Cosmonaut Volkov a superb heirloom tomato

Cosmonaut Vokov and Tiny Tim tomatoes

The first Cosmonaut Volkov tomato ripened in time for us to take to the cottage on Thursday, and we came home Saturday to a proper beefsteak onslaught. This is a superb heritage tomato for short summers.

The cherry tomatoes alongside are Tiny Tim. They’re a hybrid, firm, less juicy and less tasty, but I won’t snub an abundance of salad tomatoes starting July 1, no, not in Ontario.

I planted Cosmonaut Volkov May 9 in the square foot garden. That’s a full week earlier than our official last frost date here in Waterloo. It was the middle of a warm spell, so I hoped we were safe from frost. It turned out we had cold weather ahead, with two or three more frost nights almost to the end of May.

I moved some pots indoors on cold nights, including Tiny Tim, but trusted the warm south foundation of our house to protect the beefsteak tomatoes. It was a lucky gamble.

The first Cosmonaut Volkov ripened on July 30, 82 days after transplant. That’s 10 days longer than advertized, but considering all the cold weather it survived unscathed, I’m not complaining. The Lemon Boy tomato planted 11 days later, replacing a patch of early spinach, also calls for 72 days and doesn’t show any sign of ripening yet.

This spring I was a little discouraged at the prospect of growing tomatoes in such a small garden. I usually like to try five or six different varieties, and we simply hadn’t enough room. Forlornly surveying the selection of plants available from a local grower at Guelph Farmers’ Market, I asked the owner which was her favourite variety of beefsteak, and she recommended Cosmonaut Volkov.

Good call! These big, smooth, attractive red fruits are the best beefsteaks I’ve grown in a long time. Taste-wise they’re sweet and full of complex flavour. They might not match Brandywines or other heritage types for colourful grotesqueness, but the indeterminate vine appears to be a heavy producer, with a few clusters of large tomatoes still coming along.

The variety, originating in Ukraine, is ideal for short summers in northern climates. It was named after Vladislav Volkov, who perished in 1971 returning from his second space mission.

As a child I hated tomatoes – until one summer I grew them myself, and found that fresh off the vine they were much more delectable. To this day, I’ve become slightly less discriminating, and yet seldom eat tomatoes unless I grew them myself. My partner is even fussier: tomatoes in general inspire a gag reflex, but he does enjoy the ones from our garden. Cosmonaut Volkov makes him crave a BLT, so we must pick up some good local bacon and lettuce from St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market on Tuesday.

This is probably one of the most productive tomato vines I’ve ever grown. It’s early August and there’s still no sign of disease. It has undoubtedly benefited from growing against our hot south foundation, and I’ve been careful to irrigate it regularly through the recent hot weather. It seems likely I’ll be able to harvest several big fruit from it every week for the rest of the summer.

For a pair of ambivalent tomato-eaters like us, the harvest will be plenty. Any extras I’ll freeze whole for dropping into a soup pot come winter. With our limited space, I can’t see much use in trying to grow enough paste tomatoes to make our own sauce. However, it shouldn’t be difficult to harvest enough beefsteaks and cherries for our limited needs from three well-chosen, well-groomed plants.

Now I’m eating one of these lovelies for lunch: one tomato alone without any seasoning but a little ground sea salt. It’s delicious and satisfying. For a square in our future gardens, I’ll be hard-pressed to find a suitable variety to rival Cosmonaut Volkov.

[Edit: Apparently I grew this same variety in our garden last summer, but it was a forgettable experience. So much depends on soil, weather and other growing conditions. Certainly, I’ll have to give Black Sea Man a try here in our new location if we’re still here next spring. But it might not be worth giving a square of our limited space up to a later variety like Brandywine.]

Garden tour: spectacle of colour and texture

Click the arrow to the left or right to navigate through a gallery of 24 images.

Guelph Horticultural Society held its annual garden show on the weekend. Here are some highlights of what we saw there.

A stroll through St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market

Click arrows to the left or right of each image to proceed through the gallery.

