Beautiful Landscapes are Sustainable Landscapes

Beautiful landscapes capture the eye and heart and lead the foot with the promise of a vista, through the complexity of textures or the intrigue of colour, shadow and light.

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Spring gardens showing blue and green Picea pungens, Colorado Spruce, Spiraea Bridlewreath and Paeonia spp., peonies, and Rheum rhabarbarum, rhubarb.

 

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Winter gardens at The Glen Road Organics

Sustainability

Beautiful landscapes are sustainable. They care for themselves; evolving through seasons into greater and greater complexity. The human footprint contributes without taking.

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Acer saccharum, Sugar maple trees.

Supporting Ecological Functions

A sustainable garden is strong. It remains diverse and productive because all its ecological functions are supported. A garden’s ecological functions are all the interactions between living organisms and with their abiotic (non-living) environments. So that means your garden’s ecological functions would include:

earthworms pulling the fall leaves into their burrows
a Praying Mantis laying her eggs on the underside of an outdoor bench
you picking raspberries for your breakfast cereal bowl
insects cycling through all their life stages
birds and frogs feeding off of all these insects
plant matter decomposing on top of the soil
soil microbes absorbing nitrogen from the atmosphere and releasing it in a plant available form, available for immediate uptake
and so much more!

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Viburnum trilobum, Highbush cranberry, produces an edible berry that birds will eat late in the winter when food supplies are limited.

So if you want a landscape like that you’re going to need to plant a diverse selection of plants, the majority of which should be native.

The Role of Native Plants

Why native? Native species are critical to supporting native wildlife and insects, supportive of ecological functions (like we discussed above). Most insects are specialized to recognize only specific plants it has evolved with over a long period of time – native plants vs the newest ornamental plant introduced by the landscape industry. Without a healthy insect population frogs, toads and birds can not exist. Did you know that baby birds eat only insects? Not seeds. A few natives (often combined with pesticide and herbicide use) = degraded insect populations = fewer natural food sources = fewer higher order animals.

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This fall garden is shown in its first year and was built with multiple erosion control elements using mostly native plants: Rhus typhnia, Staghorn Sumac, Picea pungens, Colorado Spruce, Juniperous horizontalis, Creeping Junipers, and thick mulch. By year 5 this same garden had it’s plantings expanded to adapt to a growing woodland environment with areas of full sun and included: Sporobolus heterolepis, Prairie Dropseed grass, Carex muskingumensis, Palm sedge, Liatrus spicata, Blazing Star, Tiarella cordifolia, Foamflower and Sedum ternatum, Wild Stonecrop, to name a few.

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One of the insects you should see in your garden are wild bees. Wild bees are different than honey bees. They are mostly solitary and build their nest in abandoned rodent tunnels. Here is a cocoon-like package of leaf circles cut by a Leaf Cutter Bee found in one of the GRO gardens.

Resilience

A final quality that must be included in a sustainable garden is its resilience factor. You can judge the resilience of your garden by observing events where naturally occurring regenerative forces interact with the energy released from disturbances, into your garden’s ecosystem and beyond its boundaries into surrounding ecosystems. A garden’s resilience factor is its ability to adapt to the disturbance and continue to be viable.

Regenerative forces are solar energy, water, soil, atmosphere, vegetation or biomass. So if we take a look at your garden: What is happening to the sun exposure (full sun to shade), the water patterns, the soil’s structure and water-absorbing abilities, your plant growth, the process of decomposition each time you are there? Each time you walk through your gardens, till the soil, weed, remove plant debris or pick it’s flowers or berries you are creating different energy releases. In nature, or the wild, changes or disturbances initiate a process of adaptation as that ecosystem returns to a viable existence. How successful is your garden at adapting?

Adaptation can be observed in several stages: (1) first there is a disturbance, (2) followed by a system adaptation and (3) a utilization or a deflection of energy. This important process can be understood in a simple example.

