Horticultural Therapy – an uncertified analysis of my own personal case

One of my earliest and most frequently recalled memories is eating a warm tomato, picked right of the vine, on the way to elementary school. I can still remember the taste, the smell, yes, even the temperature of that fruit that I picked from my grandma’s garden before we left in the morning. I think about this moment so often I’m not even confident it’s real anymore – and the significance of it isn’t really all that clear, except that I knew I wanted to replicate it.

So last spring, I set out to start my own tomatoes from seed for my first garden that summer – and I’m not proud to say it, but I obsessed over it! I found the perfect most sunny spot in the whole house (the front guest room) and had Mike move the furniture out of the way to make room for my new project. I positioned the seed pods just so over the heat vent so they could benefit from the heat and the blowing air (tomatoes need a breeze, you see). I checked their water levels every morning and I checked their growth every afternoon. When they outgrew their pods I replanted them and re-staked them and turned them and moved them. And March turned into May and I had a forest of tomato plants growing in the living room that I’d need to host 30+ women in for a bridal shower. I planned a garden party theme and half intended to incorporate the tomato plants into the décor (sorry, Tatum).

I was so excited to finally plant these little babies in our outdoor garden beds, too eager in fact that I set them out a tad early and ended up covering them with blankets to protect from frost each night, and uncovering them each morning so they could absorb the warm sun and become acclimatized. “Nigh’ night lil’ matos,” was a normal phrase in those days. As they grew I learned that I needed to prune them back on several occasions. We re-staked them again when they flopped over from weight. I prayed for them when hail was threatened. I watered them diligently on the few hot days we were blessed with. I bragged. I oggled. Like I said – I was obsessed.

And finally, after more than a half a year of work I ate my first tomato on an early September evening, around the time kids would go back to school. And it was warm, and juicy, and tangy and ripe with fond memory.

So I don’t share this story to be a literal nightmare to the tomato-hating portion of the population. I share it because for the first time in a while I was spending a lot of time on something that was giving me a lot of reward in return (aside from a nutritious and delicious snack).

Horticultural therapy, if you haven’t heard of it, is defined by the American Horticultural Therapy Association as “a process in which plants and gardening activities are used to improve the body, mind and spirits of people.”  The therapy itself is usually facilitated by a trained therapist with specific goals in mind, but while you don’t have to necessarily seek professional guidance to see the benefits of other therapy methods such as meditation, pacing, and other anxiety-reducing strategies, I don’t believe you need to work with a horticulturalist to see the benefits of gardening and working with plant-life.

Blue sky, birds chirping, getting my hands dirty – what’s not to love?


So here’s how my new project of growing tomatoes (and other veggies) has been helping me with my recovery:

  • I built more fond memories. It’s been hard to participate in a lot of activities that would leave me with new experiences under my belt, so having the capacity to engage in a hobby and interest that brings new sensations and memories is really exciting. The smell of earth, the cool splash of the sprinkler, the progress photos on my camera!
  • I gained a sense of purpose and accomplishment. I put in the work, and gained the reward.
  • I engaged in gentle exercise; puttering around the house to find light for the seedlings, tilling small shovels full of soil, and pruning plants allowed me the opportunity for light movement inside and outside of the house. I took many light load trips, watched my movements when bending and turning, but I was off the couch and out and about.
  • It taught me patience and acceptance of imperfections. Each seed I planted didn’t produce a tomato plant, and each plant grew didn’t produce a tomato. But I put in the effort anyway, and proudly accepted the yield I was granted.
  • It showed me physical proof that setbacks are temporary and not a true demise. Leaves heal from hail damage. Wilted plants bounce back stronger from drought. Pests can be managed.
  • I was given a new identity, conversation starter, and way to bond with others.
  • I increased my consumption of organic, nutrient-rich matter, which helps all bodies be their best versions.
  • I played in the dirt – which actually has a number of health benefits on its own.
  • I built, and continue to build new and stronger support systems. Neighbors popped over to see what we were growing. My garden mentor gave me all the time in the world. I felt energized by the passion of the workers at my favorite gardening centre.

While I don’t have a thesis or an experimental design or a research grant to back up my support of the benefits of horticultural therapy-ish, I’ve very much attributed the joy, purpose, and pride that I felt last year to the work that I’ve put into our garden. And the therapy will continue this year, not only for myself, but through my extension of sharing this with others. I’d welcome anyone to join me for a glass of wine, and some soil searching (see what I did there?).

