Growing Green, A Family Gardening Series: Week 11

In this final blog: Winter Prep, Food Sovereignty and next steps

You get to know something in a new way when you have to figure out how to explain it to people. What are the clearest and most evocative(ugh) words to use? How can a process be broken down into steps? What prior knowledge is needed for understanding? Why should people care about what I am saying? In this last post of the series, I have a bit to say about preparing for winter, and I also have something to say about the process of writing this blog. It has helped me understand some things in a new way, as I hope it has done for you.

I’ve canvassed friends across Canada, and yes, it is autumn almost everywhere (as a prairie girl, I will never understand Vancouver’s growing season). The time of year when we can start to let go as plants fall asleep, but also the time of year where the shortened days mean there is some urgency to get things done before winter. 

Coneflowers in Late Autumn

I don’t do a lot in the fall, to be honest. I leave my perennials standing for the winter to provide habitat for hibernation and food for the animals that stay awake. Old raspberry canes, for example, can host carpenter bees over the winter. Some flowers, such as coneflowers and of course sunflowers, can be left to go to seed and provide bird food over the winter. This is an opportunity to teach kids about what animals do in winter. There is some great kid-level information from Michigan State University and lesson plans for all ages from Scholastic. Even in a city, children can observe birds and insects, and perhaps rabbits (or their tracks in snow) in a yard.

It is a good idea to clean up your garden annuals, especially to permanently dispose of any diseased plants (does anyone’s tomatoes survive the season without some form of blight?). If you have a child who likes destruction, ripping up plants can be satisfying. I use fallen leaves to cover more tender perennials like strawberries as a layer of insulation against -40 days, and stockpile bags of leaves for use in the compost throughout the winter and next growing season. I also spread some finished compost around perennials to give them a head start in spring.

Yes, I know, I’m old, and I like old memes, as my kids will attest

Winter is a time for planning and dreaming. Ideally next to a fire, snuggled in a blanket, or however, you feel cozy. You can plot out next year’s garden, taking crop rotation into consideration. (To interrupt the life cycles of pests who like certain plants and to break disease cycles, such as spores from tomato blight that live in the soil, avoid planting the same annuals in the same space for at least three years in a row. Crop rotation can also help put nutrients into the soil; for example, legumes fix nitrogen, a fertilizer, from the air into the soil so succeeding crops can take advantage of it.) You can investigate new varieties and experimental crops you’d like to try: most seed companies will send out catalogues early in the new year for you to pore over. And you can start seeds if you have a sunny window or a grow light.

In 6 weeks these tomatoes will be ready to plant outside

Winter is also a time for reflection. The initial instructions I received when beginning this blog included that I should incorporate some social justice topics into the gardening topics. Environmental justice is easier to connect directly to gardening – actions and ideas around biodiversity or waste or climate change. You’d think, though, since I am working on a PhD about food sovereignty and have a graduate degree in justice studies, I’d be able to write more about social justice. Food sovereignty, the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems, includes important aspects of social justice. It is a radical challenge to inequity in the political and economic power in food systems and land ownership, advocates for equitable opportunities and access to resources, and is based on human rights, including the right of community- and self-determination, and people’s responsibilities to each other and to the environment. But it is surprisingly difficult to write about in this blog.

The thing about food sovereignty is that it’s a collective right and it has to be worked for collectively. Home gardening really is largely individual. There are little things you can do collectively: share your produce, your knowledge, time, build some skills and community feeling, and you can save seeds that contribute in a small way to seed sovereignty. But gardening is not a political act. It can be a spiritual act, maybe a social act, but it’s not political in the sense of engaging with and challenging power.

The other day, I ran across a phrase

“Environmentalism without justice is just gardening.”

What does that say about gardening? I think unfortunately what it says is kind of accurate. Gardening is not necessarily a practice of justice. But once you’ve been awakened to all the different places gardening and food can lead you, then you can act. The following national organizations work for justice in the food system. They could likely use your time and money but are all happy to have you spread the news about the good work they do.

National Farmers Union 

Food Secure Canada

Indigenous Food Systems Network 

Justice for Migrant Workers 

Community Food Centres Canada 

Inter Pares

There are many other organizations doing great work on a provincial or local level. Take a look in your community and see what you can find! Perhaps inspiration for a New Year’s resolution…

Naomi Beingessner has lived and gardened in the Prairies for most of her life. She has two children, an enthusiastic gardener and an enthusiastic eater. She was a high school teacher and is now back in university studying food sovereignty. Her favourite vegetable is green beans but she finds that the most significant taste difference between store-bought and home-grown is in tomatoes.