Category Archives: Growing

Enjoying the “Fruits” of my Labour

For years I’ve been obsessed with growing fabulous, fresh fruit right here in Central Alberta. Not just saskatoons and strawberries – but grapes, plums, cherries, watermelons – yes, even kiwis and apricots. And I want to grow it all in my own backyard. Well, I can’t say I’ve got all those things checked off the list yet, but this year I’ve gotten closer than ever before.

This has been a fantastic season for growing fruit. After starting from scratch 5 years ago, my backyard is now producing all kinds of different delicious fruit. One of my personal favorites has been my Pembina Plums. We had about 5 gallons of these amazing plums this year. So juicy and sweet! I don’t think there is a fruit I enjoy more!

Pembina PlumsThen there are my “Chums” – my Cherry Plums. This is the first year that they have produced, and they are quite a nice little treat.

Manor ChumsThis variety is the “Manor Chum”. They are greenish-purple on the outside, and deep purple on the inside. Very tasty.

Manor Cherry PlumAnother highlight for me this year has been my raspberries. My Wyoming Black Raspberry grew like crazy – so much so that I think I’ll have to cut them right down to the ground this fall! They have almost overgrown the north side of my greenhouse! But they sure produce a lot of raspberries! And they are the perfect compliment to my “Fall Gold” Raspberries. These yellow raspberries are so mild! It’s all the flavor of a raspberry without the ‘raspy-ness’!

Fall Gold and Wyoming Black RaspberriesOf course, my haskaps really started to produce this year. I was amazed at how densely these little berries covered the branches of my little bushes. The kids loved picking these for a little snack. (And I’m excited for when my wife bakes up a batch of haskap berries muffins this winter!

Haskap BerriesMy grapes continue to ripen – I expect to harvest them in a couple of weeks. (My grape syrup from last year has just about run out.)

Valient GrapesMy muskmelons are getting to be a good size too. (Never heard of muskmelons? Think cantaloupe.) They got a late start, but I think they’ll be big enough for a tasty dessert or breakfast in the next days.

MuskmelonAnd finally, another fruit that I’ve highly enjoyed has been my cherries. I believe I had three varieties produce this year – hoping for another two to be mature by next year.

Sour CherriesSo it’s been a pretty great year for fruit. And hopefully next year will be even better! My kiwis have grown like never before (their vines have reached my garage roof), my apricots are coming along nicely, my blueberries are surviving (though not exactly thriving), and my hazelnut tree is slowly making progress. So we shall see what next year brings…

Grapes: They can actually grow in Alberta!

This week I experienced my first real grape harvest. Sure, I’d had managed to grow a few small clusters before – just enough to get a taste. But this year was the first year that I’ve been able to grow enough grapes to eat all I wanted fresh, plus harvest enough to make up some delicious grape jelly for the winter.

I have four different varieties growing in my yard here in central Alberta, but the two varieties that are mature enough to produce are my Valiant Grapes, and my Marechael Foch Grapes. The valiant grapes are larger than the marechael grapes (though still smaller than what you might find in the grocery store) and are packed with flavour! In fact, they are very similar in flavour to the Concord grapes that you buy in the store.

I have them growing on the south side of my garage on a trellis with my Kiwis. (Yes, you heard right… with MY KIWIS.) I’ve found this location to work great for three reasons!

Square Foot Garden Planting Plans

Recently, I’ve had a few requests about exactly what to plant in these square foot gardens that I’ve written about. Can you plant potatoes? How about carrots & peas? Or even tomatoes? Well, yes, yes, and yes. But…

In order to grow certain fruits and veggies in your square foot garden, you might have to plan ahead. For example, if you want to plant carrots, you need to make your containers a little bit deeper – maybe 8 to 12 inches deep. For vines like cucumbers and tomatoes, you’ll need some kind of support system like a trellis or stakes so that they can grow UP not OUT. Then there are other things that you CAN grow in SFGs, but they really work better in a traditional garden plot. Things like peas or potatoes take up a lot of space, and are best planted in long rows (peas) or large blocks (potatoes).