Since St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market has become part of our weekly grocery run, I seldom have time to take photographs. We usually go on Thursday mornings to avoid the weekend crush. But this Saturday was our anniversary, so my partner and I went simply to buy some treats and enjoy the colourful bustle. Peruse the gallery of 12 images.

Even last Thursday was a bit crazy. One of the vendors pointed out the market is open Tuesdays throughout the summer. We might try it out.

Buffy Sainte-Marie sings family and power

Buffy Sainte-Marie never falls behind. Her new album Power In The Blood, released when she’s 74, appears to coincide with the conclusion of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In this June 2015 interview with Wendy Mesley on CBC’s The National she discusses residential schools, Idle No More and other concerns of First Nations peoples.

At her concerts she hangs a red dress to represent missing and murdered indigenous women. Here she says, “We have to find a new way to raise our sons….to demilitarize the male heart.” It’s a theme carried since her 1964 hit protest song, “Universal Soldier.”

I didn’t know who Buffy Sainte-Marie was until I was 26 when, reporting for The Hanover Post, I saw her perform live at a powwow at Saugeen First Nation. It was 1990. I’d led a life sheltered from activism and information about Canada’s aboriginal peoples, but that began to change thanks to her music.

She expresses hope that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission might make a difference by documenting abuse and the experiences of victims.

“It’s a big task to make things better in any family, including the Canadian family,” she observes.

She talks about how being blacklisted in the U.S. prevented people from hearing her message, but it never held her back. She has never reached the U.S. music charts again since the 1970s.

Coincidence And Likely Stories came out in 1992. It was her first album in 16 years, the first I bought, and probably the most political. It made the charts in Canada and the U.K. for the first time. It’s my favourite to date. Running For The Drum (2008) experimented with electronic dance rhythms.

But Power In The Blood returns soundly to a folk-rock style. The title track rages against cultural and environmental exploitation. “We Are Circling” is a sacred protest march for Mother Earth, family and unity. “Ke Sakihitin Awasis (I Love You Baby)” sounds like a poignant reworking of one of her most popular hits, “He’s An Indian Cowboy In The Rodeo,” while “Orion” harkens back to one her most beautiful songs, the tender, heart-wrenching, “Goodnight” (here’s Erasure’s admirable cover).

Overall, the album draws on her many strengths, including the ability to develop a complex canvas of emotions: outrage, affection, courage, loneliness, pride, belonging, sense of place. It’s all there.


My porch sanctuary garden

Front porch: the view from where I stand

I’ve made the front step my contemplation seat. Especially late in the evening when most people have gone to bed, I like to sit in my sanctuary garden under the dim glow of streetlights and absorb the quietness of the street.

Or on rainy days I can watch the kitchen garden grow from the shelter of the stoop. The scarlet runner beans have raced all the way to the roof. On still, warm days their flowers emit a subtle fragrance.

Kitchen garden

This sanctuary doesn’t provide much privacy, but that’s part of its charm. When I garden first thing every morning, strangers stop to chat. They’re usually older folks who have time for idle conversation. This morning a woman told me she will give me some beans when they ripen — beans she brought from Yugoslavia. She recommends cooking them in milk and water, then adding sour cream.

The people who stop have only peaceful things to say.

I pass through the front door a few times every day. Portals have a particular psychological power. If you ever notice arriving in a room not knowing why you came, blame the doorway. Openings mark the boundary between one landscape and another, triggering our minds to change ideas and purposes.

I use this to my advantage. When I step out the back door on the side of the parking lot, I usually have a plan, places to go and things to do. But when I step out the front door I enter the garden, leaving cares and agendas behind.

The bounty my hands have raised absorbs me. It’s early summer. The peas, lettuce and spinach are past. The raised bed is beginning to produce more kale, chard and the first carrots.

Carrot 1

These are the first carrots I’ve grown since I was a teenager. They’re remarkably tender, like cold butter. They have a perfume, my partner says.

