Finally, it’s here. Canning season.

This year’s long, wet spring has finally relinquished its hold. After a few weeks of summer weather Vancouver’s Lower Mainland is enjoying the full diversity of summer produce and the opportunity to eat something fresh other than leafy greens. I’m hoping that the late start won’t lessen the harvest and that there are many more weekends of canning ahead. Speaking of, I must remember to stock up on jars and lids.—SJ, M+P

Nothing heralds summer like small mountains of fruit and boxes of jars that take over the kitchen and fill you with anticipation and anxiety in equal measure. This is canning season.

The canning projects started slowly and unobtrusively this year. A few pounds of rhubarb sat patiently in the fridge for a week while I deliberated over stewing, freezing, or jamming. When I finally committed to strawberry-rhubarb jam I had the added bonus of using the final container of last year’s frozen strawberries, thereby making room for this year’s berry glut. How efficient, how effortless canning can be, I thought to myself.

The blueberry butter was even easier. Since I refuse to buy the season’s fresh berries when there’s still a cache of last year’s fruit in the freezer (and since I can’t not buy those beautiful fresh berries at the farmers’ market) I had to find a quick way of moving about nine cups of blues. Into the slow cooker with some cinnamon and lemon juice one weekend morning and blueberry butter miraculously emerged later that day.

It was with these gourmet affirmations behind me that I took on the cherries: ten pounds of sweet Skeena cherries and three pounds of sour Hungarian cherries over two days. Somewhat more effort would be needed for this endeavour. This is canning season.

With unaccustomed foresight I had picked up a cherry pitter a few months ago when there was rain, rain, and more rain and the summer harvest seemed an unlikely happening. The pitter tore through those giant, swollen Skeena cherries, their skins split from a heavy rain (and only $2 a pound). I took an unexpected pleasure in the cherry splatter that covered the white enamel of my sink. It’s the creative mess that precedes all great things.

That first day of cherry work produced sweet cherry preserves, balsamic pepper cherry preserves (on brie, oh yes), and Chinese 5-spice pickled cherries (thank you Leena Eats). Losing a jar to the canner in the last round of the day only seemed like a necessary sacrifice.

The second day was about the two most important gastronomic creations, pie and fruited liqueur. Not necessarily in that order, except when pie is breakfast.

Because I’m incapable of deferring all cherry gratification I had to make something that required immediate consumption. Pie, for me, is the celebration of fruit as it is meant to be eaten. But as with any new recipe, making a cherry pie for the first time is a gamble. The filling is key to the flavour and function of the pie. I should have seen the red flag waving when I read a pie-filling recipe that did not require cooking before it filled the crust. At first glance the cooked pie was the picture of domestic achievement, a golden brown lattice of flaky pastry over luscious sour cherries…swimming in a sea of pink liquid. Never before have I used a turkey baster to help save baked goods. After siphoning out over a cup of runny, cloudy pinkness (cherry water, cornstarch, and butter) I had a salvaged pastry consisting of loose, whole cherries rolling like marbles inside a pastry prison. Edible, to be sure, just not pie.

I hold out hope for the success of the cherry booze. Its great reveal is four months away, but not much can go wrong. One jar of cherries in vodka and another of cherries in bourbon sit in a dark cupboard and enjoy their daily tip and shake. By the time I get to share and enjoy these deep red concoctions—as sippers, Manhattans, and possibly over custard—canning season will be long over and their making tied to a distant summer memory. I could get sentimental but there’s just too much preserving work to do.

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Gathering Morels

Early this year I made three food goals, the third of which was to forage for food in the city. I haven’t found a way to fulfill this goal yet, but others certainly have. Guest blogger Roman Muntener and his family have a foraged crop that must be the envy of every mushroom lover. (Disclaimer: consult a good field guide or a professional picker to identify edible mushrooms.) –SJ, M+P

Gathering Morels
by Roman Muntener

The bounty of the first pick.

The time couldn’t be better to be hunting delicious morels. This year seems to be a year for bumper crops; the relatively wet spring combined with the recent warm weather and sunshine makes for ideal growing conditions for morels and it looks promising for quite a while yet. The little fungus can be quite finicky. They like their environment just so—too dry, too wet, too early, or too late and they just won’t show.

We went back for more (again and again).

In these climes, particularly in Northern BC, morels are among the first of a wide palette of mushrooms to appear. As a rule of thumb, morel season starts when dandelions, bears, and mosquitoes are out. Depending on where you are on the North American continent and the elevation, this starts around April, lasting through May and into June.

For those who don’t know where to start, by far the easiest way to find morels is to go to one of last year’s forest burn sites where they grow in abundance. That’s where you find the professional pickers setting up camp and processing the shrooms right then and there. Aside from burn sites, morels are found in light aspen stands with sandy or loose soil. They don’t like hard clay or dense, coniferous forests.

False morel, do not eat!

True morels are quite easy to identify by their dark brown to light brown wrinkled cap. When cut lengthwise, the true morel is completely hollow, with the hollow stem attached to the bottom edge of the hollow cap.

