Archive for February, 2010

Eating Locally and seasonally in a northern climate

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

In this blog I try to answer the question of what can one reasonably ordinary person expect to achieve in this climate?    Having grown much of my own food for many years and also being one to really enjoy a challenge, I would like to take a stab at answering this question.  First of all, I should say that I did once live on a farm and have had both the headaches and the pleasures of a large garden, chickens, maple syrup making, and a large woodlot.  But for the past 12 years, I have worked to develop a diet that is primarily local and seasonal within the confines of a very small village lot in Eastern Ontario.

The first thing one must do is to make some decisions about what can be grown and what must be purchased.  Let’s begin by looking at what must be purchased, at least for all of us who do not live on a farm.  I would say that the easiest places to start are with local eggs, honey, and maple syrup.  If you live in the country, many of you will know of producers, and if you are an urban shopper, most health food stores carry these items.  Almost all dairy products are local, so that one doesn’t require much work.  Our area is also lucky to have a cheese factory that actually makes its own cheese from local milk, though there are sadly few of these left in Ontario.  Quebec, however, has a booming cottage industry that makes beautiful cheeses and even local butter. Meat is one food that I believe is very worthwhile to purchase locally.  Government regulations and supermarket buying policies tend to limit the ability of small farmers to get their meat into large grocery stores.  This is because supermarkets will only buy from federally inspected abattoirs and the only farmers who can afford the economies of scale required by these huge processing facilities have very large operations.  This generally means feedlot animals that are often subject to all the worst horrors of our meat producing industry.  There are fewer and fewer provincially inspected abattoirs, in Ontario over 100 have closed in the past decade or so.  As a result, it is increasingly difficult for the small farmer to find a place to have their animals butchered.  Having said all of this, there are still farmers who produce good quality beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and turkey and these farmers are worth finding.  With a decent sized freezer, buying this meat can happen once or twice a year and does not have to take up a great deal of time.   As far as dry goods, there are suppliers and producers of local grains and dry beans, jams and jellies, and baked goods – if you can find them in your area, so much the better.

Fruits and vegetables can either be grown or purchased, and for many eating locally involves some combination of the two.  It is surprising how much food can be grown in a small area.  Since leaving my farm 13 years ago, I have grown an incredible amount of food in a tiny, 350 square foot garden in my front yard – my house backs into a limestone hill so I do not have a back yard, just rock walls and ledges!  This garden provides about 90% of the vegetables for my family of 3-4 from April to late November and often into December.  I do this by using an intensive method of growing, by planting small amounts every month from April to August, and by replanting about half of the garden in mid to late summer, once the spring crops are finished.    This garden is too small to provide me with winter storage vegetables so in the fall of each year, I visit a local farmer and purchase a winter’s supply of onions, garlic, leeks, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, turnips, parsnips, beets, and squash.  These vegetables keep amazingly well in a small and very simple cold room that I built in my basement; many vegetables hold their quality well into April and May.  Others such as leeks and beets need to be eaten within 2-3 months of being put in storage.   This garden/cold storage combination has allowed me to eat vegetables that are almost entirely seasonal and local for many years now.

I am beginning to get far more interested in incorporating fruit trees and berries into my small yard.  I have a large patch of wild blackberries and two years I planted ever bearing raspberries among the flowers on the east side of my house.  I would like to try a few grape vines, as well as perhaps one or two fruit trees.  Windmill Point Farm in Ile Perrot, Quebec, specializes in fruits and nuts that are hardy, disease resistant, and require little or no attention – a winning combination!   But for the most part, local fruits must be purchased.  This means small berries from June to August, then an abundance of plums, peaches, pears, grapes, etc. in late summer and early fall and then apples in the fall and winter.  I do store apples in my cold room but with only moderate success and I freeze and can whatever fruit I can in order to supplement our winter diet.  I have also recently found a small local grocery that has a great cold storage and is selling local apples throughout the winter.

As more people become interested in eating locally, locating suppliers and producers gets easier.  Increasingly, many municipalities have local food campaigns and these campaigns often produce pamphlets and directories that list producers.  Health food stores and small local groceries have long supported small farmers and increasingly we are seeing the opening of ‘local food stores’ – stores that specialize only in foods produced their area.  These are great venues, and often supply a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, honey, grains, etc. etc.  And they make for one stop shopping.  If your city or town has a farmer’s market, this can be both a wonderful shopping experience and a great resource.  However, it is important to make sure that the vendor is selling local produce, as many simply buy from wholesalers.  Many small farmers sell vegetables at the farm gate or through something called a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).  A CSA is almost like a buying club; you connect with a farmer and agree to take a regular delivery of vegetables throughout the season or throughout the year, if the farmer has winter storage facilities.  The other resource that I have found valuable is Canadian Organic Growers.  This organization publishes a quarterly magazine which is always full of interesting articles; it also has local chapters that often publish a producer’s list.  They can be reached at and membership is $40 per year.

Incorporating local and seasonal foods is a process and a challenge, but a fun one.  It won’t happen overnight, but there are many foods that can be either easily purchased or grown in a small area.  I like to encourage people to set small challenges – switching to local eggs, cook one or two meals a week with only local vegetables, find one small grocery store that supplies local products.  Then gradually build on these challenges and increase your repertoire.  It is well worth the effort – taste and freshness are vastly superior, you are supporting your local economy, and you are reducing the environmental impact of your food choices.  A win-win exercise for all of us.

Planning Your Garden

Friday, February 5th, 2010

I always recommend to people that they make an actual garden plan in conjunction with doing a seed order.  It is so easy to get carried away with plans for growing all sorts of vegetables in February when the snow is still on the ground.  Come the heat of summer, it can feel overwhelming with way more food than one can possibly eat and weeds sprouting up everywhere!  So, a plan, which confines your garden to a certain amount of square feet is always a good idea.

I start by making a list of all of the vegetables that I would like to grow in the coming year.  Then I get some squared paper and I draw out my garden.  I have been growing all of the food for my family from early May to late November is a garden of about 400 square feet and for anyone starting off, I would say this is a good size.  Learn to maximize  your growing space and to eat everything that comes out of the garden, before you let your garden get bigger.

In your garden plan be sure to include plantings from April until August, planting small amounts every month is best if you would like a continuous and manageable supply of vegetables.  In my book, From Seed to Table, I give several garden plans that illustrate how I do this.  If you plant quicker growing salad vegetables such as salad greens, spinach, lettuce, radishes, and green onions, you will find that the beds that you planted in April and May can be replanted in July and August.  In this way, you can use part of your garden twice and really maximize your growing space.

The other trick to getting more out of your garden is to design your garden around 4 foot wide beds with walkways that are 1 – 1.5 feet.  This wide bed system is based upon an intensive methiod of planting developing in Europe where is is common to find small commercial gardens of less than five acres that rely on small tillers and hand labour.  Many North American gardens are planted with a single row of vegetables seperated by a three or four foot wide walkway.  This type of spacing was originally designed for mechanical planting and weeding so the area between the rows had to be large enough to accommodate the wheels of a tractor.  There is no reason to give vegetables that much space, and for the backyard gardener this method results in a great deal of unproductive garden that must be dug, weeded, and watered along with the productive part of your garden.

Within the four foot bed, you can easily access half of the bed from the adjacent walkway and within the bed, the plants are spaced far enough apart that they have room to mature, but they are close enough together thar they shade the soil underneath them, keeping it cool, conserving moisture, and blocking weeds.  By having about 80% of your garden in wide beds and only about 20% in walkways, your harvest is much greater and the overall garden size can be much smaller.

So make a plan, and keep it small!!!