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Walk With Me

Since I began contributing to Million Gardens Movement last fall, my articles and videos have been largely instructional. I haven’t taken a moment to slow down and invite you on my morning rounds. I invite you now, to see what I see and to understand the stories behind the pictures.

My garden is an urban permaculture garden, which means that I am doing my best to consider and integrate as many (rural) permaculture principles as I can, within the constraints of a residential property located in a small community, on the edge of a bustling metropolitan city.

I am working toward the creation of a self-sustaining ecosystem that includes food gardens, rainwater collection and management, composting, outdoor mushroom cultivation, hugelkultur, food forests, berry patch, dwarf fruit orchard, native bee and butterfly habitat, rain gardens, bird and amphibian habitat, solar energy harvesting and more.

Urban permaculture bends permaculture to suit existing buildings, paving, infrastructure, utilities, bylaws, neighborhood design guidelines, neighbour opinions, existing mature hedges and plantings, and community culture. The process is a slow one for most people, unless (unlike me) time and money are infinite. I will get there, eventually.

My food garden lives where the sun shines, in my front yard, subject to neighborhood character and design guidelines, and neighbour oversight. In true permaculture fashion, I integrate -- incorporating pollinator flowers in no-dig raised beds, berries and vegetables in established borders, native habitat and native plantings wherever I can, in-ground composting wherever I can, rainwater collection wherever I can, vertical vegetables in non-traditional plantings, and productive plantings as a rule. I do my best to do so beautifully and respectfully, to invite conversation and share with my neighbours.

Once, I shared little more than the road with most neighbours, but now we share vegetables, fruit, seedlings, stories, seeds, hope and resilience. The deep laurel hedge, planted 72 years ago by someone I will never know, was intended as a barrier. Today it represents an invitation to peek over into our food garden, to see what is growing and blooming; to come in for a visit and leave with an armload of homegrown goodness.

Every morning, early, rain or shine, I take my coffee to the garden, and walk the circuit. I look closely and I listen. This allows me to see small changes and pest damage in time to manage things holistically and biologically, and to introduce change gently.

Walking the circuit time and again allows me to see; to really see the ecosystem and its seasons and signals, and build a relationship over time with my unique environment. I know the birds and the bees and the small animals, and they know me. I keep the birdbaths and bee waterers clean and full; I share the harvest when I can; I cultivate a seed garden for overwintering birds, and I’ve learned to love clover.

The morning light is particularly lovely, so I take my camera along, just in case. I am privileged to manage an archive of thousands of photos of truly beautiful garden moments.

This selection was taken this morning, in and around the food gardens, and in the rain gardens.

Come along. Bring your coffee.

'Centennial' and 'Cascade' hops ascend an upright along a long arbor surrounding the gardens. Female plants produce cones (a.k.a. hops) that my son and I will use to make beer. The bee turf contains yarrow which attracts predatory insects to chow down on hops-loving aphids.

Pepper plants in pots, along the path enjoy the radiant heat above and below, as the same gravel that lines the path, tops the pots. The outside base of the path is planted with winter 'Heath Alba' (white heather-like evergreen plant) that blooms from October through May; essential for providing food to emerging native bees. Bee houses are located close by.

A furry little bee bum sticking out of a sage blossom. Dozens of bees move in and out of the blossoms quickly and efficiently, like little vacuums cleaning up after a party. Many sage family plants (culinary and ornamental) produce deep throated blossoms like these ones that are much-loved by bees and hummingbirds.

An old wrought iron fireplace screen, re-purposed in double-duty as a cucamelon trellis and windbreak for fragile ground cherry plants to the rear. Cosmos, zinnia, sea thrift and sweet alyssum are workhorse companion plants for attracting pollinators and beneficial or predatory insects, plus they add colour and elegance to vegetable beds.

'Aunt Molly's' ground cherries, better known as cape gooseberries, are already dropping to the ground (hence the name) for collection. The squirrels take their share before I arrive to the garden. I have been eating all that I find, on the spot, but soon will use them in salads and as garnishes. They are tiny now, but will increase in size as the weather warms up. Small tomato cages help support their fragile branches.

Beautiful bronze fennel wedged between a tiny forest of kale, and my all-time favourite 'Astro' arugula (perennial here in zone 7b). The coppery tones of the fennel draw out the rusty coloured feathers in the arugula blossoms and along the stems. A the kale and fennel grow, the arugula will have to be cut back to make space, but it will re-appear post-harvest in the fall.

The bird bath has become a garden vase stand for buckets of not-yet-spent pollinator-friendly blooms, and vegetables gone to seed. Last month, a gorgeous bouquet of winter beet seed heads took pride of place here. Today, yarrow stems pulled from the berry patch, invite birds, bees and butterflies. The yarrow appeared voluntarily in the berry patch after seeds washed down out of the bee turf. The yarrow presents as a tiny wee micro-flower in the turf mix, but left to its own will grow big and tall. Iron obelisks to the left support several varieties of vining winter squash and pumpkins.

Bumblebees bumbling along in the common yarrow. Definitely bees, wasps, flies, and other insects love yarrow pollen and nectar; perhaps they know too of its many medicinal qualities.

'Munchkin' pumpkins ascend an iron obelisk. I don't have bed space that is adequate, airy and dry enough to support healthy pumpkins, so trellising them is a solution. They grow quickly though, so I have to stay on top it daily to make sure the vines are attached to the trellis with velcro garden tape. I've tried twine but found that it can cut through the fleshy stalks in a breeze. Strips of soft cloth work well also.