So with those thoughts in mind as you get ready to plant your SFGs this spring, here is my square foot garden planting plan from a couple of years ago – just to give you some ideas!

What will you be planting this year?

Eggplant Anyone?

While taking a landscaping course recently, I had to identify the colors used in a particular color scheme. One of the colors was ‘Eggplant’ and it got me to thinking about growing eggplants in my greenhouse. I don’t really even know what an eggplant is. Sure, I’ve seen some in the grocery store, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an eggplant plant. Is it like a pumpkin? Like a pear? Like a pepper? I have no idea. But it sure looks cool! I’ve never tasted it and have no idea even how to cook it, but I’d sure like to try to grow it and find out the answer to all these questions.

So I decided to do a little research. The first thing I discovered is that eggplant is technically a berry! Go figure that one! It seems pretty squash-like to me. Another surprise was that it’s a relative of the tomato. We’ll I’m certainly a fan of berries and tomatoes, so I think I’ll give it a try.

So, where to start? Well, I found this article at DIY Guides that walked me through all the basics of growing eggplants. It seems eggplants should fit right in with my tomatoes and peppers. They need an early indoor start, they like it hot, and should do just fine in my greenhouse. So I think I’ll give it a try.

If you’ve grown eggplants in your garden, let me know! I’d love to hear how it worked!

Better Late Then Never

After getting started tremendously late (due to landscaping issues), my garden isn’t looking too bad – all things considered. My corn and beans are growing nice. Peas… not so much. After the birds pecked them to nothing they’ve been slow to recover. I might get a taste, but certainly not anything for the freezer. Carrots…well, let’s just say that their current average height is about one inch. Radishes grew tall, flowered, and had nothing to show for it at the bottom.

But potatoes…. Now they might do something. I’ll at least have a good stock of baby potatoes if nothing else.

Potato flowers

Now that my greenhouse is up, my tomatoes are coming along too. I’ve got some good golfball+ tomatoes right now and lots of flowers.

Tomato Flowers in my greenhouse

And of course, old reliable. The one that never fails. Rain or shine, sheet or hail. Nothing can stop… the weeds! But at least something is growing. And they’re kinda pretty too.

Pretty Weeds

Block Planting Carrots, Onions, Lettuce, & Dill

I had a comment today on my post regarding square-foot gardens asking about some pictures of how my block planting had turned out this year. I had taken the square foot garden method and applied it to the traditional long-row garden style. I planted carrots, onions, lettuce, beats, dill, and a few marigolds to try to keep the bugs off the dill (which didn’t work – they flowered too late I think). But the block planting idea worked great. I think I’ll do the same thing next year. The lettuce should have been thinned out big time, but other than that, I’d do it all over again the same way. Here’s what it looked like:

Block Planting Experiment

This was in early summer. I should have been thinning my lettuce right about now.

Block Planting Experiment

This was about mid-August. You can see where the deer pulled out all of my beets just behind the onions.

So do I recommend this method? Yes. For any plant that doesn’t take up a lot of horizontal space, this method works great.



Seven Essentials to Growing Tomatoes

This is my third season of growing tomatoes, and believe me, I have learned a lot in three years. But perhaps one of my greatest sources of knowledge came from a Hydroponic Tomato Growers Workshop that I attended last spring in California. This workshop was geared towards people who were considering starting their own greenhouse tomato business. This was a HUGE source of information for me! There were so many things that I wasn’t doing, and so many things that I was doing in the wrong way. So, from my experience and from what I learned at that workshop, here are are Seven Essentials to Growing Tomatoes.

