In these hills growing your own food seems to come with a renewed sense of purpose. Monica Duncan visits several kinds of local vegetable gardens – some of them new, some long established – and talks with the growers.
The local food fervour is evolving from simply “buy local” to “grow your own.” Not just in the countryside, but in cities like Toronto, vegetable gardens are springing up in backyards, parks and empty lots, on rooftops and even window sills. In these hills, vegetable gardening is hardly a new thing, but even here growing your own food seems to come with a renewed sense of purpose. On this page, we visit several kinds of local vegetable gardens – some of them new, some long established – and talk with the growers.
In these hills, vegetable gardening is hardly a new thing, but even here growing your own food seems to come with a renewed sense of purpose. On these pages, we visit several kinds of local vegetable gardens – some of them new, some long established – and talk with the growers.
Once upon a time I had a magical garden, a humus-rich half-acre that accommodated every creative addition: herbs and vegetables, a koi pond, here and there an exotic, extra flowers for cutting, a pergola, a pool, some xeriscaping and statuary. Pretty much every thing I could desire in a garden was fashioned into that yard, a shady sanctuary that that offered up seasonal glories of colour, texture, flavour and scent.
And then we moved.
Now, after several years on acreage zoned for agriculture, there is nary an exotic to be seen. Sandy soil washes into gulches at the slightest provocation and irrigation water sinks away as fast as we can haul it.
The composters, set at some distance from the house, are working but yield up insufficient black gold to the proportionately larger vegetable garden. On the lawn’s brown spots, to which I attend as though running from one wildfire flare-up to another, flocks of juncos feast upon carefully sown grass seed, while grubs chew away at anything that does manage to germinate.
It was in year three that it dawned: The garden had become a battleground and we had literally lost the plot. Year one, the vegetable garden struggled. With some horse manure, a wet year two was better. But by year three we were strategizing a mini crop rotation because the insects had sent out our GPS co-ordinates to bugs as big as bananas. Gone were my dreams of specimen trees because, on this windy, hilly tract, a “microclimate” exists only in the hothouse of my mind.
How did our farmer grandparents manage? They grew crops and raised their own animals for food. There was no waste, no chemical warfare, and no ceremonial wave of the credit card at the nursery each time some problem arose due to drainage, soil fertility or invasive plants. When did we stray so far from our roots? So far that we sometimes have to examine a bulb intently just to figure out which end is up?
Enter the word “permaculture.” It had been banging about at the back of my mind for some time, and suddenly moved to the fore. So I called Russell Scott.
Russell and his wife Linda have been working with permaculture design principles for over a decade at both their home in Hockley and the nearby Ecology Retreat Centre where Russell organizes permaculture seminars. Both sites are a revelation.
The Retreat Centre has a large, circular community garden centred on an arch of kiwis and fringed by beds of gigantic garlic and onions. An experimental water feature fed by roof runoff is home to amphibians and oxygenating water plants.
A little further along Hockley Road, the Scotts’ one-acre property is an oasis of harmony and abundance. “Seven years ago there was nothing much here,” says Russell, save the house which nestles into the crook of a steep slope.
On sunny high ground, a charming straw-bale henhouse overlooks the 30-by-50-foot vegetable garden, but it’s not all tidy “row on row.” Russell points out companion or “guild” plant groups, deep mulching, and the site of a future nut tree plantation. Even on an extremely hot day, nothing looks desiccated.
“Every plant should be multi-purpose,” says Russell, explaining that besides its æsthetic value, each plant is either a food source or has medicinal properties – as well as providing a useful companion to its neighbour, either fertilizing the plant beside it or driving away its predators. A pretty berry plantation (blueberries, raspberries, currants, and gooseberries), for example, anchors slope soil, encourages bees, and leads to a small spring-fed pond that provides a catchment for run-off. Frogs, birds and butterflies abound.
A simple straw-bale hot frame sits smartly in the middle of the garden. Rain barrels are fed from the roof of the henhouse. When the growing season ends, “nature’s tractors,” as Russell calls the chickens, will be called upon to till the soil.
There are also some spectacular weeds, but Russell points out they help to break up hard soil, many are edible, and “weeds” such as Queen Anne’s Lace and yarrow attract predatory wasps that feed on other, more destructive insects.
With a mastery of advanced planning and a natural progression of projects, it’s all calculated to minimize manual labour. The land is not tilled or regularly watered; mulching keeps down the weeds and the moisture in. By working with the contours, soil type and other naturally existing features of the environment, the goal is to harmonize with, not fight, the land. In fact, says Russell, although it takes a lot of planning, the ultimate goal is to “let nature do the work.”
