An incidental garlic crop

garlic rustWhen I arrived at Common Ground I noted the garlic growing next to the washing station. It was a thick patch of the stuff (with plenty of weeds of course) and no discernible rows or spacing. I found out it was incidental garlic; the result of a very wet June the previous year which made the garlic go mouldy. Faced with this loss Dave decided to till it all in and this season plenty of it popped up again. Unfortunately, garlic rust started appearing and instead of diagnosing the problem and taking action straight away the garlic fell to the bottom of the to do list the fungus continues to spread.

What is garlic rust?
Garlic rust is a fungus. There are at least two varieties that affect garlic from the genus Puccinia (Puccinia allii and Puccinia porri) I’m not sure exactly which type was affecting us but it looks exactly like the picture to the right; picture credit to Garden Betty. It reduces a plant’s ability to photosynthesise, results in smaller bulbs and can eventually kill the plant.

What causes it?
Garlic rust spores are wind-borne and can also overwinter on plant material. The fungus thrives in hot, humid conditions so given that the washing station was draining into the garlic patch which was pretty weedy and the same place garlic grew last year it’s no surprise it popped up.

What to do about it?
While it seems there’s little to do once the fungus has gained a foothold, Miles Smart from Cherry Lane Farm seems to have had success using rotten fish as a preventative measure in the form of a soil and foliar drench.
If only a few signs of rust are evident then removing and burning (not composting) the leaves or whole plants that are affected can help prevent the fungus spreading – keeping any bulbs or scapes for consumption.
Of course the usual good gardening practices will help keep the fungus away:

  • Adequate spacing between garlic plants
  • Keeping the garlic weeded
  • Planting it in a sunny spot
  • Rotating crops so alliums aren’t planted in the same place more than once every three or four years
  • All is not lost…
    Garlic harvest hung to dryWe harvested the garlic scapes a little early (end of May) and got a good harvest with minimal rust markings. In an effort to protect the rest of our alliums since the rust can spread to anything in that family (leeks, onions, scallions etc) we harvested the garlic a week after the scapes and while there is a huge variety in bulb size (mostly due to the way it grew) it’s still a respectable harvest and means there will be plenty for our CSA boxes. Normally we wouldn’t harvest garlic until July/August but we also needed the space and it does feel good to get the garlic harvest put away.
    Also, according to a study by the University of California garlic that has been affected by the fungus can still be used as seed garlic the next year so we can save some and plant again this fall.

The kids have arrived!

Moya with her mother Arugula in the foregroundThree additions to the goat herd arrived Wednesday night and Thursday morning last week when Arugula had a doe and Allegra had a doe and a billy. All three are doing well so far and although I don’t usually say things like these – they are super cute – three lanky little half nubian, half alpine kids. They have been named Allium (Al for short, which also refers to his dad who is an alpine), his sister is Mizuna and their niece – since Arugula is Allegra’s daughter – is Moya. The two does are destined to enlarge the small flock while the billy will probably get sold. For now they are nursing and growing stronger every day.

Milking will start in about 5 weeks and then it will be time for making yogurt and cheese!

Another season starts!

Three weeks into the season
With a new farm tan and soil on my hands the next season has begun. This summer I’m in Burnaby, just outside of Vancouver, where I’ve landed a job at Common Ground Community Farm a small 1 acre property that grows fruits and vegetables and is home to, two cats, one dog, eight chickens, two goats and thousands of honey bees.

I have to thank the Vancouver Urban Farming Society and the listserv* they host for finding my first paid gardening gig. It may have only been a few words sandwiched in between advice sought for boron application and offerings of tomato seedlings but it was enough to get me in touch with Dave Carlson and set up a meeting after we arrived in New Westminster where we are housesitting. A quick tour of the farm and I suddenly find myself three weeks into the season! With salad deliveries set up for next week and more CSA planning to do before the boxes start going out to householders in June. The garden is also just around the corner from Earth Apple Farm and Urban Digs; two small scale organic farms it’s heartening to ride past on my daily commute. I saw aerial crop dusters last week and it was a tad depressing but to be expected given we are surrounded by industrial estates and conventional vegetable and cranberry production.

With Dave off-site for much of the day I currently set my own work schedule and it’s given me time to reflect upon The time I spent last year in Quebec at Chelsea Gardens. While I wasn’t exactly paid, the room, board and small stipend combined with a full season of farming experience was invaluable and has given me confidence when it comes to planning, planting, seeding, harvesting etc. There is still plenty to learn and of course many, many weeds to pull but after a grey and chilly winter in Revelstoke it’s great to be working outdoors again.

* List server, a small program that automatically sends messages to multiple e-mail addresses on a mailing list.

Happy Harvesting

Harvested zucchiniThe first harvests of the year were some of the most exciting times on the farm. Harvesting is the culmination of all the planning and preparation that has taken place and is typically rewarding and delicious.

It also marks the beginning of a new phase on the farm where harvesting becomes a big part of the daily workload as the seeding, planting and bed preparation finish up although weeding still remains; a constant chore of farm life year round.
When to harvest
Among other things this can depend on:

  • Weather – Heavy rain is not ideal harvesting weather as it affects how well the vegetables will store.
  • Time of day – the earlier the better for greens such as lettuce and mizuna, while fruits such as beans and tomatoes are reputedly sweeter if they are picked in the afternoon.
  • Readiness of produce – Is the produce at its optimum for tastiness? Parsnips are sweeter after the first frost while cilantro that’s left too long in the ground can start to taste bitter.

