From Coding Code to Kids Gardening

IT’S A BEAUTIFUL STORY of how the act of growing replaced a mistrust of the world with a desire to share the joy of growing.

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I recently had the pleasure of connecting with Leila Mireskandari, an educator who is on a mission to fostering the habit of gardening in younger generations.

Leila, who talks about growing up in an environment of war in Iran, says that she lost the ability to see good in the world around her. She had moved to Toronto, Canada, and was focused on her own life and her job as a software developer. Her focus was inwards.

She explains that while she was on maternity leave, she spent a lot of time watching online videos. One of those videos inspired her to redirect that inward focus. Leila was moved to see the world in a different light after seeing a simple video about growing potatoes. The video wasn’t just about potatoes, though—it had powerful symbolism.

In the video, a newspaper with bad news on the front cover was placed on the ground, covered with potatoes and then straw. The bad news was used to grow potatoes. This simple act of growing moved Leila. Having seen this permaculture video, she started to seek out information on permaculture. “There was no way I could say no to my passion,” she says.

While she did return to her programming work for a while, Leila eventually left her programming job to found Urban Guilds Permaculture.

With her life now refocused on growing, and with a young child, Leila became aware that growing was not part of her daughter’s education. “Why is my daughter not being taught to grow food?” she asked. And so began Leila’s journey into inspiring kids to garden and to grow food. And with that, Leila founded Kids Growing City.

Hear Leila’s inspiring story below.

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A Dragon's Garden

Dragon Tongue beans for a dragon-themed garden. (Photo by Emma Biggs)

Dragon Tongue beans for a dragon-themed garden. (Photo by Emma Biggs)

I LOVE IT when kids see things that adults don’t! I would never have thought of a dragon’s garden: It was Finn’s idea.

This week Emma spoke at Toronto Botanical Garden about making gardening fun for kids. Emma shared her favourite fun plants for kids—and one of those fun plants is a gorgeous bean called Dragon Tongue.

Then she talked about fun theme gardens including a tickling garden, a purple garden, and giant’s garden.

The next morning we had a note from Finn’s mom. Finn came to the talk—and Finn is stoked about gardening. Not only that: He plans to grow Dragon Tongue beans in a dragon-themed garden.

Emma and I were floored. What a fantastic idea!

So we scoured seed websites for dragon-themed plants. Here are ideas for kids who want a dragon-themed garden:

  • Dragon’s Egg cucumber

  • Purple Dragon carrot

  • Red Dragon arugula

  • Tongue of Fire bean

  • Snapdragon…and there are so many sizes and colours

  • Dragon’s Toe pepper

  • Green Dragon cucumber

  • Thai Dragon hot pepper

  • Blue Dragon dracocephalum

  • Flower Dragon watermelon

  • Black Dragon coleus

Litchi tomato for spiny skin!

Litchi tomato for spiny skin!

There are lots more plants with a dragon connection. Just ask kids—they can help us imagine what best fits here:

  • Toothy. (An agave looks pretty toothy to my imagination. Or, if you want to stretch things, dandelion comes from French—dent-de-lion—which means "lion's tooth.” I even found a daylily called ‘Snaggle Tooth.’)

  • Long and pointy for the tail. (Corn? …I’ll let the kids brainstorm this one.)

  • Leathery or spiny for dragon-like skin. (I’m picturing citrus rind here; and Litchi Tomato would be perfect!)

  • Serpent-like shape. (I think snake gourds might work!)

  • Wings (How about a winged bean, angel wing begonia…or maybe something with winged seeds such as maple?)

When Emma and I created the talk, we sat down together to iron out key messages. Emma starts and finishes her talk by reminding adults that kids might not look at gardening the same way adults do….so let kids be creative. The dragon-themed garden is a beautiful affirmation of that message and a very moving reward for the time we put into building the talk!

Thank you Finn!

Finn, creator of the dragon’s garden. Thank you Finn!

Finn, creator of the dragon’s garden. Thank you Finn!

Grow Global Veg

Since my daughter, Emma, and I started filming videos for the From Dirt to Dishes YouTube Channel she shares with her friend Ty, I have a new appreciation for well-produced video. Luckily, Ty’s mom, Jessica, gave me lots of video-related tips in the beginning!

I have to admit that I’m a bit technically challenged, so piecing together video clips with sound, transitions, intros, and outros has been quite a learning curve. It’s fun, though—and it’s great to learn another way to share stories.

As I muddle through this learning curve, I’m paying more attention to what other people do. I was very impressed by Niki Jabbour’s new Get Growing gardening video series.

