A 2020 – Recap: Books, Beer, and Bugs.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom!

Funny to look back and think this year started normally here. Sure, there were rumours of a virus in the East, but it wasn’t enough to worry me. And I wasn’t alone. So I wan’t alone in being wrong, either. What a year!

It’s been a rough year, of course. Covid has been painful and trying. But the only truly painful part of this year for me is that my Grandfather, Hal Whetstone, passed away in his nursing home, unable to see any visitors other than my mother. It was particularly hard as I visited him less often after having kids and moving away. In Vancouver he lived across the road (literally!) and my daughter and I would walk to see him often on our way to or from Granville Island. Before kids, I’d visit him in his home on my way to work, wearing my fire uniform which he loved. As a retired police officer, he always respected a uniform. I can’t completely express the feeling of grief coupled with the guilt of having grown more distant or thinking of how lonely he must have been during the Covid lockdown. I know I’m not alone is losing a loved one during Covid, but it does hurt a little extra.

But, despite that dark stain on the year, there have been lots of successes this year. My daughter started Kindergarten, and our province has done everything it can to keep schools open. And while that is debated, my daughter needed the socialization and she has already learned so much, so I am entirely thankful for that. 

I always enjoy beer and decided I can brew beers better than many of the little local guys. So I went all in, developed my own recipes and sourced out local ingredients. I will finish the year having brewed more than 40, 5gal beers, using 26 different unique recipes I made from scratch (with tons of research). And while I primarily brew classic styles, some of the highlights are:

       Madrona Beach – Summer Cerveza, a Mexican lager made with corn from my yard.

      Tau WELNEW – Nettle Ale: a light stinging nettle beer named after the native name for the mountain that dominates our skyline.

       Salish Sea – Salal Berry Sour, which is totally unique and a massively under appreciated native berry. 

This was one of my first. I’ve got a brand and everything!

Luckily when bars and restaurants closed I was already set up and I could get my own fix, and friends and co workers came by for growler fills. With 4 beers on tap, it’s been a fun addition to my list of hobbies. 

https://www.facebook.com/SpencerBrewing Check out my Facebook brewery page! (It’s just for fun.)

I also wrote and published two books. One is a Handbook on processes and applications of commercially available bio-control agents. Which is particularly useful for gardeners and growers. If you’re interested, it’s free for Mac and iPad/iPhone at apple books, and free as a pdf download from our website. Take a look, the pictures are awesome. 

PDF: https://www.appliedbio-nomics.com/the-bio-control-handbook/

Apple Books: https://books.apple.com/us/book/id1536806191 

Also, as a Christmas present to my kids, I wrote a kids novel, featuring my kids (sort of) in a fantasy story. It’s also free on apple books, or for a small price on amazon you can get it electronically or in paperback. 

Apple: https://books.apple.com/us/book/id1542400991

Amazon: https://www.amazon.ca/Elvenclad-Adventures-Princess-Prince-Stanley-ebook/dp/B08P82TLTD/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=ELVENCLAD&qid=1607448460&sr=8-1 

I’ve also spent the year as the President of the North Saanich Volunteer Firefighter’s Association and became a board member of the Peninsula Soccer Club. And thanks to Covid, neither have been “smooth sailing.”

So, it’s been a productive year. In 2021 I plan on spending less time brewing and more time out in the garden. Especially as the kids get older, it should be easier. I’m going to keep the grass shorter and focus on some of the plants that I’ve had limited success with: spinach, carrots, cucumbers and peas. 

But, it’s time to reflect on the past year in the garden:

As per my planting schedule I had some flats of starters going as early as week 1. A few weeks into the year and I was frantically buying cheep plastic greenhouses to spread out all my flats or make room for those that were ready for 4” pots. I had the entire first-half year of plants ready to go – which was my first panic moment: All my eggs in one basket, but precariously close to adventurous kids and clumsy dogs. That didn’t turnout to be the problem though. A late season windstorm saw my greenhouses toppled, with dirt and seedlings in piles. It was a disaster. I didn’t lose many plants to them dying, but I did lost some to simply being lost. That was still not the worse: I was lazy about labeling the flats. I usually just take a picture of where they are and do so again when I move them. So when all the plants fell, I didn’t know what was what: which peppers were bell or jalapeño, which tomatoes were cherry or san Marzano, and cabbages, broccoli, kale….etc – forget it! 

