Archive for the ‘Gardening’ 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!

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!

All About Seeds

On Friday February 25, 2011 I attended a very enlightening presentation called “All About Seeds”, presented by the  Calgary Horticultural Society and the Unitarian Church of Calgary’s Green Sanctuary.  It was a very interesting evening with three lovely ladies speaking about different aspects of gardening directly from seed: indoor seed starting, seed harvesting, and winter sowing.  Each is summarized below in sections below the fold.

Continue reading

Calgary Home and Garden Show

I was quite happy to get a Groupon for the Calgary Home and Garden Show this year.  Not having been to the show for many years, I was very interested to see what was on offer these days.  There also was the draw of Bryan Baeumler, host of HGTV‘s Disaster DIY and House of Bryan.

Of course, there are the usual hucksters selling their wares, all of which are “amazing!” It is possible that the one product that might actually fit that descriptor is the Vita-Mix.  This is the blender to end all blenders.  But I’m not here to sell that, and I won’t try.

My biggest disappointment with the show as a whole is that there was only one single vendor – the City of Calgary – having anything to do with rain barrels.  I was hoping to see at least three or four vendors with rain barrels, or something related to rain barrels.  I was very disappointed.  Anyway, I should mention on here that the City, in conjunction with Green Calgary, is having their annual rain barrel and composter sale on Saturday May 14 from 9-11 AM.  That is only two hours!  Locations are at the Crowfoot LRT parking lot, Ikea, and the Anderson LRT parking lot.  Rain barrels are available starting at $60/ea (regular $80/ea); composters are $35/ea.  Check out Green Calgary to find out how to reserve and pre-pay for yours.

The hilights of the show (for me) were two talks: one by Bryan Baeumler and one by Joanne Dafoe.

Joanne Dafoe is a “horticulturist and landscape designer with Spruce It Up Garden Centre.  After 10 years of developing dream landscapes in Calgary, she is venturing out and joining the vegetable gardening craze.”  She presented a very good talk on square foot gardening.  She is self-admittedly a novice when it comes to vegetable gardening, but with the book by Mel Bartholemew is confident that she can be successful.  Her enthusiasm is contagious.  This is something I am going to try this season also.  It is just so simple, and economical.

Bryan Baeumler’s talk was on the Dos and Don’ts of Home Renovation.  He is a very charismatic, engaging speaker who knows how to work an audience.  He spoke about getting permits for renovations – why in the world would you want to do that?  Well, for starters it is a way to reduce future liability.  It, combined with the inspection reports, also provides physical documentation that can be used at the time of sale to help justify a greater cost.  He also spoke about what can be done in a DIY fashion, and what the Professionals should be brought in to do.  This includes things such as gas fitting (duh!) and structural work.  Basically, don’t try to install your own gas line, or modify it in any way.  Also, don’t try to take down a wall unless you are 100% certain that it is not a load-bearing wall.  And even then, it is often best to get the professionals in.

In the question portion of the talk, someone asked if Bryan builds “sustainable” homes.  Bryan’s response was “can you tell me what is sustainable?”  And he has a very good point.  Some of the new plastic homes are far less sustainable than those built using lumber from managed forests, which, with due care and attention, will be around for a long time to come.  We then came to learn that the questioner was really wondering about “green” homes.  Bryan’s response was cautious, and rightly so.  There are so many products on the market, and 95% of them have some claim or another that they are “green” or “greener than X, Y, or Z.”  It can be very difficult, even for an experienced developer who makes a point of keeping up on such trends, to cut through all the crap to find products that are actually good.

I was very impressed with Bryan and what he had to say.  I liked him before this, based solely on his work and personality on Disaster DIY, and like him more now based on how he interacts with and engages an audience.

Gardening Season Approaches

I am excited.  Classes are nearly finished, and gardening season is fast approaching.  The only thing that would make it better would be having a job lined up for when I graduate.

Anyway, there are some events coming up for those into gardening, both of which I will  be writing about here as they happen.

