This week on Alberta at Noon on CBC Radio One (99.1FM) I’ll be talking about Edible Landscapes and my favourite place to source Prairie Hardy fruit trees and bushes – The Saskatoon Farm in DeWinton, Alberta. I’ve learned the hard way that plants have to be very hardy indeed to make it where I live in Calgary. We are on the edge of the Prairies and at the start of the Foothills of the Rocky Mountains. This means what we attempt to grow must be tolerant of our semi-arid, hot summer days with long hours of sunshine but also our cold nights and the fierce winds of snow and moisture eating Chinooks. Gardeners here must consider the Hardiness zone rating of every plant they invest in.
Alberta’s hardiness zones for plants range from zero in the North to 5a in Lethbridge and environs. To determine what the Plant Hardiness Zone is for your area of Alberta or Canada you can use this handy map from Natural Resources Canada. Hardiness zones are based on a variety of data about weather conditions especially the number of days an area is frost-free because that determines the number of growing days for each region.
Some nurseries and greenhouses across the province ship in trees and shrubs that were grown in B.C. or Ontario but not The Saskatoon Farm. All the trees and shrubs on sale here have been cultivated here. Owner Paul Hamer is a graduate of Olds College and has spent the better part of the last 20 to 25 years propagating and selecting cultivars of fruit bushes and trees so that we can have more species to choose from for our very local palates. He told me in a recent interview that sharing the trees and plants he has cultivated is very gratifying for him and it feeds his soul. That’s why he does what he does.
What does that look like? I love this video where Paul describes how he’s been working with Sea Buckthorn that he imported from a research station in Siberia over 15 years ago. Doesn’t his passion for what he does come through loud and clear. He’s a master at what he does. Over 20 years ago he brought in 10,000 seedlings of pear trees. Over time only the strongest trees with the best fruit have been selected and propagated into the cultivar he now has registered as “Paul’s Pear”. He has at least 5 Saskatoon bushes he’s registered as his cultivars. He’s got Prairie hardy apples and is bringing back sour cherry breeds because so many European immigrants love them and know what to do with them. His five acres of Evan’s cherry tree U-Pick fruits were picked clean last summer.
There are many ways to add edible landscape features to your garden beyond trees and shrubs. Here are some fun ideas from me and Hamer.
1. Hamer loves the look of carrot tops as well placed foliage to offset other blooms.
2. Asparagus is another pretty plant for the back of a bed with wispy fern like fronds that add a delicate lacy look and change in pattern from usual leaves.
3. A fun trick, I employee at the beginning of each growing season is to sew radish seeds in between young annual and perennial flowers. Radishes only take 21 days to grow and by the time they are pulled up and eaten the other plants will have grown to fill the space.
4. I have a herb garden off my back deck. It’s beautiful to look at, saves me lots of money because I’m not paying a lot for those little packs at the grocery store and you really only need a few leaves at a time. Chives, sorrel, sage, thyme, and tarragon have proven to be hardy perennials. Rosemary over-winters nicely on my kitchen window sill. Parsley, dill and mint get replanted every summer. I don’t bother with basil or cilantro because the first is a prima donna and the second bolts to seed to quickly.
5. Tomatoes in pots and cages can be moved and placed throughout your beds to add yellow flowers and bright red fruit.
6. Try growing nasturtiums – they grow with ease, come in an array of orange, red to yellow hues and every part of them is an edible treat.
7. Shallots and garlic are part of the Allium family and have pretty flowers and interesting foliage.
Seven seems like a lucky number to stop at. It’s definitely time to plan your garden. Think about what you want for this year and for many years to come. If you have lots of fruit bearing plants and excess vegetables remember you can always donate them to the local food bank. In Calgary there’s even a group that will come and harvest your crop, leave you some and take the rest to people who need it. That group is called The Calgary Urban Harvest Project and you can find them here.
Happy Gardening. Think Edible. Enjoy a visit to The Saskatoon Farm. You can shop for plants and have lunch in the cafe, walk around, take in some fresh air, check out the totem pole that Hamer just rescued and restored from the town of Clareshom. Walk to the edge of the bluff and find out about ancient bison hunting grounds. Find some of Alberta’s agricultural and historical heritage to enjoy. There’s more to The Saskatoon Farm than meets the eye and it all invites you to savour your food and savour your life.