Stay away from false morels that are poisonous (although some people claim that they can prepare and eat them.) In contrast to the true morel, the cap of the false morel can be filled with twisted stem and does not have clearly defined growth of the cap into the stem.

Cross section of the false morel.

Cross section of the true morel.

Morels can easily be dried and should not be eaten raw. Cooked, however, they are absolutely delicious, particularly if dried morel is used in the recipe. The drying seems to intensify the flavour!

Roman and Monika Muntener live in Prince George, BC. They are founding members of the Prince George Farmers’ Market and operate the Red Rooster Artisan Bakery. Roman Muntener can be found on Facebook.

All images by Roman Muntener.

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Off-Season Abundance

From Oregon, Stahlbush Island Farms takes sustainable farming practices to a new level.

A trip through my grocery store a few months ago brought me face-to-face with a freezer special that would change the way I think about canning. Packages of frozen berries—organic, sustainably grown, heirloom variety black raspberries, to be exact—were on sale for less than half their usual price. I bought ten packages.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I would do with them. Perhaps a pie? Maybe put them in smoothies? It didn’t really matter that there was no plan in place when I bought them. Frozen berries are gold, and I have a tendency to hoard them when they are not in season. Around late winter, however, my freezer is typically overflowing with other space-hogging savouries like chicken stock and beef bones, pumpkin tarts and cannelloni, that I look for ways to make space.

Black raspberry jam at warp speed. Thanks Pomona.

Ten bags of black raspberries just screamed to be made into jam. I hadn’t considered using frozen fruit in canning before; I saw the act of canning—whether doing jam, pickles, or sauce—as a way to preserve fresh produce. I had understood freezing and canning as an either/or choice.

It is not so. Frozen berries make beautiful jam. They break down quickly with cooking, and with the help of some Pomona’s Universal Pectin I made a batch of jam in record time: half an hour, start to finish. The possibility of using frozen produce to can July’s bounty in March, in the off-season when there is nary a raspberry to be found, makes anything possible.

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Growing Community: It begins

Garden preparation started in mid-February after months of anticipatory planning. This year I would get a jump on things by being ready to plant at the first possible moment.

Where did all the soil go?

The first bona fide gardening act of the season was to fill the raised beds with new soil. The bed I’ve inherited at my local community garden was sadly devoid of soil. Where did it all go? Was it washed away, or never filled in the first place? A mystery, maybe, but not one I contemplated for very long. The bed is now full of what I hope is the perfect mix—three parts new “vegetable garden” soil to one part well-rotted steer manure.

To maximize yield I’m trying a technique called “square-foot gardening.” The basic idea of this technique is to get the most use out of your plot—and by extension, greater yield—while minimizing the work. Typical garden plots that are dug into the ground have two major downfalls: a pitched battle between gardener and weed, and a lot of empty, wasted space between rows. With square-foot gardening, raised beds filled with new soil—whether purchased or from your own compost—provide a weed-free environment to start the growing season. (If the compost contains weed seeds then the battle will wage on. Choose your soil components carefully.) It’s also thought that the plants will crowd out any weeds that appear, but I admit to some skepticism for that notion. All areas are watered, but no water is spent on non-productive areas of the garden—there aren’t any.

Full, free from weeds, and ready for action.

With the soil in place, beds are sectioned into 1 foot by 1 foot plots. Instead of sowing in rows, seeds are broadcast over each square of soil. With raised beds no more than four feet in width, gardeners can reach all squares by moving around the perimeter of the bed. All available space is used for growing.

Given that community garden plots are typically small and are often in the form of raised beds, square-foot gardening seems like a no-brainer for my garden. The bed is three-and-a-half feet wide, preventing a clean division into square foot sections and requiring that I embrace the concept of “squarish.” I’ve sectioned off the bed with twine and have broadcast the first seeds of mesclun greens and radish. Not needing heat to germinate, these seeds offer the opportunity to plant before spring arrives.

Two weeks later, just after the spring equinox, the seeds have sprouted. It begins.

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Growing Community: I am an urban homesteader

Welcome to (part of) the homestead.

What does it mean to be an urban homesteader?

The notion of the homestead is far from new. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary (Second Edition) defines “homestead” as: “n. 1 an area of public land…granted to a settler in exchange for a small fee, and on certain conditions, usually that the settler establish a dwelling and cultivate a certain area of land within a specified time.”

This definition strikes me as being awfully close to the understanding I have with my community garden. I’ve signed an agreement saying that I will pay $30 in exchange for access to a garden plot on city-owned land, and will cultivate this plot by mid-April. Granted, I won’t be living on this narrow strip of soil, nor do I live in immediate proximity to the garden, but I’m not convinced that modern usage of the term “homesteader” requires it.

Coaxing food from spaces in-between urban land uses.