His self-published booklet, Blueprint for Green Living, spells it out, “The needs of one component are easily met by the resources of another component.” Put another way, in a fundamental sense, permaculture is about “location location location.”
“I can remember when I was a kid, having to weed for an hour before going out to play,” he says. His grown-up garden is a lot more fun.
The principles of permaculture were worked out in the 1970s by Tasmanian wildlife scientist Bill Mollison and ecologist David Holmgren. After witnessing the rapidly disintegrating natural cycles in the countryside of his childhood, Mollison wanted to find a way to practise sustainable and species-rich gardening.
The principles they published were at first received skeptically by academics. Fellow professorial types had trouble wrapping their heads around thinking that combined strategies from forestry, animal husbandry, architecture and other disciplines. But popular interest was piqued by ideas promoting household and community self-reliance, not to mention the health of the earth.
These ideas, says Russell, are gaining new traction as people grow more concerned about food quality and security. Chain-store produce tends to be grown in chemically-induced high-yield monocultures where the primary goal is to produce food that can survive shipping over long distances. What is lost? Flavour, nutrition, diversity and soil vitality.
But even beyond such compelling practical considerations, permaculture offers a deeper spiritual metaphor, says Russell. By making a relationship with our food, the soil, the living entities that combine to feed us, and by intimately listening and observing, and living and breathing with receptivity, we begin to heal our broken connection with the natural world.
“It’s how I feel when I’ve had a salad from my garden,” says Russell. “I literally feel the life force from my food.”
At the Ecology Retreat Centre, the workshops on permaculture that Russell organizes are taught by experienced faculty from the Kootenay Permaculture Institute in British Columbia. Workshop participants study permaculture principles and research the characteristics of the local climate, then set about analyzing a test lot and designing solutions that take into account such site-specific features as moisture, light, soil, vegetation, elevation and the like.
The course draws a mixed demographic: old, young, mid-career, recent students – folks united by their desire to live lightly on the land and by the conviction that they can achieve at least some independence from big agri-business.
This year, I am beginning to re-design and integrate various elements of my garden surroundings. I’ll try to think of my activity as a practice rather than a chore. Perhaps I’ll create a shrine to the permaculture gods in the centre of it all. And I’ll remember to repeat Russell’s mantra: “Permaculture is a healthy lifestyle, a way to self-sufficiency, and a return to harmony with our surroundings.”
For links to more information about permaculture and its principles, as well as Russell Scott’s seminars at the Ecology Retreat Centre, go to more information below.
The Large Country Garden
There is some native lore that says, “Five generations with a plant and it becomes your ally.” Ten years on, George and Liz Knowles’ 300 head of garlic line up like a small green allied army. In early May, already knee-high to the sky, they are weeks ahead of everything else in the rich black soil.
In the expansive perennial beds leading to the vegetable garden, other early risers – narcissus, grape hyacinth and tulips – are already lush in bright yellows, deep blues and purples. The whole of Larkspur Hollow, resting in a crescent-shaped bowl in Hockley Valley, feels a month ahead of its surroundings. Its harmonious symphony of colour and texture is nothing short of breathtaking.
“The first lie is that Liz isn’t interested in any more beds,” says George. “And the second is that all this is low maintenance.” He gestures over the acre and a half of cultivated gardens that have been cut out from the surrounding nine acres of forest.
Like several other couples I’ve come across, George tends to do the berries, rhubarb and vegetables, and Liz to the flowering perennials and herbs.
“It’s not that the men don’t like flowers,” says Liz “It’s because they’re growing food!” George corrects, “It’s because men have the strong backs and weak minds. And we take instructions.”
In fact, theirs is not a rigid division of labour. Both take a keen interest in the activities of the other, and help out as necessary. For example, George built the compost boxes, but Liz manages the turning.
The Knowles arrived in Hockley Valley in 1976 with one daughter and another expected, as well as twelve chickens and a rooster in tow. George remembers well the effort it took to make the one-time scout camp garden-ready. First went the privies and then the summer kitchen. Hidden beneath the soil was the bane of many an Ontario rural property owner, a garbage dump. “We found a diary from 1937 and a bottle of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound,” says George. Some muscular old pines and apple trees from that period remain, and some hawthorns.
As the gardens have gradually extended further from the house, gravel paths curve up a gentle slope through the perennial beds and rock gardens and past a water garden, mature fruit trees and sculptural evergreens. The large 35-by-100-foot vegetable garden lies in a sunny meadow at the crest of the slope, sheltered by a high ridge in the distance.
The vegetable patch had an easy start compared with some of the challenges of starting gardens at Larkspur Hollow. In those early days, a local farmer came by to help, ran his two-furrow Farmall tractor back and forth, and said, “You’re ready to go.”