  • All About Seeds
    Friday February 25, 2011
    19:00 @ the Unitarian Church of Calgary
  • Seedy Saturday
    Saturday March 19, 2011
    10:00-15:00 @ Hillhurst-Sunnyside Community Centre
  • Garden Show
    Saturday April 9, 2011 – Sunday April 10, 2011
    Spruce Meadows

So why am I excited about gardening season?  Well, for one thing, gardening is fun and interesting.  But I am also very excited  because, for the first time ever, I am planning  to try growing some grain crops.  Between the All About Seeds evening and Seedy Saturday, as well as the resources available on the intertubes, I feel confident that I will be able to learn enough of the basics to be able to grow and collect enough grain to plant next year, and hopefully also make a small amount of flour.  I’m planning at the very least to plant some wheat, but would also like to plant some quinoa and perhaps barley.  Couple all that with growing smaller items such as carrots, garlic, onions, and asparagus, as well as starting a rain barrel and continuing with worm composting, and it should be a fun and exciting season!  I do plan keep you all posted on here as things progress and as I learn more, so stay tuned.

Sustainable Gardening in Calgary

Tonight I went to a seminar on sustainable gardening in Calgary, presented by Rob Avis of Verge Permaculture.  I was a little leery at first, because The last event I went to on urban farming was more woo than gardening, talking about such silliness as biodynamic agriculture (if you pack cow manure into a cow horn and bury it for a year, it will become stronger and more powerful – sounds more related to homeopathic nonsense than gardening).  Turns out that I needn’t have worried: this was a presentation more about sustainable (or rather, regenerative) urban farming, rather than woo and supernatural forces.

The event was hosted by the Unitarian Church of Calgary, and was sponsored by the Calgary Horticultural Society.  There are several more events coming up, which I plan to blog about as well (see the list at the end of this post), including movie presentations, guest speakers, and seed exchanges.

The church sanctuary seats about 150 people and about three-quarters full at 19:05 – it really is nice to see so much interest in sustainable living.  The Unitarian Church of Calgary has been in partnership for several years with the Calgary Horticultural Society through its Green Sanctuary committee, hosting several “green” events per year.

Rob started out with a definition of sustainability along the lines of maintaining the status quo.  It’s not quite what we’ve been discussing in my environmental technology program, but in this context it makes sense.  The key is to recognize that in this context, sustainability means that we can keep doing what we are doing, with no real change occurring.  What we really need is to regenerate what has been destroyed.  In order to attain this, we need to develop very efficient agriculture.  Rob Avis sees this taking the form of urban farming.  After all, before WWI a majority of food was grown at home.

I learned that Brad Lancaster in Tucson, Arizona has created a permaculture in the desert, operating successfully on the very limited amount of rainwater that falls in the region.  He essentially initiated the transformation of one of the “worst” neighbourhoods in the city into one of the most desireable.

I also learned that graywater systems are illegal in Alberta, and in Canada as a whole.  Graywater is water that has been used for things such as bathing, dish washing, or laundry.  This water is considered by the Government to be waste water, unfit for further use, which is absurd in itself, and so is disposed of with sewage (known as blackwater).  Using dish water to water one’s vegetable garden is perfectly safe, so long as appropriate detergents are used (no phosphates, perfumes, or other toxic substances).  Check out your local green store for more information and for recommendations.  Using bath water and laundry water is a little  more difficult and requires more work, but is not impossible – many have, and many more will.

There were a few more points discussed, but I can’t really remember all the details (and I’m not really good at live-blogging… yet).  For a bit more information, Rob and a couple others in the audience recommend the book Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, as well as the documentary Natural World: Farm for the Future (50 min), available on GoogleVideos.  I am simply passing the information along – I have not (yet) read the book or seen the video.

Upcoming Events

  • Friday February 11 (7 PM): Dirt! The Movie
    At the Unitarian Church of Calgary, 1703 1 Street NW
  • Friday February 25 (7-9 PM): All About Seeds
    At the Unitarian Church of Calgary, 1703 1 Street NW
    Learn everything there is to know about seeds from catalogues, seed packets, seeding techniques, and more.
    $10 in advance or at the door, but pre-registration is advised
  • Friday March 18 (7 PM): Catching Rain: Harvesting Hope One Drop at a Time
    At the Unitarian Church of Calgary, 1703 1 Street NW
    A documentary by Dax Xenis of a grass-roots assistance project in Uganda.
  • Saturday March 19: Seedy Saturday
    At Hillhurst-Sunnyside Community Centre
    Calgary Horticultural Society Seed Exchange and Workshops
  • Friday April 15 (7 PM): You Never Bike Alone
    At the Unitarian Church of Calgary, 1703 1 Street NW
    A Vancouver documentary production, describing critical mass rides and their effect on driver attitudes, freaky bike rides, and the world naked bike ride.

(Note: I am not a member of the Unitarian Church of Calgary and do not presume to promote or otherwise endorse the Church.  The events listed above simply lie within the union of my interests and all scheduled events.)