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Native plants unearth health and wellness

May 30, 2018

Elmarie Roberts digs her spade into a sun-drenched patch of soil at Haliburton Community Organic Farm off the Pat Bay Highway. She turns up a neat mound of earth, removing any large rocks in her way.

“We can start a little snake habitat there,” she says, piling them together.

Roberts is one of the instructors of an ecological farming course offered at Haliburton though Professional and Continuing Studies at Royal Roads University. Ecofarming includes methods such as organic farming and ecosystem restoration to improve soil health and biodiversity. 

The seasonal course runs four times a year and focuses on growing and harvesting techniques and the connection between land protection, restoration and farming. Participants learn about native plant communities, soil health, organic farming methods, native plants as food and medicine and holistic nutrition.

Planting hedgerow havens for pollinators and predators

Today, Roberts is showing EcoFarm: Spring Fundamentals students, a mix of residential and professional food growers, how to create a hedgerow using plants, shrubs and flowers indigenous to this area.

“Does anyone know what this one is?” says Kristen Miskelly, co-instructor and operator of Haliburton’s Saanich Native Plants.

Miskelly traces her finger over a leaf of a snowberry shrub, drawing attention to the delicate purple outline of its leaves. 

“It’s really gorgeous,” she says. “It will have pink urn-shaped flowers that are really important for native bumble bees.”

The hedgerow will include camas, a traditional Indigenous food source; mock orange, a nectar source for butterflies like the Western Tiger Swallowtail; and woolly sunflower, a flowering plant used to attract pollinators.

Miskelly says hedgerows like this one support a complex and integrated food web including insects, birds and snakes.

“You have the winter and summer forage for the birds with all the fruits,” she says. “Then as they flower, the insects are able to come out. If you have insects for the small animals, then those larger animals like the coopers hawk are eating those small songbirds. It’s this huge web of life.”

Soil health and food quality: like two peas in a pod

Jessica Mitts, one of six participants, says the plot had been overrun with invasive ivy and a tangle Himalayan Blackberry roots, a species native to Armenia and Northern Iran.

She helped apply layers of organic compost, mulch and cardboard to block out the sun and loosen up and remove the roots.

This process supports the microbial life in the soil, which helps maximize food quality and nutrition.

“Then you can plant the native plants and create this whole new ecosystem that will hopefully thrive and flourish so that the invasive species don’t take over again,” she says.

Mitts is a gardener and entrepreneur from Bowen Island whose clients want to grow their own food and restore the land. 

Much of her work is spent helping homeowners remove invasive blackberry and ivy and steering them away from using chemicals. She says land restoration is an ongoing challenge she was eager to learn more about.

“I always instinctively knew there was a better way of doing it where you can put more health back into the soil. I knew we could use native plants to heal the earth. I just didn’t know how or what plants to use,” she says.

Gardening for health and wellness

Eating food is as much a part of the course as growing it. Each day, Holistic Nutritionist Rhona McAdam prepares lunch with seasonal ingredients that students encounter on the farm. Dishes include asparagus, sorrel and spring greens soup and vegetable frittata. “The nutrients on your plate start with the nutrients in your soil,” McAdam says. “Organic methods enrich the soil, producing tastier and healthier food.” 

Plants have always been healing for people in Tsartlip First Nation, says Mary Hayes, course participant and coordinator of Tartlip’s Aboriginal Head Start program. 

Hayes registered for the course to learn how to help her community increase their food production. In 2002, Hayes started the Tsartlip Family Gardening Program, which assists families with farming inputs and the skills they need to grow their own backyard garden.

“There were a lot of people who had challenges accessing fresh food so we started looking at ways to help them find a sustainable solution to meet their food needs,” she says.

“We have different levels of poverty in our community but it’s a really easy way people can improve their health, through the exercise that they get from going outside, from being social with each other but also just growing something that they enjoy because it’s more likely to end up on their plate if they enjoy growing it.”

Hayes says poor soil quality in her community has meant that soil has to be purchased. She says the Ecofarm: Spring Fundamentals course taught her how to improve soil health using organic compost, mulch and native plants.

“Everything is about making sure that we’re bettering the skills that we’re offering the community. The skills that they’ve offered here have helped a lot.”

Learn more about the next offering of this course, Ecofarm: Summer Fundamentals July 13 to 17. The workshop includes hands-on training in seed harvesting, storage and preparation.