Tag Archives: Donna Balzer

Raspberry Trouble – I am not alone with bad raspberries this year

From Donna Balzer’s website: www.DonnaBalzer.com

by | Aug 2, 2017 | Food, GARDENING, VIDEOS | 0 comments

George is off his game. He used to water, weed, pick and share his juicy raspberries and all the neighbors looked forward to his harvest. Well that was last year.

I knew George wasn’t feeling well so I offered to pick berries for him. I was thinking, rather confidently, I can bring a ray of light into his life.

Courtesy: www.DonnaBalzer.com

Instead of being helpful, I was crushed. Like George, his plants are old and weak. We’ve had a dry summer, his berries are growing in full sun, and they are not being watered. They are  shorter than normal. They are also full of grass and producing only a very few small fruit. It reminds me how fast a great garden dwindles if the owner can’t offer the care a crop wants and needs. Gardens fade fast.

Raspberries from High Level, Alberta to Qualicum Beach, British Columbia are suffering. On my #CBC radio show (Alberta at Noon, July 28th) I had calls about distressed raspberries, the queen of the summer fruit garden. When I visited my son in Smithers in July I saw his plants were also doing poorly.  When I got home I saw my berries were no better.  If you love raspberries and want even more fruit then do as I say, not as I do!

Read Donna’s entire blog here

Edible Weeds, Part 2

This is the second part in our series on edible weeds. Many so-called weeds are highly nutritious.

Common Pigweed

What Parts are Edible? Young Leaves, seeds.

How do I Prepare Them? Young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach, sautéed, etc. Pigweed has a mild flavour and is often mixed with stronger flavoured leaves. Fresh or dried pigweed leaves can be used to make tea. The seed is very small but easy to harvest and very nutritious. The flavour is greatly improved by roasting the seed before grinding it. Pigweed seed can be ground into a powder and used as a cereal substitute, it can also be sprouted and added to salads. The seed is very small but easy to harvest and very nutritious.

Nutritional Value? Contains oxalates (like spinach & strawberries) so if you have kidney stones you might want to avoid this one. Related to Amaranth ( a common grain). A cup of boiled pigweed contains only about 28 calories, but the cupful is so high in Vitamins A and C that it would furnish a person with 73% of the daily allowance of vitamin A and 90% of the RDA of vitamin C. The plant is also very high in Manganese, Calcium, and is high in Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Zinc and Copper. Additionally, it contains 1.3 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids, but only a tenth of a gram of fat. If the pigweed is eaten raw, the vitamins and minerals would be in higher amounts.

When do they bloom? Late summer.

How do they Spread? By seed. 100,000–600,000 seeds per plant.

The best way to get rid of them? Tough to pull because they break off at ground level but this one is an annual so cut them off before blooming because they may still produce seeds when dead on the ground. Mulching discourages seed germination but turning soil encourages it. Slow-release sources of nutrients, such as well-ripened compost, are less likely to stimulate pigweed growth by releasing large amounts of nitrate or soluble phosphorus into the soil than faster-release sources like manure or blood meal.

Interesting Fact? Redroot pigweed needs warm soil for seeds to germinate, so it often pops up after seeding commercial crops. Seeds remain viable for up to 40 years when buried in the soil and are commonly spread with aged manure (they don’t die in digestion). Like cactus, Pigweeds have the C4 photosynthetic pathway, which gives them an ability to grow and develop rapidly in high temperatures and light conditions.

Common Groundsel

Not really. But used for medicine

What Parts are Edible? Leaves and stems.

How do I Prepare Them? Used in poultice for gout.

Nutritional Value? Rabbits love it but be careful as this one could be poisonous.

When do they bloom? They are spring annuals but they reseed up to 3 times per year.

How do they Spread? By seed. About 2,000 seeds are produced per plant or 2.2 Million seeds in a pound!

The best way to get rid of them? Simple to pull.

Interesting Fact. Senecio vulgaris seed have been used as canary seed. They have also been found in the droppings of sparrows, and seedlings have been raised from the excreta of various birds. Seed has
also been found in cow manure even though this plant is thought to be poisonous to cattle.


What Parts are Edible? Leaves, stem and flowers and possibly seeds if you let them go that long.

How Do I Prepare Them? Best eaten raw in a salad or on their own

Nutritional Value? In just 100 grams you will get 232% of your daily nutritional value of Vitamin A and 133% of Vitamin C. Also high in Calcium, iron (more iron that in spinach!), B6 and Magnesium. It is a great source of dietary fibre and trace elements.

When do They Bloom? They are a quick growing annual so can bloom by June but different plants will bloom at different times and it is possible to find it in bloom all summer. Leaves are better tasting and bigger before they bloom.

