The Onion Flower

Writer and Horticulturist


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Dark Days Challenge Breakfast

The chaos of the holidays always seems to put good intentions on the back burner.

I had been hoping to cook a SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, ethical) meal before Christmas because I knew there was no way that Christmas dinner was going to adhere to the challenge rules. This year’s dinner was an extended family affair and although I supplied the local turkey I suspect most of the trimmings came from “abroad”. Between work, holiday shopping and various other commitments  however I never got around to cooking that meal.

And so, I bring you a Dark Days Boxing Day Breakfast instead!

Homemade 7 grain pancakes  made from Harmony Milk and Mountain Path flour with foraged raspberries and local Maple Syrup.

7 grain pancakes

L'Epoque Maple Syrup


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Looking Harder

Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper than the surface but a thriving food culture is often there if you look for it.

I was in Cleveland a couple of weeks of ago and despaired about the lack of fresh food in the downtown core. Nothing but gated convenience stores and closed retail shops as far as my feet could carry me. And then, on Friday morning from my hotel window I spied some tents set up in the public square across the street. I ran out with a cloth bag and a few dollars in my pocket and hit the jackpot. Greens, bread, jams, salsa, cheese and more. I bought one of everything that I could eat that didn’t require cooking and had a picnic back in my hotel room. I did a little research that afternoon and found a website for the Downtown Farmer’s Market. http://downtownclevelandmarket.blogspot.com/   They are only there once a week but this apparently is in addition to several other small markets that pop up daily in the city, not to mention the large and well established West Side Market, which has been in operation since 1912. http://www.westsidemarket.org/  I wish I had the time to visit this fabulous market but that didn’t happen on this trip. I did however find the Free Stamp vegetable garden on the grounds of City Hall. http://www.newsnet5.com/dpp/news/local_news/cleveland_metro/cleveland-city-hall-gets-a-new-garden

Spot the Cherry Tomatoes on the Ground?

I wandered through and picked a few ripe cherry tomatoes off the ground and some Thai basil to throw in my farmer’s market lunch. There was a little of everything in this garden and separate beds full of herbs as well.

Lavender, Sage, Thai Basil and More

I came across another vegetable garden the following day when I visited the Cleveland Botanical Gardens; although I knew I would find lots of beautiful plants there I didn’t expect to find an ornamental edible garden created by students no less.

Cleveland Botanical Garden

Apparently I sold Cleveland short. After more research I discovered that this city really does have a strong food culture. Just because it didn’t jump in my face didn’t mean it wasn’t there. If you think your city doesn’t support urban agriculture try looking a little harder. I think you’ll be surprised at what you find.

Ornamental Edible Gardens


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Vegetables Heart Flowers

I thought of photoshopping out the clothesline, but this is the practical reality of an urban garden.

My backyard garden is small, maybe 300 square feet and some of that is concrete and some in deep shade. Although I am determined to grow as much of my own food as possible I still love the beauty and pleasure flowers give and would never consider doing without them. The garden is my refuge and where I spend summers with friends and loved ones or read with a glass of iced tea on a hot day. Or, as the weekend dictates share a beer instead.

Man and Beer in Garden

To make all this possible I follow a scaled-down version of polyculture. At its most basic this involves interplanting edibles with ornamentals in such a way that they both benefit.

Snapdragons, Cucumber Plants & Dill

For instance flowers and herbs bring in more pollinators, the scent of dill repels cabbage moth and marigolds release a substance in the soil that kills parasitic nematodes. These are all great side benefits but what I really care about is how pretty the garden is and whether or not my vegetables will produce happily. I plan my garden all winter; changing my mind dozens of times over where things will go, and what they will go with. Small spaces can restrict creativity but also help to narrow down choices –  something I find hard to do. It also becomes more difficult to rotate crops from where they were the previous year when space is limited. When one plants beans or tomatoes here and there instead of in one perfect row it is difficult to remember exactly where they were.

Tomatoes, Rose & Iris

Then there are my edible or beneficial weeds – I don’t usually have to plant these because nature does it for me. Garlic mustard, Nettles, Lambs Quarter, etc… Although many of these are invasive I find the best way to combat that is to eat or use them. So although my garden looks like a muddle(and it is), there really is a method to the madness. As much as I admire other gardeners’ straight lines of crinkly lettuce and docile peas scrambling up their well-spaced out supports I could never maintain such a garden.

My garden is a bit of a jungle but it’s one that provides.

Jungle Garden


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Let There Be Light

Sunlight Through the Trees

Last week my tiny urban garden got a haircut. Although we don’t have any large trees in our own backyard our neighbours have large mature trees that overhang us. Manitoba Maples, an Oak and an Elm tree that make for a lovely but shady yard. Growing tomatoes, eggplant and squash is a bit of struggle when you’ve only got 4 hours of direct sunlight a day. And so, after consultation with the neighbours we went ahead and had one of the smaller, tightly packed trees removed and pruned the branches of the others. What a difference! Late morning sunlight now filters through this lighter canopy and strikes the ground in areas where leggy plants struggled in vain.

