The Problem With Pollinators – Early Flowering Plants And Missing Bee Population

Mason bee home suspended in a tree - Vancouver, BC

Buy Mason Bee houses and refill tubes – US

Buy Mason Bee houses and refill tubes – Canada

What’s the problem with pollinators? There aren’t enough of them… and they sleep in.

My second year, I added berry bushes to the roof, and added to the count this past season. What I found is that the berries bud and flower much sooner than vegetables in this climate, and apparently much sooner than bumblebees and honeybees surface to help with pollination. As a result, I’ve had very limited fruit production, though this past year I was able to get some improvement by manually making the effort.

The fruit in question are:

  • Gooseberries (european): 2 bushes
  • Blueberries: 2 bushes
  • Currants: 3 plants

Growing blueberries, gooseberries and currants – Amazon.ca

I don’t know if the issue is that local pollinators aren’t emerging at the same time, or whether the location, and relatively limited flower options means they don’t visit until blooms are more abundant. Regardless, it’s a problem that I’m trying to deal with on a couple levels in 2019.

First, I scattered wildflower seeds in some beds reserved for non-edibles in hopes that they will emerge and flower to provide additional options for any pollinators that do emerge and visit early in the year.

Second, I’ve purchased a number of solitary bee homes and will be seeding them with mason bees in March, in hopes that the early-emerging mason bees will bridge the time between early flower emergence and the arrival of the pollinators that service the broader pool of fruit and vegetable plants.

If anyone has other ideas I’m all ears, as I’d like nothing more than to have bushes loaded with berries through the spring/summer of 2019.

Rooftop Vegetables and Protection from High Winds

Buy burlap and weed barrier fabrics – US

Buy burlap and weed barrier fabrics – Canada

One topic I wasn’t prepared for during year one was the increased impact of wind on the garden. Ground-level gardens benefit from natural barriers in the form of trees, buildings, hedges and the like. On the roof, most of these aren’t present, and in our case winds from the west are uninterrupted as far as the eye can see. The implications?

  • Risk of toppling for any non-woody plants.
  • Lower ambient and soil temperatures due to the cooling effects of wind.
  • Arrival of foreign seeds from who-knows-where.

Risk of toppling non-woody plants. This issue became clear almost immediately as after transferring seedlings to the outdoor beds. Despite having staked them, the first windy day saw them lashed about their stakes to the point of death. Over time I’ve come to realize the obvious danger to young plants, but that this extends also to larger plants later in the year as well. A number of large tomatillo plants found themselves significantly damaged as a late summer wind caught the row and toppled those poorly staked, and even snapped some of the stakes themselves.

We’re still testing, however we’ve found the following to work:

  • Choose locations with wind & temperature consideration in mind when planning your garden. For example, our pepper plants are now bordered by a protective glass barrier (conveniently already present on the roof) which both limits wind exposure and allows light through to heat the soil.
  • Stake all plants, large and small. We used bamboo of various lengths and diameters, affixed with twist ties which required adjustment as the plants matured in order to avoid impairing growth. Note that we affixed both stems, and branches where necessary, and revised placement of supports through the season to provide adequate support and protection.
  • Protect the most exposed areas with additional barriers. For some beds the exposure was just too great for anything other than strawberries, or low herbs like thyme, or woody plants. Here we affixed supports to the beds themselves and used strips of burlap to break the wind. This worked well to block the wind, however I think it was too effective and may have lead to powdery mildew on some plants as they dried more slowly after rain, and there was limited circulation. This burlap on Amazon (US or Canada) comes in narrower sheets which should allow introduction of gaps which should help with circulation.

Lower ambient, and soil temperatures. This one’s pretty straightforward, but cool wind will cool plants, so constant wind will bring down the temperature around the plants, and of the soil itself. My guess is that this will be more of an issue for plants like peppers, but I could be wrong. This year I’ll be trying black plastic sheeting (you get get it here – US or Canada) on the soil prior to seeding, and then retaining it around the plants to raise temperature for those plants that need it.

Arrival of foreign seeds. This one I hadn’t considered, but it quickly became evident. Each spring we see the evidence as weeds of all types start to sprout in our planters, and each year we see new varieties showing up. Some of these may arrive with birds (a particularly irritating example being climbing nightshade which has taken root in the far corner of a non-cultivated, and hard-to-access planter… right at the precarious edge of the roof), but I’m completely convinced that many are brought on the wind and deposited randomly.

These challenges aside, I do think the plants benefit from the additional circulation afforded on the roof, especially given I tend to plant more densely than recommended given the limited square footage.

