Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Happy Holidays!

All the best to you and your family for the holidays and the coming new year!

Friday, December 20, 2013

66 Square Feet: Book Review and Giveaway

What began as long emails home to her mother far away in South Africa, grew into blog which Marie Viljoen named 66 Square Feet, after carefully measuring the length and width of her tiny terrace garden in Brooklyn, New York. In turn the blog, which opened this tiny green space to the wide world of the internet, blossomed into the book 66 Square Feet: A Delicious Life.

A delicious life! Three little words that suggest so much: good food for sure, but much more than that: an attitude, a lifestyle, a way of savouring life's simple pleasures.

Could there be anything more delicious than a meal of fresh, seasonal ingredients served outdoors, as often as weather permits, on pretty floral plates along with a good bottle of wine and bouquet of just-picked-flowers? 

Photograph from the book 66 Square Feet- A Delicious Life by Marie Viljoen © Marie Viljoen 2013

Photograph from the book 66 Square Feet- A Delicious Life by Marie Viljoen © Marie Viljoen 2013

Although I am sure it is not, Marie Viljoen's writing feels effortless; as casual and comfortable as the clothes you slip into after a long day at work.

Starting in January, each chapter in the book is devoted to a particular month in the year and what's growing on Marie's terrace and rooftop gardens. The chapters link the meals Marie prepares with food she's either grown herself that month, found at local farmer's markets or made from ingredients foraged in local parks and green spaces.

The book touches only briefly on the subject of foraging, but I was curious to know more. 

In an email, Marie explained to me that "...Tipsy Titoti, my mother's housekeeper, who was like a second mother to me, would gather edible weeds in the garden to make morogo- a green weed stew, as comfort food for herself...So I became aware that 'weeds' are plants with another use...food."

"In New York it was a friend visiting from South Africa who brought me a bowlful of red berries she gathered under the Brooklyn Bridge and said, What are these?- who introduced me to serviceberries, Amelanchier sp. Suddenly I started seeing the city with new eyes. For instance, I can't wait for March-beacuse to me March means Japanese knotweed shoots can be found growing in a huge park in the Bronx."

I must say that I had to chuckle a little when I read Marie's description of Japanese knotweed shoots as having "a lemony creaminess reminiscent of sorrel". For me, knotweed has been a terrible and invasive weed I have struggled endlessly to eliminate from the back of my garden. Japanese knotweed has deep tap roots and a root ball the size of a car battery. I have even seen it take over an entire property.

Who knew that you could eat the damned stuff? Think of it. It is the gardener's ultimate revenge: eating fresh shoots of a weed that has been making you crazy for years!

Photograph from the book 66 Square Feet- A Delicious Life by Marie Viljoen © Marie Viljoen 2013

In the countryside, I think there is a natural tendency to take nature a little bit for granted. It's all around you after all. 

But in a big city like New York, moments of natural beauty like the red rose clamouring up the side this grey brick store front are rarer and perhaps are all the more precious for it.

Space to garden is at the premium, forcing the gardener to be even more creative and resourceful. It is amazing to realize how much you can squeeze onto a small terrace! 

Photograph from the book 66 Square Feet- A Delicious Life by Marie Viljoen © Marie Viljoen 2013

The book contains 92 recipes which are scattered throughout the months in a year. 

Some are as easy as a boiled egg served with chives snipped from the spring garden. But even in these everyday recipes, there is always a simple gem of an idea such as adding buttermilk to mashed potatoes. 

Photograph from the book 66 Square Feet- A Delicious Life by Marie Viljoen © Marie Viljoen 2013

Photograph from the book 66 Square Feet- A Delicious Life by Marie Viljoen © Marie Viljoen 2013

It was such a pleasure read Marie's recipe notes. I can just imagine the "perfume of local strawberries" mixed with a rich, shortcrust pastry "heavy on butter, very light in texture, crisp and delicate" that reclines "on a pillow of whipped cream or Greek yogurt."

I end by asking you: Could there be any happier ambition than endeavouring to lead a delicious life? 

If you would like to be included a draw for the copy of  66 Square Feet: A Delicious Life, please leave a comment below. I am going to leave the contest open throughout the holidays to give as many people as possible a chance to enter. The draw's closing date will be January 5th, 2014 . Overseas bloggers are welcome to enter. The draw and winning announcement will be made early in the new year. Good luck everyone!

To purchase a copy of 66 Square Feet: A Delicious Life please see the links below.

To read reviews of other gardening books, be sure to click this link to Holley's blog: Roses and other Gardening Joys.

More Information and Links:

Author Marie Viljoen (Profile photograph by Vincent Mounier) was born in was born in the small city of Bloemfontein and spent her early years in Cape Town, South Africa. Presently Marie resides in Harlem with her French husband and a Dominican cat.

