CBC The Homestretch's tweet of our first check-in segment

In-Garden Interview with CBC Radio’s The Homestretch – First Check-In

Tracy Fuller, the Director and an Associate Producer of CBC’s The Homestretch, came out to visit us in our garden and do her first check-in of the season.

We’re currently working out our summer schedule for future check-ins, but it looks like they’ll be trying to connect with me bi-weekly, and check in with Chelsie Anderson on the opposite weeks.

Speaking of Chelsie, here’s her interview from last week with tips on getting started with gardens in and around the May long weekend timeframe.

Covered Transplants, All Cozy in their Beds!
Transplanted Tomatoes (c) Julie Leung

The Tomato Transplant and Near-Beheading

At our last Grow Food Calgary class, Donna showed us a method of transplanting tomatoes by cutting almost all the side branches off, and laying them on their side in the garden bed. From what I gather, this is not a typical transplant method and she encouraged us to try it with the tomato plants she gave each of us. Apparently, once laying in the soil, a root system will sprout all along the bare stem.

Plastic Sheeting and Metal Stakes
Plastic Sheeting and Metal Stakes

Donna also talked to us about the benefit of using plastic sheeting against the soil where the tomatoes are planted, to keep the soil warm and increase the chances of success for the tomato plants. She had brought a sample of some red sheeting with perforations that let in moisture, and metal stakes that keep the plastic down. I recall that the red plastic is useful because it reflects appropriate wavelengths of light that are helpful to the plant.

Tomato Transplanting in 5 Easy Steps

This is how we did our tomato transplant!

Step 1: Clip the Side Branches Off

Carefully cut side branches along the main stem off, leaving the top section intact.

Cutting off Side Branches in Preparation for Transplanting Sideways
Cutting off Side Branches in Preparation for Transplanting Sideways

For us it was fairly easy to identify what to cut and what to leave, because the plants were both starting to flower at the top.

Cutting Nearly to the Top
Cutting Nearly to the Top

My understanding is that adventitious roots will grow from every part of the buried stem, and that each branch draws energy away from the flowering portion at the top, so I decided to cut off nearly every side branch and only leave a little bit at the top.

Of course, I happily put the cuttings into my compost!

Step 2: Soak the Root Ball

Tip the tomato plant upside down and gently get the plant out of its starter pot. Dip the root ball (the clump of dirt that used to be in the pot) in a bucket of water to thoroughly wet it before transplanting, to give the plant a good start once in the bed. Embarrassingly, we forgot about this step! I only remembered once I looked at my notes from class, before typing up this post.

Oops! Insert “Bad Newbie Garden Blogger” badge here!

Step 3: Lay the Plant into Garden Bed Sideways

Dig up a space for the tomato plant in the garden bed the same length as the height of the tomato transplant.

Remove the tomato plant from its starter pot, and lay it sideways down into the garden bed, like it is reclining in its comfy soil bed.

Laying Tomato Plants Down Sideways in Garden Plot
Laying Tomato Plants Down Sideways in Garden Plot

Cover the transplants with soil, being careful to gently bend the tip up above the soil surface.

Tomato Plants Looking a Bit Like Beachgoers Buried in the Sand!
Tomato Plants Looking a Bit Like Beachgoers Buried in the Sand!

Step 4: Prepare the Plastic Sheeting

Cut an appropriately-sized section of the plastic sheeting. We decided to try to cover the entire surface of soil where the stem was buried.

An "X" for the Slit
An “X” for the Slit
Cutting a Slit into Plastic Sheeting
Cutting a Slit into Plastic Sheeting

Cut holes in the plastic sheeting to allow the tips of the transplants to come out. Make sure you cut an “X” instead of just a slit. Donna mentioned that if you just cut a slit and put the plant through, whenever there is wind, the slit can act like a little guillotine slicing into the plant stem.

Step 5: Lay Sheeting on Soil Surface and Stake

Lay the plastic sheeting against the soil surface, and carefully bring the top / exposed part of the transplant through the “X” slit in the plastic. Stake the plastic down. Here we are using 2 metal stakes that Donna gave to us for the back (these work really well!) and the popsicle stick labels that came with each plant, to stake the front.

