Yield by Marlene Wurfel

In my last “from the permaculture patch” article I asked you to evaluate your relationship with your garden and with our community garden. In high summer do have a garden full of flowers but can only see the few weeds? Are you grateful the snow is concealing the state of your front yard? When you spot a garden gnome, does his look strike you as smug and reproachful? If your relationship with gardening could be summed up by: “Ugh, I just haven’t been doing enough in the garden,” I asked you to stop sewing those particular seeds of shame and regret. Instead, let’s think of a garden as something that is for people, that gives more to people than it demands, and that should give more than it demands. If a garden is taking more than it is giving, we’re doing it wrong.

“Yield” is an important concept in permaculture. In order to design a green space with intention, we need to know what its purpose is. We need to know what we want our garden’s yield to be. Carrots? Beauty? Renewal? Fresh air?

What do you want from your green spaces?

If you want a private place that smells like spice lilies and sounds like wind chimes, where you can sit and sip sangria with your best friend, then make one of those, and don’t feel badly that you aren’t also growing enough turnips in that very spot to feed a monastery.

If you want to fill a root cellar with carrots and potatoes, plant carrots and potatoes, and don’t feel badly that you’re not also growing a row of every type of vegetable ever cultivated by man, including lemongrass, eggplant, and quinoa.

If you want a spot where the kids can make mud pies and kick a soccer ball, or where the dog can chew on some rawhide, don’t worry if wedding parties don’t tend to crash your back yard for photo ops.

If you’re just learning to garden or are new to Zone 3, and you want to experiment with growing cantaloupe, try growing cantaloupe, but be content that both cantaloupe and the knowledge that cantaloupe doesn’t grow very well here are a type of yield.

Do you really just want a quiet and private spot to feel the sun on your shoulders? A place to notice the seasons changing? Something pretty to look at out your kitchen window while you do dishes? One really beautiful tomato to make the best sandwich ever each September? Someplace that renews and recharges your senses and your spirit? A physical challenge?

The really empowering thing about knowing what we want our gardens to yield is that it allows us to perform the essential calculation of yield – investment = profit. Taking the time to calculate how our green spaces are benefitting us or not can help us make good decisions. We may need to repurpose our spaces and recalibrate our relationships with them. Making intentional choices can help us remove ourselves from the grim soldiering through of gardening as a chore, something we do because we must, because that is the way it is done, because that is the suburban dream dreamed up before we got our particular chunk of it and that is the way it has always been dreamt. What is important about a garden to you? Is it how it looks to neighbours and to passersby? How it looks to you? How it feels to be in that space? To spend as little time as possible working outdoors? Any of these are valid but knowing what we want our “yield” to be helps us make good decisions about what we invest. In many ways, yield is such a simple, obvious, basic concept that it’s easy to overlook.

Is there a yield you want from the Parkallen Community Garden? Is it kale? Is it basil? Connections within your community? Solitude? To learn from more experienced gardeners? To teach what you know to less experienced gardeners? Fresh air? To put some food on the family dinner table whether you are 4 or 44? The wherewithal to look the next smug and reproachful gnome you meet in the eye and say, “Look here, lil’ buddy, I helped make the Parkallen Community Garden awesome.” If there is a yield you want from the PCG, I encourage you to go and get it. Take it. Plan to take more from it than you give. Manage your time commitment – guiltlessly – to produce a positive yield.

E-mail sustainability@parkallen.ca at any time of year to be placed on the Parkallen Community Garden mailing list and to receive communications about all ages workbees and gardening events.

Guilt in the Garden by Marlene Wurfel

Since I’ve been directing the Parkallen Sprouts and the Parkallen Community Garden, I’ve been getting a new look from some of my neighbours that I didn’t used to – it’s one that signifies intense garden-related-guilt.

“No, Marlene,” they tell me when I drop by their homes, “please don’t look at my garden. It’s so full of weeds…”

Or, “The community garden looks wonderful this year and I feel so badly that I didn’t make it out even once. Maybe next year…” they sadly say with nothing at all resembling hope in their voices.

The theme is guilt, shame, and missed opportunity. Parkallen – the thing with gardens is that what you cultivate in them tends to grow. Are you cultivating guilt, shame and regret in your garden? Are you cultivating these things in our community garden? Stop it!

The Parkallen Community Garden is a permaculture project and one important element of permaculture is “obtain a yield.” That means the focus is on “getting from” a garden, not simply “putting in” for the sake of effort itself. In an ideal permaculture space, nothing is required from the gardener other than strolling through a beautiful green space, replenishing one’s self while filling a basket with healthy produce. The aim isn’t toiling but taking. The permaculturist always strives to let the soil, the sun and the rain do as much of the work as possible because their space has been planned from the onset to perform in that way. That’s why, for example, the Parkallen Community Garden has swales dug into the slope towards the hockey rink: so the garden can catch and store rain and melt water all on its own. Maximum yield for minimum effort is the end-goal. Parkallen Community Gardeners have been putting in effort to cultivate what’s been growing in the garden but, ultimately, probably less than you think. We’re striving to create a self-regulating space that gives more than it demands.