'Angel Hair' squash, the baby cousin of spaghetti squash, climbs its iron obelisk. These single serving, soft-skinned beauties are both fun and delicious. Velcro garden tape holds the vine to the trellis. Small iron hooks (shown top) hang loosely now, but will eventually help support the weight of the squash.

In an adjacent bed, 8-ft high umbrella trellises support 16 'Artist Gherkin' cucumber plants. As the plants grown up and produce large leaves, they will partly shade the Par-Cel growing below. Par-cel is a Dutch heirloom variety of cutting celery that tastes like parsley. I have never needed an entire head of celery for anything, so cutting varieties like this and also 'Peppermint Stick' are my preferences. 'Artist Gherkins' can be harvested very small, like traditional pickled gherkins, or left to grow to six or so inches. The more I cut, the more they grow, and I cut plenty for family and friends; hence the 16 vines.

Chickpea plants basking in the morning sun. They haven't enjoyed the cold and damp, and have resisted putting on bulk. Hopefully they will now, as we approach the solstice. I have just three plants so expectations are low for a bountiful harvest. They are beautiful though, so I can live with a low ROI.

Kohlrabi children lined up in a row. I am growing these gorgeous creatures for a neighbour of German heritage. She grew up eating kohlrabi and speaks of it fondly, but has had no success growing it. Fingers crossed I succeed. They are stunning looking plants that like having leeks, onions and other alliums for neighbours. I've sited their row between the chickpeas and bunching (green) onions.

This tiny forest of 'Redbor', dinosaur and curly kale will be thinned shortly to allow for few plants to grow tall and wide, and also for sharing with my mother-in-law and with the neighbours. Kale is harvested from below, which creates jurassic looking kale trees with shading bare ground -- valuable real estate for shade loving greens like summer spinach. We go through plenty of kale. I chop and freeze it for winter braises, and make massaged kale salads. Primarily, I send it next door for the young children whose mum makes them yummy kale chips.

My little buddy Dave the veggie dog. He loves all veggies, raw or cooked, big or small. Dave digs for bugs and worms: the crunchier the better. I forgive him always for holes dug and damage done. As the season progresses and plants grow high, all I see of Dave is his wisp of a tail among the rustling. As you can see, he isn't so tall.

Two of the Three Sisters companion planting of corn, pole beans and squash are well on their way. Romano beans have begun their climb up 'Peaches & Cream' and white corn trellises. Until this week it has been too cold and damp to plant the seedling delicata, pattypan and buttercup squash, but I will move them from the greenhouse today. Their large leaves will help shade and mulch the ground, and repel predator insects. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil, which helps the corn grow strong and healthy.

With all of the rain, the potatoes have gone bonkers and needed to be tied. The bed on the right is partially covered by a huge blue spruce tree, and the difference is apparent. The soil in that planters isn't as moist as the others, not just because of the rain, but because it is situated further from the shadow line of the house and receives more sun. I had tomatoes planted in that box last year, and they did quite well with the less rain but more sun arrangement.

Lemon verbena spills out of the watermelon bed. New planted 'Sugar Baby' and 'Diana' watermelons, one on grafted root stock, are loving the sunshine. Pelleted bolero carrots and radishes have been planted in the cool semi-shade of the troughs.

Dozens of yellow alpine and woodland strawberries line a paved sidewalk. The berries mulch bare ground under an established and entirely unproductive boxwood hedge. We share the tiny sweet berries with the birds. If the boxwood hedge were to die, I would replace it with a beautiful and productive native bush like evergreen huckleberry.

A sisal string and eyehook trellis woven along our high cedar fence provides plenty of climbing space for heirloom 'Alderman' peas and 'Romano' beans. A deep but narrow planter box running along the base of the fence provides ample room for climbing legumes, small peppers, dwarf tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables. The wood absorbs solar energy, which benefits the plants.

In the small dedicated seed-saving garden behind the greenhouse, rapini seed pods are plumping up nicely. I will have more than enough seeds for sharing, come fall planting time.

'Golden Sentinel' columnar apples are starting to take on their trademark blush. I am amazed at how much fruit one can grow in a small amount of space dedicated to dwarf fruit trees. We have 18 varieties planted in four clusters, under-planted with herbs and flowers to attract beneficial and predator insects, and so far we have enjoyed bountiful harvests.

In the berry patch, white currant plants tower over black and red, and flank low-profile rows of dwarf blueberries and gooseberries. To avoid attracting the attention of black bear, raccoons, and other furry neighbours, I will pick these and other fruits just before they are ripe.

I will end our tour in the newly planted rain garden out back, where bog and wetland loving plants light up the shade. The rain garden was a permaculture solution to an increasingly common urban problem, that of excess roof water runoff. Climate change brings more rain, and it often needs management. We live in an old neighborhood with no storm sewers, so we are on our own to sink or swim. We dug a dry well recently and it works well, but still the area is perpetually wet. Native plantings provide gorgeous new wildlife habitat. Here, 'False Solomon's Seal' is reflected in the old birdbath.

Native 'Nodding Onion' thrives in the mostly shady and wet rain garden. Many parts of this wild onion are edible, but I will hold-off for several years until the plants are well-colonized.

Lovely, ethereal 'Bleeding Hearts' light up the shade under a deciduous magnolia tree. The falling leaves will compose quickly in the moist environment of the rain garden, providing essential nutrients for these beautiful but fragile plants.

So ends our morning tour. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Until next week, happy gardening!

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