Make Your Bed – Part II

The garden beds have been constructed (see Part I) Whew. After long winter months of dreaming where I would put them and what they would look like – they are done.

Now I have to fill them with dirt.

I should mention that I decided to follow the Square Foot Gardening method, developed by Mel Bartholomew. I read several books over the winter on backyard gardening, and this one really stood out. This type of garden takes up less space, is totally organic, doesn’t need much weeding, and produces a relatively large amount of food in a small space.

The idea is that you build a wooden raised bed, 4 feet long and wide, giving you 16 square feet of growing area ( I did a 3 x 5 and a 3 x 7 to fit my spaces). You mark off these square feet using thin strips of wood or string, creating a grid. Within each square you grow a different vegetable. So for example, in one square you can grow 16 carrots or 16 beets or 9 onions or 8 peas or 9 bush beans. So if I designate 3 squares to carrots, I could potentially get 48 carrots out of it. For the larger plants, like peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and potatoes, you grow one plant per square. It saves space because there are no rows between plants. You also never walk on it, so the soil stays light and fluffy. The bed is raised, making them easier to reach.

I like how this system works. I can grow whatever I want in whatever square I want. For some reason, my brain likes the combination of spontaneity, combined with the systematic organization of a grid.

The other thing about Square Foot Gardening is that you use a different type of soil medium. You don’t use dirt from your garden. You make your own dirt. The soil medium is made up of 1/3 peat moss (or its more sustainable counterpart – coir), 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 compost. The peat moss keeps the soil light, the vermiculite holds a tremendous amount of water and also aids with breaking up the density of the soil, and the compost gives your plants all the food they need – organically of course.

I totally bought into this idea. I want my garden to be organic. I want my soil to hold the perfect balance of water and air. I want my plants to have enough water to sustain them. In addition, I won’t have to worry if my soil is too acidic or too alkaline. I won’t have to worry if I have too much clay, sand or silt. I won’t have to worry about all the weed seeds in garden soil.

So, I went on a mission to find my ingredients. Mel says to use at least 3 different types of compost, to ensure that you get a balanced mix. In the end I used about 4 types. The peat was relatively easy to find, but if I could have done it again I would have looked harder to find coir (peat bogs are not very renewable and hold 10% of the world’s fresh water and coir is simply the left over husks from coconuts).

Vermiculite was another story. I phoned around to almost every greenhouse, garden centre, hardware store in my area. Most did not carry it. If they did carry it was only in small 20 litre bags. I needed 550 litres! I found one supplier that carried it in 110 litre bags, so I bought up 5 huge bags. It turned out it was the wrong type – fine grain instead of medium or coarse grain, which according to Mel is a very important distinction. So I returned those and purchased 25 of the 20 litre bags. I purchased 18 bags of compost and 4 bales of peat moss. Here is what a few bags of it looked like before I got started:

With the ingredients finally in hand I set out to make dirt. The idea is that you dump equal amounts of peat moss, compost and vermiculite onto a tarp, and then roll it around.

It helps to have a helper, preferably an adult. However, my 5 year-old boy was ready and willing to get the job done, so help he did! He dumped the vermiculite (it is really light), watered the pile to get it moist, and held up two ends of the tarp while I held the other two ends and tugged and pulled and kicked it until it was mixed.

I did this 12 times, and made 12 batches of dirt. I hauled each one over to my garden beds and pushed and heaved the tarp until the dirt was deposited within.

For the container garden we filled each of the six bins with a pail, scoop by scoop. We got our hands really, really dirty.

The neighbours came by and asked what we were up to. “We are making homemade dirt!” my son told them. “It has compost, vermiculite and feet moss!”

At last it was done. My driveway was a complete disaster, dirt remnants everywhere. Every muscle ached. But it was a good thing. I felt good. My body felt good.  I set out to accomplish something that weekend, to create garden beds in my tiny yard, and I made it happen.

Now look:

Stay tuned for Part III – planting!

Make Your Bed – Part I

My muscles ache. I feel a heavy tiredness within my body, and an excitement of what lies ahead.

That’s right. I am setting up my garden.