You might be thinking: “Who cares? Plant them all.” And I would have except that I had planned on selling tomatoes and pepper starters I didn’t need. My plan was to plant 2 jalapeños, 2 Birdseye, 4 poblanos and 4 sweet bell peppers. Of the 50 or so left, I had hoped to sell them (as identified varieties). Instead I just gave some random ones away. For tomatoes, it was a bit more essential. One bed was spaced to have climbing tomatoes, whereas another was dedicated exclusively to the determinate san marzanos. I waited, and waited and waited and examined their growth, compared photos, read about the varieties and eventually guessed which was which. Fortunately, I got it right, and discovered that with some cherry tomatoes plumping up on the vine. I think I danced a bit. 

I deserved to dance at that point. I had suffered other loses. Slugs were disastrous this year. All those toppled flats made it into their beds. The year before each was successful. This year I lost entire crops. All my yellow corn were eaten and half of my multi-coloured corn. Any edible green failed: spinach, mustard, arugula, lettuces, beets…etc. It was heart-breaking. And so much so, that I admit, it took a lot of wind out of my sails and I spent much less time gardening this year. Part of the reason I doubled-down on the brewing.

The worst part is that I tried to recover some beds by planting again or planting something else later when the days were warmer. Unfortunately, the slugs continued right through the hottest time in the summer. I tried everything: egg shells, copper tape, beer and yeast traps. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, talking to a local grower that I decided the likely problem is the grass between my beds. He stopped the slugs in the summer with black landscape paper which cooked the spaces between plants and stopped the slugs. 

I’m worried that my slug woes will continue, as I won’t be changing the grass between the beds. Here’s why:

Ideally, I wanted to grow clover. But because of the kids and risk of stepping bare-footed onto bees, my wife convinced me to grow grass. Actually, we came to a compromise: I took several grass seed varieties and clover seeds, mixed it all together and seeded the space like that. We agreed, whichever grew got to stay. To my surprise, the grass easily and completely took over.

Grass or any plant prevents the beds from being islands. This is bad for slugs, but good for anything else. Barren or hot spaces make a dead zone.

That dead zone also gets hot, and dry. And since our yard is relatively warm, I wanted the opposite: something to keep the yard cool and trap some humidity – it’s better for the beds and the bio-diversity. 

The reason I wanted clover was for the pollinators, but also because of their nitrogen-fixing capabilities which would help any bedded plants that have deep enough roots. Grass is sort of the opposite, but I mow and compost it, which is returned to the beds.  

Oh, I forgot to mention, also, that almost all my winter sowing was eaten within days of sprouting. I lost two entire beds of winter wheat, and one of rye. One of mustards, one of lettuces, a small area of kohlrabi, an entire bed of cilantro (I know that’s a lot, but I failed to get a single one all year) and a bed of spinach, arugula and beets. The only thing that survived was lima beens. 

Here are the lima beans. They seem happy.

So, I’ve got a lot of open dirt spaces…which I find annoying. Especially since something is digging in one of them.

All this empty space was arugula, spinach and beets. Now, nothing.

If the slugs are bad again next year, you may find I’ve changed my mind on this. But, as with the cycle of nature, a good year for slugs is often followed by a good year for their predators. So I’m hoping for lots of slug killers next year. And I’m more dedicated to keeping the grass short this year. (Bought electric lawnmower and weed eater this year which is amazing!)

I’m not selling these, nor do a benefit from it, but I want to post the link because it’s been great. So much lighter and smaller than a gas powered one (same cutting surface). Plus, when a battery finishes, it is fully charged before I drain the next one, so I have literally run into no problems with this so far.  

Link: https://www.costco.ca/greenworks-pro-21-in.-80v-3-in-1-push-mower-%2526-16-in.-80v-string-grass-trimmer-combo.product.100404517.html 

I also did a bit of research on this before the purchase. There are several available, but most were associated with tool companies – which I thought was good, since they have years of experience. However, I’ve noticed that they like to change their batteries, making old ones or tools obsolete. Plus, as a tool-first company, they tend to make returns for electronics a bit of a beast. This company from costco is actually a battery manufacturing company, so they are “battery first”, and coupled with Costco’s return policy, I felt this couldn’t be beat. (Again, not selling this or trying to promote costco, I just think it’s a good buy – despite the upfront cost.)

There have been some garden positives. 

My patience with asparagus seems to have come to fruition. The plants looked healthy this year and are still green (in December). So I’m hoping to get my first harvest this spring. 

And check out my lemons! I might actually get several ripened ones. (Notice the incandescent Christmas lights used to keep the plant warm and give supplemental lighting. It is Canada, after all.

