Grow Your Own Food

Grow Your Own Food
I don’t think there is anything that provides one with a greater sense of pride than when you grow and eat your own food. As a child, raised on a farm by draft-dodging, hippy, back-to-the-land parents in the Kootenay Region of British Columbia, I did not fully appreciate the bounty that we ate from our acre sized garden. I dreaded hot days in the sun weeding my mother’s coveted vegetable rows, shelling peas for days and peeling tomatoes for canning until my skin burned. I wanted to eat candy, frozen TV dinners, sliced bologna and fake cheese just like the other kids in town. That is, until I grew up and moved out on my own. It was only then, that I realized that nothing really tasted as good as the stuff from my mother’s kitchen. Of course, that was because she made everything scratch. Nothing was processed and it was fresh!

So, I started growing my own food. I started small with just a few pots of basil plants in a south facing window. It was a huge success. I grew so much basil, I was making pesto for weeks. Over time I added more herbs like parsley, rosemary and oregano. Growing plants indoors is pretty easy and a great way to get started. A controlled environment pretty much guarantees success. And success fills us with pride and gives us encouragement to try more difficult things.

Eventually, I secured a plot in a community garden in my neighbourhood. Community gardens are great because they are low cost but give you access to way more space so you can grow lots. This is especially true if you live in a home without an outdoor space such as a patio or balcony.

The other great thing about having a plot in a community garden is that there are many other gardeners to share the work with. You can help each other weed, water and control pests. You will also be working alongside other accomplished gardeners who will become your mentors. These mentors will offer invaluable advice drawing from years of experience growing plants in Calgary’s harsh environment. They’ll know the best options for when, where and what to plant. They will be able to recognise plant diseases, pests and nutrient deficiencies and how to mitigate them. They’ll also be able to teach you about the best time to harvest plants and save seeds for next year. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

When I finally moved into a house with a yard, I converted the lawn into a lovely vegetable garden. It was quite a bit of work in the beginning. Digging up grass and getting all the roots out is very tedious work but, once it’s done, weeding becomes much easier over the long term. The easiest crops to grow are root vegetables already suited for our older climate. Carrots, onions, potatoes are all easy to grow. I also had great success with green beans, peas, lettuce, zucchini and kale. You may want to consider adding in some plants that come back every year like raspberries and rhubarb. Perennial herbs such as thyme and oregano are not only hardy but edible, plus they look pretty if you let them flower and bees love them.

If you are new to gardening, I recommend determining which plants are best suited for our plant hardiness zone and starting there. A plant hardiness zone is the geographic area defined to encompass a certain range of climatic conditions relevant to plant growth and survival. Canada has a wide range of garden zones with variations in each province. For example, choose plants that grow best in zone 4a. That’s Calgary’s zone. Of course, you can still grow tomatoes but you will need to spend a lot more time protecting them as they are not hardy enough for Calgary’s climate. You may even have to bring them indoors when it frosts. Meanwhile, kale, for example, can withstand freezing temperatures and still be perfectly edible after.

You should test your soil for nutrient deficiencies and other toxic substances. Soil is the most important ingredient in any successful, sustainable garden. You will need compost rich, toxic free soil that is 6” to 18” deep depending upon the type of plants you are growing. You can prepare soil in the ground or create raised beds. Raised beds are easier to manage but take more time and effort to build in the beginning. If you are buying soil make sure it contains the right balance of nutrients for growing vegetables. Soil quality will ultimately determine how nutritious your harvest will be.

There are many common pests in Calgary that you will encounter. Aphids, caterpillars, slugs and root maggots have all been a problem in my own garden from time to time. Some are easier to deal with than others. For example, ladybugs love aphids but won’t eat you plants. So, helping ladybugs thrive with a good variety of plants in your garden will keep the aphid population in control. I also had a big slug problem during a rainy summer a few years ago. I tried making traps but found that diatomaceous earth was the only thing that helped get their population under control. It comes in a powder form available at most garden centres. It is an irritant so read application directions carefully. Larger pests, such as birds, can be controlled by putting up nets around your plants.

Finally, you may want to add a rain barrel to your garden layout. I found my rain to be the best investment. My husband rerouted our garage roof gutters to run into the barrel which literally overflowed after just a few rainstorms. Plants love rain water. It is free of chlorine and other toxins. The barrel is large enough that it provides enough water pressure to run a hose and the best part, it’s free. Occasionally, a dry summer imposed water restrictions on our municipal water system but a rain barrel will ensure you won’t run out of water. Under these kinds of conditions, a good rule of thumb is to never water anything that is not edible. Watering a lawn is hugely wasteful. It would be best to replace all that grass with something useful.

In recent years, I have started growing flowers that are also edible such as nasturtiums, calendula and chamomile. Not only do they look beautiful and flower all summer long but they are happy in our climate and don’t need a lot of attention. Calendula in particular, is very hardy and reseeds itself every year. I don’t even need to collect seeds. I just let the plants die back in winter and watch the seedlings pop up every spring. Bees love flowers.

This past year, I moved out of a house with a yard and into a condo with a rooftop garden instead. Now, I’m learning all about container gardening. It’s still possible to grow a great garden in containers but it does require more water because the pots dry out faster and soil content is more important than ever. So far, my most successful crops have been carrots, peas, kale, lettuce and squash. I ate fresh lettuce and kale from my garden most of the summer. Sadly, my pole beans got water logged with all the rain we had in July and did not thrive in their planter boxes despite good drainage. Better luck next year.

Now it’s time to harvest all the things that did thrive. Blanching and freezing is an easy way to preserve food. Blanching vegetables (scalding vegetables in boiling water for a short time) is a must for almost all vegetables to be frozen. It stops enzyme actions which can cause loss of flavor, color and texture. Blanching cleanses the surface of dirt and organisms, brightens the color and helps retard loss of vitamins. I have a steam canner. Steam canners are generally only recommended for acidic foods such as fruit. Can vegetables with care and use a pressurized canner for those. These type of canners cost a lot more but you’ll even be able to preserve meat or meals such as soups.

It really is possible to grow lots of your own food. Sometimes it takes some trial and error but there are lots of great resources out there. You will be filled with a great sense of accomplishment, save money, eat healthier and contribute to a more sustainable lifestyle. Get going and start growing your own food.

More helpful links:

You Can Dig It! Facebook Group
Grow Calgary
Gardens by Laura Blog
Blue Grass Nursery Blog

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