Carrot dissection

Unlike our neighbours’ gardens along this sun-parched south wall, the dense foliage of the vegetables keeps the soil cool and moist. The micro-climate attracts pollinating insects and soil organisms. A slender tabby cat likes to slink under the shade of tomato and beans vines.

I pass through the front door several times a day to tend the plants, harvest vegetables, snip some herbs to flavour the pot, or simply do nothing. Each time I’m transported to a place that reduces life to essential nourishment.

A little effort and affection can turn a sterile, empty space fertile. This is true spirituality. Sanctuary gardens inspire us to be still and contemplate a tiny corner of the complex universe. This abstract focus calms the nerves, heals pain and connects us to the Earth, from which all life comes.


Macro photography: a closer look around the cottage

Here are some of the most exciting images (click a photo to view larger images in a carousel) so far showing off what kind of nature photography the new macro lens can do. I shot all of them within a few steps of the cottage door.

My partner and I returned from another short stay at the lake, our third trip to look after spring maintenance including staining the deck and dock and laying additional flagstones around the wood stove for insurance purposes. The water lines sprung several new leaks so I’ve decided to replace the ones under the cottage, a project that will have to wait until July when bug season eases off. As well, this past weekend I ran my annual route for the international Breeding Bird Survey.

The mosquitoes have been fierce this spring. There are so many that even when we wear mesh jackets, enough insects manage to bite through the neck fold that insanity quickly sets in. We had enough of them while spreading stain, and consequently spent little additional time outdoors. I took my camera on both previous trips but didn’t use it because I didn’t feel like rambling in the woods.

But Saturday was a glorious day so we tried walking along the road. I managed to get some shots of a spider in a flowerpot and a clump of orange hawkweed blooming on the shoulder. The road crosses a swampy area. There the mosquitoes soon became unbearable and we had to turn back.

But when I pulled the images up on my laptop, a warm feeling came over me. I bought the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM macro lens in March using pocket money I’d saved for almost a year. It’s a mid-price lens, the best I could afford.

It lacks image stabilization so a tripod is essential for clear close-up shots. I have a good Manfrotto tripod with enough weight to reduce the risk of tipping my expensive camera equipment. The legs fold outward to allow shooting from ground level.

The reason I wanted a good macro lens was to explore the world of small, another layer of the environment revealing things we encounter every day but can’t see with the unaided eye. I’d love to explore Canada’s far north or a coral sea, but until I have the opportunity, unseen complex environments lie close at hand – or at foot, as the case may be.

Saturday provided glowing light conditions. Using the tripod I was able to get close as possible and control depth of field to highlight fine details like the hawkweed stamens. Other cameras and lenses have done macro magic for me, but never like this. An old dream is becoming a reality.

The first two images inspired me to brave the mosquitoes another day.

The exquisite little common woodsorrel (honestly, is there anything common about the perfection of this wildflower?) grows in clumps on our property. I’ve tried to photograph Oxalis montana over the years, but never satisfactorily until now. It’s an important herb of climax forest, common in the understory of trees like our red maples, yellow birches and balsam firs. Often cohabiting with wildflowers such as goldthread, woodsorrel provides forage for deer and chipmunks.

I’m also a fan of clubmosses like Lycopodium dendroideum shown here. It’s one of at least three species that grow on or near our cottage property, spreading across shady, leafy ground. Botanists speculate that clubmosses resembles the first vascular plants that colonized the land. To me it seems similar to Norfolk Island pine, but that comes from an ancient family of conifers, not closely related. This species’ common name is ground-pine, and dendroideum is Latin, meaning tree-like.

It’s a thrill using macro photography to see these familiar neighbours closer than ever.

St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market rises like a phoenix

The new barn at St. Jacobs Farmers Market

St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market has not only recovered from disaster, but seems stronger than ever. Less than two years ago fire leveled the main barn, but the place hardly skipped a heartbeat. The flea market and outdoor produce vendors remained open, while a permanent tent was shortly installed to house food, largely butchers and cheese sellers. Last week the new barn opened, pictured above.

At the time of the fire it was identified as the largest year-round farmers’ market in Canada, surpassing even the likes of St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. It combines with artisans in the village itself and local Mennonite culture to make St. Jacobs a significant Ontario tourism destination.

