Cheating

Over the past few years, I have developed a reputation for cheating. This causes some disgruntle among observant neighbours. They feel like I am getting away with something I shouldn’t be getting away with, and the truth is, maybe I am.

My confession? I don’t wait u

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Patrick with his December Carrot Harvest

ntil the May long weekend to plant my crops. No. I pay careful attention to the weather, and I plant my crops as soon as the soil is workable. I then leave some of my crops in the ground until the end of October on occasion. This is my cheat.

As Calgarians, we are told to wait for that magical date in late May before planting and seeding our crops ensuring they don’t freeze. But I just happen to be well versed in cold crops; a gardener’s dream come true if you live above the 49th parallel, so I’ve decided to take advantage! We only h
ave between 90 and 110 consecutive frost free days per year, so we don’t have time to wait for these frost free days, instead we must take advantage of our cooler days.

There are some crops
that, in fact, need cooler temperatures to thrive. I will highlight these so that us Calgarians can feel proud of our amazing growing season; not for the tomatoes we can squeeze in before it gets below 5 degrees Celsius, but for the mineral rich leafy greens and e family delights, some of which can handle as cold as -8 degrees Celsius and grow beautifully here.

I am going to break these cold crops down into 4 categories: Leafy greens, cabbage
family, root crops and peas, to simplify the memorization aspect.

Leafy Greens
Apart from basil, almost all leafy green vegetables are considered cold crops:
Lettuces
Spinach
Arugula
Collards
Chardimg_0012
Kale
Beet

Cabbage Family

Kale
Cabbage
Broccoli
Collards
Cauliflower
Brussels Sprouts

Roots
Potatoes
Radishes
Carrots
Onions
Garlic
Beets

Peas
Only some varieties are frost tolerant, so check the package!
These crops can be direct seeded into your garden as soon as the ground is soft enough to dig. They can then stay put until they freeze solid, so try not to harvest them too soon. Leafy greens for example, can be harvested by simply plucking off a few leaves from each plant as needed, which means come September and October, you will likely still have leaves that are still available for harvest. You can also harvest peas quite late into the season, although I have noticed their production rate starts to slow down as the light gets lower and  air temperatures get cooler.

Root crops are some of my favourite cold crops, as the soil essentially preserves them. My friend Patrick Sweet dug out his carrots just days before christmas after covering the rows with straw and tarps for protection. Just because the green tops have died back doesn’t mean the roots are gone too. I have occasionally dug up a carrot the following spring that somehow got missed the previous fall, and it is still as sweet as any home grown tuber you might harvest during the summer or fall.

Patrick says he waits to cover his roots crops  until the weather is cool, between 0 and 5 degrees C, and dry outside. The key is to keep both the moisture and the mice out, and he shared with me a system that he has found worked for him this year. He says that putting an old blanket down first (as it’s breathable) then a large load of dry leaves on top works well to create air pockets, which is what insulates the carrots. He then puts a tarp on top to keep moisture out, and “hems” the edges of the tarp down by shovelling a small amount of soil around the perimeter. He suspects this might even deter a wandering mouse, or keep them from smelling the carrots. He suspects his success this year was also due to a layer of snow that blanketed the works, sealing things, and most importantly providing a little more insulation.

Extend that vegetable season and enjoy the cold crops to make the most of them in this frosty winter land we live in!

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Heating with Microbes

I met Mark Allen a few years ago in 2013, when he was getting ready to sell his profitable business “Worms at Work”. He kept saying he wanted to sell it, but his body language and worm-heartstories told me otherwise. Mark is passionate about worms, and at the time he said he was spending about 60 hours per week with them.

He had taken a soil biology course years earlier to learn more about what he was already witnessing, and understood from observation; that the important thing about soil is what it is made of biologically speaking. Worm bins are havens for beneficial microbe growth and reproduction, and as a result when you add worm castings (aka- worm poop) to your garden it may actually raise the overall temperature of your garden beds due to all of these thriving microbes. Mark told me that because he had so many worms in his garage, that they were contributing to a lower heating bill.
Upon entering his garage, this claim did not surprise me. He had every usable area covered in filling cabinets, wooden crates and tupperware bins full of worms. He had a sorting table, a paper shredder, a bar fridge (for worm food storage) and bagged castings ready for sale. It was a wormy paradise.

Mark was proud of how he was doing things differently than most, “I use a whole different system than everybody else does. I use shredded newspaper, cardboard and leaves which are all free! My competition uses hypnum peat, which is the black peat that’s in the muskeg bogs, and they take that and put it in 3 gallon buckets and they feed them a special recipe of grains. Mine eat kitchen scraps and a mixture of grains. I’m a recycler now, so that’s why I use a mix of cardboard and leaves and food scraps.”

