Toronto green thumbs share their winter gardening tips
As we, the people of Toronto, start to bury our faces in our scarves and huddle a little closer together in bus shelters, one crowd remains admirably unfazed by the winter—our gardeners.
Toronto’s gardeners refuse to let any temperature stop their sprouting ventures and often welcome the change in season with gusto. These courageous folks take the climate into their own hands, creating a realm outside of the city’s frosty reality and producing new life in it all winter long. Who are these valiant workers, and how do they do what most of us consider impossible? Well, they live and walk among us, and they are eager to share their secrets.
Many people don’t know it’s possible to eat fresh, home-grown vegetables all winter, and our gardeners want to change that. The head community gardener at the Big Carrot green roof project, Zora Ignjatovic, takes the community part of her title seriously. Zora revolutionized container gardening when she brought Living Food Boxes to the city from Montreal four years ago. She sold the boxes for a few years, but now she just wants to teach people how to make their own. “My dream is to engage some youth group or school interested to assemble them and bring it closer to home. Anybody can make them, and it can be a great, empowering tool,” she says.
The boxes use simple hydroponics to turn any fire escape, balcony, or patio into a food-producting area. They can yield more crops than a plot of the same size in a garden and can house about six different kinds of plants in each. They are about the size of a recycling bin and make for a perfectly irrigated planter because of their built-in reservoir, which holds water and allows the soil to absorb it as it needs.
Of course, after you’ve got the growing part down, you’ll need to protect your new shoots from Old Man Winter—and inspiration in this department is cropping up at a rapid pace in the city. This winter is the first that the rooftop garden at U of T will be open year round. The Skygarden, a project of the Food and Water Institute, received a grant from Live Green Toronto that will enable them to keep harvesting all winter and even host a workshop or two. Hence the recent addition of cold frames (see photo at left) and plans for a lightweight greenhouse.
Heather Wray, co-founder of the Skygarden, explains: “The idea with cold frames and greenhouses is that they protect the plants from wind, cold temperatures, and moisture, which are the things that kill plants in winter. The temperature inside them will vary depending on outside temperature, the greenhouse is meant to keep it above freezing. It’s still cool in there, so you can’t grow tomatoes or peppers; we’re maintaining cool weather crops—salad greens and some small root vegetables.”
Salad greens thrive in an environment of about 15°C with six hours of sunlight per day, actually developing more flavour and crispness when their thin leaves aren’t exhausted by full days of sun. Parsnips, carrots, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, broccoli, and cabbage are also able to withstand some frost. But when snow blankets the city and these greens aren’t protected, they bail. A gardener can manipulate the season and make the most of their locale with a greenhouse. While a rooftop garden misses out on the heat from the ground, a greenhouse helps grab warmth from the sun and the building below it. But you don’t need to build a greenhouse to create your own microclimate. There are a few DIY devices that work by collecting heat from surrounding sources—a crucial part of low-impact winterizing.
Tunnel cloches (also called hoophouses or polytunnels) are one option. They function just like a greenhouse, keeping rain and frost off plants, blocking wind, and boosting temperatures. Arlene Hazzan Green of the Backyard Urban Farm Co. swears by them. “I’ve gotten a thermometer and measured the soil temperature and the air, and it’s been as low as zero outside and inside the cloches it’s about 10 degrees” she explains. Cloche tunnel temperatures won’t be consistent everywhere in the city, however. “It’s going to depend on microclimates in the city, some places are warmer than others. In Richmond Hill, it’s colder than it is down here. South-facing walls or south-facing gardens with a wall behind them create a certain climate too because the sun beating down on the bricks will act as a heat sink.”
Aside from the benefit of higher temperatures, cloches also protect seedlings from marauding squirrels that might eat your crops, whereas some critters can weasel their way into cold frames. Essentially a wooden frame with a hinged glass top, cold frames can be made with pieces of scrap lumber and old window panes (I even heard of one city gardener using the wire frames from election signs). Some prefer cold frames because they can allow for greater heat absorption than cloches due to their glass surfaces, but cloches offer a better chance of maintaining consistent temperatures, because you can just sneak your hand in to tend the plants (with cold frames you have to lift the whole top off and heat escapes).
Ultimately, a microclimate can be created using pretty much whatever you have on hand, if combined with a little ingenuity. “Some people use four-litre pop bottles turned over a single plant. You could cut the top off the bottle and plop it over. That’s where the word ‘cloche’ comes from—it means ‘bell,’ it’s a French word. The only problem is you might not get enough oxygen circulating, so poke some holes in it,” Arlene recommends. Her inventiveness has allowed her to garden outside all year except January and February. In those coldest months, she continues her growing indoors. Right now, she’s experimenting with grow lights in her basement on radishes and beans.
From all the advice given by our city’s greenest thumbs, the prevailing recommendation is to check out Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest, in which the author divulges his strategies for growing the same veggies in Maine that grow in the South of France. Even if the idea of getting down and dirty with a winter harvest makes you recoil, check out this book for a bit of inspiration in cold times to come, when we see the world through the narrow circle of our parkas’ hoods. This winter, let’s try to cast our eyes from the icy streets and notice what’s thriving around us.
Photos courtesy of Backyard Urban Farm Co.