Archive for the ‘Calgary’ Category

Healthy Yards

In an online discussion held in a course at SAIT for the Environmental Technology program (ENVS470 – Advanced Environmental Considerations) someone asked if we’d all got our free rain barrels from the City of Calgary yet.  “The City does not give rain barrels away,” I retorted.  “They cost up to $80 outside the sale in May.”  Turns out I was wrong about that.  “You have to sign up for the Healthy Yards program,” I was told.  So I looked in to it, and signed up right away.

I expected to have to wait until 2012 to get my equipment, as the student said she had signed up too late last year to get hers, so she gets it this year.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I got an email informing me that I’d been accepted to the program for this year and would get my equipment soon.  This all happened in mid-May.  I now have got my rain barrel and composter, and am eager to get everything going.

Now some background.  The City of Calgary Healthy Yards program is a two-year commitment on the part of the participant, with some very simple requirements that are very easy to comply with.  While it is free to participate, there is a limit of 200 participants per year – hence the waiting list described above.  As mentioned, participants receive a complementary rain barrel and composter, as well as a DVD with videos demonstrating and explaining how to use this equipment and

  • how to use a mulching mower,
  • how to select and plant water-wise alternatives for Calgary’s unique climate, and
  • responsible pest management.

The basic requirements of the program are (if I’ve missed something, please let me know!)

  • use the provided equipment,
  • practice grass-cycling,
  • use a push-mower, or at most a 4-stroke gas mower,
  • limit or eliminate pesticide and artificial fertilizer use.

These are all pretty simple.  The Healthy Yards Orientation will provide you with more information about how to compost, how to use your rain barrel, how to grass-cycle, and much more.

One part of growing a healthy garden is to have the right soil.  Soil is described, at least in part, by its texture, and one of the easiest ways to determine this is to use the jar test.  Soil textures are often described by terms such as “clay,” “clay loam,” “sandy clay loam,” and so on.  The Healthy Yards program encourages participants to determine their own soil texture using the jar test.  It is not difficult – in fact, it is probably the easiest (and cheapest) way to do it.  Native soils in Calgary are generally clayey and require amendments such as peat, compost, vermiculite, et cetera, to become more workable.  Unfortunately, the process of developing a good, healthy, organic soil base can take several years of careful attention.

The funny thing is that I learned all about the jar test, as well as a couple other soil classification methods such as sieve analysis, in the laboratory component of my course in Sampling and Analysis at SAIT.  The basic idea with the jar test (Procedure: Jar test for determining soil type) is to collect a representative soil sample from your garden, place it in a jar (such as a mayonnaise jar), fill to about 3/4 with water, add some borax or non-foaming dishwasher detergent, seal the jar, shake vigorously for about 10-15 minutes, and then let the jar sit for 2-4 days.  The different components of the soil will separate at different rates based on particle diameter and density (Stokes’ law), so that coarser materials will settle first and clayey particles will settle on the surface.  By measuring the thickness of each layer (differentiate them by colour) and comparing it with the thickness of the entire soil column you can determine the percentage composition of sand, silt, and clay.  Then refer to the soil texture triangle to classify it.  (Apparently the Canadian system uses only clay and sand proportions to classify.  The link provided goes to the more familiar US version.)

Anyway, the point is that the Healthy Yards program is cool, easy, and inexpensive.  There is no reason you shouldn’t get going with it yourself!


A Sea of Yellow?

Common Dandelion

The common dandelion.

Last August (2010) I wrote about the removal of the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) from the Alberta Weed Control Act as a noxious weed.  Well, it appears this is still quite a contentious issue (indeed, I doubt that it ever will cease to be), generating a lot of commentary across the board.  To call it a debate may be misguided – it appears to me as more of a fight as people become more and more impassioned.  Former Calgary City Councillor Ric McIver appeared on CBC Radio’s The Current this morning in an attempt to argue, apparently, for the use of toxic and harmful pesticides to control dandelion populations.  Have a listen to the piece and see what you think.  It is not only Ric McIver appearing, but also Simon Wilkins, coordinator of integrated pest management for the City of Calgary.  In my (humble) opinion, Mr Wilkins provides the more sensible, logical, and rational argument.

