Tag Archives: vegetables

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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Flowers in the Veggie Patch

The gardens I knew as a kid had a definite boundary between vegetables and flowers. Each had its place and they never co-habitated.

But there are good reasons to grow flowers with your vegetables, chief among them attracting native bees and other beneficial insects. Without bees rummaging through your garden for pollen, your crops will be less than their potential.

Planting bee-friendly flowers near your vegetables  supports struggling pollinator populations and biodiversity. You can also plant flowers specifically to attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and other desirable species.

Some flowers repel pests. Marigolds control nematodes in the soil that destroy the roots of melons, for example. Their pungent odor is repugnant to many undesirables in the garden.

Sunflowers are fun edibles for kids to grow.

Personally, I like to grow edible flowers. They make a splash in a salad or as a garnish for a gourmet meal. Besides the “veggie” edible flowers like broccoli and cauliflower, my favourites include Nasturtiums, violets (and pansies), sunflowers and roses.

by Shelley Goldbeck

Learn how to grow your own food, including edible flowers by attending Grow Food Calgary, starting on Earth Day, April 22. Register

For a list of edible flowers.

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Learn Gardening for Less Than $7 per Hour


Chelsie Anderson, Garden Expert

by Chelsie Anderson

Learn to feed your family healthier, tastier and more cost efficient produce for less than $7 per hour.

At Grow Food Calgary we are know that value is important, so we have been spending the past weeks and months figuring out how we can give you the best bang for your buck.

Grow Food Calgary will give each participant $285 (as of the date of this post) worth of free products (and only the best free products, hand selected by Donna Balzer, herself). We keep adding to it. Check out our goodies page.

This means that the remaining $115 that your ticket costs you will get you 18 hours worth of learning-to-grow sessions. A little math, and you are paying under $7 for each hour of expert time, not to mention a wealth of additional information!

Grow Food Calgary is an event that you can’t afford to miss!

Looking forward to meeting you at Grow Food Calgary 2017, set to start on Earth Day,  April 22nd, at the Calgary Zoo.

Order your early bird tickets now to save even more.


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Benefits of Starting Your Own Seedlings

by Shelley Goldbeck

Shelley Goldbeck

Many gardeners grow food to save money. By buying seeds and starting your own plants, you can save even more money.

A packet of seeds is exponentially cheaper than buying bedding out plants, even when you factor in cost of soil and containers. If you order from a good seed house, their prices are often lower than your local retailer. And you get access to more variety, which is the second reason to start your own seedlings.

Most garden centres carry a limited variety of popular seeds. You might be able to choose from four kinds of peas, three varieties of carrots, and globular or cylindrical beets.

There are hundreds of vegetable varieties with their own charms like being ready to eat in 45 days, or providing an unusual colour. Vibrant colours in vegetables are signs of nutrients.

Commercial operations require tomatoes that are uniformly shaped and sized, and so they survive un-bruised in transport, skins as thick as leather. And almost no trace of tomato taste.

An heirloom tomato might be purple, yellow or black, with a skin that is almost not there, and a taste that can be described as heavenly.


Why not try seeds of a vegetable you’ve never tried eating before, like kohlrabi? This cabbage family member grows a strange bulb above ground and makes fabulous French fries.

One year I grew purple potatoes. After our guests’ initial shock they were a tremendous hit at our Thanksgiving dinner!

A few dollars for a package of seeds is a small-risk venture with potentially great reward: discovering a new wonderful food!

Another reason to start your own seeds is you can choose organic.

Organic produce is expensive and we don’t really know if we can trust every producer’s adherence to organic practices.

We can’t even trust those practices, as organic certification boards are taken over by Big Food companies who argue they can’t make money growing strawberries if they can’t spray them.


That’s why we can no longer buy truly organic strawberries in our supermarkets.

But you can raise your own.



I’m also wary of organic food from China. Their food safety reputation is highly suspect. One report showed organic garlic from China was watered with industrial polluted water, complete with heavy metals and other toxins. Plants uptake these toxins and then we eat them.

When you start your own seeds you control the soil, light and water. Doing it yourself ensures that your produce is free from unwanted, often dangerous chemicals. Starting with organic seeds is the logical first step.

A side benefit of starting your own seeds is building community with other gardeners. We don’t often need a hundred seeds of celery so sharing your leftovers is a great way to build community with your gardening peers. Sharing also saves money.

Another bonus of community is sharing the harvest. Your carrots may have done poorly this year, but the seeds you gave your friend across town yielded a bumper crop!

By starting your own seeds, you will have healthy plants. Commercial greenhouses don’t necessarily have the end result in mind: your dinner plate.

Their job is to supply retailers with good-looking, often too-large plants. In Calgary we can’t safely plant bedding out plants until the end of May, but the garden centre tomatoes are blooming May 1. By the time you can safely plant, your tomatoes are root-bound, maybe leggy. Those coveted blooms will likely fall off as the plant reacts to the shock of being transplanted.

By starting your own seeds, you can schedule your seedlings to be the right size when you’re ready to plant them. If the plant is healthy, your harvest is sure to be more rewarding.

Where can you learn more about starting your own seeds? At Grow Food Calgary, our Vegetable Gardening Immersion Program, our April session includes lessons on starting your own seeds. And some seeds to get you started. You don’t want to miss it. Register today!


Shelley Goldbeck is co-founder of Grow Food Calgary, on a mission to give Calgarians the skills they need to grow some of their own food.


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