I heeded quite a few warnings when the Parkallen Community Garden was in the planning stages as a communally tended space that everybody would show up at harvest time to take but nobody would be willing to put in the effort. The reverse has tended to be true. We’re civilized people: We’ve read the “The Little Red Hen.” People are reluctant to take from the garden because they don’t feel they’ve put in the requisite effort.

My neighbor who regretted not visiting the garden that season could have walked straight there, picked enough for a dinner salad, marveled at the sunflowers, listened to the birds, tossed a dandelion into the weed bucket, tasted the mint, smooched a loved one in the sunshine, called it a season, and left. But she didn’t feel entitled. She hadn’t put enough in to take that much out. It is my sincerest wish that the Parkallen Community Garden be a place you take more from than you give. It would help me in achieving my yield from the garden – the reward and satisfaction of knowing that I’ve helped create a space in my community that replenishes, teaches, feeds and gives; not one that requires more from time-crunched urbanites than they can reasonably afford.

One of the reasons I love working with kids in the garden so much is that they have absolutely zero compunction with proudly digging up an armful of potatoes for dinner even though they were swinging on the monkey bars while someone’s mom took twenty minutes in the spring to hill the seed potatoes into the soil. Really, they can teach me as much, or possibly more, about healthy relationships to food as I can teach them.

What’s your relationship with your garden? Do you think of it as a place that demands more from you than you can give each season?  Do you think of it as a place that should demand more than it yields? Why? Would it benefit you to re-evaluate your relationship with your green spaces?

People aren’t for gardens; gardens are for people. Gardens are for feeding people, for relaxing people, for inspiring people and for replenishing people. A space that inspires guilt instead of satisfaction is not a well-designed green space.

So pretty please, Parkallen, if you’ve been scattering the seeds of guilt and shame in our community garden, or in your own gardens, just stop. Stop watering the guilt. Stop fertilizing the shame. Stop. Re-evaluate. Let’s cultivate something beautiful.

Under Construction

You may have noticed the massive amounts of construction going on in Parkallen this summer. Park Paving Crews and the City of Edmonton are re-constructing roads all over the neighbourhood and Phase 1 of re-development in Ellingson Park (spray deck construction) is well underway.

Construction Crews along 65th Ave in Parkallen

We’ve been busy too.

If you could see behind the road work in this photo, you’d see a very gentle, much lower-tech kind of construction going on: the soil for the Parkallen Community Garden building itself under layers of mulch.

To create a loamy and productive Community Garden in Parkallen we are deploying a technique called lasagne gardening. You layer some water, some mulch, some straw, some cardboard, some more mulch, some more water, and a pinch of mycorrhizal fungi. Then wait for the snow to come and go and next voila! Presto! Next Spring we’ll have rich, cultivable earth where before there was just a dandelion-strewn stretch of grass.

Bev digging a pile of compost

Here’s how we did it:

First hundreds of volunteer-hours went into securing funding and finalizing the plans for this pea-pod shaped garden:


Thanks City of Edmonton, Dustin Bajer, The Parkallen Community League, The Parkallen Diggers, The Parkallen Re-development Committee and Robert Kirchner for your vision and your hard work.

Construction began with flagging the contours of the proposed garden on the site. Then we started digging drainage/irrigation swales. The swales utilize the natural slope of the land to gather precious rainwater towards the garden.

Robert, our leader, breaking new ground
The Parkallen Diggers beginning construction of the Parkallen Community Garden

Digging through sod is tremendously hard work.

Bev and Catherine

But dig we did.

Dustin leading the swale-digging crew

Next we assembled the ingredients for our lasagne garden — a no-till method of converting sod into soil.

Cardboard — thank-you City of Edmonton Waste Management for permission to gather it from depots
Straw — thank-you Barry and Steve and the rest of the staff at the UofA Research Centre (South Campus farm) for donating and delivering the bale
Compost — thanks Kevin
Mulch — thank-you Robert

Marlene - blogger and cardboard gatherer

Large, plain pieces of cardboard like these appliance boxes here are best for lasagne gardening.

It is important that the ground covered with a layer of cardboard (to kill the grass underneath) is wet (to increase the bio-activity) so you can either hose it down or, even better, cardboard mulch on a rainy day and hose it down, like we did. We were lucky to have access to the fire hose used to flood the adjacent hockey rink. Thank-you, Parkallen Community.

Dustin and Catherine cardboard mulching in the rain

The pieces should overlap at least a few inches.

We covered the entire area over a number of sessions. The next step was to sprinkle a very thin layer of compost on top of that (again, to increase bio-activity) and then to pile about a foot of straw on top of the cardboard.

The straw was hosed down and then a thicker layer of compost was spread over top of that.

A lot of local muscle and many wheelbarrow trips went into this endeavor.

Our volunteers were undaunted.

Then we filled in the irrigation swales and the centre pathway with bark mulch.

Robert sprinkled some barley seeds on top of everything to make sure there would be enough roots in place to hold everything down. The grass (from seeds in the straw) and the barley sprouts won’t have time to go to seed and can replace bark mulch (which would be hard to get out of the soil next spring).

Now, against a backdrop of high-tech machinery we’re doing a radically low-tech thing: we’re putting down our shovels and waiting for the soil to build itself.

You know that old joke — in Alberta there are two seasons: winter and construction.

Happy Construction from the Parkallen Diggers.