Lawns are Not Sustainable

Mono crops are a thing we hear about a lot these days. GMO, mono crops, synthetic fertilizers; all the product of the big “bad” guys. What we often don’t realize is that one of the most pervasive mono crops is being grown right in our own yards: grass.IMG_0804

I use hand tools and natural/organic practices. So when I am asked to work on someone’s lawn I recoil. Lawns are not sustainable, and they go against all that I love about gardening. This summer I was asked to hand dig dandelions and clover from lawns, to organically fertilize lawns, and to “get rid” of mushrooms in lawns (as if it is that simple, and even desirable to get rid of such things!) all because people have this idea that lawns can be organic.

The definition of organic technically means no chemical residues in the soil, so “organic” is possible with lawns, but it is not practical. If you want that lush green carpet, then you have to treat it chemically, or add constant organic inputs and water to make it that way, as lawns are not natural. For this reason, my mom reports back that German “lawns” are actually made up of many species; clover, dandelions, various grasses and even crocuses. They expect their lawns to bloom and to grow together in tandem with many other species, avoiding the trouble with mono crops.

What is the trouble with mono crops? If you pay attention, you’ll notice there are no monocultures that exist in nature, since this in not sustainable. A monoculture as defined by google is “the cultivation of a single crop in a given area”. In nature plants need various species in close proximity in order to thrive. Trees, shrubs, in fact all plant species must grow alongside mushrooms in order to live, Fruiting trees and perennials need various flowers nearby to attract a crop of pollinators, and therefore to survive. The connection between several plant species and critters in a garden is as necessary as biodiversity in the animal world. If the “keystone” animal in any ecosystem dies, then all creatures suffer and maybe even die. It is the same with the plants in your garden, and I’d love to suggest here that every species is a “keystone” one.

Inevitably, lawns which consist of grass alone are not sustainable.

This is not in any way meant to be a commentary on choices. Lawns are certainly desirable, as they provide spaces for people to play and picnic. If this is what you want to spend your time and money on then that is certainly your prerogative, but don’t expect it to be hassle free.

If you can’t be bothered with spoiling your lawn with constant care, as is the case for me, then enjoy city lawns for that family picnic or soccer game, and turn your own yard into a space that is more practical and sustainable for personal reasons. Sustainable, in my mind, means it can exist more or less independently of human input. As such it:
1) Stays moist enough to grow the plants that are in it. To achieve this be selective with your plant choices and use natural mulches to prevent evaporation.

2) Encourages natural pollinators. Your garden does so because there are natural habitats available year round; dead trees, logs or wood piles, and season-long food sources are available, which means constant blossoms from early spring until late fall.

3) Is no place for weeds, since weeds no longer exist because your definition of what “weeds” are has altered. You understand, as author and lifelong organic farmer Michael Ableman says, that “Weeds are windows into our soil. Learn to read them.”

img_1168You now see dandelions as an early food source both for yourself, your family as well as for the pollinators. Honey bees cannot exist without dandelions. You see clover as a “nitrogen fixer” that will feed your soil and therefore your plants without you needing to do that yourself. You will begin to see chickweed as a “trap crop” for slugs. This irresistible, tender green plant attracts slugs to feast on it drawing these potential pests away from your precious peas or beans.

When you embrace a natural approach to gardening you pull yourself into the role of planter and harvester, but the maintenance gets done by desirable garden guests; other plants, pollinators and valuable soil biology do the grunt work while you consider how best to consume your just-harvested carrots or dandelion greens. Keep up with diversity and you will have less work to keep up with yourself.

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Climate Farming

“Climate Farming” is a term I read about in Terra Preta, a book written by Ute Scheub. It means to grow food in a way that benefits our planet. We no longer need to think of agriculture as something that damages the environment through harmful practices involving chemicals and tractors. Instead “climate farming” means you will be growing good soil that will give back to the world endlessly. Your garden has the ability to make the177164110x world a better place.

Soil is made from sand, silt and clay. Your garden will have more or less of each of these 3 ingredients. Heavier soils mean more clay is present. Clay soils are stickier, and hold onto minerals in an abundant way. Sandy soils are lighter, more crumbly and hold on to fewer minerals. All soils can be amended by another ingredient; humus.

