Prairie gardening viewpoints: guest post.

Something new for my blog today!  I have a guest!  I’ve been thinking it would be interesting for me to pose a few questions to some Prairie gardeners I know, inquiring about their experiences gardening in such a unique, challenging climate.  I want to find out what they love about gardening in Alberta, what they find difficult, and what inspires them about growing.  Whether you live on the Canadian Prairies or you’re much further afield, I’m sure you’ll find some food for thought here (pun intended!). 


Without further ado, please meet Maxwell Hislop!  
In his own words:

“I live in Turner Valley, in the foothills of Alberta. For myself, and many others in Alberta, we have to face cold weather and a shortened growing season. It is May 20th, and I still have some ice on the ground beside my house, so on top of being cold here even for Alberta, this is the coldest spring in recent memory. To overcome this, I have built multiple raised beds, with poly covers. This not only allows me to plant before my last frost (which is in June in my area), it heats up the soil ahead of time making the plants happier to go out into the soil early. I do take the covers off in mid- to late June, pending weather and to allow pollinators access to my plants, but often find myself putting the poly back on later in the season for crops to finish. Starting seeds indoors as well to extend our growing season is common practice here, or buying seedlings from our local greenhouses (whereas other places in Canada can direct seed the same crops).

What has always inspired me about gardening is the flavors, not only in traditional crops like carrots or tomatoes, but with the variety that we can grow at home that you can’t buy at your local stores. No one believed me as a kid that I was eating purple potatoes, or veggies that they never even heard of, like sorrel. I grew up with such a love for food from everything we grew at home and the variety that I continued to have as an adult – everything from four types of perennial onions to dozens of types of potatoes, herbs and spices that no one gets the chance to experience. And there are the added health benefits of the high nutrition that many of these come with. So all of that being said, my passion about gardening is the ability to grow my own food. There aren’t really any particular plants I am passionate about, and my obsessions change year to year.


Every year I choose new projects, and this year is no different. I have already built multiple new raised beds with frames for covers, and later in the year plan on building more independent raised beds for wild perennial veggies. I have been expanding my outdoor mushroom beds to include mushrooms in shady areas along side of my house, mushrooms in my lawn, and log towers for more variety rather then just the few I had already inoculated. They are a wonderful food source and being so high in protein are used as a meat substitute. As well, my final large project for the year is a grey water recycling and filter system hooked up to a large tank with my rain water for irrigating my veggies. My town has not fully rebuilt the water treatment system from the floods five years ago, and most summers we are struck with water restrictions which makes production erratic during dry spells. By filtering my laundry and bath water, I should be able to completely eliminate the use of town water and by using biodegradable soaps it means the soap in the water actually adds nutrients to the soil that the plants need.  


My big goal for the season of giving away a thousand pounds of food to neighbors, family, friends, the food bank, and myself has already failed with this extremely cold spring that we are having. Many of my in-ground beds have not sprouted yet, and my perennials such as asparagus have failed from the cold winter with just a few plants surviving. But with the extra time off from COVID, it has developed into a new goal of helping others produce their own food. A few of us have put out time together to build nearly a dozen gardens for people, including one massive communal garden that is 1600 sqare feet. Using saved seed potatoes and seeds from my own garden, seedlings from my indoor grow setup,  and volunteer work from others like me who are passionate about growing food, there will be much more food produced in the multiple gardens we have started for people. We are also building up a collection of videos to have ready for the fall so people can watch and learn techniques to optimize their own growing space. 


I thank you for giving me the opportunity to share a bit of my story, and for all your work as well to help others with their own gardens.”


A huge thank you, Maxwell, for taking the time to share what is going on in your garden right now and your plans for the season and looking towards the future. You’ve offered so many excellent suggestions for extending the season and dealing with our crazy weather…and for expanding our edible plant horizons!

Raised beds – photo by Maxwell Hislop
Mushroom log tower – photo by Maxwell Hislop

Don’t worry, bean happy: growing pole beans.

Delectable, sugary jelly beans or ‘Blue Lake’ pole beans ready for sowing?  😉

BLPBFPNormandeau

The bean experiment continues.  I was disappointed with ‘Kentucky Wonder’ last year, but I think I can blame our extremely hot, dry weather (as well as that vicious hailstorm in July) for their poor performance.  I am trying them again this year, alongside these pink beauties.

Do you grow beans (of any kind)?  Which ones are your favourites?

The 2019 Prairie Garden: Growing Food.

tpg2019growingfood_2

One of my favourite times of the year is when the new issue of The Prairie Garden arrives in my mailbox!  This themed, annual digest has been in publication for a whopping 63 years and I am delighted to have been a contributing writer since 2011 (although I missed 2015 and 2017). This year, the theme is Growing Food and it includes my article “Integrated Pest Management.”  Check out The Prairie Garden‘s website for more information about the book and the other featured writers, as well as for details on how to order both the new book and available back issues.  (The book is also available for purchase in select bookstores, garden centres, and nurseries in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta).

Book review: Water, weed, and wait.

Water, Weed, and Wait – Edith Hope Fine and Angela Demos Halpin (illustrated by Colleen Madden), 2010, Tricycle Press, Berkeley. 