Covered Transplants, All Cozy in their Beds!
Covered Transplants, All Cozy in their Beds!

The Near-Beheading

At this point, both our plants were happy. I didn’t notice until the next day that I think some of that guillotine-like action occurred on the transplant on the right (the ISIS variety, which produces a yellow cherry tomato). I think it occurred during our watering time right after transplant and staking the plastic down. The tip had made its way into the bottom left portion of the “X” slit, and we allowed our son to water the garden and the new transplants while we tidied up. We usually set the nozzle to something gentle, but I think our son was a bit overzealous, and likely the pressure and motion applied to the exposed stem caused it to move around the slit in a guillotine-like action.

The stem is quite weakened, like it was partially snapped. However, it’s still connected and will be unless and until the top portion dies. I am still holding out hope that in its zeal to live, the plant will heal itself, or if the tip gets disconnected, it will form roots into the soil or the existing stem will grow a new tip.

It may be wishful thinking, but I’ve seen some pretty determined plants who have a surprising will to live!

The Near-Beheading of one of my Transplants.  Will the weakened stem heal itself?
The Near-Beheading of one of my Transplants. Will the weakened stem heal itself?

Penance

Just in case, I’m doing a form of penance by having started 2 tomato seeds (seeds from Donna Balzer that I “cleaned” during our first session) in the starter pots that these two transplants vacated. Those pots are at my “inside garden station” on the heat mat now! They’ll be transplanted to the garden after they become strong seedlings, and hopefully won’t suffer the same absent-minded newbie gardener fate!

Dandelion
Dandelion on My Lawn (c) Julie Leung

The Temptation to Spray

I have been battling with dandelions for nearly 20 years, since I first became a homeowner. My approach has evolved over the decades from unreservedly and liberally using herbicides to various shades of manually managing them by pulling, mowing, or otherwise “natural” methods of controlling them. We moved to our current house when my son was a baby and have mostly tried to control the dandelion weed population by natural methods here.

Over the years, I have amassed many different dandelion pulling gadgets, but this one, handed down to me by family friends of my parents, remains the simplest and typically most effective.
Over the years, I have amassed many different dandelion pulling gadgets, but this one, handed down to me by family friends of my parents, remains the simplest and typically most effective.

Every year, I struggle with the temptation to spray the lawn and be done with it. And every year, I instead opt to try something new in my quest to manage my dandelion problem without using harsh herbicides. This reluctance is shared by a growing number of people, as we discover that the “quick and easy” chemical solutions our parents were sold on actually have underlying and often long-standing and extensive consequences or that “Better Living Through Chemistry” is not always true. My journey to this conviction was no different.

What’s My Problem With Herbicides?

2,4-D and glyphosate are arguably the most commonly-used herbicides (marketed under a number of trade names). 2,4-D is commonly used for dandelion control because it is selective to broadleaf weeds but leaves grass alone. The mechanism of action for 2,4-D is death caused by uncontrolled growth. Um, that’s basically the definition of cancer. The mechanism of action for glyphosate is inhibition of the synthesis of 3 amino acids which are needed for protein synthesis and synthesis of compounds necessary for cell replication and metabolism: very basically, inhibition of processes necessary for life.

Yet, the research is contradictory. Even amongst international agencies, there is disagreement. In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as “probably” carcinogenic to humans and 2,4-D as “possibly” carcinogenic to humans. Other branches of the WHO later ruled (2016) that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans through diet, and the EPA had earlier (2007) ruled that existing data do not show a link between 2,4-D and cancer. There are also arguments that these compounds affect plant biochemical pathways only and don’t have the same effects on mammals. Fair enough. But not having the same effects does not necessarily mean not having any adverse effects.

My thought process about the dangers of herbicidal sprays is much simpler and goes something like this:

Stated simply, something that does not naturally occur in nature and significantly alters the biochemical pathways of a living thing to the extent that the living thing is killed, cannot be good for humans.

