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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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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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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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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Paying Attention

BeeI was working in my 82 year old client’s rock garden the other day. It was mid morning, 10 something a.m. and I was sweating already; the day was going to be a scorcher.

It was one of those early summer, longest days of the year mornings in which I woke up from the sun beating in through my east facing window at 5:46 am. I couldn’t possibly sleep another wink with the day being already so clearly in motion.

I began my morning with wandering my backyard garden, and harvesting greens; kale, chard and spinach, which would be added to my breakfast omelette. I was barefoot on the dewy grass, selecting each morsel of food deliberately. A perfect start. The day was ripe for enjoyment.

Fastforward a few hours and there I was I weeding and edging my favourite Calgary garden. Smiling to myself as I started paying attention to the totally goofy creatures that were also feeling  inspired by the infectiously joyful feeling in the air. There was a grey squirrel chattering away with enthusiasm to her buddy in the next spruce tree over. She was chewing her pine cone thoroughly, leaving each husk and core at the base of her home tree in a rough pile for me to clean up later.

There was, what looked like, a partridge family. Little seemingly flightless birds standing as still as possible so as not to be noticed. Stillness being their only defence as bottom of the food chain prey.

My attention was then commanded by even smaller creatures; the humble bumblers. These incredibly noisy yellow and black bees were being altogether silly in their mission to collect pollen. One, wobbly in flight, zoomed in to land on a bright orange poppy, playfully crashing into its buddy. Both bees then tumbled over exposing their pollen-laden hind legs to the sunshine. They rolled around in the cup of this bright poppy for a few charming seconds trying to regain their balance, then they lolly gagged around the flower’s stamen scattering pollen as they went before drunkenly lifting off in search of the next playroom/blossom.

I enjoyed this moment in time as I felt welcomed into a whole new and beautiful world by these bees if only for a moment, it was precious. I got to smile at the playful nature of other creatures revelling in a beautiful summer’s day. I felt I wasn’t the only one grinning my way through the day. I  admired them in their perfect expressions of self. Bees doing bee stuff, which made my thoughts drift as I began to wonder why humans struggle so much with being true to their natures.

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La Piece de Resistance

Or should I have titled this post The “Peace” of Resistance, as amazingly, humans pretend to be in a peaceful state while resisting what life has to offer. Spouting out the old refrain “I am happy, I am happy, I am happy” all the while resisting change and motion for fear of shaking their worlds. I only know this, because it is true for me.

About three months ago I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. With my week-long rest in hospital, and then three following weeks where I had extra support from friends and family, I started to re-negotiate my life’s priorities. I was offered up this moment in time where I could try, at least, to evaluate my life from a new vantage point; from the couch, with my feet up. Being a single mom of three young souls, this was entirely new to me, at least at this stage in my life.

As I mused about my life, and watched the wax-wing birds swoop in and out of my big ol’ mountain ash tree, one of the things that was potentially on the chopping block was my gardening business, as it seemed overwhelming to me. I had filled every last moment of spare time with gardening in other people’s gardens, and this left my general living space chaotic, to say the least. I had this great peaceful escape, and yet my dishes were stacked to the ceiling. I was avoiding my own work, to pursue work in other people’s lives.

So, I thought that perhaps this summer it was time to sell the client list and change gears as there didn’t seem to be any way to avoid working so hard, and yet still not earn enough. I hummed and hawed, and made promises to myself that I would call all my clients soon to tell them I wouldn’t be available this year, but this idea didn’t last for long.

Life tends to have other plans, and ways of redirecting the course, with or without one’s permission. Plans that don’t seem to be one’s own. Plans that one may try to push aside, as one knows what one wants, and it is not what is being presented by the universe. I am stubbornly certain sometimes that I am right. I was at the point, as I lay on the couch watching sparkles of sunlight fill the room, that I wanted more money, and less work.

“Ha!” my sister touted “That’s what everyone wants Chels”. But I can be determined, even when things don’t seem logical, so I sung myself this chorus as I drifted off to sleep.

