Kind hearts are the garden

This is a story several years in the making so it takes a while to tell. Stick with it though. It is about where gardens, community, life and death all meet.

Garden, Emmanuel House, Hamilton, Ontario

When I started my business in Toronto, seven seasons ago, I wanted to find a good match for donating extra flowers. As any flower farmer or florist can attest, there are always perfectly lovely, leftover flowers after every market and event. The delicate and ephemeral nature of flowers dictates we harvest and order a little extra, just in case. Sadly a lot of this beauty goes to the compost (or worse, the trash). In Toronto, hemmed in by lack of time and needing to use transit to get around, I didn’t find a place to donate. When I moved to Hamilton, the perfect partner arrived in my mailbox.

My neighbourhood in Hamilton used to run a little ‘zine that they dropped into each of our mailboxes. One of the first editions I read was about a stately historical house da few blocks away called Emmanuel House. The article was about the history of the house and its current use: as a hospice. I immediately approached them and began donating in 2016.

Emmanuel House, Hamilton, Ontario

Every week or so I’d swing by after work, carrying a bucket or two through their gates, past their gardens and up to the front door. The gardens were well maintained, but uninspiring and a bit gap tooth. One thing people might not know is before starting my business, I received a master of landscape architecture. My love and interest in plants and gardens is old, deep and varied. So week after week, I kept looking at their gardens and thinking about their potential. Another thing people might not know is my area of focus in grad school was therapeutic landscape design or healing gardens. Although I had designed a number of “healing landscapes” in school, I never got to see them built. So that winter I emailed with Linda, head of spiritual care and let her know that if there was ever any interest in redesigning the gardens, I’d love to try. And in winter of 2017, I got an enthusiastic yes, they were ready.

That winter myself and my friend and colleague, Heather met with the new, endlessly energetic director, Maria and began planning. Our original pitch was to redesign 1 garden. Instead we were asked to redesign all 3 yard spaces around the building.

Coming and going through the gardens and house, I began to witness the challenging and thoughtful work of the staff in the hospice. I must admit some level of trepidation. I had never spent time in a hospice. Before, when just donating flowers, I’d drop them at the front desk. But planning for the gardens, we were invited in, introduced and educated about the vital service the house provides. The staff there employs an incredible mix of patience, dignity, resilience, bottomless empathy, and no small amount of humour. Yes there were times of solemnity and sorrow, but there was also celebration and laughter. Death and life living side by side in one house as easy roommates and friends—not fearful enemies.

In 2018, Heather and I along with volunteers from local garden clubs and family members of former residents of the house, we installed the first two gardens. It was a wonderful but tense and tiring time for Heather and I. When we broke ground, we were not certain if the budget had been secured. Heather and I would work full days at the farm, run to the nurseries, eat dinner in the car and then work 3-4 hours in the garden in the evening.

There are two champions I want to highlight that without them, this transformation could never have been accomplished and Heather is one of them. Thoughtful, hardworking, amazing with people, Heather kept me on track as I tried to balance two major loads: being project manager on the garden and managing the flower farm operation. The other champion is of course Maria who endlessly went to bat for the project and worked with the fundraising office at Good Shepherd to accomplish the ultimate feat: donations for the entirety of budget we created.

With the first two garden installations complete, we held off on the largest install until May of this year. In the early spring, with its endless rain and cold, I walked over to the gardens regularly, seeing how last years installations faired. With the late warm up, not only did most things survive, they were a thriving jungle of greenery. In the fall, I’d planted over 400 bulbs. I almost burst in to tears when I walked into the back yard and saw all of the tulips blooming and the magnolia tree raining blossoms.

Again, Heather and I pulled together a planting plan, approximately 500 plants, and coordinated deliveries of plants, mulch, and triple mix with Emmanuel House staff. We worked with my neighbour, Owen, who runs a landscape design business. His experience and willingness to share has been priceless and he played an essential role helping with arborist work, sod removal and installing the garden fountains.

It all came together in a glorious full weekend of garden prep and planting with some of my staff, volunteers from the House, community members and family members of the current staff. Residents came out to sit on the new patio and talk with us while we worked. Neighbours stopped by to see the progress and help move supplies. It was the busiest part of the farming season, at the end of May where time and energy are a dwindling resource, often running dry. But instead the energy of everyone coming together around the garden filled up my depleted reserves. The garden was done—as much as any garden could be. I went to the farm. Heather headed for west for an adventure. Maria went back the work of the House. And the garden grew and began to reveal its magic.