So I chatted with Niki to find out more. (Niki is also the author of Veggie Garden Remix, The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener, and Groundbreaking Food Gardens.) Through her books, her talks, and her radio show, Niki has a real gift for sharing the delight of gardening. Here’s our chat:

Tell me about the show

As a fellow food gardener, my whole goal is to get people growing food no matter where they live or how much space they have. In my garden, I love to grow a wide range of unique vegetables, which is the subject of the first episode. I share unusual but delicious crops like cucamelons and ground cherries. Future episodes will come out every two weeks for the next few months and then we’ll film more in the spring. In our next episode, I’ll tackle a question I’m asked all the time - what’s the secret to growing great basil?

What inspired you to create your Get Growing series?

I love talking to fellow vegetable gardeners about what they love to grow and how they garden. This series came out of these conversations and hearing what gardeners what to learn more about. Many have small spaces, many face pest pressure, many want to try something new. We’ll tackle these challenges and help them get growing.

What is one of your favourite moments in the first episode?

The team behind this series is a super talented group and we had a blast recording the episodes in my garden. In the first episode, we focus on unique vegetables and it’s always fun to introduce people to unfamiliar crops like snake gourds, cucamelons, and burr gherkins. Everyone wanted to try the vegetables and it was a perfect topic to start with because I think you can tell that we were having a good time.

How much work goes into filming show? Any funny bloopers?

Oh the bloopers! Jonathan Torrens produced and directed the episodes and he is ridiculously talented. He had us all in stitches during filming so the blooper reel would be hilarious. Each episode is between two and five minutes long, and went spent a day in the garden filming the first few episodes with much more work in post-production.

Where can gardeners find the show and get updates about new episodes

Each episode will be posted on my Youtube Channel, as well as on Facebook and SavvyGardening.com. We’re also super grateful to Pro-Mix Gardening who has been very supportive of this project.

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Get Growing, hosted by Niki Jabbour

Mason St. Farm Grows Community

We turn onto Balmoral Road and drive about half a block before we see a small Mazda pickup truck filled with garden waste and black nursery pots. Then we see a sales table on the corner of the driveway, next to the sidewalk. The sign says, “Mason St. Farm. Open Wed., Thur., Fri. 9-4. Please come in and find a farmer to pay.”

Mason Street Farm in Victoria, B.C.

Mason Street Farm in Victoria, B.C.

It’s the honour system!

Mason Street farm is nestled between Mason Street and Balmoral Road in an old downtown neighbourhood, just three blocks from city hall. It’s a quarter-acre patchwork of garden beds, trellised plants, greenhouses, the odd fruit tree—and a chicken coop too.

We pass the sign that instructs visitors to come in and find a farmer, and spot someone working on the other side of the lot. It’s Julia—who has stayed late on a rainy evening to give us a tour. She runs the nursery here at Mason St. Farm. When I told a friend I’d be travelling to Victoria, B.C. he said, “You have to meet Julia and see the farm!”

Julia explains that the farm was started over 25 years ago on a vacant lot. More recently, another lot and house were added, so that the farm wraps around one of the houses on Mason Street.

Before municipal green waste recycling, this site was used for community composting—so the soil, she says, is fantastic. I scoop up a handful and it’s dark and crumbly.

There is a long tradition of growing in this neighbourhood that predates the farm. Pointing to the dark-green house next door, Julia tells me about their late neighbour, Mr. Lee, a skilled gardener who grew bok choy that he sold locally. Judging by the plants we see rising above the fence line, the backyard is still verdant.

The neighbourhood is changing though. We look across Mason Street at the crane towering over a new condo building where there used to be a school. This is becoming a hot neighbourhood.

Julia says that there have been good developments in the food system here. They can keep chickens. And they can now sell produce curbside, at the sales table we passed on the way in.

Along with the sales table, the farm sells to local restaurants, and uses a subscription system. There is a CSA program—community shared agriculture—where people subscribe to a weekly box of vegetables and eggs. During the spring, they also have a CSS program (community supported salad) where subscribers get a weekly bag of greens.

Julia says the farm has good community support, adding that the roadside stand has been a great way to connect with the community. So is the nursery that she operates. In the spring, she grows vegetable transplants for home gardeners. The community support means that they have a network they can reach out to for neighbourhood issues.

As the rain gets heavier, we finish our tour under cover in the prep area, looking at the sink, coolers, sorting tables, and a washing machine used to spin-dry produce.

Before we leave, Julia tells us about their collaboration with a local high school. Mason St. Farm set up a garden on school grounds, so that students can learn how to garden. The school cafeteria buys some of the produce, and the farm sells what remains.

What a great way to grow community.

