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

Larch trees in autumn.

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It’s easy to see why I adore larch trees, particularly in autumn.

And yes, that is snow in the background! We’ve had two significant snow storms in Calgary since September 29th. The first one dumped 31 centimetres (12.2 inches) of the white stuff on us (which, amazingly, wasn’t a record, although it was close).  More snow is expected early next week so I had better try to get my garlic planted in the next few days!

Flowery Friday: effective colour use.

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Flashback to mid-summer last year and a public planting found in a playground in the Beltline area of Calgary.  That mix of foliage textures and the pop of lime green, yellow, and pink-purple (possibly combined with the fact that it was crazy late in the evening and I hadn’t eaten supper yet) made me drool.

Pretty much any colour is making me drool right now….the absolutely bananas weather has given me a serious case of cabin fever!

In the garden: pleasant surprises.

I finally finished my garden clean up this past weekend.  I don’t have perennial beds at our new home; my new garden space is a combination of containers on the balcony and a plot at the nearby community garden. Clean up was easy: I had no issues with diseases with my container plants so all the soil was dumped into a large covered tote and left on the balcony for use next season, and the pots were all scrubbed and put into indoor storage so they don’t freeze and crack.  Clean up at the community garden was also a cinch: our garden committee encourages members to leave plants in place and chop and drop them in the spring.  (I am a huge fan of this! Keeping the dried plants in place over winter helps prevent a bit of soil crusting, as the garden is fully exposed during chinook winds and freeze and thaw cycles. The plants may also provide a safe haven for beneficial insects such as ladybugs, and the sunflowers in some of the other plots may be useful for hungry birds).  I did pull the pumpkin and zucchini plants, as they were beset with a vicious case of powdery mildew.

My garlic is planted at the community garden and mulched and hopefully snug for the winter, and I sunk a large container of alpine strawberries into the raised bed there in the hopes that they might survive. (I don’t have any in-ground spaces like I used to).  I’ll winter sow some more strawberry seeds outside in early March as insurance.

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I haven’t had a lot of time to review this year’s gardening season.  It was a challenging one, as far as the weather was concerned. Spring wasn’t gradual and wet; instead, we were blasted out of the gate with mid-summer-like heat and no rain.  Some direct-sown seeds refused to germinate, even with supplemental irrigation. Our summer was hot and filled with forest fire smoke, and we had a couple of severe hailstorms that handily trashed plants in mere seconds.  Many gardeners I talked to fought multiple insect infestations, but aside from the cutworms early in the season, I was fortunate in that regard. And then, just as everyone was still hoping their pumpkins would ripen on the vine and they would get some tomatoes that were a colour other than green, we were hit with two weeks of snowfall and bitter cold in September.

One pleasant surprise in my garden (besides these) were the ‘Le Puy’ lentils I grew for the first time.  The plants are pretty, resembling some of our common vetches so much that I thought perhaps I’d get in trouble for harbouring weeds.  The deer find them attractive, as well, which definitely reduced the quantity I was able to harvest.  Compared to some of my other plants, the lentils didn’t seem to require much care – a regular watering schedule was the most important thing, and they made it through the heat better than my sweet peas and sugar peas.

I quickly realized that the timing of harvest is critical with lentils.   The pods must be picked when they are dry, but if you wait too long (a scant few minutes, it seems!), they shatter, blasting the seeds across the soil or the entire garden or into the parking lot in the street adjacent.  I swear I could hear them pinging off the streetlights before I got to them.  😉  I still managed to collect enough to enjoy a decent snack (this recipe is easy to prepare and delicious!).

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Were there any pleasant surprises in your garden this growing season? What about any old favourites that were once again reliable?

Alberta snapshot: Cross Conservation Area.

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This is one of my favourite not-Rocky-Mountain (!) views from the top of the lookout hill at the Cross Conservation Area, a nature preserve southwest of the Calgary city limits.  I took this photo on 14 December of 2017 (still adjusting to that being last year!). At that point, the weather was dry and warm and completely lacking in snow, which is a bit rare (although not unheard of) for us.  We were promptly walloped with frigid temperatures and significant snowfall over the holiday season, but we certainly haven’t had anything to complain about in the face of the much more significant and devastating recent weather events in other parts of the world.

Spring is fleeting….

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In the Spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.

∼Mark Twain

While waiting on the fresh snow to melt outside, I had a bit of fun photographing the bright flowers in a mixed bouquet given to me by a friend.  I spotted a couple of crocus blooming in the garden on 31 March, but they were eaten by jackrabbits within a few hours of my noticing.  “Ephemeral,” indeed….

Flowery Friday: ‘Hazeldean’ rose.

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Ah…spring in Calgary!  I have no idea what coat I should wear when I go outside – in a five minute walk, it might pour rain or pelt icy snow or be so pleasantly warm you wonder why you put the coat on in the first place.  I love this crazy season!