Over the last few weekends, I have built my garden beds. Two weekends ago, I built my wooden raised beds. I went to the hardware store (kids in tow), purchased lumber, and the nice guy at the store cut it for me on the spot. Then we had a flash snow storm. Undaunted, I built two wood frames in my sunroom, and as the snow fell all around me, I switched back and forth from feeling crazy for building a garden when there is a foot of snow outside, and excited that I was pushing through with this project, despite the weather. My son helped – he handed me the screws as I needed them.

When they were done I felt pretty proud of myself. I had dreamed up this idea back in December, and here I was, making it happen. I did it all by self. I drilled, I fastened, I built. 

Here they are, propped up waiting for the snow to melt.

The weekend before that, I got busy making 6 large container beds that can sit on my patio. My patio receives the best sun, so containers I must have. These are self-watering, a premise I had not heard of until I found the Urban Organic Gardener – he grows food on his balcony in home-made containers. Intrigued, I read The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible and Fresh Food From Small Spaces and they both explained how to build containers yourself and both told tales of all the great food you can grow. In some ways they preferred a container garden to an earth garden, as the soil warms up earlier in the spring, the water is easier to control, and the plants are easier to reach. You can make them yourself or buy them. There are commercial self-watering containers available, such as the Earth Box, which some farmers even use. There are also basic pots available at garden centres that have the self-watering feature. It is the new thing!

To make my containers, I got the largest bin I could find, cut down edges of the lid so that it would fit inside the bin to create a false bottom, cut two large holes in the lid, and then inserted a small colander under each hole. I also placed 3″ pots upside down in each corner, to help hold up the false bottom. The idea is that the reservoir below is filled with water, and the water seeps into the colanders that are filled with soil, and then wicks up through the soil in the colander and then into the container. So how do you get water into the false bottom? Well you can either make a hole in the bin near the bottom, or you can insert a pipe that is watered from above. I decided on the pipe, as it would be easier to water and would not interfere with the reservoir size.

Sounds great right? Well it turns out that cutting the plastic lid is pretty hard. I used industrial cutting snips with no avail. Total bust. So I decided to try sawing it, and that worked better, although it was slow going. In the end, I sawed 5 of them, and my husband (through some Tom Sawyer trickery) sawed one. I went through two blades on a hack saw.

My son also “helped” with these. I would not let him operate the saw, but I let him help me cut the pipe, tandem style, back and forth. He liked that. Then at one point he took my marker and drew a picture of me cutting all my boxes:

Yes, I am a builder mama. The garden beds are built.

Next stop… dirt.

Stay tuned for Part II!

Plant Babies

A few months ago I thought it would be a good idea to try to eat more locally grown foods. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how big an impact my food footprint has on my total carbon footprint. As we know, most food in the grocery store is flown in from all over the world. For me, it is very difficult to find even a few items produced locally, let alone in my province. Realizing this, I started shopping at the Farmer’s Market, where I could buy my food from the very farmer who grew it. I later did some research, and found a local dairy supplier, wine supplier, beer supplier, and most importantly (yes – even more important than the beer and wine) a local flour supplier. Eating local feels really good, it feels like I am helping farmers, the food is fresher, and yes, it tastes better.

As I continued on thinking about local food, I realized that because I live in a northern climate, it would be impossible to eat locally year round, without some careful planning, preserving and storage. Food available summer must be preserved for winter. You can freeze it, can it, dehydrate it or put it in a root cellar. I was inspired by people living here, in my cold city, who grow enough food in their backyards to last them all winter. This can be done. People do this. Maybe I can do it too?

So I decided to grow a vegetable garden. Not just a few tomatoes, but a whole big garden, with potatoes, peppers, onions, carrots, beets, lettuce, cucumber, squash, beans and peas. I want to grow enough tomatoes to preserve tomato sauce all winter, enough onions that will last through the winter, and a pile of carrots that will get me through at least until fall. I want to freeze some peas and beans, I want to store some potatoes and beets, and I want to eat fresh salads all summer. Can I do it?

