Conifer Conundrum

“What’s the coolest tree that grows in Alberta mom?” asked my 11 year old the other day. His school project involved writing a diary from the perspective of a local tree including details about how it came to grow where it is, a bit about its life and who might use it or abuse it.4042669285_c1681080ba_o

“A larch, because it’s a conifer that looses its needles!” I thought I had nailed it. This is for sure the coolest tree I’m aware of. It looks like an evergreen, feels like an evergreen, grows in forests with evergreens, but it is decidedly deciduous as it sheds its leaves come fall. Which makes for glorious hiking scenery in the mountains in the fall as the yellow larch trees contrast so stunningly with their dark green pine and spruce counterparts.

He seemed to be looking for a racier story line though, as he ended up going with the pine because it benefits from forest fires which helps its cones open and clears the forest so that the pine can grow up in sunshine, not shade, as is required for a pine sapling. Have you ever noticed that pine trees are the first ones on site after a fire? Within 10 years or more spruce then start to appear on scene as well, growing in the shade of the pine trees only to outgrow them and effectively kill them with their shade as the years LodgepolePineCampLollJuly06_046pass.

Or maybe you are like I was a few years ago, and didn’t know one green tree from another. Here are some tips for identifying what’s what among the queens of green!

Spruce trees have Sharp, Stiff and “Square” needles. When you try to roll a spruce needle between your fingers it does so with ease due to this shape. Its sharp and stiff needles though mean planting one can become an extreme sport. Gloves and full protective body gear required!
Firs, on the other hand, are flexible, friendly and have “flat” needles. They are easy to handle with bare hands and their needles can not be rolled between your fingers due to the fact that they are 2 dimensional (flat firs).
Pines are much fluffier looking than either of these other 2 trees. Their long needles come from their branches in clusters of 2, 3 or 5 needles, and their cones are hard as a rocks. Ever wonder why pine nuts are so pricey? Because pine cones are nearly impossible to break into!

IMG_2103These are just 3 of the evergreen trees that grow locally, and within each category there are several varieties. Black, blue and white spruce for example. Lodgepole, Mugo and Scotch pines. But at least now you know a bit more about local native species and can start challenging yourself with tree ID while you are out and about in nature or the city streets.

With “Forest Bathing” being a Dr. prescribed practice these days for its numerous benefits including decreased stress, and heart rate, increased memory, energy and focus, and general feelings of well being and strength, it will benefit you to walk a little closer to trees. Feel their needles (to help with ID) and smell their unique scents which are generally uplifting and calming.

While my 11 year old and I may not agree on what makes a tree “cool”, I encourage you to make up your own mind and look for intricacies that amaze you. And go for a hike in the fall looking for those larch gems while bathing in the forest freshness!



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


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:

Cabbage Family

Brussels Sprouts


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!