I expect to see these tomatoes turning red very soon now!

Green Tomatoes


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Filling The Hungry Gap

Foraged Greens

I had hoped to have photos of vigorous pea shoots and tall greens by now but this ‘one step forward two steps back’ spring were having has delayed everything – both in terms of what I’ve been able to plant and what has yet to appear at the farmer’s market. Although there are many emerging perennials, for the most part my backyard is still looking rather bare.

This month I have eaten the last of many of my frozen and preserved bounty. The canned tomato sauce, rhubarb-strawberry jam, frozen zucchini and stored winter squash to name a few. This of course is the classic hungry gap. The time in between when the stored harvest from last year peters out and the vegetables of early spring have yet to arrive. I hope to be better prepared for this next year with more food preserved as well as more perennial vegetables planted, but until then I am getting my dose of leafy greens by foraging for edible weeds.

Wild Violet

I’ve been eating them in salads and sandwiches, wilting them with butter like spinach and making jelly and syrup with the edible flowers of violets and dandelions. Garlic mustard, dandelions and wild violets are abundant near parks, bike paths and outside your front door.

Garlic Mustard

The garlic mustard in particular infests my own garden and I have found the best way to keep it under control is to eat it. It has a slight garlicky smell and a pronounced mustard heat that gets stronger as the leaves get bigger – great in a sandwich. Dandelion leaves add a radicchio-like bitterness which complements the green freshness of the wild violet leaves. These are just three easily identifiable edible weeds out of the many that grow in urban yards. If you’re going foraging yourself be certain to know what you’re eating before putting it in your mouth(and wash it). A good guidebook is helpful but joining a guided walk is even better.

Dandelion

Remember to stay off private property and pick responsibly – don’t decimate an entire population of anything and be smart; don’t eat anything you suspect may have been sprayed with pesticide (or dog pee)!


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Scratching the Itch

Homegrown Lettuce & Sprout Salad

It is possible to grow food in the winter.

I’m not talking about state-of-the-art greenhouses or potted herbs on the windowsill but actual lettuce and sprouts for my sandwiches and even enough for an occasional bowl of salad. Aside from scratching the gardening itch in the middle of January, growing lettuce indoors allows me to test varieties that I might want to sow outside in the spring. For instance, from this last batch of Buttercrunch, Cornetto di Bordeaux, Super Fiorentina, Grand Rapids and Prizehead; I now know that the last two are slower to germinate and overall not as appealing as the others. My garden is small and I have to discriminate as to which varieties will make the cut.

Since I’m growing these as cut-and-come-again lettuces I sowed the seed thickly across the surface of the soil. The trick with this type of growing is to sow a few trays at regular intervals so there are always some baby lettuce leaves to snip off, making for a decent handful without stripping each plant bare. This also keeps them in check from growing too big and crowding their neighbours. Lettuce germinates quickly and is happy in cooler conditions with less direct sunlight than most other vegetables, making it a perfect candidate for growing indoors when the weather turns nasty outside.

Although you’ll have a more bountiful crop if you use grow lights and a seed starting heat mat under your seedlings, I managed just fine without any of this. My trays sit on a desk near a south-facing window, with an ordinary light fixture above for a little extra heat and a plastic dome to keep the warmth from escaping.

With sprouts growing on my kitchen counter and homegrown lettuce to grace my tomato sandwiches I’m not feeling nearly so deprived this winter.


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Delayed Gratification

I have a taste for sour and fermented foods. Always have.

Dill pickles, pickled beets, miso, sauerkraut, kimchee, green tomato chow chow…You name it I eat it.  Fermenting foods is an ancient practice that requires no energy to preserve its freshness. The natural fermentation process does all the work for you and transforms it into a nutritious and tasty food that can store potentially for years. Since I’m trying to avoid store-bought foods that I can make myself I thought I would try my hand at sauerkraut. There are more recipes for sauerkraut than you can imagine but mine is based on a version from Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation; it is considered by many to be the bible of fermented foods. He also has a great website, http://www.wildfermentation.com/

Many of the recipes I found online were as simple as: slice cabbage, pound cabbage with salt, let cabbage sit. The following is what I did but remember that you really can’t do this wrong, nature follows its own rules here.

I used only half a cabbage, enough to give me two one litre glass jars of sauerkraut; but make as much as you need.

  1. Choose a medium-sized head of fresh cabbage, any colour or variety is fine. Split in half and cut out the heart. Either chop finely or shred, I prefer the texture of chopped. Layer in whatever you like for flavour and colour – grated carrots, onion or swiss chard work well. For spices, carraway and dill are classic but choose any combination you enjoy.

    Add Spices or Vegetables

    As you are chopping you can either throw the cabbage pieces into a large bowl or directly into jars. Sprinkle each large handful with salt, roughly half a teaspoon is what I used. Press down on each layer of cabbage – you want to push out the air as well as get the salt working to pull water out from the cabbage cells.

  2. Begin pounding the cabbage to draw out the moisture and compact it even more. Continue reading