My Quest for a Toronto Persimmon

POINTING TO TWO TREES, Tom Atkinson explains that we have the makings of a golf club. “There you have the shaft of the club; here you have the head,” he says, pointing from one tree to the other. The shagbark hickory, with a bit of give in the wood, is ideal for the shaft. The American persimmon, as part of the ebony family, has extremely hard wood that is suitable for whacking the ball. Both are native North American species; and both have edible parts.

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Our tree trek today is the result of my interest in another North American native, the pawpaw tree. Because of that interest, I tracked down Atkinson, a Toronto resident and native-tree lover, whose backyard is packed with pawpaw trees. After my initial visit and pawpaw primer, he mentioned a fine specimen of American persimmon growing here, in Toronto.

I took the bait.

Click here to read the rest of this article

Passive Solar Greenhouses

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Yesterday on The Garage Gardeners Radio Show we spoke with Rob Avis from Verge Permaculture about passive solar greenhouses. It was a great show. Rob helped us dig into things to consider when planning a passive solar greenhouse--bringing together biology, thermal dynamics, and building. We talked about glazing, orientation, insulation, ventilation, soil, irrigation, and thermal mass. Click here to listen.

Rob and his wife, Michelle, have a new book about rainwater harvesting coming out this fall. Find out more about Essential Rainwater Harvesting. It's a manual for designing, building, and maintaining a water harvesting system.

Pop-Up Driveway Vegetable Garden

Wetting the straw bales to start decomposition.

Wetting the straw bales to start decomposition.

Our new driveway vegetable garden is planted! This garden was NOT in the plan for this year…but we had more plants than we could fit into the yard. The driveway garden is a quick and temporary space-making solution for the extra tomato, pepper, potato, summer squash, and chard plants.

We’re using straw bales, fabric pots, and bushel baskets to garden on the driveway.

STRAW BALES

  • The idea behind straw-bale gardening is that the straw bale is both the container and the growing medium. The decomposing straw gives plant roots needed air while retaining moisture…like a big sponge. If you’re starting with new, fresh, dry bales, the first step is to get microbial activity underway by watering them and feeding them. By the end of the season, we’ll have a layer of composted straw on our driveway that we can scoop off to mulch the other gardens…and then we can start again with new bales next year. Learn more about straw-bale gardening from Craig LeHoullier, who we had on our radio show last month.
Potatoes growing in lined bushel baskets

Potatoes growing in lined bushel baskets

BUSHEL BASKETS

  • We had extra bushel baskets from making apple cider last year, so put these to work as containers for growing potatoes (which we can’t grow in the back yard because our neighbour’s black walnut tree kills them.) We lined the bushel baskets with black garbage bags so that the soil will stay moist longer and so the bushel baskets won’t decompose quite as quickly. (We poked drainage holes in the bottom of the bags!)

FABRIC POTS

Fabric pots are moveable

Fabric pots are moveable

  • These pots are commercially available and what we like about them is that they have handles and we can move them aside if we need to move anything large along the driveway. My friend Johanne has used these for a number of years on her rooftop garden and puts saucers under hers to hold water, so that she does not need to water as frequently. I saw an entire rooftop garden made from these pots once.

FENCE

  • There’s a wonky board fence along our driveway. I can’t wait to hide it with a wall of tomato and summer squash! The bales along the fence are planted with tomatoes, which we’ll train up twine suspended along the fence. We planted vining summer squash that we’ll grow further along the fence.
We will train tomato plants up the twine that is dangling from the top of the fence

We will train tomato plants up the twine that is dangling from the top of the fence

Growing Community

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It’s nice to see gardening used as a community-building activity.

I’ve been talking with Helen Poon from the Sprouts Food and Health Co-op in Markham, Ontario about their backyard sharing program. They call it the Sharing Backyard Sharing Fun Program. Right now they have four families who have opened up their yards for co-op members to garden.

Helen says that something as simple as building a raised bed can really foster teamwork. Some of their participants have no building skills or way to transports materials, but are interested in learning about gardening. Other members have building skills—and some have vehicles for transporting lumber and soil. And some have gardening knowledge to share.

As I was writing this blog post, I checked the Sprouts Co-op blog

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  • “While sharing backyards, we are also sharing resources and knowledge. With the help of an instructor and engineering member, a single mother now has a raised garden bed in her backyard!”
  • “This is an empowering project sharing the joy of organic gardening. While providing practical application of organic gardening knowledge, this project is also building community and cohesion as friendships and support develops between the backyard owner and the members sharing the garden.”  

I met Helen this spring when she contacted me to see if I could give a talk about vegetable gardening. It was the first time that I’ve had my handout translated for a talk. Helen explained that the first language of most of their members is Chinese, so she had my notes translated into Chinese. But we had no communication barrier—it was one of the most engaged audiences I’ve spoken to in a long time. Our Q+A went for a long time. I left with the feeling that people in the room were serious about growing.   