In early spring I was at a coffee shop with a dear friend, and he introduced me to another friend of his; Chelsea #2. As Chelsea and I started talking she expressed a great desire to learn more about gardening, and I asked her how serious her desire was. Over the course of this “interview” we determined to be the answer to the other person’s dreams, so we exchanged numbers.

Almost in parallel to this occurrence, I started reading a book called You2 (otherwise put; You Squared). The premise being that each human being can only reasonably expect so much in life; one can only work so hard, earn so much money, have so much “success”, etc. So, let us be unreasonable. Let us not expect what seems logical, and let us stretch our wings and take ourselves beyond this box we call logic. New ways of thinking (or in this case not-so-new) have always inspired me. I have failed to believe that 1+1 has to equal 2. Not every time anyway. That would make life too simple, too predictable, and life is clearly not any of the above.

So, I decided to “Square” myself, and quite literally, this is what I did. I employed Chelsea #2. So now gardens were being maintained 4 days/week, 2 of which were being done while I was hanging with my kids, or tidying my own space. Bills were being paid while I took my kids out for a bike ride, or walked them to school. My chorus of “Earn more, work less” was becoming a reality.

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Inspiration

Yes, here it is, my blog, post #1. This will be a simple exploration for me; part of my life experiment, to see where my musings take me, and others perhaps… but not to get ahead of myself.

I was raised amongst a family of agriculturalists, in the middle of a large city. Both my parents, in fact, managed to earn their incomes over the courses of their lives through gardening and farming and various related topics, which seems a bit miraculous considering our northern positioning and our limited 90 days of frost-free weather.

Clearly, miracles are commonplace where I come from.

Fond memories from childhood include picking buckets of rocks out of the garden; this being assigned as punishment for wild behaviour. My sister would not agree (re- the fondness, that is). While this could have been cause for complaint, I found it did not dampen my enthusiasm for the mud and bugs that abounded. Inspiring my sister to seek comfort in a day job, I found those rocks to be a source of inspiration in a much different way.

Whether picking rocks, or weeds, or plucking slugs from pea plants and lettuces, I started early on to use these experiences as a way to attain a certain calm, or to induce a meditative state of sheer joy. To this day I use my garden (and those of others) as a haven when things seem chaotic. My life otherwise being full of kids with their many personalities, and a house that has it’s own highs and lows; needing constant attention in various ways. Gardening, for me, provides a certain balance that I have come to crave and cherish.

I find inspiration when I can feel the cool damp earth under my bare toes, or when i can enjoy the wet early morning dew transfer to my own skin as I harvest baby kale at sun rise. I am awe-struck when a robin accidentally lands only centimetres away from my nose while I weed from under low pine branches. We pause to stare at each other, engaging in a game of “chicken” to see who will flinch first, neither of us wishing to spoil the precious moment.

In my life, I quickly worked out the sanctity of outdoor spaces; wild or cultivated, fruited or barren; and soon discovered that people would happily pay me to linger in their own precious yards while pulling weeds or planting new specimens, cultivating the earth, or trimming old growth. I thrived in these environments, and began collecting a pay check from sincerely grateful clients, much to my sheer amazement!

Good intentioned friends and family have suggested, over the years, that I hire employees, or that I advertise my services, or that I somehow loose the intimacy of what I so preserved;  the one on one with mother nature. The business aspect had never been the motivation however. But, as a dear friend of mine says; “shift happens” and I felt this exact phenomenon unfolding before my very eyes and mud-caked fingernails as I found my basket of time filling, and spilling over. This “perfect niche” began taking on a life of its own; for better, as always.

I thought I was in this for my simple love of the garden… but there is more to my life’s lesson and the initial inspiration after all. Thomas Fuller wrote; “He that would have fruit must climb the tree.” And after years of thinking I was eating the fruit of life, I suddenly realized I had yet to reach any branches.

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