Thursday, May 31, 2012

City Gardener on the Prairies

By now, most people in Medicine Hat have planted their gardens.  We are so lucky that we have one of the sunniest cities in Canada and that our growing season is the longest in the province, 188 days on average.

I love to garden, but our yard is so landscaped with tiered decks, cement patio, brick fire pit area, and mulched perennial flower beds, that I can't fit a single bit of vegetable garden in it anywhere.  Don't tell me that I should try container gardening, because I have in the past, and I can tell you that the difference in how much you harvest from a potted plant is significantly less than from a conventionally planted one. Thankfully I was able to get a plot in one of the community gardens, so that solved the gardening dilemma.  I always start my own tomatoes, but this year I also started some watermelon and cantaloupe.  I'm curious to see if they'll produce enough to justify their space in the garden.

This is the list of what I planted this year:
  • 3 kinds of tomatoes (13 plants in all) - Roma's, Sungold cherry and Yellow
  • Watermelon
  • Cantaloupe
  • Yellow zucchini
  • Burgess Buttercup squash - a hard shell winter squash with orange, dry flesh
  • Cucumbers
  • Yellow onions
  • Dill
  • Spinach
  • Peas
  • Purple French Fillet beans
  • Carrots
After that I ran out of room.  I also have two pots of herbs at home, basil and mint.  Sadly, we aren't allowed to plant any perennials at the community garden, so I'm going to have to rely on my parent's, grandma's and aunt's houses for berries, apples and cherries, etc.

Before I got into the non-profit activist work that I am currently involved in (Friends of Medicare & Public Interest Alberta), I thought that I would champion for food security, which has long been one of my passions.  I realized many years ago that you could be poor on a farm, but not go hungry, whereas you could be poor and hungry in the city.  The difference is that on a farm you generally have the resources and access to land, pasture, sheds, etc. to raise and store your own food.  Also, I think that the rural tradition of canning and freezing your own produce, and hunting or raising your own meat, has outlasted that of the city dweller's.

I remember the hours spent sitting at the kitchen table in the summer heat, peeling and cutting up pears and peaches for canning, and the hours and hours spent weeding the garden.  I didn't enjoy gardening or canning until it was my own food that I was growing and preserving.  Now I find it so satisfying!  Think of it this way, you can spend a day making a big meal that will be eaten and gone in an evening (think Thanksgiving or Christmas).  In the same amount of time you can make pickles, relish or jam and have a shelf full of delicious goodies for a whole year or more!  One time I made 40 litres of dill pickles in one day that lasted us for 3 years.  Seed saving, seed starting, gardening, preserving - these are lost arts for many people.  I'm so glad that society is returning to the values of self-sufficiency and that urban environments are being reclaimed for food production.

It has long been my dream to have a huge backyard with a bee hive, small chicken coop with a couple of laying hens, fruit trees & bushes, and a huge garden.  Not only do I not have the space for that sort of thing in our current yard, the city of Medicine Hat does not allow backyard coops and chickens.  I guess I'll have to keep dreaming for now.  If you were curious how much space it would take to be self-sufficient, then check out this infographic, click on it to go the original location to see a larger version.

how big a backyard would you need to live off the land?

Here are some additional resources regarding urban farming, food and gardening.

Books - This is just a small sampling of the amazing books available regarding food production.

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The gold standard by which all other books about food industrialization are measured.

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
One of the first food "exposés " written.  It made me very happy that all the beef I eat (other than at restaurants) is from my parent's farm.

The End of Food by Thomas Pawlick
This book is by a Canadian and is full of good scientific data on diminishing food nutrients and the food industry.

Apples to Oysters by Margaret Webb
I love that the author has chosen to focus on Canadian food producers and what they contribute to the table (literally and figuratively).

Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon
This is actually a cookbook.  But it also contains a lot of nutritional information and is a good resource if you're trying to get away from processed food.

Gardening on the Prairies by Roger Vick
The prairie gardening bible.  Long before Lois Hole started churning out gardening books, this was the manual for prairie gardeners.  An excellent resource for prairie gardeners, who often have to deal with extreme temperatures and drought.

"He Grows Crops in Other People's Backyards" - Farm and Ranch Living
"The City That Ended Hunger" - Yes!

Need help in planning your vegetable garden? This will plan it for you - Mother Earth News Vegetable Garden Planner There is an annual fee of $25, but you can try it for 30 days for free.
City Farmer News
Urban Agriculture Notes by City Farmer
Rodale Institute
Seeds of Diversity
Wwoof (you have to click on it to find out what it is!)
USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference This is the greatest unknown online resource ever!  Where do you think companies get their nutritional information for the sides of their product packaging?  From this!  You have to check it out.  I used it to figure out what nutrients my daughter was getting from the tiny amounts of food she was eating, and how I could make her meals more nutrient dense by changing the method of cooking, etc.

Locally, we have two great online resources for sourcing local foods and food programs:
Savour the Southeast
Community Food Connections Association

Here's a short video about urban farming from CHOW.  I'm know I've shared it before, but it's worth repeating.

Food Rules - not to be confused with Michael Pollan's book by the same name.
Here are two good rules about how to eat. The first is FLOS - as much as possible eat Fresh, Local, Organic and Seasonal. The second is the 80/20 rule. Try to eat healthy 80% of the time and don't stress over the other 20%

If you would like to contribute in a meaningful way for the most basic of human needs, please consider volunteering or donating through one of these organizations:

Prairie Gleaners Society
Medicine Hat Food Bank
Grow a Row
Canadian Foodgrains Bank
Heifer International

Happy Gardening and Bon Appetit!


  1. I was just reading in our local paper about a "Fruit Share" program that originated in Winnipeg that is being organized for Steinbach this year. Home owners who have extra fruit (rhubarb, apples, cherries, tomatoes, etc) or are unable to harvest their own trees due to health/time restrictions can register with "Fruit Share" and volunteers on the day of harvest will come with one-third of the fruit going to the fruit owner, one-third going to the volunteer pickers and one-third is donated to a local food bank organization. I thought it was a good initiative to make sure food isn't going to waste when there are many who would seek to make use of it. I'd like to see veggies included too. I love gardening and usually grow way more than what I can use and though I end up giving a lot a way, I get tired of "picking" beans/cucumbers and when I have enough for the winter I usually pull the plants. If someone else wanted to come and pick them then I'd be willing to leave them and let them continue producing. I will be interested to hear how this program does this year, and I think it would be great to see lots more communities adopt similar programs. Perhaps Medicine Hat already has?! :)

    1. What a great idea! I know that a lot of fruit can end up rotting on the ground because there is just too much for someone to pick and use. A few years ago I tried to organize a garden share program here in Medicine Hat for people that had garden plots that they couldn't use and people who wanted to garden but had no land. (This was just before the new community gardens were started). Even with an article in the Medicine Hat News, I had very little interest and only 4 participants.