Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rhubarb Cake

     This recipe is from my aunt Barb and is much like a sour cream coffee cake. It is relatively quick and easy and it always goes fast around here.

Just out of the oven,
Yes, I did a major cleaning to get the picture LOL
I'll post a picture of a slice if it last long enough


2 cups sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup softened butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sour milk*
2 cups flour
2 cups diced rhubarb, fresh or frozen


1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg or allspice


Prepare a 9x13 pan
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Cream together butter and sugar.
Add egg, then milk, mixing until everything is well combined then add vanilla.
In a separate bowl, whisk flour and baking soda until well mixed.
Add to wet ingredients and mix until combined.
Fold in rhubarb and pour into prepared 9x13 pan.
Whisk topping ingredients together in small bowl until well mixed and sprinkle over the top of the cake.
Bake in 350 degree oven 45 minutes to an hour until golden brown and toothpick comes out clean.

* To sour milk add a tablespoon of vinegar to a 1 cup measuring cup then fill with milk. Let stand 10 minutes then use. I usually use sour cream instead of the sour milk and have used yogurt as well or any combination of the three depending on what I have on hand. All three work.

     The only problem I have ever had with this recipe is in cooking time. The sugar crust will clean a toothpick as you remove it so I have under baked this recipe a few times. I ate it anyway, still delicious. As always I have reduced the sugar by 1/4 to 1/2 a cup, just a personal preference. You can mix any fruit into this and there are endless combinations, use what ever is fresh or strikes your fancy. I have also used this recipe as a base for a ginger peach cake with honey instead sugar that was good too. I'll post that during peach season. I also want to try this with maple sugar.

      However you decide, do try this recipe. I'm sure you'll agree, it's worth the effort. Enjoy.

Stewed Rhubarb/ Rhubarb Compote

     With spring finally here, the first thing out of the garden is rhubarb. It has graced the table every spring for as long as I can remember. Most of my relatives have it growing like a weed in their gardens and when I'm home I always grab some. The tangy tartness pairs well with so many things, I would have a hard time deciding on a favourite recipe, strawberry rhubarb pie, Barb's rhubarb cake or Grandma Craig's stewed rhubarb with pineapple over biscuits.

     I grabbed a lot when I was home last. It is too early for strawberry rhubarb pie so I canned a lot of mine. At home it is referred to as stewed rhubarb but it is really a rhubarb compote if you are looking for recipes. I spent an afternoon in the kitchen and 4 hours and 40 cups of rhubarb later ended up with 21 jars of various delicious sauces and a clean kitchen. I had a base recipe to work with and I'll share my variations. The great thing about canning this is that it cooks really fast, 15 minutes for the longest batch, so you can do a lot quickly.


7 cups of rhubarb, cleaned and chopped into 1" pieces
1/2 cup of sugar- I like mine tart so sweeten to taste


Prepare and sterilize jars and lids according to manufacturers directions.
Cover the bottom of a stainless steel pot with water, rhubarb releases juice quickly so you don't need a lot
Add rhubarb and over high heat cook until the juice starts to come out, about a minute
Add sugar and bring to a boil
Reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 7 or 8 minutes total, told you it was fast*
Ladle hot mixture into jars leaving 1/2 " head space and process for 10 minutes in boiling water bath.
Remove and let cool

Yield is about four to six 250 ml jars depending on how much you reduce the liquid

    *Because of it's acidity, rhubarb is perfect for canning. I usually simmer mine a little longer to remove some of the liquid but you don't have to. Below are some of the variations I used.


Pineapple- add two cups of fresh or canned pineapple to the rhubarb and cook as above.
Blueberries- add two cups of frozen or fresh and cook as above. I upped the sugar by a 1/4 cup as well for this one
Orange- add 1/2 cup of orange juice and a tablespoon of zest and cook as above. I didn't use zest when I made mine and the orange taste was not as strong as I had hoped for so that's why I am including it
Mint- add 2 tablespoons of fresh mint and cook as above. This was a new one for me and it is delicious. I was a little hesitant to try it, not a huge fan of mint but am really glad I did. The other way to do this would be to mix fresh mint in before serving plain rhubarb compote. Definitely worth a try.

     I have always though of this as a dessert for biscuits, toast or over pound cake, but these sauces would work in a lot of savoury dishes as well. It would pair well with a white fish like tilapia or swordfish. The mint would be great with lamb. Any would be good with chicken or pork. The blueberry would be amazing with duck. It isn't just for dessert anymore.

     I though I had time to do a basics of canning post before prime canning season started but I guess I was wrong. My canning equipment has been out twice already. I'll try and get it done before the strawberries are ready. Barb's rhubarb cake is coming next.

    What is your favourite rhubarb recipe? Feel free to pass it along, I can always use new recipes to enjoy this often over looked treat.