Onions, beets, garlic, lettuce, legumes and more supply the family kitchen from the now loamy soil, much augmented by compost over the years. The deer evidently enjoy the gardens too. The Knowles have had to marshal up hedges, page wire and a peripheral electric fence. “If there is one deer, there are three,” says George, noting that deer can decimate favourite tender plants in no time.
The Knowles store and enjoy the root crop harvest all winter. And they protect tender leafy crops from frost with garden fabric and homemade wiremesh hoops. One year they had fresh garden greens a week before Christmas!
During the summer, trellised beans grow up to the sky. Below them, George says he has tried ten varieties of potatoes – each variety, he insists, having a different flavour and texture.
All the work is done by hand, and there is definitely a touch of artisanal pride as George describes his trusty, traditional hand tools. Because of all the rocks, “it’s more like excavating the gardens, than digging,” he says.
“I turn a section and plant, turn another section and plant.” His favourite tools are a sturdy English digging fork, a long narrow rabbiting spade, regular rake and Dutch hoe.
The digging fork, a gleaming steel specimen with a reinforced user-friendly handle, leans against a fence post at the ready.
“It’s all meant to be wilder looking, the further you go from the house,” says Liz. There is a dampish section by the lily-filled frog pond, a xeriscape feel to the tamped and augmented sand in the rock gardens, and the well-drained slope is perfect for a succession of bulbs and mixed grasses. By season’s end, this hillside dry bed will have seen the rise and fall of red, white and blue bulb groupings, followed by exotic grasses that provide colour and movement right through the winter. Elsewhere there are rhododendrons, azaleas, heathers and alpine plants – some recommended for Zone 6, although George figures Larkspur Hollow is technically in Zone 4. Some of the Knowles’ most cherished plants are living souvenirs from their travels to “high places.”
“The wilder the better,” says Liz of their trips to Iran, Patagonia and Corsica, among others. They are fascinated by discovering flowers flourishing in harsh habitats. But just because a plant will grow in a difficult situation doesn’t mean it will do well in Larkspur Hollow. High desert plants grow soggy in Southern Ontario humidity. Others need pro longed cold or heat for their life cycles. Often the Knowles try several locations around the yard before a plant decides it’s home.
Liz’s long association with various alpine plant societies finds her deeply involved well beyond the Knowles’ garden borders. She researches and guides tours to remote locations as she follows her passion to see flowers in the wild.
Back at Larkspur Hollow, George and Liz are often asked how they can stand all the work. “When you love it, the plants, being outdoors, it’s all play,” says Liz.
Follow the progress of Liz and George Knowles’ gardens on their blog on this web site, Gardening at Larkspur Hollow.
For information on Liz Knowles’ wildflower tours and to see her photo albums, visit wildflowerquest.com.
The Tidy Town Garden
A stone path curves gently past a tiny windmill, over a small footbridge spanning a water feature, then traverses a toy-sized rail line. The path continues to a larger yellow windmill. Beneath it jolly pink dahlias, marigolds, candytuft and blue alyssum shiver in the breeze of the turning blades.
Counterpoint in tidy rows are deep green, almost blue tomato plants, beans, kale and endive. This fantasy of a town garden in an Orangeville backyard has been a forty-seven- year labour of love for Ida and Dick Vanderaar, and it’s still evolving.
It all started almost accidentally. Decades earlier, one of their nature-loving sons came home with a pail of live trout scooped from a nearby creek. He dug a hole in the backyard, lined it with plastic, turned on the garden hose and briefly became a fish farmer. When the fish were gone, the excavation was converted into a flower garden.
From there it grew.
“He does the vegetables and I do the flowers,” says Ida of the division of labour between her and her husband. Although Dick has created an impressive patch of edibles, he still occasionally pulls the wrong plant when he “helps out” on the perennial side. His neat and intensely planted vegetable garden occupies about 500 square feet in the back corner of the approximately 3600-square-foot back yard.
The garden yields up an astonishing amount of produce for a small area, some of which tides the Vanderaars through the winter. Built up over the years with homemade compost, the vegetable garden is now slightly raised to lessen the battle with wandering weeds.
Each year both husband and wife experiment with additions to their respective undertakings. Several plants, such as potatoes, strawberries and raspberries, took up too much space. “We’d still like to try blueberries,” says Ida.
The Vanderaars start almost everything from seed, although Dick remembers a year where Ida potted up over a hundred geraniums to winter over. She wasn’t always an avid gardener, though. Growing up in Holland, Ida was required to work on her father’s commercial tulip operation. His standards were quite particular. “I hated it,” she says.