Plant Hardening: The essential step to seedling success

If you’re like me and you’ve started a bunch of plant babies indoors, in preparation for your gardening season, be sure to keep this very important step of your growing process in mind.

Plants need to be hardened off before they are transplanted outside. See, like humans, plants need to acclimate to their living environment in order to thrive (and in the case of plants, survive). When seedlings are started indoors, they’re spoiled with consistent light source, temperature, and watering conditions. They may even receive the occasional fertilization session. This makes them wimpy little babies. Hardening is like preparing the plants to leave the nest, if you will, and become successful contributors in the outside world.

But plant babies can’t be thrust into the cold, harsh world. Or even the warm, harsh world.  Zone 3 spring temperatures are warm throughout the day, with the possibility of a hot sun, and very cool evenings, most often reaching freezing temperatures. They need to be slowly introduced, day by day, a few weeks before you’re ready to plant them outdoors.

Very sophisticated set-up to shade my indoor plants during hardening.

Step 1:

Before you harden the plants outside, you can start preparing them indoors with a fan. I set a fan up in my greenhouse area to help strengthen brand new seedlings.

Step 2:

Find a temporary place in your house where you can settle the plants each night. I tuck them all into the breakfast nook in my house, so that I can transfer them quickly to the patio each day. This process is cumbersome, so make it easy on yourself. Eventually you’ll get our house back when all the plants are rehomed permanently outside.

Step 3:

Find a shady spot outside, or create a shade barrier with plywood, an umbrella, or shade cloth. Again, this is temporary, so it doesn’t need to be pretty. Another good option is to place them against the wall of the house. The wall will give off warmth and protect them from the wind.

Step 4:

Move the plants our for a few hours a day, and increase their exposure by an hour each day. Don’t expose them too much all at once. Remember, they are wimpy in the early stages.

Step 5:

Don’t forget your plants outside! Remember to bring them in each night to protect them from the cooler evenings.

As mentioned, the hardening process can feel cumbersome, but you’ve already committed your resources and attention to the seedlings to get them this far. Do yourself and your plants a favor and strengthen them up, in order to survive AND thrive.

How-to: Small batch sourdough starter

It’s week 6 of self-isolation due to COVID-19, and of course I’ve been learning how to make sourdough like a true millennial. Nothing says self-growth quite like embarking on a 3 day baking journey that takes another 7 days to prepare for, in a time when flour shortage is a thing, and bread yeast is apparently no longer a thing at all.

Unsure what sourdough bread is all about? Keep reading. If you’ve done the research and are just looking for my recipe, scroll down. If you’re interested in the background, my personal experience, and a full visual experience, check out my YouTube video (like, subscribe, and tell all your friends) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W3hfSgkau0&t=20s

Sourdough starter – give me the rundown.

Sourdough bread is made with an active starter culture in place of dry yeast that most risen baked goods require. Sourdough starter is a live culture, or live yeast, that is created by adding flour and water to the same mixture repeatedly, over time, until the culture is bubbly and active, or there is ample amount of yeast bacteria. A fermentation process, if you will. In order to keep the culture active we have to feed it with flour and water. Yum, right?

The thought of this grossed me out for a long time, and quite frankly confused the heck out of me. But yogurt, beer, and kimchi are all made by a fermentation process, and the results are quite palatable, so I figured it was time to turn my nose back down and give this sourdough starter a try.

The starter is high maintenance to get it going, which is why I decided to take advantage of my time at home during the pandemic. It needs to be fed once per day at roughly the same time of day for four days, and then twice per day, 12 hours apart for the next three days. Not impossible, but likely not a huge priority when you’re trying to make it to the bus on time.

Once you have an active, bubbly, growing starter you can apply this to any sourdough recipe you like, AND you can maintain this starter and share it with your friends for years to come. Starter does best when it’s fed regularly, but if you don’t plan to bake every other day, you can easily manage the starter’s growth process by storing it in the fridge. Once mature, a starter only needs to be fed once a week, which makes it less maintenance than a pile of laundry.

I scoured the internet for easy beginner sourdough recipes that really weren’t that easy to follow – they required a method to weigh ingredients, and had a lot of scientific jargon that went right over my head. I wanted to use the basic equipment I already had in my house, and ingredients that weren’t impossible to find. I finally just decided to use the concepts that I learned, and create a starter recipe and method of my own. The gist of a starter growth method is to double. Add double the flour and double the water to the amount of starter you’re feeding. In order to avoid incremental growth, keep removing starter from the mixture and feeding that portion of it.

