Harvest in the home garden

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, October 2013

A crucial link in the food security chain.

Today we picked about 50 pounds of pears from a tree that received hardly a drop of water over the dry summer. After trundling the boxes into our cold-storage room I had to stop for a minute and marvel at the bounty of our smallish, non descript backyard garden. What happens here every year is a miracle, really. Despite the dry summer, the apple trees have produced enough fruit to supply us with applesauce for a year, and the blackberry and raspberry bushes near the fence have provided a good stash of fruit for the freezer. (I should make clear that owning a blackberry bush is like owning a bronco—you have to keep a very tight rein. I allow just a single vine to run along the fence and keep everything else severely curbed. Every year my ruthlessness is rewarded with several litres of mouth-watering berries.)

In front of the berries we planted tall edible-pod peas this year, which fed us through the early season along with lettuce and kale. Kale is an amazing plant, a nutrition powerhouse that just keeps giving throughout the year. We use it in a dozen different ways and still have extra to give to our young people who love adding it to their smoothies. Swiss chard feeds us well too, and rarely needs much attention. It self-seeds readily so the progeny of one plant will keep us supplied for a long time. 

Over the summer we feasted on beans and more salad greens, summer squash, cucumbers, zucchini, and early beets, carrots and potatoes. In many ways the garden is in its most splendid stage right now, saturated in the kind of serenity that comes after the hard work is done (and yet still flush with beets and carrots), smelling of warm earth and beautifully festooned with crimson tomatoes, a gorgeous pumpkin and various winter squash lollygagging in the late-season sun. 

But of course there were challenges, drought being the main concern. Aphids came and went, some plants withered long before reaching maturity, weeds flourished, powdery mildew turned a few things grey, and the spinach and other tender greens bolted faster than the neighbour’s cat after I hissed at it. 

That’s one reason why crop diversity makes so much sense in the home garden (and on the farm as well, although there it’s being threatened by huge-scale operations that buy up traditional mixed farms and amalgamate the land for mono-crop production). Growing smaller yields and more variety ensures there’ll always be something to harvest. This, for example, was a good year in our garden for beans, berries and pears. The peach tree, on the other hand, produced just a single fruit which, pathetically, fell to the ground and rotted while we were away.

There’s plenty of discussion on food security these days, and for good reason: Half of Canada’s farmers are in their mid-fifties or older, and three-quarters of them will retire in the next decade. That has fundamental implications for all of us, so of course we’re interested in hearing about new ways to keep the land productive and affordable for future farmers who’d rather not work themselves to bankruptcy or death. We’re grateful they’re there to grow our food but it often doesn’t occur to us that we could farm too. 

Could we be a city of backyard, balcony and rooftop food growers? Could we eschew the stuff that comes from foreign shores and instead centre our diet on humble crops we’ve grown ourselves and seasonal offerings from our own local farms? Could we grow Victory gardens once again, this time to help triumph a more self-sufficient future?

There’s no doubt the home garden is a crucial link in the food security chain. Starting one is easy enough and fortunately the instructions are few and basic: Find some soil where the sun shines, add compost, add seeds, add water, remove crops and repeat until you no longer need to eat. 

Whether you pick cherry tomatoes from a single patio pot or harvest tons of produce from a prolific food garden—and there are many around town—bask in the knowledge that you’re carrying on the noble work of your ancestors over thousands of years. They toiled in fields out in the country. We, with our ingenuity and appetite for sustainability, could transform our urban home into a true and bounteous City of Gardens. 

TDM wishes you a wonderful harvest and Thanksgiving. If you grow more food than you can use, please consider donating to your local food bank. The LifeCycles Fruit Tree Project will even come and pick your excess fruit.