Tag: Farmers Market

What gardeners could learn from the local food movement

I spend a lot of time at the local Farmers Market here in Mission BC. That’s where you can find me most Saturdays through the selling season. My time as a vendor has given me a lot of respect for what the local food movement is about. The more I look at it, the more I recognize this movement as inspiration for my own industry. As a gardener first and foremost, I would argue that our shared hobby is threatened by consumer-driven mass marketing. If we want to “push back” we should take lessons from how the local food movement is changing the world, one reusable organic cotton produce bag at a time.

What is the local food movement?

I would never describe the local food movement as negative, but it is a reaction against something. Somehow, a whole bunch of people came together to draw similar conclusions about the global food industry. What started as a list of problems eventually began to inspire solutions. But first, some of the problems:

  • Apples shipped in from around the world, while local orchards go out of business
  • The widespread use of GMOs, pesticides and chemical fertilizers in farming
  • Shelves full of overpackaged and highly processed foods
  • Varieties of produce chosen for the sake of uniform ripening and for long-distance transport (but not necessarily flavor or nutrition)
  • Local, small-scale food production disappearing, along with the jobs and skills they entail

So what’s wrong with the free market?

Here’s my take on it: individually most people are quite smart, but together we can be a little stupid. When a large food company makes a decision, they’re doing it based on consumer behavior as a group. They’re following the herd, and the herd is following them. When they end up selling us something cheap, easy, salty, sweet, overpackaged, and shipped in from 3000 kilometers away – it’s not like any individual consumer would have requested it that way, but we move funny when we’re in big groups.

How this applies to the gardening hobby

While the local food movement is pushing back against some bad outcomes, what’s happening in gardening is every bit as concerning. International mass-merchants have gobbled up somewhere above 50% of plant sales in Canada already, with no signs of slowing down. If you want the best for the gardening hobby, would you aim to buy plants from a knowledgeable horticulturist, or a part-time seasonal clerk at a mass merchant? Would you prefer properly labeled plants, with botanical names and complete growing information, or the infamous “Green Plant” tag? Would you want a garden center that at least makes an attempt to stay relevant all year, or a “seasonal department” that stocks plants for 10 weeks in the spring, then switches to patio furniture?

How’s that for detail?

Is it even a plant, or just disposable decor

I happen to be writing this post during the run up to Christmas, so examples abound of plants packaged as seasonal decor. Take the Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) as an example. This tropical tree shows up in the hardware and big box stores this time of year, usually all dressed up in holiday tinsel:

I’m not judging you if you bought one: it’s actually a very interesting plant. The pretense that any of these trees will actually be kept alive is what I question. The Norfolk Island Pine is a tropical tree, so it’s not going to survive a winter outdoors in our climate (not that you would know any better from the informational tag included). The timing of the sale puts these trees into homes at a particularly difficult time of year. Good natural light will be hard to come by, humidity will likely be low, and “Christmas trees” often go neglected for watering during the busy season. A few attentive purchasers will turn these holiday trees into attractive large houseplants. The rest will end up deteriorating under poor conditions until disposed of after the holiday, tinsel and all.

Poinsettias aren’t exactly evil (but they did kill Frosty the Snowman)

I took this poinsettia picture at the hardware store yesterday. Yes, that’s glitter. As if this long-standing abomination to sensible horticulture couldn’t get tackier. For all the heat and special growing conditions that go into forcing this tropical shrub to bloom, most will be in the garbage bin by mid-January.

Christmas isn’t the only season with throw-away plants. Wrap a miniature rose in red foil, and decorate with plastic heart-shaped “bling” for Valentine’s. We have lilies for Easter, sorrel for St. Patrick’s day, and fall mums for, well, fall. If you can bling it, it can be holiday themed as throw-away decor.

Where does it lead?

The problem with these products isn’t just their wastefulness. Dumbing down horticulture to this extent puts new gardeners onto the wrong path. Selling a plant that ends up in the garbage is just confirmation that the hobby is “too hard”, or maybe just a bad way to spend money. When a new gardener buys a plant with scant or misleading growing information, she’s less likely to succeed. That’s a problem for us all. Greenhouse forced and highly growth-regulated plants (with sprays or by other growing means) often have performance problems in the garden. Do you think the novice gardener will understand that when his snapdragons remain stunted in the garden?