There’s an encouraging and inspiring trend going on in North America:  getting children to dig in the dirt and learn about food and horticultural plants through community and school gardens.  Whether parents or teachers are leading the projects, the emphasis is always on fostering community involvement:  entire families or neighbourhoods may help out with the gardening duties in fun social events that take the shape of work-bees.  I even came across a project online at City Farmer where students of an elementary school and the retirement home next door joined forces, in North Vancouver.   If the growers don’t consume the produce themselves, it may be donated to those in need, or used in restaurants or cafeterias, or sold as part of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares.   And, from start to finish, the growing season is full of lessons for both adults and children – there’s simply nothing better than an outdoor classroom!

Books like Weed, Water, and Wait celebrate the “school garden” movement in a big way.  Full of bold, bright, and extremely colourful illustrations, this children’s picture book is ideal for introducing the idea of a school garden, to get the ball rolling before actually doing the work.  In it, a master gardener appropriately named Miss Marigold leads her student charges – and a whole host of adult helpers – in building a school garden, literally from the ground up.  Along the way, a curmudgeonly neighbour named Mr. Barkley lends comic relief with his grumpy “hmmmmphs,” while Miss Marigold teaches valuable lessons about “worm poop” (her words, not mine) and beneficial insects.   Great, snappy writing and catchy repetition of key phrases and concepts (as well as a silly song about veggies and fruits, sung by a certain character in a carrot costume) make the book ideal for reading aloud.   The lessons in the book can be taken out of the context of “school gardens” and can be applied to any gardening venture, even a tiny container garden or raised bed at home, so don’t be afraid to try the book out on the little ones in your life.  (Maybe wait until spring, though, or you’ll have a whole lot of “How many more sleeps until I can plant the peas and carrots??!!”).

Terrific terroir.

Have you ever travelled to another country (or a geographical region other than where you live) and felt awestruck by how good the food and drink tastes, how different it is from the food back home?  A friend of mine was recently telling me about her travels in France, and she was practically salivating at the memory of the amazing cheeses she sampled while there.  She kept repeating that they did not taste like any we could buy here in Canada, even though we have some pretty fabulous cheeses here.  Of course, she was probably eating varieties that are not common to our Canadian palates, and therefore she couldn’t really compare them directly, but it’s true…there is definitely something to the way food tastes in a particular area.   It’s one of the reasons the country of France  is renowned for its cheeses.  It’s also one of  the reasons California wines taste differently than those from Australia, or Chile, or here in Canada, even though the same varieties of grapes may be used.  And it has nothing to do with your individual preferences, or the fact that everything tastes better when you don’t have to cook!

Appropriately, the French have come up with a term for this idea:  terroir.  It’s a notion that originated out of and is still primarily reserved for viticulture, although it is creeping away from the vineyards and is now being used to describe certain foods, as well as tea, coffee, and beer.  Meaning “a sense of place,” terroir refers to the idea that geography informs taste:  everything, from the quality of the soil, light conditions, air quality, to climate – basically, all of the natural elements that influence how plants grow – will affect the taste of food crops from a particular region.  It’s simple, really:  taro root grown in a ditch near a heavily forested area on the island of Rarotonga, for example, likely won’t taste quite the same as that grown in a boggy field in Brazil.  The soil is different; so is the quality of the rainfall and of the air.  As well, on Rarotonga, the ditch may shaded by a canopy of a large tree, shading the taro, whereas on the farm in Brazil, the sun beats down, hot and heavy, nearly every day.   All of these things will impart certain flavours to the produce.  So it is with wine-making.  (In viticulture, the concept of terroir may even embrace the microclimates formed by the very rows of grapes in a particular vineyard – it’s not just about provinces, or states, or territories, or entire countries).   What’s more, if you take that bottle of wine from Burgundy and transport it anywhere else in the world, it should still taste of the terroir inherent to Burgundy – no matter if it’s opened and consumed in Alberta, or in Tanzania.

Cheese, of course, doesn’t grow on trees.  (Although the world would be a much better place if it did!).  On a trip to Maui, my husband delighted in the steak he had for supper one evening.  While it didn’t quite equate with good ol’ “Alberta beef,” he remarked that it had a subtle sweetness that our beef did not.  Our server informed us that it was due to the fact that some of the cattle on the islands graze on sugarcane, which imparted an extra bit of zip to the meat.  (Whether or not this is just some line proferred to Canadian tourists, I don’t know – really, it could have just been the different water.  Or the proximity of the ocean).  Regardless, Hawai’ian beef isn’t the same as ours, even though the breed of cow may have been.  The same goes with cheese:  whatever the cow or goat eats, that flavour is imparted to the final product.  A bovine munching on some sweet clover may ultimately lend its milk to a cheese that tastes completely different than that from a cow that eats wild fescue…and the sweet clover or fescue grown in one place may not taste exactly like that grown in another!  (Just think of all these wandering foodie cattle, seeking the next “big thing” when it comes to their forage!).  Of course, it is also imperative to consider the methods of preparation of the food or beverage:  not all cheese or wine or beer is created in the same manner, and flavour is definitely something which can be manipulated during processing.  And, obviously, different cultivars and varieties of plant species are going to provide varying results as well.   The point is to acknowledge how growing with regional base “ingredients” (soil, water, light, air, etc.) can make such a world of difference!

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For an interesting “coast-to-coast” look at Canadian terroir, check out:  http://mediacentre.canada.travel/content/travel_story_ideas/local_org_food

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terroir