Good luck!

Dealing with Pests – Cabbage Aphids (aka how I lost to cabbage aphids)

For each of the past three years I’ve planted Kale. It’s supposed to be super easy to grow, and it’s supposed to produce like crazy. Mine did… but I’m not growing Kale next year. Every bloody year I’ve become plagued by cabbage aphids, and I’ve failed repeatedly at fending them off, so this year I’m done with Kale (and cabbage, brussels sprouts and all manner of related greens).

I tried ladybugs. Released them in the garden in close proximity to these grey monstrosities, but they must find them as vile as I do because I have yet to see a ladybug feed on a cabbage aphid. Other aphids? Absolutely. The ladybugs gorged when my cape gooseberries were attacked… but not the grey ones.

I tried soapy water. It seemed to work at first, but the whole “make sure you get into all the crevices” thing meant it was doomed to failure. I’m mad lazy, and kale is nothing but crevices. Strike two.

I tried quick blasts of water. Guess what? They came back. Remember those crevices? We’ll in my experience you can’t get quick blasts of water into all the crevices without doing material damage to the plant. Maybe the water pressure was higher than it needed to be, I don’t know, but fool me once… Also, I’m gardening on a roof, so I don’t honor the whole ‘recommended spacing’ thing, which means a blast of water on plant A means a free trip to plant B. It may be that the mouth parts are ripped off etc, but I don’t like kale enough to risk it again this year.

You won this round cabbage aphids… and I’m not stepping in the ring again given how I value the reward at stake.

Winter Cover Crops. Clover, Rye Grass and Winter Peas

Steer and sheep manure.

The soil selected for our rooftop containers is miserable. I’m guessing this is to limit weight as the “soil” looks to be about 25% crushed lava rock. Regardless it seems a safe bet that its not much good for growing. Rather than haul a ton of sand up to the roof we decided to pursue other approaches.

  • Fertilizer & Bone Meal
  • Compost
  • Cow & Sheep Manure
  • Winter Cover Crop

Fertilizer & Bone Meal. Starting with fertilizer & bone meal, we’ve used it, but we’ve used very little of it. Generally just something added at the start of the year. The main reason we haven’t used it much is cost. No question it works… but it costs, and I’m cheap.

Compost. We’ve got a worm composter set up and churning through kitchen scraps on the roof. We try as much as possible to keep any remnants of meat or cheese out of the mix, and over-index on fruits, vegetables and egg shells. Further, over the winter while the worms are in slow motion I’ve been blending fruits, vegetable and egg shell scraps and digging them into the soil. Does it work? Who knows… but it doesn’t seem to hurt.

Cow & Sheep Manure. This one’s pretty simple. I buy several bags each year and dig it into the soil in our planters before planting seeds and starts.

Winter Cover Crops. These are a new approach starting last winter. I went with winter peas and rye grass… and it worked great. Let it grow over the winter, and in the spring cut it and dig it under. It seems to compost pretty quickly, and the legumes fix nitrogen for the season’s crop. My one learning from the first year is to start the seeds before winter arrives, so they have a chance to get to a decent size before the cold weather stalls them. This year I decided to repeat the winter peas and rye grass, but also added some crimson clover. Wish me luck.

Aaaand, that’s it. At least that’s it for our roof thus far.

The Super-Hots: Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Indoors

Indoor Trinidad Moruga Scorpions

Most of our super-hots were grown outdoors on the roof (as one might expect given the title of this site), however we did keep two inside in our south-facing solarium. Both Trinidad Moruga Scorpions, the peppers grew well indoors, producing peppers, though not nearly as well as the top outdoor plants. At season’s end we noticed aphids on both plants and so pruned them back to just the major stems, sprayed them down with insecticidal soap (Buy in US or Canada) and tried to start again.

It appears we were successful.

Despite it being December in gray, rainy Vancouver we currently have two healthy Trinidad Moruga Scorpion plants. One with 4 nearly mature peppers colored and waiting to cause pain. Both plants have new flowers forming as well, promising additional harvests through the winter.

We did not use grow lights of any sort, though during the day the room is kept slightly warmer than the rest of the home. I will admit that I do have a grow lamp at the ready should it be needed, however I’ve been able to keep it in storage thus far. Other than that, no special treatment. Plants are watered regularly (with water from a nearby aquarium) and that’s about it. So… give it a try and you could find yourself in peppers through the year with little extra effort.