Where doesn’t it lead?

It used to be that there was a clear path forward from the bedding annuals. They were like a “gateway drug” into gardening. Once you were hooked on the color, you could go back to your local garden center and be transitioned into other, longer-lived plants: bulbs, perennials, shrubs & trees. The novice becomes proficient, the proficient gardener becomes an expert, and so on. This is how we can assure the future of the hobby, by helping each other to get better. It’s also how we trade around and manage to keep rare, interesting, and even historic plants in hobbyist gardens.

The above pictured rose, ‘Chapeau de Napoleon’ with it’s very fancy crested sepals is kept alive in gardens by trading between gardeners. The future of cool plants like this one depends on new gardeners getting past the throw-away plant phase in their hobby.

What else isn’t working

Where do I start? As you can tell from the above topics, I’m not a fan of over-packaging and heavy-handed branding. The really big horticulture companies have turned to the dubious tactics of hiding real cultivar names beneath trade names, fancy logos and highly branded product lines. It affects me personally when it comes to my horticultural first love, roses. You can see my rant on rose naming here.

In a somewhat related tactic, at least one horticulture company I know of is making good business of buying a “portfolio of genetics”. They’re locking down some of the best new cultivars to their corporate branding efforts. Is this is the long-term interest of the gardening hobby? They will flog these cultivars until nearly the expiry of their patent period, and then move onto something newer before they have to share those genetics with the world. Sound a bit like the pharmaceutical industry?

What the local food movement has changed

Okay, okay. The food industry is still plagued by overpackaging, overshipping, the use of GMOs, questionable chemicals, and rubber carrots (well, maybe it only seems that way compared to the local stuff). The problems aren’t all fixed, but at least they’re identified, and that’s a good start. The most powerful accomplishment so far: a dedicated and viable alternate market for local produce. The Farmers Market has become a place where it still makes sense to talk about flavor, quality and good production practices. The real value that has come from the local food movement is that they have made conversations about farming practices relevant to the consumer.

Oh great, another lecture about hybrid seeds…

We don’t all have to agree about every topic, to know that the conversation itself is a good thing. If we can agree that in general, buying local is better than buying from who-knows-where, that’s progress. We may not 100% agree on tillage, spraying, or organic practices, but the fact that customer are making direct contact with producers, and asking these questions is good. It makes growers more accountable and more thoughtful about their methods.

Who am I to judge?

You’re the person making the decision, that’s who. Every time you spend a dollar on a plant, you tell the horticulture industry what you’re willing to pay for. If the local food movement is any indication, the horticulture companies will listen and adjust.

Do you want to make a difference? Here’s my prescription:

  1. Join up. See other plant people at the local Farmers Market, community garden, garden club, or related Facebook group. If you’re in my area, I can recommend three right away: Mission Plant Buy & Sell, for buys/sell/trade & giving away plants, as well as garden discussion, Gardening in the Fraser Valley, which is just what it sound like and has many knowledgeable participants, and Canada Rose Cuttings & Exchange, where we’re working on preserving rare garden roses.
  2. Give buying preference to local specialty growers. We may not have all the assortment of a garden center, but you can find some really special plants this way… and go a long way to supporting local agriculture.
  3. Share your opinions. You may be the expert gardener that novices are taking their lead from, and if so, please lead them thoughtfully and towards success.
  4. I’m not saying to avoid the mass merchants altogether. I would just encourage you to visit your year-round independent garden center as your preferred option to the degree you can, and perhaps even when there’s a difference in price.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my opinion. I know I went a bit long, but what can I say… I’m an enthusiast. Not a writer (clearly), but a grower, and a grateful participant in the hobby of gardening. If you agree, or even if you don’t, I’d be pleased if you were to share your thoughts. It’s a conversation worth having, I think.



Why squash?

We’re a rose farm – it’s right in the name. But it’s not an exclusive relationship. The roses seem to be okay with the fact that I grow other plants, and I’ve come to peace with the rose’s reputation for getting around in other people’s gardens.

Speckled Hound and Marina di Chioggia
Speckled Hound and Marina di Chioggia

On our old suburban lot in Abbotsford, I’m not sure how soon I would have come around to growing squash. Space was at a bit of a premium, and ornamental plants took up the majority. Here on Nicomen Island, however, there was an empty field behind the house that was always threatening to be overtaken by weeds. One summer, on a bit of a whim, I bought some pumpkin seeds. I figured that the sprawling nature of these squash would make for good competition to the weeds.