Well it starts with these guys:

They are officially one month old today – my assortment of tomatoes and peppers. It is exciting to watch them change day by day, how some varieties started out slow but have now surged ahead, and how I am able to now discern differences in the foliage in the varieties, being able to pick out a variety from a line up, even at this young age. When I first transplanted them from their little pods to their pots, they looked so grown up, standing tall all by themselves. I am proud of my plant babies.

These guys were just recently started. Here we have parsley, mint, basil, oregano and lettuce:

So far, so good. However, I have a secret fear of failure in this venture. How can I grow food for myself? Doesn’t it require some kind of magical skill? I started this process knowing absolutely nothing, and here I am a couple of months later growing 48 seedlings… Can I even pull this off?

I really hope so. I really want to grow an actual real garden, to feed my family, to feed myself, to feed my soul.

Grow, little plant babies.  Grow.


I watched the film Dirt! last week. Many of us don’t really consider dirt, and when we do, we look down upon it. We don’t like it when we are “dirty” or when other people treat us like “dirt”. Dirt is the lowest of the low.

But in reality, there is nothing more important that dirt, as it is the cradle of life here on Earth. We need high quality dirt, or soil, to grow food. Without any dirt, we could not grow any food, and without any food … well you get the picture.

Many of us think that dirt is limitless. This is not true. Not all areas of the Earth have dirt, and some areas that have it, only have a few inches. This dirt took a long, long time to develop. Once it is gone, it will take a long, long time to develop more. Poor countries that don’t have dirt, or have lost their dirt, do not have an effective way to feed their people. So they go hungry, or migrate to areas where there is dirt. These migrations can cause conflicts among those who do not want to give up their dirt to newcomers. Countries that have dirt, even poorer countries, have a way to feed themselves and enjoy much higher food security.

Here in the West, we are paving over a lot of our dirt. Cities continue to sprawl, roads continue to be built, and less and less land is available for farming. But here we don’t notice the impact that this has on our food supply; it does not impact where our next meal is coming from. We just go and buy our food at the grocery store, much of it imported from other countries.

But wait a minute. We know that we are using almost all the arable land on this planet to grow food. Is the land attributed to feeding us, land that is way off in other countries, poor countries even, now not available to feed the local people that live there? Does our requirement for the next mall, the next suburban development, trump another country’s ability to feed its people?

Map of world percentage arable land.

% of Arable Land by Country - Image via Wikipedia

  So given how important dirt is – how are we treating it? Not very well I am afraid. A lot of our dirt has been lost due to conventional farming practices. When a farmer tills a dry field on a windy day, a lot of the dirt is taken up by the wind, blown into the sky, never to return. Dirt is also lost due to irresponsible irrigation practices that allow dirt to wash away into our streams and lakes and oceans, never to be used again. When we tear down a forest on a mountain, the dirt that remains can very quickly be washed away, without the network of trees and roots and plants to sustain it. On top of all of that, much of the dirt that we do have remaining is subjected to a host of chemical additives, such as fertilizer and pesticides. Unfortunately, nitrogen in fertilizer isn’t even completely absorbed by the plants – up to 70% of it gets carried away to lakes and oceans, creating algae blooms and reducing the oxygen content in the water. Fish stocks decline, aquatic life suffers. This is what has directly caused the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is estimated now to be the size of New Jersey.

We also add pesticides of course, as we don’t want those pesky pests eating up our crops. But pesticides kill more than just the pests; they also kill beneficial bugs and organisms that provide some of the life giving properties of the soil.

On top of all this, we plant vast mono-cultures of single crops. This ensures that the same nutrients are continuously drained from the soil, decreasing its health. Mono-cultures also invite more and more pests, as they provide a limitless feeding ground. So, we add more and more pesticides.

The result? We now have less dirt. We have dirt that is not nearly as healthy as it was 2 generations ago. We are using almost all of the arable land on Earth, yet continue to sprawl our cities, growing out instead of up. We buy food from a world away, perhaps impacting the food security of the local people of that country. We don’t know where our food comes from, and we don’t know about the importance of dirt

We are treating dirt, well – like “dirt”.

