By Paul Hearsey and Sandy McNie —
We have been organic gardeners for many years with as much self-sufficiency as possible as our goal. Our five-acre farm on the coast had large vegetable gardens and fruit orchards. Cash crops of berries and tree fruits provided much of the income we needed to make a go of it. Selling chicken and rabbit meat, and milk from the goats and cows helped. This was all done in agricultural Zone 8, of course. Gardening here in Zone 3 has proven to be quite a challenge, but entirely do-able. Moving to Horsefly has been exciting and a lot of hard work, but we have never looked back.
Our southern exposure garden has lots of sun but very poor soil—just a few inches on a bed of rock-studded clay. We decided we really wanted that location, so the answer was to improve the soil. Discing with a neighbour’s tractor proved almost impossible as the discs simply scraped across the rocks without doing much damage, so we ended up buying an ancient spring-tooth cultivator. That was the answer: the seven shanks could break up the ground without much fuss. Pulled by our 1950 Ferguson tractor, the cultivator allowed us to bring up rocks for hand-picking, again and again, until we’d had enough.
A soil analysis found our soil to be seriously deficient in phosphorous, zinc, copper, iron, and boron. What to do? Planting half of the 5,500-square-foot garden in a cover crop (annual rye or buckwheat) that can be turned under in the spring, as well as adding compost and other organic amendments, such as rock phosphate, wood ash, kelp meal, and boron to the whole garden, has built up the soil beautifully over the last four years. We plant the other half with vegetables for eventual storage in our root cellar and freezer. Of course, we then alternate sides, so both sides of the garden slowly improve. Apple and plum trees, plus raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries, currents, strawberries, and rhubarb round out the planting. As well, a dozen more Saskatoon bushes are on their way from a Saskatoon Farm (www.saskatoonfarm.com) in Okotoks, Alberta as we write this. Saskatoons are very hardy and deserve a little space in every backyard. The jam they make is excellent, as Canadian as maple syrup.
The first thing we built when we moved here was our 8 x 16 foot root cellar, set into the hillside. We are able to keep all our root crops (potatoes, carrots, parsnips, beets, and rutabagas) and cabbages until the next harvest is ready. Our best keeping cabbage is January King, an old heritage semi savoy that keeps well into June. Tip: always pull up your cabbages and hang them with string by their roots. Without lots of air circulation, cabbages often start to mould quickly.
On the north side of this garden is our 20 x 40 foot commercial greenhouse. It was purchased as a kit from BW Greenhouses (www.bwgreenhouse.com) in Aldergrove. We use this for our tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, bush beans, and a tiny patch of sweet corn. This is a great space to work in on rainy days. We have power and seasonal water there. Now it should be said that, in the business, our greenhouse is really a coldframe. We don’t supply heat year-round, so it doesn’t quite meet the definition of “greenhouse,” but we refer to it as one all the same. Our goal is to eventually set up some sort of heat source, maybe a wood stove or propane furnace, to slightly extend the growing season.
Paul has been working up half an acre of neglected (abused would be more accurate) hayfield for our future grain field. Have you ever contemplated trying grains? We always thought grain growing was rocket science, until we read an article by Dan Jason of Saltspring Seeds (www.saltspringseeds.com). He’s been growing many grains successfully for years, and points out that a bushel of wheat (that’s 60 lbs) can be harvested easily from only 1,200 square feet. We grew perhaps ten varieties of wheat, plus rye and oats last year. Little test plots, mind you, about six square feet of each. Our aim is to grow enough wheat and rye for our needs, as well as hull-less oats. Quinoa is also on our wish list. Just last month we splurged and bought a beautiful KoMo grain mill from Bruce at Sta-Well Health Foods. What a gem! We’ll never buy flour again for our bread-making.
We also have a kitchen garden…we simply call it the ‘small garden’, only 2,500 square feet. There we plant all our greens and herbs, edible flowers, and more berries. Sandy loves this garden. A small arbour flanked with roses, delphiniums, honeysuckle, and lilies makes a beautiful entry. Many more flowers and spring bulbs achieve a natural look, with colours that work together. This is where we experiment with a large variety of salad greens, unusual kales, oriental greens, lots of spinach, and lettuce varieties. A healthy salad topped with colourful edible flowers is on our daily menu in the summer.
Both of our gardens have seven-foot game fencing on split cedar posts to keep the wildlife out. Perhaps a very hungry bear could force its way in if it wanted to, but so far we’ve had no trouble. Last year we did have a hoary marmot take up residence in the greenhouse (where did he come from?) and his appetite was impressive, to say the least. We live-trapped him before he completely destroyed our beans and took him for a drive to a much nicer neighbourhood.
Last year we experimentally rigged up a single row of potatoes with drip tape on a simple mechanical timer. That row produced 92% more pounds of tubers than the two hand-watered rows. We were sold; this year we’ve ordered enough drip tape, timers, and miscellaneous hardware to set up the entire garden on a watering system. Next year we’ll do the same to the small garden and greenhouse. It only makes sense to go this route, not just to save water but time. Time spent not just watering by hand but
weeding the undesirables that spring up in the paths because of “stray” water.
An experiment we tried this spring was tapping a few of our birch trees, collecting the sap and cooking it down to syrup. It was so successful we’ll be building a reverse osmosis system next winter to handle the daily harvest from 12 to 15 trees. We can easily produce 3/4 liter of delicious syrup each day for the three weeks the sap runs, and that will be our “honey substitute” because keeping bees is not something we want to get into again. Trees are so much less maintenance! In case you don’t know, birch sap straight from the tree can be very tasty and can be found in stores all over Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Poland, and Russia. Seasonally, of course; it’s sold as a sort of spring tonic and has been for centuries. We drink it instead of water when we have an excess of it.
We know what you’re thinking. No, all this food is for us. We don’t sell anything, but enjoy bartering and sharing with others. The wintertime is our time to slow down and visit friends, bringing out the fruits of our labours. The root cellar and freezer are full, and the pantry is full of canning and jams and other preserves. Life is good.
We are almost finished building a high-performance, off-grid super-insulated house, but that’s another story for another issue of TheGreenGazette.
Paul Hearsey and Sandy McNie live on a forty-acre farm in beautiful Horsefly. They are into all things farming, gardening, photovoltaics, solar, thermal, and building design. Feedback, questions, and visits are welcome. Email them at