I appreciated Mark’s practical nature, as this is a personality trait I share. Instead of buying grains and peat moss and feeding his worms a particular recipe, he used what is available to everyone for free. Mark Allen is a true recycler. In a classroom worm bin, this is exactly what I would suggest teachers and students use; whatever it is they can find around that is biodegradable and would otherwise be tossed into the garbage; leaves, ca
rdboard and food scraps.

The other benefit of using diverse food sources is that the microbial outcome is different in the final product; castings. If the same thing goes in every time, then the result is the same.

cootie-singleMark said “Every little square inch is supposed to contain a billion micro organisms. Now, Nancy (a soil biologist) said When I put your castings under the microscope, it is the best I’ve ever seen. I don’t see all that in other people’s castings.”

When I questioned him about organic certification he brushed it off as being unimportant; “Oh sure, well it’s not certified organic, but why does it have to be? You go to the garden centre and its organic, but it’s been sterilized. I tell them that’s crap! If you want good soil, you want all the microbiology. Mine has lots of organic matter in there, look at all the bugs! All of these are just crawling with micro organisms!”

Mark is right, it is the biology that bring more benefit to the product than whether or not it is certified organic. Not only that, but when there is good soil biology, they break down harmful chemicals and turn this into an organic product. While Mark never bothered with organic certification, he knew that the biology in his product would make it organic.

Mark was full of stories that day. The one I enjoyed the most was about his daffodils that started sprouting in February. “When it was 20 below 0” he says “I’m out there shovelling snow, I get in there where my daffodils grow, and I have a daffodil like this [he indicates a 10cm height using his fingers] growing under the snow. I scraped it off and went and got a 10″ screw driver and I tapped it through about that much frost [shows a depth again using his thumb and forefinger] and [the screwdriver] went down the whole length of that hole. I went in and got a thermometer and dropped it in there, and it said it was 10 above in that hole, while it’s 20 below out here. I took that same screw driver over about a foot” where Mark hadn’t been adding his castings, “and I couldn’t get it in the ground. I could not pound it into the ground because it was frozen solid. That’s micorizae fungi making enough heat to make the plant grow under the snow!”

Imagine if we could tap into this amazing renewable energy source in a practical way to heat homes in the winter, or to grow crops year round in Canada. Mark is an inspiring man, who knows what he knows from observation and his passion for worms. He has since stopped raising worms, passing this baton onto younger generations, but his energy and enthusiasm for the red wiggler live on.

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Vermiculture Beginnings

I was given worms 12 years ago, by my aunt. They were from her grade 3 classroom and came to me in a rubbermaid bin. I was half-hearted in my interest at the time, and in all honesty, I thought worms were gross back then. Not only that, but I was a mother for the firs time, and overwhelmed by the laundry and general exhaustion this created, let alone having worm care at the top of my mind. They essentially turned to mush, due to neglect after a few short montimg_0089hs in my basement, and for this I am truly sorry.

My mom adopted what was left of the mess and purchased a high end “Can-O’-Worms” worm bin for about $500. The worms began to thrive, and she began dividing off tupperware containers full of worms to give to interested adoption agencies; that is, neighbours, garden friends, interested family members, and so on.

In the meantime I moved to New Zealand with my husband and 3 very young children. While there, I filled my itch to garden by volunteering at the local community garden. I had envisioned transplanting seedlings, or harvesting produce, but on day one I was sent to sort the worm bin. “We need some castings to mix with the soil” I was told and he pointed to where the worm bin was. This indefinitely cured my worm-phobia.

I returned to Canada a year  later motivated to start my own business. I dabbled in gardening for people, and grew this into full time work by the time the kids started school. I eventually added on vermiculture as not only a hobby, but as a way to earn some winter income. This was about 8 years ago now.

My mom had given me her Can-O-Worms as a parting gift when she moved to Vancouver island, taking just a handful of wrigglers with her to add to the soil in her greenhouse. As my worm-rearing confidence increased, so did my presence as a vermiculture expert in Calgary.

I began a public speaking career that involved giving vermiculture presentations to elementary-aged kids, as well as to community adult groups.

My ego grew, and I suddenly had this idea that I wanted to be the best worm producer in town! I started searching for more information from professionals around the world, to see what advice I could glean. It was at this point that I began realizing that internet information is not always the most reliable.

