Grow, grow, grow your food...

I can't believe it's almost halfway through April already!!! Things at work have have been crazy hectic, and I haven't had time to think about feeding myself, let alone a blog post... 

I have missed you! I don't know about you, but ever since I started writing this blog, I've had to seriously think about the food I put in my shopping basket: no more random spouting off about eating local and seasonal, I've had to mean what I write. There have been digressions  -we do live in a northerly country with severe winters and bare fields after all- but all in all I have been 'good'. I steer away from tomatoes in December; I haven't even bought canned tomatoes for myself in over a year (I did buy some for food baskets -but only because I wasn't sure they would accept home-canned tomatoes...). Right now, those homegrown cans of tomatoes are literally saving my life as I haven't had time to saunter over to the supermarket (even less so to the market!)

All this to say, if I had the time to wash my windows, now would be the perfect time to grow a window box-full of spring salads. The picture above was taken the day before a curious (*!**"@&&) squirrel decided to check out the seedlings and unearthed the whole lot. As you can see, despite the chilly nights, lettuces, spinach and roquette seeds sprout easily at this time of the year. Just don't set your planters out on the balcony just yet! Wait until there is more food growing about, otherwise you're likely to have a nasty surprise one early morning.

Salad bars are really easy to grow yourself, even without an overly sunny window. All you need is a container of sort with holes on the bottom for drainage, some sterile potting medium (a soil-less mix is best for seed starting), and a dish to catch any excess water (wouldn't want to ruin a carpet or a hardwood floor for salad!) Oh, and seeds. It's still too early to buy sets (pre-grown plants, ready to put into the ground), and seeds are cheaper anyway. Most salad plants have short roots, so you don't even need a very deep pot, as long as you have at least 15cm (6") of depth.

Now is the time to be buying seeds. They are available almost everywhere, though you will have the biggest choice in a plant nursery or a hardware store. Spinach, radishes and arugula are really easy crops to grow, as are most lettuces. If you are a beginner container-gardener, go for loose-leaf lettuces: they do not form a tight head (like romaine or iceberg lettuces) and are quite forgiving plants. You can also get mixed greens packets, some of which are really interesting gustatorially.

To get started, wet the planting medium with warm water until it resembles a squeezed out sponge. If you overwater the mix, no worries: just squeeze it out like a sponge! Do not use compost unless you plan to sterilize it in the oven before using. Compost is a godsend to all plant life, except for little seeds. If you absolutely want to use compost for your salad bar, you can start the seeds in little containers (reuse egg cartons, or the clamshell boxes some veggies come in) filled with a sterile mix; once the seedlings have a set of true leaves you can plant them into compost. 

Fill your pot with the wet mix, leaving about 3 cm (± 1") at the top. Don't press down too hard on the soil, as plants don't like putting down their roots in compact spots. Using your finger or an unsharpened pencil, make shallow dents (0.5 cm/ ½") in the soil, spacing them out at about 3cm intervals. In each dent, place a tiny pinch of seeds and cover with a pinch of soil. Leave your pot near a window, it needn't be the sunniest one, but it mustn't be completely devoid of light. If your heat hasn't been turned off yet, and you happen to have a heater near a window, that would be an ideal spot. Within a few days, you should start to notice some activity in your pot. 

Your salad bar should be ready to harvest when the plantlets are about 8cm (3") high. Use scissors to shear them down by half, and enjoy a home grown salad. A week or two later, the salads will ready for a second haircut. You can get one or two more harvests after that, then you can leave the pot out on the balcony for squirrels to rummage through.

Have fun, and bon app'!


  1. Hello, no doubt you're sick of me already, but this blog post is as good as any for me to ask you a question that's been on my mind lately. I see you advocate some form of eating locally, which for those of us in Quebec is easy to do in July and hard in January. I recently read an article in the London Review of Books - a tremendous literary/political magazine, you can read parts of it on-line, which will surely entice you to subscribe - which argues that the environmental criterion for making our food choices should not be food miles but carbon units. Specifically, the author claims that big new British hydroponic ventures - fresh local tomatoes in January - are, with their energy inputs, less environmentally sound, in Britain's case, than northern African tomatoes shipped in. One might want to add to the mix questions of local economies and local producers, but then the author makes the point that agricultural exports are an important part of developing countries' economies, and that properly targeted agricultural exports could be an important development strategy (a big issue, though, which if I recall correctly the author only touches on, is the problem of agribusiness exports in developing world countries when there is not enough small-scale production to feed the local population).