Alternatively, organic farming cherishes the dirt. It is all about dirt! Everything begins and ends with the quality of the dirt. Dirt that has been farmed organically has much more life within it, holds much more water, and releases its nutrients much more slowly – just how the plants like it. Organic dirt also holds much more carbon. If we all farmed organically, just think of the carbon sink we could create! Organic farming could contribute to reducing the carbon from the sky, which we so desperately need right now.

As for managing pests, that can be done organically as well. Instead of applying chemicals, there are several other natural alternatives:

  1. Grow strong, healthy plants in strong, healthy dirt, so that they are more able to naturally defend off pests
  2. Plant companion plants that deter pests (like marigolds and onions around your vegetable patch)
  3. Rotate plants every season to mix it up and confuse pests
  4. Introduce pest predators, such as ladybugs, into the mix
  5. Watch over and care for your plants, noticing early when there is a pest problem, so that action can be taken

So the next time you see a pile of dirt, do not scoff. Be happy and thankful for it!


Now that I have a garden plan and seed plan, last weekend we actually planted seeds! I thought it would be fun to designate plants for each child, so they each planted three cherry tomatoes each. They love cherry tomatoes, so I figured it was best to start with that. I am hoping that they will feel a sense of pride and ownership over their plants, as they plant them, watch them germinate and grow, and finally – produce some stuff to eat! My son planted the Balcony Charm variety and my daughter  Sweet Hybrids. I also seeded Black Cherry tomatoes, as well as Roma and Early Girl tomatoes. We put three seeds in each pellet, for a total of 18 plants and hoped for the best. I put them on top of the fridge, covered with a plastic dome, to create a warm, humid environment.

Now look:

Seedlings! I have since moved them to my sunniest window. Apparently seeds like warmth to germinate, but prefer cool conditions once they are up. I am hoping they will be cool enough right up against the window.

I also planted red and green peppers, but they have yet to poke their heads out. I can see that the seed has sprouted, but they are still tiny pinpricks in the soil. These guys are still on top of the fridge.

Tomorrow I will plant parsley, mint and oregano. I am about a week behind on these. I have a feeling we might be late planting our seedlings outside this year anyway, as we still have a 3 foot pile of snow in the backyard! Spring just does not want to come this year. This week has been cold and gray, and I am yearning for the sun. Physically yearning! I want to feel the sun upon my face, I want to see greenery, I want to see things growing.

When spring finally does come, and morphs into glorious summer, I am sure I will be spending many hours outside, tending to my new garden. It will be a good excuse to get out there and soak up each and every day of summer!

Seed Plan

I have been immersed in the world of vegetables.

As I am planning my very first vegetable garden this year, I have spent the last two weekends studying, like a student, how to grow vegetables. It brought me back to my university days. For several nights I have sat at the kitchen table after the kids have gone to bed, with my library books and my notebook, busily learning.

The culmination of this effort is a page of notes for each vegetable I want to grow: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, peas, beans, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, basil, parsley, oregano, cilantro, mint and spinach. I have learned a lot. For example, cucumbers like hot weather, but they like their fruit to stay cool and shaded under their large leaves. Their roots are vulnerable at the seedling stage so it is best to plant them in a pot that can go directly into the ground outside.

Now peas hate the heat, and so are the very first to be planted in the spring – a full 4 weeks before last frost date! Hot weather converts the sugary goodness within their pods into starchy blandness, so one hot afternoon on the vine in the middle of summer can make all the difference.

As for beans, there are two types – little guys that grow in little bushes (bush beans), and then big trailing types that grow up poles (pole beans). I am going to try both. The pole beans can be grown up a 6′ tripod of bamboo or wood stakes; I think this will look so pretty that I am going to put them in my front yard.

Carrots take the longest to germinate, so much so that gardeners forget where they have planted them. So some people plant them mixed in with radishes, just to mark the rows (radishes sprout and grow quick, but since you have to pull them all out after the carrots finally do come up, I think that this is too much work and a waste of radishes).