Sourdough Starter How To

Equipment:

  • 2 glass jars with lids
  •  spatula
  • 1 tbsp measure
  • paper towel

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup + 3 tbsp rye flour
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • water

Method:

Day 1: Measure 3 tbsp rye flour and 3 tbsp water in a jar. Mix thoroughly. Cover the jar with paper towel and secure with a mason jar ring or elastic band. The paper towel allows air flow but blocks debris. Place the starter in a warm spot in the kitchen – on top of the fridge is a good temperature. Mix 1 cup of rye flour and 1 cup of all purpose flour in a jar and set aside. This will save time during the feeding process later.

Day 2 (24 hours later): Measure 2 tbsp of rye/AP flour mixture into a new clean jar. Add 1 tbsp of starter and 2 tbsp of water. Mix thoroughly. Cover with paper towel and set aside.

Day 3: Repeat the feeding process from Day 2.

Day 4: Repeat the feeding process from Day 3.

*You may notice a liquid start to form and sit on top of your starter. This is called hooch and it’s forming because your starter is hungry. Drain it off or mix it in, it won’t harm you.

Day 5 Morning: feed your starter the same doubling recipe; 1 tbsp starter, 2 tbsp flour, 2 tbsp water.

Day 5 Evening: feed your starter the same doubling recipe; 1 tbsp starter, 2 tbsp flour, 2 tbsp water.

Day 6: Morning and evening feed.

Day 7: Morning and evening feed. By the end of Day 7 your starter should be doubling in size, and be nice and bubbly. By this stage it should be ready to bake with!

Is your starter ready?

Get baking! My go-to sourdough bread recipe is from www.thekitchn.com. It’s super easy to follow and requires only a small amount of starter (perfect for my small batch recipe!)

Gardening: What’s the deal and how do I get started?

Anyone noticed an increased interest in gardening and indoor grow-lights? Feeling a little left out? There’s a few reasons why the increase in all this plant talk is blowing up your social media feeds, and I’ve got a few tips to ward off that FOMO.

With the feelings of food scarcity from reduced selection at our favorite grocery stores, people are considering their food sources now more than ever. There are still plenty of options within our grasp; farmer’s markets, local grocers, local produce curators, and of course the big box stores. But our sense of control is seemingly outside of our reach, and more people are choosing to take the matter of feeding themselves and their families into their own hands.

Less extreme, and more pleasant to think about, is the fact that gardening and nurturing plants in general is really good for us. Projects give us a sense of purpose and control, working with soil exposes us to really good nutrients and sensory stimulus through our hands, and moving about in our yards, lifting and bending is basically plyometrics in a cute sun hat.

So if you want to regain a sense of control, expose yourself to a bit more wellness, or just grow and eat some tasty snacks, I’ll give you some high level tips to get started.

1. Ask yourself what you want out of your garden.

Whether it’s adding color to your space with beautiful flowers, challenging yourself to caring for something that requires a bit of science and commitment, adding food security to your current situation, giving back to your neighbors and friends through produce share, or convincing your kids to eat more vegetables, your space has to give something back to you for the amount of work you’re about to put into it.

2. Determine the production you’d like.

If you decide to build a veggie garden, ask yourself what you like to eat. Don’t grow broccoli if you or your family member won’t eat it. Don’t add variety for the sake of adding variety. If you know you’ll eat green beans and carrots until the world’s end, then buy a couple varieties of each and fill your boots!

3. Evaluate your space.

Do you have lots of room, or just a little bit of room? Gardens can be all shapes and sizes. Do you get lots of sun, just a little bit of sun, or not a whole lot of sun? There are plants to suit all of those conditions.

4. What does your access to a water source look like?

Can you hook up a hose or sprinkler? Do you need to run watering cans out of your kitchen sink? Can you hook up a hose and run it from your sink to your garden once a day, and would you mind doing that for 4 months? Match the scale of your garden to the convenience of the systems you have in place.

5. Start small. Don’t convert  your entire space into a flower bed, or vegetable garden. I guarantee it will turn into more work than you think, and you’ll lose interest faster than you gained it. If you have a yard, start with one or two 4 foot by 4 foot raised boxes and a couple of varieties of vegetables. If you have a balcony, purchase a couple of pots and see how those go. You have about a month of time that you can direct sow seeds and see a yield for the summer, so see how the first couple of weeks go, and add more later.

