Monday, April 6, 2020

Awaiting the arrival of the Dandelions

With spring on its way, I start to look forward with excitement for the first plants to appear in my neighborhood. On my regular (but solitary, given social distancing) walks through my garden gate and into Massey Park, the snows have gone, the grass is greening, and the migratory waterfowl and songbirds are out in abundance.

I’ll be looking for dandelions, but they’re not up yet. Give it another week or so and we’ll start to see a lot of changes. The pretty yellow flowers will appear here and there, almost by surprise, and I’ll be picking couple of handfuls of these flowers where no killer sprays have been used.

The flowers are edible, medicinal, and bursting with Vitamin C. Peel away the tendrils under the flowers and wash in cold water. Dip them in a runny pancake batter and fry in oil for 3 minutes. Eat as appetizers or as toppers on a dandelion salad of freshly picked leaves. They’ll be the first fresh treats of the season!


Monday, March 30, 2020

Honouring the Blue Marble

On December 21 in 1968 the Apollo 8 manned spacecraft was launched on a voyage to the moon. In orbit around the moon, the astronauts observed and photographed our planet, a blue marble against the inky black void of the universe. The grandeur of this unique photo, which they called Earthrise, captured the imagination of the world and became the icon of the global environmental movement. The vast loneliness of this blue marble rising in black space is awe-inspiring, and makes you realize that ours is only known inhabited planet in the universe.

When I look at the photos of Earthrise, it pains me to bear witness to our home planet turning into a garbage dump and an abiotic chemical desert. The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth. We are part of the web of life.  


Our species is the problem. We want stuff, and more stuff! We are consumers. But more stuff won’t make us happy, and it certainly won’t make the world a better or healthier place for life in all its many forms. 

For decades, we’ve been dumping billions and billions of tonnes of toxic chemicals on the soil, into to the atmosphere and into rivers, lakes, oceans, aquifers and groundwater. Soils have become depleted of nutrients due to intensive chemical farming practices, and the runoff is polluting water resources. The widespread use of antibiotics compromises human resistance to disease. As carbon accumulation drives climate change, the air the we breathe depends on the lifestyle choices we make every day. The pollution and damage we are doing to the earth, we do to ourselves, and to the web of life we are part of. 

As a species we must acknowledge we are the problem. We seem incapable of solving the ecological damage we are causing on Earth. A meteor the size of a mountain once slammed into the earth filling the atmosphere with dust, toxic gas and debris that drastically and immediately altered the global climate, killing off all the dinosaurs. 

What should our response be for the gifts the Earth bestows on us – the gift of life, water, air and the soil beneath our feet? The author E.O. Wilson proposes we set aside and preserve large tracts of land and ocean to protect the world’s rapidly disappearing plant and animal species, giving nature some time to recover. We can save the planet by reducing our population, creating more habitable urban environments, planting front and backyard gardens, shrinking our ecological footprint, and by planting trees.

Trees love carbon. They suck it up and lock it in the soil. The billion-tree planting campaign was instigated by Wangari Maatthai, the first African woman to win  a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, who founded the Green Belt Movement in Africa in 1977. That movement sparked the Billion Tree Campaign which later launched the Trillion Tree Campaign. As of February 2020, over 13 trillion trees have been planted by young and old, rich and poor, working together. It is estimated that planting 1.2 trillion more trees would counteract ten years of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions.  

Now for the good news. According to Paul Monks, professor at Leicester University, there are important lessons we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. There are fewer cars on the road, fewer planes in the air and many factories shut down, slashing air pollution levels around the globe. This is essentially the largest scale experiment in the world in reducing air pollution. Pollution levels in many parts of China have become ten to 30 percent lower than last year.

The world is facing the most alarming challenge ever – the climate crisis! I am old enough to remember the Victory Gardens of the Second World War. This was an urban phenomenon of planting gardens: vegetables, fruits and herbs to demonstrate patriotic citizenship in helping to win the war. What the world needs now more than ever before, is to reverse climate change. 

This is our war, the collaboration of all hands and green thumbs working together with our grandchildren, planting trees and backyard gardens. We need to learn stability and balance, going back to the basics of a simpler life marked by independence and cooperation. Dig up your lawn with a spade and plant a garden. People can and will change when the chips are down, and when we realize what’s truly important in the relationship between humankind and nature.

Robert Frost's poem Birches, it has been said, “delights the mind and endears itself to the heart.” I’d like to quote a few lines:
                         I’d like to get away from earth awhile
                         And then come back and begin over.
                         May no fate willfully misunderstand me
                         And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
                         Not to return, Earth’s the right place for love:
                         I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Gardener's Universe sets down roots in the Maritimes

As part of the opening reception for his lifetime retrospective exhibition at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown in early March, Victor was invited to present an Artist Talk on some of the inspiration behind his artistic work. He chose to speak about Dirt.

Early in March, Victor made his first visit to Prince Edward Island for the 
opening reception of his retrospective exhibition, The Gardener's Universe.
Victor, and the show, were warmly received, and a good time was had by all.
I grew up with healthy dirt on my hands. My fascination with dirt (and gardens) developed around the age of seven, as I observed my grandmother Bunica standing barefoot in her early spring garden, bending down to scoop up a handful of garden soil. She squeezed it. She smelled it. She rubbed it between her fingers to examine it for organic matter. Was the soil alive? Was it ready for planting?

A teaspoon of healthy soil can hold up to one billion bacteria according to Kathy Merrifield, a retired nematologist from Oregon State University. Each of these creatures has a role to play in keeping soil healthy, but this underground livestock also needs to be fed, to maintain and renew soil fertility. Nature does this by recycling plant and animal residues. As gardeners, we do it by composting and mulching to increase organic matter. Voracious soil bacteria break down organic matter into nutrients that plants need to grow and to stay healthy.


As a kid, I could walk all the way to Wetmore School down back alleys from my home in the Garlic Flats. Every backyard had a garden. Back then, most people were still connected to the land, like my grandmother Bunica, getting their hands dirty planting gardens. That's what gardeners have been doing for thousands and thousands of years. Soil is the foundation of life. It has sustained us.

The disconnect with the land came around 1947/50, with the first supermarkets selling fruits and vegetables, based on mechanization and chemical farming using herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers This destroyed the natural productivity of the soil and polluted water resources. Industrial food production is a major polluter of our environment. Most people don’t even know where their food is coming from, how it was grown or how it was processed. Cheap food is packaged in plastic and the only thing that matters is price not quality. Wash your fruits and vegetables, they say!

However, a revolution in gardening is well under way. People are digging up their unproductive, chemically-polluted lawns to grow organic gardens. This transition is about people reconnecting with garden dirt and with growing food where they live. Others are joining community gardens. Still others with shovels in hand are digging up their backyards and planting gardens with lettuces, radishes, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs and much more. This revolution in planting productive organic gardens is growing by leaps and bounds.  

By planting an organic garden, you are working with nature not against it. Involve your grandkids. Gardening is a magnet for kids. It’s a small step toward food security, but an important part of building a sustainable world.

Photos ©2020, Courtesy of Jan Pel, Julia Kruger