Tomatoes are the divas. They are well loved, but high maintenance. I learned that there are two main types, those that stay in a bush (determinant) and those that climb on a vine (indeterminant). I will try some of each. For those that vine, you have to give them a trellis or stake support, and tie them as they grow, at every 12″ or so. You also have to prune off the little suckers, so that the plant only maintains 2 to 3 main stems to focus its energy. You need to side dress them with compost when the flowers come out, and keep them well watered but not too much or else their skins will split. They are very frost sensitive so they should go out one week after last frost and then be covered up with blankets if there is any risk of frost thereafter. This is where container gardening has some advantages, as you can just whip in all your containers inside if there is a chance of frost!

Then there is the lettuce, it grows fast and aplenty and if you plant a few seeds every week or so you will have lettuce all season long. Great!

Some plants are started from seed outdoors, and some have a longer growing season so have to be started early indoors from seed, and then planted outside as a seedling later on. Every plant has a different plant date according to the kind of weather they like (peas like cool, cucumbers like hot) and they all grow at different rates and have different harvest times as well. It can get bit confusing to keep straight, so I decided to pull out my nerdy spreadsheet skills and map this thing out:

So it looks like next weekend, we will be planting our first seeds indoors, parsley, lettuce, oregano and mint to be exact. The weekend after that – peppers. The weekend after that – our diva tomatoes. Interestingly enough, the weekend after that we will be starting our basil indoors from seed at the same time we are supposed to be planting our peas outside from seed (April 9th). This seems ridiculous since this is only a few weeks away and there is still currently 3 feet of snow outside. Melt baby melt! That part of the schedule might have to be adjusted. It looks like I will be busy harvesting in July, and for some crops, will be able to put in a second planting before fall. Lettuce I will plant all summer long. Tomatoes will be saved for last, ready at the very end of the growing season (like all divas, they make you wait).

This will be my first crack at raising seedlings indoors, so if it doesn’t work, I will just buy seedlings at the nursery. I figure it is worth a try and will be fun for the kids to be involved too. I am sure they will love to help plant the seeds, and see how they germinate and grow. I am hoping to have two little helpers in the garden all season long. It will give us something to do together outside, and who knows, maybe they will eat all these new vegetables that they had a hand in growing…

So my planting dates are coming up quickly, and I needed to get my hands on some seeds. Since I did not have time to order them from a seed catalogue this year, I browsed varieties using online seed catalogues, looked up which varieties were recommended for my area, and then took all this information to my local nursery to buy packets of seeds off the rack. It was fun!

So much potential, those little packets. What goodness will they bring?

Garden Plan

I have been really interested in food lately. When I started this new green journey a few months ago, I could not stop thinking about garbage. Now it is food. Go figure.

But I really believe that we need to develop a different relationship with food. I am not talking about counting calories or the downfalls of emotional eating. I am talking about having a deeper respect and appreciation for food, knowing where it comes from, and the miracle of nature that brought it to us.

I was always amazed, watching tiny green shoots in the spring grow into a blaze of green by summer. Where did it come from? Does it come straight from the ground, rearranging the soil particles into a 2 foot bush? Does it come partly from the sky, drawing carbon from the air and amassing it into an organic structure? I have a huge spruce tree in my front yard; it must be about 50 feet tall. I look up at it and wonder, how far down do the roots go, given how high up the branches reach? Do they sprawl underground, across my whole yard, under the road even? How did this massive thing come to be, here?

These days we are so disconnected from this growing process. We know that food is grown, in general terms, but we really don’t think about it too much when we throw 5 tomatoes into a plastic bag at the grocery store and then move on. Where were they grown? Who was involved? How did the sun shine upon the plants? What was the soil like? Once picked, how long was the journey from farm to table?

I want to reconnect with this process. I want to see my own food, growing. I want to pick my own tomato off my own vine, and cherish the shiny red globe that it is.

So, I am planning a brand new garden for spring.

What precious agricultural land is employed so that I may sit down to eat 3 times a day, and feed my family? What if I used some of my own land, right in my own backyard, to take up this cause? What if my food did not have to travel an average of 1,500 miles to the plate, but instead made the journey in a mere 15 feet?

