Category Archives: gardening

The luxury of failure

hobbit house garden June 2014

The hobbit house garden is coming along nicely.

Last year  I sheet mulched the front lawn and planted a guild of perennials around the crabapple on the right that included yarrow, strawberries, horseradish and borage. I put in a tomatoe patch on the left edged by native plants: obedience, virginia mountain mint, blue vervain, new england asters and white echanacea. The native plants weren’t very impressive last year but this year they are really taking off, all chest height and ready to bloom I can’t wait to see all the pollinators that will visit them.

I’m trying all kinds of edible plants in the gardens around the house, I have the luxury of failing. I don’t rely on surplus to sell and if something doesn’t grow I simply buy what I need. That is a privilege I don’t want to squander. Time seems to be on my side as I learn how to grow perennial & annual foods. The hardy kiwis on my back porch won’t bear fruit for 3 more years, but I have the luxury of time, I have enough cash to buy food too.

The UN published a report a while back that emphasized the need to shift away from large scale monoculture farming to small scale polyculture. If you want an idea of what that might look like applied in an urban setting I highly recommend reading Anni Kelsey’s book Edible Perennial Gardening and be sure to check out her blog.

So while the ants, squirrels, skunks, raccoon and hares have been having a heyday in my very edible yard I can rest assured we won’t go hungry thansk to On the Move Organics

Claire delivering my order from On the Move Organics


My garden keeps working on me

Since the awesome Forest Garden Convergence in June I’ve been seeing my garden in a new light. There’s been a shift in my thinking about how densely to pack the plants in, about what’s being pulled and what I leave to grow. I’ve started thinking about which foods I already eat that are perennials (like asparagus, berries and nuts) and how I can get more perennial foods in my garden.

kale thyme sage garlic chives polyculture

More than that, my relationship to food is changing, I’ve started asking “how far has this travelled to me?” and “what does this food do for me?”. I’m appreciating how much work goes into growing food and I’ve become a bit more miserly, making sure nothing goes to waste.

I love growing things, something I discovered when we lived in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. Playing in the earth drops me from from hectic to reflective almost immediately and I’ve been looking for more things that trigger the relaxation response. I feel that deep sense of calm and well-being when I meditate, chant, work on my yoga practice, read and even staring into my aquarium.

.planted tank June 29 2014

I see my blood pressure drop as I eat a more plant based diet and I’ve been able to engage my self-discipline to mange my over-eating and use of alcohol. My blood pressure is dropping and my weight is shifting, decreasing by 6%, from simply being mindful.

As I try to apply the principles of permaculture to my garden and to myself. The most transformation has been on me, my thoughts and actions, what some folks call internal permaculture. I’m hoping to get a copy of this great book to keep growing my ability to nurture myself.

Rob Read on Slow Small Solutions

After lunch, which was enjoyed under the cherry trees with friends in the shade, I sauntered over to listen to Rob talk about his half-acre edible forest garden.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rob and his lovely partner at a LoundonSOUP event in March this year. I had found out then he worked at the same university my partner did his PhD in philosophy and I thought it great there was someone with a 9-5 job was also interested in food security and forest gardening. I didn’t realise at the time Rob was co-founder of Artemisia’s Forest Garden Nursery.

During his talk he made reference to many great books on permaculture and forest gardening but what stood out the most for me was when he drew on anthropology and the diversity of foods found in hunter gatherer stomachs. I think he said 150 varieties of food, in one stomach, at the same time, and he set to work to cultivate 150 edible perennial on his half-acre lot.

He stressed the importance of slow, small solutions and how that had made the difference for him about whether to see grass as the enemy or simply part of the plant diversity.

I started thinking that on any given day I might eat up to 15 different foods. I might have 50 foods regularly in my diet. I tried to imagine how small handfuls nibbled through the day would be compared to the regimented 3 meals and a snack routine I am in. I also started to think about my own garden, the slow, small changes I have made over the past 3 years and the great results I’ve seen. I felt motivated to keep trying new plants in my garden, to intensely plant under my new paw paws.

There was great discussion about everyone’s experiences and I really enjoyed hearing what was working for people and what did not.

Getting to know Shantree

For the 11 am session at the Forest Garden Convergence I chose the Forest Garden Walk-About with Shantree Kacera. He had a keen sense of time appreciation earlier in the morning which was juxtaposed nicely with his kind voice and flowing hair.

Shantree lead us through The Living Centre‘s herb garden explaining the changes that have happened on the site over the past 30 years. Both he and Lorenna stated  earlier in the morning that they grew soil on the land. That resonated with me as when we first moved to the house we rent in London’s Old North the soil was incredibly poor, hard packed clay in the back and front, gravel on the south side and a putrid smell came out of the 100% shade north side. I had decided to add mulch and compost and build the soil before trying to grow anything at all. 3 years in and most gardens are looking pretty lush.

As we moved from one garden to the next we passed fruit tree guilds and a 3 phase asparagus guild that students are experimenting with.

Throughout the tour of much of the eastern side of the land Shantree told stories about specific tree and how they demonstrated the softening of the elements, planting layers to create dappled shade, to disperse torrential rains, to buffer against the wind to make micro-climates.

