I have to say that going to Yellowknife, capital city of the North West Territories, has been on my wish-list for quite some time. Even though I live in central Alberta (which most Canadians erroneously think of as "the north," anyway), Yellowknife is a good 1500 kilomteters /932 miles up. Anyway you slice it, it's 20 hours of driving north.
Last weekend, I got my wish, as an invited speaker at the Territorial Farmers Association's annual fall harvest event. They invited me to give two-hour slideshow and talk about my up-coming book and the various models of urban agriculture I'd seen on my travels to their members. As it turned out, I had a crowd of about 50-some food gardeners / northern farmers / interested foodies who came from various communities in the NWT.
I hopped on a Westjet flight Friday mid-day and arrived one and a half-hours later in "YK," the largest community in the NWT with about 18,000 residents. (Yes, this is an unabashed shout-out for WJ because it operates direct flights from Edmonton to Yellowknife for about $400 round-trip; and Karl, from the crew, did the best Westjet safety demo version I have ever heard. Go Karl!)
For the talk, I picked a few chapters from my book and put together a number of slides for each city and cruised through photos of community gardens in Paris, amazing balcony gardens in London, a commercial rooftop vegetable garden in London, SPIN gardens in Kelowna, social enterprise urban agriculture models in Milwaukee, and a vertical farm in the making in Chicago. People asked questions along the way, laughed at a few of the funnier bits, and no one nodded off. Success.
While I was happy (relieved) that my presentation was well-received, I was most excited to get to talk to these northern farmers. Depending on where they came from in the NWT, they were growing food on the Canadian Shield (YK), or in outstandingly rich floodplain soils of Hay River, or in a repurposed former hockey arena (Inuvik). Subarctic and arctic food gardening might seem like an hopeless cause, but I knew that with a bit of skill and physical effort, the short growing season was more than balanced by the fact that northern gardens got 20+ hours of sunlight in July and August. My aunt, uncle, and cousin live in Hay River...and I've seen the 400-pound pumpkins and the incredible market produce that they get from their gardens in just several weeks from seeding to harvest.
Already, produce was accumulating for Saturday's "bench show," when local judges would decide who got the certificates for the "largest" vegetable, "ugliest" vegetable, etc.
Saturday morning in Yellowknife
With the morning to myself, I explored Yellowknife by foot, soaking in the sunlight through the thin northern fall air. As I walked from the hotel in the commercial part of Yellowknife toward historic Old Town, I saw many front yard food gardens still pumping out produce on September 10, 2011 --- even though there had already been two nights of frost in Edmonton already at that time. The massive lake offers some protection to prolong the growing season past what I would have expected.
A lot of potatoes in this frontyard garden, with a few sunflowers on the perimeter.
Yellowknife, population of 18,700, has four community gardens, according to those associated with the Yellowknife Community Garden Collective. Dave Taylor, the community gardens coordinator that I spoke to told me that there are 160 gardeners between these four sites.
This is one, in the old town, a historic part of Yellowknife. I saw two of three that weekend. Each community garden reserves 1/4 of the plots that the gardeners tend and grow produce for donation back to the community. The two biggest expenses to get a community garden started is soil, because there is very little soil on the exposed bedrock of the Canadian shield rock, and fencing, to protect against animal raids.
From talking to gardeners and growers, the season is pretty much the same as in Edmonton. Plants go into the ground just after the May long weekend or early June, and with a bit of covering for delicate plants like tomatoes, you can stretch the season into mid-September. People were harvesting potatoes, beets, turnips. Looks like cabbage, kale, and brussel sprouts were ready for harvest soon too.
After my self-guided walking tour of YK and lunch at Bullock's Bistro, I sat in on The Urban Farmer Ron Berezan's afternoon session Transform Your Yard: Create an Edible Landscape, which was gave me a bunch of ideas for next year's edible garden.
We ended the day at a community garden potluck, an epic communal feast with about 150 - 200 people and incredible northern foods, like smoked duck, smoked fish, delish scallopped potatoes, beets, and a beet-chocolate cake!
Coming Soon...Part 2: More impressive Yellowknife gardens...including subarctic quinoa.