The Super-Hots: Bhut Jolokia

My single largest plant in 2018, and also the heaviest producer was a ghost pepper (bhut jolokia). This one was from a purchased start (I didn’t grow it from seed), and after a brief period to acclimate it took off. By season’s end it was about two feet high and equal in width, and LOADED with peppers. The other 5 bhut jolokia plants weren’t as big, but they put up a decent effort and production as well.

Observations were as follows.

  • It took a bit after the transplant for them to grow at all. I was initially worried, but once they started they didn’t stop.
  • Production happened all at once, but again, fruit growth and ripening was very slow at first to the point I wasn’t sure would get ripe peppers before the season ended.
  • The ghost peppers can get quite large. Of all the hot peppers I grew this year they were the largest… but they were also some of the thinnest walled. Some seemed almost dry when cut open with huge hollow cavities.

I don’t know that I’d do much different next year. One thing that was common across my largest plants was that they were closest to a glass barrier that shielded them from direct wind while letting late day sun through. Other plants benefited from this same wind break, but not so completely. I expect it resulted in cooler temperatures the further away the plants were as the wind increased. Given this I may think about how I can extend the wind protection without reducing sun/heat exposure across the board.

Home Grown Hot Pepper Powder. One Vancouverite’s Super Hot Experience

Home made hot pepper powder

Buy vegetable dehydrator or pepper grinders – US

Buy vegetable dehydrator or pepper grinders – Canada

 

What to do with hundreds of super-hot peppers? Last year I made some pepper sauce that seemed to win folks over. This year we’ll try that again, and I’ll provide details in another post. In addition to sauce, I’ve decided to give pepper powder a shot.

Step 1. Get a dehydrator. I went for one from Canadian Tire because a) they’re nearby and b) I found myself with a relatively unbooked weekend right around the corner and so didn’t want to wait for something to be shipped. The specific device I purchased was the Hamilton Beach Digital Food Dehydrator. You can get it cheaper online, and there were cheaper options at Canadian Tire, though not in stock the day that I went. It’s a pretty simple device. Five trays and a lid, along with two finer mesh sheets and a fruit leather sheet which I just set aside for now. The dehydrator basically has temperature (I used the default 130 degrees) and time settings along with a Start button. No problem.

Step 2. Prepare the peppers. I’d already washed my peppers so I removed the stems, split them in half and removed the core and most of the seeds (but not all). I laid them out with some space between and then stacked the trays and added the lid. What I learned after the first batch:

Lesson 1 is that there’s no need to leave space between the peppers. They shrink a LOT, so future batches I had them right up against one another.

Lesson 2 is that the peppers will dry much faster if do more than half them. In later batches I halved the peppers first, then cut several additional slits along the fruit, especially where the peppers narrow to the tip. This allowed the fruit to flare out a bit and I think it allowed them to dry faster.

Lesson 3 is that some peppers dry much faster than others. Carolina reapers and bhut jolokia have thin walls and dried out super fast. My habaneros were more like bell peppers with thicker walls and much more moisture. They took a lot longer to dry.

Step 3. Dehydrate your peppers outside. I plugged mine in out on the balcony and let it run. After about six hours I poked my head out and the fumes were still very strong. I can’t imaging what dehydrating these peppers inside would do to your home, let alone your eyes and throat. Find a covered location away from pests and plan to use that.

Step 4. Wait. Mine took a couple days, running at 12 hours a day minimum. Even that wasn’t enough for the larger habaneros which I put in with the next batch.

Step 5. Crush / grind the dried peppers. I wasn’t well prepared at the time my peppers were dried, and didn’t want to wait a day for stores to open so I grabbed a mortar and pestle, along with my trusty powder-free nitrile gloves (Buy in US or Canada) and went to it. I recommend you don’t follow my lead. While this did reduce the volume of most pieces, there was no consistency and it did nothing for the seeds. Additionally it messed up my mortar and pestle for any future grinding that shouldn’t involve spice. What I found that worked well for my needs was a spice mill microplane. While it provides quite a wrist workout, it mills the pepper flakes and seeds to a consistently fine powder. My only concern would be for someone doing a LOT of milling in which case I suggest you find something that takes the same approach, but does so electrically.

Step 6. Pack it up. I found some small spice bottles that allow dosing by adjusting the top. This powder is HOT, so precision will be appreciated. I originally was going to use small standard jars, but there’s no way to deliver appropriately small doses of the spice without having to use a spoon.

Anyway, that’s my initial experience. I’m sure there are better approaches and I’m all ears to hear them, but what I’ve described above has worked for 2018.