When I look through the discoveries made even in the past 40 years, for example, time and again we have discovered that something we once thought was safe and had no effect, actually has long-standing and serious consequences for animal populations and ultimately us. Look at what we have discovered about PCBs, DDT, and Dioxins. About pesticides we once thought only impacted animals (and who cares about them, right? sigh) but had no deleterious effects on humans. About the impact on aquatic life (and, if you follow my blog, ultimately on humans too!) of seemingly harmless compounds like detergents and phosphates. About all the things that work in fine balance in our ecosystem, that are disrupted when even just one thin arm of that ecosystem is taken out. And in my specific case, given my convictions about the negative and largely unrecognized effects of detergents, I am particularly hesitant to spray herbicides because they often contain detergents to break the surface tension of the liquid and help spread the spray.

And Yet, I’m Still Tempted to Spray

After having said all that, I admit that I am still tempted to spray. Every year, at around this time when the dandelions are at their busiest; when I spend an hour of back-breaking (literally, my back and knees ache after I’m done) work picking dandelions, and come back the next morning to discover even more dandelions have now flowered, like I made absolutely no dent in them; when I dig a big, thick dandelion and discover an indentation in the ground where it is growing and realize I’ve dug this same one year over year and it made no long-lasting difference; when I stand up after an hour thinking “that’s enough for now, I need to move on with my day” and can still see dozens of untouched dandelion bodies that haven’t flowered yet; when I finish in the front yard and then realize I still need to tackle the back yard; when everyday in May and early June my precious spare time is spent digging dandelions rather than tending my garden, writing my blog, or enjoying time with my children; when I cannot shake the growing feeling that I’ve been doing this “natural thing” all wrong and am probably making the dandelion problem worse with my actions … I am tempted to spray.

So many dandelions on my lawn.  This patch is particularly bad because it was poorly dug up by me in the past.  My heart sinks after I spend an hour meticulously pulling weeds only to see several more flower the next day.
So many dandelions on my lawn. This patch is particularly bad because it was poorly dug up by me in the past. My heart sinks after I spend an hour meticulously pulling weeds only to see several more flower the next day.

Maybe I can just spray one year to once and for all kill all the buried taproots, and then go back to my natural solutions, I think. Maybe I can just spray at the end of the season when the kids aren’t on the lawn, I think. Maybe I can just spray the front and never let the kids play on it, relegating them to our backyard, I think. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

This year, I haven’t given into my temptation to spray yet. Like every year past, this year I have decided to step up my natural efforts and, armed with better knowledge, see if this is the year that I will get the advantage over these dandelions in a safe, natural way.

All The Natural Approaches I’ve Tried

Just a recounting of all the approaches I’ve tried in the past is dizzying:

  • Merely plucking the heads off the dandelions so at least they don’t go to seed and spread
  • Mowing frequently so the dandelions don’t get a chance to go to seed
  • Spraying them with various concentrations of vinegar
  • Spraying them with some combination of home-made vinegar, salt and detergent solution
  • Digging them
  • Digging them, filling the indentation with soil, re-seeding with grass
  • Attempting to outcompete the weeds with grass by improving grass health: leaving lawn clippings on the lawn after mowing, re-seeding the entire surface of the lawn with grass seed
  • Spreading corn meal gluten all over the lawn as a pre-emergence treatment (prevents seeds from taking root)
  • Adding fertilizer to the lawn early in the season and at the end of the season in an attempt to strengthen the lawn to outcompete the dandelions
This year, instead of making a homemade vinegar / salt / detergent spray, I thought I would try to boil down leftover pickle juice to make a super-concentrated spray.  Did you know that pickle juice has vinegar and salt, and yes -- even detergents (polysorbate80) in it?  I squirted this into the hole leftover after I picked some dandelions, but I'm not convinced it is strong enough to kill the taproot.  The next day, some of the grass around the dent was yellowed, which tells me it's working on some level -- just maybe not the level I need!
This year, instead of making a homemade vinegar / salt / detergent spray, I thought I would try to boil down leftover pickle juice to make a super-concentrated spray. Did you know that pickle juice has vinegar and salt, and yes — even detergents (polysorbate80) in it? I squirted this into the hole leftover after I picked some dandelions, but I’m not convinced it is strong enough to kill the taproot. The next day, some of the grass around the dent was yellowed, which tells me it’s working on some level — just maybe not the level I need!

I Realized I Was Inadvertently Making the Problem Worse!

