Going global

BY Willy Williamson. Feb 27 04:00 am

With the expectation the cost of produce at the grocery store will continue to climb this year, it’s realistic to expect consumers will pay more for their plant purchases at local garden centres this spring.

The low Canadian dollar is affecting everything from the cost of plastic plant containers that are imported from the U.S. to liner material or rooted cuttings that are grown onto a larger size by Canadian growers a year or two before introduction to the Canadian market. It’s also expected, as evidenced by a local housing market that continues to keep its head above water, combined with our growing population, consumers’ demand for plant material will be as strong as ever.

With the need to stretch our dollar, plants that are multipurpose will be high on homeowners’ shopping lists. Is it attractive? Does it smell good? Can I eat it? Will it attract pollinators?

Why are all these things important? Because it’s 2016. I don’t say this in the Liberal sense of the word. The fact is, plants that have practical as well as aesthetic value help to justify many of our seasonal purchases. We’re not just decorating our landscapes, we are feeding our families. There is a need also to provide food for butterflies and bees that are essential to food production and have a vested interest in what we grow for their own survival.

It might seem like a tall order but having your garden and eating it, too, is gaining momentum not only for how much your money buys, but also as a result of a more knowledgeable and diverse consumer base.

Take a page from the sharing economy that is a community garden. With food production as the main focus, plants are selected for diversity and functionality. This is especially apparent in community gardens grown by newcomers to our country where cultural traditions dictate plant choices. These traditions ultimately provide lessons to us all, not only in economic terms but also the opportunity to learn about new and exotic plants and experience their flavours.

This month, Food Matters Manitoba got the green light from the City of Winnipeg to build a new gardening space in Point Douglas for newcomers in that community. Carolyn Townend, communications manager for Food Matters Manitoba, says they will work with the William Whyte Residents Association to provide garden plots for up to 30 refugee families.

Food Matters Manitoba also lends its assistance to the Rainbow Community Gardens project operated by the Immigrants Integration and Farming Worker Community Co-op.

Initiated in 2008 by Raymond Ngarboui, who today co-ordinates the project, the gardens serviced 258 families last summer. One site is located at the University of Manitoba. Ngarboui says many of the vegetables grown are of African and Asian origin. Varieties include okra, bitter squash, African bitter eggplant (also known as aubergine africaine), African amaranth and Kenyan sukuma wiki, which are similar to collard greens. Sweet potatoes are grown mostly for their edible leaves. Mulukhiyah, a popular vegetable in Middle East and North African countries, is grown for its delicious and nutritious leaves and is used in a variety of recipes.

Ngarboui says African varieties of pumpkins are grown and enjoyed for their leaves and stems, just as North Americans use a crop such as spinach. Buthanese green leaves or mustard leaves, Japanese and Chinese cabbages, as well as edible varieties of Solanum nigrum (black nightshade) are also grown in addition to tomatoes, onions and garlic chives.

Th’lay Htoo is a settlement worker from the Karen region of Burma. She also works with newcomer refugee families with plots at Rainbow Gardens and says Karen lemon balm is a favourite plant grown by many because it is difficult to find elsewhere.

Dave Hanson, owner of Sage Garden Greenhouses, is often introduced to new plant varieties by customers who have lived and travelled in other parts of the world. Hanson likes to share what he learns and over the years has grown his inventory of edible herbs and plants. In addition to donating seeds and starting seedlings for the new Rainbow Garden at Point Douglas, Hanson will provide hands-on workshops to newcomers on how to grow vegetables in Manitoba’s climate.

Hanson unabashedly proclaims his love for plants that are not only unique and diverse but also edible, and this is reflected in many of Sage’s plant introductions. One example is Amaranth Tricolor Perfecta. Hanson describes this annual plant as a lava lamp of colour. Known as Joseph’s coat, it grows as tall as one metre. Both the leaves and stems can be eaten fresh or steamed.