Humus is what is made in a compost pile, or right in your garden by worms and microbes. It is organic material that has been biodegraded until it looks dark and rich, it feels light and spongy and it smells fresh and earthy. Humus stimulates all of our senses in a delightful way, and with good reason, as we tend to be drawn to what is good for us. Humus helps retain moisture as well as soil structure in a garden, meaning that your plants also love it. Humus is full of microbes, since it is the microbes themselves that break down the organic matter to begin with, and microbes help feed your plants the nutrition that is stored in the soil. Without microbes, your plants could not survive.

img_3963Having high levels of humus in your garden, defined as greater than 2%, possibly even in the 10% arena, means that your garden has been turned into a carbon sink. What does this mean? It means that humus sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, eliminating greenhouse gasses from our environment. It turns out mother nature has a way around our careless polluting, and humus is her right hand man!

So what can you do to change your own yard into a carbon sink? Start making humus! Or, should I say, start allowing nature to make humus for you. This will benefit you, your garden and, it turns out, the whole world.

img_1324If you leave organic matter in your garden and let it biodegrade on the spot naturally, then humus will be made.

At the moment soil is disappearing 10 to 100 times faster than it is being made, as we are waging war on our soils. We kill the soil, reducing it to dirt and dust by applying chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. We then employ ploughs and tractors to rip up what’s left, destroying microbial habitat. By reducing soil (living and breathing matter) into dirt, we are killing off a quarter of the world’s species, which call soil their home, and we are rendering our fields useless. Dead dirt cannot support life, so food crops will not grow.

Let’s learn to employ those tiny farms hands, also known as microbes and worms, and encourage them to leave rich moisture-retaining humus behind. The microbes will thrive, our plants will thrive, our bodies will thrive (from eating mineral-rich foods) and our environment will thrive.

As Raoul Heinrich France said “Humus is made from life, by life, for life” so treat fallen leaves and grass clippings like a treasure bestowed upon us by the gods. Use them with good purpose, to nourish the Earth, and by default, our bodies.

Learn more through our programming at Growfoodcalgary.com. Tickets for or upcoming 8 month long programming are also available there!logo4

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Lessons

Sorting my vermiculture worms just now, a few thoughts ran through my head. My first thought? I love that I can compost year round in Calgary by using the indoor worms, especially since my outdoor compost piles are frozen solid and piling higher by the minute, it seems.img_0040

My second thought was that I’ve learnt so much about vermiculture over the years, mostly as a result of making mistakes. Some of which have been pretty major. My intention is not to scare anyone off from vermiculture, in fact my goal is to do just the opposite, to show you that all learning comes through trial and error, and that this is part of the game of life, and that learning is fun! Today I can possibly accelerate your own learning curve through divulging 2 of my latest vermiculture mistakes.

Mistake #1: Moisture in the bins. Worms need to be kept moist, but not too moist. I always suggest maintaining a bin that feels like a wrung out cloth. With the plastic bins I have, I find the worms stay quite damp, since most of the kitchen scraps I add are full of natural moisture, and nothing evaporates due to the plastic. My mantra has become: add more bedding and less kitchen scraps for a more desirable outcome. Bedding is the dry stuff you add to a worm bin; peat moss, straw, leaves, cardboard, egg cartons and newspapers. I have been adding these dry parts extensively, and this has helped to dry out my bins, making the moisture levels more ideal.

So then I went and told a teacher not to add any moisture to her grade 4 worm bin. When I returned 6 weeks later to collect the bin, she was feeling shameful and thought her worms had died. Upon closer inspection I found them in the very bottom tray all huddled together. The top two levels of her bin were dry like dust. I re-moistened the bin using melted snow, and now the worm population has come back to life and grown again, seemingly with no major harm done.

