Montreal Melon

This week’s most exciting garden development: the melon is making melons.


A friend gave me some seeds for Montreal Melon last year; it was too late to start them, so I designated them this year’s project.  I had never considered growing melons.  I grow all my veg in containers, and pack the containers fairly close together to maximize my tiny yard space; I wasn’t sure a melon plant would be happy under such conditions, as they require a lot of room.  I decided to partly address the problem by growing my melon on a tomato cage, so it could grow up instead of out.

melon cage

The plan is to create little hammocks, out of old tights, for the fruit as they get heavier.  Not sure what I’ll do about the raccoons, but so far they haven’t been a major nuisance this year; I will consider constructing a cage as the melons mature, but I might just take my chances.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Montreal Melon was a hugely popular garden fruit and considered an exquisite delicacy.  However, it was labourious to grow and did not ship well, and so all but disappeared until recently, when, starting with a few forgotten seeds in an American seed bank, one intrepid gardener managed to grow a plant and harvest the seeds.  Since then, local supporters of the melon have made a project of bringing it back.  You can read a detailed history of the Montreal Melon here.

June 16, 2014: The State of the Garden

This week’s most exciting development: the peas are flowering!  I thought I’d planted them too late, but here they are.


I had also given the strawberry plant up for dead, but the few sad little sprouts seem to be hanging in there, so maybe I’ll get a few berries out of it after all.


I’m pretty chuffed about the beans.


The raspberries have done flowering and the berries are on their way.


The cucumber looks great, but does not seem to be fertilizing itself; the little cukes are not growing up.  I have tried to help it along by hand-pollinating it with cotton swabs, but so far, no luck.


The little zucchinis are popping up just fine, although I’ve already had to start battling powdery mildew.


The peppers and tomatoes are flowering nicely, and are looking bushy and beautiful!


I’ve seen the first slugs, and the standoff with the leaf miners continues – they lay eggs, I remove leaves with eggs, they lay more eggs, nobody’s happy – but I’m loving the way the greenery is filling the yard and the first flowers and fruit are peeking through.

The horrible winter now seems like last night’s dream.  (I almost wrote “a distant dream,” but that would be untrue.  It feels shadowy, but very, very close behind me.)  In Montreal, if we get to experience “late spring,” at all, it usually lasts only a day or two, so I’m trying to enjoy every second of this surprisingly long reprieve: it feels like summer, but you can go for  a run in the morning without risking heat stroke, and you can vacillate about whether it’s time to install the air conditioner.  The garden likes it.  Me too.


June 4, 2014: The State of the Garden

Despite the slow, late start, things are happening over here.


In very exciting news: today we have a bell pepper.  Last year, I was unable to produce a single one; I’m hopeful that this is just the beginning. (I took about 17 photos and this is the clearest of them all; you get the idea.  Next on my list of fantasy projects: a garden photography course.)


This morning, this sage was very bushy.  I gave it a good haircut, and the trimmings are now in the dehydrator.


The zucchini is also looking promising…


…as is the cucumber.


I also have my first chive blossoms.


Yesterday, I made the year’s first pot of Total Garden Tea: raspberry leaf and orange mint.


Look closely at that mint.  Do see that it’s covered with tiny golden baby spiders? They seem to have infested the deck.  I love spiders, but I don’t necessarily want millions of them in/on my house, so I’ve been patiently scooping up nests of them with paper towels and delivering them down into the main garden, where I hope they will grow up to eat bad guys.

The first nasturtium is also looking happy.


Today I cut the first full head of lettuce; it will go into my salad at lunch.


The collard greens were my first yield, and I’ve been clipping leaves from time to time, but they haven’t grown as huge as I was expecting.  It’s getting a bit hot for them now, so I might harvest them for tonight’s dinner and plant some more in August.


For two years in a row now, I’ve had no luck with rapini.  I started some inside and direct-sowed some others at the beginning of April, but the ones that weren’t eaten by squirrels grew into pathetic little runts and then bolted.  The bees like the flowers, so that’s something. I’ll try again in the fall.


I almost didn’t bother with peas at all, as it was the end of April before I could plant them.  They’ve grown, but haven’t flowered, so I’m not expecting any peas this year.  I’ll wait until the end of June before deciding whether to pull them up and plant something else.


A friend gave me some seeds for the legendary Montreal Melon, a species that was an international sensation in the early 20th century, and that a local group is trying to re-introduce.  I’m a little worried about mine, as it hasn’t been doing brilliantly since its move outside, but it’s started to flower, so my fingers are crossed.