This year I’ve been working on my dandelion problem with a bit more knowledge under my belt (both from concepts discussed in our Grow Food Calgary class and reading on my own). That knowledge combined with continuing to see that I’m digging the same old places year after year, and that some of the biggest, most gangly dandelions come out of the same old places, I now actually think my past actions have made the problem worse. Here’s why.

  • When I merely plucked the heads off before they seeded, or relied on mowing to control the dandelion problem, I was actually dead-heading the dandelions. Just like we would dead-head our basil plant to encourage more bushy growth, I was pretty much doing this to my dandelions. No wonder there are many that are just so thick, wide, and have so many flowering heads!
  • When I dug them, I often did not dig deep enough to get the entire taproot out, so in subsequent years, the dandelion came back in the same place, with an increasingly stronger and more extensive taproot to support it
  • When I used homemade sprays or very concentrated vinegar solutions, all I ended up doing was killing the grass around the dandelion too. I don’t think these sprays are strong enough to get to the root to kill it, so I was just leaving a dead spot ready for new dandelion seeds to take root, in addition to the re-emergence of the old plant from the left-over taproot
  • When I dug them and filled the dent with soil and then reseeded grass seed, I filled with very poor quality, dead dirt. It was the cheapest stuff we could find at the store and had big chunks of unbroken woody bits. The fact that I’ve usually left the taproot in the ground and tried to grow grass seed on top of that, and in dead dirt that doesn’t support growth, to boot … is it any wonder this didn’t work?
In the past, I didn't dig deeply enough to get the whole taproot out.  In past years, I thought getting out something like the dandelion on the right was enough, but in fact the taproot goes much deeper, as seen in the dandelion on the left.  I've changed my approach recently, but my I'm disappointed and a little desperate when a dandelion breaks off like on the right, and I know I've left a big root in the ground.
In the past, I didn’t dig deeply enough to get the whole taproot out. In past years, I thought getting out something like the dandelion on the right was enough, but in fact the taproot goes much deeper, as seen in the dandelion on the left. I’ve changed my approach recently, but I’m disappointed and become even a little desperate when a dandelion breaks off like on the right, and I know I’ve left a big root in the ground.

What I’m Trying This Year

So this year I am going to try to actually dig out the full taproot. This takes a lot more time and effort, and many times I worry that I’ve left small branch offshoots or even the very end of the taproot in place. When the root comes out and I see the white latex-like bleeding from parts of the root, my heart sinks. I think there’ll be another dandelion there next year, just hopefully smaller.

A recent pull where I could see the bleeding latex-like substance from the root and know I've left some of the root in the ground and that there will be another dandelion coming up in the same spot next year, just hopefully smaller.
A recent pull where I could see the bleeding latex-like substance from the root and know I’ve left some of the root in the ground and that there will be another dandelion coming up in the same spot next year, just hopefully smaller.

Earlier in the season, I thought to squirt some of my concentrated pickle solution down the hole. I’m not convinced this actually helps, and then I’m also putting detergent on my lawn where my kids play and killing lawn around the hole, no matter how carefully I squirt this stuff. I probably won’t continue with this.

My next step will be to cover the indents with corn meal gluten to prevent seeds from taking root in the exposed dirt/dent. After some time and this has broken down a bit, maybe I’ll re-seed the dent with grass seed — only after putting some good quality soil into the dent first! I’m not actually sure whether I should prioritize putting down the corn meal gluten or soil/grass seed. I’m not sure how long to wait after putting down the corn meal gluten to try to re-seed, either.

From what I’ve learned in my gardening class, theoretically I should also be able to encourage a healthy lawn by sprinkling good quality soil, finished compost, worm castings and maybe even the compost liquid from a worm farm, onto the lawn and then reseeding with grass seed. I’m not ready for that yet because I need to prioritize using those amendments for my garden soil first.

And Yet, Back to the Temptation to Spray

But before all that will really work, I think I need to get the existing dandelion problem with all the thick and extensive taproots that are already in place below ground, under control first! Now that I’m hopefully not making the problem worse by dead-heading the dandelions and leaving large chunks of taproots in the ground, will it eventually get better and better every year? Will it be another several years of back-breaking work before I gain the upper hand on the dandelions? Sure makes me consider spraying — just once, just one year. Then, I think, I can start with a clean slate. The internal debate just never ends!