St. Jacobs lies on the outskirts of Waterloo, a city of approximately 135,000 twinned with its larger sister, adjoining Kitchener. My partner and I moved to Waterloo in March. The farmers’ market lies a seven-minute drive from our door and has become an essential stop our our weekly grocery round. We’ve started going Thursday mornings, when the place hums like a hive but not as madly as Saturdays.

The new barn, though shaped differently, evokes the same style as the old building. The main floor has three wide aisles offering not only meat and cheese but also local honey, specialty teas, bakeries and more. The upstairs gallery opens onto spacious stalls for craftspeople and boutique goods.

St. Jacobs Farmers' Market inside new food building

The flea market and outdoor vendors are so numerous and varied, you can find almost anything. It’s a good place to shop for antiques, cheap clothes and plastic junk, but there’s a lot of good-quality craftsmanship to be found.

The produce mostly strings along one of the outdoor avenues, shrinking to almost nothing during the coldest winter weather. But shoppers beware: many of these vendors resell goods, largely imported. There’s no way of knowing the quality or provenance. I’ve bought bags of good-looking sweet peppers only to find they’re bad on the insides. The “Ontario strawberries” we brought home last week, surprisingly early for our season, were beautiful but bland and started rotting two days later. I’m learning that for quality local produce I must get to know the vendors and whom to avoid.

Any Ontario potatoes or mushrooms we’ve ever bought there have been worthwhile. So many local Mennonites offer tables covered with jugs of maple syrup, you’d have to be an idiot to try selling an imitation.

On the extreme west side of the seasonal vendors, closest to Weber Street, there’s a short row with a distinctly local quality. This week it offered local asparagus (still slender), leaf lettuce, kale, rhubarb, the first field strawberries of the season and mushrooms grown outdoors. These people act and dress like proud farmers instead of street vendors trying to up-sell cheap goods. Watch for them.

One of our favourite stops is Little B’s Gluten Free Bakery. They’ve newly relocated to outside the front wall of the main food building, offering all kinds of baked sweets from spring to fall. Our favourites are the fruit tarts and butter tarts. You can find other gluten-free items around the market, but Little B’s are the best.

Of course it’s hard to resist The Fritter Co. After the fire destroyed all their equipment, they reopened a few months later in one of the flea market barns. The main food barn appears to have some food court stalls still under construction, so maybe the fritters will be moving there; I don’t know.

Take a sliced apple disc, dip it in batter, deep-fry it and this is what you get. Scale it up with ice cream, or not.

The Fritter Co.

Of course these are not gluten free. I hadn’t touched one in years, but when I started the gluten challenge in April I made a bee-line for The Fritter Co. It was my first stop.

Since I don’t seem to be experiencing any symptoms after eight wheat-filled weeks, who knows? That’s another whole story. Maybe I won’t be following a gluten-free diet any longer, but the jury is out until I go for a biopsy in July. I’ve found gluten-free food can be nutritious and delicious, so the outcome is unlikely to drastically change my eating habits. For treats I can still go both ways.

Another thing: if you want to buy a traditional quilt, St. Jacobs is the place to shop. I know of three locations, but there are probably more. Quilted Heirlooms occupies a log cabin at the south end of the market, on Farmers Market Road. The store also sells quilting supplies. Esther Weber Quilts is one of the artisan shops in the upper level of the main barn. But the largest selection can be found at Grey Fort Quilts in St. Jacobs village. These are hand-stitched by local Mennonite women.

Happily, St. Jacobs is busy as ever, with temptations lying around every corner.

Balancing simplicity with responsibility

Scarlet runner beans

It isn’t professional achievements or income that make us happy; this is an old idea eloquently reiterated in Caitlin Kelly’s recent blog post, A small, happy life. She refers to a moral recorded elsewhere: “We do not all have to shine.” I agree: it’s not worth spending our lives in constant pursuit of higher achievement. But if happiness is the true glint in the ore, how do we refine it?