I’m really excited about the carrots.  I took some trouble with them this year in hopes that I’d get something more than spindly little crooked stumps.


I wanted to buy self-watering EarthBoxes for my tomatoes, but EarthBox doesn’t ship to Canada, and they cost about $90 apiece on  I couldn’t find suitable self-watering containers anywhere, so I finally ordered pretty red tomato bags with lovely collapsible trellises from West Coast Seeds.  The chicken wire and netting and clothespins detract from the aesthetics, but the tomatoes seem fine with that.  (You may have noted the yards of netting over absolutely everything.  It’s ugly, but it works; the squirrels are frustrated by it and so focus their energies on other things.)


My husband says he’s always relieved when I begin starting seeds in February, because it means our experiment in home ownership might last another year.  It’s true that everything changes when I can get out in the yard.  Yes, there’s still moisture in the crawl space and windows to be replaced and a shower door that leaks and a mysterious crack in the kitchen ceiling.  But look!  Plants!  Lots and lots of plants!


The State of the Garden: “Spring” 2014

It’s been the longest, nastiest winter in my memory. It finally seems to be lifting, but even now, after four days of above-zero temperatures, the yards are covered with a thick cobbler of ice and mushy snow.  Once this ice and snow melts, it will leave brick and mortar scree all over our front lawn and garden, residue from our February window replacement.  Needless to say, nothing is growing.  At least, not outside.

The only blessing of this wintry hell (and yes, it’s really gotten me down.  I used to like winter.  Not anymore) is the intensification of my pleasure at 1. watching things grow indoors and 2. anticipating the day they can go outside.  For example, here are my collard greens.


I started them in February, and they’re happily humming along in the sunny mudroom.  I’m hoping they’ll have time to get outside and grow big and strong before it gets hot around here.

Also in the mudroom, some alyssum and rapini…


…and the arugula, which I feared was lost when the overnight temperatures dropped to -15 (the mudroom isn’t much warmer than the outdoors).  But no!


Our new windows have nice wide sills.  The cats and the plants appreciate this.  Here, Cat A stands guard over some thyme, dill, calendula and lovage.


I managed to coddle some herbs through the winter.  I’m especially proud of the basil, which was quite spindly when it came inside in October.  Look at it now! The marjoram is also hanging in there.


In the basement, I’ve set up a new grow-light system, and the results have been fabulous. I still have the old purple-bulb-lamps-and-shelf setup for emergency transfers when the main system gets too crowded, but the difference a real adjustable starter light makes is remarkable.  I’ve also bought a couple of heat mats so that the peppers and later the tomatoes can stay toasty.


We’re expecting more rain today, so I’m hoping that the peas can go in their raised bed tomorrow or Monday, and then I’ll keep my fingers crossed that they can produce before summer descends on us.  I’m very interested to see what this season has in store, as Nature seems to be hellbent on proving that we’re not the boss of her.  (Note to humankind: Could you please stop trying to prove that you’re the boss of Nature, and maybe appease her with some nice new rainforests or virgin sacrifices or something?)






July 26, 2013: The State of the Garden

I have built an elaborate, possibly futile anti-squirrel fortress for the tomatoes.





So far, it seems to have been effective.  Before I built it, I found several green tomatoes scattered around the pots, some with bites out of them.  Since I constructed this – a chicken-wire fence, a spiderweb of twine and rubber bands on bamboo stakes, topped with a generous blanket of netting anchored at the bottom with bricks – the plants seem to have been undisturbed.  The trickiest part will be getting at them; three cool days have meant that they haven’t needed to be watered yet, but tomorrow I’ll need to get in there, and it may be quite a process.

In the meantime, the cabbage worms ate my kale.


I’ve put in some collards and lettuce for the fall; I’ll plant some more lettuce after the worst of the summer heat has passed.


The balcony herbs are doing pretty well.



However, the Moroccan mint has been developing brown spots on its leaves.  I’ve moved it into more direct sunlight to see if that helps.


The squirrels have not been entirely deterred by the netting on the strawberries, but it seems to have prevented total decimation.  That said, many of the berries have developed brown spots and, after a few delicious ones in the beginning, the rest have been bland and bitter.  I haven’t determined what’s causing this; maybe you have some ideas?


I’m looking forward to some more dill.


The cress is not happy, but the chocolate mint is doing fine.


The zucchini has gone through a couple of traumas, including falling over and battery by thunderstorms.  It looks fairly happy now, but it hasn’t fruited much for the last couple of weeks.  I’m hoping it’ll pull itself together, especially if we get some hot weather again soon.