    In any event, it's an article that turns some of our thinking on its head, and I invite you and your readers to check it out, it's one of several articles the LRB posts for free on its web site (maybe you could create a link using the following address, I'm not sure I can or know how on your blog):

    So there you have it, I'm curious to know more of your views and if possible, if you have the time, a general reaction to this author's ideas.

    Let me conclude by saying that, as promised, I've been reading through some of the old posts on your blog and am amazed at everything: your writing skills, first of all; your social concerns (perhaps unexpectedly for a haute cuisine chef); your down-to-earth tastes (ditto); and your marvellous-sounding recipes and great advice (I'm looking forward to picking up some squash flowers at the market tomorrow and trying your recipe: in the past I've simply stir-fried them, I think, blissfully unaware that a squash flower has a sexual organ which needs to be removed, and the results were not tremendously inspiring). Bravo!

  2. p.s. I'm sorry to pop up in mid-summer and tie you to your computer when you should be outdoors or on your balcony. Reply in November if you prefer!

  3. Tolderol,

    I'm really flattered that you are taking such an earnest interest in my blog.

    As you continue going through my blog's archives, you will probably notice that I admit to buying non-local from time to time. Like you said, we live in a northern clime, so some foods are hard to obtain locally in the winter -or even at any time of the year, since pineapples and mangoes do not grow in Canada. However, you will also notice that I advocate eating seasonally above all else: that means no tomatoes in the winter, unless they're the tomatoes one canned or froze in August.
    Anyway, Quebec (and most northern countries') produce is very varied and abundant: there are loads of lovely winter vegetables that are so much more tasty than mealy, imported tomatoes.
    If you really crave tomatoes in January, Savoura has recently built a greenhouse fuelled with biogas from their local garbage dump: so you can have local-ish greenhouse tomatoes that have a better CO2 profile.
    As for the argument that one has an obligation to buy into the global market: that is a load of horse manure. Export agriculture does not help the economy of poorer countries: exports prop up often corrupt governments that rack up debts with the IMF and the World Bank, instead of feeding the local population and building a local and sustainable economy.
    Furthermore, agro-industries are generally the only real winners in this scheme: they sell patented seeds to farmers; require the use of their pesticides and fertilizers (many of which are banned in industrialized countries); and often set purchase prices for the produce through international brokers. What little profit a farmer gets from their crops goes towards paying their debt to the suppliers.

    While I am not so naive as to think that my readers (or even myself) will eat only seasonal, local and low-carbon foods all year-long, I do hope that my words will contribute to broadening the consumer's conscience.

  4. Hello, and thanks once again for your prompt and thoughtful reply. Perhaps I should mention a couple of things first of all, since a reader of your blog knows a lot about you and you know nothing about me. I try to eat locally and seasonally as much as possible (since long before it became the thing to do!!). I freeze tomatoes and never touch flown-in soft fruits, asparagus etc. in winter. On top of everything else, they're expensive and awful-tasting. I'm vegetarian, and try to eat organically, and I'm almost more distressed by what has become of these choices in the hands of the mass media ("Does Organic Really Taste Better"?" "Will Becoming Vegetarian Help You Stay Slim?" headlines in lifestyle magazines) than by people who don't care about them. To me, they're environmental, social justice and ethical choices more than anything else. My most fervent hope is that in my lifetime meat eating will be seen to be the environmental equivalent of driving a train of SUVs hitched end to end to the corner store for a loaf of bread. Not to mention the question of our treatment of animals. If people knew what goes on inside a slaughterhouse . . . A lot of people talk about animal rights. I believe that only humans have rights, because only humans have created an advanced society. As part of this society we have human rights and obligations, and one of these obligations is not to abuse defenceless animals using the tools of our advanced civilisation: slaughterhouse killing machines. This is, or should be, our moral covenant. (It also allows for the killing of animals as part of a different economy and logic and social organisation, such as the planet's dwindling numbers of people who truly live on the land: where it gets sticky is when one "bleeds" into the other: the seal-killing industry carried out by the descendants of people who once killed seals for sustenance. I digress.)

    To be continued . . .

  5. I have also travelled through places like Central America, the banana basket of the world, and have seen first hand the effects of export agribusiness (and its attendant political corruption etc etc) on the developing world. I also think every person in the developed world should spend one of their annual holidays riding around a poor rural country on a bus (unless they'd rather spend a month in Nicaragua helping to build houses or in Africa digging wells, which would be even better) just because of what a life-changing experience this can be. It certainly makes the flat-bed diesel trucks driving around the streets of Montreal doing nothing but advertise useless consumer goods more obscene than ever.

