After a cooler start to the weekend, last Saturday was a perfect September Market day. A little bit cool, but with a beautiful blue sky. Saturday also happened to be the day that Withrow Market launched our Urban Growers Pilot Project, something we’ve been working on getting up and running these past few weeks.
We’d found ourselves a guinea pig – or much better put, a fellow named Wil. Wil is the proud owner of a small but fruitful vegetable garden in East York. He was made aware of our desire to try out some new ideas at the market, courtesy of a tip-off from Margaret, one of our valuable volunteers this year. After a few emails, a telephone call, and a visit to the market the week before to learn more, Wil made the decision to boldly go where none have gone before and agreed to sell vegetables from his backyard garden at the market.
With the table set up, Wil and the volunteers unloaded several wooden baskets full of leafy green bundles. Each was tied with twine, sporting a small marigold tucked in behind the knot. The leafy greens, carefully arranged around a small sign, turned out to be 5 varieties of kale in addition to mint and catnip. Wil pointed out the White Russian kale and said that this variety was supposed to be the tastiest of all kales. With a curious audience of market volunteers and staff, Wil patiently fielded many questions. He began to discuss other things being grown in the garden; tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, swiss chard, and garlic, though we might have missed some crops as we were taking in the novelty of the scene.
With the vegetables unloaded, and the produce identified, it was time to draw up the chalkboard.
Before customers arrived at the market, we had the opportunity to ask Wil even more questions.
Wil was raised in a family of prolific gardeners and spent many years helping grow vegetables in his mother Edith’s garden. The sign on his table, Edith’s Garden Goods, was a small tribute to her. Wil showed us some photos of their little urban jungle in the wilds of East York, near Woodbine & O’Connor. The garden features several raised beds of varying size as well as Wil’s cat, peering out at the camera from behind a flowerpot.
The biggest surprise was that every year, Wil starts the entire garden anew from seed. None of the plants are perennials. The process begins during the winter months with perusing seed catalogues (Strictly Medicinal Seeds and Urban Harvest have been his go-to sources,) in addition to the seeds Wil has saved up over the years. Usually, he picks seeds based on personal favourites, what grows well in the garden, and sometimes, plants that just look interesting. This can lead to pleasant surprises, like Wil’s recent experiment with planting okra that grew to over 8 ft tall, or to frustrations, where Silver Vine seeds (another catnip-like plant that causes feline felicity,) just would not germinate. Other considerations included spacing constraints, companion planting, as well as blooms that attract pollinators.
Wil was being very patient with our questions and talked about some of the challenges he faces with the garden. Wil told us about how he sprouted his seeds a little late this year, in March, when normally he begins the seed germination process in mid-to-late February. As a result, the pepper harvest had been “a little sporadic,” with smaller quantities ripening over a longer period.
Other struggles of the urban jungle that Wil mentioned were pests; specifically slugs and Japanese beetles. Initially, he didn’t recognize that the beetles were pests, and he thought that the little bugs were a cute new pollinator visiting the garden. But then the beetles started eating everything, and they weren’t so cute anymore.
“The weather is always something gardeners watch carefully,” Wil added, “Because of the heat this summer, I started to reign in watering to help encourage deeper root growth. Otherwise, the plants get spoiled and expect more water than they really need.”
We forgot to ask him about squirrels and raccoons, but we did ask if he had any suggestions for new gardeners.
“Spoil your soil!” was Wil’s reply. Much of the work in Wil’s backyard garden is done before any plants even go into the ground. Building up the microbial community, fertilizing, and adding more minerals all work together to promote better growing conditions for anything that gets planted. The photos of Wil’s garden showed a series of raised beds. In addition to growing up helping his mother grow vegetables, Wil has done plenty of his own research. Following Charles Dowding on youtube has led him to adopt the no-dig approach to growing food, letting the soil remain as undisturbed as possible to allow all the microorganisms and fungi to work their magic. John Kohler’s Youtube channel, Growing Your Greens, working with the idea of food forests, is another inspiration.
The market had opened, and it was time to give Wil some room to meet the public. We were only a few metres away when Wil received his first visitors and made his first two sales ever within 5 minutes!
The catnip turned out to be a sensation, and Wil was sold out of produce well before 11am! He was still fending off requests for catnip as he was packing up on his bicycle.
Between growing up caring for the family garden and extensive personal research, Wil’s deep love of gardening and respect for the earth is very apparent. Edith’s Garden Goods is a showcase of the amazing opportunities afforded by edible gardens. Withrow Market is very lucky to count Wil as part of our community!
Keep an eye out for more updates on the Urban Growers Pilot Project. If you follow us on social media, you’ll have seen that Withrow Market has been working with our community to build a seed library for aspiring urban gardeners!
If you have an excess of edamame, a plethora of peppers, or even if you have a black thumb but think hyper-local food is a neat idea, we would love to hear from you! Please feel free to contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or to say hello on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
We’re looking forward to seeing what he brings on his 4km trek from East York next Saturday. More kale? Tomatoes? Hot peppers? More catnip? Come join us at Withrow Market next Saturday to find out!