     One of the great things of spring is morel season. When I was home over the Victoria Day weekend, I lucked into four pounds of these delicious wild mushrooms. They are the only ones I can always identify that are safe to eat. As we were hunting, I saw lots of other kinds. I wish I knew more about mushrooming and which ones wouldn't cause horrible, painful death. A quick note on morel safety, false morels are easy to distinguish. Real morels are hollow, false morels are not.

Morels, funny looking deliciousness

     I have eaten morels since I was a kid and never really thought much about them. They grow all over the place at home, nothing special. It was only when I moved to the city and saw them selling for $40.00 a pound, I realized what I had taken for granted.

My $40.00 worth, and we got four of these baskets!

     Why are they so expensive? They can't be cultivated and are only in season for a few weeks in the spring. A few of the ones I brought home were starting to rot, either too late in the season or the extremely wet spring we are having. They have a tougher, almost leathery texture, with an intense mushroom flavour.

     We always ate them fried in butter, like any other mushroom and that is still my favourite way to have them. There are many other ways to prepare them and I'll let you know how I stored, preserved, canned mine.

     First you have to clean them. I was foolish and didn't cut the stems as I was picking so dragged a lot of extra dirt along. Never again. Because of the brainy looking tops, they are hard to clean. Because they are hollow, they make excellent hiding places for all kinds of forest creepy crawlies.

     Popular theory says to soak them, some times overnight to get rid of the bugs and dirt. I say no, treat them like any other mushroom. Fungus of any kind is really porous so soaks up water like a sponge, ruining the taste and texture. Brush them and if really dirty or buggy a quick rinse and your done. A funny aside, I thought Ferd was going to have a stroke when he saw a slug come out of the ones he was cleaning. LMAO

     Once you have them cleaned you have several options, eat them fresh, dry, pickle or freeze them. I did the first three but didn't freeze any. Most people swore by freezing them but mushrooms don't normally freeze well. Any time I have frozen them, they were a gooey mess when thawed so...

     I got out my trusty Ronco dehydrator (thank you Ron Popiel, remember him, the infomercial guy?) and 12 hours later had a bunch of perfectly dried mushrooms to be used in sauces, stews, pasta and dried mushroom tarts. Easy and convenient, both good in my books and I didn't lose any valuable freezer real estate.

     The last pound went into pickles. I have never pickled mushrooms before and am hoping they end up kind of like the marinated mushrooms I have posted previously. It is a really easy recipe and can be used for any kind of mushroom. I got the recipe online and made my substitutions.


1 pound of mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
6 small green onions, cleaned and thinly sliced
1 1/2 cup vinegar - at least 5% acidity for food safety*
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon pickling salt **
bay leaves
garlic cloves

* The acidity of the brine is what makes canning safe, don't use less than 5% vinegar and don't reduce the amount

**Pickling salt is made for canning and doesn't have the additives other salts may so I don't substitute


Prepare and sterilize jars and lids as per manufacturers instructions
Combine vinegar, water, wine, sugar and salt in a stainless steel pot and bring to a boil
Add mushrooms and onions, bring back to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
Place 1 bay leaf, 3-4 peppercorns and  1 garlic clove in the bottom of your jars. These ingredients are just for flavour so use as many or few as you like or omit them altogether. The same applies for the green onion.
Ladle hot mixture into jars, leaving 1/2 inch of head space and process 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.
Let sit for two weeks to develop the flavour.
I got 3 250 ml jars.

     Mine will be ready next weekend so I will let you know how they taste and if this recipe is a keeper.

     What is your favourite way to prepare morels?

Monday, May 30, 2011

May 24, 2011

     It has been a while since I posted anything so now its catch up time. I wanted to keep all of my posts timely but... life intrudes, so this is a little late.

     I would normally have spent the May 24th weekend at home in Toronto, furiously planting my gardens and getting things cleaned up outside. The weather wasn't cooperating this year, gloomy, rainy, so I went back to the farm instead. I am so glad I did. It was supposed to be rainy and gloomy there too but turned out to be a glorious weekend. I spent the entire weekend outside. What did we do?

     I always love to visit when I'm home and I really lucked out this time. What did I haul back to the city this trip?

     Let's see. Morels, 4 pounds of them. They grow in our bush. Ferd and I spent about 9 hours over three days combing the bush looking for these little beauties. French farmers have special pigs to find truffles. I have Ferd, my morel pig. LOL We ate some fresh, dried some and I pickled a pound of them as well.

Ferd the morel pig

     Wild leeks, or ramps, also grow all over the place in our bush. We saw thousands of them. I didn't bring any back but am kicking myself now. We ate them raw as kids when we were roaming the bush. I love the garlicky onion taste. I have seen some great recipes for ramps I would love to try out, next year...

     My aunt Jean and my grandmother both gave me rhubarb, 15 lbs worth. In all fairness I did help clean the beds up too. That went into some great sauces, some frozen and aunt Barb's rhubarb cake, all delicious.

     There were a few new arrivals while I was back. Two ewes had lambs over the weekend. No, I did not bring one of those back. Ferd thought it was great feeding the newborns. They had to be brought in the barn to protect them from wolves.