I had set myself up for my first major mishap with worms; a blossoming ego, a competitive streak, and trusting the internet; all leading to disaster. After having been incident-free for over 3 years I lost almost all my worms in one night due to my overzealous efforts…

To Be Continued…

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War and Peace in the Garden

Everyone is an organic gardener, that is, until the weeds take over, or the bugs, or disease strikes. Then we spray, kill and destroy; wagging war on whatever is bothering us until the problem has subsided, at least temporarily. We then re-claim our “organic gardener” status until the next disaster strikes.

We are often confused by what plants truly need, what to feed and how to weed in IMG_0811 copyorder to grow an organic garden. We are tempted to “do” more, as humans are real “do-ers”. It is hard for us to sit back and engage the natural systems that have been tending to gardens for millennia, it makes us feel useless. Let me tell you, natural systems work! I have yet to witness a human-made system that works better than what nature has provided. I encourage you to avoid costly and ineffective human-designed systems, and instead I hope that you will feel inspired to enlist the natural soil-food-web to do the hard work, while you enjoy the beauty of an organic garden from your balcony.

Stop waging war, and instead accept peace in the garden. Not only your soil, but also your soul will benefit.

1) What Plants Truly Need:

We want to believe that plants really need our help. That without us, they would be eaten by insects, or devoured by disease, but this is not the case. We become tempted to “save” our plants from the problems we perceive by spraying them. Sometimes we use chemicals as they are darn effective killers, and sometimes we craftily make our
own cayenne pepper/onion “organic insecticides”.
Either way, the result is essentially the same. We wage war and kill the
invading insects, believing we have outsmarted nature and that our system will work better than the natural systems that exist.

When we spray insects, for example aphids, we break the natural system; now the ladybugs will go hungry, or move on to the neighbour’s buffet. Had we chosen to wait for the predator bugs to arrive on scene all would be cleared up naturally, and the cycle would thrive. Instead we break the natural cycle and force our gardens to be dependant on us. As a result of killing the aphids (organically or not) our gardens will now need us, as the nature-made cycle has been damaged. Ultimately, this makes more work for us and fewer chances of attaining a truly organic garden.

2) What to Feed:

We may want to feed our gardens fertilizers, but I have yet to discover a fertilizer that is truly beneficial. Chemical fertilizers give the impression that our plants are benefiting from the administration of them as they appear so lush after their use. My neighbour’s fertilized lawn looks so green, but in reality this vibrant colour is not only calling in the bugimg_1168s for a great bug buffet (as a plant grows brighter when heavy nitrogen fertilizers are used), b
ut it is also becoming dependant on the artificial feast that you have provided. Now your lawn craves this treatment as the chemicals sterilize your soil, killing off all the beneficial microbes, and that soil-food -web that is enlisted in organic gardens. These microscopic critters normally help feed your plants, help retain moisture and fend off disease, weeds and invading insects, but now there is no chance of this, so you must continue to feed it artificially.

Even by purchasing and administering an organic fertilizer we may be causing more harm than good. These fertilizers are certainly not designed for what your soil needs. As a result these fertilizers will only throw the precious mineral balance out of whack, creating bigger problems.

So what can we feed our gardens?

Add compost. Add worm castings (aka worm poop). Add mulches (ie- fallen leaves) that will feed the microbes and worms, encouraging them to linger in your yard, providing natural benefits. These microscopic “farm hands” are invaluable to the maintenance of an organic yard.

3) How to Weed:

Do not be tempted to use any human-made garden products such as landscape fabric or plastic edging for weed suppression. The landscape fabric will prevent our farm-hand microbes that are oh-so-valuable from accessing their food. Once this soil biology dies, there is no way to grow an organic garden. Our plants will once again become dependant on us to provide chemical food sources, creating an even greater drug addiction. Not only that, but weeds will certainly grow through the fabric in time, making our job of weeding even more laborious and through this process we will send even more waste to the dump.

Get out there and weed using a hand tool or a shovel, depending on the size of the weed in question. Enjoy the benefits that occur naturally from being under the sunshine and from using your body (ie-exercising). You may even notice you start to feel a bit happier than you were previously, as there is a soil bacteria that when touched, boosts the release of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is responsible for increasing our happiness levels. So if you are feeling a bit blue, get out and weed!

To wrap up, plants don’t Need your help. Instead, enlist the help of those predator bugs and let them take care of bug control. If these valuable insects don’t find your plants naturally, then buy some from a garden centre, they are now widely available. Make sure to Feed your garden with mulch (leaves, wood chips, straw- not hay-). This practice will encourage all of those beneficial microbes and worms to populate your garden providing endless benefit, making you almost redundant. Get out there and Weed! Enjoy the experience and bring some of those weeds inside to cook up at dinner time; think dandelions or chickweed, or enjoy a cup of chamomile tea, as these “weeds” are full of minerals that benefit humans as well.