Vist her blog: 66 Square Feet

Find the book 66 Square Feet: A Delicious Life on Amazon or at your local independent bookstore. In Canada, the book can be purchased online at Chapter.indigo

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Year in Bloom 2013: January to June

After a time the years all start to run together, and so when I sat down to put this post together, I struggled to remember back to the beginning of the gardening season. 

That's one great thing about keeping a blog: you can look back and be reminded.

January and February

We Canadian gardeners learn to be a patient lot. Spring always comes...eventually.


You know winter is almost over when it's time for Canada Blooms; the big garden show in downtown Toronto. This display of poppies was my personal choice for 'Best in Show'.


In April I made plant markers to identify all my seedlings and enjoyed the first signs of spring in the garden.

Eranthis hyemalis

Blue scilla


The garden really starts to come into its own in May. My lilacs have underperformed in recent years, but this spring they made up for it and the branches were covered with flowers.

French Hybrid Lilac 'Paul Tririon' on the left and a common lilac on the right.

Manchurian Lilac 'Miss Kim'

Though I crush the woody stems with a hammer, lilacs never last long enough in a vase.


June is the month where my peonies and roses are at their best, but there are also lots of other flowers in bloom. 

Gas Plant, Dictamnus albus, Salvia 'Caradonna' and a common spirea in the background.

Gas Plant, Dictamnus albus

Self-seeded Columbine growing in front of the white picket fence.

Self-seeded Rocket, Hesperis matronalis with a pink Beauty Bush in the distance.

More of the 2013 gardening year in review in the next post.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Personality Times Three

Once, just once, I would like to have a shower without an audience! There is no such thing as an independence life when you are a dog owner. They follow we everywhere, including into the bathroom.

Each room has its own assigned territories.

In the bathroom, Buddy has lain claim to what I think has to be the primo spot on the plush mat that lies in front of the bathtub.

Scrap curls up the foot of the decorative metal shelf that holds the towels, and Rusty if he is able to overcome his phobias, crowds Scrap for a spot in the corner furthest away from the dreaded hairdryer.

There is a certain grace and intelligence inherent in most shelties. When they run, it is with the elegant strut of the finest racehorse.

Shelties are furry beasts who hate the heat of summer. Brushing the three of them easily produces a fourth dog (no joking)!

Come the fall however, they want nothing more than to be outdoors.

At fourteen Buddy is beginning to show his age in the downy grey fur slowly spreading across his black muzzle.

When it comes to playing fetch, Buddy makes only a half-hearted attempt to run any distance these days, preferring to stand and bark excitedly as the two younger dogs scramble for the ball.

The strangest manifestations of Buddy's old age seems to be an odd form of separation anxiety. 

When Buddy thinks I am going somewhere he's not invited, he trudges dejectedly into the kitchen and pulls a dishtowel from the drying rack near the stove. Then, he follows me around as I prepare to leave, clutching the dishtowel in his mouth, rather like the cartoon character of Linus and his security blanket. 

He must keep his dishtowel-come-security-blanket close the whole time I am gone, because he always greets me at the door with it in his mouth. (I have long since given up hanging dishtowels on this particular towel rack. Now there are only a couple of doggie "security blankets".)

Scrap is a Sheltie in the truest sense- he lives to run and be outdoors. His favourite toy by far is a beat-up soccer ball.

Sometimes he will even go out in the yard and play all by himself. But never quietly. Yip yap! Kick the ball. Yip Yap! Nudge the ball.

Our new neighbours seem to often work from home and I dread what they must think. I worry that one of these days their back window will slide discreetly open and a shotgun barrel will slowly poke forward. 

It not that I would entirely blame them. I love him to bits and there are times I want to kill him! (When it gets to be just too much barking and sanity needs to prevail, unfortunately I have to get mean and take the ball away for a little while.)

As many of you may remember, Rusty is our little dog that no one wanted. Based on the level of his socialization when he came to us, I am firmly convinced that he spent much of his first year neglected and confined to a cage.

Always a bit uncertain, he has staked out a favourite spot on the upstairs landing where he has a clear vantage on the world from the safety of high ground.

He's cute, but don't let this handsome face fool you. Rusty has a mischievous side. Just the other day I  set down a few bags of groceries onto the kitchen floor while I put the perishables away in the fridge.

No sooner had a turned my back when this little thief fished out a loaf of bread from one of the grocery bags. By the time I looked up from what I was doing, he had already torn open the plastic bag and was helping himself to a slice of whole wheat bread.

"Rusty!", I roared in outrage. The little coward dropped his loot ran down the hall. There he sat headed bowed, quaking like a leaf on the front door mat, all the while doing his best to look the picture of innocence.

But he's so loveable. How could I not forgive him!

Yes, there are times when I question the sanity of having three dogs. And there are moments I tire of always having three constant shadows, but they are outweighed by the times I am grateful that I have three sentinels who watch over me.

On Monday I found myself home alone curled up under a pile of blankets with a terrible stomach flu. Pure misery!