I got to see so much in real life that I had only read about or seen photos of and the tactile experience was wonderful. A key insight he shared was that as we designed our gardens we needed to make room for succession, how the growing plants will change the environment making our first designs irrelevant.

I think that complexity and flux are partly why forest gardens are so interesting to me, you really never finish and it is never the same garden twice.

I can sequester carbon?

Forest Garden Convergence, video by Eric Toensmeier

Folks familiar with forest gardens will recognize the co-author of Edible Forest Gardens, a heafty 2 volume tome (more of a labour of love), and Paradise Lot (which is a great read).

Eric updated us on exciting things happening with the Apios Institute and forest gardening in general. He is a skilled speaker and covered a breadth of topics from climate change, breeding perennials for taste and carbon sequestering.

I think his focus on experimenting and recording successes and failures of polycultures (a.k.a. plant guilds) is essential. Citizen scientists ( hobbyists like me) can trial and share what has worked for us in our climate and soil and save other’s time.

Forest gardens are hardy, able to withstand changing temperatures and heavy rains that a traditional rows based garden struggle with.

The most interesting part of his talk was how perennials, shrubs and trees are the best way for gardeners to mitigate climate change and provide effective sequestering of carbon. say what????

Yes. You & me, we can do things to help pull carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back in plants & soil. MIND BLOWN.

My mind was blown by 10 am on May 31 at the Forest Garden Convergence. Read up on carbon sequestering here.


Hiding your food forest?

Every now and then I find myself reading something and think “why go there?” I stumbled across the book “Secret Garden of Survival: How to Grow a Camouflaged Food-Forest” by Rick Austin. I had to buy it because it goes just that extra kind of paranoid that is oddly entertaining.

First off, I love the concept of a food forest, a carefully planned garden of food bearing perennials that require little inputs. You layer shrubs and ground cover under the canopy of fruit or nut trees in a dense planting of awesomeness. Sounds GREAT and yummy and dovetails nicely into my goal of having more naps in my hammock under that same canopy.

The author self identifies as a “prepper”. I had never heard this term before but it clearly has a following. These are folks who plan and prepare for an apocalypse. This could be economic, environmental or medical (maybe the Zombie Survival Guide was not satire?) and to be ready. While I find that a bit, uh, far fetched food security is no joke.

Who has access to food is an important question in my community, many go hungry while others waste food. I’ve come across collective approaches to food security and the rugged individual model. Mike Reynalds of Earthship Biotecture started on the individual end of the spectrum but he sounds lately to be downright cooperative, since Earthships take a lot of person power this makes sense and it turns out lots of folks who moved out into the wilds are now seeking spaces closer to towns and cities, they simply miss other people.

I’m a big advocate of the Food Not Lawns movement because it encourages everyone to try and grow some of their own food and share the surplus, with friends, neighbours and the local food bank. The idea that we can all contribute is interesting and I’ve always been taught to share surplus, to approach life from an abundance rather than a scarcity model.

I’m just starting in on Rick Austin’s book, I’m curious to see how he constructs guilds around fruit and nut trees but I’m not convinced we need to hide our food from our neighbours. I’d rather be like Ron Finley: a guerilla gardener in South Central LA who encourages people to explore and take what they need.

Would you hide your bounty or share?

Guinea Pig on the grass

This picture sums up just how far I will go not to mow grass. I hate grass. Never has a crop consumed so much time in care and maintenance and yielded so little joy. We rent so I had not done much in the way of gardening the first 2 years. Only last spring did we decide we are staying for the next 10 years or so which had me totally revamp the front yard you can see pics here.

The guinea pigs came to our home because the youngest among us was lonely. He felt the dogs were not “his” companions (even though the Coconut sleeps in his room) so, being the neo-hippies we are, we researched the optimal habitat for guinea pigs and decided that these folks advocated for what seemed humane conditions. But I had another, secret, reason for going along with adding guinea pigs to our home, fertilizer.

So while the quirky fellas live in our living room I’d often take them out to keep me company while I gardened knowing their penchant for gobbling greens meant I didn’t need to mow the grass and that their droppings were great fertilizer for the lawn.

As the lawn disappeared I continued to bring them out with me, picking the toughest dandelion greens, which they squealed in delight to see, feeding to them knowing whatever minerals and nutrients the dandelion taproot had pulled up would be available to the guinea pigs and then the soil.

We use a system of blankets, towels and newspaper for the cage bedding. Once a week we dump the droppings and leftover feed into the compost bin. I figure the guinea pigs are instant composters so we feed them ends of celery, carrots, sweet potatoes, basically anything they like and then use their manure to enrich the compost.

Putting guinea pigs out to graze in my garden has gotten us a fair share of looks and there are adamant cavy lovers who say having them outside at all is bad. We have red tailed hawks and other raptors in our neighbourhood so we do not leave our guys unattended. We put them out in the early morning or late afternoon in the shade and while someone is out with them. Local cats are also a concern, some have been really curious about this large (and tasty?) looking rodent.

In the gardening world permaculture advocates, like myself, are on the fringe. Using a guinea pig as a grazer may put me on the fringe of the fringe but it is an interesting space to occupy. Plus the little fellas are cute as all get out and highly entertaining. And the gardens? Well they are looking pretty awesome too.