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Integrating cover crops into your design plan

Crimson clover. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Crimson clover. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For a long time, I was confused by cover crops.

Cover crops are seeds that are planted to build and protect the soil. Rather than producing an edible harvest, the purpose of cover crops is to give your garden a rest by replacing some of the nutrients and organic matter that your greedy veggies depleted over the growing season. Cover crops also suppress weeds, prevent winter soil erosion and loosen compacted soil. They need to be killed and composted before they set seed (otherwise, they’ll self-seed, mature and turn into a lawn) by mulching, digging in, or letting frost do its work. Then, after giving a few weeks to let it break down, your bed is ready for planting again.

Cover crops fall into a few broad categories: soil-builders, nitrogen-fixers and pest-controllers. Soil-builders include buckwheat, rye, oats, wheat and other grains. They grow quickly and add large amounts of organic matter to your soil. Nitrogen fixers include clover, fava beans, hairy vetch and other members of the legume family. They attract rhizobium bacteria to their roots, converting atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use. Pest-controllers include alyssum and white mustard, plants that attract beneficial insects and are noxious to pests. Choosing the right cover crop depends on your goals, but for most people, mixing up a “cocktail” of a soil-builder and a nitrogen fixer will do the trick.

Still with me?

For years, no matter how many courses I took or books I read, I didn’t understand how to incorporate cover crops into my relatively small growing space. Cover crops take up a lot of room and really don’t do well with interplanting. I knew that cover crops are very important — they are one of the cornerstones of sustainable food gardening — but I just couldn’t wrap my head around how to make use of them. Since my garden is managed intensively, with fresh crops added successively, planting a cover crop felt like an annoying sacrifice of precious growing space. I thought of some crazy ideas, like growing pea shoots as a cover crop so that I could at least get some food out of the equation (actually, I still want to do this), but I still didn’t take much action.

This year is going to be different. I’m incorporating cover crops into my design plan.

Of our six garden beds, I’m planting one with a fall sowing of crimson clover, a nitrogen-fixer that has beautiful red flowers that bees love (our soil is already full of organic matter, so I’m skipping the addition of a soil-builder). This cover crop will go into a bed I most recently used for a three sisters planting — heavy feeders (except for the beans, which are themselves nitrogen fixers) that keep going until the very end of summer. I am going to clean the bed out entirely, and will then plant the whole thing with clover.

Why is this a good design practice? Well, aside from the benefits to the soil, I’ve reluctantly realized that *not* planting a winter crop on every square inch of my garden has its benefits. Most of the overwintering seeds I’m sowing now, like spinach and lettuce, won’t be harvestable until mid-April. But, in the meantime, I know that I’ll be itching to start planting new seeds by mid-March. Intentionally holding aside one bed will keep me from overplanting. The bed I planted with the cover crop will be the very first thing I tackle in the new year.

My new rule of thumb is: if you have several beds or planters, reserve one for a cover crop, and plant the rest with overwintering veggies.

You can order cover crops from your local seed company — I used West Coast Seeds. In general, cover crops get planted thickly, so you’ll want to buy a larger amount than you would with your veggie seeds. Cover crops can be planted at almost any time through out the year, though you generally want to get them in before the first frost. I’ll be planting my clover soon.

Good luck!

Harvesting tomatoes: a demanding reward

This time of year, the spring’s parade of endless salad greens give way to the heavier, juicier, starchier abundance of hearty summer crops: tomatoes, potatoes, beans, garlic and lots and lots of zucchini. There is still lettuce and chard in the garden beds, plenty of beets and a few peas holding on for dear life, but they aren’t the main show. Now is the time for the big crops we’ve been waiting for all these months.

I didn’t have much time to work in the garden today. It was just a quick harvest. I had been away from the garden for over a week, and was amazed to see how much things had developed. Our corn stalks are starting to form actual ears of corn, and our black cherry tomatoes, a late-ripening variety, are finally starting to change colour. I like to pick them as soon as they turn orange — that way, the vines will have more time to focus their energies on ripening the next fruits. They finish ripening on my counter in a small bowl.

Tomato plants are always a source of obsession in the Backyard Farm. Their seeds are one of the first things we plant indoors in the spring. Once the robust, fast growing seedlings emerge, they need to be repotted frequently, especially because they’re one of the last things to go into the ground (we do it  late May or early June, when the dogwood trees are in full bloom). Then, the plants need weather protection and weekly “training” and trellising, otherwise they turn into an unruly mess. They are more like pets than plants — and it’s only now, in early August, that we are getting the first few, tiny fruits. They aren’t suited to Vancouver’s damp, cloudy climate. Why do I bother to plant them, when the fruits of our labour are literally so small, and when kale and zucchinis are so much easier to grow? I don’t know, but when my mom suggested that we take a break from growing tomatoes last year, I would hear none of it. I guess that there’s nothing like biting into a tomato straight off the vine, especially when it’s accompanied by a fresh-picked basil leaf.