Just to be clear, the removal of dandelions from the Alberta Weed Control Act does not mean that municipalities cannot elevate the plant to “noxious” status themselves (via bylaws) and thereby control them.  While this is not likely to happen, all it really means is that the City cannot issue citations for dandelion “infestations” unless they reach 15 cm in height or greater.  Further, in my previous article I mentioned that the City of Calgary failed to pass a (cosmetic) pesticide ban in December 2009.  This means that there is also nothing keeping residents from spraying poison all over their lawns in an effort to control a simple, harmless little plant.  (Note that this poison may be transferred to pets and children when they play in the grass.  In the case of dogs and cats, particularly, which often practice self-grooming, this can have decidedly unpleasant consequences.)

Non-Chemical ControlPesticide-Free Zone

It should be noted that there are a variety of dandelion control methods that do not involve the spraying of poison.

Of course, there is always the basic method of pulling them up as they appear.  This can be good exercise, but is tiring, time-consuming, and often frustrating.  A better and more effective way is to keep a healthy lawn.  This can be done, at least in part, by following these suggestions from the City of Calgary’s Healthy Yards Lawn Care Guide:

  • mow your lawn to 7.6 cm (three inches) in length
    • keep mower blades sharp to produce clean cuts and promote better grass health
    • the three-inch length provides shade to roots, protecting them from heat and helping to prevent weed seeds from germinating
    • too-short grass is susceptible to weed and pest problems, takes longer to recover from drought periods, has shallower root systems, and does not hold moisture as well (thereby costing more time and money)
  • limiting water to one inch per week (get a rain gauge or use an inverted frisbee as a guide)
    • keep track of rain received over the week
    • avoid watering in the evening
    • avoid fixed watering schedules to help keep grass hardier in times of drought
    • manual watering with a hand-held hose and shut-off nozzle is the most water-efficient method
    • avoid misting sprinklers or those that spray high into the air, such as the oscillating variety
  • aerating your lawn
    • improves rooting
    • increases migration of water, nutrients, and oxygen through soil
    • encourages activity of micro-organisms in soil
    • aerate in at least two different directions to ensure good coverage
    • leave soil plugs or cores on the lawn to be re-integrated
  • dethatch and power-rake your lawn
    • removing thatch allows air, water, and nutrients to migrate into the soil easier
    • if you are not experienced in power dethatching, hire a professional
    • give some extra water in the days after dethatching
  • topdressing
    • a great way to level the lawn, or build it up to the desired level
    • fills holes or low spots
    • encourages growth and may add nutrients (depending on type of topdressing used)
    • allow grass to grow through by not watering for a couple days after topdressing
    • don’t topdress if rain is in the forecast, as it makes a big mess and does not rub in well

There are a variety of other methods that can be found by simply using Google.  Weeds thrive by out-competing the non-native grasses we have been brainwashed into using.  Keeping a healthy, luscious lawn can help to turn the tides in the other direction.

Happy gardening!

Rising Gas Prices Anger Consumers

Living in the heart of oil country, people are often baffled when prices go up at the gas pumps, and I count myself in that demographic.  However, with all the complaining people do, they seem to believe it is up to Big Oil to fix the “problem” (after all, they’re just after more money right, so why not gouge the consumer?) rather than taking personal action.  No, I’m not talking about protesting, fire-bombing X Co’s corporate headquarters, or some (other) form of domestic terrorism.  Rather I am talking about behaviour modification.  I know this is a difficult concept, so I will repeat it: behaviour modification.


I know, I know.  Behaviour modification can be difficult (though it doesn’t need to be), and besides, that “other guy” is a lot worse – why should you change when he won’t?  Well first off, your pocket-book will thank you.  The steam/smoke emitted from your debit/credit card could be greatly reduced.  Of course, this all depends on what you drive (assuming you drive at all), how often, and how far on average.  If you don’t drive at all then you’re already laughing (please drop me a note and let me know some limited details about yourself, why and how long you have been car-less, and how you’re getting by).  If you do currently drive, you should know that there are options.  I will discuss some of them below.

Drive Less

This is perhaps the most obvious option to many people.  Not everyone is able to do this, such as those who drive for a living (taxi drivers, couriers, law enforcement, etc), but if you can it is an easy way to start cutting your ties with the corner gas station.