Me & the tomatoes

#1. Start ’em Early

Ok, you probably knew this one. In Canada our growing season is so short, not only due to the cold, but also due to our limited sunlight hours in the winter. We do have enough sunlight to grow foliage (like lettuce and the like), but we don’t get enough sunlight to produce fruit until about March. So if you have a sunny south window (or artificial lighting), start your tomato plants in late February/early March. That should give you a well established plant to transplant into your greenhouse. Read more about transplanting tomatoes…

#2. Grow Tomatoes in a Greenhouse

You know, tomatoes can be grown in the great outdoors, but they will be one or two months behind those that are in a greenhouse. I’m not sure how many frost-free days you have in your specific area, but you probably don’t want to lose two months of them.

So build a little greenhouse. It doesn’t have to be huge, although you can build a good sized greenhouse for little money as this article explains. Otherwise, Alberta’s weather may greatly hamper your bumper crop.

#3. Don’t Plant ‘Em Too Close

This can be said for lots of things. But especially tomatoes. They are such little plants when you transplant them, it’s easy to forget what a jungle they will grow to be in a couple of months. I did it. (twice) My mother-in-law did it. But don’t do it.

Tomatoes need proper air circulation, not to mention that pruning a jungle is difficult. The exact spacing will vary with variety, but as a general rule, put at least two feet between plants.

#4. Mulch Like Crazy

A good layer of straw mulch will help in a couple of ways. First of all, it’ll suppress the weeds. (That alone is worth it.) Secondly, it’ll keep the soil moist. Tomatoes are heavy drinkers and need a lot of water. A drip irrigation system coupled with a good thick mulch will make sure your tomatoes get the water they need. Just be sure not to over water – that’s what causes your tomatoes to split.

#5. Prune Often

This is the one that often gets missed. Some people believe that the more leaves the plant has, the more energy the plant will receive. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Yes, plants do need some leaves, but too many leaves will actually drain energy away from the plant. All the water and nutrients that the roots soak up must be distributed to those extra leaves, instead of the fruit. So here’s what you need to do.

First, eliminate all suckers. Suckers are the little shoots that appear in the elbow between the stem and a branch. Just bend it over and it will snap right off.

Tomatoes Needing Pruning

Secondly, remove any branches that are brown or wilting at the bottom. These do your plant no good. Get rid of them. For these, grasp the stem firmly in your hand and push the branch down with your thumb – it will snap off at its natural breaking point.

Did you know that it only takes three branches to support one cluster of fruit? A healthy, unstressed tomato plant should put out three branches, then a cluster of fruit, three more branches, another cluster of fruit, etc… Once the tomato plant has reached a good size, you can start removing three branches per week from the bottom of your plant. Thus, by the time you are ready to pick your tomatoes, there will be no leaves below that fruit cluster. Sounds crazy, I know – but that’s what the professionals do!

Note: For all tomato pruning, avoid cutting them off with a knife or other tools. Snapping them out with your fingers is very easy and the wound caused by breaking heals quickly. A cut is more likely to allow disease to enter.

#6. Pick BEFORE Tomatoes Are Ripe

This is another one that sounds crazy. Popular belief would have you “vine-ripen” your tomatoes. Surely they are sweeter, tastier, and probably better for you…. NONSENSE.

The fact is, by the time the tomato just starts to turn color (that slight greeny-orange color), it already has all of it’s goodness in it. And it’s actually the seeds inside that make the tomato ripen. As the seeds release ethylene (the gas applied to green bananas to make them turn yellow), the tomato ripens.

Don’t get this confused with the tomatoes in the store that are picked green and sprayed with ethylene – these are picked too early and do NOT have all the goodness inside yet.

So why not let them stay on the vine? A plant’s job is to reproduce itself. If the plant thinks it has successfully produced fruit, it will begin to shut down and produce less. But if you take the fruit away before it sends the “Mission Accomplished” signal to the plant, the vine will continue to pour it’s energy into producing fruit. (I hope I didn’t get too scientific for you there…)

#7. NEVER Refrigerate Tomatoes

Store tomatoes at room temperature. Never refrigerate. Temperatures below 12° for even a half an hour will begin to destroy the flavor. They may keep longer, but the amazing flavor that comes from a home-grown tomato will be lost.