The cucumber is doing GREAT right now, and the nasturtiums are making everything cheerful.



I’m looking forward to a second crop of beans.


However, a couple of bean plants have developed these spots on their lowest leaves.  I’m not sure whether this is something to be concerned about.


One poblano fell from the plant during a rainstorm, so I chopped it up to fry in a peppers-and-onions dish and it added a lovely spice.  I can’t wait for this one to fully ripen.


I’m hopeful that August will bring a big pepper crop.  The bell peppers have been struggling but are starting to flower more profusely now, and the poblanos in the shadier part of the garden are showing signs of maturity too.  I’m thinking chiles rellenos.


And finally, after a struggle that began in January and has seen the death of many seedlings, it seems I’m able to grow a catnip plant.


Next year, I may try to scale back a bit.  (Do I really need four tomato plants?  My husband can’t eat tomatoes.  Two zucchini plants in one pot is overkill.  Seven poblano plants – what on earth?)  However, I suspect that in January, when browsing seed catalogues will be my only way to feel like a gardener, plans may change.

Even if everything keels over tomorrow, my garden has been a godsend this year.  In the moments (many of them) when I feel that owning a house is too much for me to handle, I look out at the back yard and remind myself that none of this would have been possible in our cozy second-floor Outremont apartment.  Wandering through the pots every morning, coffee in hand, cats hiding under the foliage, has turned every day into an adventure.

Maybe next year I’ll start caring about the flowers in the front a little more.  I expect the neighbours will appreciate that.

I’m trying to see this whole process as an education.

Warm-weather Crochet

The annual heat wave has arrived.  It went up to 43 degrees (109 Farenheit) yesterday.  I haven’t left my air-conditioned living room in two days.

I thought I’d be spending this week plowing through the stack of novels I gathered at the library, but I got sidetracked.


Yes, when it’s hot enough outside to melt iron, my perverse instinct is to play with yarn.

I’ve knit for many years.  (Poorly.  Obsessively.)  The first time I dabbled in crochet, however, I thought: This is really a more sensible way to make things.  It’s a thousand times quicker and puts much less strain on my poor, worn-out right arm.

Something in me resisted.  I read a lot of knitting books and blogs, and they are often dismissive of crochet.  The speediness of crochet inspires snideness  in some knitters.  But when I dutifully tackled my Learn-to-knit Afghan again this winter, I found myself bogged down and resentful.  I’d bought all this beautiful yarn, but it was taking so long!  I’d never finish this damn thing!

So a few days ago, when I found myself itching for a hands-on crafty project (probably because it was far too hot to spend any time in the garden), I remembered an online impulse buy from several years ago: a few bags of worsted-weight cotton yarn buried somewhere in my stash.


If you want to crochet something but barely know how, and are armed with only Crocheting for Dummies and a lot of pretty yarn, granny squares are your best bet.


I strongly recommend picking up Crocheting for Dummies if you’re an absolute beginniner (or Knitting for Dummies if that’s more your scene), but if you have some knowledge of basic crochet stitches, here’s a good granny square tutorial.

Bonus benefits of this project:

1. Knitting 100% cotton yarn is terrible, because cotton yarn sticks to needles and doesn’t stretch.  Crocheting it is a breeze; the little loops hold their shape and the technique itself is stretchy enough to free up your movements.

2. My husband is allergic to wool.  Acrylic blankets are nasty.  Cotton blankets are awesome.

3. A small granny square takes about 45 minutes.  I can switch yarns after every square.  Satisfaction + stimulation = less chance of abandonment.

4. I can just keep making squares until my yarn is all gone.  If I don’t have enough squares for a blanket of the size I want, I can go get a bunch of cotton yarn in a compatible colour and weight and make more.  Then I can get another yarn to stitch it all together.  Buying yarn is super fun.

5. Small cotton squares are totally appropriate for hot weather.  No one wants to be touching swaths of wool when the world outside is boiling in its own juices.

The only problem is that I keep feeling that normal people leave the house and do things, even when it’s hot, and I have no desire to leave the house or do anything but make squares.  I’m telling myself that once things cool down I’ll take my squares to the park or maybe even leave them behind to walk to the grocery store or something.  But even if I don’t, what’s the harm?  There are cans of beans in the pantry that can be made into dinner, and at the end, I will have a thing that I made.