Caitlin points to the level of anxiety imposed on us as we strive for status, financial security and, in the case of women, the perfect body. This last pressure also applies to gay men, I’ve found, though I’ve stopped letting it bother me.

In recovering from a history of depression and anxiety, I’ve found it hard to strike a balance between happiness and success. A year or so into my sixth decade I’m still struggling to succeed enough as a writer to make a sustainable income at the thing I do best. Yet without question I’ve only come so far by lowering my expectations and dismissing the burdens other people would place on me. Still, you get nothing from doing nothing. Achievement matters, and it’s only getting harder to carve out a niche.

For a long time I was absorbed in learning to care for myself. But we aren’t islands, none of us. Recently I’ve begun thinking more about giving back to the community that has supported my healing and development. For instance, I recently joined Toastmasters with the aim of becoming a more effective communicator for both my own sake and so that my research, experience and storytelling might benefit more people. I want to become a more ready participant.

Happiness and simplicity must be balanced with responsibility.

Recent psychological research from Stanford University found a distinction between happiness and meaningfulness in people’s lives. Happiness comes from getting what we want and need. But personal satisfaction has nothing to do with meaning. Happiness is rooted in the present while meaningfulness engages with past, present and future. People with meaningful lives have deeper relationships, experience more stress and are more concerned with expressing identity.

This seems to bring us back to the point: “We do not all need to shine.” Maybe not everyone needs a meaningful life. But I wonder.

Obviously, if we always place happiness above responsibility to others, someone will feel the cost. But it’s no more healthy to put others ahead of our own needs and well-being all the time.

I agree with Caitlin that it’s better to derive happiness from simple living than a constant striving to prove ourselves. But I admire the intelligence of scarlet runner beans, their tendrils reaching for the simple achievement of light, photosynthesis and procreation. The best part of my day is often the simple morning ritual of spending time in the garden, doing some yoga and making a pot of tea. I care for my body and mind. It takes some initiative.

But in reality, happiness is not enough. After breakfast I go to my desk. I’ve had to learn how to motivate myself by reshaping stress into a useful tool. As a freelance journalist I build bridges with clients and savour the responsibility of doing a good job. Interacting with others in a useful way, I pursue meaning.

This is responsibility. I’m still working it all out. It’s an essential ingredient.

Gardening in a smaller space

Raised bed fully planted

I’m surprised to note I’ve posted only a little about my new vegetable garden. Granted, we’ve had a lot going on since we moved to Waterloo in March, so it’s easy for things to slip by. One of my challenges was to figure out how to grow food in limited space, and I’m pleased to report things are going swimmingly. Here’s a more in depth post about what’s happening outside our living room window.

The above photo of my square-foot garden was taken two weeks ago. I learned how to set it up from some online videos. The frame is untreated cedar. I filled it with commercial potting soil enriched with compost from the worm composter. Here it is when newly established in early April.

Square foot garden 1

The ideal size for a square foot garden is four by four. This one is four squares deep and eight wide, with a keyhole for the basement window well. I’ve also filled two squares with stepping stones allowing easier access to the back rows.

I covered the newly sown seeds with cardboard to maintain even moisture and warm the soil. This strategy is useful for the cabbage family (kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and kohlrabi) that requires even moisture to germinate well. However, it didn’t work for everything, as I would soon learn.

We received a cold snap with persistent snow in late April. This had no negative impact on kale, spinach or arugula.

Germination was poorer for lettuce, carrots, calendulas and magenta spreen. I don’t know whether they objected to the cold, but I think lettuce and spreen seeds may be light activated so the cardboard would have inhibited them. Later I added more seeds without covering and now they’re coming along fine.

I’m growing additional crops in containers. The barrels contain bush beans, zucchini and acorn squash. Pots provide room for extra tomatoes, peppers and a variety of herbs. Having them in containers also allows an earlier start for frost-tender vegetables (beans, tomatoes, peppers and squash, among others) because they can move indoors in case of a cold night. Here they are May 12. Our official last frost date is May 17.

