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 learned 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: he agreed to sell vegetables from his backyard garden at the market.
With the table set up, Wil and the volunteers unloaded several old, wooden peach baskets full of leafy green bundles. Each was hand-tied with jute twine, sporting a few French marigolds tucked in behind the knot. The leafy greens, carefully arranged around a small hand-made sign, turned out to be 5 varieties of kale in addition to mint and catnip. Wil pointed out the White Russian kale, noting that this variety was supposed to be one of the tastiest of all kales. With a curious audience of market volunteers and staff, Wil happily fielded many questions. He began to discuss other things he grows in the garden; tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, swiss chard, squash, cucumbers, bitter melon, tomatillos, chillies, herbs 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’s mother, Edith, was an avid gardener. He grew up watching and helping her grow vegetables. The sign on his table, Edith’s Garden Goods, was a small tribute to her and his continued love of vegetable gardening. Wil showed us some photos of his little urban jungle in the wilds of East York. It features several raised beds of varying size, as well as one of Wil’s cats, peering out at the camera from behind a flowerpot.
The biggest surprise was that every year, Wil starts most of the vegetable garden anew from seed. The process begins during the winter months, planning what to plant eagerly perusing seed catalogues (Strictly Medicinal Seeds and Urban Harvest have been his go-to sources,) in addition to choosing from the seeds Wil has saved up over the years. Usually, he opts for personal favourites, like kale and chilli peppers, herbs and flowers that attract pollinators 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 7 ft tall, or to frustrations, such as Silver Vine/Matatabi seeds (another catnip-like plant that causes feline felicity,) that just would not germinate. Other considerations included spacing constraints and companion planting.
Wil was happy to answer our questions and talked about some of the challenges he’s faced with the garden. He told us about how he started 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, his seedlings were only ready to go on the ground in early June, rather than mid-May, resulting in a slightly shorter growing season.
Other struggles of the urban jungle that Wil mentioned were pests; specifically slugs and a new foe: the Japanese beetle. Initially, he didn’t recognize that the iridescent, shelled insects were pests, presuming the pretty, little bugs were just a cute new visitor to the garden. But then the beetles started eating everything, and they weren’t so cute anymore.
“The weather’s always something to watch,” Wil added, “Because of all the rain this spring, I cut back on watering during the summer to try and encourage deeper root growth. Otherwise, some of the plants may get comfortable and stop searching for moisture below.”
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 vegetable garden is done before any plants even go into the ground. He has steadily been building up the microbial community by incorporating lots of good quality organic matter, adding trace minerals and organic fertilizers to his soil, and mulching with wood chips to curb weeds, retain moisture and add organic matter, which all combine to promote better growing conditions for whatever he plants. The photos of Wil’s garden showed a series of raised beds. In addition to helping his Mother grow vegetables as a child, Wil has done plenty of his own research. Following Charles Dowding on Youtube led him to adopt the “no-dig” approach to growing food, letting the soil remain as undisturbed as possible allowing the worms, microorganisms, bacteria 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 kale well before 11am! He was still fending off requests for catnip as he was packing up on his bicycle.
Between an early introduction to gardening by his mother and his own extensive personal research and experimentation, 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!