This week’s haul:

  • Two big zucchinis
  • 1 big bunch of purple bush beans
  • 6 beets
  • 2 big bunches of chives
  • 1 bunch of mint
  • A handful of sugar snap peas
  • 2 pounds of potatoes
  • 1 big head of lettuce
  • 1 pound of cherry tomatoes
  • 1 bag of basil and parsley


2014 Aug 04 Tomatoes


When I set out to grow this year’s garden, I set a vague goal of wanting to provide enough crops for myself, my husband, my parents and sister to eat year-round — five people — plus enough to share with friends and neighbours. It was an ambitious goal that I doubted I would actually make. Diligently, I put together a planting plan and seeded about fourteen square feet every two weeks, making a vague guess at how much crop production that would add up to.

Flash forward to the last week of June, and I found myself drowning in veggies. Our fridge was filled to the max with rainbow chard, perfect beets, lettuce, an abundance of snap peas, and plump red currants. It was far more than my family could eat.

We froze what we could, made pesto and blanched spinach and kimchi for the cold winter months. But the lettuce was too delicate, and the chard simply to beautiful, for me to want to preserve. I found myself looking out the window at odd moments, searching for signs that my neighbours were home, so that I could force bags of veggies on them.

I’ve come up with a new rule: from now on, I am going to plant just two square feet per person every two weeks, and only one of them can be lettuce.


Doing the work

2014 Hollyhock

A week ago today, I found myself sitting in the Lodge at Hollyhock on Cortes Island, listening to some very serious discussions while surrounded by the beauty of B.C.’s northern gulf islands, calm ocean and big trees all around me. I was there for Social Change Institute, an annual gathering of people from a range of sectors who make it their life’s work to ensure that the environment, democracy, and respect for life in all its forms are preserved for generations to come.

That night, I learned that the enormous threat posed by pipelines in B.C. have actually brought people together in powerful and even positive ways, forging unlikely alliances between First Nations communities, farmers, local governments and urban new economy workers who are working together to stand up for a sustainable future. “We are not just fighting against something,” one of my fellow attendees said. “We are fighting together to create a future.”

The Harper government’s decision on the Northern Gateway pipeline would be announced just a few days later. At that point, we didn’t know what the outcome would be, though we had our guesses. Listening to the energy and passion of my fellow attendees, I wondered what a world would look like where our environmental, social and economic futures were no longer threatened. I wondered if we would then lie down and say to ourselves, “Yay, everything’s fixed now. My work is done!”

I don’t think that will ever happen.

In the garden, there is almost always more work to do. You can slave away all day pulling weeds, harvesting crops and planting seeds, but it’s never really done. Perhaps, if you work really hard without stopping, you can look over the garden for a minute and think, “it’s perfect now! No weeds, everything is harvested, all of the seeds are planted.” But within five minutes, the plants will grow back and weeds seeds will germinate.

It’s the same with keeping your house clean, or your email inbox empty. You only get a brief moment where things are reset to zero.

And maybe it’s good that way. Without the work, we might risk losing our purpose. As much as I get satisfaction from having a tidy garden or a clean house or an empty inbox, there’s a little pang of sadness that comes along with it. There’s a part of me that looks forward to the vacuum refilling.

We humans are animals, and we evolved to live in a world where we had to work to survive. As much as we try to deny it, and as much as we sometimes resent all of the work we have to do, work is in our nature as a species.

Sitting there in the Lodge, it occurred to me that people who are committed to social change aren’t so much problem-solvers as we are cultivators and stewards — we do the work, as much of it as we can, to care for the world. We might have diverse motivations, opinions and processes, but it’s nevertheless work that contributes to the complex, living and continually changing planet.

The little bird

Last week, I helped to lead a Seedy Saturday for the Environmental Youth Alliance (EYA), where I’m a board member. Sessions run weekly and are attended by about sixteen or so high school students, who help to grow, process and package seeds grown in EYA’s youth garden for sale in local stores.

Sessions take place at the Solar House at Strathcona Community Gardens. Formerly the site of a construction waste dump, the gardens are now decades old and contain hundreds of individual plots, a thriving orchard with heirloom apple varieties, and a meeting space outfitted with a wood stove and a composting toilet. But many people in Vancouver don’t know that the gardens exist. From Prior Street, all you can see is a tangle of blackberries that give no signs of what lies beyond.

Along with an EYA staffer and another volunteer, we set up stations for winnowing wheat, labeling seed packets and painting a banner. The solar house is drafty enough that some light comes through the walls.

While we were moving a table, I noticed it: something about the size of a lime, downy and soft. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a mouse in here – with our plastic totes of wheat on site, it was surprising that they weren’t in evidence – but it didn’t look like a mouse. I crouched down and saw that it was the body of a little bird. It had olive and yellow feathers and was perfect, unbroken except for a small spot of red on the crown of its head. I almost thought it was a piece of taxidermy, some rogue décor that had fallen over, until I swept it into a dustpan and felt that there was a weight to it and a pliability, its head shifting slightly as I moved it. It must have died that morning.

When the students arrived, the first thing we as leaders were supposed to do was ask a question and allow everyone in the circle to take turns answering it. Up until that morning, I had been planning to ask a mundane one, “What are you most looking forward to for the spring?” But instead, when we circled up, I brought over the dustpan.

“How can we honour this little bird?” I asked them.