The good news: it worked for the summer

The bad news: there are three other seasons in a year

Oh, and then there’s also my slight tendency towards overindulgence when it comes to plants. I should have knows that growing couple of common varieties would soon lead to an exploration of all manner of squash.

Sweet Meat, Red Kuri and Spaghetti
Sweet Meat, Red Kuri and Spaghetti

So we’re currently up to 30 varieties from four different species. My favorites for flavor this year were Long Island Cheese and Winter Luxury, but that may change as the winter progresses… I have a lot of recipes and a lot of squash to try.

In the pumpkin field now, fall and winter mean that the weeds are back in play. I’m trying to be chill about it. When it comes to edible plants, lamb’s quarters, purslane and wild turnip aren’t probably the worst things that could take over a patch of land. Buttercups and bindweed, on the other hand, make me a bit nervous. My current strategy is to establish some Bocking 14 comfrey, faba beans, and crimson clover, all of which can be “chop and drop” mulches to fertilize my next year’s crops. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Braggar (I think)
Braggar (I think)

So, while I’m confessing to a full-blown case of squash mania, I may as well admit that the tomato crop we put into one of the greenhouses this year has kicked of another minor obsession. We’ll see how this one goes… but I’m already up to 26 varieties, so yeah. I may be hooked.

Egyptian Walking Onion

A wide variety of both culinary and ornamental plants are members of the genus Allium. Onion, garlic, chives, leeks, scallions, ramps are all representatives of the culinary type. As for ornamental types, the genus ranges from the little yellow Allium moly, the medium sized drumstick allium (great for cut flowers), and on up to the massive Globemaster with 10″ round heads!

I grow all of the varieties listed above, but the one I’m singling out for attention today is the Egyptian Walking Onion. Aside from having a very marketable common name, this onion also has the advantage of living up to is description. You see, it’s a top-setting onion. Look at this picture:

Topsetting walking onionThese bulbils bulk up to the point where the scape can no longer support their weight. Once the stalk bends down, and the bulbils are on the ground, they root – forming a new patch of walking onions. In this way, from year to year, the onions “walk” from place to place in the garden.

In botanical latin, the plant is Allium cepa var. proliferum. You could probably guess that the “proliferum” part of the latin name refers to this variety’s reproductive capacity, and you’d be right. Not only does the onion “walk”, but it also multiplies at the base, forming a clump of bulbs at the base of each onion. This means that once you have established a patch, you’re likely to be able to harvest from it regularly without ever having to replant. As a hardy perennial, you can just leave whatever you don’t eat in the ground over winter, and pick up harvesting again in spring.

The onion itself is mild, and flavored much like a shallot. The greens are a good flavor, and so are the top-setting bulbils, for that matter.  Overall, it’s just a very interesting and productive plant that doesn’t need a whole lot of fussing. I generally take a whole bunch of bulbils off and pot them into 9cm pots for farmers market, so if you’re looking to try this one, let me know.


New Zealand Yam

I had a hard time locating this plant locally – and this scarcity pretty much guaranteed that I’d go to unreasonable lengths to find it. I never did find anyone who was willing to send me tubers in Canada, so my solution was to buy seed. After much internet searching, I found a very cool web site for a vegetable breeder in Washington State who grows some quite uncommon veggies. The site, in case you’re interested, is Cultivariable.

So why would I go out of my way to buy New Zealand Yam? Well, have a look at the tubers:

Oxalis in my handI couldn’t very well pass up the chance to grow something this unique. But let’s get some other interesting facts out there:

  1. New Zealand Yam is not from New Zealand. It’s from South America. My initial snooping on the internet tells me that it was bred by the same fine folks who brought us the potato. In South America, it’s called Oca.
  2. New Zealand Yam is also not a yam. It’s not closely related to either the true yam (Dioscorea) or the Sweet Potatoa (Ipomoea). It’s actually in the Wood Sorrel family, and is in the same genus as an annoying little weed, Oxalis corniculata.
  3. The tubers are edible. Raw, they taste starchy, like an uncooked potato, but also a little “lemony”. This acidic tang comes from the oxalic acid in the tuber. I find the flavor quite pleasant and fresh tasting, but for those who don’t like the tang, cooking neutralizes the acidity – and the tubers taste much like potatoes.