IMG_1320
Tomato and Chive Plants from Grow Food Calgary's 2nd Session (c) Julie Leung

Exciting new seeds and plants!

I’ve just returned from our 2nd Grow Food Calgary session. Through the next weeks, I’ll be blogging short snippets of the ways I’m putting into practise what we learned.

For now, just wanted to send a shout out to the Wildrose Heritage Seed company for their donation of 3 seed packets to each of the participants in Grow Food Calgary!

Seed packets donated by Wildrose Heritage Seed to Grow Food Calgary participants
Seed packets donated by Wildrose Heritage Seed to Grow Food Calgary participants

I first saw their seeds when I was at the store Garden Retreat last week. I had a couple choices when I was looking for cilantro seed for my windowsill indoor herb planter. Wildrose’s beautiful foil packaging with the printed labels just drew me to take a closer look at their display.
Their boast of being a local, heritage seed that is GMO free sold me. I’ve planted their cilantro indoors and it’s coming up already.

Cilantro seeds I planted in my indoor windowsill herb planter
Cilantro seeds I planted in my indoor windowsill herb planter

Today we also each received a tomato plant (various varieties) from Donna, and onions from Shelley’s garden. For the tomatoes, I chose the Juliet variety which is a roma grape tomato, and Gideon the Isis variety which are yellow cherry tomatoes (our daughter especially loves yellow cherry tomatoes so we figured we wouldn’t go wrong with this variety). I had heard that tomatoes can be hard to grow for beginner gardeners and hadn’t planned on trying (especially not from seed) outdoors this year, but now that I have plants given to me, I have to try! I will blog later about how we’re going to transplant these tomatoes into our outdoor plot with a technique I learned today.

Tomato plants and chives from our class leaders, destined for transplant into our garden
Tomato plants and chives from our class leaders, destined for transplant into our garden

Now I have 3 different varieties of kale: 2 plants from Chelsie that I’m “hardening” over the week and will be transplanted soon, seeds from Donna that I’ve already planted directly, and the Wildrose Heritage seeds. It will be interesting to grow all 3 kinds and see how they look and taste different. It will also be interesting to plant the Wildrose carrots alongside of some carrot seeds we received from Hellman’s (yes, the mayonnaise people) of all places, and see how they compare.

My Indoor Cove for Seedlings and Microgreens
My Indoor "Garden Station" for Seedlings and Microgreens (c) Julie Leung

The First 2 Weeks of Newbie Gardening

It’s been a busy first 2 weeks in our garden since our first Grow Food Calgary class on April 22. In the first 2 weeks since the class ended, I’ve created a small indoor garden area in front of 2 large west-facing windows in my kitchen where I’m nurturing 2 kale seedlings destined for transplant outdoors, experimenting with pea shoot and wheatgrass microgreens, and growing basil, cilantro and dill. My kids have 2 sunflower seedlings also growing in the window sill which are destined for transplant outdoors, too.

We have created a second garden plot along the north side of our backyard which is south-facing and gets lots of sun, as well as livened up the soil in our existing garden plot on the south wall of our house by mixing in some nearly finished compost, topped it up with garden soil, and covered with leaves and grass clippings. We’ve planted some shallot sets, garlic, carrot seeds, beet seeds, jerusalem artichokes, and Linzer Delicatess fingerling potatoes in our existing plot, and a few rows of lettuce seeds in our new plot. We have 2 Root Pouches on the rocks beside our new garden plot which contain Blue Mac, Agria and Russian Blue potato varieties.

Our 2nd garden plot, created within the last 2 weeks using cardboard, browns from our yard, finished compost, worm castings and topsoil
Our 2nd garden plot, created within the last 2 weeks using cardboard, browns from our yard, finished compost, worm castings and topsoil

Our First Class

All of this activity was spawned by the things I learned in my first Grow Food Calgary class. In this post, I’ll talk about the concepts that influenced me the most.

We received a number of goodies at our first class which I’ve used in this first 2 weeks: Renee’s Lettuce Babies seeds, seed potatoes from Eagle Creek Farms, Root Pouches, Donna Balzer’s No Guff Gardening book, starter size of Worm Castings from Chelsie’s Gardens, transplanted pea and basil plants, 2 starter kale seedlings, kale, lettuce and tomato seeds from Donna Balzer, and a small container of planted pea seeds that I am trying to grow as microgreens.