     I did the rounds of relatives gardens, I always like to see what everyone has growing. My aunt Jean was dividing her mini irises and gave me two huge pieces, a deep purple and a pale lavender. Beautiful. They should look great in my garden next spring.

The transplants, and a few blooms survived

     My Mom was getting rid of some of her flower gardens so I got primrose, lilies and lupin seedlings. I didn't go home for the free stuff, but..... it is always welcome. LOL

     While visiting my aunt Marlyn, uncle Don and their daughter Wendy, yes that makes her my cousin, I saw two things I had never seen before.

A mutant green trillium?? go figure

I think Marlyn called them Gaywings,or Maywings??
Pretty little pink wildflowers I had never seen

     Finally, I got to meet one of my cousins who has done so much research into the Craig and Dowsett families. She brought a small part of her collection and it was amazing to see everything she has done.

     All in all, a spectacular way to spent Victoria Day. Now I just need a vacation from my vacation, after the morels are preserved, the rhubarb done up and all the plants planted................ Hope your May 24 was as much fun as mine.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

To shake or not to shake, Salt

     Sea , Kosher, pickling and good old iodized,  our most common seasoning, salt.  It has a long history as a preservative and a taste enhancer. There are not a lot of recipes out there that don't call for at least a pinch. So what exactly is this substance we put in so many of our dishes? What does it do? Why all the fuss?

     Salt, sodium chloride, is a naturally occurring mineral and is essential to life as we know it. Found all over the world, it has many tastes and colours that it picks up from different trace minerals. It is a natural part of all our food and water. Salt regulates water content/fluid pressure in the body and sodium is one of the electrolytes that facilitate electrical signaling in our nervous system. Too little is almost as bad as too much. Here's the rub, how much do we need to stay healthy?

     The consensus among most of the world's health agencies is about 1500 mg/day. A teaspoon of salt is about 2,300 mg. The upper limit of consumption before it poses a possible health risk is 2,300. The average Canadian uses about 3,400 mg, more than double what we need and well over the upper limit. This increases the risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure and obesity just to name a few.

     Why does salt pose such a problem? Most people consume 75% of their salt/sodium from hidden sources, not the salt shaker. Google sodium based food additives, you'll be amazed just how many there are and where they show up; sodium nitrate, common preservative, sodium bicarbonate, baking soda and baking powder. It is in everything from fruit juice to baked goods.

     What does salt do? It's main function is as a preservative. It extends the shelf life of a product. It accentuates taste, saltiness is one of our basic taste senses. In baking it toughens gluten, providing a better crumb. It also regulates rising in dough, apparently you can't make bread with out it.

     Personally, I've never been a huge fan of salt. It isn't that I don't like the taste (crispy salt skin chicken from Chinatown hmmm), just not all the time in everything. Many recipes and cooks are too heavy handed. If you have read through the recipes, you have noticed I omit/reduce it in most of my cooking. I have sea, Kosher, pickling, iodized and a little bag of some designer stuff Ferd picked up in my cupboard and I use all of them.

    Reading on the subject, there are all kinds of opinions on the use of salt in cooking. Some claim it enhances all the sweet tastes in dessert cooking, I disagree. I have never had anyone miss it in my desserts. They have never noticed a difference if I use it or not. Yes, I occasionally use my friends as guinea pigs.  No one has ever described my "sweets" as bland, flat or oily tasting and trust me, my friends aren't that nice LOL. If they didn't like it. I'd hear about it.

     I have read chocolate isn't the same with out it, huh? I like a little heat with chocolate, some chile pepper but I'll pass on the salt.

       In savoury cooking, I find many people over do it. It's so easy, prepared marinades, salad dressings, soup bases, tomato sauce etc are all heavy on salt. Once it's in there it is next to impossible to get rid of. I use a little because there really is a taste difference between cooking with or adding after but I like to have the option. I'd rather add a bit than scrape that salty feeling off my tongue.

     Where do you weigh in on salt? Are you a shaker? Is your cupboard full of tiny bags of designer multi coloured crystals? Leave a comment and let me know what you think on the subject of salt.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Maple Syrup Pie

     I finally got around to trying this recipe in my quest for the ultimate maple sugar pie recipe. Another swing and a miss, again delicious but not what I was looking for. Maple sugar pie is like tomato sauce in Italy, every family has it's own secret recipe. I may never find the one I am looking for, but I'll bravely soldier on, baking and eating, baking and eating. LOL

     The common thread in these recipes is simplicity. This one only has four ingredients for the filling and cooks in less than 10 minutes.