In late July, to celebrate the garden installation completion, Emmanuel House hosted a garden party. Yes, there was punch and big hats. People roamed the gardens with the beautiful and informative pamphlets Heather had made which listed all the garden plants while the House music therapists played in the background.

Side Garden in July

Side Garden in July

Before the garden dedication, I had sat alone in the front garden by the fountain, taking everything in. I realized in all of the work and rush and worry, I had not ever actually sat in the garden to take it in. My usual visits were either to work or to think about what to work on next. As I sat, I felt a weight in my chest slide off. I listened to the bees in the flowers, the wind in the trees and the splash of the fountain. The garden did its work on me after all my work on it. I saw it fully then: imperfect but a heartfelt attempt to bring beauty and life into this space.

During the dedication we were led by Linda and the the music therapists in prayer and story. Linda shared a story about a resident who loved this quote attributed to Longfellow:

Kind hearts are the garden,

Kind thoughts are the roots,

Kind words are the blossoms

Kind deeds are the fruits!

The music therapist had put it to music in honour of this resident and this song we used as the refrain to the dedication prayer.

In this moment, I felt a deep upwelling of emotion. I stared up into the trees as tears washed down my face.

I thought of the song and the woman who inspired it.

I thought of my mother, who died in hospital 20 years ago from cancer during the winter right at the edge of spring. She would have deeply loved and been comforted by a place like Emmanuel House and its new gardens.

I thought of the garden and how distant all my worries and stresses seemed now and how more than worthwhile the work had been.

I felt the garden do its work on my heart: making it a kinder, more trusting and gentler place.

Yesterday I worked in the garden on my own, slowly and quietly. Maria popped outside and took me around back. We stood on the edge and watched everyone out for a barbecue. Nurses quietly conversed with and teased residents. Children bounced from table to table, eating tomatoes from the gardens veggie bed. Families sat with loved ones in the shade. Maria said to me how she wanted to show me this and to emphasize how much the space had been transformed and how much these gatherings meant. We talked on about future events and ideas, the work of the garden and how nice the breeze was that day.

Like all gardens, this one will evolve and grow. It will need tending. Residents, families, bees, butterflies and birds will pass through it and hopefully find sustenance in it. This is worthy work and I feel blessed to be a part of it. We need more of these havens, for people, plants and our greater ecological community. I look forward to seeing how I can help.

Emmanuel House Gardens, yesterday

Emmanuel House Gardens, yesterday

A final list to highlight all those who contributed to this project. If I have forgotten someone, I apologize, but know the garden remembers:

To Maria and Linda of Emmanuel House, champions and visionaries.

To Good Shepherd, working tirelessly for 50+ years in Hamilton to provide human services to our community’s most vulnerable, who took a chance with a small business with a big vision.

To the donors, for believing and investing in beauty.

To my ever hardworking and patient staff, especially Heather and Zoe who helped bring the garden to life.

To the staff and volunteers of Emmanuel House, for their hands in the dirt, their caring for the garden between our visits, and the endless supply of cool water and creamsicles.

To the residents of Emmanuel House and their families, for their kind conversation, help in the garden and support.

To the plantspeople and other small businesses that helped with the details, Owen of Outside Element, Dan of Garden Spring Landscape (who laid the beautiful patio in December!), Connon NVK, and numerous other people who helped contribute.

To cultivate a field

This time of year, we farmers are in quiet attention. Watching the weather and our soil, waiting for the best time to start our work. Too wet, our machinery gets mired in mud and damages our soil. Wait too long and you will spend much of the season chasing after the weeds.

The word we use for preparing our fields for growing crops is cultivation. It is only April 1st but I have been cultivating fields outside the farm all winter long. Field and cultivate are two words of multiple meanings. A field is an open area; it is also a course of study. To cultivate is prepare an area for growing crops, but it is also to improve by labour, care, and study.