Goodies from first Grow Food Calgary session
Goodies from first Grow Food Calgary session

Soil vs. Dirt

In the first session, we learned to differentiate between dirt and soil. Soil is living, full of beneficial microbes and nutrients and minerals. Without living, beneficial organisms, we simply have dirt. A lot of “soil” mixes sold at stores say they are sterilized, which means that they have been treated in some way to kill off all the living things in the soil. These types of “soil” would not support as successful growth as a living soil that has had biological matter such as finished compost and worm castings (worm “poo” which contains beneficial bacteria and nutrients). The main message I heard during this session was that we should focus on feeding the soil and making it better and supportive for plant life, instead of focusing on feeding our plants. I learned that any soil can be amended to make it better, supportive of the living things growing in it. So we can start with soil that is less than optimal (theoretically we could even start with dirt!), and through careful treatment like adding finished compost, adding worm castings or compost tea (the liquid drippings from a worm compost), and even planting green manure (sort of “throw away”) plants on the off-season that concentrate sugars in their roots and sustain microbes already in the soil, or fix nitrogen, and can be tilled into the soil to function as organic matter, we can incrementally make the soil better.

It became very clear what a difference healthy soil can make on plant health and growth. Chelsie showed us photos of plants from last season grown in different soils. Two of the same type of plant had been planted on the same day and subjected to the same environmental conditions. One was grown in Chelsie’s regular garden soil that had been continually amended while the other plant was grown in a commercially-available “gardening soil” purchased from a large garden supply outfit or a big box store. The plants in the commercially-available gardening soil had thinner stalks, were paler, and one type of plant didn’t even fully develop by the end of the growing season when compared to the plants grown in Chelsie’s amended soil.

We talked about Chelsie’s concept of “natural gardening”, and there was a focus on how it is unnecessary to use chemical treatments and additives (like fertilizers, as an example) to make a garden successful, and that many of the horticultural methods we have come to believe are necessary, were only made so when large-scale farming became the norm. In our personal gardens, it is possible and optimal to utilize natural methods of feeding the soil to grow healthy plants. This way of thinking is really opposite to the way most of us have been socialized. Even yesterday, a friend told me she felt it was time again to change out the dirt in her garden pots and planters because the dirt had been exhausted and was not longer supporting good growth. I told her I’d learned that instead of continually throwing out the base and replacing with totally new soil, she could instead focus on amending the existing soil to restore life to it, and make it more supportive of good plant growth.

Our existing garden plot, now amended with our own nearly-finished compost, worm castings, and cover of browns from our yard
Our existing garden plot, now amended with our own nearly-finished compost, worm castings, and cover of browns from our yard

True Reuse and Recycling!

One of the repeated themes through the first session and in the reading I’ve been doing in Donna’s book is the value of finished compost for amending soil. Typically, browns (grass clippings, leaves) need to be mixed in with compost in order to make finished compost. Unfortunately, because I have an inefficient outdoor composter that is hard to “turn” and freezes solid in the winter thereby arresting all biological activity for more than half the year, I was always hard-pressed to use up our many leaves bagged every fall and spring.

I want to find a way to create finished compost faster, so that I can constantly feed my soil. The allure of becoming totally “self-sustaining” with little need to continually buy more “product” from the big box stores, is extremely attractive to me. I could create finished compost faster by purchasing a better composter (one that can be turned more easily, though these can be expensive), or adding more beneficial microbes such as worm castings (but these are also expensive unless I produce my own by starting a worm farm). Speeding up the rate that I produce finished compost would enable me to consume my fallen leaves or grass clippings faster, and thus use up everything that my yard produces — with much less organic matter going to waste. I am considering setting up an indoor vermicompost (a worm farm) later in the summer so that I can more quickly work through the organic “wastes” (vegetable and fruit peelings, egg shells, etc.) that leave my kitchen, have this working even through winter when the outdoor compost is frozen, and produce worm castings to boot. I was heartened by a story Donna told about how she was going away for 5 weeks and was concerned about feeding her worms. She said they are not like “regular pets”, so it’s hard to explain to a housesitter how to care for them. So, in partial desperation and partially as an experiment, she decided to put a whole turkey carcass that had already been boiled for stock, and the mushy vegetables (mire poix) that accompanied it, into the vermicompost. When she returned 5 weeks later, the worms had faithfully devoured everything: only 1 bone could be found untouched!

