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Wednesday, 14 September 2011 16:09

Prairie gardens can produce a lot of vegetables

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By Jamie Woodford
The growing trend of eating locally doesn’t mean one is limited to what a specific climate is able to produce. In fact, there are hundreds of varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs that can be grown as long as it’s done right, even in the prairies with its short, cool growing season.

Local horticulturalist and expert gardener June Flanagan offers detailed advice on what’s best to grow and when in her new book, Edible Plants for Prairie Gardens.

Growing one’s own food not only provides healthy sustenance, but also satisfaction in producing it.

“It’s really satisfying to grow something, and if you’re going to put the effort into growing something why not grow something that you can use?” said Flanagan. “You get really good, fresh food at its peak. You can’t get that anywhere else unless you go to a farmers market and it’s harvested that day.”

Planting a garden can also produce a wider variety of food, such as purple carrots, golden beets, and yellow, pear-shaped cherry tomatoes, that are not available in stores.

“You can grow a lot of things that you would never find in the grocery store and a lot of our prairie fruits, they’re just not available in the store and they’re really healthy and they’re delicious,” Flanagan said.

Although there are plenty of gardening how-to books on the market, Flanagan noted not one is climate-specific for the prairie region, which is what she set out to do in her new book.

“There’s no other book that gives you information on how to grow all of these plants in the detail you need,” she said. “You’ve got to have the details of how to work with your climate, how to work with your soil. I think it’s really important for people to know what does work, or what takes a lot of effort to make it work.”

Because the prairies have a short-growing season there is a common perception one can’t grow too many types of plants, but Flanagan begs to differ.

“I’ve got over 100 crops in the book, and I had to leave things out,” she said.

“Yes, our climate is very challenging, and it’s probably more challenging than many others, but you can still do a lot with the right varieties and the right information.”

In addition to specific information on what to plant and when, Flanagan’s book offers advice on everything in between from using compost as fertilizer to seed saving.

Flanagan said pretty much anyone can grow a garden, even if they don’t have a large plot of land to dig into.

“Even if you just have an apartment, you could grow some things in pots and the trick there is that the pot needs to be deep enough,” she said, adding it should be at least a foot deep.

“Things think like herbs, which can take a bit more drier soil, you can do. It might be hard to produce tender vegetables, but if you have big barrels, you could do that.”

For people with small yards, the gardening industry has developed plants that won’t overwhelm a yard and are easy to take care of such as fruiting shrubs or dwarf apple trees.

With plenty of general gardening information — and misinformation — out there, people tend to make more mistakes resulting in an unsuccessful garden.

“In horticulture, there’s a lot of what I call horticultural myths, like gardening folklore,” said Flanagan.

“People have unrealistic expectations or they just don’t know what to do, and so instead of growing it properly, they try to solve the problems that they have with all these wacky ideas.”

Flanagan said the best strategy in having a good garden is getting the right information, particularly getting the right variety of a plant.

“The No. 1 thing is getting the right variety for our climate because the variety will make a difference on how big the plant gets and when it matures,” she noted.

Planting at the right time is also key.

“People are under the impression that they have to plant everything in the holiday weekend in May,” she laughed. “So there’s this huge mob at the garden store, and everybody has an aching back on Tuesday after the long weekend ... and that’s not the case.”

Flanagan said planting should be based on temperature, which controls how plants develop.

“In the vegetable garden, there are actually two kinds of plants. There’s the plants that like cool temperatures, and there’s the plants that need heat,” she explained.

“All of those cool season things you can be planting in early to mid-May, so you can get half of your garden in before the holiday weekend, and then the other half would be either on the holiday weekend, or up until early June.”

Further details on the difference between cool season and warm season vegetables are explained in her book.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things in her book is what Flanagan learned from other gardeners from different ethnic backgrounds.

From the Japanese herb perilla, to Hungarian peppers and Dutch chicory Flanagan was astounded at the wide range of ethnic foods grown in and around Lethbridge.

“I just started realizing... how interesting our gardens are in the prairies because we’ve got this multi-cultural society... and they introduced me to all kinds of foods that I never tasted before, and things that might have heard of, but I never tried to grow myself,” she beamed.

Edible Plants for Prairie Gardens is available at most book stores. Keep an eye out for Flanagan’s website coming soon.

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