What I love about farming and gardening is the potential duality of it: the work is physical and intellectual. I spend the winter making plans, researching, studying--looking for ways to improve farming techniques and systems and then I spend the growing season putting them to action, observing how my decisions play out in real life conditions.

This winter, I spent a lot of time thinking how I do things, trying to figure out how I can improve and make the gardens healthier and more productive. But a farm business is not just a field. It’s a business. There are financial and marketing plans to consider. It is also a collection of people working towards common goals and an art. So although I rejigged my farm systems, read a lot about insect ecology, and tweaked my website and accounting, the most important part of my winter was spent reading books about how to work and how to live. It could not have come at a better time.

I wrote about this in a New Year’s journal post, about a speaker I saw in December, who blew me away with her deep search to improve both her farm and her and her family’s quality of life. She shared a photo of the books on her nightstand. I took some of these and some books on my own reading list and set up my field of study: how to cultivate better work and life skills and habits to improve my well-being and hopefully, the well-being of the people who work with me and the farm itself.

Books for being a better farmer

Books for being a better farmer

And now I have a plan to set into motion along with my crop plan, my systems, my marketing that can be summarized to these points:

Work less, but deeper.

Work and rest need one another.

Choose your tools carefully and use them wisely.

Structure and commitment give room to freedom, not restrict it.

And finally, the guiding question: Does this enrich or impoverish my personal and business values?

Work less, but deeper

A few weeks ago, I spent time reviewing the hours I spent farming for the last two years. At peak season, I was clocking in 60-70 hours of work. It was a reality check, seeing those numbers on my spreadsheet. It was unsustainable and I vowed to work better, not longer.

Therefore, I made plans on how to support myself and my team better in those busy times. I have created set hours for us. I made solid, well-thought out plans to provide structure, so when I’m tired and flying about, the road is laid out for me clearly. I also forced myself to admit the ways I can sometimes fritter away time, which ultimately leads to me losing my free time to rest. I tried to cultivate new habits.

Work and rest need one another.

I have strived to make time to rest and recuperate, but never understood really, until reading further, how rest actually contributes to your work. Rest is not meant to be a passive thing. Active, but different, work happens in our brains and bodies while at rest. However, when you work to exhaustion, that activity nosedives. My sleep, hobbies, wanders, and daydreams make me not only happier and healthier; they make me a better farmer.

Choose your tools carefully and use them wisely.

When I first started farming, I had this hoe. I had read about it in a book and purchased it for the spring. And I could just not figure out the best way to utilize it. “But the book said it was the best,” I said to myself, trying a number of times to make it work. Meanwhile, I kept borrowing my friend’s tool, which worked great. The next year, the weird hoe sat unused and I purchased the the same one my friend used. The following year, I gave away the weird one. It wasn’t the right tool for me and trying to use it was a waste of time and energy.

There are many equivalents off-farm to this: softwares, record keeping systems, social media tools. Especially the later I examined closely and had to admit: Facebook wasn’t working for me. So I’ve deleted my business page. A continuous theme also across my reading: use social media with care. This wasn’t a warning from Luddites. It was a matter of neurology. Of addiction that is specifically written into these programs. Deleting all of my social media profiles was not an option: the are still good tools for storytelling, sharing news and events, and for being part of distant communities. However, a saw can cut wood and it can also cut you, if your not careful. Use mindfully.

Structure and commitment give room to freedom, not restrict it.

I have a weekly calendar above my desk where much of my waking days are now scheduled. I used to cringe at this sort of thing. I made it through the worst of school by keeping a tight schedule, but wasn’t part of being an entrepreneur about fighting for the freedom of my own schedule and commitments? Parkinson’s law is also on my board above my desk: work expands to fill the time allotted to it. Working from a structured schedule, from past experiments, I knew worked, but hadn’t been rigorous with it. I also had over-scheduled myself and hadn’t supported myself with healthy ways to rest and de-stress. This year I hope with finite hours and tasks balanced with active rest, I actually had the chance to succeed.

Does this enrich or impoverish my personal and business values?

After narrowing in on what are my key values, I needed a simple decision making tool to run choices through. Does this enrich or does this impoverish was a sentence written in one of the books and it clicked. There are so many exterior forces that impinge on decisions. Being someone that generally likes to make others happy and satisfied, I have trouble saying no if it means disappointing. While I think there are times in people’s lives to say yes to many things, that is not the time for me. I did that in my 20s and had a diverse array of experiences that I value very much. But now, I realize is a time of focus, slowing down, thinking deeper, speaking less and observing more (yes, the irony of this long journal post does not elude me).