How much to harvest
Sometimes it was a matter of harvesting everything we could such as when the garlic was ready. At other times we only ever harvested what was needed to fill the weeks CSA boxes, restaurant orders and predicted market sales such as when picking chard leaves. A few things to consider:

  • How much is needed
  • Length of time the harvest can be stored
  • Consequences of delaying the harvest (there’s no point in delaying picking arugula if it will become bitter before the next harvest or not picking peppers if there will be a hard frost tomorrow)

How to harvest
Each vegetable has a slightly different way of being picked. Typically fruits such as tomato, eggplant, capsicum, chilli, zucchini, squash, watermelon and rock melon were cut from the plant with a clean slice of a sharp knife. The root vegetables such as carrots, beets, rutabaga and parsnip were all grasped firmly and pulled although there’s always the odd casualty whose top twists off leaving the root in the earth to be dug out and added to the farmer food pile. Leaves such as chard or kale can be cut or neatly torn from the plant while our beans just needed a sharp tug and the ground cherries and tomatillos were ready when they easily came away from the bush.

Of course, it’s not just a matter of picking fruit from a vine or bush or pulling roots from the ground. Post harvest processing (washing, packing, drying and bunching) is just as important but that’s for another post.


Focus on Inner City Farms

On a recent visit to Vancouver I took the opportunity to catch up with Camil Dumont, a founder of Inner City Farms (ICF), one of the urban farms that has sprung up there over the past few years. While the city is known for its milder than most of Canada climate, more recently it has been building a reputation as a hub for true local food with the number of community gardens and small scale urban horticulture start ups rapidly increasing. As consumers become more aware of the environmental and ethical issues associated with grocery shopping there’s a growing niche for organisations such as ICF  “We harvest and provide the same day, grow all in our own city and mostly offer an opportunity to support social and ecological values tied to food citizenship when we offer our veggie shares. Not many others provide this package.”

Initiated by a group of five friends who were motivated to garden and grow their own chemical free food but lacked viable land due to inner city apartment living, they approached friends and family in more suburban areas with ample lawn space that could be converted into vegetable patches. After turning their first sod in 2009 the group soon realised they would easily grow more than they could eat and ICF was born. In their first year 6 yards underwent conversion with sod being replaced by composted growing beds; three years later they work at 20 different sites which total just under an acre in area.

Word spreads fast and they get more offers to convert front yards than they can handle so each proposed site is assessed for orientation, soil quality and presence of invasive species before any decisions are made. Homeowners need to have the right attitude towards the project and establishing and maintaining good relationships with them is essential, as Dumont says “It’s not for everyone, a farm no matter what the size is a working space and it won’t always look like nice straight perfectly weeded vegetable rows.” Due to changes in ownership or householder priorities they have had to return several sites to their original lawn covered state but overall the majority of the land providers are happy to host ICF.

While they haven’t had any major issues with theft or vandalism, attributable to the neighbourhoods they choose to grow in and the fact that their gardens are owned by someone, the group does flout the law on a daily basis as what they do is technically illegal. There’s a host of council by-laws they break but luckily, as policy slowly catches up with the changing world that is urban agriculture, a no enforcement policy in place so Dumont and his team can continue to work without the threat of fines.

Besides fruit and vegetable production, ICF also places importance on improving access for people with low or no income to fresh produce “They are often the people that can benefit the most” says Dumont and with this in mind, ICF donates a huge weekly box of veggies throughout the season to Oppenheimer Park Community Kitchen where it’s used to cook dinner as part of the DECK project. In the current food distribution system, organic food is simply priced out of reach for many people and as part of bridging this gap Dumont has plans for a sponsorship system where companies and individuals can sponsor vegetable deliveries via local charities.

On the business side of things, ICF follows the CSA model where shares in the harvest are pre-sold in the spring and members are entitled to a box of fresh veggies each week for the duration of the season. Initially ICF had just 9 shares available and this has consistently increased to a whopping 65 with restaurant orders gradually being added to the mix. Key aspects of their approach to minimise capital input have been to:

  • Sell produce directly to the consumer.
  • Hire big equipment, like a roto-tiller or sod cutter, only when required.
  • Exchange produce for use of front yard space.
  • Exchange labour for access to greenhouse space.
  • Exchange labour for additional products (currently sprouts from Food Pedalers  are included in the CSA boxes).
  • Good planning so wastage is minimised.
  • Avoid cultivation of delicate greens such as lettuce and arugula eliminating need for refrigeration.
  • Maintain a small scale operation so produce is always harvested on delivery day eliminating the need for storage space.

Profitability has continued to improve and ICF was able to pay a salary for the first time in 2012 with a ute purchase planned in 2013 to replace the trusty farm Corolla.

All five co-founders are long established Vancouverites and this has definitely been a factor in their success as connections with their sprout supplier, soil testing lab and commercial customers had already been established through friends and family. Dumont’s advice to anyone who wants to start urban farming is “Go for it! We didn’t know a lot when we started” and with plenty of hard work, persistence and passion they have managed to build a thriving business that grows great food and supports their community.

Note: All images from a great short film produced by Fire and Light as part of a fantastic series about urban farming in Vancouver; well worth checking out.