Square foot garden 2

Warm weather in May brought things along quickly. Unfortunately it has been interspersed with surprise late frost, with a fairly hard frost on May 26, which may have spelled disaster for nut and fruit crops. The bush beans in the barrel took a little bronzing on their leaves one night when I was careless, but they were indoors on May 26 and have quickly recovered. Tomatoes and beans planted early against the foundation of the house came through the cold weather unscathed.

I first grew an herb called rocket when I was a kid. I’d read about it in British gardening books, but it was unfamiliar to my family’s palette. Apparently most North Americans responded the same way because it never gained popularity here. Someone renamed it arugula and reintroduced it a few years later. Now it’s popular. Maybe people are more receptive to healthy salad greens now than in the ’70s.

This year one single square foot of garden produced almost more arugula than I knew what to do with. I’ve never been particularly fond of bitter greens, but like anything plucked fresh from the garden, this arugula is different altogether, succulent and delectable. A little lemon juice, lemon zest and olive oil dresses it up nicely.

Here’s that abundance of arugula threatening to crowd out the calendulas and rhubarb chard, with healthy peas climbing in the background.

Arugula in the corner

We’ve also had plenty of spinach from two squares planted several weeks apart, but the second batch maturing in May’s heat was less productive. The moral: plant your spinach as soon as the ground can be worked (for best results, soak seeds for 24 hours first). I had a head start because I was establishing a new garden and planting directly into a purchased mix. I prefer to nurture my own soil, but this was a one-time investment. Here’s the second crop surrounded by thyme, tarragon, lovage, sage and onions.

Spinach in the square foot garden

With warm weather, the spinach and arugula were beginning to bolt, so I cut all the remaining plants yesterday. Succession crops of kale and bush beans went into the vacant squares.

Next up to the plate is this gorgeous selection of leaf lettuce. I haven’t even touched it yet, we’ve had so many other salad greens available this spring. I have more lettuce seedlings coming along in a pot, which I can move to shade to keep it nice through the inevitable hot weather ahead.

Square foot garden 4

This square foot garden is a delight to the eye as well as the palate. I can’t count the number of times new neighbours have complimented it while I’m working there first thing in the morning.

The Potters’ Market

The Potters' Market 2015 fox pot

[Update: The Potters’ Market has been cancelled for May 31, 2015, due to a forecast of strong wind gusts, cold and more rain. But please peruse my photos of the previous day.]

It’s indicative of Guelph’s fertile character that one of the cultural events most anticipated (at least among people I know) is a pottery festival. This is not to say that there aren’t many more exciting things to do, more important and more widely attended: Hillside Music Festival, Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, the jazz festival, the film festival, the studio tour, Art on the Street, Fair November, Faery Fest Inc.’s Enchanted Ground and Guelph Pride, to name a few.

What’s surprising about The Potters’ Market is its quality. The website lists 55 vendors this year, and every single one of them creates works of art. Everyone seems to be talking about it. Everyone goes, if they can.

I’ve collected pottery all my life, not on a large scale, but I still have several small spice pots acquired during my teens and twenties. These were beautiful in themselves. But the tools available to potters must have increased exponentially in the past three decades, considering the diaphanous splendour of contemporary ceramics.

Click any of the thumbnails below to view the larger images in a carousel.

One of the things I love about pottery is how, even with such diverse colour and technique, it inevitably expresses the earth from which it emerges. This might be naive because I’ve hardly ever made any pottery myself, but I think you must be inherently grounded in something to make good pots. Everywhere I look I see colours and textures of lava, foliage, sea foam, fungi. These are the kinds of images I like to collect for inspiration.

My partner and I are gradually adding to a small collection of gorgeous, handmade coffee mugs.

The Potters’ Market continues tomorrow, May 31, 2015, from 10 to 5 if you’re lucky to be within driving distance from Guelph. It takes place at the historic Goldie Mill Park. Otherwise, I believe it always happens the last weekend of May. I hope you don’t get drenched as we did, but it’s a warm summer rain and pottery doesn’t dissolve like people do.