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Taking Stock on Giving Tuesday

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

On ‘Giving Tuesday’ of this week, my regional seed supplier was still hosting its week-long Green Friday 50% Off Sale on all vegetable, berry, fruit, herb and flower seeds packed for the 2021 growing season. I was grateful for the national day of reflection on giving and helping others, to take stock of my abundance, and consider my food garden plans for next year within the context of buying seed gifts for family and friends.

Almost all of the seeds that I typically buy promise a three-year shelf life at their advertised germination rates, so there is virtually no risk in buying seed packets with 'only' two years of maximum viability remaining. After sharing seed packet contents with gardener friends, I rarely have leftovers regardless, so saving 50% on current season stock is a huge win for me and for the environment.

For the third week in a row, I am writing during a deluge. The emergency alert on my phone once more warns of floods in the Lower Fraser Valley, and of the Coquihalla and Chilliwack Rivers locally, plus potential highwater, flash floods and landslides in many other areas of the province. Gas is still rationed due to oil pipeline closures, and pending high winds are expected to bring down trees and cut power.

Stockpiling dried pinecones — natures very own quick-light 'firestarters' — alongside firewood and kindling

My husband and I recently packed a half-cord of mixed alder, birch and maple firewood into the back of our semi-retired but reliable truck, and had interim repairs made to the roof that was damaged during the first of several back-to-back atmospheric rivers that made landfall two weeks ago. We are in good shape should things go sideways, again.

It was sobering, to say the least, to arrive at the woodlot on the edge of our mighty Fraser River and see 10-foot wide by 10-foot high berms of earth and asphalt hastily placed where once there were nursery yards. The great piles of beautifully seasoned firewood stacked so precisely in rainproof tunnels were in danger of becoming sodden, defeating not only their purpose, but their purveyor who was himself soaked to the skin.

I know that at some point, the rainstorms will stop and spring will come. Long before then, quite possibly when there is snow on the ground, I will sow seeds indoors, and dream of warmer, dryer days.

Taking stock and dreaming is something that many gardeners are doing much of at the moment, as fall and winter settle in around us and into the seams of our rain gear. Our feet seem perpetually cold and damp, and climate emergencies like those we are experiencing in Canada, create a heightened state of preparedness and throw a dark and dreary cloud over our enthusiasm — albeit temporarily.

Soon enough it will be time to start sowing tomato and other seeds indoors

The good news is that, uncertainty can be an advantageous place to start when planning one’s garden. My permaculture-inspired advice is to look closely, but not myopically at conventional wisdom about what to plant where and when, and then make room for the possibility that changing environmental conditions might actually be leveraged beneficially toward food garden abundance.

Indeed it may be difficult, but climate change is real and inevitable, so we have no choice but to adapt and exercise resilience. That is — and it goes without saying — as we change our consumer and environmental behaviours drastically to suit.

During warmer conditions, and in areas where rain is not typically torrential, so-called spring peas may well become spring, fall and winter peas. Certain fall crops may well produce straight through milder winters, moving forward.

This past season, I planted a second crop of melons and squash long past their best before date in the most unlikely of part-sun locations, and was rewarded with volumes of lovely albeit slightly imperfect fruit. Granted, I incorporated permaculture principles like hugelkultur and edible ecosystems to great advantage, but so can you.

The key to my own evolving urban permaculture practice has been to mimic nature as much as possible, so that resilient systems like those found in nature help plant, animal and fungi kingdom residents of my gardens fend for themselves, with the least amount of inputs and human intervention. I have much to learn still, but the benefits were evident and measurable from the moment I began incorporating permaculture ethics and principles into our lives and gardens,

Low maintenance crops like melon, squash and peppers thrive in an hybrid hugelkultur & lasagna-layered edible ecosystm

For those new to gardening, it would be wise to consider planting so-called hardy crops that are less likely to be taken out in their entirety by pests should you turn your back for a day or two, or when travel restrictions change and you need that coveted week away.

After two seasons of relative confinement, I plan on being as transient as possible next gardening season. For that reason and because I don’t want to be tied down to fussy or fancy plants, I have edited my wishlist to focus on what I consider to be ‘long crops’ that can sit and ruminate for days, even weeks without needing too much from me.

There are exceptions of course. There must be if one plans on ‘eating the rainbow’ as prescribed by the increasingly popular and entirely sensible ‘Four Pillars of Health’ plan.

In January of this year, in an article titled ‘Garden to Table Menu Planning’, I wrote copiously about my own food garden planning, and garden planning for others. Also in January, I wrote an article titled ‘Growing a Garden Family’ which overviewed the food garden start-up process in small and digestible bites.

Reading both pieces now, before deep cold sets in, will almost certainly inspire you. At the very least, your mind's default mode network will work productively in the background, quietly solving garden planning problems while you are busy negotiating the holidays.

Why not start early on your 2022 season gardening planning? Starting now, while most of the country is looking in their rear view gardening mirrors, makes very good sense. Starting early will help you avoid the angst and havoc that supply chain interruptions are sure to impose again this winter and spring.

Fun and inspiring reading for cooking and preserving enthusiasts who want to grow their own favourite ingredients

Starting early involves online list-making and shopping via snailmail — bypassing paper catalogues made from trees that we would rather leave standing where they can sequester carbon, hold and cycle water, and provide valuable natural habitat. Indeed you may miss out on the new season seed additions splashed across the masthead of the 2022 print catalogues, but does it really matter if you don’t sow pelleted heirloom carrot seeds instead of the bare naked version?

