Gardening on a Smaller Scale

White rock balcony

White rock balcony

There is no way that you can compare gardening in a full size zone 3 yard and gardening on a balcony in zone 8. In Edmonton I had a 60 x 120 foot lot and I took advantage of most of the property for my hobby. By the time I sold my house I had seven composters, several raised beds for vegetables and I’d converted half the front lawn to garden. Much to my (late) mother’s chagrin I even grew corn in my front yard.
I had gogi berries, raspberries and haskap (honey berries). I ate Carmine Jewel cherries from my tree in the backyard while waiting for dozens of tomato plants to produce their yearly bounty of juicy plum tomatoes for canning. I’ve grown tomatillos for salsa verde, I’ve had a spaghetti squash plant produce so many squash that I had to take them to the food bank, and I’ve eaten carefully stored carrots and potatoes well in to January.

Those days are over but not forgotten.

A balcony can support all sorts of plants, including fruit and veggies. Breeding has produced a bounty of fauna that is satisfied with life in a container, although container living means much more attention to their care.

Container plants need a good quality soil that retains moisture. They need regular watering and fertilizing – everything they need will have to be provided at regular intervals. Two hot days in a row with a moderate wind and balcony plants can be baked in situ.

My balcony is east-facing so it gets a strong morning sun which abates at around 11 am and by 4 pm it becomes a cool place to sit and enjoy the sound of birds and a gentle breeze. So far all of my herbs and flowers are doing spectacularly and I’ve potted two tomatoes, a Hungarian pepper and a cucumber. I’ve got two different climbers – a black-eyed susan vine and a specially bred clematis which is going like crazy (I’ll blog about that another day).

So although I can’t garden on the same scale as I have in the past, I can still enjoy my hobby. And hopefully I can enjoy some fresh tomatoes in a couple of months.

Edmonton Journal’s Homes & Design Magazine

Wow! The Summer 2013 issue of Homes and Design features an article called “Backyard Eats are Treats” and it has a series of photos of my awesome herb spiral. This online magazine is pretty swanky and worth a read, but if you want to see my herb spiral you can fast forward to pages 36/37.
Thanks to Claudia Bolli of Wild Green Garden Consulting (interviewed along with Jim Hole) for the opportunity to provide the Edmonton Journal with photos of my garden.
I built my herb spiral in 2010 and I grow oregano, thyme, sage, parsley, rosemary, mint, lavender, Serrano peppers, chives, garlic, cilantro and basil right outside my back door. It’s one of my favorite features in my garden.

Salsa: Summer in a Mason Jar

Canned and Ready for Eating

Salsa is one of my favorite things to eat during the long months of winter. It reminds me of all the good things I grew over the summer, and combines all of my favorite flavors. I love the zest of garlic, the scent of cilantro, the punch of the hot peppers.

I made my salsa as soon as I had 3kg of Roma tomatoes, even though I’m likely to get a bunch more in the coming weeks. Those will be for making tomato sauce, another favorite.

Here’s my salsa recipe (adapted from this recipe):

Garden Salsa

Blanch, peel and core 3 kg Roma tomatoes. Chop them coarsely then layer with a sprinkling of pickling salt in a colander over a pot. Let them sit overnight in a cool place, allowing much of the liquid to drain.

The next morning, start chopping. You can use a food processor if you like, but I prefer to chop by hand to get a chunkier salsa (with the exception of the peppers – those I use the food processor for).

Including the tomatoes, chop and add to a stock pot:

3 medium onions

1 large head garlic

200 g Serrano peppers

1 medium green pepper

1/2 medium red pepper

3/4 bunch cilantro

1/8 C cumin seed, ground

1/2 can (3 oz) tomato paste

Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. It’s now ready to can. When canning, add 1 tbsp lime juice to the bottom of each 250 ml jar or 2 tbsp to a 500 ml jar. This increases the acidity and makes for safer water bath canning of tomatoes. Please refer to another website such as this for canning instructions.

Makes 2 liters of salsa.

Making Salsa

Salsa Verde: a Taste of Mexico

Salsa Verde: Awesome

This year I tried growing tomatillos for the first time. To be honest, I wouldn’t have considered growing them at all but my brother and his wife have become fond of salsa verde and were determined to make their own. Well, I simply couldn’t resist the challenge of growing tomatillos as well and trying to make my own salsa verde.

It turns out that tomatillos are easy to grow. They’ve been harvested in Aztec culture since 600 BC and are a staple of Latin American cuisine.