I wasn't really alone though. Three dogs lay at the foot of my bed waiting ever so patiently for me to feel better, always hopeful that I might get up, get dressed and head out into the garden.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Building a Cold Frame

The month of October was swallowed whole by family matters. First my father-in-law passed away and then seventeen days later my mother-in-law slipped quietly away in her sleep. They were always good to me... to us all and I find myself tearing up just typing these words.

For me, one of the ways grief expressed itself was a terrible tiredness that made me want to avoid anything routine; including the computer, the internet and blogging. It has been weeks since I posted anything. 

Slowly, slowly I am slipping back into the comfort of old familiar habits. Now I find myself looking forward to catching up with good friends.

Wow! I can't believe it is already mid-November and fall is almost over!

The big Maple at the back of the garden always seems to be fall's swan song. It is the last tree in the yard to turn color and finishes the season with a crescendo of most brilliant yellow. 

Then there is frost and the Maple leaves fall like rain.

Last week hubby took some time off and we busied ourselves with completing a number of ongoing projects including this cold frame.

I first became interested in cold frames a couple of years ago. 

I was amazed and inspired to see how gardeners like Brenda (Gardeningbren in Nova Scotia) managed to extend the gardening season with the use of a cold frame.

Niki Jabbour, The Year Round Veggie Gardener

Niki Jabbour's blog The Year Round Veggie Gardener was also a real eye opener. 

Who wouldn't be impressed by that picture of Niki kneeling beside a cold frame in the dead of a Canadian winter?

Needless to say, when her book The Year Round Vegetable Gardener was published, I bought a copy.

Last fall hubby and I came up with a design to transform one of my raised beds into a cold frame. 

If I had a bigger garden, I probably would have built a permanent cold frame, but space in our backyard is at a premium and so I wanted to design a structure that could be a cold frame in winter and revert back to an ordinary flowerbed in summer. 

Here you can sort-of see the four raised beds last spring. (Oh how I now wish I had taken better pictures of this part of the garden last spring!) 

Overall my garden is a bit of a jungle, so I like the little bit of order and formality that the raised beds provide. 

There are lilac standards in the centre of two of the flowerbeds diagonally opposite from one another and...

decorative plant supports in the centre of the opposite pair. 

Hopefully next spring clematis will be clamouring up the plant supports and covering them with flowers about the same time that the lilac standards are in bloom. Fingers crossed anyway!

One raised bed holds my collection of herbs (as seen above). In another, I grew tomatoes and strawberries last summer. In the final two beds, I planted a mix of flowers.

Here we are in November.

Last year we constructed the sides of the box which transforms the one of these raised beds into a cold frame. Being busy, we ran out of fall before we could make the top. To get us through the last winter we ended up borrowing a few old windows from a neighbour. 

Last week, we finally completed the project and made the top doors.

The smart part of this cold frame design is that it takes less than an hour to transform the raised bed into a cold frame. You simply fit the cold frame sides into position and attach the three doors. (We store the component pieces in a shed during the summer.)

For purposes of demonstration, here we have detached one of the cold frame sides to show you how it all fits into place. In the shot above you can hubby fitting one of the sides into position to complete walls of the frame.

Because the sides fit together like a puzzle no nails are required to hold them in position. Any one of the side walls can be removed in a matter of minutes.

The final stage of the fall transformation from raised bed to cold frame involves the installation of three plexiglass doors.

It remains to be asked: why go to all this bother? I can think of so many good reasons:

A cold frame is certainly more affordable than a buying a full greenhouse, yet offers many of the same advantages. 

It also takes up a lot less space than a greenhouse and is the great option to consider for a small backyard.

As I indicated earlier in the post, a cold frames allow you to extend the growing season in a number of ways. 

My herbs are still going strong despite the fact that it's mid-November and we have had several killing frosts. And last spring the herbs sprouting new growth over a month ahead of the rest of the garden.

You can also grow a winter crop of vegetables in a cold frame (visit Niki or Brenda's blog for inspiration). 

Like a greenhouse, I found a cold frame to be a great place to start seeds. 

I have limited space in the house for seedlings. Last spring I was able to start some seeds inside the cold frame as early as late March/early April.

Rose Mossy Saxifrage, saxifraga x arendsii rose selection

I also found that the cold frame is a great place to park tender plants for the winter.  Thanks to the shelter it provides, the top of this birdbath planter came through the ravages of a Canadian winter beautifully.

Sometimes I have trouble over wintering Mediterranean herbs like thyme, but last year I had no problem with the most of the plants inside of the cold frame. (The exception were a few thyme plants that were right in the corners. There are some very small gaps where the structure fits together and they were big enough to allow cold drafts to sneak inside and affect the plants right in each corner.)

With under an hour to make the transformation, I have to say that I am rather proud of how easy we have made it to use a cold frame each fall and winter.

For more project details please see the Cold Frame How-to.