When my gardening friend Danie McAren moved from Vancouver to Guelph Ontario in 2013 to study organic farming, I was both sad to lose a fellow gardening nerd, and excited to learn about her adventures. A former west coast balcony and backyard gardener, Danie has now created a large and productive food garden, complete with full-size hoop houses and chickens. It’s the kind of thing that those of us in dense urban centres can only dream about.
Of course, every gardening environment comes with its own unique set of advantages and challenges. Here in Vancouver, we enjoy a mild climate and plenty of life-giving rain, but sunlight and affordable growing space are rare commodities. In Guelph, Danie has plenty of space but contends with snow that can last into April. I was interested in learning more about how Danie has adapted to a new regional climate, and recently had the opportunity to ask her some questions about her gardening practice.
How long have you been gardening?
Theoretically, I have been gardening since I was quite young, maybe seven or eight years old. Growing up we had a cherry tree, an apple tree, a hazelnut tree, and a quince shrub all within our yard, and my mother grew an extensive vegetable garden. A wonderful longtime friend of mine reminded me the other day that I used to teach her how to pollinate squash blossoms when we were little. I love that memory.
Gardening and growing food for my own family really began after I had my first child. I started with a few “windowsill” herbs and advanced to container gardening on apartment balconies. When I finally had a real yard space to grow food in, I never looked back.
What was your gardening situation like in Vancouver? What kinds of things did you grow?
As I said there was a lot of balcony gardening in Vancouver at first, and don’t be dissuaded: you can grow a lot on a balcony in one season.
I did have two great back yards in Vancouver and both were quickly turned into veggie gardens. I pretty much grew everything I could get my hands on – all manner of vegetables, berries, and fruit when we had an apple and a pear tree. Some turned out better than others, but the fun was in the experimenting. Sometimes we were eating 2” long fat gnarly carrots for dinner, and at other times cabbages so perfect it hurt to cut them up.
Why did you move from Vancouver to Ontario?
I was really interested in getting to the bottom of how to grow organically. My personal goal was to somehow get to an expert level.
I volunteered at the UBC farm for a while, which was a good start. A couple of years later, I ended up being part of the first cohort of the Richmond Farm School run by Kwantlen. That was a great experience, but a few months in my partner and I were having a baby and I ended up being way too tired to keep up with the work. I was literally falling asleep against a shovel in the orchard!
After my son was born, I was looking at university programs, and the University of Guelph was the only post secondary school in Canada that had a major specifically in Organic Agriculture. Sadly, I feel the program is in desperate need of a content review. At this point, I couldn’t in good conscience recommend it to others seeking an education in organic growing.
How has gardening changed for you now that you’re moved to Ontario?
In Vancouver, I never even thought about a frost date! Now everything revolves around the frost. We sadly can’t really put anything out of doors here until after the May long weekend. You have no idea how hard it is to wait until June to get out there. Especially, when the weather seems so welcoming for a day or two and then bang, three feet of snow.
I have to start the majority of my warm season/ full season crops in the kitchen under lights. Last year I had 30 broccolis, and 52 tomato plants in my kitchen between late January and May. For the latter part of the time I diligently dragged them all outside into the tunnel for the day to begin the hardening off process and then would drag them all back in at night.
What are the biggest differences between gardening in Vancouver and in Ontario?
Planning ahead is absolutely crucial here. You simply can’t get outside in February and direct seed a garden bed like I was doing in BC. You have to start transplants if you want to grow a lot of food. Having enough space to do that is something I could see as the biggest challenge for urban farmers here. Unless you buy your seedlings, which is a great solution, but then you miss out on the fun of watching seeds come to life.
How have your agricultural studies changed the way you grow food?
I wouldn’t say that they have changed the way I grow so much as they have given me more tools for problem solving. I know more about diseases and insects, and plant nutrition.
What’s the biggest gardening mistake you’ve made?
Definitely the biggest mistake I have made is assuming that if my plants aren’t doing well it is because they are lacking something. So my first instinct was always more water, more fertilizer, more light. More often than not all that “more” just did more harm.
What’s the best piece of advice you have for an aspiring gardener or farmer?
#1 PLAY. There is no better way to get started than to just get out there and even if you have two feet to grow in, plant it up. Get to know what plants you like to grow, and get to know your soil. A note on soil: don’t be discouraged if your garden is failing, it might not be you. Explore your soil well, feel it for moisture, turn it over and look for pests, rub it between your fingers, check how it crumbles. All of that tells a story and you need to know that to be successful.
#2 ASK. This is always a hard one for me. I tended to shy away from asking fellow gardeners how to grow, assuming their knowledge was like a secret sauce recipe that they would never share. I was so wrong. If you have a neighbour who grows amazing tomatoes, go ask them to show you how they do it. Don’t be afraid to call up specialists at universities or garden centres if you have problems either.
Lastly, please talk to farmers. I went to a kitchen table meeting through the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (a group to know out here – they have so many excellent workshops). I told everyone I was only starting out and the storytelling began. By the end of the meeting I had heard about all of their rookie mistakes so I could avoid them, the ways they grew that were working for them, and I had contacts to ask questions of in future.