Tag Archives: gardening

Grow Food Calgary Participant Blog

One of Grow Food Calgary’s new gardeners is blogging about her garden experiences.

“It’s been a busy first two weeks in our garden since our first Grow Food Calgary class on April 22. Since the class ended, I’ve created a small indoor garden area in front of two large west-facing windows in my kitchen where I’m nurturing two kale seedlings destined for transplant outdoors, experimenting with pea shoot and wheatgrass microgreens, and growing basil, cilantro and dill.

“My kids have 2 sunflower seedlings growing in the window sill which are destined for transplant outdoors, too”. Read here.

As Julie and her husband, Gideon move through the program they will share their victories and defeats.

We invite all participants to record their experiences with us, through a blog, pictures of your garden or a video of you demonstrating something you’ve learned about growing your own food.

Our May session covers water, weeds, and warm crops.

For tickets

The First 2 Weeks of Newbie Gardening

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Turning Garbage into Garden Gold


Chelsie Anderson, Garden Expert

Chelsie Anderson

Compost piles require four things; a source of Nitrogen, a source of Carbon, water and air.

Nitrogen (aka “greens”)

Nitrogen is found in anything that is green and/or wet. Think kitchen scraps, fresh cut weeds, fresh cut grass clippings and even human urine. Nitrogen is akin to stepping on the gas, as it speeds up the rate at which your compost pile decomposes.

Carbon (aka “browns)

Carbon is found in dry compostable items. Cardboard, newspaper, dry leaves, dry grass clipping and straw. This is important to keep your compost pile from becoming too wet and turning anaerobic.

When a pile turns anaerobic it smells bad, but so long as you have enough Carbon, then your pile will smell earthy and like the floor of a forest. Add more carbon than you think is necessary and always have bagged leaves available next to your pile so that you are able to add a handful after every addition of Nitrogen.


For a compost pile to decompose there must be a certain amount of moisture involved. Remember, food scraps are loaded with moisture so if you have a lot of food scraps you may not need to add any additional water.

Ideally, the contents of your pile should feel like a wrung out cloth; damp, but not soggy. You want to encourage the aerobic (oxygen dependant) microbes in your pile if you plan to use the end result on your food garden.


Air is essential for keeping your pile at the right temperature as well as at the right moisture level. You can achieve an air-filled pile by having holes in the sides, top and bottom of your bin, by adding sticks to your pile to provide spaces, or bulky items such as wood chips or cardboard chunks. Sticks, in all honesty, will drive you crazy when you try to turn your pile, but it is a thought for those who aren’t interested in turning the pile.

The best way to add air is to turn your pile, and to do so as frequently as possible. Monthly at minimum. Having a second or third compost pile will help with this as you can novel out the contents from one bin and as you are adding it to the next bin over you are actively turning the pile and can adjust the Carbon/Nitrogen ratios as you go.

My Speedibin Composter
Top Tips from a Compost Lifer:

Put your pile somewhere close to your house so that you don’t have to make any grand efforts at getting to it in the back alley, or at the far end of your veggie patch. If it is accessible, you will use it and maintain it more often. You will also be more motivated not to let it go anaerobic (stinky) if it is closer to your living space.

Chop everything to help speed up the process. The more surface area that is available, the more access the microbes will have to your scraps and the faster the pile will heat up and biodegrade. Consider buying a machete to keep next to your pile along with a tree stump to use as a chopping board. This can be very therapeutic, or a great job for a child with lots of energy!

Add some garden soil, and more than you think is necessary. Your native garden soil will have all kinds of beneficial microbes that will help to speed up your pile. If your soil is more or less dead, therefore not adding any new microbes, add it anyway. In Calgary we have high clay content and this clay helps to hold onto valuable minerals making your finished product more mineralized.

The more different items you can add to your pile the better. Try all kinds of different ingredients, and don’t be scared to try new things; egg cartons, sand from your child’s sand box, egg shells, coffee grounds, or your neighbour’s lawn clippings

Have fun with it and feel the thrill as you turn your garbage turns into garden gold!

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Feedback on Grow Food Calgary’s First Session

I just wanted to thank you for our first Grow Food Calgary sessions.

The information you provided and reading Donna Balzer’s book, No Guff Vegetable Gardening, has given me the boost I needed to focus on growing more food this year.

We have been at our home for ten years and focused on our      perennial gardens and fruit trees thus far.

Your guidance has given me the confidence and knowledge to try again to grow more of our own food.

Our yard and home offers us many opportunities to give it a serious try this growing season.

I look forward to the sessions ahead and I am keeping a list of     questions for the May date.

Mary’s Garden Room

The pictures are of my garden room off our kitchen that is finally being put to good use since last week’s workshop.

Thanks again,


P.S. I turned the grow light on this morning and it made me smile! The sprouts are up and green from the seeds we got last week. I think for my space getting the heating pads made a big difference.

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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.

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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.

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