6. Zone and companion planting – are we still speaking English?

Once you’ve determined your commitment level, water resource and sun exposure, and amount of space you’d like to commit to your growing space, go ahead and plan out the plants you’d like to grow. Consider the plants that grow well in your zone (Calgary is Zone 3), and companion plants (you can find companion charts all over the internet). Some plants don’t get along with others in the same bed, and some plants need others to thrive. Go ahead and order seeds or pre-grown veggie/flower. Some need a head start and some can be planted directly into the soil. Do your research.

7. Beds and pots.

Raised garden beds are beneficial in a Zone 3 climate, or any climate that drops in temperature in the evening. Raise beds allow the soil to warm up more quickly than planting directly into the ground. They also allow veggies to root more successfully, which will result in larger beets, carrots, parsnips, etc.

Raised beds are relatively easy to construct; purchase untreated lumber, with cedar being the most durable option. Treated lumber will have chemicals that leach into your soil over time, which isn’t ideal for edible plants. You can find loads of how-to tutorials on Pinterest, and building your own will allow customization of size. The most ideal planter size is one where you can reach the center without reaching too hard, or without having to step on plants to access what you need. Plant multiple smaller beds, or place walking stones between crops so you protect what’s grown. Beds should be at least 8 inches high, but you can make much higher beds if you can’t sit or kneel on the ground!

Of course, you can purchase pre-fabricated garden beds at any garden centre, on Wayfair.ca, or even at Costco. All are great options.

If you don’t have quite as much space for a garden bed, pots and planters make great alternatives. You can grow almost anything in a planter or pot that you can in a garden bed, so long as you leave enough room for everything to grow. Planters can also be hung along fences or over balcony railings to maximize vertical space. Planters and garden boxes can work really well together; veggies in the box, with bright flowers in the pots to attract good bugs for pollination.

8. Soil, Compost, and Mulch; a layered effect.

Planters, pots, and garden boxes should all be filled with high quality soil. If you’re starting from scratch almost all soil will be high enough quality in the first year. Superstore has 25L bags of soil for $3.00 that work great – so you don’t need to spend an arm and a leg to fill your pots. Purchase enough compost that you can layer 2 inches on top of the soil, and mix it in. Top up your beds each year with a bit of fresh soil and some compost. Many municipalities that have organic bins as part of their waste management program will have compost giveaway days, so stay connected to city programs and announcements! Mulch should be made of natural, dye-free material, and it goes on your garden beds around your seedlings, so that the moisture and soil stay in the bed. Mulch also prevents weeds from growing to keep the maintenance down.

9. When to plant. Okay, NOW can we get going?

Starting a garden for the first time is exciting. You have your beds built, your soil in, and your seeds purchased. But you must wait until it’s warm enough, or all of your hard work and investment will be for not. You’re in the clear to plant seeds, smaller plants, and flowers after the last frost. Check weather forecasts, garden center resources, and the Farmer’s Almanac to confirm when the last frost is predicted. In Calgary, this is generally after May Long Weekend. Seeds that are planted directly in the soil can withstand a bit of frost but you’ll want to avoid planting tomato plants or anything else above ground until nightfall stays above freezing.

10. Join the community – Facebook garden groups, The Calgary Horticulural Society, and Instagram have a lot of great content and people available to ask questions to. The Farmer’s Almanac has a Pinterest page, Instagram page, website, and yearly guides to reference. As you become further connected, swap seeds and veggies with your peers. The more we share, the more positive the garden experience is for everyone!

11. Keep planning!

As you get the hang of things and your green thumb starts to glow, you’ll find niche areas that interest you, whether it be growing different varieties, permaculture, growing a better yield, or simply expanding your project. Start a wish list, journal, and take lots of pictures to share with your friends and look back on during the winter. Spruce It Up Garden Centre is a locally owned shop in Calgary that has a wish list catelog system to help you learn more about the plants that would grow well in Zone 3, and keep all the plants you’d love to add to your collection in one location.

As you can see gardening isn’t a cut and dry project, but it can also be as simple or as complicated as you make it. It’s a life-long learning and I’m still a beginner myself. Afterall, I’ve only had one season of growing my own garden, which means I’ve only done this once! Ask lots of questions, share what you know, and keep it fun.

Resources:

Companion Gardening: http://www.savvyhousekeeping.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Companion-Planting-FTFA.jpg

Farmer’s Almanac: https://www.almanac.com

Calgary Horticultural Society: https://www.calhort.org/

Facebook: Alberta Garden & Yard Tips & Tricks

Spruce It Up Garden Centre: https://calgarysgardencentre.com/