So yesterday I braved the weather and climbed among the snow drifts with my measuring tape, figuring out how much room I had and what I could plant. This was no small task, as we are still very much within winter’s icy grip. We are facing yet another cold snap, with temperatures hovering around -30ºC (-22ºF) with the windchill. My body hurts when I go outside! My 2 year-old daughter cries when the cold wind whips her face, so when we go out I carry her, rushing, holding her face towards me, being so cold myself, groaning under the task of trying to walk-run while carrying her, hoping not to fall on the icy, snowy sidewalks, while still trying to coax my 5 year-old to run run run it’s cold hurry hurry run!! We are all sick of it and longing for spring. What better way to beat the winter blahs than by planning a garden?

So here it is:

  1. One 3 x 8 foot bed on the east side of my house. This is a bit shady, but will get some direct sun for some hours of the day. I will grow veggies that can tolerate some shade, such as lettuce, certain herbs, carrots and radishes. I also plan to install a compost bin here as well. This is what the site looks like right now:

  2. Another 3 x 8 foot bed on the west side of my house. This area is decidedly more sunny, and should get 6 – 8 hours of sun per day. I will plant cucumbers, beets, onions, leeks, carrots and potatoes here. This is what the site looks like now.

  3. On the north end of this area bed above, I will plant a dwarf apple tree. It will be pollinated by my crab apple tree in my front yard, as well as by my neighbor’s apple tree. The dwarf variety will only grow 5 feet wide and high, so hopefully I have room!
  4. Space in an existing bed in my backyard, where I will grow peas and beans up the fence. Raspberries already grow here as well, you can see some of their canes sticking out of the snow:

  5. 2 beds that measure 1 x 4 feet each, that will go on the patio, facing south with full sun. I will grow tomatoes and peppers here.
  6. 4 hanging window boxes that will hang on my fence facing south, where I will plant sun loving herbs.
  7. 2 container beds that will measure 2 x 3 feet each, that will go in my sunroom. The sun room takes up a lot of my backyard, so I decided to use it as a hot house and will grow tomatoes, cucumbers and possibly sweet potatoes. I can also use the sun room to start many of my plants early; I am hoping to use it as kind of a greenhouse.
  8. A space in my existing perennial raised bed in the front yard, covering an area of 5 x 3 feet. I plan to plant a strawberry patch here. This is what the perennial bed looks like now (you can barely tell that it is a raised brick bed about 2 feet off the ground):
  9. A space in another existing perennial bed in the front, in an area covering 2 x 5 feet. I plan to plant beans, peas and a two blueberry bushes. Here is what it looks like now (again, the brick raised bed is covered in snow):

It is crazy to think that I will be putting seeds and seedlings in the ground in just over two months, when it is still so cold outside and the mounds of snow still so high. But it will happen! Spring will come, new plants will grow, and this year, hanging among the leaves will be fruits and vegetables.

What about you? Are you thinking about growing some food goodies in your garden this year?

Connecting at the Farmer’s Market

Farmers' Market

Image by NatalieMaynor via Flickr

There is a Farmer’s Market within a 10 minute walk of my house that is open year round. I have only recently begun to appreciate how lucky I am to have it so close. However, it is a small market. For the last month I have been going to my city’s largest market, mostly for the variety of foods offered. Yesterday I decided to check out my local market again, and see what I could find.

Kulman’s is the one vegetable vendor at this market – their operation is on the edge of the city. I bought potatoes and tomatoes. Then I noticed his pickled carrots and asked him if they tasted like pickles. He answered that they have such a different texture than pickles – they are not juicy but hard, and you really can taste the carrot. I considered buying a jar to sample (before I make my own pickled carrots one day) but they were $16 so I held off. I told him I wanted to make pickles this year, but had never done it before. He then went on to tell me how easy it was to make pickles, and specifically how to do it. “They key is tweaking the recipe to just how you like it”, he said.

I wandered on. There was a new girl in the Market, selling organic homemade cosmetics and candy under the name Mistical AcScents. She was super cool. Get this – she is inspired by the 16th century. Her products are a total throwback to medieval times!! She researches what people used way back then, using University archives and transcripts that have been made available online through Google Books. She then recreates the past, everything handmade, everything naturally organic. She offers face creams, cleansers and toners, as well as lip balm and lip tint. She has some bath products as well, and her homemade candies look divine. She even has her own Etsy shop online, and is part of the Etsy Organic Team. She was so nice, and I so believed in what she was doing, that I broke my shopping ban and bought a small jar of rose face cream. I just felt like I had to support her. This was her second show at the market and I wanted her to stick around. The price was right – $3.50.