How do you entertain yourself when leaving the house seems like too much of a challenge?  Do you have reliable “it’s-too-darn-hot” activities?  Do you have feelings about knitting vs. crocheting?  Will all this air conditioning give me brain damage?

They Grow Up So Fast

Over the last few days, there have been all sorts of exciting garden developments.  Some have been good!  Some have not.

In the bad news:

1. Zucchini down!


At first, I blamed the cats.  Then the squirrels.  In the end, though, I think the zucchini was too big for its britches.  Which is to say, its container.  Next year, I will rig up some support.  I was tempted to fiddle with it, but after much agonizing I decided to leave it alone, and it’s recovering:


2. The savoury plant seems to be a perpetual victim.


This is the second time it’s been knocked off its perch.  Not sure who to blame, but the cat looked guiltier than usual.

3. A couple of the tomato plants have bad cases of leaf roll.


After doing some research, I think this is due to cool temperatures and high humidity, and nothing dire.  They are still producing like crazy and, although some leaves have a mild black speckle, there is no sign of spots.  Some of the lower leaves, however, are looking chewed, so I’m keeping an eye on them.

4. The beans and the kale are also getting munched.

chewedbeans chewedkale

I’m not too worried about the beans – they are otherwise fine, and production doesn’t seem to be affected.  The kale makes me sad, though.  Some of the basil plants are getting it too.  I expect it’s slugs, but am investigating other possibilities.

5.  I don’t know if this guy is bad news or not.


The best I can tell, he’s a diurnal firefly, and therefore a) benign and b) cute! and c) a firefly, albeit without the glowy stuff.  If he’s something else, that’s a different story.  I’ve solicited opinions.  Including yours, please.

In good news:

1. We harvested the first green beans!


I steamed them and made them into a salad with some zucchini and blossom refrigerator pickles I’d made earlier in the day.

2. So far, the netting seems to be keeping the squirrels out of the strawberries.


We ate one of these yesterday and it was INCREDIBLE.  However, I just surprised a squirrel sitting on top of the hanger, chattering at the top of his lungs (“I’M STEALING YOUR STRAWBERRIES I’M STEALING YOUR STRAWBERRIES!”) so we’ll see if the net does its job when I’m not there.  (He also knocked over the collards I’m sprouting, so I’m starting to think he’s responsible for the savoury fiascos.)

3. The calendula is blooming.


4. The peas did well, and yesterday I harvested the last of them.  Today, I pulled them up and planted some more carrots in their place.

goodbyepeas newcarrots

Not sure if it’s a good idea to put carrots in after peas – too much nitrogen in the soil – but we’ll see what happens.

5. We now have two – count ’em, two – poblano peppers.


6. The basil and sage on the deck are looking great.

deckbasil decksage

7.  It’s a funny little garden, but it’s full of good things, and I grew it all myself.


July 5, 2013: The State of the Garden

Summer has been both exciting and frustrating in the garden.  There was much too much cold rain for a while, and now it’s very hot.  There are aphids to combat, and the squirrels have become my mortal enemies.  Nevertheless, there are some fun things happening!


The summer peas are doing wonderfully.  These are shelling peas, and it’s taken me all season to figure out how long to wait before picking them, so I’ve depleted my harvest by picking them too small.  That said, they are perfect right now, and are unbelievably delicious – I feel like I’ve never tasted a pea before.  I pluck them daily, shell them, and scatter them over my lunch salad.  I’m torn as to whether to grow these again next year or switch to a snap pea, as I do like to eat peas whole.


Here’s our first poblano pepper.  The bell peppers are doing poorly – the plants are yellowish and spindly and the leaves are like eyelet – but the poblanos look to be thriving.  The joints are a bit blackened but the internet assures me this is normal.


The cucumbers are coming!  They’re about half the size of my little finger at the moment, but considering I wasn’t expecting them to make it through the premature sortie and cold spring, I’m VERY proud of them and their efforts.


And today, the first nasturtium.  The calendula look about ready to pop, too.

In sadder news, the strawberry plant has been troubled.  For one thing, the squirrels discovered it.


(How insulting is it that they take a single bite and leave the rest behind?  And that they pull the green ones off too, when they can’t possibly want them?  And they leave the evidence in a pot of marigolds that they dug up the night before?  I know we should respect the ways of nature, but this all feels like spite to me.)

My attempt at defense is to stick lots of bamboo skewers out of the soil to discourage digging, and drape the whole basket with an elaborate web of netting.


