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From Barren to Bountiful

Winter greens, beets and brassicas grown from seed, now ready for planting, after their second potting on.

This weekend we celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving — already, believe it or not. Wasn’t it just July?

I have been busy cleaning out garden beds, potting-up the hundreds of winter seedlings that I started from seed in the greenhouse to plant in our garden and give to friends, and generally chasing my tail around the season of transition. This week passed by in a blink of an eye, so this post will be short.

Just yesterday I harvested a bounty of sweet melons, squash, and hot chili peppers from the tiny new ‘edible ecosystem’ that I planted just three months ago in a spot that was formerly a barren patch of grass wedged between a bend in the driveway.

Impressive range of produce at various stages of ripeness harvested before the onset of cold and heavy rains.

I wrote about the ‘making of’ the new garden in two previous articles — the first titled ‘Mother Nature, She’s Pissed’, and the second titled ‘A Drop in the Bucket of Change’ — both riddled with angst, written under extreme duress and climate change stress. Admittedly, my emotions can get the best of me.

Absolutely, I did get carried away during those few mid-summer days when my part of the world suffered the worst heat wave in recorded local history. A nearby town burned to the ground entirely in a matter of hours, and 570 residents of the city in which I live, died of heat wave-related causes. Two other heat waves followed, but neither as deadly.

My knee-jerk response typically, to troublesome things I cannot change, is to retreat to the greenhouse and listen to consecutive podcasts of BBC World Service. On that day however, the greenhouse was insufferably hot and could not have in any case contained my anxiety, so my response was to fill a thermos bottle with ice water, head straight for the un-shade, and start to dig.

Our small, decades old greenhouse is my happy place, rain or shine.

Over the course of a few unbearably hot and humid days, I dug, turned, and stacked dense blocks of sod to form the foundation of a hybrid hugelkultur and lasagna-layered mound of heavily composted nourishment, into which I planted all manner of seeds, and transplanted every runt vegetable and perennial flower seedling left behind in the greenhouse.

A dwarf Fuyu persimmon tree, formerly potted and dissatisfied in its increasingly shaded location, assumed pride of place at the top of the mound, flanked by two each wilty and orphaned goji berry and thornless blackberry starts. The haphazard design process was contemplative and intensely healing, rather like self-directed garden therapy.

The magic of permaculture did not disappoint, and within a few short weeks, the tiny, scrappy, edible ecosystem grew beautifully lush and began to thrive — as if in living, breathing thanks for bringing it to life.

From barren grass to thriving edible ecosystem: two months growth depicted above.

For two months now, I have been harvesting almost daily from that small garden of goodness — white eggplant, golden pearls, hot chili and sweet bell peppers, strawberries, miniature summer and winter squash, fresh herbs, spinach, dwarf blackberries and so much more.

What surprised me most was the quantity of Sugar Baby and Black Beauty watermelons, Diana melons, and Halona cantaloupe that appeared on the sunniest side of the part-sun mound, and the speed at which they grew to considerable size, ripening almost fully.

Melons thrived in the heat of decay within the mound, and the radiated heat of the pavers surrounding it.

I am quite certain that, in exchange for nourishing a barren and unproductive space into habitat for pollinators, birds and butterflies, nature rewarded me with uncommon abundance. Hummingbirds visit daily, pollinator-friendly flowers light up the shade, and a sprawling mixed forest of fungi hints at the widespread mycelial network taking shape below.

Fairy-like fungi past its prime, hints at the begginings of a mycelial network below ground.

To be honest, I had conservative expectations this first year. My primary goal was to take affirmative climate action: convert a patch of unproductive lawn, find homes for struggling and surplus plant fits and starts, and create the architectural framework within which to establish healthy and nourishing soil biology, with a view to being methodically and entirely successful ‘next’ season. I didn’t imagine that we would be enjoying slices of pale but honey-sweet slices of melon, just three months after planting.

Emerald green moss, already established, will eventually cover the entire mound, mulching naturally as it goes.

This weekend I will cut and compost the foliage that is quickly succumbing to autumn’s damp and the deepening cold shade, and plant a cover crop of winter field peas. A shallow carpet of emerald green moss has appeared at the base of the mound, and will ascend over time, to form a living mulch. In the interim, winter peas will provide some measure of erosion control and help the ecosystem maintain its structure over what promises to be a punishing winter of extreme rain events, and repeated freeze-thaw cycles.

Winter field peas fix nitrogen, prevent erosion, and mulch soil.

I am hopeful that the network of plant roots and mycelium, which I will leave undisturbed will have woven into and through the brown paper lining under the layer of composted soil, holding the soil in place as snow falls, compacts, and slides off the mound. Fingers crossed. To learn more about the process of building an edible ecosystem of your own, search for one of the aforementioned articles.

Our Thanksgiving dinner will be modest this year, with the children adventuring or away at school, and friends and family scattered hither and yon. Our table will be merry all the same — punctuated by colourful melons and squash, munchkin pumpkins, tiny creamy white eggplant, and the many blessings and bounty of our urban permaculture gardens.

Clockwise top left: Baby White Acorn squash, Greta mini eggplant, Munchkin pumpkin, Buttercup squash,

My takeaways this garden season relate to resilience and gratitude, and to the many physical, emotional, and spiritual rewards of creating small change for the better. For me all it took was a barren patch of grass, a collection of tree trimmings and green garden refuse, remnant seeds, cast-off seedlings and perennials, and one badly needed session of intense garden therapy.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving. I wish you and yours nourishment, peace and happiness.

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