Sobering Observations on Effects of Even Minute Amounts of Herbicides

Donna showed us a picture of a deformed tomato plant that she grew in soil that she was forced to conclude had traces of the selective herbicide clopyralid, which is used throughout rural Alberta. I cannot remember the exact details, but I believe that the soil had been amended with finished compost, where the browns (e.g. straw, hay) input to the compost was the likely culprit that had contact with this herbicide. It was sobering that traces of this herbicide had made it both through biological breakdown during composting and being diluted with existing soil, and yet could still deform the tomato plants growing in that soil. Donna later told me that soil tests measure herbicides in parts per million, so soil tests may not show an herbicide presence, whereas plants respond to concentrations of parts per billion. This was a very sobering illustration of the hidden dangers of herbicide and pesticide residues, and that even trace amounts can be carried upwards in the food chain.

Creating Our New Garden Plot

I had wanted to learn how to best create additional garden plots in our yard. I wasn’t sure if we should build a large wooden frame to contain my new plot. What I learned was it’s not necessary to build a planter, and that the best and simplest way to create a plot is to allow the garden plot to eventually “connect” with the soil on / under the lawn. It was suggested to me to lay some wet newspaper or cardboard on the section of lawn that I want to create the plot on, which would function as a barrier to the grass (basically kill the grass underneath the plot), but still eventually biodegrade and allow the garden soil to connect to the soil under the lawn. On top of this cardboard, layer on 6-8 inches of browns (leaves, grass clippings), followed by 1 inch of finished compost, then 2-5 cm of topsoil. I could add worm castings as desired to inoculate the mixture with beneficial microbes which, along with the finished compost, would help with the decomposition of the browns. The first year, we would plant only shallow-rooted plants like lettuces, beans, and kale (no root vegetables), and the plot would become rich, living soil over time, the thick layer of browns eventually decomposing to become part of the soil. In the second year, we should be have enough depth to plant root vegetables or otherwise use this plot as a “regular” plot.

Laying down cardboard for the base of our 2nd garden plot
Laying down cardboard for the base of our 2nd garden plot
Laying final layer of topsoil on top of compost and browns
Laying final layer of topsoil on top of compost and browns

We needed to buy topsoil, and decided to source some Black Garden Soil from Eagle Lake on Chelsie’s recommendation. These are the “Big Yellow Bag” people. I purchased a bag of worm castings from Chelsie, and used up nearly all of our compost from our outdoor composter. It wasn’t 100% finished compost, with the odd egg shell or orange rind still showing, but it was close enough, and the beneficial microbes in it and the worm castings would, I hope, continue working and breaking down through the summer. It felt really good to be able to nearly empty our compost pile that has been breaking down more or less for 3 years. Now, just to move my future piles along more quickly!

Microgreens Experiment

The last very interesting endeavour I am working on is an tray of microgreens. I had pea shoots growing from seed that had been sowed during our first class, as well as a few lone seedlings that Donna had started and we had transplanted in the first class. Pea shoots are a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, and it is hard to find truly fresh, young, tender shoots. I decided to try to grow a thick layer of pea shoots in a new tray. I even purchased a heat mat to try to speed the germination of these peas. It took only about 1-2 days for germination with my heat mat. I am hoping to grow enough in my new tray to be able to actually make a dish of stir-fried garlic pea shoots. So far, I’ve only harvested some smaller bits from the original shoots from class for my lunch. Half of this sandwich was from conventional, store-bought ingredients and half from my own little indoor garden or local farmers (eggs are from free-run organic chickens and farmers we’ve known for 5 years). I think the lunch tasted extra delicious because I had grown a portion of it myself!

First Harvest of the Season: Pea shoot microgreens in my lunch pita!
First Harvest of the Season: Pea shoot microgreens in my lunch pita!

Second Class Coming Up!