Mistake#2: Bedding. I became disgruntled with adding human made bedding products as I noticed one day after throwing in a whole newspaper that this freaked my worms out and they started running away. I decided that newspaper was too full of chemicals and dyes for worms, so ever since then I have suggested using “natural” bedding materials such as leaves. By adding leaves to a worm bin, slugs are sometimes imported, but they are easy to spot and pick out and have never caused major troubles, so I still recommend the leaves. Straw and peat moss are other alternatives. I wouldn’t suggest buying peat moss, as it is non-renewable, but if you already have it in your flower pots, then re-use it by adding it to your worm bin. Come spring the worm castings can be added back into your flower pot as a natural fertilizer. Perfect!

While this idea may have seemed logical enough, upon trial and error, I found it was full of error! Here’s where I went wrong: I started taking the contents of my client’s pots home with me, since they wanted their pots emptied and I couldn’t stand the thought of dumping the potting mix in the garbage. I added the contents to my worm bins and was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I never add chemicals to plants/soils, since I use organic practices, but my 83 year old client Sheila just wants her petunias to look the best,

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Petunias blooming despite their dark home, thanks to worm castings.

so she chemically fertilizes them on her own accord weekly. I added her end-of-season petunias, soil and all, to my worm bin and was amazed by what happened. The petunias seemed to come back to life and bloomed better than I’d seen them bloom all summer, even in the darkness of my basement. I didn’t fully understand the power of chemical fertilizers until I saw what happened next, however.

About 2 weeks later when I went to “harvest” some worms to bring to a classroom presentation I struggled to find any in the bin. I was used to having gobs of worms that were easy to scoop out by the handful, but suddenly they had become scarce. I realized it must have been due to the chemical fertilizers I had added to my bins by default. It has taken all winter for my bins and worm populations to recover from this shock. Today as I was harvesting some castings from the lowest level of my bin, I think I managed to remove the last of the contaminated materials much to my relief.

Chemicals are soil sterilizers I have been told, but I didn’t understand the power of chemicals until I witnessed it for myself over the course of this winter. A good reminder for many reasons. A good lesson, yet a tragic display of death.
For more information on vermiculture and how to have your own indoor compost bins register for Grow Food Calgary at growfoodcalgary.com today!logo4

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Starved for Nature

In the 1950’s children were able to identify on average 25 native plant species. Today, kids can identify 0 plant species, but up to 50 different corporate logos.

I happen to believe that this is not only true about our children, but of adults as well. Calgarians are starved for nature. We spend more time indoors in front of screens than ever and it is time to return to our roots, both figuratively and literally speaking.cimg0804-copy

Learn to grow your own food and start today; “You can grow a sprout in a day, a micro green in a week, or a radish in a month” says Donna Balzer of Grow Food Calgary “and we are excited to give you the tools and knowledge to do this”.

We are not only starved for nature in this digital era, but also for healthy foods. Our bodies are depleted after years of eating not only processed foods, but also fresh foods that are minerally deficient.

That hollow-stemmed Broccoli that you find at grocery store is hollow because it is deficient in boron. With farmer’s fields being striped of all minerals from years of intensive farming practices, our food is lacking more and more.

In the 1950’s we got the same amount of nutrition from one peach as we do from 9 peaches today. We need to eat more food in order to gain the same amount of minerals; it’s no wonder obesity is becoming an epidemic.

We are fortunate to have amazing soil in Calgary backyards. As glaciers receded, we were left with rich mineral deposits, meaning our soil is incredibly fertile. When we grow food using this amazing soil, our food absorbs these minerals and passes them back to us.

Grow Food Calgary is a six session program that teaches new gardeners the skills and techniques needed to ensure Calgarians have success with their edible gardens this year. Grow Food Calgary will have top local experts, including Donna Balzer, Mike Dorian and Ken Fry (the bug guy) as guest speakers. They will teach the how to’s of edible gardening, and do live demonstrations for participants to soak in, growing their garden knowledge, and also growing a community of engaged, health conscious Calgarians.

Come alive and get your hands dirty with Donna Balzer, Shelley Goldbeck and Chelsie Anderson this year, starting in March! Tickets are now available on growfoodcalgary.com

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Fresh Greens for Winter

If you are a Canadian gardener, than you are feeling it in January. You might stare out your frosted over windows and appreciate the low sun for the dramatic-ness of it, but you know that it doesn’t give off nearly enough light to grow anything, even if the warmth was available. Your body might be starting to feel a bit depleted as even the store bought onions are not in their prime anymore; with their outer layers being somewhat mouldy and soft.

