The harvest

by Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, November 2010

A food garden will give you even more to be thankful for next Thanksgiving.

Back in June I wrote about growing food in the backyard and asked you to share your own gardening stories at the end of the harvest. We can all agree this wasn’t the best year for a garden, at least starting out: Spring was a cold clammy hand that wouldn’t let go. Then, almost overnight it seemed, we entered the season of heat and drought, punishing enough to flag even the dandelions. Did a fledgling food crop even stand a chance?

Yes it did, apparently. Sandra Robinson grew a fine little garden for the first time this year, after acquiring a townhouse in 2009. She made good use of her limited space: Patio pots yielded a robust harvest of lettuce, basil, thyme, chives, parsley, coriander, mint and tomatoes. In the front yard—often overlooked as a place for planting vegetables—she tended a successful crop of garlic, kale, radishes and more tomatoes. An apple tree in the back provided “a glut of apples.” With results like this, she’s keen to garden again next year.

Marilyn Whitehead of Esquimalt has been growing mint, parsley, radishes and nasturtiums—whose flowers are as edible as they are sprightly—for years on the enclosed balcony of her apartment. Last January she was sorting through the back of a cupboard and found some “rather withered” potatoes that nonetheless had good eyes (sprouts). She planted them in a large pot and stuck them out on the balcony. They thrived despite the cold and lack of sun, and by mid June there were 20 potatoes ready for harvesting.

This year our own little yard taught us just how easy it is to grow food in this climate. We knew we’d be away for much of July so we skipped putting in the usual veggies except for lettuce, a short row of carrots and three tomato seedlings.

And still there’s been a heck of a harvest coming in through the back door. We picked rhubarb in June and berries in early July, the stuff that pretty much grows itself. We had a steady supply of lettuce and tomatoes, and the garlic we planted last fall will keep us going for months. Right now I’m up to my ears in pears, bushels of them that have me sweating in the kitchen over all things pear. Nobody phone ‘til I get a few more batches through the food dehydrator.

The apples have been tumbling in too; we’ve turned a few bushels into applesauce and sent the rest to our improvised cold storage. There are still grapes dripping from the vine on the arbour and a few rotund buttercup squash growing out of the compost. Potatoes we missed harvesting last year have multiplied and are eager to come indoors. I haven’t even begun to dig up the carrots yet; thankfully they can stay in the ground until winter.

Meanwhile, my next door neighbour is tending her own harvest, experimenting with new crops and planning to move her fence closer to the road so she’ll have more space for cultivating. Other yards are sprouting fruit trees, some with several grafted cultivars to maximize yield in a confined area. Local seed exchanges and gardening forums draw ever-larger crowds, and community plots are at a premium around town.

Does all this point to an increase in food gardening in Victoria? It’s not a notably strong trend yet, says Philip Young, who’s gardened for 40 years and has been teaching vegetable and fruit production at Glendale Gardens and Woodland for more than a decade. “Gardens were common until the ‘70s and then fell out of favour for 20 years. Now we’re slowly seeing a return to those earlier levels,” he says, attributing this at least in part to increased media interest in all things local, including food.

What has changed, according to Young, is the way we use pesticides. “It’s definitely down; people are realizing that pesticides, including the sprays once used on apples, are harmful to the environment.” (In fact, pesticide use for non-food gardening is no longer permitted in the Greater Victoria region.)

Maybe it’s just evolution, or maybe there’s a bit of a revolution coming on. Either way, it’s an exciting time to be part of the upswing, growing food for ourselves in this city, on this island.


Writer and Master Gardener Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic wrote this column between trips to the kitchen, peeling and slicing and checking on the applesauce.