Next I purchased eggs from Ma-Be Farms, only 3 dollars for free run and farm fresh. He asked me if I wanted brown eggs or white eggs. “What is the difference?” I asked. “Well brown eggs come from brown chickens and white eggs come from white chickens”, he replied. “It is as simple as that?” I asked. “It is a simple as that”, he replied. I chose a dozen brown. Then he mentioned that they take the egg cartons back to reuse them. I told him that I had been saving all my egg cartons, knowing that somebody would like to reuse them! So eggs for me, and a new home for all my egg cartons.

Next I came across a lady selling hemp products. I have heard of hemp before, but didn’t know a whole lot about it. She explained to me all the uses for hemp – the oil can be used in cosmetics, shampoo, conditioner, and it can be used as cooking oil. The seeds are a fantastic source of protein – a whopping 11 grams in only 2 tablespoons. Vegetarians of the world rejoice! The hemp fibres are super strong and long lasting.  She pulled out her knitting bag from under the table to show me two projects she was working on, using hemp yarns. The first was a hemp/wool blend, and the sweater was quite soft. The second was made from 100% hemp, and it was stiff, but she told me it would soften over time. She said that the sweater would be so long wearing, that it would outlast most people! I asked here where I could get hemp yarn and she told me it was difficult to find, and most yarn mills are located in China or India.  So this miracle fibre is grown locally in Alberta, but we have to ship it across the world to be milled for yarn.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could mill it ourselves?  She agreed. She told me that there are heavy restrictions on growing hemp – you have to apply for a license and that can take up to 2 years. Then the minimum you can grow is 10 acres. This keeps many people out of the market. I guess hemp gets a bad rap, due to its notorious cousin, marijuana. However, hemp doesn’t have any THC, marijuana’s active ingredient. So what is the issue? She also told me about Kestrel, the first road-ready car made out of hemp.  Check it out!  Wow. As for me, I would love to get my hands on some local hemp yarn and make some cosy sweaters for my kids.

I walked out of the market happy with the connections I made and the conversations I had. I definitely learned a few things. I realized though, that almost all these vendors were nearing retirement age (if not beyond). There were so many tables of grandmas, offering homemade baking, homemade children’s blankets, homemade doll clothes. Even the farm vendors were older. It made me think – who is going to replace them when they retire? What will happen to this market?

I am not sure what will happen. All I know is that I want to support these farmers in the here and now. Perhaps if more people do the same, the younger generation of farmers will see that farming can offer a decent living, and be drawn back into the trade. There are so many benefits – from the food security of our region, to the health benefits of the people through eating more whole foods, to the farmers, and to our precious environment.

I will leave you with a wonderful tribute to one farmer – my good friend Becky of F&M wrote this song for her Grandpa who passed away last month. It is simply – beautiful.

PIcture by Bjoern Friedrich.

Food Friday: Moo

A Frisian Holstein cow in the Netherlands: Int...

Image via Wikipedia

Ah yes, the cow. I was familiar with these creatures at an early age. I spent childhood weekends and summers at a cottage my parents owned by a lake. Across the gravel road was a field, and in that field there were always cows. They belonged to the nearby Hutterite colony. I remember waking up in the morning, hearing them moo. One such time, I peeked out my window from my bunk bed, and saw cows everywhere. Some were walking down the gravel road, some were standing there staring. They had escaped.

All my life I have eaten beef, and enjoyed it. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I actually craved steak. When I am out at a restaurant, I often order steak as a treat. I have fond memories of eating homemade hamburgers barbequed at my parent’s cottage, under the canopy of trees and in view of the beautiful lake. My Dad would also barbeque steak, carefully purchased and lovingly prepared, for us all to enjoy.