Our second session is this coming weekend. I am looking forward to reporting my progress back to my teachers and my class, and getting additional feedback and questions answered, as well as learning new things. Onward!

Basil Pea Shoots Windowsill
Basil and Pea Shoot Seedlings Growing on my Windowsill (c) Julie Leung

Why Gardening?

In my post “How Eczema Made Me a Granola Mom“, I talked about how the journey of solving my children’s eczema changed me. Among the things I became convicted about was the importance of knowing where our food comes from and how it is processed before it gets to our table. I set out initially to understand if detergents had been used in the processing of our food, but soon realized I could not then ignore whether pesticides or herbicides had been used too.

Our Previously Haphazard Approach to Gardening

In our quest to better understand and have control over how our food was grown and processed, we established relationships with organic farmers to source some of our food, including buying a share in a community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) vegetable farm for a season. My husband and I also started trying to grow our own vegetables in the existing garden plot in our yard, and to more intentionally harvest from an existing apple tree and raspberry bushes. We had some minor success with our vegetables and fruit, but we were far from being very informed or intentional in our gardening. I felt that the success we did have was not directly related to anything special we had done, since we tended to have a “plant, mostly forget, try to remember to water, and see what shows up at the end of the season” approach — what experts would kindly refer to as “low input” gardening. Over the last few years, this approach has increasingly meant that we pretty much only plant potatoes that need very little preparation and ongoing care, and that whatever we harvest is “bonus”, meaning that we don’t rely on that harvest to actually feed ourselves to any great extent! And more importantly, I was pretty sure that in the cases where we were unsuccessful — such as the puny, few, and not-very-tasty beets we harvested the first year, or the peas that were overcompeted by potato plants and wilted within a few weeks of sprouting — were surely a direct result of something we had not done right.

This haphazard approach to gardening went on for a few years. My experience implementing solveeczema and all the related learning I’ve done tells me I am capable of processing large amounts of data and doing insane amounts of work if I am sufficiently motivated (or, as I was at the worst of my kids’ unrelenting eczema, feeling sufficiently desperate and hopeless). But, wading through reams of gardening how-to data from various sources, and trying to determine what advice works for our climate, preferences, desired vegetables and level of effort through trial-and-error was just not something I had much inclination to do. I asked some agriculturalists with the City if they had a “beginner gardener’s course” to hand-hold people through the how to’s, and they suggested I join the local horticultural society, attend meetings and ask pointed questions. In short: much more self-directed effort than I was willing to do to become a gardener, especially on the heels of what I had just finished implementing in detergent-removal and problem-solving for the eczema. So, my approach to gardening continued to be arbitrary and saddled with the nagging feeling of someday wanting to get more focused, intentional and informed.

Discovering Grow Food Calgary

In February, I found out about an immersive gardening program called Grow Food Calgary being launched in the spring. It is a collaboration between 3 women — all gardeners, 2 of whom are expert gardeners for whom horticulture is a professional endeavour. Their mission is to teach people how to be successful vegetable gardeners by walking with beginner gardeners through this year’s growing season (6 sessions, averaging one per month, from April to October). What I found attractive about this 7 month program is that it would give me the impetus and opportunity to actually work on my garden through the season with these access to these experts. I know from experience that if the course was just 6 classroom sessions over a week, I would have too much inertia to actually then apply my “head knowledge” to actively working on and expanding my existing garden.

My Newbie Gardening Journey to be Followed by CBC Radio

Just after my registration in the course, through a series of events I was connected to CBC’s The Homestretch radio program. They plan to follow my “newbie gardening” journey through the season.

Here is the first CBC radio segment that I was on, alongside Chelsie Anderson, one of the gardening experts and course leaders.

Taking a Detour to Blog about My Gardening Journey

I plan to blog about my journey here alongside of CBC’s check-ins on the radio. I don’t want to regurgitate what I am learning in my course on the blog per se, but rather reflect on the implications of what I am learning and talk about how it is being implemented in our garden. Blogging about gardening is a bit of a departure from my regular topics about eczema and food allergy, but I hope this will be an enjoyable and engaging detour!

Stay tuned for weekly updates of my gardening journey and links to subsequent CBC radio segments. Feel free to leave me comments and questions about this journey, too. Happy Spring!