Zucchini Flower
Zucchini Flower deep inside the Zucchini "Bush" (c) Julie Leung

A Garden Teeming with Life (and 3 CBC Radio Check-Ins!)

I’ve been really busy the last month, so haven’t been posting as much as I want. I still plan to post about the indoor pests, and I would like to get back to what this blog was initially put up to write about — allergies, eczema and asthma!

I plan to write a summary of my ponderings and convictions about how synthetic detergents now common in our modern environments are a largely unrecognized cause of eczema, a great contributor to asthma, and because of its involvement in eczema, also connected to food allergy development. But that’ll be coming up closer to the end of the summer.

For now, here are some current pictures of my garden as well as 3 of my recent garden check-ins with CBC Radio The Homestretch. Enjoy!

Cilantro, Lettuce, Tomatoes (Including the Zombie!), Kale, and Volunteer Squash Plant from Unfinished Compost
Cilantro, Lettuce, Tomatoes (Including the Zombie!), Kale, and Volunteer Squash Plant from Unfinished Compost

4th Garden Check-In with CBC Radio: Everything Takes Off!

Potatoes that are overrunning the garden.  Once we installed drip irrigation on a regular timer, the plants just took off!
Potatoes that are overrunning the garden. Once we installed drip irrigation on a regular timer, the plants just took off!

5th Garden Check-In with CBC Radio: Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes!

2 zucchini plants that started as seedlings and just grew, and grew, and grew ...
2 zucchini plants that started as seedlings and just grew, and grew, and grew …

6th Garden Check-In with CBC Radio: Bushy Zucchini plants and New Seedlings

A Pleasant Surprise!

I was delighted to discover that the numerous flying insects buzzing around, which I feared were wasps, are actually bumble bees! They seem to be especially enamoured with this mystery shrub growing in the back of our yard. I’m so happy that my yard is teeming with life: ants, slugs, moths, caterpillars, bumblebees, even if some of them become pests and destroy some of my plants. It is a great testament to the ecosystem that we all share together, that my produce is safe (free of pesticides), and that I am supporting the very threatened bee populations with my yard. Even if some small bites on my produce has been feeding these guests, I’m OK with it. I figure it’s me playing a small part in supporting this lively, bio-diverse living space!

Bumblebees Enamoured with Flowers on this Shrub.  Go pollinators!
Bumblebees Enamoured with Flowers on this Shrub. Go pollinators!
Top of tomato plant that was sheared off by wind, back to life in new soil - the Zombie Tomato! (c) Julie Leung

Hilling Potatoes, Flowering Shallots and the Zombie Tomato – 3rd CBC Radio check-in

Here’s the link to my 3rd in-garden check-in with CBC’s The Homestretch.

This time around, we talked about something called “hilling” potatoes to encourage greater numbers of tubers, I had a question about whether I should pinch off the stalks on my shallots that looked like they were going to flower, and we talked about how the transplanted tomato which was blown clear across the yard, came back to life thanks to my husband. It has affectionately been termed by Tracy Fuller as the “zombie tomato”.

The Homestretch's Tweet Announcing Second In-Garden Check-In

Wind Troubles & Garden Envy – 2nd CBC Radio check-in

I’m a little late to post, but here’s a quick entry with the link to my second in-garden check-in with The Homestretch on CBC Radio.

It aired last Friday. We talked about wind troubles (what was the fate of my tomato plant with the weakened neck?), garden envy and the conundrum a newbie gardener is sure to face in having difficulty differentiating between seedlings and weeds when the green stuff starts coming up in the garden.

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.

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!


Detergent the culprit for boy’s “chemical burns” from school bathroom

I saw this very disturbing article this afternoon: Boy, 7, suffers chemical burns using school bathroom. 2 weeks ago, the boy sat on a toilet seat which had been cleaned with a harsh disinfectant, in his school bathroom. Later in the day, he noticed a rash resembling a sunburn on his legs. Then shortly after, the skin on his legs began to “ooze and bubble”. His mother says he missed nearly 2 weeks of school and was in so much pain he was unable to wear pants for 11 days. Other sources indicate additional children were impacted to varying degrees. Based on the description of what happened to this boy’s skin, how quickly it occurred, and how long he suffered, I wondered right away if the cleaning product contained detergents. I always have a heavy burden in my heart when I see news like this, because detergents are a largely unrecognized causation of skin rashes and eczema, and most who are aware are largely resistant to the concept that detergents, which are ubiquitous in our modern environments, could affect all of us negatively in some way, even if only “mildly” by causing dry skin and not severely as causing eczema or making asthma worse as for some. I almost hoped that detergents weren’t the culprit in this case, so I could escape that familiar burden to blog about it, post to Facebook about it, and tell everyone I could about it … so I wouldn’t perpetuate the notion that I’m on that “crazy detergent arc again” from those that don’t fully understand or simply don’t care. I and my children have been adversely affected by detergents, and found a solution for the ensuing relentless eczema, dry skin, and even reduced the severity of my asthma — things we’ve all been told aren’t supposed to be possible. So when I see evidence of someone suffering, all I want to do is to bring awareness about why, and conviction and thought about the trade-offs we’ve made in this synthetic-chemical-reliant world we now live in.

No such luck for my hope the culprit in this case isn’t detergent. The mother in the news article says the school provided her a MSDS (material safety data sheet) for the cleaning product in question, a product named “ED Everyday Disinfectant”. I looked it up. And on the data sheet I located, I found that the cleaner is comprised of 15% didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride. This compound is what is known as a cationic surfactant (a detergent), belonging to the class of chemicals known as quaternary ammonium salts (see its SAAPedia entry here). Quaternary ammonium salts, or “quats” as they are commonly known, are a powerful chemical that are often used as sanitizers because they are antimicrobial (bactericidal and fungicidal). They are commonly used for food-surface sanitization at 100-400ppm which is equivalent to 0.01%-0.04% concentration. They function as detergents when present in high enough concentrations (see this paper). I’d say 15%, which is 1000x as strong as what is used to sanitize food prep surfaces, is a high enough concentration to qualify the quat in the “Everyday Disinfectant” cleaning product that was used on the toilet seat as a detergent!

The severity of this boy’s symptoms weren’t a surprise to me. They mirrored the symptoms my own children and others who suffer from eczema caused by environmental detergents, have exhibited. The red rash, burning, bubbling, oozing skin and then broken/scabbing skin described in the news article spoke to me immediately. The sad truth is that detergents really are everywhere. In fact, earlier this afternoon before seeing this news article, my children and I were at the grocery store and I saw a spray bottle labelled “Sanitizer-Quat” at the cashier, ostensibly used to sanitize the conveyer belt surface at checkout. I whispered to my son “that bottle contains ‘quats’, a very strong detergent — so don’t touch the belt!” Because detergents are everywhere, there is a great need to raise awareness that they impact all of us in a negative way because they increase skin and membrane permeability. If this was more readily known, and detergents’ causative impact to skin issues, eczema and potentially other allergic manifestations was more readily accepted through intentionally directed research validation, it’s possible that detergents would be used with greater care, and much more sparingly. The mother of the boy who suffered “burns” from the disinfectant cleaner used at his school went to the media because she wanted to make sure something similar didn’t happen to other kids. “It’d be a shame if it happened to anybody’s child,” she says in the article. I couldn’t agree more.