– written for the Virtual Farm Website of Organic Ag College of Canada
Welcome. Magdalene and I (David) became the caretakers of this piece of paradise in 1985 by scraping together every cent we had. Both her parents and mine looked at us and asked, “How are you possibly going to make a living on a quarter section of bush land?” Maggie’s father had been a full time teacher and a part time farmer on rich flatland country north of Saskatoon and my parents had farmed on the rolling prairie just north of the Turtle Mountains. But when we walked this land and dreamed of where we would build a house, the question of how we were going to make a living was not the most pressing on our minds. All we saw at the time was a place where we could make a home, raise a family and learn how to cooperate with the earth-ways around us.
We now make a fair portion of our income from this land. Magdalene is keen to be involved in the local school as a teacher. I prefer to work at home. Providing a happy and healthy home is our priority. We are content, for the time being, knowing we could make more of our living on this land if we chose to make that the priority.
We grow mostly herbs, vegetables and perennial flowers for spring bedding plant sales. We’ve developed a unique growing system based on our own compost and compost tea. Our insect and disease management processes have also matured nicely. I’m quite satisfied with the growing process (propagating mostly by seed and root division) we’ve developed over the years. The learning process has been a bit ponderous and painful at times because we haven’t had mentors nearby to consult with. What we now have, though, is a growing method based on local conditions and resources.
At Room To Grow we remain distinctive by:
· Specializing in a diversity of medicinal and culinary herbs. My preference would be to concentrate and expand on the 80 to 100 herb varieties we now grow. We also carry an assortment of open pollinated vegetable, some native perennial flower and a few annual flower varieties of bedding plants. The whole list can be found on our website – www.roomtogrow.info.
· Being the only commercial greenhouse in Manitoba that offers certified organic bedding plants – since 1994. We’re certified by Organic Producers Association of Manitoba.
· Blending our own soil mix using mostly local ingredients. (Commercial soil mixes have wetting agents that are not acceptable for organic growers.) We use compost (made from our horse manure and plant residue), flax shives (a waste material from the flax straw rendering process), Manitoba peat moss and local sand.
· Basing the business at home on our Turtle Mountain property so that we can have a fairly sane family life (if that’s possible with four teenagers). Our location makes it possible to heat with wood that we harvest from the poplar forest around us.
I’ll lead you through a more detailed look at our growing process. If you’re interested in a less detailed tour, feel free to scroll down to the Guesthouse heading.
The Compost. All winter we feed our two horses (Solstice and Tecumseh) hay – made by our neighbour. In spring I push the manure and trampled, left-over hay, along with any kitchen and garden scraps we’ve collected, into a pile with our tractor. Until a few years ago I could pile and turn it by hand with the help of travelling WWOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms. The fresh pile now is two to three meters wide, about two meters high and ten meters long. Our compost thermometer (available at most garden centres) helps me read the temperature in the middle of the pile. When it reaches 140 degrees in at least two places I turn the pile with the tractor. The pile needs to reach at least 120 degrees to kill most of the weed seeds but if it goes over 140 degrees it begins to burn away nutrients. When this happens the hot spots turn gray – a sure sign we’re losing the vitality of the compost. I land up turning the pile about 6 times until it cools off and has become a fibrous black pile of goodness. Because I pile up the compost just after the snow melts and because the pile sits in a partly shaded and sheltered location, I find I don’t need to add any water to the pile. I sieve the compost in fall or early spring through a half inch mesh. The only down side I see to using compost as our growing base is the weed population we get in the greenhouse when we don’t manage to kill them all in the composting process. Some years are better than others.
The Growing Mix. We’ve made plant residue compost and we’ve used pig, chicken and goat manure and various combinations of the above in our compost heaps. For the greenhouse, I find horse manure compost to be perfect because it’s so fibrous, so available and has the balance of nutrients we need. We mix the compost with local sand (we sieve through a ¼ inch sieve), Manitoba peat moss and sieved flax shives (a by-product of the flax rendering process). We do the mixing by hand in a sieving/mixing box made for the greenhouse.
Compost Tea. When we transplant into the growing mix (beginning at the end of March) we soak the transplants in a compost tea solution. We make tea by putting about 15 liters (4 gallons) of compost into a grain sack and hanging the sack in a 75 liter barrel or plastic garbage container. We leave it to steep for 24 hours or so and then lift the sack and let it drain for a couple hours before using the tea. I usually use the tea straight if I need to treat damping off in the germination chamber, or one to one with water in the soaking tray or two parts water to one part tea when fertilizing the plants with a watering can later in the growing process. My sense is the tea should be used within a few days unless it can be kept cool. I can’t provide any scientific data to prove the value of the tea – although the Soil Soup website has some of this. What I have learned, though, is that I no longer need to use any imported nutrient in the growing process. I used to bring in fish emulsion and kelp products. Compost and compost tea do it all now. The plants hold their colour and vigour to the end of June.
Insects Are Us. Over the last 9 years we’ve had very little insect stress in the greenhouses. We expect this is so because we grow a wide diversity of plants in our greenhouses and so any insects that take a liking to any specific plant have to contend with a bunch of plants they don’t like as well. We don’t use any insecticide (except a bit of insecticidal soap if severely tested by aphids) and so we rarely harm the beneficial insect population in the greenhouse. In warm weather we leave the doors wide open for any insect that wishes to visit and have had few destructive callers. And, as I stated earlier, we try not to push the nitrogen in our growing mix, which allows the plants more resources to combat insect and disease challenges. New studies are showing that plants need to be tested by insects in order to develop the antioxidants we need to fight off the diseases we are challenged with. When we use pesticides on our crops we may get more productive crops but we suffer more disease because of it. So we consider the insects’ world to be a friendly place – most of the time.
Marketing remains our greatest challenge – mostly because we live three hours from the folks in Winnipeg who, in greater numbers, appreciate the distinctiveness of our plants. We’re encouraged by the expanding markets for organic bedding plants in general and organic herb plants in particular. But we’d prefer to be dependent on folks who can get to our greenhouse from a reasonable distance. The question that keeps coming back to me these days is: With the limited greenhouse space we have and the amount of time I have to dedicate to this part of my business, should I grow more annual flower bedding plants preferred by local buyers or do I hold to my preference for growing medicinal and culinary herb bedding plants – most of which are sold to customers in Winnipeg? So far I’m tending towards growing the plants I like to grow while trying to convince the markets to come our way.
We heat the greenhouses (200 square foot starter greenhouse attached to our house and 1200 square foot free standing double poly greenhouse 100 feet away from the house) totally with poplar wood we harvest from our and our neighbours’ properties. We would like to design the greenhouse to store more of the daytime heat in water containers so we would not need as much wood. It’s a bit difficult to calculate because we heat the greenhouses, our house and the straw house all with one external wood boiler system, but I would estimate we use about 20 cords of wood to heat the greenhouses from beginning of March to the end of April. That seems excessive to me, but heating a greenhouse in Manitoba is an extreme activity. We just need to get smarter at it and put the investment of labour and money into a better system. Keep in touch or send ideas.
Cooling the greenhouses is difficult, again because of poor design. When we recover the greenhouses this year or the next we’ll add vents at the bottom and the top to allow for more natural cooling air currents. At present we only have the doors at either end and a large exhaust fan to get air moving.
Our water is not the best for greenhouse production as it comes from a deep well and is high in minerals. We’re looking for a way to either pump water from our conservation dam or collect more snow runoff and rain water on the yard or drill a shallower well. Some folks in the area have found less abundant but softer water closer to the surface.
I would like to develop a growing medium that totally eliminates peat moss. Peat bogs take 1000 years or more to grow. Greenhouse, nursery and landscape businesses are dependent on these bogs in a big way. We are destroying so much life every year when we support that dependency. We have managed to phase out half of the peat moss we used a few years ago by blending in flax shives. The reason we can’t eliminate the peat at this time is because the shives take up more nitrogen from the mix than the peat does. We find the shives need to age in the rain and sun for a year or two before we can use them effectively in the greenhouse. Once the shives have broken down they absorb water better and use up less nitrogen in the growing pots.
Finally we would like to cut down on and eliminate the plastic we use in our production and even in the construction of the greenhouse. Once we are serving a more local market, we may be able to make this move. At present we need the plastic pots and trays to transport the plants. We also need a bit more income to be able to afford a glass covered greenhouse.
For those of you who found this tour a bit tedious, my apologies. My family marvels (is that the right word?) at how long I can go on talking about organic greenhouse production. For those of you who want more, please call or email. I can be generous with free advice but I am also open to teaching the process (as I know it) in a more systematic way within a contracted arrangement.
You may wonder why we include a guesthouse on this organic farm website. When we first began to build on this property we felt the healing influence of the land, it’s wetlands, plants and wildlife. Ever since we’ve been keen to share it with those who need this kind of natural environment for their own healing. I am active with the Organic Food Council of Manitoba (a chapter of Canadian Organic Growers – see www. cog.ca) through which we try to build bridges between urban folk who are looking for locally grown organic food and growers who are committed to providing quality food to local homemakers. It seems natural for us to attract folks who are looking for a more ‘organic’ lifestyle to stay in our straw bale guesthouse from which they can wander the parkland around us or settle into a relationship with this land, our family and our way of life. Call it education, shameless self-promotion or thinly veiled brilliance. We hope the guesthouse provides a temporary home for individuals, families or small groups who wish to become familiar with our family and the earth-ways we are blessed with daily. The following ad, written for the provincial travel guide, might help illuminate the spirit of the place.
“We got caught up in the magical spell that exists here. Time stood still. We slept, read, walked, ate, sang, drummed, got dirty feet and laughed till we cried.” Linda from Winnipeg – summer 2002.
Heave a satisfying sigh as you settle into the comfort of our Straw Bale guesthouse – surrounded by a grove of Turtle Mountain oaks. Renew your connection to the earth exploring trails on this 160 acres of rolling woodland. Refresh your playful spirit in our spring-fed pond. Sharpen your eyes and still your feet as you watch ducks, terns and beaver work the wild wetlands. Allow our horses, dogs and cats to touch you with their friendship. And lend a hand (if you wish) in our circle garden, apple and berry orchard or certified organic greenhouse.
Other features of this land and our lifestyle visitors may be interested in:
· Aboriginal petroforms (deliberate rock formations) that remind us of the cultural-historical strata we live in.
· A conservation pond that we asked the local authorities to put in to help offset the massive draining of wetlands the prairie has experienced over the past few decades.
· The solar power we experiment with. For the first six years the only electricity we had was from our solar panels and wind generator. We’re connected to the grid now, but still experiment with home power and look forward to getting back to a time when we are self-sufficient – or – when we can contribute to and use a local grid.
· Our homemade composting toilet – not usually the first stop on our tour. We appreciate it when visitors contribute.
· Making maple sugar from our Manitoba maples. We boiled up six liters of this wonderful sweetener this past spring and hope to make it a regular part of our ‘coming out of winter’ ritual.
Simply stated, we are trying to live as harmoniously as we can as a family on a portion of this good earth. We started our family in Africa (where we worked for eight years in the ‘80s). Magdalene and I feel a need to be consistent with the life we lived there: emphasis on time as a family, low consumerism and finding joy in being with whoever comes our way. A few years ago we decided to go out and encounter the wider world in a more deliberate way. We packed into an old ¾ ton truck and camper and traveled as a family for 11 months. We drove around the North American continent, through Mexico and as far south as El Salvador. Our home on that trip was small, intimate and simple. And our family flourished in a wonderful way. We love the land we are on and we love to travel. During the times we need to be at home, we enjoy making space in our little world for travelers and peace seekers.
Blessings and Enjoy.