The strawberries were wonderful. We did get the invasive spotted-wing-drosophila, but it came and went (presumably it was controlled by the parasite that shows up later in the year.)

I didn’t get any blueberries, nor did I get any pears or apples. I really have no answer to this. I’m going to attempt to increase acidity in the blueberry bed – as for the tree fruit – no idea. 

Pumpkins and squash were great. They had a huge population of greenhouse whitefly and other pests, but I controlled them with a tiny amount of my own bugs (the ones we sell), and they found stabilization mid summer that seemed to benefit all the other beds – it was a good year for bugs. 

I have also ordered most of my seeds for next year. I knew that doing this would reinvigorate my love of the garden.

Plus, I bought a derelict greenhouse from a neighbour and set it up in my yard. It ain’t pretty, but it’ll provide some wind-proof space for all my young plants.

I wanted it level. So I dug a perimeter and down the high side. I used the dirt to fill the low side then covered in a tarp and finished with pavers. Still some work to do. Sorry it’s ugly.

And perhaps most importantly, my kids are both old enough to feed themselves from the yard. I was surprised when they both got tired of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries at a couple of points this summer – but I just think that means I’m growing enough. And the greatest surprise: my picky-eating 2 year old, who won’t eat a vegetable was wandering around the yard last weekend and said he wanted peas. (Guess what I’m growing lots of next year!?)

I also need to remind myself of the weather this year. In 2019, most of my plantings went out in April. It was a great month – sunny and very warm. In May it pretty much rained the whole month and things suffered but had had time to establish. 2020 seems to have not been much different except April was rainy and May was sunny and hot. So, while I blame most of the failures on the slugs, I have to admit that planting in April this year was probably the mistake as slug pressure was high and the plants were struggling anyways. I’ve adjusted my planting schedule by a couple weeks to start a little later. I’ll also put some plants out, and retain others, so it’s not ‘all or none.’

We did have a pretty nice weekend and got some yard work done. I got rid of a dying old “Black Lace” Elderberry and replaced it with a young Albizia. We’re hoping it’ll provide some patio shade. We also removed all the lavender and put them in the front yard. We’ll clean up the patio beds, replace the lavender with some younger ones and finish it again as a rock garden. It feels so Mediterranean.

Let’s hope for the best. Next year can’t be as bad, right?!

Happy Holidays from me and the family!

If you’re interested: here’s what I’ve ordered so far from SaltSpring Seeds: https://www.saltspringseeds.com 

1x Hollow Crown Parsnip  (Pastinaca Sativa) for $4.00 each 

1x Carrot-Nantes Half Long for $4.00 each 

1x Beet-Early Wonder Tall Top for $4.00 each 

1x San Marzano for $4.00 each 

1x Tomatillos for $4.00 each 

1x Black Forest Kabocha Squash for $4.00 each 

1x Gold Nugget Winter Squash (C. maxima) for $4.00 each 

1x Butternut Squash for $4.00 each 

1x Black Beauty Zucchini for $4.00 each 

1x Blue Lake for $4.00 each 

1x Mustard-Kate’s for $4.00 each 

1x Spice-It-Up Salad Blend for $4.00 each 

1x Spinach-Giant Winter for $4.00 each 

1x Spinach-Corvair for $4.00 each 

1x Nettles for $4.00 each 

1x Kale-Sweet Hardy for $4.00 each 

1x Kale-Toscano for $4.00 each 

1x Kale-5 Kale Mix for $4.00 each 

1x Everyday Salad Blend for $4.00 each 

1x Cauliflower-Galleon for $4.00 each 

1x Cabbage- Golden Acre for $4.00 each 

1x Broccoli-Nutri-Bud  (Brassica oleracea italica) for $4.00 each 

1x Amazing Arugula for $4.00 each 

1x Sunflower Mix (Helianthus spp) for $4.00 each 

1x Sunflower – Taiyo for $4.00 each 

1x Pink Flowered Tobacco for $4.00 each 

1x Winnifred’s Garbanzo for $4.00 each 

1x Golden Flax for $4.00 each 

1x Parsley-Italian Flat Leaf for $4.00 each 

1x Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) for $4.00 each 

1x Basil-Genovese for $4.00 each 

1x Basil-Red Rubin for $4.00 each 

1x Osayo Endo Pea for $4.00 each 

1x Harry Burton’s Shelling Pea for $4.00 each 

1x Bere Barley for $4.00 each 

1x Purple Amaranth for $4.00 each 

1x Amaranth Mix for $4.00 each 

1x Tofino Amaranth for $2.00 each 

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