Now, I can already hear some of you complaining “If I can’t drive, I’ll just be stuck at home all the time.”  I call bullshit on that, one of the laziest excuses out there.  There are a variety of options available, not least of which the appendages attached to your hips (unless you don’t have legs, in which case you probably have a wheel chair and use your arms or some other method to get around).  Benefits of walking include general fitness, socializing with neighbours, reducing local crime rates, and much more.

Of course, it may not be feasible to walk to work, in which case there are other options.

Public Transit

Seen by some as a blessing and by others as a curse, public transit (PT) is certainly a viable option.  Some cite germs or “wierdos” as reasons not to use PT, and others may cite cost.  However, those citing cost as a factor usually do not drive or have never driven.  Fact is, using PT can save you a significant amount over buying fuel for your car/truck.  It is also possible to meet some… interesting… people (both good and bad, I admit).  Finally, you may get some extra reading, work, surfing, or whatever in while riding the train or bus.  Or… you can try to get some sleep.  Just don’t sleep past your stop (I’ve done that before and it was horrible).


This is another option that can promote personal health and fitness.  Cycling is very easy, a lot of fun, and generally an excellent mode of transport.  Granted the initial investment in equipment can be expensive, but compared to driving, it pays itself off in spades in a relatively short time.

Indeed, because of accessibility and speed, cycling is one of the best and most effective ways to explore an area.  While many pathways in Calgary don’t really go anywhere (that is, there are no specified destinations), they do often pass through beautiful areas.  Riding to work is an effective way to stay fit – some even continue through the winter months!  If you’re not comfortable riding in winter conditions, I would advise riding in spring/summer and using PT through the winter.


For some people, it may be feasible to move to a location closer to where you work.  If this is the case, you should be able to easily walk or cycle to work.  If you’re careful about your new location you should even be able to walk/ride to the local grocer!  What a great way to save money, get exercise, perhaps even have a bit of quality family time.

Be Creative & Innovative

As mentioned above, there are numerous ways to reduce your reliance on your car/truck.  While moving is rarely a fun or even enjoyable experience, relocation can have some wonderful outcomes.  Moving in to a transit-oriented development (TOD) can have the benefit of living near the workplace, the grocer, and many other services.  The same can be said of many other walkable communities such as Calgary’s Kensington or Inglewood.

Yet another option is car sharing.  More and more communities have car sharing programs available for residents.  With car sharing programs you are still paying for fuel, but only what you put into the vehicle.  And you only use the vehicle when you really need it.


Now, of course, there will always be people who are unwilling or unable to get rid of their vehicle(s).  One way to get around this, then, is to downsize.  Just buy a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle.  If combined with the application of one or more methods discussed above, this can have a significant impact on your personal chequebook and lifestyle.  In reality, it is only such behaviour changes that reduce fuel consumption, which in turn can help lower prices at the pumps.

In a way, this operates as a carbon tax of sorts, encouraging people to buy smaller cars requiring less fuel.  But if you really hate the idea of a carbon tax, it’s probably best not to think in those terms.


You should too!

Canada is voting today, but if Calgary does today as it has done for years, there will be very little turnout at the YYC polls.  When I got to my polling station around 11:40 AM, the ladies said I was only the 28th voter of the day (at that polling station).  That’s nearly 4.5 hours after polls opened!  I’m really hoping that things pick up, but Calgary is known for its apathy.

This has been a very frustrating campaign for many Calgarians.  Frustrating because not a single sitting party leader bothered to come to this fine city.  NDP leader Jack Layton stopped in Edmonton twice, but couldn’t bother coming three hours south.  The only party leader to make a stop in Calgary (so far as I’m aware) was Green Party leader Elizabeth May.

When it comes to canvassing, I was actively canvassed at home only one time … by the local Green Party candidate, Tony Hajj.  Conservative incumbent Diane Ablonczy played the lazy game of having her minions drop flyers in mailboxes, but (so far as I’m aware) did not step foot in her riding.  Same with the Liberal candidate.  I don’t recall receiving any literature of any sort from the NDP candidate.

So if you’re reading this  blog, you probably are aware of my partisan preference for the Green Party.  Of course I would love it if you vote Green, but so long as you get out and vote I don’t really care for whom you mark your ballot.