The garden was partly buried in snow earlier this week and is now gloriously muddy, so I’m admiring from afar the progress of my slowly emerging perennials (all that fresh green!) and the blooms of tiny crocuses, squill, chionodoxa, snowdrops, and muscari.  Isn’t it amazing that the soil is still so cold and yet all this fantastic STUFF is going on?  Even if you’ve been gardening in northern climes for many years, sometimes you just have to pause a moment to take in the absolute wonder of it.  And how here, in the face of such marvels, I can’t even choose suitable outerwear.  😉

In lieu of photos of spring-flowering bulbs, I want to show off another rose I found while touring Patterson Garden Arboretum in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan last July.  I love this photo because it’s a teaser…I still have yet to see the open flowers of Rosa ‘Hazeldean’.  (If you’re curious, here’s a link to some images and a write-up of the breeding history of this hardy yellow beauty).

Have a wonderful weekend…and may you always have the right coat for the weather!  🙂

Cold front: spring stirrings.

There’s a cold front moving in tonight, with snow in the forecast…the clouds and the wind were definitely letting me know about it as I walked on Nose Hill this afternoon.

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The garden is waking up with all of this warm weather we’ve been having, but I’m not ready just yet.  That sounds funny coming from a gardener, but the timing isn’t right and I’m in no rush.  Better to let sleeping ladybugs lie.  😉   Things will happen in their own time – but this bit of green certainly made me smile.

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Frost.

I flipped on the tube the other morning and the TV weather forecaster was using the highly technical term “diamond dust” to describe what’s been going on here in Calgary over the past couple of days.  It made me think of little fairies flitting about at sunrise, their delicate wings catching the light just so as they sprinkled the trees with icy filaments of sparkling snow conjured from the still, cold air.  And then I got to wondering if maybe we ought to use science-based language for weather reports, you know…just because.

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I remember when I was very young and we were having a cold snap during the winter – it was consistently minus 40 something degrees Celsius for over a week.  We lived out in the country at the time and remote car starters weren’t a thing back then so my Dad had to go outside and start the vehicle to warm it up before driving into town to work.  One morning he walked inside, shaking frost off of his coat, and announced that the air was so cold “you could cut it with a knife!”  I was absolutely captivated by this expression, I kept rolling it around in my head and trying to figure out how a person would go about doing something like that.   Did you need a sharp steak knife, or would a flat butter knife do?  Did you just go outside and start slashing away or should you choose a specific piece of the air to cut?

I’m not sure what I would have done with the concept of frost as “diamond dust.”  I guess that’s how stories and poems get written.  And weather reports, apparently.  😉

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Snow in September, part two.

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Whoohoo!  The blue sky and sunshine today is proof that we’ve made it out of what everyone here is dubbing “Snowtember”:  three days of several rounds of heavy snow that caused car accidents, disruptions in LRT service, power outages, dicey Internet connection, ruined gardens, and so many damaged trees you cannot walk or drive any block in the city without seeing fallen branches lying on the sidewalk or roads.  In some cases, the trees actually split in half like someone took a giant ax to them; some cracked open so violently they yanked themselves up by the roots.  Tree branches landed onto the windshields of cars as people were driving beneath them, and smashed windows of houses and businesses. Most of the city parks are closed today because there is clean up work underway and there is a lingering concern that a branch will fall on someone as they walk beneath it.  The green ash that sits directly in front of our parking stall at the apartment lost a limb – fortunately, it fell on the other side of the hood of our truck!

I went to work yesterday morning only to discover we had no power, so we shelved books by the light shining in the windows until it became too cold in the library and our manager told us we should go home.  (Funny thing is, the Starbucks and the Tim Hortons across the street had power!  Hmmmmm).

IMG_0133A ‘Schubert’ chokecherry and a May day tree in our yard – hard to believe these two didn’t break! 

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Our community garden is a sad, sad collection of mushy plants right now – the root crops will be fine, as will the brassicas, but anything tender such as squash and tomatoes are finished.  The raspberry plants were straining under the weight of the snow when I stopped by after work on Tuesday to check on things and the sunflowers were pulled up and lying on their sides.  My own plot isn’t too badly affected:  as I mentioned in my last post, I had already picked all my tomatoes and zucchini, and I had taken out the fennel and some kohlrabi that was ready to eat.  The garlic and shallots had been harvested a bit ago, and they comprised the bulk of my garden bed, so I am pretty lucky.  The kohlrabi and carrots that are left should rebound quickly.

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The community garden before the final (worst) round of snowfall.

My flowers at the apartment – well, they’re still partly buried under the white stuff, so I haven’t been out to survey them.  I know there will be quite a bit of damage, so they’ll look really bedraggled for autumn.  I’m confident most of them will come back as beautiful as ever next year.  I just have to wait until it dries up a bit so I can go in and do some trimming and tidying.

It is difficult to believe that the day before the storm, our temperature was in the mid-20’s (Celsius).  We went from sandals to winter boots in less than 24 hours – which, everyone here would agree, is not extremely unusual, especially given our proximity to the mountains.  The ferocity and duration of the storm was a bit hard to take, though!

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Poplars in the park next to our apartment – at least none of these particular trees were split in half like others I saw yesterday.

For anyone here in Calgary and area who are wondering what to do about broken trees, The Yard Therapist published a very useful post this morning – you can find it here.  (This is good advice that may also apply in the event of ice storms, something our eastern neighbours occasionally have to deal with).