Tending The Landscape
I want to acknowledge the First Nations communities that have long lived and tended the land on which Edmonton stands. From passive actors, indigenous communities were active participants who managed the landscape in ways that increased biodiversity and tipped ecologies in ways that benefited culturally significant plants and animals. For First Nations communities, gardening in Edmonton is about continuous observation, pattern-seeking, and participation in ecology. This is gardening in its truest sense. May we one day return to a landscape as abundant as this.
Traditional ecological knowledge is increasingly crucial as we move towards a less certain future pitted with the challenges of a changing climate. To create a resilient Edmonton, we must become holistic thinkers and partners in ecology.
Gardening in Edmonton
A little over one hundred years ago, Edmontonians couldn’t grow apples due to harsh winter conditions. And yet, today, Edmonton wastes so many apples that not-for-profits like Fruits of Sherbrook and Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton (OFRE) work with the community to save fruit unharvested fruit. So what happened? How did we go from being unable to grow apples to an overabundance in a century?
Goerges Bugnet (1879 – 1981) famously developed hardy rose varieties now enjoyed worldwide. Robert Simonet (1903 – 1989) made a fortune breeding double-flowering petunias, roses, apples, apricots, lilies, strawberries, and corn varieties (among others).
The plant varieties we enjoy result from formal and informal experiments, often performed in backyards by amateurs and hobbyists. In her book, “Why Grow Here: Essays on Edmonton’s Gardening History,” Kathryn Chase Merrett outlines Edmonton’s strong history of backyard experimentation, plant breeding, and pushing the limits of horticulture.
Climate and Diversity Breeds Horticultural Innovation
I suspect that immigration is a big piece of the puzzle. As a young city, many Edmontonians are only a few generations removed from some other part of the world. It has always been the case that immigrants bring their horticultural practices. In my community of McCauley, I see Italian immigrants trying to grow Mediterranean grapes varieties, Vietnamese refugees growing Cai Lan, and Chinese goji dotted in backyards and alleys.
The fact that many of us have roots elsewhere creates a rich diversity of plants and horticultural techniques. Over time, practices and plant varieties that work, stick, and become a part of the landscape.
The limiting factor for most plants is Edmonton’s climate. To survive, perennial plants need to handle a seventy-degree swing in temperature from thirty-five above to thirty-five below. While our extreme climate acts as a filter, it’s a metaphorical anvil on which to forge new plant varieties. Edmonton’s unique combination of diversity-increasing immigration and harsh climate is a recipe for selecting and discovering cold hardy plants.
Gardening in Edmonton Pushes the Limits
While a hundred years have seen an explosion of cold hardy apple varieties, experimentation is still underway. Today, members of the DBG Fruit Growers trial and grow thousands of fruit and nut tree varieties in their Edmonton backyards. Every spring and fall, they come together for scionwood exchanges and a fruit festival.
Gardeners are practical optimists looking for new things to grow and practices to extend the growing season. As long as Edmonton has gardeners, gardening in Edmonton will continue to evolve. Considering a new challenge, climate change, our history of horticultural innovation will be critical for adaptation and community resilience.
Ironically, while Edmonton gardens have increased in varieties and techniques, we continue to marginalize Edmonton’s traditional ecological knowledge. To thrive in a changing climate, we must adopt holistic management practices and rediscover our place as ecological participants.
Do You Have a Garden Experiment?
Are you conducting a backyard experiment? Maybe you inherited an interesting perennial, shrub, or fruit tree? You got a peony from your Grandmother or seeds passed down to you? I’d love to hear and share what you’re working on in the comments below!
For a list of hold hardy perennial plants, please read my post, Cold Hardy Food Forest Plant List. If you want to learn how to grow woody plants and help donate trees to school and community groups, check out Shrubscriber.