Don’t do more than you have to; simply provide the basics and let nature do the rest. Starting with the soil, make sure it is well fed and the rest will take care of itself. You’ll notice that even the weeds become fewer, as they crave deficient soils; meaning healthy soils will have fewer weeds. These practices will create a space that will thrive naturally and organically without the use of organic insecticides, or purchased products, leaving more space for you to enjoy your peaceful garden rather than continuing an exhausting and on-going
battle.

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Lasagne Gardening

Don’t want to break your back digging out sod this spring for your new veggie patch? Leave the sod, save your back, seed your vegetables, and be done all of this in just 30 minutes! Sound like a miracle? The best part is that you won’t even loose any of that valuable topsoil in the process. Here’s how:

Chose a site (vegetables love the sun!) and decide on the size of your new garden bed. Make an outline using your hose or a can of spray paint to mark out were your will edge.
Using an edging tool, cut along the line you have chosen, then cut about 6 inches in from that line as well, all the way around. The goal is to cut out a strip of sod that will clearly define the border to stop the grass from growing into your bed. Throw all of the sod you cut into the middle of your new bed.
Cover the inside space of your new bed with wet newspaper (at least 10 pages thick) or brown (not too inky) cardboard collected from the recycling centre.
Add a few inches of “browns”, for example, dead leaves, or raked grass on top of the cardboard, sprinkle with worm castings to help with the decomposition of the cardboard and mulch, then top with 2 inches of compost or top soil.
Seed your above-ground crops. Examples of above ground crops are; lettuce, peas, beans, chard, squash and so on. Next year this bed will be ready for root crops; potatoes, onions, beets and carrots, once the cardboard and sod has broken down into lovely soil.

Easy peasy and done in half an hour! This suits both the lazy gardener, as well as the environmentally conscious one. Digging out sod means all that valuable top soil and biology (worms and microbes) will be hauled to the dump, or if put in your composter will clog it up unnecessarily.

Just get growing!

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Power of the Poop

All good gardening practices start in the soil, so let me offer you a “soilution” today that will benefit every garden from ornamentals to lawns to veggie patches. Add worm castings! This by-product of vermiculture (worm composting) is the beautiful humus and nutrient-dense “black gold” that will boost any soil, in a safe and family/pet-friendly way. Below are my top 5 reasons to add natural product to your home or community garden.

1)Organic Fertilizer. This safe, non-toxic fertilizer helps create balance in any garden. Castings make macro and micro nutrients available to plants in a slow-release format, which is necessary for every garden.
2)Living Biology. Castings add a host of microbes including beneficial bacteria and fungus to your garden, turning your soil into a living organism which thrives due to these symbiotic relationships.
3)Root Mass Increase. Castings offer an incredible amount of humus which is what makes for good soil structure. This sponge-like material prevents soil compaction, making your garden easier to dig and easier for the roots to thrive and grow.
4)Water Retention. 20% castings to soil volume means you can reduce the amount of water you add by 70%, thanks again to all that natural humus.
5)Prevention of Disease/Pests. Instead of using insecticides, and watching as mysterious diseases take over your garden, try the alternative organic approach of boosting your soil’s microbial activity through adding worm castings. In doing so pests and disease will not be able to establish themselves in your garden. Everyone wins!

To give you a visual example of how powerful worm poop is, let me tell you a story about avocado growing. On the internet, if you type in “how to grow an avocado tree” you will get an array of pictures of avocado pits being suspended over glasses or jars of water using toothpicks to hold them in place. The next picture will show pits sprouting, and the next will show some leaves up top with long roots growing below. My kids and I have tried and tried this experiment, to no avail. The pits end up rotting on our counter top and the water turns all sludgy.

On the other hand, when an avocado pit is put in a worm bin, shortly thereafter, it actually does start to sprout. If this pit is then transferred into a pot with some soil it will grow into a tree. We grew one to quite a large size a few years ago, but then drove it out to the coast to donate to my mom. Below are two pictures, on the left our failed experiment, and on the right a new sprout just coming up that was started in our worm bin.

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Nectar-Seeking

imageHere is a bee collecting nectar from a flower. This honeysuckle vine is not designed with bees in mind as its long tubular flower does not accommodate the fuzzy round body of the bumble bee. It has hummingbirds with their long narrow beaks, and butterflies, with their long un-coiling tongues in mind.

This bee, however is undeterred as I watch it nibble little holes near the base of the flower in order to taste the sweet nectar. Nature is truly marvellous as it bends design to accommodate what is needed.

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