“Burn it in the fire”, one student said. “Bury it”, said another. Most of the students didn’t answer. Maybe they were freaked out by my question, or maybe, more likely, there just wasn’t much to say.

I placed the bird just outside the door to the house, and we got to work. There is no wifi in the solar house, no running water, and as four students and I sat around the table winnowing wheat by rubbing it between gloved hands and blowing the chaff onto the floor, their talk turned from Snapchat and Facebook friends to the activity at hand. “Don’t you feel like ancient cave people doing this?” I asked. And then we discussed whether or not we would enjoy living in a post apocalyptic, technology-free world. After some debate, they all agreed that living without technology would be better. All of the teens would have given up their social networks for days spent sitting around a fire, talking and picking the kernels out of ears of wheat, even if it meant that all of their time was spent gathering and preparing food. They discussed who in their class would be the leader, who would die first. “Have you read Lord of the Flies yet?” I asked, and they told me that it would be assigned to them next year. After some discussion, we decided that the post-apocalyptic scenario would take place in a temperate rainforest environment and that they would not get to bring any tools. “It’s like the Hunger Games”, I said, but they weren’t interested in talking about that. They were interested in talking about their actual skills. One of the boys, sitting at the corner of the table, knew how to fish and how to build fires. He had helped us leaders, twice his age, to get the wood stove working properly.

A few minutes before the end of the session, a few of us went out to give the bird a final resting place.  Burning it seemed inherently problematic and burying it would be impossible in the frozen ground, so there was only one thing to do.

Holding the bird in the dustpan, I showed my companions the spot of red on its red. There had been talk of a coyote stalking the garden that morning, and I was almost surpised that the bird was still there where I had left it. “That’s not blood”, they said. Those are red feathers”. And they were right. The bird had a bright crown of red under-feathers that would have been impossible to see in its life.

How had a little bird ended up inside? I imagined a scenario wherein it flew through one of the drafty gaps in the wall seeking warmth and then got trapped. Winter is harsh and not everyone survives.

We went out to the marshy edge of the gardens, a place that backs onto an industrial road but that, for a moment, looks wild. We found a soft, protective place to set the little bird, and covered its body with leaves.

Raw energy soup


In my late teens, my mom and I both went through a raw foodist phase.  We spent an inordinate amount of time on food prep, soaking, chopping and blending all manner of living foods.  It was fun, but eventually I realized that I wasn’t healthy or happy on the diet.  It was socially awkward and difficult to get enough calories.  Despite the raw food belief that uncooked calories are easier to digest, I experienced stomach troubles that took me months to realize were from eating cold foods all the time.  I later learned that many food sources need to be broken down through cooking in order to make the nutrients more available. 

Still, there’s some merit to the raw food ethos.  The emphasis on fresh vegetables, cultured foods and digestive health is really valuable.  I think that a raw-food diet could actually work pretty well if I lived in a warm tropical climate, where things like coconuts, papayas and avocados were in abundance.  Or if I incorporated protein sources, like raw seafood.  

This morning, sitting in front of my computer and sipping coffee, I knew I needed to eat something, but wasn’t motivated to cook.  With the holiday season in full swing, I wanted something cleansing — but what?  

Then my mom called and announced that she finally bought a Vitamix.  I was pretty happy for her — the Vitamix is my and Jason’s absolute favourite kitchen appliance, and the one thing (other than the fridge) that we use every single day.  It’s basically a giant motor attached to a blade — a kitchen power tool.

Together, we talked about all of the things my mom was planning to do with the Vitamix, and reminisced about our raw food days.  It was then that we remembered “energy soup” — the avocado-y, creamy blend that was a favourite meal at the time.  I and then, despite the drizzly cold outside, I got totally inspired to make it again.

The energy soup we used to make contained apples, pears and celery.  I think there were sprouts in there as well.  I didn’t have any of those things, but I had an avocado, some fresh organic carrots that Jason had, and a bunch of other stuff.  

The result was tasty, comforting, and, as Jason said, “really healthy tasting”.  It turned out to be a perfect cleansing meal to counter-balance our current holiday indulgences.  

The fact that I’m having it with coffee right now probably makes me less than pure.  But having come through a strict raw foodist diet and on to the other side of not having any real dietary restrictions, I’ve concluded that life ought to be like this: you can live with strong principles but not absolute rules, and indulge moderately as long as the bulk of your actions are healthy.  Or, as I like to say, “everything. In moderation.”


Raw energy soup

1 C filtered water
2 large organic carrots, roughly chopped
1 avocado
2 teaspoons organic miso
2 large organic kale leaves, including stems
1 handful of raw almonds
Juice of 1 lemon
Braggs to taste 

Place water in the pitcher of a high-powered blender such as a vitamix.  Add carrots and blend on high power.

Add avocado.  Blend, using the big stick attachment to push the avocado down (I’m not sure why, but avocado seems to defeat even the strongest blenders.  It makes no sense, since avocado is so creamy.  But it’s REALLY hard to blend).

Add remaining ingredients and blend, using the stick attachment, until creamy.  The consistency will be like baby food.  You can add more water if it’s too thick.

Serve with a dash of braggs.