Buy vegetable dehydrator or pepper grinders – US

Buy vegetable dehydrator or pepper grinders – Canada

The Super-Hots: Carolina Reaper

Carolina Reaper in Vancouver

Fortunately we experienced another hot (for Vancouver) summer this year, which the pepper plants clearly enjoyed. Cold periods in the spring definitely delayed the plants materially, to the point I wasn’t sure if they’d survive. Fortunately both those started from plants, as well as those started indoors from seed managed to recover and produce.

Of all the hot peppers grown this season, the Carolina Reapers were the ones I was most concerned about. They started slowly (very slowly) and took a while to start setting fruit. Fortunately, once they got going they really took off with one of the reaper plants being the second largest across all varieties. Production was good as well, though not in line with plant size.

Observations & Learnings

  1. These peppers seemed less cold tolerant than the other types I grew this year.
  2. My reapers seemed to build heat later than others. For example, I (cautiously) tried a fully formed, but still green pepper and was able to eat it as I would a bell pepper. There was no hint of heat.
  3. Don’t let point 2 fool you, these things are crazy hot. I still don’t understand how someone can just throw an entire, fully ripe Carolina Reaper in their mouth and not completely fall apart.
  4. Carolina reapers require more post-harvest preparation for use than others. The reapers are not only ‘bumpy’ but folded in on themselves consistently. I encountered trapped material in these folds for most of my peppers, which required cleaning. This wasn’t easy and in some cases scratched the pepper itself, so wear gloves (which you should do regardless). I hesitate to mention, but I found small webs in some of these crevices, suggesting that spiders or something similar are taking advantage.

A Handful Of Wildflowers Seeds Makes All The Difference

Transitioning the rooftop from the original lambs ears, creeping thyme and various others to fruits and vegetables has been a gradual transition. The original plants showed mixed levels of success, and where they faltered, unsightly weeds quickly took hold. While we have attempted to pull the weeds as they arrived, they were quick and plentiful, so this year we took a different approach.

After an initial clearing of vegetation (both what remained of the original plantings, and the early weeds) we scattered wildflower seeds in the most visible, and not yet tackled planters. What resulted was better than we’d hoped with bursts of colour presenting all season long.

We purchased our seed mix from westcoastseeds.com, spreading their Beneficial Insect Blend, Bee Garden Blend, and Pacific Northwest Blend with decent germination across the board. I should also mention that we tested a single packed last season, and found the flowers had self-seeded impressively this year.  Projecting forward, 2019 will be colourful indeed.

The Vertical Gardener

I has been suggested by several parties that I should document my experiences growing fruits and vegetables on a Vancouver rooftop. After much procrastination I’ve run out of reasons not to do so, and have decided to give it a shot.

Background.

We moved into a mid-rise building outside of downtown Vancouver a couple years ago. Prior to that we lived in Kitsilano and container-gardened to the extent our small balcony and filtered sunlight would allow.

Year One.

On moving to our current location, the rooftop was initially planted with various types of vegetation, none of which were edible and few of which looked particularly nice. In fact, two of the planters weren’t planted at all, and so that first summer I seeded both and found that they produced quite well in the unobstructed sun (there are no skyscrapers nearby to interrupt the rays). That first year in what amounted to about 50 square feet we grew herbs (thyme, chives and rosemary), tomatoes, tomatillos, cape gooseberries, strawberries, beans and peas with surprising success. It wasn’t without lessons however. In our case, unobstructed sunlight comes along with largely unobstructed wind, and all that it entails. Seeds arrive from who-knows-where, storms lash all but the low-growing bushes, but all things considered the plots and location were successful.

Year Two.

I tore out a portion of ‘lawn’ in one of the lower raised beds and expanded the ‘farm,’ slightly more than doubling the square footage. Production included the varieties from year one and added some additional experiments. These included watermelon (we managed to produce two), a gooseberry bush (no fruit that year), carrots, peppers (shishito, mini bell, bhut jolokia, habanero and a few mislabeled varieties). Again we generally had success with enough vegetables to share with others in the building. Learnings continued. Rooftop gardens benefit from absence of rabbits, rats, raccoons and the like, but of course aren’t out of reach of birds, and (surprisingly) slugs which we assume hitched a ride on the soil. Speaking of soil, ours is miserable. I assume this reflects the original intent of supporting drought tolerant plants rather than fruits and vegetables, and so we’re stuck with substrate with a large amount of crushed lava rock, presumably to aid drainage and reduce weight.