You are desperate for something fresh and today I am going to inspire you with 2 indoor crops. These crops will allow you to touch the soil and to eat something fresh that was was grown in just a few days right in your own house.

Here is what the Canadian gardener can do to get over that winter hump: Learn to sprout and to grow micro greens this winter! These are 2 crops that any Canadian can grow even in the middle of a low light and cold month like January, and here’s how you get started.

Micro Greens:_dsc9050

Get some ProMix (it’s a brand of potting mix that I find works really well) and put an inch or two in the bottom of a tray. Add enough water so that your potting mix is damp. Pre soak some pea seeds overnight, or for at least 2 hours before sprinkling them on top of the damp growing medium. Place this tray on top of a warm surface; there are warming mats that you can purchase from garden centres, or put it near a heater, or on top of a fridge or freezer, which can sometimes provide enough warmth for sprouting.

Once the seeds have started to sprout you can remove them from the heat source and place them in a sunny location instead. You can use full spectrum grow lights, but actually pea sprouts don’t require the lights, and I have noticed they grow more compact without an additional source of light, which seems more desirable to me. When your sprouts are at a good height (this can be determined by you!) cut them using scissors and add them to your salads, sandwiches or stir fries. Amazingly they taste just like peas!

Expect this process to take about a week from when you soak them to when you harvest them. Quick and easy.

The peas will actually sprout several times over if you let them, but each time there will be img_1817less nutritional value available. I like to add the whole tray of ProMix and pea seeds to my compost or garden beds as a natural soil amendment.

Enjoy these fresh and highly nutritious winter greens that are easy to grow at any time of the year, enjoying the mineral boost that they will provide your body, which is a particular bonus in the winter when your body is more starved for nutrition.

Note: Try growing sunflower sprouts for variation.

Sprouting:

Rinse some lentils or mung beans (or seed of choice) then cover them with water in a jar or other vessel over night. In the morning drain them, and rinse them once more before bed. They can be eaten usually within 24 hours of starting this process, but if you want them to grow longer “tails” continue to rinse them once or twice per day and be amazed! Easier img_1819than pie and far healthier.

Repeat these instructions until you can’t stand to look at another sprouted mung bean. Hopefully by that point you’ll have some spinach coming up in your outdoor beds to add some dietary variation. Have fun!

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Hop Compost

I have always been a huge fan of worm castings as they are loaded with benefits for your garden. The humus levels are high, meaning they retain moisture up to 70% more than gardens without castings, and reduce the occurrence of compaction. Less compaction means that the roots of your plants have more space to grow, and natural garden worms are less likely to be destroyed as the soil springs back into shape. Castings are full of a
wide range of minerals that are absorbable by your plants 15622436_1193012087455501_3387399530565329976_nmeaning you will grow stronger, healthier and more productive plants. The #1 benefit to castings in my mind, however, is that they are full of beneficial microbes. These microbes essentially feed and maintain your plants better than you ever could using human made products. In fact, plants would not grow at all if microbes didn’t exist, they are a necessary garden element, and castings are loaded with them.

The trouble with microbes, however, is that they are tricky buggers to keep alive if they are stored on shelves or transported long distances. They will die if they dry out, die if they can’t access oxygen, die if they get too hot. Ideally, every gardener would have their own indoor worm compost at home and would add the castings from their own production into their gardens. But this is unrealistic.

hopLast week I had my eyes opened by a whole ‘nother process that (do I dare) suggest may even be a better alternative to buying packaged worm castings for your garden. Here in Calgary Kevin Davies, founder and CEO of Hop Compost, is making craft batches of organic compost just outside of downtown Calgary. The ingredients for this process come from Calgary’s best restaurants, cafes and grocers located right here in Calgary. Hop is the first inner city compost producer in Canada, and has been approved for this due to the careful considerations the Batchmakers ensure when processing this waste. There is no dangerous liquid leachates or toxic methane gases being released at Hop, meaning it is safe and beneficial to Calgarians. By processing this compost right in the city, where they also collects the waste for it, Hop has saved over 10 million pounds of emissions that are normally required to ship the materials and the end product to and from a city.

