What have you been worrying about lately? Inflation, climate change, the pandemic?
Some York Region residents have turned to their own backyards (and patios and balconies) to help them cope.
They believe that now, more than ever, is time to grow an eco-friendly edible garden.
Regenerative gardening may be the answer to what ails you, your pocketbook and Mother Earth.
YorkRegion.com visited some of these local veggie enthusiasts to see how their gardens grow.
A week before Mike Bangay was supposed to leave for university to study engineering, he told his parents he wasn’t going.
“It broke their heart,” he recalled. “I was supposed to be the first kid to go to university.”
He then began a search to find his real passion.
He read about current issues, dragged his parents to lectures on art and constitutional law and one day, stumbled upon a quote from astrophysicist Carl Sagan:
“The most noble thing you can do is understand the ground you walk on.”
Bangay’s search was over.
“I started looking into soil and went down the rabbit hole.”
He moved from growing garlic in his parents’ Mount Albert backyard to building greenhouses and seven-foot tall tomato plants, worked at Richters Herbs learning how to propagate, then joined the Cannington non-profit Nourish and Develop Foundation where he discovered organic regenerative farming.
Today, Bangay is manager at Clearwater Farm in Georgina, helping transform it into a not-for-profit social enterprise, a working educational farm that specializes in learning from nature and “growing hope”.
Veggie-filled greenhouses are interspersed with herbs and ornamental flowers that act as companion plants.
“They’re feeding each other through their relationship of the fungi and bacteria in the soil,” Bangay said. “They love each other.”
This is a paradigm shift from chemical farming, he says — not feeding the plants, but feeding the soil, which in turn feeds you.
Vegetables are supported to grow vertically, providing leaf canopies to keep soil moist and microbes in the soil healthy.
Mulching keeps the soil from drying out and gradually composts to build nutrients.
“No one ever feeds old growth forests,” he explained. “Mimicking those natural systems is what regenerative growing is all about.”
It takes patience, but it’s something we can all bring home to our own little patch of earth, he said.
“There’s nothing better than going out in your backyard and picking a tomato, some thyme and making soup.
“It’s all about sustenance and quality of life. Just grow some really sexy produce, put it on a plate and enjoy.”
Lorraine Powell’s backyard in Richmond Hill isn’t very large, but if you’re getting a tour, best be prepared to take some time.
That’s because this sloping suburban lot is a treasure trove of regenerative gardening know-how.
Powell began her foray into veggie-growing five years ago, adding more containers each year.
Because the land is on a slope, she opted to keep plants elevated (especially helpful for her arthritis) and trains them to grow vertically.
A tour may begin with the “salad bar”: stacked planters with lettuces and more.
Green onions shooting up from the soil were regrown from kitchen scraps. After harvesting the greens, she puts the white bulbous part, with roots intact, in a cup of water in a sunny window, then replants in the garden for an almost endless supply of fresh green onions.
Powell grows vegetables that spread along the ground — like zucchinis, cucumbers and squash — by propping them on trusses, sticks and cages attached with Velcro strips. This takes up less space and keeps them disease-free.
On either side of her basil and parsley, and nestled among her other plants, are nasturtiums. The leaves are lacey now, indicating some pest has been chewing on them, leaving her herbs and veggies alone.
Nasturtiums themselves are tasty treats — the flowers good on salad, the peppery, arugula-like leaves sautéed in olive oil. The flower seeds will grow new plants, she says, if you dry them on your counter until they turn white and put them in an envelope for next year.
Alternatively, when they’re green, you can pickle them for “poor man’s capers”.
Powell’s beans are planted next to thyme because the bugs that eat beans don’t like the smell.
She washes and freezes her herbs for use throughout the winter, dates marked on the recycle containers so she can use the oldest first.
In the strawberry patch, Powell buries the long arms extending from each plant root with a little soil to create a replica of the mother plant — and more strawberries.
After the first frost, around Christmas, she cuts them down, covers with straw and burlap and has strawberries next spring.
She does the same overwintering of her blueberries and blackberries, which are in pots on wheels so she can wheel them into the garage.
Tomatoes get a boost with banana peels. She leaves the peels in water for 24-48 hours which turns the water into nourishing nitrogen and potassium food for tomatoes.
In the middle of her climbing beans, she plants Stinky Mary marigolds to keep bugs away.
Cucumber was beset with emerald beetles last year, so she now takes the ashes from a friend’s fireplace — they don’t use processed wood — and sprinkles on the leaves.
