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Country Garden

Pictures taken at the beginning of September  2006



A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins -  Laurie Colwin

    Situated between the Purcell and Selkirk Mountain ranges, the Creston Valley in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia, Canada, with its temperate climate, is perfect for growing fruit and famous for its Cherry, Apricot and Apple orchards.
    Every year the Creston Blossom Festival in May celebrates the beginning of the farming and gardening season, and the Harvest Ball in the fall, the closing. During the season a farmers market next to Millennium Park, and a Saturday market allow local farmers and gardeners to sell their fresh produce directly to customers.

    I first saw the garden of Dan and Val McMurray in Wynndel, in the Creston Valley, during the 2006 Creston garden tour.
At the entry to the garden there was a big sign posted   -->
Yeah, it would be nice, I thought, but is it possible?
After visiting their garden again, at the beginning of September, I have no more doubts: Yes, with gardeners like Dan and Val it is possible!

    From the early spring until October Dan and Val spend most of their time working in their half an acre heirloom vegetable garden. Dan, in his response to my request for an interview wrote:   " when you get here, don't give up if there is no answer to a knock on the door - - - we are usually in the garden most of the day, right up until dark."
They garden in Creston Valley since Dan's retirement as a lighthouse keeper in 2002.
Gardening is their great passion. It supplies them with a healthy food and, what is equally important, with a healthy, relaxing exercise.
    A healthy food comes from healthy plants. No plants can be entirely healthy without having healthy roots that develop best in the healthy soil, rich in minerals and humus.
A lot of Dan and Val's gardening effort goes into soil building. After they bought the land and before they started gardening they did soil test for PH level. They put a lot of effort into initial cleaning, by hand screening rocks, gravel, and weed roots out of the soil. To increase the soil acidity they added small amount of sulfur. They continue improving the soil quality by addition of manure, compost, grass clippings, leaves, by planting cover crops, and by using a small amount of commercial fertilizers. Now they have a rich and fertile, well drained, slightly acid loamy soil, perfect for growing any kind of vegetables.
    Watering is another very important gardening task. Too much watering can cause excessive saturation and /or unnecessary leaching, too little exposes plants to stress and stunts growth. To do it right Dan designed his own drip irrigation system which, depending on the weather, he uses once or twice a week.
To preserve moisture, suppress weeds, and keep plants roots cool they apply a lot of organic mulch.
    Good gardening practices help to reduce amount of damage caused by pests and diseases. No garden, however, is one hundred percent pest and disease free.
What do you do when problems arise? Do you use organic methods of pest and disease control? Do you use pesticides, fungicides, herbicides? I ask Dan.
"So far, no major problems have arisen, but if they do they will be handled without chemicals. The only non-organic pest control that we have or will use is a systemic spray to control fly maggots in the cherries. Everything else that we are likely to encounter in our garden or orchard can be handled with controls that are accepted by the Organic Gardening Council (for example wasp control is a matter of applying a jet of water to the nest, preferably from a safe distance). We encourage beneficial insects like lacewings, ladybugs, praying mantis (kidnap if necessary). Any harmful bug larva that are discovered become chicken food. For some pests, like flea beetles, trap crops can be employed, like summer turnips or radishes placed in a central location ... the leaves end up looking shot-gunned, and are unusable, but nothing else in the garden gets touched."
    Dan is especially interested in growing heirloom or open pollinated varieties of Tomatoes. (Open-pollinated: varieties that have not been genetically altered and are capable of reproducing in true form from generation to generation.) Why heirloom and open pollinated? In Dan and Val's opinion Mother Nature knows the best what is good for us. They find heirlooms healthier and tastier than modern commercial varieties.
He and Val especially distrust genetically altered plants produced by Monsanto. Why? As an answer they give me an address of the website with wealth of information related to genetic engineering:
    Dan is in touch and exchange Tomato seeds with other gardeners and collectors around the world. He obtained his first heirloom Tomato seeds in 2004 from the heirloom grower in Ontario. Since then their collection has grown to over 850 varieties, 250+ being rare or very rare. Their seed origins represent at least 15 countries.
    Dan keeps careful documentation of all varieties he grows. "The documentation includes origin, supposed conformation and actual conformation of the plant and fruit (type of plant, size and colour of fruit, leaf form, and days to maturity). There are literally thousands of established varieties of open pollinated tomatoes. There are a few institutions (U.C. Davis is one) that even do genetic fingerprinting (DNA tests) of different Tomato varieties", he tells me.
    They start their Tomato plants indoors in March. "Plants get a minimal start indoors, and are then transferred to a small greenhouse/cold-frame set-up. Heaters are turned on at night, only to ensure that the plants do not freeze, not to keep them warm. This can have an interesting side effect of cold treating the Tomato plants in a way that produces an abundance of what is referred to as 'multi-flora' blossom production. That means instead of a normal string of 6 or 8 blossoms to a cluster, there can be upwards of 50. Another distinct advantage of having the plants all well hardened off before transplanting takes place is that the plants are fully acclimatized before the removal from the hoop-houses (greenhouse/cold-frame). They may not be as lush in appearance as what is procured from a commercial greenhouse, but they will not be set back at transplant time, because they suffer no root or temperature shock on the process. They usually don't even realize they have been transplanted, except that they now have more root room, and more stable root temperature and moisture levels", Dan says.
    They transplant their Tomatoes into the ground usually in the middle of May. Climate conditions in the Creston Valley allow them to grow their plants in the open field without any protection from weather extremes.
    This year they grow 350 Tomato plants and over 125 varieties. The variety of colours, sizes, and shapes of their fruit is amazing. Yellow, orange, red, cherry, small, medium, big, round, oval, pear shaped, pepper shaped ...
    The plants are loaded with fruit. Average fruit production from their Tomato plants is 15-20 lbs. per plant. That means this year's production should come in between 5000 and 7000 lbs.
"Approximately 1000 lbs goes into juice for personal consumption and another 600 lbs into sauces, salsas, and chili. The rest is given to friends and other "victims of opportunity" (visitors)".
    They are happy to share seeds with anybody interested in growing heirlooms.
During the garden tour Val asked interested visitors to write down their names and addresses so they could send us seeds of the variety we are most interested in.
    What other vegetables do you grow in your garden? I ask.
"We grow potatoes, carrots, onions, peas, beans (green beans and dried beans), beets, corn, garlic, tomatoes, squash, and peppers. We occasionally grow melons, cauliflowers, broccoli, cabbage... Basically what ever tickles our fancy come planting time (or depending on what we have recently read about)."
They have supply of vegetables from their own garden that will take them to the next harvest.
"We over-winter our carrots and potatoes in the ground, with bags of leaves for frost protection, store onions and fruit in our cold room, and process a good representation of everything else we grow.
First crop in the ground in the spring is a bed of carrots, beets, and potatoes that will be consumed over the summer, with special beds of potatoes and carrots being started later for  winter consumption. Since the later plantings will be able to grow until frost, there is no particular hurry  in getting them in the ground. This can in itself present special problems if it turns hot early... It requires a lot more attention to watering (at least twice a day) to get carrots started if the weather is hot and dry."
    Dan never stops experimenting, researching, and improving his garden. He describes it as a "Continuing research project under constant evolution. Another way of saying I can't resist tinkering with the process."
    I thank Dan and Val for their willingness to share their garden and their expertise with gardeners in Canada and around the world, who are visitors too the website.

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