So I will report back. Tell you how we do with these plans. Stay tuned to the journey.

Farmer Researcher, p3

locally grown sweet peas
locally grown sweet peas

I have sweet pea dreams. Colourful, giant blossoms with scent that carries for miles. I love their names and the stories that go with them. I love that somehow there is always a elderly, charming, flower obsessed British man that has created the varieties and grown the seed. But I hate to break it those chaps, I want in on their game.

A very long term goal of mine is to get into flower seed production. A gateway to that for me is seed variety trials. I dabbled a bit last year and decided this year to make it official. And of course, I had to do sweet peas first.

Talk to any flower farmer across Canada and your going to hear a similar complaint: where are our local seed houses for flowers? Much of the flower seed being produced and used by cut flower growers across Canada is grown internationally in place like the Netherlands, Israel, and various South American and African countries. Much of this seed is for outfitting large scale, corporate farms that use conventional methods of production and the varieties are selected for the climates of the countries where the seed is originally grown. Because of this, there is a knowledge gap in the performance of varieties in other locations.

Lastly, Canadian flower growers have a difficult time accessing seed, bulbs/tubers and other plant material and, therefore, are lagging behind flower trends and tend to pay higher prices due to currency exchange.

sweet pea variety trial

There is an exciting revival of small scale Canada seed houses catering to the revival of local cut flower farms. These seed houses import interesting plant materials, but it is still being produced in the countries mentioned above. Many of our most interesting sweet peas are coming out of New Zealand and England. Which ones would do best growing in Ontario with our conditions, with our types of farming methods, for our uses and if we could figure that out, what one's could we raise for our own seed?

Luckily for me, I have 4 flower farmer friends (Floralora Flowers, La Primavera Farms, Harris Flower Farm and Wendalane Farm) that are willing join me on this crazy mission to try and figure out what are some of the best blush and white varieties for Ontario growers. I'll be acting as the "mother" site, growing all 10 varieties and each of their "satellite" farms will be replicating my results growing 3 varieties each.

Sweet pea extravaganza!I can't wait to be swimming in the ocean of them all!

sweet pea variety trial

Thank you to Lauren Kolyn for the beautiful sweet pea imagery from 2016 featured in this post.

Farmer Researcher p2

More farm nerdery ahead...

Beneficial insects

I saw this book at the EFAO tradeshow during the conference last winter. I almost passed it by. I'll admit, I judged it by its cover. The word "bugs" I thought worked well in an alliterative title with "beneficial," but it came off unscientific to me--or at least a signaled a gardening book for novices. Boy was I wrong. This book changed my world.

If you really want to see a irritable ecological farmer, ask them how they deal with pest pressure. Barriers, trap crops, and releasing beneficial insects like lady beetles are typical methods. Most producers not using insecticides must plan for a certain amount of damage, which becomes "seconds"-good enough for processing, but not appropriate for direct to consumer sales, where damage can be seen and judged unworthy aesthetically. Its especially true for flower farmers; there's not a lot of room for flower "seconds". Most people want the perfect blossom because their expectations for flowers are shaped by conventional, greenhouse produced blooms. A nibble here and there on a petal is kinda unacceptable. So that leaves field growers like me in a tough place.

One crop where this is particularly apparent is my dahlias. Last year, "annihilation" might have been slightly too strong to use, but not too far off for some of the damage I've seen from tarnish plant bug and cucumber beetle. Below are some examples from other growers of the damage that can ensue.

tarnish plant bug damage on dahlias
cucumber beetle damage on dahlias 

Those insect jerks!

Dahlias are a very important crop for a flower farmer. Difficult to ship, perishable,  and high value, they are key for locally based farmers. And in 5 years of growing them, I've never had a crop I felt really proud of and thats mainly due to insect damage. I was determined to do a research trial after last season to try methods of control, particularly looking at trap crops.