When her father visited his daughter’s Orangeville home, he made no secret of his opinion that their entire front lawn should have been in tulips.
While the scale-model windmills bring to mind another Holland landmark, Madurodam Miniature Village, inspiration in fact came closer to home. Dick had built a couple of small windmills, but was inspired to try a larger version after seeing one on a front lawn in Brampton. Since then he has built several for friends and family. He added the train about six years ago.
This spring, like every other, Dick had to hold his wife back from planting. “There is always a chance of late frost,” he admonished. Nevertheless, Ida is always up to hear the birds sing. Later on they share coffee on the deck and in the evening comes another tranquil time for the Vanderaars to observe their garden in the changing light. Ida relishes the downtime. After all the work is done, to rest and enjoy the garden with friends and neighbours, says Ida, “I just love it, I am in my glory.”
The Commercial Garden with a Conscience
Several years ago, when a neighbour asked landscaper David Warburton to design a garden for his property, aesthetic considerations were soon put aside for a more synergistic project.
The neighbour, a restaurateur, and David put together a plan for an organic plantation to supply the landowner’s businesses with seasonal vegetables, herbs and flowers. Caledon Farm, located north of Alton, is now providing chefs, restaurants and specialty grocers bi-weekly produce deliveries during the growing season.
“It was kismet,” says David, adding, “You could have pushed me over with a feather.” It was a long-held dream of his to develop just such an undertaking, and it was a dream fuelled by the groundswell of interest in all things organic, fresh and local, not to mention the growing fascination among foodies for heirloom and ethnic produce.
Riffing off restaurant successes like Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California and Intervale Community Farm, a long established CSA in Vermont, as well as desiring to integrate the overall philosophy of self-sustaining permaculture, David conceived an intensive farming strategy for ten of the farm’s 160 acres. Four of those acres are now in production.
His plan involves growing vertically on trellises.
A tomato plant, for example, is encouraged to grow up up up, so that picking is not all done bent over the plant, and the yield is literally higher. The plan also involves letting roots grow down, down, down. The beds were very deeply trenched and backfilled with rich, imported soil. Narrow 30-inch-wide beds mean rows can also be easily harvested from two sides. Between the rows, gravel walking paths save on topsoil compaction, weeding, and reflect heat back up to the greenery.
David’s intensive layout and growing methods, including a pollination project (see “Pollinators”), are not only expected to increase conventional yields by 50 per cent, but to extend the growing season with the help of a greenhouse and moveable hoop houses. In future, chickens will provide fresh eggs for the table, and their nitrogen rich droppings will provide a catalyst for the handily situated composting piles.
All this comes after some massive earth-moving activity pushed aside enough gravelly soil to create the flat acreage and build a large, sheltering berm. David admits that the huge excavation represents anything but a holistic approach to husbandry. But, he says, “I like to think of it as the last gasp of the bad, old technology to make way for the new.”
David especially wants to demonstrate that a smaller footprint is possible with conscientious farming practices. He envisions a future where young farmers will want to be self-sustaining on smaller land parcels, and he’s convinced “they should be able to make a decent living on five or six acres.”
His gaze becomes distant and dreamy as David rhapsodizes on Caledon Farm’s potential as a demonstration hothouse, for both produce and concepts. It seems he’s harnessed the technological developments of the past with a harmonic vision of the future in which almost any edible plant you can imagine has the potential to spring from this place.
The Restaurant Garden
No one recognized John Paul Adamo. The patrician young company president strolled through the hip new lobby of Hockley Valley Resort in gardening scrubs, gumboots and cap. He’d just helped plant a huge quantity of heirloom garlic in the resort’s massive new vegetable garden. It’s a fresh undertaking for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the revamped resort, and the next generation of Adamo family management.
A chef by trade, John Paul trained in Switzerland and Italy and apprenticed as a chef in Florence. In love with the practices of local sourcing and sustainability, he knew he wanted to bring this energetic approach back to his parents’ Hockley Resort. He admits it’s a big commitment. Modelling on strict Italian ideals, Adamo the younger is aiming for lots of homegrown produce, 95 per cent local sourcing, and a light footprint on the land.
He’s gathered devoted “locavores” for support. Chef Daniel Mezzolo glides briskly through the kitchen door. “Dolce,” says the Italian-trained chef, smiling as he delivers fresh, fruit-studded biscotti and a delicate berry mousse, frothy with scented cream and herbed mint compote.
“Daniel knew what we were about immediately,” says John Paul. The new head gardener, Santo Bertucci, is a lifelong organic grower and family friend. Caledon Farm’s David Warburton helped with the plant list. And John Paul has sourced boutique Ontario vintners, eager to complement the collection of privately imported Italian wines.