African blue basil is another edible-ornamental that is multipurpose. Pretty and fragrant purple flower spikes enhance flower beds and containers and attract beneficial pollinators. The flowers can be used as a garnish in salads and summer beverages while the spicy leaves add zing to pizzas and pesto recipes.

One sniff of lemon verbena, an intoxicatingly fragrant herb that is native to South America, will be all that is needed to encourage you to try the fresh or dried leaves in everything from beverages to marinades, jams, puddings and stuffings.

When Vanstone Nurseries, a wholesale nursery in Portage la Prairie, launched its new line of herbs and vegetables last spring, (freshplants.ca) it was with a view to introducing edibles that combine new developments in breeding and have been grown without pesticides. Huntington carpet rosemary doubles as both a gorgeous ornamental as well as a tasty culinary herb. New for 2016, it thrives in full sun, emits a potent fragrance, drapes beautifully over raised beds, and adds flavour to soups and savoury dishes.

Turkish orange eggplant offers a unique egg shape and brilliant orange colour. Almost too pretty to eat, the soft flesh of this heirloom variety is more like that of a tomato. The fruits grow to about five centimetres and are eaten when green or stuffed when they turn orange.

Owen Vanstone says Brice zucchini should be widely available this year. A ball-shaped zucchini that is great for grilling or stuffing, this attractive edible has silvery leaves mottled with green flecks and is compact enough for growing in patio containers.

In response to growing demand for a wider range of vegetables, Peak of the Market put out a call earlier this year for growers who have space for crops such as bok choy, Chinese eggplant, Chinese long bean, Napa cabbage and Taiwan cabbage.

Bruce Berry and Marilyn Firth operate Almost Urban Vegetables, a four-hectare family farm that is also diversifying. A CSA farm, deliveries to their customers in the Wolseley and River Heights neighbourhoods include Asian greens, broccoli rabe, cilantro, kohlrabi, sorrel, lemon balm, lemongrass and lemon verbena.

Foodie enthusiasts who crave unique, flavourful options for their palates will seek out new vegetable and herb varieties at farmers markets, restaurants and grocery stores. Fortunately, many garden centres are jumping on the bandwagon and growing more edibles. Sunshine Garden Centre in Steinbach, for example, will have orange-scented thyme which has grey-green leaves and a fragrance reminiscent of balsam and oranges. Native to southern Europe, it would be a sensational addition to a mixology garden, perfect for making summer cocktails.

It’s expected that ground will be broken in late May for the new Rainbow Garden in Point Douglas. The participating families will have high hopes for the crops they are going to plant. Townend says these initiatives provide more than just vegetables to eat and savings on weekly grocery bills. The gardens also serve as important meeting places, a chance to connect with others and to build friendships. For all of us, it will be an opportunity to make new friends and broaden our gardening knowledge and palates, too.

Additional funding is needed as well as items such as organic fertilizer, compost bins, garden tools, etc. If you would like to make a donation, please contact Erin Bend at Food Matters Manitoba, erin@foodmattersmanitoba.ca or call 204.943.0822, ext. 202.

colleenizacharias@gmail.com

Th’lay Htoo’s recipe for Fish Chowder with Tomatoes and Lemon Grass

Serves 4-6

35 ml chili powder

Two medium-sized onions or four shallots, diced

Five cloves garlic

One 10-cm stalk lemon grass

9 ml turmeric

9 ml salt

90 ml canola oil

Two Roma tomatoes, diced

Three fillet white fish, cut into three-inch pieces

Large handful fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped

 

Using a food processor, pulse the chili powder, onions or shallots, garlic, turmeric together to mince and combine.

Place a skillet (preferably non-stick) over medium-high heat and add oil. Sauté the onion-garlic mixture until the onions start to turn translucent and the mixture sizzles and smells sweet.

Add tomatoes and about 17 ml of water to keep the mixture moist but not soupy. Cover and let simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the fish, more salt to taste and enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover and let simmer for about 15 minutes or until fish is flaky and cooked through.

Garnish with fresh cilantro and serve with rice.

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