1 1/2 cups maple syrup
1 cup heavy cream*
1/4 cup corn/potato starch**
1/4 cup water

1 prepared, baked and cooled  pie shell, recipe here


In a heavy bottomed sauce pan over medium heat whisk together cream and maple syrup.
In a small bowl whisk together corn starch and water until smooth, add to syrup and cream mixture
Whisking to prevent scorching, bring to a boil and cook about 2 minutes until thickened
Pour into pie shell and cool

* the recipe calls for 35% cream but even milk would work if your counting calories, but really?
** I made two pies, one with potato starch and one with corn starch. You couldn't tell the difference. I wouldn't use flour as a thickener, the filling doesn't cook long enough to get rid of that raw flour taste.

     I think this would make a great meringue pie, it is similar to the butterscotch pie posted earlier.  The filling would also be good in a flan, topped with strawberries or raspberries and whipped cream.

     Do you have a favourite maple pie recipe? Pass it a long, I'd be happy to give it a try. Enjoy.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Container Gardening, growing in pots, Gardening 101c

     It is still raining, and is supposed to continue until Friday, so it is the perfect time to get a few more posts together before the BIG planting weekend that is coming up. I will be too busy then just like everybody who gardens. I'm not sure which is worse, Christmas shopping on the 24th of December or plant shopping on the May 24th weekend.

     I've already gone over a few of the basics if you are new to gardening, here and here, taken you on a tour of my planting areas, here, so now I'll move on to container gardening.

     If you live anywhere but on a farm, you have three gardening options to test your green thumb.

     If you're like me, you can tear up your lawn and garden on your lot. I hate cutting grass so it was a no brainer.

     Many places have access to community or allotment gardens. These are great for the apartment or condo dweller. I help out when I can at the one close to me in Christie Pits. I think these are great ideas and real community builders. Unfortunately there are only so many plots, so there is always more demand than space available.

     That brings us to container gardening. This is perfect for the person who has a balcony, patio or just a good sunny window where you live. Gardening in pots has some unique challenges. Don't despair. I'll take you through my experiences and hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.

     This is mainly about vegetables and herbs but can apply to flowers as well. Here are the things you need; containers, sun, water, soil  and plants.


     They come in all shapes, sizes and materials. Something to keep in mind, plants need room to grow. Buy the right size for what you are planting. Bigger is almost always better. Roots go down, mostly, so deeper is good too. Match your pots to the plants and your expectations.

     For example, probably the most popular container vegetable (fruit actually) is tomatoes. They start well then fizzle as the season progresses. Tomatoes need a lot of room, water and are nutrient pigs. My wine cask is about 22 gallons and is perfect for one mature tomato plant. Yes you can grow them in smaller ones but anything under a 5 gallon pot and you are looking at a lot more watering and feeding to keep them healthy.

     The same thing applies to herbs. Those beautiful packaged herb gardens, stuffed to overflowing look fantastic, for a couple of weeks. They are too crowded with no space for your herbs to spread. Nutrients are quickly depleted, usually they mold because not enough air flow around the plants and you are left with a not so lovely looking bunch of straggly plants.

    Another common mistake, no drainage holes in the container. Unless you are growing bull rushes or papyrus, you need drainage for your pots. Most plants don't like to sit in water, it rots the roots. If you have saucers for your pots, fill them with pea gravel or use planter "feet". It keeps the bottom of your soil from being waterlogged, a great source of all kinds of plant diseases.


     Same as for regular gardening, location , location, location. I don't know of any vegetables or herbs that thrive in shade so you need eight hours of sunlight. If you don't get that much sun, plant flowers and enjoy them. Avoid the frustration and disappointment of trying to grow things where they won't preform.

      Here is the other reason to pick your spot with care, pots can be very heavy when full of earth and plants. I know, I've moved my half wine cask planter a few more times that I care to admit chasing the sun, so plan ahead.

Soil and Water

     Because of the small relative size, containers need a lot of watering. The smaller the pot the more frequent the watering, usually daily sometimes more. This washes nutrients out of the soil faster. Unless you bought earth with time release fertilizer in it, you need to feed you plants all through the growing season. There is no way around this if you want to keep your plants healthy and lush.

     To test your pots, push your finger in to the earth just past your first knuckle. If the soil is dry, water, if damp or wet, don't. It can be a bit tricky getting the hang of this. It is incredible how fast your plants can dry out over the course of a hot summer day. You want to avoid having your plants wilt down because of drying out then soaking them to revive them. It shocks the plants and is generally not great for their over all health and productivity.

     You have your pots and earth, you've checked the amount of sun you get, now it is time to plant. Keep in mind plants need space. One to grow and secondly for air circulation around the plants. It allows them to dry after watering so they don't mold. A tip for helping keep down mold in your container, water occasionally with chamomile tea. It is a natural mild anti fungal.

     For vegetables and herbs, less is more. If you stuff your containers to overflowing be prepared for more maintenance, watering and feeding, to keep everything healthy.

     Here are a few things that do really well in smaller pots, for me a smaller pot is a 12" one. You can always ask for advice on what to plant at your local nursery, most are very helpful.

    Salad greens; Swiss chard, four plants produce an amazing amount of greens, arugula and leaf lettuce. None of these seem to mind being crowded and will produce most if not all season long.