Let’s consider a summer storm; the now typical, heavy summer rain storm in your garden. There’s a deluge of rain water, often falling hard on the ground, and it creates an extraordinary amount of surface water looking for pathways in your garden. What happens? A sustainable garden is designed and built to store, absorb and slowly drain this excess. Consider your own garden’s ability to handle this kind of disturbance. You will probably need to find ways to improve its resilience. There are many ways to do this, most of them simple, but that discussion will have to wait for a separate blog(s) of its own!

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A resilient garden can adapt to changes, natural + human, and continue its ecological functions.

Sustainability + Resilience = Beautiful Gardens

What is Composting?

Composting, by definition, is the oxidative decomposition of a mix of organic matter.

If there is no oxygen in your pile it is not composting. It is something else.

Composting goes back in time along way, at least to Roman times. They would pile up a year of leftover organic material and by the next planting it would be broken down enough to be used. This was a hit-and-miss system. Depending on the weather and materials they could get good compost one year or disease and pest ridden material the next.

Science has brought us a long way from there. We know now that to make good compost you need the proper proportions of 4 ingredients to make great compost.

1. Carbon: This is the ‘brown’ material. Things like dry stalks, leaves and stems fit into this group.
2. Nitrogen: This includes ‘green’ or coloured and wet material such as fruit scraps, fresh grass clippings. leaves or vegetable scraps.
These types of material are fuel for microbial oxidation. When the microbes feed they produce heat.
It is very important to know your carbon to nitrogen ratios: 25:1 and not more than 30:1.
3. Oxygen: You need oxygen for microbes to breath or oxidize the carbon.
4. Water: Water your pile to 50% – 60% moisture. Oxygen travels through air easier than through water – too much and your pile will suffocate and become anaerobic (without oxygen).
So when we design and build our compost piles we are not just mimicking the natural decomposition process. We design the piles to speed up the decomposition process and, most importantly, to increase the diversity and amount of microbial life in the compost.
There are many types of composting methods:

  • Cold Composting
  • Compost Bins
  • Sheet Composting
  • Pit Composting
  • Vermicomposting

different types of bin composting ideas – note the green to brown ratio

Vermiculture – Using worm composting systems indoors

Trench Composting

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Pit Composting

Hot Composting

In this method you build your pile or row all at once. This means you need to have collected all your ingredients first instead of adding continually like you do in cold composting. The minimum size is 3′ x 3′ x 3′. It takes at least this much mass to raise the pile’s core temperature above 130 degrees F.

I have heard that composting is a lot of work. Composting is not that time consuming. You can look after your backyard compost as little as once a week (depending on how big a pile you make). You can save your kitchen scraps in a covered pail and add this to your pile once or twice a week. Just before you add a pail of kitchen scraps turn your pile. Add the new pail of scraps. Make sure you always cover each addition with a layer of brown material. Remember the ratio of green to brown is 25:1. Brown material can be material like dry leaves or stalks, wood chips or shredded cardboard (no ink please!).

In the winter, if you have a freezer you can freeze your kitchen scraps and save it for the spring. This process will help you avoid over loading your pile in the winter which could create an anaerobic condition in the spring. You should also note, you can keep adding to your compost pile through the winter as long as you turn it, add brown material with each green addition.

Decomposition will occur whether you give your pile attention or not. It is the quality of the compost that will improve with the proper balance of materials and with the proper ventilation (turning the pile). Quality compost includes a diversity of organic matter and a diversity of microbiology.

Thing You Should Never Put in Your Cold Compost Pile:

Meat Scraps
Bone
Dog and/or Cat Feces
Plant Residues that have pesticides or herbicides on them
Cardboard or paper with inks on them (unless you know it’s vegetable ink)
Things That Are Good For Your Cold Compost Pile:

Nitrogen Materials

Green leaves and/or stalks
Green grass clippings
Coloured or wet kitchen scraps (vegetable only)
Clean human urine
Carbon Materials

Straw
Dry stems and leaves
Wood chips
Sawdust
Clean shredded cardboard or paper
*Try and use varied types of carbon and nitrogen materials. This will help ensure you have a diverse microbiology (different microbes feed on different things).

* The more diverse your microbe biology the more nutrient uptake for your plants.

For more information on great composting, review Dr. Elaine Ingham’s work.

If you’re interested in building your own take a look at this how-to guide.

