Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Unblocking Food Potential of Small Gardens

Bearded Irises will be in full bloom in several weeks

Young pea shoots are one of the earliest harvests of all.  About two/three weeks later after sowing, thinning out the pea bed results in a good amount of succulent three-inch-high shoots.  

Though they can be eaten raw in salads, my favourite way is to sauté two cups of loosely packed, sliced, and washed pea shoots (shoots pinched off at the ground usually are entirely edible, however check for any fibrous lower stems requiring trimming) with minced garlic and some red pepper flakes in about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat in an omelette pan for about five to seven minutes till tender.  Scoop out the greens and reserve in a small bowl.  The residual olive oil should suffice.  Pour into the skillet three beaten eggs.  

While omelette is setting (lift up the perimeter bit by bit with a spatula to let liquid egg seep underneath), spread evenly the tender pea shoots and grated Gruyére on top, leaving about an inch around the edge free of topping.  Cover and leave on low heat for about a minute or two till the cheese melts, and then fold one half over the other with a spatula and slide onto a plate.  Cooked shoots taste somewhat like oriental greens. However, when consumed raw, they retain a fresh pea taste.

Pea shoots turn dark green resembling spinach when cooked

A rough estimate is--if we could even find veggies/fruits of similar quality and variety--it would cost us about ten thousand dollars annually to buy what we grow.  Might as well toss in the equivalent of a gym membership and weekly therapy sessions as gardening keeps me both physically fit and mentally sane.  Well, at least, a bit saner. 

Block-bed style, whether raised or not, is advantageous for small gardens because more can be grown, crop rotation is made simple, and preparation/maintenance of planting areas can proceed gradually and orderly.  Block beds can still be framed but not raised.  I have framed my level, thirteen 4-foot-by-12-foot beds with terracotta roofing tiles.  There was a small mountain of them heaped next to a dead cherry tree.  I began with just one bed off in a corner and gradually through two years, with the help of the Calm One, there is a good portion of our garden in a food-producing state.  Framing the beds this way is borrowing from the French approach of parterre, lending a pleasing structure to our garden.

The Calm One devised this string template to guide shaping rectangular beds
Tiles keep oak-leaf mulch neatly in place in centre bed

Paths between the beds need to be wide enough--at least a width of two feet--to allow for the passage of wheel barrows and to be able to kneel easily between beds.  Various weeds and grasses covering the paths are kept trimmed with my blue buddy, an lithium-battery-powered line strimmer.

Taking a much deserved rest

Horticultural fleece can be tucked easily under the tiles.  Fleece is so useful.  It protects crops from surprise frosts, extends the growing season, stops birds and other animals from eating/disturbing seeds, and protects against insects, especially carrot fly.  Fleece allows both sunshine and water to pass through.  I use the biodegradable form which lasts about two to three years, and then can be composted.  Tiles hold down flattened cardboard when I sheet compost (using the weeds already growing in place as a source of compost).

Living in a small city is convenient for finding discarded large cartons

The tiles act as slug traps.  Slugs crawl under them during the day to escape the sun.  I go down the sides of the beds, partially lifting up tile by tile, scrapping the slugs into a can of water.  Once drowned, they go on the compost pile.  But the real reason for the tiles is that Dayo insists on having a solid, dry surface to walk on.

Dayo strolling between the garlic and onion beds

Since veggies are grown so close together in block beds, the plants themselves act like a mulch, conserving moisture and retarding weed growth while looking attractively bushy.  Because I usually fill a bed with an particular veggie, it is not necessary for me to label the plantings. Each year, I make a rotation plan of what will grow in which bed covering three main harvests each year as my focus is intensive gardening, that is, getting the most food out of our garden.

One drawback so far is when hilling plants, like potatoes and strawberries, there is not enough spare soil since block beds are planted so densely.  Spacing strawberries a bit farther from each other than usual works a treat, and for potatoes I use compost and grass clippings to ensure that the growing potatoes will not poke up and turn green because of light exposure.  Another drawback is when initially weeding--before the bed can fill out and act as a living weed-suppressing mulch--it is best to forgo long-handled tools and get at the weeds up close with smaller tools.

Monsieur M often says when he spots me lightly spading a block bed, use the spading fork, it will be easier.  I tell him in my broken French that because I never walk on the beds, the soil is loose and it is easy using a spade.  He always looks puzzled and doubtful--no idea if it because of my badly spoken French, or he just does not believe me, or what is most likely, he is teasing me.  In any case, the frequent fork suggestion has become a precious part of my gardening routine, never failing to leave a smile on my face.


Sowing Peas


  1. Another great post - thanks! I do so want to come and visit you and see your garden in person!