     Beans, six to eight bush bean plants put out an astonishing amount, keep them picked to ensure a continuous supply.

     Single plantings of herbs, thyme, oregano, basil, rosemary, chervil, parsley, chives, lemon balm, I could go on and on. Again, you can use smaller pots just more maintenance to keep them growing. Avoid things like tarragon or savoury, they grow quite large and need a lot of room. You can grow mint, I swear it will grow in the crack of a sidewalk but it won't over winter in a small pot.

     There are lots more options, these are just my favourites. Leave a comment below and let me know yours.

     My containers are mainly for annual flowers. I like the colour and smell but am unwilling to give up valuable garden space. I do single herb plantings, close to the kitchen door, but my herbs in the garden always out preform. I also plant my bulbs in pots. It is a little weird but I can always find them to bring them in for the winter.

     I have done container gardens for years. It was my only option when I moved to the city and lived in apartments. I have had good luck and bad but definitely recommend giving it a try.

     Are you a container gardener? Drop me a line or leave a comment and share your gardening wisdom. If you have a question, by all means ask. I'll help if I'm able. Get out and get growing, LOL.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I'll show you mine... a tour of my garden

     I have always learned by seeing and doing so here is the tour of my various garden patches and what they look like now. Okay not right now, it has been raining for three days but as of Thursday.

Click on the pictures to view full sized

The view from the patio

     This is the long shot taken from the seating area of my back yard. You can't really tell but there are actually four gardening areas in this picture. Here is the explanation of what and why.

     Let me preface this by saying my garden soil is crap and not the good kind. It is fairly typical of what you will encounter if you are gardening in the city. Very little topsoil, lots of sand, broken bricks, cement, tar, coal, glass and garbage. All typical of city lots that have seen  a lot of construction and/or renovations. The garden I have is the end result of seven years of work and it is far from over.

     To add to my location woes, I have two mature trees on my lot, a black locust in the front and a black walnut in the back. Both have a profound impact on how I can garden in my spot.

     Last but not least, my lot is about a half meter above the sidewalk. My entire lot is like a huge raised bed, very difficult to keep watered in the heat of the summer.

     The First Division

     The first divide in my garden is between light and shade. The path is my divide. Everything on the right gets full sun, the left, shade. My fence casts a narrow shadow almost all day. Here are my shade plants.

Bleeding heart, it will be about a metre across in full growth
It is bracketed by snowball astilbe and toad lilies

Trilliums, blood roots, wild phlox and hosta

Jack in the pulpit, growing like a weed

Jack again, second clump, and the ferns just peeking up

   My shade garden is almost all perennials and a lot of native plants. In the summer I add some impatiens for colour. I don't know of any vegetables that will produce in shade.

     Division Two, Three and Four

     These are the various full sun areas inside the fence, divided by their proximity to the walnut tree. Two is the closest, four, the strawberry patch, is furthest away.

     Division two is mainly flowers and herbs. This has been a lot of trial and error because of the influence of the walnut tree. There are lots of plants that can't tolerate the juglone it produces. It is worst at the drip line of the tree but it's roots spread through most of my gardens.

Violets, dianthus and columbine

     Perennial herbs, oregano to the right, thyme, sage and lemon balm.
My blanket flowers just at the top edge

Creeping plox, soapwort, black eyed susan, hecuba, snow in summer, dianthus, peonies and irises The plox is from 2 little 4" pots and has survived 3 moves in the last 5 years

     Division three is my tomato, eggplant and cucumber patch. It is the only spot where they will grow. It also has my tarragon and chives in it. Two things I rarely use but....

The inside vegetable patch with my hydrangea at the front right corner
Yes, that poor thing is my attempt to grow a hydrangea

     Division four is the strawberry and rhubarb patch. It is the best soil I have on my lot and would be perfect for vegetables if there wasn't that enormous locust tree in front. The tree puts out leaves late so the strawberries and rhubarb are well on their way before they fall into partial shade. Good things grow around the air conditioner.

My ornamental, non spreading strawberry edging plants
My best mis-labelled plant purchase

     There are two other areas inside the fence, the lily bed, with Grandma Craig's mint and my containers. The containers are empty right now and the lilies are in a small bed so not really a big gardening area. I have no idea why but I killed two plantings of mint. Grandma's has thrived. ?

     Container gardening is its own animal and I will try and do a post only for that before the May 24 weekend.

Lilies, mint, and more violets (they spread like crazy)
My dahlias go in here to provide colour after the lilies are done

     Whoever said the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence never saw my lot. I have one area outside my fence. It is the one closest to the afore mentioned walnut tree.

The other side of the fence, tree on the left, garden on the right.

A closer view, can you believe the weeds already?

     I guess this would be division six or seven if you are keeping count. It looks rough right now and I was going to pretty it up before I took the pictures but there are lots of beautiful garden shots out there. This is what mine really looks like right now. It won't stay that way but I haven't had time to get it ready yet.