Trap crops involve planting something your insect pest particularly likes to eat, as a distraction to your cash crops--and then typically, then you kill them.  Something about this didn't sit right with me. I'm not above killing insects when necessary, but wiping out large swaths (and potentially harming other non-pest insects) did not appeal to me. And reading more in the beneficial insect book, I started to understand why.

Insects communities have similar population dynamics to other predator-prey systems you read about years ago in biology class. Basic premise: as prey populations rise, predator populations rise with it and take down prey until the population sink again. A constantly circulating wave. When outside forces affect one part of the community, the cycle gets out of flux and problems ensue. Its the same on the farm. For every native insect pest, there is are parallel predator insects to act as controls.

For cucumber beetle and tarnish plant bug, one of them is the tachinid fly, a parasitic fly that lays eggs on the head of its prey or inserts them into the hosts body. The eggs hatch and kill its host. But they need the host to reproduce. Therefore, in order to encourage one of the natural predators of my pest insects, I couldn't kill them because I could be killing my new predator populations.

I am no biologist. I don't even have a hard science degree. But I did decent literature review for my trial--trying to understand better the life cycles of the insects involved, their behaviours, how they interact with plants and the habitats they need to live in. I emailed with agricultural scientists in the US and Canada. And I spent a long time talking through my ideas with the staff  at EFAO's Farmer-Led Research Program. I didn't want to run my trial like all the others. I wanted to trial a system to see how I could effect those population dynamics and use my new-found knowledge of of pest behaviour to guide my planning process.

But there was a catch. Insect trials, I come to find out, typically use a lot of land and include multi-farm trials. Makes sense when your variables can fly. Lucky for me, I got approval to be one of the first farms to run a demonstration site focused on beneficial insects and pollinators for the FLRP. Hurray! That means there won't be a control for comparison for 2018, but hopefully the data I collect on insect population levels and observed damage, can inform other, more detailed research trial of this nature.

My research protocol isn't ready quite yet, but when it is, you can find it on the EFAO research library. But I'll give you a quick preview for what I hope the trial will entail: I am hoping to use a succession of flower crops (phacelia and alyssum) as a way to attract and maintain beneficial insect populations (who also feed on pollen and nectar), while also planting a succession of winter squash variety as  a decoy buffet particularly for the cucumber beetles.  If all goes to hell in a hand basket, my backup is what I felt like I had to start doing anyways--wrapping my precious blooms in individual organza bags. Insert a wide-eyed terrified emoji here. 

I have one more journal post to share about the other trial I'm doing this season. Stay tuned.

Farmer Researcher, p1

WARNING: Extreme farmer nerdery ahead!

foliar spray

People often ask this time of year what I'm up to. I think my new reply should be: its research preparation season.

During the 2017 season, I was lucky to participate in the Farmer-led Research Program with Ecological Farmers of Ontario. I'm a big fan of EFAO--they host excellent workshops, help farmers like me to run farm tours, etc, and organize one of the best conferences where every year I am impressed by the knowledge, openness and general geekiness of it all.

The Farmer-led Research Program allows their member farmers to apply to receive funding and support to run their own, on farm research trials. For someone like myself who has been endlessly tempted to go back to school to do research, but doesn't have a strong, hard science background and who can't sit for more than 1 hour before getting antsy and wanting to go outdoors, this is the golden ticket. With a curious and skeptical mind, I get to try and solve some on-farm issues or test some organic methods that people recommend, but there's not always research to back it up. With staff support, we craft a trial format and method that suits me and the farm, but can also yield scientifically and statistically meaningful results.

One thing thats big in the organic flower and vegetable world is foliar sprays--applying amendments in a liquid form to plants to provide nutrients or ward off or treat disease. You can spend a lot of time and money on foliar sprays, but I wasn't sure how much of an effect they actually had. So I applied and ran the trial, looking at if seaweed sprays would make my sweet peas longer and if chamomile would protect my lisianthus from fungal wilt diseases.

measuring sweet peas, farmer researcher

Not a surprise, being a "field" trial--the experiment and results were complicated. Last season was a cold, wet one. Not very ideal for fungal diseases or a regular farming schedule. I also was not happy with the sweet pea varieties I chose. However, here's the results in a nut shell: the sweet peas grew a bit longer with the seaweed spray and the chamomile spray appeared to have no effect. These results should be reproduced on another year to be more conclusive, but I think I derived some bigger picture conclusions from it:

Its not always about the efficacy, its about the time.
With my mechanical backpack sprayer, it takes a long ass time to spray my plants. Even with a positive trend in growth with the sweet peas, I wouldn't do it because all the time it took does not match the gains. A lot of farming is actually weighing the time vs the projected outcome. With a lot to do, small gains are often not worth it unless it is something that compounds and grows over time. With something like a foliar spray that is so temporary (its like a vitamin boost for plants, it doesn't build soil over time, etc), not worth repeating for me.

sweet pea foliar spray farmer researcher

Interventions are all about the timing
With farming, you constantly have resituate your mind in time and space. Most of life we lead ourselves to believe A--->B---->C: a linear line, one thing completed leads to the next. While we could have a philosophical debate about this in general, I can say for certain, that linear timelines don't work for farming. Its an ever-shifting, interlocking systems of circles that don't have a specific arrival point on the horizon. I think the best of farmers watch closely, take in observations, and try their best to follow patterns that already exist and make small nudges to perhaps steer a process in a direction they believe might be more beneficial. The question is: when to make a nudge?

This year, with my left over liquid seaweed, I'm going to go back to a method I used to use when I was an urban farmer: presoaking my trays of seedlings with water and liquid seaweed. Young seedlings are very fragile when transplanting. A lot of the time, transplanting is a traumatic process--torn roots, broken leaves, a new environment that is not climate controlled. In tough times, I've seen plants just sit, relatively unchanged until they can get over the shock of leaving their trays and being out in the field. In that time, in their weakened state, they also have to set out new roots to feed themselves and form the relationships with microorganisms to extend their reach for food. By presoaking, I'm theorizing that they get the boost when they really need it, where they need it. 

sweet peas, foliar spray, farmers researcher

The importance of timing was also extremely apparent in my use of chamomile spray as a mild antifungal spray for lisianthus. After seeing there was no statistically positive results in the trial, I went back to my reading.

I did not have my plants tested, but feel fairly confident that they have fusarium wilt. Doing some reading, trying to see if there were better ways of treatment, I ran into a major barrier: fusarium wilt can be seed born and is most definitely present in soil. So how would a foliar spray help? It was so after the fact.

The effects of fusarium wilt aka so long lissies!

The effects of fusarium wilt aka so long lissies!

What I needed was: 1) clean seed (or a way to test/treat my existing seed. And more importantly... 2) I needed good genetics: varieties of lisianthus that had already been bred to resist this fungal disease. 3) Finally, I needed a way of treating the soil. Most organic farmers, reading the later, would immediately feel their hackles raise. "Treating the soil" can often mean fungicide drenching of the soil in conventional agricultural settings. Micro-organism genocide, not to put it lightly. But there were other ways to reduce wilt fungal populations. I'm still reading, but mustard, rape, and radish cover crops seem to reduce fusarium populations in the soil. These cover crops also have other beneficial properties, so I'll be incorporating them into my cover crop mixes this season. I am also on the hunt for the best lisianthus varieties to trial in 2019, which varieties seem to have the greatest resistance and if possible, pre-testing seed and soil mixes for presence of pathogens before even planting.

What works for humans is not necessarily right for plants
Last November, all of the farmer researchers got together to share their results, pitch new ideas, and generally discuss their projects. During a session I got to meet an interesting, biodynamic wine grape grower. She was looking for treatment methods for mildew infections in her plants--also fungal based. We were talking about sprays and a light bulb flashed in my mind: chamomile is used as a antifungal for humans, but we really have no idea of its efficacy on plants and whether there is collateral damage, killing beneficial fungal organisms. Whoa. Chamomile, as antifungals go, is pretty innocuous, at least compared to other chemically derived products, but what did I know? Even if it was working the way I hoped, killing the fusarium fungal organisms, what happens when you have a "hole" in an ecosystem? What rushes in?

This kicked off a series of deep thinking sessions this winter about creating farm ecosystem balance and how to reassess farm priorities, that continued with me into my new round of research trials.

But I'll save that for next time. Stay tuned for part 2 and what will be happening on the farm this season.

Will it be farewell to the back pack sprayer?

Will it be farewell to the back pack sprayer?