I know squirrels can chew through plastic, so we’ll see how this goes.  What’s more, some of the berries have been developing brown spots as they ripen, which may be a fungus – damn all the rain! – so I’ve been picking open the netting to prune and it’s all a big pain in the butt.  I have yet to taste a delicious ripe strawberry from this plant.  Next year I may just pass in favour of more herbs.

Also: the rapini grew just a few inches and then flowered.  Pretty, but no longer edible, I don’t think.


Other catastrophes?  I placed a friend’s chair too close to the lettuce box and the box went over the deck railing.  (It wasn’t growing well anyhow, even though it was still cool outside.)  None of the spinach I planted three weeks ago has germinated; now I’ll need to wait until fall.  The arborist won’t return our calls – we’ve been waiting since May for him to come take care of our sick birch and our bolting maple.  And the marjoram and savoury plants we ordered from our CSA arrived mouldy, although the savoury seems to be recovering.

But the cherry tomatoes are growing like mad!

tomatoes1 tomatoes2

And the green beans!  Holy cannoli!


And how about those zucchini!


In an effort to keep on top of the zukes and their delicious blossoms, I’ve been experimenting with refrigerator pickles – also a good way to make use of CSA basket leftovers at the end of the week.  Amanda Cohen’s great cookbook/graphic novel Dirt Candy has been very helpful with this.

pickledzukes pickledradishes

I’m learning many things.  Among them:

1. A single pan-fried zucchini blossom makes it worth it to grow your own veg.

2. Growing most herbs from seed is too much trouble.

3. You have no idea what a real salad is until you’ve plucked most of it out of your own garden.

4. It’s very difficult to grow enough peas.  I feel like I need a whole garden just for peas.

5. Finally, early morning garden inspection makes the cats very happy.



First zucchini flower (June 10):


First pea (June 14):


First chard harvest (June 14):


First zucchini (June 17):


Ingredients for first real garden dinner (June 18) (Husband, after tasting a bit of raw zucchini: “Oh my f%&*ing god, this zucchini is amazing”):


First tomato (June 19):


First bean flower (June 20):


Skillet Beans for Stephen Thompson: Best Recipe Ever

1mQUTnMy favourite podcast is NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, wherein four smarty-pantses sit around and talk about movies, TV, books, music, theatre, and so on. They always end the podcast with a segment called “What’s Making Us Happy This Week,” and in the most recent show, one of the smarty-pantses, Stephen Thompson, said he is being made happy by his current project: he wants to learn to cook. He therefore wants listeners to send him recipes.

And so here, for Stephen Thompson, is the simplest version of my go-to, all-purpose, never-fail, child- and adult-pleasing recipe: skillet beans. It’s kind of like a chili. It’s better, though.

The original recipe for these skillet beans can be found in the Moosewood Restaurant New Classics cookbook, which is an excellent cookbook, but not necessarily suitable for absolute beginners. I’ve adapted the recipe over the years to make it my own, and now I gussy it up with all sorts of different vegetables and spices, but this simple version is the base for all of them.


  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced fine (only onion or only garlic is also ok)
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • a tiny smidge of adobo sauce from a can of chipotles (this really makes the recipe. Adjust amount according to your and your children’s heat tolerance, but START SMALL)
  • 1 1/2 to 2 bottles of good-quality mild salsa (organic if possible. Green, red or both. Use the amount you need to get a consistency you like)
  • 2 cans of black, pinto or kidney beans (or a combination), drained
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • salt to taste


1. Heat the oil on medium heat in a large pot.
2. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Saute the onion in the oil until translucent. Add a pinch of salt.
3. Add the garlic and stir for about 30 seconds.
4. Throw in the carrot and peppers, and another pinch of salt. Saute until the peppers are just losing their crispness.
5. Add the cumin and the bit of adobo and fry for just a minute, stirring, to toast the cumin.
6. Add the salsa, stir, and bring up to a simmer; then add the beans, return to a simmer, and let continue to simmer for at least 30 minutes, adding a bit of water or more salsa if it gets too thick.
7. At least five minutes before serving, add the corn and return to a simmer until the corn is warmed through. Add more salt if necessary.
8. Serve with rice if you want. Put sour cream, cheese, guacamole, cilantro or whatever else you like on top.

Note: the absolute best blend of spices for this recipe is as follows: 1 tablespoon cumin seed, 1 tsp coriander seed, 1 tsp fennel seed, and 1 tsp thyme, ground up in a mortar or a spice grinder. However, novice cooks should not be prevented from trying a recipe because they have to fiddle with whole spice seeds and grinders, so try this version first.

Image by Miguel Saavedra