     I originally had such high hopes for this spot. It is 6'x19' so a fairly large area. I had visions of all kinds of produce coming from my very own garden. Reality intrudes. Other than the occasional garden drive through, (a big shout out to all the idiots who use my driveway to turn around, Thanks for being so careful) that @#@# tree is unfriendly to a huge variety of vegetables and flowers. I had no idea. It was only after two years of failures I realized something was amiss.

     This spot is where my beans, peas, Swiss chard, oak leaf lettuce and zucchini thrive. I also have thorn less blackberry bushes along the fence. I always border this garden with marigolds and arugula. Marigolds for visibility and arugula because I love the stuff. I actually like the colour and  smell of marigolds and Grandma Craig always had them in her garden at home. They are supposed to be an insect repellent.

     As you can see, most of my beds are a mix of perennial and annual, flower, vegetable and herb. Personally I like that lush overgrown look. I can appreciate the manicured, everything in its place kind of garden, I just don't do that at home. The only thing I can't grow, because of space and that tree, is potatoes. I miss fresh out of the ground potatoes, heavy sigh. I guess I really am a farm boy at heart. LOL

      I have led you down the path, past the outdoor fireplace, fountain and patio set, by the barbecue, out the back gate and down the driveway. I'm tired now. LOL This upcoming week will be busy getting all of the beds ready for planting annuals and seeds. Lots of weeds to pull and compost to work in.

My shovel and size 11's, ready for action

     I've shown you mine, drop me a line and tell me about yours. Leave me a comment below and share how your garden grows.

Getting to know your soil, Gardening 101b

     You have picked your spot, rolled your sleeves up and are ready to take the plunge into the world of gardening. As you put your spade or trowel into the ground, here are a few things to know about your soil.

     Is your soil sandy, silty or clay?  What does loamy mean? What is humus? (No it isn't a dip) What are pH values? How does it affect my plants? Why do I need to bother with any of this?

     The last question is the easiest to answer. Knowing about your soil will help to avoid problems during the growing season. Gardening is a labour of love but it is labour, sometimes a lot of labour. Knowing about the earth you are planting in will help to avoid disappointment and frustration later on. Here is your quick and easy explanation to many of your soil questions.

     Soil is typically described by particle size. Sand is the largest, clay the smallest and silt somewhere in between. Your earth usually is identified by the highest concentration one of the three above.

     Sand as the largest drains water easily, is well aerated and roots spread quickly and easily. On the negative side, very poor water retention and usually low nutrient count. A plus or minus depending on your point of view, it is easy to uproot plants grown in sandy soil. All sand is not created equal. Gardening sand or sharp sand is exactly that. Rough and used to break up heavier soil. Builder's sand, used in construction is smoother, will compact more and has a tendency to bind with heavier soil rather than break it up, the bane of the urban gardener.

     Clay is the finest particle. It usually has a high nutrient count and retains water well. It compacts making for poor aeration of the soil and it is difficult for roots to spread. Because it compacts so much, when dry it can become a water barrier, negating it's water retention properties.

     Silt being in the middle as far as size goes, is a combination of both of the above, not really outstanding in any one area nor does it have any really negative properties.

     Loam describes earth that is a combination of all three in roughly equal amounts. It is the ideal growing medium, the best of all worlds. All you need is a generous helping of humus and you are almost ready to grow.

     This is a vast oversimplification of soil conditions, but does provide a starting point for identifying what you have in your garden. Two quick soil tests; wet your soil (damp not soaking). Rub a little between your thumb and forefinger. If it is gritty like sandpaper, sandy, smooth and a little slippery, silty and if it is sticky and tacky, clay. You can also squeeze it into a ball in your hand. If it falls apart, sandy, if it holds together but crumbles easily, silty and if it sticks together in clumps, clay.

     Humus the end result of organic/vegetable matter decay. It is what you are aiming for when you compost. Typically dark in colour, it is relatively light when dry and has a rich "earthy" smell. Humus is loaded with nutrients, a great food source for your plants. "Black Earth" is a form of humus usually made from peat.

     The easiest way to change or amend your soil be it heavy or light is to incorporate organic matter or humus. It helps break up clay and sandy soil gets a boost in nutrients and water retention. Changing your soil condition is a continuous process, even good earth gets depleted when you are growing things. Your ideal growing medium for most plants is about a foot to 18 inches of loamy, humus rich soil with a neutral pH value of around 7.

     What does the pH value indicate, the acidity or alkalinity of your earth. It is measured on a scale of 0 to 14. The lower the number, the more acidic the higher, more alkaline or basic. Neutral is the half point range on either side of 7, roughly 6.5 to 7.5. Neutral is where most of your plants will fall but things like blueberries or heather thrive in more acidic conditions with lilac and clematis preferring more alkaline.  

   So what?  The pH of you soil determines how nutrients are made available to your plants. If it is off you will get stunted or no growth. It isn't absolutely necessary to test your pH unless; you are trying to diagnose poor performance from last year or you just want to be pro active and avoid any problems in this area. Almost any garden centre should have a simple pH test you can use at home.