    Enough about me. I wonder, if I may ask, if you read the article in the LRB I mentioned. I ask first of all because I think you would truly enjoy and be stimulated by it. Second, if you're like me it might get you thinking just a little bit differently about things. The author really is on your side, he just has a slightly different perspective. In a nutshell, I think he says that, for a whole bunch of reasons, the eat-local and environmental movements can't abandon third-world food producers to their fate. How you and I go about not doing that is obviously a big question. (We also shouldn't forget that a lot of the things you object to about third-world agri-business are replicated right here at home through the use of migrant labour, without which Canadian agriculture would collapse tomorrow. But that's another story . . .) Maybe it was me reading more into the article than is in it, but I found myself wondering if the local food movement etc. isn't just a little bit too close to a kind of protectionism and isolationism and let the others fend for themselvesism generally associated with the other end of the political spectrum. To me, the danger is that this latent aspect might grow with time, the way we not get "organic" anti-aging creams and what have you.

    There, I've gone on too long. I will - sorry! - be back soon on some other square of your marvellous chessboard. Enjoy the weather and local produce.

  6. That's "now get anti-aging creams", not "not get anti-aging creams". I should read over before I post.

  7. I haven't had time to read the article just yet... Summer is usually a busy time for me -and I don't mean work - I promise I will get to it.
    I'm not sure you really want me to go on my diatribe of local versus global, but here goes...
    I never meant to imply that Third World countries be left to fend for themselves. As far as I know, there are few die hard locavores who have completely cut out coffee; tea; chocolate; or rice from their diet. I encourage all my readers to buy Fairtrade whenever possible; to support organizations that help farmers in poorer countries; and to buy with a conscience. I am aware that Fairtrade and other certifications are not foolproof, but I cannot be a cynic 24/7, I have to let my inner optimist out from time to time. Am I worried about greenwashing and all its variants? Yes. It is a concern, but if one is a conscientious consumer, then one should be able to see through the fog. It is my hope that this blog will help to shed the light.
    I have serious (and not unfounded) doubts that the globalization will ever help poorer countries get out of poverty. Just look at what happened when banks in Europe and the US melted down: while governments rushed to bail out their banks, financiers and car manufacturers, but did anyone think that Third World debt should be wiped clean?

    Encouraging a local economy and food distribution is very much about protectionism, I do not deny it, but it works both ways: buying local in Canada helps to preserve agricultural land in Canada. Do you realise that over half of Montreal used to be farmland? Encouraging local food is also good for farmers in poorer countries: I'm sure that, in your travels, you've seen the disparity between lush fields and plantations destined for export and the surrounding poverty. The land used for export production could easily feed the local population. Properly managed subsistence farms can flourish and become profitable, all the while protecting land from erosion and preserving biodiversity and water tables. Fish caught in national waters could easily feed coastal populations instead of being hauled halfway across the world for overfed bellies.

    Not to mention the environmental degradation caused by such industrial endeavours: did you know that much of the destruction caused by the 2004 tsunami could have been avoided? If the mangroves of Thailand and Indonesia had not been ripped out to make way for shrimp and fish farms, the death toll would have been much lower.
    Mono-culture -the most prevalent form of (export) agriculture- is a major vector for soil erosion; loss of biodiversity; water, air and soil pollution; population explosion of pests... It is also suspected to be a contributor to the honey bee colony collapse disorder, and to the loss of native bee populations.
    The Montreal Protocol sought to ban all substances that damage the ozone layer, most members of the UN have ratified it, including the US. Yet the State of California has obtained a derogation for the use of methyl bromide, a highly toxic pesticide most often used on strawberry fields. Though the toxin supposedly does not remain on the berries, do we really want to encourage an industry that uses a pesticide so toxic that surrounding residents are evacuated during spraying season; requires the wearing of haz-mat suits; and destroys the ozone layer?

    You mentioned migrant workers. Although I cannot attest to the work conditions in all of Canada, I do know that there is change for the better: migrant workers in B.C., Manitoba and Quebec have obtained the right to unionize - Ontario and Alberta are still holding out.

    And I could go on and on... I completely agree that we cannot close our borders to imported produce and consumer products - I would miss mangoes and avocados - but I make no bones about wanting to protect my local, small farms. Along with every other small farm the world over.

  8. I very much admire your efforts to eat local food. If we all ate local what a difference it would make to `energy usage' on our planet. Loved your post and am so pleased it is part of my new blog party We Can Wednesday.

  9. what lovely post,
    yes, grow your own food is cool,
    wholesome way of living...

  10. This is wonderful . . . farmers' markets now for me, but this is in my future, I hope. Thanks for a fine post.


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