The University of Illinois has a good website on the topic to review. Note the reference to The Rodale Institute, a leader in organic agriculture.

Talking to kids

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We had the privilege of visiting a Public School to talk about organic farming.

John talked about how to use your hands to figure out what kind of soil texture you have. The kids loved being able to put their hands in the soil. No surprise!

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We took time to talk about where soil comes from; lessons about parent material, sand, silt and clay. The kids actually took soil samples from the school garden beds and compared it to soil brought from the farm, taking a look at the soil biology under our microscope.

It’s one thing to ‘talk’ about microbes in our soil and water but it’s another to ‘see’ it all through a microscope.

Thanks for the invitation Charlie!

For any of you interested contact us at the farm.

Adding Organic Matter to Your Garden

As the weather changes and daylight hours dwindle many of us are still active in our gardens and farms.

Our human tendency is too try to clean up too much; to manage the growing environment to suit our liking. Here’s a little reminder to leave things be. Nature is our guide. It doesn’t sweep up every fall. Leaves and plant residues are all part of nutrient cycling. Plants dying back are the food source for the soil’s microbes. It also is habitat for all the insects, arthropods and rodents during the long, cold winter sleep. Without these critters our beautiful birds and bees can not survive. Did you know baby birds eat insects only in their early months? Some birds are only insectivores while others eat seeds.

Our habit to ‘clean’ is not in tune with natural cycles. Make yourself change. Your garden will do so much better. There is lots of time in late spring, before you plant your garden to pick up any leftovers not used by nature. Most insects have fully cycled by the May 24 weekend. It’s a great time to tend to gardening and growing once again.

Until then, let your gardens rest and use this time to read up on the natural life cycles in your soil.

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Here is a small cocoon-like package we found in our garden. It is circles of leaves cut by leaf cutter bees. It is small leaf circles wrapped in leaves with pollen and nectar balled together with and egg laid on top in between the circles. Here is another reason why we shouldn’t disturb our soils in the fall. We are disturbing far more; like these important pollinators that will emerge next spring.

The Wandering Wooly Bear

In between the rain drops there is a caterpillar out and about these days.The wooly bear is easily recognized by its orange/tan fuzzy body banded by black at either end.

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The wooly bear is the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger moth. While most of us recognize the wooly bear few will recognize it in its adult stage.

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The male Isabella Tiger moth is differentiated from the female (below) by the female’s pink colouring on the underwings.

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The wooly bear is a unique caterpillar that although undergoes a 4 stage metamorphosis is will not enter the 3rd stage: pupation until is has enough energy to transform itself into its next stage of life as an adult. Wooly bears in their pursuit of elusive adult life can remain in their pupa stage for years, surviving the freezing months of our temperate climate, year after year after year.

Discovery has an excellent video you might enjoy: Frozen Planet – The Wooly Bear.

Understanding the beauty and complexity of such a humble and common insect helps us make the changes we desperately need to become sustainable.

Come and Pick Up Your Garlic Seed at the 4th Annual Toronto Garlic Festival!

The Glen Road will be celebrating the ‘stinking rose’ and all its lovely attributes this Sunday at the Toronto Garlic Festival.

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Come on down to the Evergreen Brick Works to taste our signature ‘Hawkwind’ garlic. Pick up your very own garlic seed for your fall planting. Talk to us about garlic and organic gardening.

The festival has a full day of events to enjoy on a September day. Take a look at the website to make sure you don’t miss out on garlic shots, the movie screening of No Impact Man, lots of garlic foods and pairings, music, and… garlic!

You can find The Glen Road Organics at booth #41. Come and say hi and find out why ‘Hawkwind’ is so unique. You’ll want some for your own!

See you all there!

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Garlic chocolate ice cream tasting!

How We Plant Our Garlic

All of our garlic has been harvested, trimmed and is drying. Take a look at us on Instagram and Pinterest to see some of our harvest pictures. You might find some good ideas for your own crop!

Did you know that October is garlic planting month? Now that our garlic is drying and the fields are empty it’s time to prepare the beds for planting. We tend to plant later in the month however the most important point to remember about when to plant is that you should have your garlic cloves in the ground before freeze up. That’s frozen solid! You can plant your garlic in the spring however you will have a smaller bulb to harvest, not mention having to wait till the soil is warm and dry enough to plant in.

