Sunday, January 29, 2012

This Locavore's Dilemma

So if you're planning to grow things, say vegetables, for instance, what do you need?  Space, check.  Soil, check.  Compost, check.  Seeds, check.  An almost-three-year-old to help you?  Check.  What is that other important thing though?  Oh yes, SUNLIGHT.  Well, it turns out that this may be a problem for me with my budding backyard homestead as while my backyard is on the south side of the house (perfect) the mature spruce, chestnut and Manitoba maple (ick!) trees that I have surrounding it are creating some major shade (not so perfect).

When we moved in here, I thought: wonderful!!  A little backyard woodland oasis, just for me, the chickadees, squirrels, and that female downy woodpecker I noticed a couple of weeks after we moved in.  I even added to the tree cover by planting serviceberry, yellow birch, striped maples, red oaks, etc.  I put in a little pond to attract local amphibians and bathing avian friends.  I hoped that I could encourage a suburban woodland and enjoy knowing that I was creating a little haven for urban wildlife in our neighbourhood.

Well, I did.  We had tadpoles in the pond, song sparrows nesting in our overgrown perennial beds, a skunk family under the shed, a lactating squirrel who I could almost hand feed, robins nests in the chestnut trees, and the odd red fox scouting out the perimeter.  And these are just some of the visitors I had time to notice between commuting to Charlottetown for work and having two beautiful babies.

However, what do we have very little of? Vegetables.  This is what I want to remedy, if this homestead thing is ever going to take off.  Last fall I bit the bullet and cut down one of three chestnuts, this one directly in the centre of my backyard, hoping that the ensuing space would satisfy the photosynthetic requirements of my much hoped-for future crops.  And the backyard is significantly brighter.  But I seriously underestimated the ability of the remaining trees to grab as many photons as possible during the afternoon--so I'm left with a sunnier backyard that still doesn't get enough hours of daylight to be overly productive.

I can grow tomatoes in the planter on my deck, specially built to accomodate a few edible treats by my lovely father-in-law and brother-in-law.  I think I might be able to put in a few more herbs and veggies now that the chestnut is gone.  I have other hopes for some of the rest of the space, that I will fill you in on later. But in order to get larger quantities of pumpkins for baking, tomatoes for sauce-making, garlic for cooking, basil for almost everything, and so on, then I am going to need a sunnier area.

A local well-known environmental activist whose passion is to protect natural spaces and keep our island as green as possible told me (wait for it) to cut down ALL my trees!  She said that as nice as they are, they promote moss growth on my roof and shade out my veggies, and my roof and veggies are apparently more important than the wildlife I am trying to care for in our backyard.  I'll admit I was tempted, for a moment.  I mean, this is the environmental conscience of Prince Edward Island, giving me the go ahead to plunge forward into a homesteader's dream of a sunny backyard clime ripe for the planting!

But then I found the season's last robin's nest.  And I listened to chickadees singing their love songs to each other in the fall.  And I noticed a mourning dove roosting peacefully on the windowsill in the shade of an extremely overgrown weigela while I was changing one of my darling little bums one morning.  And I asked myself, how could I ever have thought I would cut any of them down?  Never mind that the majority are non-native (and even somewhat invasive) species--my nemesis.  Never mind that those spruce were planted too closely together and aren't even very healthy or attractive.  Never mind that there is a lovely wooded park in our city where these birds can find plenty of cover and food.  They like our backyard!  Our children can discover exciting new life when they walk out on the deck.  I enjoy the privacy our trees give us in a subdivision setting.  I want to provide at least a little reprieve from open spaces and predators to the birds and small mammals in our area.

So what is a hopeful homesteader to do?  Well, just wait and see.


  1. Move your garden inside with a living wall? Build a salad table like Pam did, and put it on wheels to follow the sunlight? Maybe I'm just biased because I weeded too many vegetable gardens as a child and can't stand them now. Or!! Green house? That way you can tackle your lack of sun by going vertical in a more controlled environment!

  2. I think you should listen to Sharon! I want to spend the summer eating fresh baby carrots with James.

  3. Tamsyn, I think that the salad table is a great idea and I have a feeling I could do a little vertical gardening as well. I may have to move some shrubs in order to do it, but they're small. I have big plans for this summer though with gardening in other places and I hope that the plans work out!

  4. Rosalyn, I LOVE all your references to all your trees and are very knowledgeable! nICOLE

  5. You could break conventional thinking of what a front lawn should look like and plant a veggie garden there! There's lots of examples out there, including hard core veggie gardens, to mixes of flowers, perennials, and veggies...all examples of interesting non-mow front lawns.

  6. Rebecca I have thought of that, I think it looks awesome when people use their front lawns to grow veggies. The two things that have stopped me thus far are the fact that our front lawn is the north side of the house and doesn't get all that much more light than the back, and the fact that we are planning on moving and I'm not sure what potential buyers would think of an unconventional front lawn. But last fall we started hacking away at some ugly shrubs we had in a big bed in the front lawn, which I am hoping to completely get rid of. It's a possibility that it's far enough out front that it could be used for some edible landscaping, if not veggies then maybe some blueberry or currant bushes perhaps!


I love to get comments and questions, and particularly suggestions!