Urban homesteading locates the homestead in the city, away from farmers’ fields. Urban areas have been divided into very small parcels of land, making it difficult for city dwellers to grow food and raise livestock where they live—difficult, but not impossible as many urbanites are demonstrating. Those who are determined to grow salad greens and potatoes are finding ways to do this in patio containers, on rooftops, in the front yard, and in community gardens. Those who want fresh eggs are raising small flocks of chickens in a back yard chicken coop, or quietly keep quail in the condominium.

Preserving food for another day in my urban homestead kitchen.

On the urban homestead, the scale of the operation isn’t the defining factor. I’m convinced that commitment to an idea is far more important than whether one can live exclusively on the fruits and vegetables of one’s labour. Early homesteaders didn’t have the convenience of a modern grocery store if they ran out of salt pork and pickled beans, obviously. For today’s urban homesteader to have this convenience and yet to deliberately move outside the industrial food system, painstakingly weeding, watering, and willing future meals to grow and ripen in a tiny corner of the urban wild, takes deep commitment. A strong desire for self-sufficiency motivates some, while food miles and organic practices motivate others. Whatever the source of motivation, it’s good work.

The full scope of the homesteading way of life includes more than food production. Urban homesteaders have been known to produce their own energy, cycle their water, and make their own clothes. Urban homesteading is a way of life, a philosophy, a movement. Whether overtly political or not, the actions of every urban gardener, beekeeper, egg-wrangler, canner, sun-gatherer, and knitter contribute to the food security of the city, a lower-carbon economy, and a more resilient community.

I am an urban homesteader.

Author’s note: This post is inspired by the many urban homesteaders in the US who are responding with outraged solidarity against the trademarking of terms such as “urban homestead” and “urban homesteading.” Privatization of this way of life flies in the face of the very culture of learning, helping and sharing that urban homesteaders embrace. Keep urban homesteading ideas and information open source!

For the latest on this action, visit:

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Growing Community: To die for

“I would kill for a community garden plot,” is a common sentiment in Vancouver, at least among the apartment-dwelling locavore crowd. Demand for garden space is extremely high, with wait-lists several years long—if the wait-lists aren’t already closed. If you’re looking for a community plot, best make other plans.

The question of what you would do (theoretically?) for a community garden plot may be the question that most of us dreamily consider, but there is another question that follows close on its heels. Should you be lucky enough to win the garden lottery, you may start to ask yourself, “Can I live with this?”

At garden orientation a few days ago, our exalted small group of new garden members was introduced to the inner workings of the garden. We heard about work parties, required meetings, a laundry list of “thou shall nots” that ostensibly keep the peace between gardeners (or at least prevent all-out war), and more work parties. I learned that I would soon become adept with a weed-eater (used at said work parties), and that picking up litter and dog poop were going to be weekly occurrences. When the garden coordinator finished her warnings and asked if anyone wanted to withdraw their participation in the garden, she was only half joking. But I expected this. I’m all in.

What I did not expect was the roadkill.

At least I think it was roadkill that I picked off my garden plot a few days later. How do I explain a decidedly un-squashed dead squirrel, lying face down and spread-eagled on my plot a few meters from the road? In my urban neighbourhood dead animals are pretty uncommon, and when they appear the cause of death is usually clear—pancake thinness and tire tread marks tend to give it away. Surely there’s no connection between this expired squirrel and my garden windfall? Regardless of the cause—whether car, karmic, or cultic—this is not a weekly occurrence I can live with. Can we please add, “Thou shall not encounter dead animals in the garden,” to the list of rules?

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Growing Community

The tomato harvest I've been dreaming of.

I began this year by setting out some goals for myself. These are goals about food— growing it, preserving it, and saving it from waste. Goal 1 was to grow more food, and I thought I might accomplish this goal in a few different ways.

An obvious way to grow more food is to expand the garden: that is, to use more land for growing food. If you have a yard with decent sun exposure, no problem—expand away. If you don’t own land, though, this poses a challenge.

There are options for the yard deprived, including community garden plots and staking out a claim on public land. Having tried for but not received a community garden plot for several years running, I decided last year to follow the latter route and build a small raised garden bed in a public corridor. That fantastic experience was fodder for a post series called “Urban Food Gardening.” (See links to parts 1 through 5, at right.)

Though I enjoyed my guerilla-lite approach to food gardening (especially picking cigarette butts out of the lettuce), I’ve continued to hope for admission to possibly the most desired not-quite-real-estate on the west side—my local community garden. After years of lament and itchy green thumbs it has actually happened. I have just received use of a community garden plot.

I can’t believe it’s true. I feel so thankful.

This news sparks so many ideas and possibilities. And questions, so many questions. Will I plant fingerling potatoes? Will I be able to grow enough tomatoes to can them? Who will I meet at the garden? Will I feel part of a community? What will my contribution be?

With gratitude and planning anxiety held in equal measure, I am launching a new series, “Growing Community” to chronicle this new foray into gardening neuroses, experimental edibles, and community ecology.

Join me by commenting with your own stories.

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