Hop has analyzed the waste from each source they collect materials from and carefully mix their batches to ensure consistency in their end result. The Batchmakers at Hop mix coffee grounds with bulky produce to create air pockets, produce is paired with meat to increase heat thereby killing pathogens, ash with citrus to ensure that each batch has a balanced pH, and so on. The final result is a hot steaming pile of compost, indicating that it is full of living microbes and that it has the highest mineral levels in any manufactured compost in Canada. In fact Hop Compost boasts 7.6 times the mineral content of any other compost on the market.

The final stat that makes my organic gardening heart sing is that Hop Compost is 2000 times cleaner than OMRI organic standards require for pesticide and herbicide counts. It is 12308836_909751489114897_6944496251496585994_nas clean as clean can be, and a perfect addition for your organic garden.

For amazing benefit to your home garden, you can add just half the amount of compost to your garden than you normally would by using Hop, and you still get 3.8% more organic and usable nutrients than you would with any other compost on the market. NPK is broken down as follows: 2.5% Nitrogen, 0.6% Phosphorus, 1.5% Potassium.

Likely due to the high levels of nutrition and microbes, Hop increased crop yields at MicroYYC by 48% last year when it was blended with a potting mix. This means your vegetable garden will grow stronger plants that will produce more fruit for you to enjoy this summer! Just another way to benefit economically from this local, sustainable and organic product.

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5 Reasons

Out of habit, people sometimes complain about conditions that they cannot change. Gardening is often one of those things that Calgarians like to complain about, as gardeners here feel hard done by. I tend towards optimism, however, and instead of seeing lemons, I can’t help but see lemonade

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Here are 5 reasons why we are fortunate to be gardening in Calgary:

  1. Cold Crops. We can grow cold crops with ease (see my previous blog titled “Cheating” for more on this). If nothing else, focus on the crops that love these conditions which include roots, leafy greens, peas and the entire cabbage family. All of these do really well in cooler climates and can stay in your garden much longer than any other crops. These vegetables can handle -8 degrees Celsius and sometimes even cooler.
  2. Minerals. In autumn when leaves start to change from green to brown, red or yellow, then fall to the ground, they add minerals to the soil. In Calgary, because we have only about a week of true “fall”, the minerals get trapped in tocal newsimg_1257paper. We also have several locally published garden books if we need even more support. With all of thishe leaves more-so than they do in other places where this transition takeslonger. With this mineral capture in effect, our gardens (if the leaves are left in place for the gardens to use) are fed a wider and more dense variety of minerals to help grow mineralized crops the following year.
  3. Clay! Some might find it hard to imagine that this is a benefit as it tends to be the #1 complaint I hear from Calgarians about gardening, but clay is our friend. Soils that lack clay, also lack CEC (Cation Exchange Capacity) that hold on to minerals in the soil. Sandy soils are always depleted, and this is why things like cactus and alpine plants grow well in sand, they don’t need minerals. Vegetables on the other hand, are heavy feeders and need minerals to thrive. The more mineralized they are, the more minerals we humans also get to enjoy, and we all know there are benefits to that!
  4. Space. Calgary is a sprawling city, which could be criticized for the need of more resources to make it run well. Because I live here, however, I am going to make the most of this available land and grow as much food as will fit in my generous sized inner city plot. We have these amazingly huge properties that could feed many people locally if we converted it all into vegetable production. Not only that, but this land that we have access to also sits right where glaciers used to live. These glaciers left amazing mineral deposits that, again, our vegetables as well as ourselves, benefit from in a great way.
  5. Support. There are more self-defined gardeners per capita in Calgary than anywhere else in North America. The Calgary Horticulture Society boasts a higher subscription rate than any other of its kind. As a result, we have access to a wealth of opportunities, from chatting over the fence to our neighbours while fishing for tips and tricks, to having access to professionals on the radio (Donna Balzer on CBC), in person through workshops and through articles. With all of this available knowledge, there is no reason not to grow your own food!

If you are new to gardening, experiment with converting your existing weed patch, lawn or perennial bedinto simple root crops; potatoes or carrots always impress!

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