Just about two months after planting, the garden is coming into its own and providing food for the dinner table.  I have had salads and greens a-plenty in the intervening weeks, but now there is real variety in the produce.  Here’s today’s dinner:

  • yellow pattypan squash, grilled on the barbeque with a black pepper
  • roasted Purple Chief potatoes with thyme
  • roasted baby beetroot (Detroit Red) with rosemary
  • Aladdin peas
  • and a grilled halibut steak from the Antigonish Farmers Market

What a great meal!  And there’s much more to come.  The purple Blauhilde beans have been grazed by deer to about 5ft off the ground but there are plenty of beans above that.  Strangely, the only other deer damage was to my garlic shoots.  They don’t seem interested in the onions though.  There are aubergines (eggplants) filling out and masses of green peppers waiting for sunshine to ripen them.  We ate the first ripe tomatoes at the weekend — a delicious yellow cherry.  The first red tomatoes are not far behind.  We have a globe artichoke ready to eat, and more to come.  While the broccoli is nearing its end there is still a red cabbage to eat, and the kale is recovering from the caterpillar onslaught.  I have continued to pick off caterpillars but the wasps are always buzzing around the kale plants and have done most of my work for me.  Soon the first sweetcorn will fill out enough to eat.  There are wild raspberries on the edges of the woods around the house, and the fall berries I planted a month ago are already starting to form.

How quickly the excitement of the first of a crop ready to eat can turn into hair-pulling over a glut.  The first cucumber was exciting – this is something I hardly ever bother to grow in England, as I don’t eat that many and they are readily available and cheap from local growers.  I’m not sure why I thought it would a good idea to put some in my Nova Scotia garden, but I did, and they grew and grew to the point that I am desparate to give them away.  There is a saying here that you don’t need to lock your car except in August — otherwise you’ll come back and find your back seat full of zucchini.  I don’t have the zucchini glut – in fact my ‘mixed summer squash’ seed packet has yielded a monochrome of yellow squash so far.  But I do have far more cucumber than anyone can reasonably eat.  Pickles anyone?

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Picking bugs off potatoes

Not the most thrilling of gardening chores, but I have discovered two kinds of bugs on my potato plants, so needs must.  The prettier of the two is also the more destructive (drawing no analogies to human life of course): shame the Colorado Potato Beetle didn’t stay home.

This is a young Colorado beetle, still small. If I let it keep eating my potato plants it will grow. You can see what it has been eating already.

A quick google confirms that before humans started invading its territory it was a harmless stay-at-home eating Buffalo Burr (part of the potato family).  Then it discovered how much tastier potato plants are, started growing faster and bigger, and managed to spread itself across the whole of North America.  Europe stayed free of them until after the Second World War when the Colorado Potato Beetle started appearing around American military bases.  Now it’s everywhere, though not widespread in the UK (thank heavens for the Channel) so it was new to me.

Besides picking off the larvae and adult beetles, there is not much more I can do at this stage.  But I’m thinking about future years.  The beetles overwinter in the soil to emerge in the spring and lay more eggs to hatch into larvae and eat more potato leaves.  I do wonder where they have been all this time, as there has been no garden in this spot for many years and the nearest vegetable growers are well beyond beetle-flying distance.  But here they are and if I don’t watch out the tomatoes and aubergines (eggplant if you’re reading this in North America) will also come under attack.

No pesticides for my garden — and in any case, they don’t work for Colorado Potato Beetles, which have quickly become immune.  But there are some good tips for preventing (or reducing) the over-winter problem by clearing the ground, clearing away the uncultivated areas that adjoin the garden, and making sure next year’s planting in the potato family is well away from the beds that house this year’s.  For more information on Colorado Potato Beetles click here (it rather amazingly has a whole website!).

Easy to miss, until they jump away, the Potato Flea Beetle is here too

But these are not the only hungry critters on my potatoes.  I noticed some small drab brown insects that fly or jump away when I get near.  These are Potato Flea Beetle.  They look like they would do less damage as they are so small, but their leaping about makes them much harder to pick off and dump in a can of water.

So now the daily routine includes an eagle eye along the potato rows, looking for beetles.

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Taming the tomato forest

Back home in England tomatoes are a frustrating crop.  Most years I swear I am not going to bother with them again.  Even where I live in the southeast of England, which gets the most sunshine and least rain, tomatoes need a lot of coddling and fussing.  There’s no getting away from latitude – we’re a long way north and though the Gulf Stream transforms our weather we don’t have enough sunshine for long enough to suit these southern creatures.  They like warm soil, lots of sun, plenty of food and ‘just enough’ water.  In England I grow mine in large pots or in growbags in the greenhouse, having found they don’t do well planted in the soil (probably not warm enough).  Then there’s the feeding (special tomato liquid feed), watering, staking and tying in, removing the suckers .. the work goes on.  Too often, just when the tomatoes are finally ripening at the end of August comes the dreaded blight.  Blight is an airborne fungal disease that attacks tomatoes and their relatives the potatoes.  Overnight the leaves turn brown and the plant has gone.  Swift action can save the tomatoes on the vines and turn them into chutney – but chutney is a poor substitute for the joys of the vine-ripened tomato.  And those joys are such that I keep growing tomatoes.  Most years the ones in the greenhouse survive the blight, and the outside ones survive often enough that I keep trying.