I started mine from seed six weeks before the last expected frost and transplanted them outdoors in mid-May. I had no idea that they would grow to be three feet tall and equally wide, crowding out my tomatoes in the process. Ironically they provided great cover for the tender tomatoes last week during a nasty hail storm.

Tomatillos require a minimum of two plants for fertilization, and each plant will produce dozens of husk-covered fruit. Mine were ready for harvest at the end of August, the fruit having split the drying husks and outgrown their confines. The key is to pick them when they have reached their maximum size but before they have yellowed. About 10% of mine were picked too late, but I wasn’t concerned as I have an over abundance of fruit.

The tomatillo is a member of the nightshade family and related to the cape gooseberry. Its a distant relative of the tomato with which we are more familiar and often referred to as a “Mexican tomato”.

Salsa verde, or green salsa, is widely used in Mexico as a condiment as well as an ingredient in numerous traditional foods.

After much research I have come up with my own recipe for salsa verde, a combination of all the “good” parts of the many recipes I read online.

Here goes:

Salsa Verde

Husk and wash 3 lbs of tomatillos. Slice in half and remove the stem end, then place sliced side down on a sheet of parchment paper covering a cookie sheet. Select 2 medium onions and quarter one of them for roasting. Remove stems and seed four Serrano peppers, then slice them in half lengthwise. Peel a head of garlic. Place half the peppers and half the garlic on the roasting sheet along with the onion and tomatillos.

Roast (425F) for 15 minutes.

In the meantime, finely chop the other onion, the remaining peppers and garlic. Place these in your stock pot – they will give the salsa a bit more “chunkiness”.

Once the tomatillos have finished roasting, purée them along with the roasted onions peppers and garlic in a food processor. Make sure not to have any big chunks or large pieces of peel. Place the purée in the stock pot.

Now add 1/2 bunch of fresh cilantro, 1/2 cup vinegar, 2 tsp pickling salt, 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, and 1 tsp ground cumin. Heat the mixture and simmer for a few minutes.

This is now ready to use, or can be stored in the fridge for up to three weeks. I decided to can mine and process in a hot water bath. I added 1/2 tbsp of lime juice to the bottom of each 125 ml jar before adding the salsa. Yield: 6 x 125ml jars.

Serrano Peppers – Bang for Your Buck

Serrano Peppers

I planted Serrano del Sol peppers from T & T Seeds this year and I was not disappointed. Hanging here are the peppers I had at the end of the season after using many for making sauces and things throughout the late summer. This is the output from six plants. I’m drying them after which I’ll grind them and add them to oil or just keep them as red pepper flakes.

The green ones may or may not turn slowly red as they hang in the window (some will, some won’t). I wish I’d had more time to let them sit on the plant, but zone 3A doesn’t always let me  have what I want.

Drying the Peppers

Jalapeno Peppers

This year I have decided to dry virtually all of my peppers, and I’ve started with the jalapenos. I’ve strung them with embroidery thread about 1 to 1-1/2 inches apart, tying a knot at each stem. They will hang like this for several weeks in my south-facing kitchen window until they are dry and ready to be made into either powdered pepper or infused in oil.



Nine Weeks to Last Frost

Pepper seeds in a row

Here we go. I started my first seeds on Sunday March 13th – Serrano Peppers and Jalapeno Peppers. Here in Edmonton I’m assuming it’ll be safe to place my plants out on or about the 15th of May. 

I use Pro-Mix, a peat-based starter with MycoRise Pro. MycoRise is a symbiotic fungus which helps root development and reduces transplant stress.

It’s important to allow the starting medium to absorb water first before planting, so I placed my long narrow containers in water and gave them a good soak from the bottom up. Once the water had thoroughly drenched the soil I removed the containers and allowed them to drip off any excess.

I made a 1/4 inch (5 mm) trench the length of the container using a pencil, then placed the seeds approximately 1.5 cm apart the length of the row. I like to place the seeds on edge to reduce the risk of rot. I covered the seeds with 5 mm of light sand and carefully marked each row with a marker cut from a plastic yogurt container.

I made custom clear plastic covers from a dollar-store tablecloth and placed the seeds under my lamps. Once they begin to sprout I’ll remove the plastic covers to allow them to breathe more freely. I have them under artificial light for 14 hours per day and the room is about 21 degrees C.

Now its just a matter of waiting…10-15 days for germination depending on the soil temperature. By the time these sprout I’ll have planted my tomatoes, eggplants and some hybrid onions – but that’s for next week’s post.