How do they Spread? By seed

The Best Way to get rid of Them? Pull them. They are easy to dig out using a weeding tool whether they are big or small.

Interesting fact. Spinach-like in taste and texture. They look dusty from a distance, this feature will help you to identify them. There are natural saponins in the leaves which can make you feel slightly nauseous if you eat too many, so limit yourself! When I (Donna) grew the closely related Quinoa from seed, the young leaves looked exactly like lamb’s quarters so I was sure I had the wrong seed. In fact they are both in the same family and I later learned that many people eat the Quinoa leaves when the plants are young instead of waiting for them to go to seed.

Pineapple Weed

What Parts are Edible? The leaves and flowers.

How Do I Prepare Them? Add the yellow bloom to a pot of hot water and enjoy as a summer tea. The leaf (before blooming) can be added to a salad if you don’t mind the taste.

Nutritional Value? This plant has medicinal value to help with gastrointestinal upset, infected sores, fevers and postpartum anemia.

When do They Bloom? Early spring/summer

How do they Spread? By seed. They thrive in dry corners and cracks in the pavement.

The Best Way to get rid of Them? Pull them up by hand.. If your soil is full of organic matter and not too compact there is little chance of pineapple weed growing, as it thrives in depleted, hard-packed conditions, such as driveways.

Interesting fact? The bloom tastes/smells a lot like pineapple and are available in every cement crack in town, as they thrive in compacted soil!

Stinging Nettle

What Parts are Edible? Leaves and flowers

How Do I Prepare Them? Make into a tea, or steam and cook it similar to spinach, or added to soups/stews as a healthy addition.

Nutritional Value? Extremely high in dietary Fibre (28%), Vitamin A (40%) and Calcium (48% of the recommended daily values). Also high in Magnesium and Iron.

When do They Bloom? Late summer

How do they Spread? By seed and by root because they are perennial and come back in same patch every year.

The Best Way to get rid of Them? Hand pull as they come out easily (no tool required but wear gloves)

Interesting fact? If your bare skin brushes up against it you will feel a prickly/stinging feeling, so wear your garden gloves to harvest it! Amazingly, despite this fact, stinging nettle is most well known as a natural allergy relief remedy. Nettle is also used as an anti-inflammatory, good for bone health, respiratory issues and heart health among many other studied benefits.

Creative Ways to Grow Potatoes

Potatoes are the most heavily sprayed crop in the produce aisle. Luckily they are easy to grow and especially like the growing conditions in Calgary.

Donna Balzer, author of No Guff Vegetable Gardening and co-founder of Grow Food Calgary has a great video on her web site on creative ways to grow potatoes.

Donna Balzer’s blog 

“This is all about creative ways to grow potatoes. No space? No problem! Use wire fence planters you can make yourself to expand your growing area right now. Who says your urban farm can’t grow up?  Try this method today to increase your harvest in a small area.”



From Oil to Soil

Guest Post by Donna Balzer

Boost your soil, save your back and protect the environment this spring with biochar

Al Chomica, formerly from Calgary, is explaining to me over the phone how biochar, a new garden product he is testing, holds both minerals and soil life firmly. He has been making biochar for years, but this spring he is excited to try a new commercial source.

Biochar, a natural long-lasting form of soil humus, is created from burning organic matter in a low-oxygen environment. It is not wood ash. It is the hard part left over after the fire. Chomica says it stockpiles food in the soil, saves your back and will improve the world.

Robert Lavoie, a petroleum engineer, agrees. In 2015 he received approval for his soil supplement, Airterra Soil Matrix Biochar, from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and has found his first major retail outlet, Golden Acres, where his product sells for about $19.95. Web site

“Soil Matrix Biochar is a charcoal made intentionally for soil amendment using very controlled conditions so you get a very consistent product,” he said.

Back in 2008, Lavoie was busy giving media interviews about a large carbon capture initiative in Alberta when somebody at his church gave him a note with a single word: biochar. And suddenly, after years spent working to capture carbon from the air, the savvy, carbon capture specialist entered the world of soil.

Lavoie, who is really proud of his garden and “can’t wait to get out there,” turned away from oil towards soil, developing the Soil Matrix product.

The book Terra Pretta by Ute Scheub (2016 Greystone Books) mentions all the same benefits Lavoie and I discussed. For every per cent of humus stored in a 100 square-meter plot of land, one ton of CO2 is sequestered. That’s a tonne of carbon stored every time soil organic matter, including biochar, is boosted a single percentage point.

Lavoie thinks gardeners and farmers will be happy to hear biochar holds the carbon it pulls from the air, but he thinks they will be more impressed by biochar’s soil amendment features. Improved water holding capacity, mineral storage, providing a home for beneficial microbes, stabilizing soil acidity levels and removing toxins from the soil matrix are just some of the listed benefits of biochar.