Here are our basic guidelines for Garlic Planting:

1. Prepare Your Soil

Garlic, in general, likes a rich organic, moist, well-drained soil. Whether your soil is light and sandy or a heavy clay the best amendment is organic matter,… on a regular basis. We add compost, using our own premium compost, 2 ways: tilled in or added just on top. Compost is the best way to add organic matter to your soil. Within 2 years you will note a remarkable difference in your soil texture and crops. The soil will be softer, hold more moisture and drain well. Your plants will grow larger and stronger, look more vibrant, produce good fruit sets and have less disease and pests. A stretch of warm days in August or September is a good time to prepare your soil. Planting a green manure is also a best practice to corporate in your preparation. Just make sure you can plant through it.
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2. Your Planting Layout

We plant a lot of garlic so we have beds planted 8 bulbs across. How you layout your garlic beds depends on the size of beds, the amount of garlic, etc. The basic rule you should follow in any design plan is that garlic should be spaced 6″ apart and about 2″ deep. We plant on a 6″ x 6″ grid, 8 bulbs wide. You will find all kinds of different garlic beds out there, just remember: “6” apart and 2″ deep”.

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3. Select and Prepare Your Seed

It might seem obvious however it needs to be said: Plant the cloves not the bulbs! When we are trimming our garlic bulbs we leave enough of the hard neck on the bulb to help us later when we prepare the garlic seed for planting. The hard neck helps us pull apart the bulb and separate the cloves. Each clove is a seed. Separate any damaged or diseased seed. Plant only your best seed. Look for well sized, plump cloves. Great seed really does grow great plants!

You can also plant your bulbils at this time. Bulbils are the small seeds the flower scape produces. Fall planting means less worry about your seed drying up or turning moldy over the winter.

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4. Planting

Now that your soil is ready, you have a planting layout and your cloves are all separated and selected it is time for planting. Each garlic clove has a piece of the bulb’s basal plate (a little flat spot) where the roots grow from and a pointed top where the sprout emerges. Plant the basal plate down and the point up.

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We use a planting tool, called a dibbler, designed to create planting holes for the cloves on a consistent 6″ x 6″ x 2″ deep grid. If your seed size varies a great deal you will want to make some adjustments. Small seed should not be planted as deep as large seed.

Bulbils need to be planted less than 1″ deep. Since they will not be mature enough to harvest in the first year they can be mass planted in the fall and transplanted the following harvest season.

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5. Cover with Topsoil

Gently cover the planted cloves with topsoil. Be careful not to disturb your seed, tilting the cloves in their planting holes. Tilted cloves will still come up however important plant energy will be spent ‘straightening’ itself out vs. growing a bigger bulb.

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6. Add Mulch

There’s a lot of different kinds of mulch out there. We have had good success with 2 kinds: shredded leaf mulch and wood chip mulch. All mulch should be 1-2″ deep. Leaf mulch should be shredded to avoid leaf matting and a possible moldy spring environment for the new shoots, A lawn mower makes a perfect shredder. Leaf mulch can be blown away so you should keep an eye on your beds through out the winter season to make sure the soil is not exposed. A mulched bed insulates the soil and the cloves, protecting the soil from extreme temperature and moisture variations. If your leaf mulch is in danger of getting blown away you might need to add a sprinkling of straw to hold it down or use a wood chip mulch. Straw also makes a good mulch. Most growers tend to use what is available. Choose the cleanest product, staying away from anything that may have any chemical product or residue on it.

7. Mulch Your Pathways and Bed Edges

We use straw to cover the pathways between our beds of garlic as well as all the edges of the beds. Mulching protects the bulbs from temperature extremes as well as holds essential moisture in the beds throughout the growing season. We rarely have to irrigate during the summer months primarily because our beds and pathways are covered. Mulching helps provide optimal growing conditions all year long. If you choose straw look for weed-free straw. This past year we used a wheat mulch. In the past we have used oat straw with oat shoots coming up as well.

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