THUNDER BAY -- Living in Thunder Bay, we are used to the vast majority of our produce coming from other provinces, the U.S., Mexico and further beyond. Dependent on transportation, our supermarket shelves can get pretty bare every time there is a major weather event. One local gardener, however, has set out to prove that you can put food on the table from your own garden throughout the year, and do it right in the city, too.
“Our ancestors were able to do all this,” says Pam Tallon, owner of Growing North. “Dugout greenhouses, insulated greenhouses, cold cellars, using geothermal heat is not a new concept.” She converted her backyard into an urban garden with several raised beds, a few fruit trees and an all-season greenhouse. The greenhouse is attached to one wall of the garage and uses no supplemental light. Pipes near the ceiling pull warm air heated by the sun during the day into an underground heat sink (an insulated foundation filled with rocks) which retains that heat and radiates it back up at night. Even on a cold day in January, temperatures inside the greenhouse can go up to 24 C when the sun is shining. During night, it can drop down to 2 degrees.
Finding plants that grow under these conditions (cool temperatures and most critically, low light) is an ongoing journey of discovery. “A lot of people think spinach grows in winter. It doesn’t. It survives.” Some crops we associate with cooler weather (think kale, which will tolerate heavy frosts) still need much more light than is available during the winter months. Those crops remain alive, but don’t grow at all until the days get longer. Tokyo bekana (a variety of mustard green that tastes very mild, like lettuce), pak choi (a.k.a. bok choy) and arugula are some of the greens that Tallon grows in the cold months.
Building an all-season greenhouse like hers is not for everyone, but there are numerous ways people can grow some food at home, both indoors and outdoors. Indoors, microgreens (young vegetable greens harvested later than sprouts and before they reach the “baby greens” stage) can be grown under fluorescent lights, with very little soil and space. They can be harvested within a few short weeks, but if you are willing to wait longer, lettuce, arugula, Swiss chard (as baby greens) and some radishes (Cherry Belle is recommended) are also possible. “Winter greens in Northern Ontario are perfectly nutritious but they are not going to look like what you get from the shelves of a supermarket.”
Outdoors, Tallon recommends raised beds as an easy way to get started - you don’t know how your property was used before you moved in; the pH might not be right, or there may even be harmful chemicals or heavy metals in your soil. Building raised beds and bringing in good quality top soil would take care of that problem, and raised beds are also quicker to thaw and warm up in spring, making your growing season longer.
“Call before you plan, not call before you dig,” is one piece of advice she has for the enthusiast with a shovel or backhoe. “You can plan everything out, and then you find out that you can’t plant a tree there, because there’s a gas line or something. So call first.”
While a large focus of Growing North is on education and consulting (Tallon gives talks on topics such as edible landscaping, vermicomposting and food sustainability, and is a great resource for someone trying to build a greenhouse or map out an edible garden), every spring, she sells many varieties of herbs, ornamental grasses, strawberry baskets and vegetable seedlings. She tries to grow unique varieties not carried by other garden centres in town and also takes requests. Numbers are limited, so send her a message if you’re looking for something, or check out Growing North’s Facebook page for updates on what’s coming up.