Lavoie suggests Soil Matrix Biochar be infused with worm castings, grain flour and water and left to sit for two days. His inoculated biochar is then mixed with extra compost and applied in a two centimeter layer on mulch or soil. Inside it can be used as soil for African Violets or topdressing for houseplants.

The only disadvantage, it seems, is that biochar won’t improve already excellent soils. It is meant for bad soils. Unfortunately, we have plenty of those in Calgary.

So how will Chomica use his first batch of compost-prepped biochar? “I’ve had the dubious honour of digging (the soil) out of all my vegetable beds,” Chomica said. “I took 21 wheelbarrows of soil from the carrot bed alone. That’s a lot of soil to shovel. And all I did was enrich it: I mixed in compost and beefed it up as best I could.”

This year Chomica is going to save his back and skip the digging. Instead, he’ll add the prepped Biochar as a top dressing to create a forever soil. “I am not going to dig again.”

Retired and living in the mild climate of Nanoose Bay on Vancouver Island, Chomica is looking forward to getting started right away. I imagine he’ll already be sitting in his hammock by the time the rest of us get started gardening and improving our soils this spring.

Donna Balzer is starting a new program for aspiring new gardeners. Check out www.growfoodcalgary.com for more information.

Potatoes for Every Appetite

Guest post from Donna Balzer

Simple to grow, potatoes are a good starting point for people interested in growing their own produce

Like blaming the dog for eating your homework, John Mills was blaming his tractor for missing my interview call.

“I had to duct-tape my tractor radiator back together to get it working,” he said.

Mills, a fourth-generation farmer from Bowden, Alberta, is still using the same tractor his father bought second hand when John was a boy. His father started growing potatoes commercially in 1987 for the french fry market. Mills now grows 45 different kinds of potatoes, including the traditional Russet Burbank french fry potato.

Now that I had him on the phone, I ask Mills about growing potatoes – not warm climate sweet potatoes or yams, but the old fashioned Irish potatoes that are really from Peru, not Ireland. I want to know more about the tuber we commonly call spuds or white potatoes, and about the expansion of Eagle Creek Farms (www.eaglecreekfarms.ca) beyond french fries and toward organic growing.

“It was more of a transition out of that commercial world of growing (one variety of) potato to exploring the hundreds of varieties of potatoes out there,” said Mills.

“I don’t want to put down anyone who really likes Russet Burbank, but I find them a little dry,” he said. “It takes a lot of butter to really moisten them up – and salt and pepper and a lot of other seasonings.”

Mills prefers “anything that has a nice buttery texture” and he names the purple Viking and Agria a baking favourite. He also loves the yellow fleshed types, like fingerlings, banana, Sieglinde and German Butterballs, because they are so moist and tasty when baked.

Conventional store-bought potatoes are sprayed all summer with pesticides to control blight, sprayed in the fall with desiccants to kill plants evenly, and sprayed in the winter with sprouting agents to stop them from sprouting at the store.


The Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) says conventional potatoes have more pesticides by weight than any other fresh food.

Mills grows organically and wants everyone to grow potatoes because it’s simple and rewarding.

He suggests preparing the potatoes indoors before planting them outside. This process, called chitting, involves laying the potatoes out in a single layer so they form little sprouts from their eyes.

“We start shipping in early April and the best thing is to take that potato and put it in a well-lit room, not necessarily in warm sunlight,” said Mills.

Mills say potatoes can be stored that way for four to eight weeks without doing any harm. When you’re ready to plant the potatoes outside, they’ve have a good head start.

For anyone who finds a bag of sprouting potatoes in the back cupboard, not all is lost. Mills suggests breaking off the long sprouts and going back to step one: chitting them in a well-lit room.

Once the soil outside warms to 10 C (50F), you can plant potatoes outside. If they freeze after you plant them, the sprouts will die back and then sprout again. Make sure to pile soil up in a small hill against each growing potato right after they sprout, so the spuds won’t see sun and won’t turn green.

Early varieties have only 5 – 8 potatoes per plant and are ready to dig up right after they bloom. Later varieties stay in the ground until September or October because they produce twenty potatoes per plant.

“I often get frustrated by people thinking growing potatoes or vegetables is some secret art. There is nothing hard about growing vegetables,” said Mills.

“I make mistakes every year and I learn from it. I like potatoes because they are easy, you don’t need to start them inside, and you don’t need any special equipment or soil or container to grow them in. Just have fun with them, all right?”

For a video about growing potatoes see my web page, www.donnabalzer.com where I help gardener’s grow and beginners’ blossom

Donna Balzer and John Mills are just two of the experts you’ll learn from at Grow Food Calgary, Starting April 22, Earth Day at the Calgary Zoo.