But since then, I have learned more about the source of all this good food. Apparently cows fart, like, way too much. Their farts contain methane, which is a greenhouse gas about 20 times more potent than CO2. They also eat massive amounts of grain and corn. It takes about 15 pounds of feed to raise one pound of beef. Much of this feed is grown as mono-crops which reduces biodiversity and depletes the soil. Corn especially, is quite damaging. It creates a tremendous amount of organic waste (think of corn stalks) and when left in fields to rot, more carbon is released into the sky. Even more worrisome, the heavy use of fertilizers in corn fields is causing run off problems in the Gulf of Mexico, creating a huge dead zone in the water, devoid of life.

But cows are not meant to eat corn or grains, they are meant to feed on grass. Feeding them what they are not really meant to eat makes them more prone to disease, and as a result they need to be constantly fed antibiotics. I also don’t like hearing feedlot stories, how some cows are fed parts of other cows, and how the large amount of excrement concentrated in a such a small area creates so much pollution (it is different when they poop all spread out on a large field as it acts like compost). I also don’t like that they are given hormones. What is in all this beef we are eating anyway?

I do love the taste of it though, and the protein punch it delivers. I have happy memories eating it with friends and family. But it is just not good for emissions or the environment. Who knew that livestock was responsible for an estimated 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions? It is shocking really.

So, because my love for the world and humanity goes deeper than my love for a great barbequed steak, I will refrain from personally purchasing beef from now on. I will no longer order it at restaurants. If someone else cooks it for me at a gathering, I will eat it and be grateful for it and enjoy it. Otherwise, no beef for me!

There is a vendor at my neighbourhood farmer’s market that raises and sells bison. Bison is native to where I live, hundreds of thousands of them used to roam here and feed on the wild grasses. This local farmer lets them do the same, and has little to no contact with them until the very end. They are not finished on grains, they do not eat corn. They are not pumped full of hormones. They live outside in the winter, just as they have done for thousands of years. So I have decided that I will buy bison from time to time, as a treat, to replace beef. It is local, lean, and natural. In fact, I made my classic chilli recipe with it last month and nobody even noticed the difference.

Plus they fart, like, way less.

100-Mile Challenge Show

I just discovered a 100-mile diet reality show produced by the Food Network in 2008, and it is currently airing again on Global TV. It follows the lives of several families in Mission, BC. This small town signed up 100 people to eat within 100 miles for 100 days. The show features the authors of the 100-Mile Diet book Alisa Smith and James McKinnon, and they give ideas and moral support to the challenge participants.

Here is the trailer:

You can watch all the episodes online here. If you live in Canada you can also tune in Saturdays on Global at 7 pm.

The last episode featured a family taking their two young daughters to a farm. They wanted to show their children where their food came from, how it grew, how it was raised. The kids collected fresh eggs from a nice, clean, free-range chicken coup. They toured the sunny fields. The parents wanted to impart on their children a love and respect for food, and the time, effort and passion that went into growing it and raising it. This really resonated with me, as it is exactly how I feel and what I want to teach my children. I found myself with tears during this segment.

Another challenge participant noted that he used to buy whatever he wanted from the grocery store, without even thinking about it. He did not consider where it came from or how it was raised. Now he has a new awareness and a new appreciation. This is exactly my story as well.

The 100-mile diet is not easy. It is not something you can just switch to, overnight. For me, I think it will take a full year before I can eat mostly local foods. However, as I do more research I continue to find new products offered here locally. For example in the last week I have found:

  1. Local wine producer en Santé Winery (the first and only wine producer in Alberta!)
  2. Local beer producer Alley Cat Brewery
  3. Local pasteurized cheese from Smoky Valley Goat Cheese
  4. Local yogurt from Bles-Wold Dairy

 I have also found the Eat Local First site, where I can order local groceries online and they are delivered directly to my doorstep. How easy and convenient is that? An Avenue Homesteader tried it and blogged about it here. I am going to try it for the yogurt!

I did not realize that there was such an undercurrent of local eating here, with a growing list of choices. All I had to do is look a little harder and bam! They were right here under my nose all along. Who knew?

I want to support to this movement. I want to support these local producers and farmers with my dollars, and add my voice to conversation. I have some lofty local eating goals for myself in 2011, which I will elaborate on a little later!

Hmmmm. “Think globally, act locally.” Now I am starting to see what this actually means!