The Sprouts Food and Health Co-operative (SFHC) is a not-for-profit multi-stakeholder Cooperative. It is a member-owned organization. They have four categories of members: consumers (members who consume our food and services), health practitioners, workers, and community partners.  They go beyond gardening and invite speakers to discuss a wide range of subjects related to health and wellness, and food.

Gardening, food, community, and health. They fit nicely together.

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6 Ideas for Beautiful Veg

Dreadlock amaranth in Chris' garden.

Dreadlock amaranth in Chris' garden.

“Every vegetable plant to me is beautiful. I’m biased,” says Chris Gark as he tells me about interesting veggies that he’s growing.

Chris has introduced me to a number of neat crops over the years in his trial garden at Martin Farms, a wholesale grower of veggie plants for homeowners.

Chris usually has lots of unusual edible plants on his radar. He says that this year he’s really focusing on greens. Here are six crops he’s stoked about:

1. Sea Kale

“It’s a relative of kale that doesn’t peter out like a lot of greens do,” says Chris. The large leaves and fragrant, edible flowers make it a fun addition to the garden. As a perennial, it’s a good fit for permaculture gardening.

2. Oyster leaf 

“It’s really quite an ornamental plant,” he says as he talks about the vibrant green-blue foliage. The flowers remind him of borage. The leaves are tender with a slight seaweed flavour. “It’s good for salads and garnishes,” Chris adds.

3. Red Ursa Kale

Unlike Sea Kale, this is a true kale. This beautiful heirloom has leaves with both frilly edges and attractive colour. Like many kales, you can harvest young leaves to eat fresh in salads and cook larger ones.

4. Kosmic Kale

“I had the first plant in Canada,” Chris tells me. Like Red Ursa kale, this is a true kale. But it never goes to seed. See my previous blog post. It’s stunning. https://stevenbiggs.ca/stevebiggs-blog/2018/4/19/a-great-ornamental-edible

5. Dreadlock Amaranth

“I eat the greens, but I ultimately love the flower!” says Chris. This is a plant that he grows year after year.

6. Biquinho peppers

“They are the size of large marbles with a point, like inverted teardrop,” Chris says. The name of this little pepper from Brazil means “little beak.” And the plants themselves are beautiful. Chris says that even in the cold, wet weather last year the plants performed very well.

A Great Ornamental Edible

Kosmic Kale

Kosmic Kale

KALE CAN BE STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL. I made it the focus of my front garden one year, a broad band of purple-blue leaves right across the garden. It’s a great ornamental edible.

But chewy stir fries, failed attempts at kale chips, and a couple of accidentally steamed caterpillars turned me off of eating kale.

I decided to live life on my terms…and that meant no more kale in my diet. Sure I would grow it for its looks—for the colours and textures it adds to the garden—but would eat no more kale. Chewy kale be gone.

Last year Chris Gark at Martin Farms offered me a cutting of ‘Kosmic Kale.’ Chris trials lots of neat edibles. (I’ll write about that in another post.) I declined the kale cutting at first, but when he raved about how tender it was and what a great pesto the leaves made—and when he said it wasn’t chewy—I thought I’d try it. His plant was 5 years old and had grown to four feet across and four feet tall. He even pruned it into a topiary for a while!

Impressed with this ornamental edible, I called Alice Doyle at Log House Plants in Oregon. Alice is a wholesale grower who introduced the plant to North America. She tells me it was bred by Dick Degenhardt in Boskoop, Netherlands. An “amazing guy,” she says. She had been sending him unusual plants to use in his breeding program. One day he said to her, “Hey I got something you might be interested in.” She says he worked for years to breed ‘Kosmic Kale.’ “He gave it to me,” she said.

Because ‘Kosmic Kale’ doesn’t flower, it is reproduced by stem and root cuttings. Alice explains that she originally named it ‘Dick’s Picotee Kale,’ but now calls it ‘Kosmic Kale.’

Alice has a plant that’s over 6 years old. She finds that the leaves are tender whether the weather is hot or cold. As I write this blog post I pinch myself because I’m writing about kale—so I go to my cold frame to pick the oldest leaf I can find on my plant. It’s not chewy!

Plants are hardy to about -12°C (10°F.) and do best in full sun. This summer I will be growing mine in a big container that I can stow in my garage for the winter.

NOTE: This plant is not easy to find here in Ontario. I was in touch with Paul Zammit at Toronto Botanical garden--who told me they expect to have a few plants at their upcoming plant sale on May 12 and 13 (May 11 is for TBG members only). Click here for details.