So there you have it – not a comprehensive list by any means, but it’ll certainly get you on your way to growing delicious tomatoes in your own backyard. If you know of any other essentials to growing tomatoes, feel free to leave your comments!


Those Are Some Very Baby Potatoes

I just thought I update you on how my ‘potatoes grown in straw‘ experiment is going.

Right now, my Red Norland potatoes that I planted on May 19th are just beginning to bloom. That would be eight weeks from planting. (This, by the way, is a crucial time to keep your potatoes regularly watered to get large, scab-free potatoes – read more about that in this article.)

Potato Flower

One cool thing about this style of growing potatoes is that you can easily check on the progress of the tubers forming underground (or rather, understraw). I was curious to know just how big my little potatoes were at this point, so I carefully pulled away the straw at the base of the plant. And lo, and behold…

Very baby Potato

There it was. A tiny little potato not much bigger than a large pea.

So I learned/confirmed a few things today.

#1. Flowers on plants = formation of little spuds

#2. Potatoes grown in straw are going to be wonderfully clean

#3. I won’t be eating baby potatoes for at least a couple of weeks.

My Secret Potato Garden

This spring I had quite a few leftover seed potatoes. I hated to waste them, but I had no other places I could plant them. Then I got an idea. But first, let me give you some background…

Last spring I dug out a good chunk of sod to make way for a hedge. I threw all that sod in a pile out in the pasture. By this spring it had all decomposed into lovely soil. In fact, I had used scooped out some of the dirt for my raised beds earlier.

So now with extra seed potatoes and no place to plant them, I decided to just dump them at the base of my sod heap (where I had scooped out some soil earlier) and kick some dirt over top of them. (There was a pile of old hay nearby, so I threw some hay on a few of them to see if it would make a difference.) If they grew, great – extra potatoes for me! If they died, well, no big loss.

Since then, I’ve done nothing with them (no water – no weeding). I went out to the pasture to check on them this afternoon, and what do you know! Potatoes were growing. And they looked pretty good. They weren’t even covered in weeds! They looked… well, like this…

Potatoes in a dirt pile

Potatoes in a dirt pile

Needless to say, I was impressed. So I will continue to neglect these potatoes and see if, at the end of their life, they will yield me any freebies.

Growing Potatoes In Straw

This year I tried something new. I had heard rumors of other people doing it, but I didn’t know of anyone around here trying it.
So this spring, when I planted my potatoes, I didn’t plant them. Instead, I just dropped ’em on the ground in a somewhat straight row. No digging. No shovel involvement whatsoever. Kinda like this…

Planting potatoes in straw

Then, after I had them all layed out, I covered them all with about eight inches of straw, like this…

Planting potatoes in straw

Then I waited. And waited. And now, about a month later, they look like this…

Planting potatoes in straw

So what do I hope to gain by growing potatoes in straw like this? Well, two things actually.

#1. Less weeding

Thus far in the month that the potatoes and the weeds have had to grow, I’ve only had to pull out about five thistles that have popped through. These have been extra easy to remove because the root goes through the straw and is easily pulled out. Plus, no prickles under the straw either.

#2. Bigger Yield

Last year when I regularly watered my potatoes from the time they flowered until the end, I got the biggest potatoes I had ever grown. So the theory goes, if the potatoes are mulched, the soil won’t dry out nearly as fast. Thus even if I don’t water regularly, my yield will be increased because I won’t lose my water to evaporation. But that part’s still just a theory – I’ll have the proof one way or the other this fall. So stay tuned!

Update: June 22, 2008

And lest I forget…

#3. Easier Harvest

Rake back the straw, and there are all your plump, CLEAN potatoes – what could be easier?

Update: July 16, 2008

Check on the progress of these straw-grown potatoes…