     It is relatively easy to "fix" a pH problem. Lime will raise it and sulfur or green compost will lower it. Ask your garden centre how to use lime or sulfur correctly.

     There it is, the dirt on ... Dirt.

Monday, May 9, 2011

May I? What to plant when

     Here we are, the April showers have passed and now it is May flowers. I, like many others, enjoyed the gorgeous weekend outdoors, in my garden. I even broke my cardinal gardening rule, I bought plants before the May 24th weekend.

     I went to my local garden centre, just to look. I usually make quite a few trips during the season as the plan for my garden evolves. I was surprised by how much and many things were already available and I caved. The first time ever and it was silly really. I won't actually plant anything, there is still a danger of a hard frost. Remember last year? We got frost just before May 24 and it killed the flowers on my roses and peonies. I heard a lot of moaning about premature planting last spring.

     What is safe to put in the ground right now? There are actually quite a few options.

     As far as annuals go, pansies can stand just about anything this time of year can throw at them. They do not thrive in the heat of the summer. Unless you are doing pots of daffodils, tulips etc, it really is best to wait for all of your other flowers. I don't know of many that can survive a big drop in temperature. If you want to take a chance or are willing to cover or bring them inside, go crazy. I don't plant a lot of annual flowers so my knowledge is quite limited.

     Now is the time for bulbs and tubers. Lilies, dahlias and gladiolus can all go in the ground. The chance of an actual freeze is pretty much passed so all of these can be planted. You can also plant tulips, daffodils and crocuses. They won't flower this year and you don't have to plant them this early but many garden centres will have the bulbs on sale, it's the wrong time of year so no demand. Gardening is all about planning for next year.

     There are quite a few things that like the cool weather in the vegetable patch. Radishes, beets, potatoes, turnips, parsnips, onions and carrots, all can go in the ground now. Most root crops prefer cooler weather and do best if planted early. A really hard frost might kill the tops but most will survive and re sprout. None of these plants like extreme heat and can be very problematic for the urban gardener.

     A little potato growing tip, plant your potatoes in a hole about 8-12" deep. As they sprout, cover them with more soil. Repeat until you have a hill about 6" high. You will have a bigger hill of potatoes with a higher yield in the same amount of space. My father swears by this and always has a good potato crop.

     Swiss chard, kale, brussel sprouts and cabbage are also very hardy but will not survive a hard frost without a lot of damage so wait. I know it's hard by why waste all your hard work.

     The only root vegetable I know of that is not safe to plant this time of year is sweet potato. The reason is, they aren't potatoes, they are a species of morning glory and do not like any kind of cold. They are slow growing, slow maturing and need a really long growing season.

     There are quite a few perennial herbs, mint, tarragon, oregano, sage, lemon balm and thyme to name a few. Although they are all quite resilient, new plantings are not. They haven't had time to establish themselves.

     What should you be doing, besides waiting. Now is the time to add compost, work your soil, check to see what has changed in your garden from last year or plan a new spot and as always, pull those weeds. I know it is hard not to get out there and get going but a little patience now will pay off later and avoid a lot of disappointment and frustration.

     What is going on in your garden right now? Drop me a line or leave a comment and share what you are doing to prepare for the gardening season ahead.

Maple sugar pie

     Maple sugar pie, a Quebecois classic. I get some every time I'm skiing in Tremblant. You can get it here but it just isn't the same, kind of like real poutine or tortiere. I didn't go skiing this year so I decided to try making this at home.

     There are hundreds of recipes for "tarte au sucre" or sugar pie. If they tell you brown sugar is an acceptable substitute for the maple sugar, they lie. If you have a sweet tooth and you like maple, do yourself a favour and try this recipe. It is delicious and oh so decadent.

     I couldn't find the maple sugar, so I made my own. It is relatively easy, just be careful, you are working with molten sugar. I boiled two litres (5 Lbs)  of syrup and ended up with 3 1/2 pound of  sugar. It's about a 40% water weight loss. It took 40 minutes to boil the syrup to a temperature of 290 degrees, which may have been a little too high. If I ever do it again, I'll see what it is like at 270 degrees. I was expecting something like brown sugar, but got a very dry, very hard sugar at the higher temperature. Stir it like you would if making jelly, almost constantly. It is good for the first 15 minutes, occasionally, but as it reduced needed constant attention to stop scorching. Before you think I've gone all "Martha Stewart", I did not grow or tap the trees. LOL On to the pie.

Maple sugar pie

     This is a surprisingly easy recipe with only four ingredients. It takes about an hour to make and serves 12. Tiny servings, so rich and sweet.