Calgary River Pathway Cleanup 2011

Today I took part in my first ever Calgary River Pathway Cleanup.  While I live closer to Crowfoot Station than either the Bow or Elbow Rivers, I’ve wanted to participate for years but always just miss it, or forgot to sign up.  This time around I found a sign while walking along the pathway in Inglewood and signed up on the spot (smart phones are great!).  Of course, I say “I” like it was just me, but I roped two friends into it as well.  Turns out the Inglewood cleanup crew is one of the largest groups that participates in the cleanup.

My friends and I worked with a group cleaning along the shoreline from the Cushing Bridge south to the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary.  Within the first few steps onto the rip-rap by the stormwater outfall  under the bridge I found a syringe for a needle.  Happily that was the only one I saw, and I think one of only a very few found.  Other items of note include a dead mouse, two Bic lighters, and a condom.  My garbage bag was not very full by the time we finished, though it was getting heavier.  A lot of styrofoam pieces were found along the river bank, as well as several pieces of waterlogged fibreglass insulation.

One nice thing was the barbeque social at the community hall afterwards.  Spolumbo’s Fine Foods, M&M Meat Shops, and Wild Rose Brewery all contributed food and beverages for the event.  At least a dozen other community businesses contributed door prizes (which included $100 gift cards for Star Building Materials, Starbucks gift bags, a boogie board for the kids, and much more).

The weather turned out to be absolutely fantastic, considering that it was originally forcast to snow.  I just wish that I’d taken some pictures to post.  (And no, I’m not a stooge for business.  I just think that it’s so awesome that they contributed for such an awesome event that they deserve the potential of some traffic from me.)

All About Seeds (Part II)

Okay, I’ve been unable to post this in the  last two weeks because of a slew of midterms for school (7 exams in 7 working days!).  At any rate, I’m doing my best to keep things up to date.  Now, without further ado… the conclusion of my All About Seeds post.

Harvesting Seed

As with anything plant related, you must consider the three primary factors:

  • plant propagation
  • hybrids/hybridization
  • germination difficulty

In particular, if you are not a “seed-a-holic”, many things are difficult to germinate.

When to Harvest

Seeds should be harvested when the seed is dry on the plant (it is best when fully dried on the plant).  Early bloomers will likely be harvested in July or August while late bloomers may be harvested around October or even later (sometimes even January or February!).

It is best to have a journal in which you can record observations such as seed drying and dropping.  From this you should make a schedule – that way you know approximately when to harvest.  Harvest when the seed pods are dry (have I said that enough?).

Seed pods that drop seed quickly or expel seeds should be “bagged” directly on the plant.  For culinary herbs and greens: stop deadheading herbs, and allow greens to bolt in early August.  Prolific sowers (those that sow themselves readily) should be bagged once the flowers start to fade.


Bagging refers to simply enclosing the seed pod while it remains on the plant.  This allows the seed to be harvested without having to watch carefully for the moment the seed pod bursts.  Basically all you need is some cheesecloth, satin thread/fishing line/dental floss, and a darning needle.  Scissors help to cut the cheesecloth.  Simply wrap the cheesecloth around the seed pod and sew closed around the stem.  Don’t sew too tightly as you do not want to damage the plant.  (If I’ve described this completely wrong, or bastardized it severely, please let me know so I can update this.)


Basic materials in addition to those described above are:

  • envelopes or freezer bags
  • tweezers (for cleaning)
  • sieve(s) (for cleaning)
  • saucers/lids/pans (for drying)


When stored properly, seeds can be stored from months to years, depending on your needs.  Basically all that is required for good storage is a cool, dark, dry place.  Coin envelopes work wonderfully as they are the perfect size for most seeds and are effective at keeping them cool, dark and dry.  Take care, however, because once moisture is introduced to the seeds, they must be sown immediately.

Winter Sowing

This was probably my absolute favourite part of the evening.  Many people are unable to start seeds indoors for lack of space, or for other reasons.  There is a very nice solution to this known as winter sowing.

Basically, you can take your seeds, sow them in a container (4-litre milk jugs work well), and place them outside in a snow bank.  The seeds will germinate naturally when conditions are right.  The funny thing is that I was reading about just this thing the day of the presentation, but they didn’t call it winter sowing.

Be aware, however, that germination rates are unlikely to be as good as with indoor sowing.  If you are looking to start a nursery, indoor sowing is best.  If you’re looking to get your garden going and have fun in the winter, then winter sowing is a good option.