Spending a few days visiting old friends in Tennessee I was reminded of how ‘real’ tomatoes taste, and it’s nothing like the store-bought kind that have been shipped hundreds or (in Canada) thousands of miles.  They taste of hot, lazy summers and nothing beats a tomato sandwich dripping down your chin.

So I was eager to see how my Nova Scotia tomatoes are faring.  This is what they looked like after planting on 22 June.

Tomatoes after planting on 22 June. The black IRT plastic warms the soil. Note the little white plastic tags with the names of the varieties.

What a difference a month makes: they are doing very well — too well as the plants have turned into a forest.

The tomato forest on 30 July. I have just started the taming of the plants on the left. After this row there is another half row to work on.

Action is needed, otherwise I will have lots of green shoots but not many fruit.  I need to be ruthless, and cut out side shoots that are not very productive, to encourage the plant to put its energy into the tomatoes.  But there is a puzzle.  When I planted them each of the varieties was carefully marked with a little white plastic tag.  There are about 15 plants and 8 varieties in this row, all kindly donated by Jay who grew them from seed.  Some are ‘determinate’ which means they grow only to a certain size and limit themselves, so they don’t need to be cut back by me.  The rest do need me to remove the suckers and side shoots.  But mysteriously, throughout the garden, all my little white plastic markers have been moved.  Some have been discarded in random places but many have just disappeared.  Crows? Chipmunks?  Who knows.  But it’s a problem as I don’t know which tomato plants to work on.  I can’t tell the difference by looking at them, so they’re all getting a trim.

It requires some discipline to hack away at these flourishing plants.  They look a bit shivering and bare when I’ve finished, but I think a good feed with liquid seaweed and a few days of sun will set them right. I’m eager to taste that first red (or yellow) tomato straight from the vine – pure sunshine.

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Who’s eating my broccoli?

I have been watching the pretty white butterflies fluttering around my garden and wondering whether they are the same Cabbage Whites whose caterpillars regularly decimate my broccoli and kale plants back home.  Yep, they’re the ones.  They have them in Nova Scotia too (they were introduced into Quebec in the 1860s and have spread widely).  Looking closely at the leaves I see some Very Hungry Green Caterpillars munching away.

The culprit — or one of many. There must be something special about broccoli leaves.

I pick off all the caterpillars I can see and drop them in a can of water.  I’m not sure whether this counts as animal cruelty or if drowning is a quick and painless death.  The alternative is squishing, but there are an awful lot of them!

I’m not too worried about the broccoli plants — we have eaten a lot and the crop is almost over.  But the kale is still good for a lot more meals, and is so much less appealing once the leaves have been turned to lace by the caterpillars.  And I’m planning to plant more kale for my Fall crop.  I’ll need to net the new plants as the butterflies will continue to lay eggs until October.

While I’m busy with my gruesome task I have a very welcome visitor — a wasp carrying a small green caterpillar for its lunch.  It sits on a kale leaf and lets me watch as it prepares its little bundle for eating.  Now if there were 50 wasps and each were Very Hungry …

A welcome visitor — this wasp likes caterpillars

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Where’s the rain?

The drought seems to have abandoned England (where we were officially in drought when I left, though two months of monsoon rains soon followed) and migrated to Nova Scotia.  Antigonish has an average of 12 days of rain in June and 11 in July, but has seen only a few of them this year.  My new garden needs water so I spent a month carrying watering cans up and down the hill from the kitchen, before finally caving in and buying a hose.

I had a lazy moment when the hose was new and turned on the sprayer instead of using it to fill my watering can.  Great to sit on the hill and watch the water sprinkling over my vegetables – but we paid the price.  We have a well and the extra water demand seems to have overtaxed it at a moment when aquifers must be low.  Brown sediment appeared in our tap water, so I’m back to saving water from the kitchen sink to use on the garden, and using watering cans instead of a sprayer.

Things are growing despite the lack of rain – the weeds around the edges especially. The tomato forest needs to be tackled soon!

It’s interesting to see what grows and what doesn’t when rainfall is light.  The weeds don’t seem to mind the lack of rain.  They are, of course, perfectly adapted to where they live.  Many of the weeds (grasses, bindweed, wild roses) have deep roots that I obviously didn’t manage to dig out when I was getting the beds ready for planting.  Others are sprouting from seed on the surface.  But while my beans, lettuces and beetroot are struggling to germinate without rain, these weeds don’t hesitate.