I admit that I LOVE snuggling up in front of the fire, with a great pile of seed catalogues and a glass of wine, but I made a decision this year to cancel my seed catalogue subscriptions and learn how to love snuggling up with my laptop. The benefits of an early start and saving trees outweigh the small sacrifice.

One thing is certain about food gardening, and that is ‘nature waits for no one’. You will experience much greater joy and better results if you are armed and ready to engage when the conditions are right, and also when they are not. This applies equally to the ordering of seeds, soil and equipment, as it does to the timing of indoor and outdoor sowing of seeds, consecutive planting, biological pest management, crop rotation, harvesting, canning and preserving, and so much more.

It sounds overwhelming, but it isn’t. The key to success lies in being prepared and in being well read.

Knowing where to go when you need beneficial predatory insects, like soil mites to chow down on pesky pets, is helpful

As you begin the long and exciting process of learning, with an open mind and a commitment to follow any fascinating side roads that appear along the way, you will naturally build a valuable resource of ethical and regionally appropriate seed sellers and advisors to assist with things like soil development or procurement, biological controls and pest management, systems for rainwater harvesting and distribution, mechanical systems for predator control, and advice about preserving food for winter and for emergencies.

In tandem with all of that, make lists of wishes and expectations and divide those lists into 'want to' and 'must have' so that essential items like growing nutrient greens and produce for restorative smoothies to support a new heart-healthy diet, trump non-essential and potentially costly items like growing tropical fruit in zone 5. As you build your lists and vet them against new knowledge gained in your research and self-education, a realistic picture of next year's garden will begin to form.

Getting Started:

  • Online search ‘organic or heirloom vegetable seed sellers in (state or province name goes here)’ and follow those leads through to find local online and storefront purveyors.

  • Online search ‘beneficial organisms and biological pest management in (state or province name goes here)’ and follow those leads through to local resources and experts.

  • Contact your local university’s Faculty of Agriculture, or Faculty of Land and Food Systems (or similar) to inquire about free or low-cost online resources and learning.

  • Contact your local library and inquire about lectures, workshops, and books about local organic gardening, biological pest management, and permaculture. On average, librarians LOVE to be asked questions because fewer and fewer people use libraries or ask for assistance.

  • Contact your city or municipality and inquire about free organic compost and/or composted soil.

  • Visit your local used bookseller and ask for old gardening books, published before industrialized agriculture was a thing. These books are chock-full of great information about organic gardening.

  • Contact local Indigenous communities and inquire about elder workshops, and the possibility of learning about traditional plant medicine and traditional ecological (or environmental) knowledge (TEK).

Visiting a rural permaculture village to research possible adaptations to urban gardens and environments

I leave you for now with the aforementioned homework and required reading, plus a time-sensitive nudge to check out your local seed seller and garden centre for season-end seed and supply sales.

The rain has abated momentarily, suggesting that I should step outside and plant some Windsor broad beans in my new hugelkultur and lasagna-layered edible ecosystem.

Conventional wisdom suggests that on average and at sea-level in my growing region, broad-beans should be direct sown before the end of October, or when the soil temperature is between 10-21°C (50-70°F). But that was then and this is now — early December in a climate-changing world — so I expect my beans to do fairly well on the mound as it is, even here where I live, slightly above the ‘snow line’ where temperatures are typically three or four degrees (F) cooler than at sea level.

Soil temperatures in a small hugelkultur mounded edible ecosystem are 4.5°C (8°F) higher than elsewhere in the garden

If things are going as they should go within the edible ecosystem mound, it is the decomposing magnolia tree branches and trimmings, garden greens, straw and other organics buried deep within, that are keeping the mound soil warmer than the surrounding garden soil.

The current soil temperature within the top four inches of the mound is around 14.5°C (58°F), whereas elsewhere in the uncovered garden it hovers around 10°C (50°F); only slightly higher at 11°C (52°F) in the raised bed coldframes.

The soil temperature difference between uncovered raised beds and covered raised beds (coldframes), and again between raised beds and in-ground beds will become more pronounced and complex when considered against variables like wind, rain, snow and overall exposures, as the season progresses.

Windsor broad beans ready for winter sowing: post-germination growth will be slow until the soil warms in the spring

All of that is another subject entirely. For now, I think I’ve made it under the wire with the broad beans. We shall see, and for sure I will let you know.

Broad beans, planted in the fall rather than spring provide modest winter cover since they grow very little before deep cold sets in, but they also fix nitrogen in the soil which is ideal for nitrogen-loving follow-on crops like brassicas and leafy greens. The tender shoots can be harvested and sauteed or steamed like other greens, or left to mature and produce pod beans for cooking and eating fresh, or for drying for storage.

Frank's urban permaculture coldframe house — an experiment in zone denial and accelerated winter food gardening

I will plant some broad beans in Million Gardens Movement co-founder Frank Giustra’s newly-installed urban permaculture winter garden space as well. We are calling the space the ‘coldframe house’ for lack of a better term to describe the end result of installing room-high polycarbonate coldframe sidewalls around urban permaculture heat-sinked raised beds. I have no idea what to expect, but if coldframe house performance to date is any indication, Frank will be over-run with broad bean shoots and broad beans, sooner than later.

More later on all of this. In the interim, happy garden planning.

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