And finally, there’s her solution to “squirrel-a-geddon”. After several failed attempts with other methods, these brazen critters are now deterred by cayenne pepper.
“Generously sprinkled around everything, they got the message very quickly.”
Growing up, Shonah Chalmers didn’t have a lot, so she learned not to waste a lot.
Today, the Humber College culinary professor is known for her expertise and commitment to sustainability, teaching her students how to build a more sustainable food industry.
She also spreads the word to home gardeners and cooks, practising those methods herself in her small balcony garden in Aurora.
With grocery prices surging and climate change top of mind, there are ways backyard gardeners can reduce environmental impact and save money, too, she said.
You don’t need a lot of space or fancy beds. Chalmers uses balcony boxes and buckets and even an old bookcase, upcycled, lined with black cloth and rocks to become a planter.
Chalmers suggested seeking out “hero crops”, perennials like lavender and rosemary (to keep pests away), long-life rhubarb, asparagus (no need to till soil) and thyme (which thrives with little water).
Keep your veggie scraps, coffee grinds, eggshells and leaves and place in a small compost bin that you can mix yourself, she advised.
“This compost is going to reduce your waste and enrich your soil and have your garden grow quicker.”
While it’s good to diversify your plants each year, she understands not everybody has the time and commitment.
“If you really love cucumbers, then just grow cucumbers. You don’t have to have everything.”
It was the perfect pandemic project.
Just as COVID-19 hit and the lockdown had everyone stuck at home, Jane Twinney’s family moved into their Newmarket home — an estate sale, the gardens overgrown and neglected.
With time on their hands and nowhere to go, Twinney dug in. Literally.
Through trial and error, lots of weeding, watering and online searches, they transformed the untended yard into a cornucopia — and made it eco-friendly, to boot.
Half the backyard overflows with edible greenery including tomatoes, peas, cucumbers and beans, plus hanging pots and planter boxes filled with Asian greens and herbs,
Twinney and her mother, Barbara Crossley, focus on produce that can be enjoyed over winter, like potatoes that can be stored, garlic, tomatoes to stew into sauce, dill pickles for pickling, parsnips, carrots and crops that can be frozen.
“This year we added local manure from King Cole to the soil,” she said. “That made a big improvement.”
The veggie patch is fenced in to keep critters from stealing their bounty; peas and beans are nestled next to piss-off plants as added protection.
“It’s a big job,” Twinney said, “but very satisfying.”
Mary-lu Spinney watches rising grocery prices, energy costs and climate change and shakes her head.
“It’s horrendous,” she said, “and it’s not necessary.”
A teacher at Toronto Waldorf School in Thornhill, she believes growing vegetables in a regenerative way can make a difference.
“Health of the soil is the most important part for a healthy plant, which means a healthy human being,” she said.
If you have a patch in your garden where everything grows really big and lush, for example, Spinney suggested adding some of that fertile soil to the rest of your garden.
Alternatively, scoop it into a big cheesecloth, tie it to resemble a tea bag and soak in a bucket of rainwater to water your soil.
If you observe nature, you’ll rarely see raw soil exposed, which is why she covers gardens with straw, freshly mown grass and “green mulch” — plants like alyssum or beets — to cover the soil, add nutrients and attract pollinators.
Spinney follows traditional Indigenous planting methods with her Grade 9 students.
They dig a large hole several feet deep, toss in logs and sticks, then add soil to form the basis of a garden bed.
Like peat moss, locally sourced logs absorb and hold water, gradually breaking down to add fibre and nutrients to the soil.
A similar method works in backyard raised planters and pots — filling with two-thirds logs and sticks — to require less soil and reduce compaction.
Another Indigenous method is called “Three Sisters”: growing corn until it reaches about a foot tall, then adding pole beans to grow up the stalks like a trellis.
The beans return nitrogen to the soil, she said.
Squash is then planted around the base to cover the soil.
“It’s this beautiful symbiotic relationship. All three crops can be dried and used throughout the winter.”
More tips from York Region’s sustainable gardeners:
• Use rain barrels and don’t overwater or underwater. Find that sweet spot. If you can squeeze water out of a handful of soil, it’s too wet.
• Look for ways to get more out of your crops — cook broccoli stems into stir fry, for example, roast cauliflower scraps with sriracha and honey, or boil trimmings from onions, carrots, celery, parsnips and herbs for a flavour-boosting stock
• Try tucking edible plants among your flowers. Parsley, dill, lettuce and spinach can look pretty in a garden or planter.
• Save seeds at the end of the season and swap with like-minded gardeners.