Long-time readers of Flowery Prose may recall a series of posts I did in the summer of 2020, in which I talked to several Alberta gardeners about their inspirations for gardening, the gardening projects they are working on, and about the challenges they face as gardeners in this province and how they are trying to overcome them. I have wanted to continue this series for quite some time, and this year – which the Canadian Garden Council has designated as Canada’s Year of the Garden – seems like a wonderful time to chat with and learn from more Alberta gardeners! Whether you live on the Canadian Prairies or you’re much further afield, I’m sure you’ll find ideas and solutions to consider for your own gardening endeavours.
Please allow me to introduce Lisa Christensen!
Where do you garden in Alberta?
Southwest Calgary – Oakridge
What challenges do you think we face as gardeners in this province?
The weather challenges us all – it goes from hot to cold and back again in minutes, plus we get that BRUTAL HAIL, there’s some trouble with invasive plants, but I think the biggest challenge that will affect us longer term are the threats to and loss of our healthy biome. There’s way too much pavement which causes water to run off rather than be absorbed, and there’s micro plastic everywhere. It’s in everything, even intentionally added to soil as water-retaining polymers. We are choosing to add these things to our biome. That’s very concerning – as if dealing with what gets in without our choice wasn’t enough.
How can we overcome those challenges?
Knowledge is key. As a gardener, you need to learn more about the plant than the tag in the pot at the greenhouse tells you. In direct relation to this, it’s critically important to understand more about the earth, the biome of Alberta, and then the biome of your own backyard and then to embrace and nurture what you have and make it work for you. The plant will only thrive when it is grown in the right environment. It’s way more than soil sampling, it’s bugs and fall refuse and not being so concerned about that perfect look. It’s listening to your gut and not to marketing around gardening, which, like every other aspect of our lives, is mostly intended to sell us things. Are gardening articles that recommend a total fall clean up and dump the soil from your spent pots really trying to improve your garden or is their intent to sell you fertilizer or new soil? A really healthy garden will have its refuse piles and compost bins and not everything will be perfect all the time, that’s how gardens are. Plus, plants have this way of taking care of themselves and their little worlds. They can provide their own winter insulation and often contribute to the health of the soil, but we try to control so much that we should really just leave alone. I’ve been gardening my whole life and have learned more from my failures than my successes, and then embracing those successes when they come, because I paid attention to the garden, that has been where I feel the most reward. I think every new gardener should learn about their very own backyard soil first, by really closely looking at it and seeing what’s going on in it. That way you learn to understand your own little ecosystem, where it’s hot, where it’s dry, how to take advantage of that and grow amazing things. I’ve learned the hard way how important that is, how much money it will save you long term. I still have so much to learn, and the garden is a wonderful teacher.
What inspires you about gardening?
Feeding my family from the garden has always been very rewarding, watching my children develop as gardeners and plant lovers and how to feed themselves, even if it’s just from a small space and a few things, is very rewarding. There are many places to plant seeds and one is in your children. Now, with the cost of food so high, people will turn to growing things and will learn that carrots come in all sorts of weird shapes and just to cut the blemishes off. This is very good.
Is there someone who has inspired your gardening endeavours?
My grandmother Connie, her daughter – my mom – and now my daughter. My grama gardened in southern Alberta and started with nothing but a shovel and a hoe and a seed catalogue. She cleared the prairie grass, and built an amazing oasis. But she never worried about dandelions, and she never bought soil or fertilizer. She composted not because it was “green” but because she knew how important rotting organics were, and she generally just let things be, weeded when the weeds encroached on her best roses and cut big bouquets of peonies and we shook the ants off them on the way to the house. She had an amazing garden. It was filled with other life, too, birds and frogs and butterflies of all kinds. And very overgrown and wild, and we spent our summers in it as children. I am sure I see it through the gild of time, it seemed effortless to me as a child, but I know of course it was a ton of work. My memories of it are filled with the sound of buzzing bees and humming flies and cracking caragana pods. I have some of her columbines still, from seeds my mom had that were passed on to me. They are blooming now and always make me think of her.
What gardening (or gardening-related) projects do you have on the go this year?
My garden is transitioning from deep shade to mostly sun or part sun as the result of the removal of two large ancient poplars two years ago, and from heavily acidic to less so as one massive pine also went four years ago. While I was sad to lose those trees, their removal has opened up so much gardening real estate! But of course, my shade lovers are suffering. Bergenia starts, anyone? All my huge yews are unhappy. But I get to re-embrace the sun-lovers! And I am keen to return to the rose world as it’s been a long time since I had a good spot for them and there are new varieties to choose from. I’ve been working on getting the soil in shape for two years, and just spread a few wheelbarrows full of compost last weekend. So that, and trying to keep some of my shade-lovers happy in new corners here and there.
What are your goals for this growing season?
Carrot-fly free carrots! I am saving all my coffee grounds for this and sprinkle the carrot patch every two weeks. I saw huge improvements last year and am hoping for more this year. I’m always trying for the perfect pot and hanging planters, too; I design my own from plugs and never stick to my careful plans that I make in January when preparing the order, I shuffle it up when planting and get some crazy colour combinations some times. I’m also very keen on alpines, and will probably move to an even shorter growing season home in the mountains in the next few years, so I want to learn about those and build a garden that I can steal from when I move. I also want to help my daughter with her first in-the-ground garden. It’s ver small but that has a certain appeal and I like a challenge. She’s in Canmore so has an even shorter season – also a challenge. Plus, my own mom is struggling to maintain her huge garden as she ages, so I want to take starts of some of her amazing plants and pass those along to family members. Her yard is beautiful, she is in southern Alberta. So, three growing zones and three different gardens, all in transition.
I truly appreciate this post, Lisa – thank you so much for your thoughts and your fantastic photos! Your message to gardeners about building soil health and respecting and understanding biomes is critical and one we should all be considering whenever we work (or choose to not work!) in our gardens. I was also delighted to read about your experience with multi-generational gardening – it doesn’t get much more inspiring than to learn how plants and ideas and techniques are gifted between family members over time.
And – I hope you’ve beaten the carrot rust fly this year!
Want to read more Prairie gardening viewpoints? Check out guest posts by: