James: Common Sense Views of a Calgary Urban Gardener

Over the past few years, I've enjoyed urban gardening and backyard composting in a small garden that I have in my backyard. With the rising costs of produce at the grocery store, especially organics, it just made sense to try to grow as much of our own food as possible. It is wonderful to eat organic produce that I've grown knowing that it is free of pesticides, herbicides, and environmental toxins. For these reasons, I have taken a keen interest in how my food is grown and I'm very excited to share my gardening and composting secrets with readers.

Many people have asked me why I'd bother to grow produce in the City when it would never meet all of my family's produce needs. Well I think that urban gardening allows people with a very small piece of land to grow a variety of produce while being connected to nature in ways our grandparents knew only too well. I have persuaded many friends to start their own gardens and they have often said, "Wow! These carrots and tomatoes taste like the vegetables my grandparents used to grow!”  It is through my experience in the garden that I have realized that the key to having tasty produce begins with nurturing rich and hearty soil that yields healthy and delicious produce. 

Soil is a living substance containing different elements whose interaction determines the health of the plants it supports. Soil contains minerals such as sand, silt, and clay. It's the organic matter called humus that determines the soil’s fertility. Humus is formed by the decomposition of plants and leaves by soil bacteria. To ensure the best soil possible, I add rich, organic material like kitchen scraps, grass cuttings, wood-chips, and leaves. These are valuable components that before I started gardening I otherwise would have thrown away.  Another vital component for healthy soil is earthworms. Earthworms create tunnels, which help plants access nutrients and speed up the absorption of rainwater, which I also collect from my gutters and drainpipes. The best part about rainwater is that it’s free! In addition to all of this, I eagerly rake leaves from my lawn and often from my neighbours, and place these valuable and essential components into a compost bin that I have constructed in my backyard. Before you know it, nature goes to work manufacturing brown and black, rich, clean and organic soil. This is vital to the production of my fruits and vegetables and the idea that I can actually make soil from free and available sources found around my home, I think is amazing.

Yes, I've learned from experience that when it comes to gardening, it is all about the soil. I believe that's why the City of Calgary has started to collect organics from residences through the new Green Cart Program. This program will accept materials such as table scraps, leaves, grass clippings and even tissues, kitty litter and dog waste. Some of these items I would never add to my garden soil however I still believe the City program will be important to ensuring that organics are not discarded or mixed with plastics and toxic waste in the landfill site. 

Although valuable, I won't be contributing to the Green Cart Program because of the reasons I have already mentioned, most of all because I want to know that the food that I am eating is being grown in clean soil that I have helped to produce myself. I will also still be forced to pay $6.50 per month for the green cart as there is no opting out of the program but I'm sure I will find another use for the bin however, maybe to gather rainwater. Yes, I have found that my attitude of nature has changed radically since I started to work the soil. 

When we don’t see where our food is coming from or how it is being grown, it is easy to feel disconnected from the environment. We all know there are consequences to spraying our lawn with herbicides, using chemical fertilizers, cleaning out a paint tray in the storm drain or allowing antifreeze or oil from our garage to make its way into the Bow River. Sadly however, this still happens. 

I believe that the environment changes for the better when people feel connected to it. I've learned through urban gardening and backyard composting that we can become better stewards of our planet and make our environmental footprint smaller. I hope that even if you participate in the Green Cart Program, next spring you will think about composting, gardening and working your soil. After all, it's rewarding, inexpensive and so satisfying to eat tasty and nutritious food grown from rich and healthy soil that you have nurtured yourself.

Steven James is a volunteer community advisor for Common Sense Calgary.