The planned variety of vegetables on the two-acre site runs into a half-dozen varieties each of heirloom carrots, beets, tomatoes, squashes and beans. They’ll feed the seasonally evolving menus of the resort’s two restaurants. The menu in Babbo changes weekly, and the menu in Tavola with the diners’ wishes after they are invited to walk through the garden.
John Paul also plans to guide staff through the garden as its offerings come along, so that what ends up on the plate has been encountered from seed to ripened picking. It’s vital, he says, to understand what goes into growing your own, to partake of the organic processes of life from garden to table.
Glorious colours, textures, scents and subtle flavours are what come to mind, that suffusion of sensations and desires evoked by an amble through a village market. In fact this other piece of sensual indulgence, the luxury and bounty of a farmers’ market is part of John Paul’s inspiration. Running through October, the Resort will host a Sunday Farmers’ Market, featuring local growers and artisans.
John Paul is bringing back-to-the-land values on an ambitious scale for the agri-tourism trade. A more typical establishment in Europe would have around 20 rooms; Hockley Resort has 104. But big change necessitates big ideas, and for John Paul, the effort is dear to his heart. “I know where we want to go,” he says. True to his vision, the change is also a kind of tribute to John Paul’s parents. He figures a new generation at the resort requires a contemporary and fresh approach. But funny that.
It’s the delicious old-world tradition of growing your own and crafting your own menu, really knowing where your food comes from, that the younger Adamo is reintroducing to a new generation of Hockley Resort visitors. And John Paul’s father still moves quietly about in the background, sometimes with a tasting spoon in hand for the sauce, and sometimes elbow deep in flour, turning fresh pasta.
The Gardens a Community Shares
For those of us who don’t grow our own, but care about supporting local growers, participating in a CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) is a fun and socially engaged way to get your greens. By purchasing a share, participants receive a weekly pick-up or delivery of fresh, in-season, organic vegetables straight off the farm.
As the name suggests, CSAs involve throwing your lot in with the grower and sharing in the fate of the season. Bugs and blight may scale back some harvests, but in a better year, bumper crops are similarly shared out.
At Caledon’s Peace Ranch, a residential community supporting people managing serious mental illness, a farm share is starting up this season. It evolved from the farm’s kitchen garden and is the kind of “social purpose enterprise” the ranch strives to achieve.
“Farming is the most important job in the world,” says Peace Ranch green spaces co-ordinator Heidi Torreiter. Along with the garden, the ranch’s green spaces initiatives include art, animal care and equine programs.
Heidi notes that employment training opportunities aren’t readily available for ranch residents, and those in need of rehabilitation often tend to be isolated from the very things they need: a job, a friend, a home.
What better way to help provide all three than with this next phase of the garden’s evolution: selling shares to supporters, providing work experience to ranch participants, and helping to make the garden self-sustaining.
The farm share program, Heidi notes, allows ranch participants to be “providers” rather than simply net-consumers of social services. It’s a benefit of the “enterprise model” – a more holistic strategy than in days gone by, when “treatment” simply meant hospitalization and, by inference, stigmatization.
Nowhere is the success of the contemporary healing model more evident than on market day when, Heidi says, the beaming faces of both program participants and market shoppers set her heart “aflutter.”
In mid-May, the air in the greenhouse is hot and thick with humidity, the seedlings of pepper, kale, eggplant and celeriac look eager to get into the ground. The idea is to start small with the market share program. But if the exuberance of these seedlings and the smiles on market day are any indication, plans to incrementally expand will grow like perennials – with the passing years.
For information about participating in the Peace Ranch farm share, visit peaceranch.com, or call 905-584-9156.
The Peace Ranch CSA joins two other well-established CSAs in the Headwaters region.
The CSA at Everdale Organic Farm and Environmental Learning Centre near Hillsburgh is now in its eleventh year. Farm manager Gavin Dandy has acted as a consultant on the Peace Ranch program.
Everdale’s Harvest Share program runs from mid-June to October and features options in share sizes and pick-up days; and it’s not too late to purchase a share for this year.
For information about the farm’s Harvest Share, as well as the very wide variety of other farm-related programs at Everdale, visit everdale.org or call 519-855-4859.
Like Everdale, Caledon’s Whole Village uses biodynamic farming principles and also offers farm shares. The farm offers options of pick-up locations and two farm-share sizes.
Although it’s probably too late to purchase a share this year, you can purchase Whole Village produce every summer Saturday at the Orangeville Farmers’ Market.
Visit wholevillagefarm.ca or call 519-942-0168.