1 prepared and baked pie shell, fully cooled

pate sucree is traditional but I used my never fail recipe here
I am making strawberry rhubarb pie tomorrow and didn't want to make pastry twice


1 cup maple sugar
1/4 cup flour/cornstarch
3/4 cup heavy cream *
1/4 cup maple syrup


Pre heat oven to 350 degrees.
Whisk together sugar and flour or cornstarch until smooth and lump free.
Add cream and syrup and whisk until well combined.
Pour into baked pie shell and bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes.

You can serve this warm with ice cream or whipped cream but I prefer it plain, nothing between me and my pie.

* The recipe calls for 35% cream but I imagine even milk would work, but seriously why worry about fat or calories in this recipe. It is all about indulging your sweet tooth.

     This was not what I was expecting when I decided to try the recipe. I think what I was looking for was Maple syrup pie which is slightly different. It is cooked on the stove and poured into a pie shell like a lemon meringue pie. I'll let you know the results when I test that one out. Even if it was by accident, it is a delicious recipe and a keeper in my books.

     What is your favourite maple recipe? Leave me a comment and let me know your favourites. Enjoy.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Get out and get dirty, gardening 101

     The weather is warming, grass is greening, time to escape outdoors after a long winter. This is one of my favourite times of year. One of the things I like best is planning the garden, fresh herbs and produce all summer long.

     Like anything else, it is important to have a bit of knowledge before you start gardening. This post is a quick, very simplified, guide to the fundamentals of gardening and how to avoid some common mistakes.

Rule 1 Location, location, location. Know your spot. You can grow plants anywhere but where you are and where you are growing determine what will grow. For example, I would love a lemon tree but Toronto is way too far north, wrong zone. I wish tomatoes or potatoes would grow in my back yard, no luck, my walnut tree kills them. I want beautiful drifts of ever blooming annuals, sorry too much shade.

     There are hundreds of variables that affect whether your plants will thrive so be smart and pick ones that are for your growing zone, that get the right amount of sun and that can survive with existing plantings. This is probably the most important rule and the one most people if not ignore, get wrong. I have made mistakes in this category myself. The reason it is so important is conditions can change drastically in just a few feet.

     So you have two choices, pick your plantings and find the correct location or find the location and choose plants that will grow in that environment. Your three variables are; plant hardiness zone, sunlight and existing plantings.

       Any garden centre can tell you your growing zone. This is only important if you are planning perennial beds, shrubs or trees. You need to know what will survive the winter in your area. 

     All plants require sunlight in varying amounts. It is what drives photosynthesis, how plants feed themselves. For reference, full sun is eight hours or more over the course of a day, partial sun is at least 4-6 hours and shade is under 4 hours. Check your spot at various times during the day and make a note of the amount of direct sunlight it gets. One other thing to keep in mind is time of day. The sun is hottest between 10 am and 2 pm. That particular four hour window may be to intense for some shade plants.

     All plants have survival methods and this impacts what will grow around them. Some like mint or strawberries are prolific spreaders, crowding out other plants. Trees like pines, cedars and walnut release chemicals that change the soil around them. Finally, trees and shrubs can have extensive root systems that quickly take up all the available nutrients and water. You need to be aware of what is around or in the area you want to plant.

Rule 2 Know your soil. Sandy, loamy, acid, alkaline, arid, soggy: all different soil conditions that will determine what will grow. You can change soil conditions, but you have to know what you are putting your plants into when they go in the ground. For the dirt on dirt, click here.

    I have several different challenges in the three areas of my garden. As the season progresses, I'll walk you through how I deal with the various issues and my success or failure.

       These are the two basic rules you need to keep in mind when you are planning your garden, whether it be beautiful beds of flowers or a bountiful vegetable patch.

     How does your garden grow?

Monday, May 2, 2011

A brand new "Kitchen"

     After seeing the makeover at "Time Out for Mom", I was inspired to do one of my own. That and the fact I have been housebound with the flu. There is only so much sleep and television one person can handle. Les went and prettied her site up, I stripped mine down.

     Because I ramble and include a lot of pictures, my pages were getting slower and slower to load. After cruising the Internet this weekend (and finding out just how much I don't know about this forum) I decided a redesign was in order. It will be ongoing for a bit because I have made a lot of common mistakes all new bloggers make. Time for that Edit button.

     Stripping the site down makes it load a lot faster, bordering the pictures makes them stand out and thanks to the folks at printerfriendly you can now print the recipe pages, or any of them for that matter. I now have a page of only the recipes and all kinds of new things to make a visit to the "Kitchen" more comfortable and easier to get around. All good things. Besides, this is the only kitchen makeover I could afford. LOL

     The other reason for the post is the picture below. Krista posted it on her Facebook page and I have been waiting for an excuse to use it.

Austin Craig, the newest addition to the family
the littlest Who in Whoville

     Is that not the cutest baby picture ever?? I have to give credit to Cherry Pie. They took amazing pictures of Krista and Austin that I'm sure they will enjoy for ever. Well, until he starts dating and these become those embarrassing pictures Mom and Dad trot out. LOL You all know what I mean.

     So what do you think of the new "Kitchen"?