There are a great number of benefits to winter sowing, including:

  • protection of seeds from critters and from the elements
  • a cheap, easy way to get plants (seed packets are cheap!)
  • helps relieve gardening-withdrawal during the winter months
  • no need for grow lights or heat mats
  • doesn’t take up space in the house
  • allows you to easily try different plants
  • experimentation is fun


Only a small number of tools and equipment is needed to get started in winter sowing:

  • container
  • notebook
  • drill
  • box cutter
  • labels
  • duct tape
  • felt marker or paint pen

Container Requirements/Options:

Several options will work for containers, but 4-litre milk jugs seem to work wonderfully.  Otherwise, the container must:

  • be translucent, able to transmit light
  • allow drainage holes to be drilled

Do not use non-food-grade, dark, or opaque containers.  Even green pop bottles are not suitable.

What to Sow?

The following have been tried in the Calgary area, which is zone 3a:

  • Annuals
    • clarkia
    • phacelia
    • alyssum
    • dahlia
    • zinnia
    • marigold
    • bells of Ireland
    • sanvitalia (creeping zinnia)
    • rudbeckia
    • sunflower
    • ornamental grasses
  • Perennials
    • blue fescue
    • joe pye weed
    • monarda
  • Biennials
  • Edibles
    • kale
    • buttercrunch, cesclu lettuces
    • spinach
    • sunflower
    • pansy
    • mint
    • thyme
    • cabbage
    • broccoli
    • cauliflower

How?  Soil?

The how and soil parts are simple.  What follows is based on a 4-litre milk jug.

  1. cut ventilation slots in the top part of a 4-litre milk jug; keep the cap on the jug
  2. drill or otherwise create drainage holes in the bottom of the jug
  3. use box cutter to cut 3 sides of a 4-litre milk jug approximately 2/3 up from bottom (just below the bottom of the handle) (doing this before cutting and drilling makes it very difficult to cut vents and drainage)
  4. label the top and bottom of the jug in a manner that works for you; record this in your notebook or spreadsheet
  5. fill bottom portion of jug approximately 3/4 full with soil mixture; tamp lightly and water
  6. repeat #5 once
  7. sow seeds, label container with seed name, record in notebook/spreadsheet
  8. close container and secure the top to the bottom using duct tape – wrap all around the container to ensure it doesn’t easily come apart
  9. place container(s) in a snow bank with morning sun
  10. water when soil is drying out

The soil mix can be as simple as the inexpensive mix from (ugh) WalMart or Canadian Tire, or something nicer like ProMix.  It all depends how much you want to spend.

As for myself, I’m waiting for Seedy Saturday (March 19 in Calgary) to get some seeds and then get going with my winter sowing.  Once spring has sprung a bit more, we will get some square-foot gardening plots going.  I can’t wait!

An Evening Without Vandana Shiva

I was saddened today to learn that Dr Vandana Shiva was unable to travel to Calgary for her public presentation for the Calgary Peace Prize 2011.  However, even after learning of this bad news, I decided to go to the event anyway, as an impressive lineup of speakers had been retained on very short notice.  While I was disappointed that Dr Shiva was not there, I was thoroughly impressed with the speeches and presentations delivered by the panel.

Unsurprisingly, the primary focus of the panel members’ speeches was on food democracy, food security, and sustainability.  Some speakers even spoke at length about urban agriculture, which is something I’ve become very interested in of late (you may have noticed this if you’ve seen my blog recently).

Seeing as a focus of the evening was on sustainability, though, I was somewhat surprised that only the final speaker of the evening (a gentleman whose name I cannot recall, but who delivered a very long but excellent speech) who alluded to (but did not explicitly state) the definition of sustainability that came out of the Bruntland Commission in 1987:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs. (Our Common Future, 1987)

This is a key concept that has been emphasized time and again in courses for Sait Polytechnic’s Environmental Technology (EVT) program.  In conjunction with this definition is the premise that, in order to be sustainable, one must balance the environmental, social, and economic domains.  This is most often thought of in terms of government implementation, and is represented by the simple Venn diagram:It does not take a genius to see that fulfilling the demand of sustainability can be a tall order in any political climate.  With her campaign for food security, food democracy, and sustainability, Dr Shiva is making great strides.  She has already made great progress in India, and her voice is getting louder in the West.  I just hope that the reason the good doctor was unable to speak to us tonight was because of a visa SNAFU and not politically motivated.  One can never be too sure these days.