This was my first go at growing New Zealand Yam, and I was pretty happy with the results. Here’s what I harvested:

Oxalis harvestIt wasn’t enough to bring to the farmer’s market as a food crop, but it does give me a fair amount to play with for next year’s plantings. I’ll probably have some left over to bring to market as starts for other people who want to try growing something unusual.

Some notes on growing, just in case you’re inclined that way:

Oca begins forming tubers when the days get shorter than 12 hours. For us in the Fraser Valley, that means we have from late September until first frost – end of October if we’re lucky. Not a lot of time for tuber formation! There are two solutions I can think of for this, and next year, I’ll probably try both. One is to fool the plants by shading them in August – giving them a 12-14 hour “night” to force early tuber formation. The other solution is to grow them in a cold frame or with some other protection to extend the season past the first frost.

I spaced my plants at around 10 inches apart, and I didn’t think that “mounding” was necessary, so I just let the plants do their thing. Next year, I think I’ll give them a little more space (say 18″ apart). I also noticed that most of the tuber formation happened at the points where the side stems touched the ground. I’m thinking I might be able to encourage a better yield by adding some loose soil around these trailing stems.

Farmers Market Dates Spring 2014

We’ve been to one Farmers Market already this year, and my enthusiasm for the subject is high – Seedy Saturday at the Mission City Farmers Market was incredible for us. Sales were good, customers were great, and this without us having much in bloom yet! It really sends the message that people are ready and willing to come out and support local agriculture.

We’re pretty excited to increase our presence in local Farmers Markets this year. For the first time, we’ll be bringing roses across the bridge to the Abbotsford Farm & Country Market. And just because reading any post without pictures is boring, here’s a cool picture my daughter took from beneath the Mission bridge (from the Abbotsford side):

Mission bridge from AbbotsfordAs of next weekend, you can find us at a Farmers Market every weekend until at least July 5th. Here’s the list:

  • April 19   Abbotsford
  • April 26   Abbotsford
  • May 3     Mission – Opening Day
  • May 10   Abbotsford
  • May 17   Mission
  • May 24   Abbotsford
  • May 31   Mission
  • June 7    Abbotsford
  • June 14  Mission
  • June 21  Abbotsford
  • June 28  Mission
  • July 5     Mission

After Mission opens, we’re alternating markets, so if you see us on one side of the Mission bridge one week, you can find us on the other side the next week!

Now, since I don’t always get in front of the computer to update this site, I thought I’d throw in a few pictures from around the farm. As much as I love roses, the early spring belongs to flowering shrubs, bulbs and spring ephemerals. Eh-fem-ah-wha? Okay, in case you’re not familiar with them, spring ephemerals are plants that take advantage of a short window of warm, moist, sunny spring days — but before the deciduous trees and shrubs put on all their leaves to shade the ground and begin competing for moisture in the soil. Here’s one:

Mertensia virginicaThis is Virginia bluebell – which is unrelated to some of the more common plants known as “bluebells” which are more like Hyacinths. This one is in the family of Pulmonaria, Brunnera and Borage. It shoots up with those striking matte green leaves and purple-through-blue hanging flowers, and then the plant more or less disappears as the trees above it fill in and the soil becomes drier in the summer. Here’s another:Anemone nemerosa

Anemone nemerosa, the wood anemone, is from the buttercup family. Unlike some of its more rambunctious cousins (think clematis) it doesn’t aspire to world domination. It seems satisfied to use this little window of spring to flower, spread some underground roots, and then come back the following year as a somewhat larger patch. Even though the wood anemone will eventually spread to cover an impressive area, because it disappears somewhere in mid-spring, it never chokes out the plants it shares space with.

I love these ephemerals, but the classic concern is that they leave a gap in the landscape after they senesce. The solution is usually to pair them with plants like ferns, that come on a little later and are happy in a shady location. Another good companion might be something like Epimedium (barrenwort) which can also take a good bit of dry shade.

Anyone else local have some cool spring ephemerals? I’d be happy to work out a trade for anything cool enough. And I do have some nice roses…