy succulent variety under the sun. If the plant in question is something you’re passionate about, then go ahead and re-plant it. Otherwise, move on. There are lots of plant-fish in the garden-sea.