The heat-loving plants are thriving in the sunshine — the tomatoes have become a forest, the squash is taking over.  Even the experimental sweet potatoes are growing and spreading.  The peas are not happy — they like cool weather and lots of moisture.  The celeriac are growing very slowly and the bulb has hardly started to swell — again, they need lots of rain.  Swings and roundabouts – gardeners are never satisfied of course, but it’s good that some plants are happy anyway.

Sweet potatoes start to take off — they like the heat. Only 2 of the four survived the transplant, but these two seem happy.

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Bugs — the bad, the good and the downright ugly

My lifetime chemical exposure has gone up a notch since I arrived here.  June is blackfly season in Nova Scotia.  A feast of fresh English blood is just what they like: on my first day here I ventured into the garden for 15 minutes between rain showers and came away with a ring of red, itchy bites.  Turns out their favourite grazing ground is around the hairline and back of the neck.  I needed some bug spray but with concerns about the health risks of DEET I was pleased to find that blackflies don’t like the smell of citronella oil.  However, the effect doesn’t last long and to keep them at bay I have to respray every hour or so.

Not long after the blackflies the mosquitos arrived.  Easier to deal with in some ways as you can at least hear them coming, and they are mostly a problem only in the evenings.  But my reaction to mosquito bites is even worse than to the blackflies — half my face swelled up, the bites create huge, swollen itchy circles that take several days to go away.  And mosquitos don’t mind the smell of citronella.  So DEET it has to be.  Or DEET and citronella as the blackflies are still around.

To lighten the chemical load I found a hat with attached mosquito mesh ‘veil’.  With a long-sleeved shirt, long trousers tucked into socks and boots I felt like Queen Victoria in her widow’s weeds.  The mosquito mesh made it difficult to see clearly too — fine for digging new ground but hard for weeding.  But for the first month I was mostly digging.

Gardening in a bug jacket — hot but better than being eaten alive

Then it started to get too hot to be dressed up so much, and I needed to see to plant, so the next purchase was a bug jacket, a hooded top made of mosquito netting, with a whole head hood that can be zipped shut, and tight elastic at cuffs and bottom.  This is still hot, but it’s slightly easier to see than with the hat.  I leave the hood down as much as I can, spraying with citronella and using the hood when I feel under attack.

On holiday at the beach I encountered yet another unfriendly bug — deerflies.  These are huge, can bite through layers of clothing and really hurt.  Not sure even the bug jacket could deter them.

So those are the unfriendly bugs – what about the good ones?  These are conspicuous mostly by their absence and I’m not sure why.  Where are the earthworms?  In my garden at home any turn of the spade will bring plenty of wrigglers out of their hiding places.  In the Antigonish garden I have seen very few worms.  There are some little ones in the manure pile, but this is very well rotted so there are not many.  In digging the soil I have encountered some small worms only where there are clumps of rotting sod for them to feed on.  Is the soil lacking in food for worms?  Is it too cold for them in winter?  Are they hiding somewhere?  The plants seem to grow, but it is strange to be working without the worms.

Some other good bugs are much less in evidence here than at home — honeybees and butterflies.  There are wasps around, so the wildflowers are getting pollinated.  But there are few honeybees.  There are some butterflies, mainly the white ones that I carefully net away from my brassicas at home as they lay their eggs and the caterpillars devour the leaves.  Will these white butterflies do the same?  My brassicas are not netted so I will find out, perhaps the hard way.  I have planted some bee and butterfly friendly flowers — borage, calendula, nasturtiums, so hope to attract more of these good guys.

And the just plain ugly?  There are some ugly millipedes in the soil, but the strangest are some large wasps with two body sections connected only by a thin thread (click here for a picture).  I think these are called Mud Daubers, as they build nests out of mud attached to walls and porches.  Good for the environment as they eat various pests, including Black Widow spiders.  But even their mothers can’t admire their looks.

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How does my garden grow?

After being away for 12 days I was afraid to look at the garden in case the deer had eaten everything, but it’s fine and looks more like a real garden with green things growing.

There are some puzzles.  Several of the beans and some of the lettuce have not germinated at all, not a single seedling.  Some of the cool weather crops like peas and salads are growing more slowly than I expected, but warm weather crops like tomatoes, peppers and aubergines are growing faster.  The tomatoes in particular, almost all donated by other gardeners, are looking lush and starting to flower.

Tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and sweet potatoes growing under their IRT black plastic

Of course the weeds are also flourishing.  In this newly ploughed piece of land are many weed seeds, along with roots, despite my best efforts are digging them out.  They all like the warm weather and have seized the moment to put in a takeover bid.  Most of the weeds are not familiar to me, but a weed is anything I didn’t plant.  My trusty Ibis hoe has been hard at work for the last two days and for the moment I am ahead of the weeds.

The weeds are growing but so are the onions and salads. The white plastic bag is part of my ‘deer strategy’

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