How Local Food Systems Support Sustainability and Food Access

How Local Food Systems Support Sustainability and Food Access

*Blog article by Churchill Northern Studies Centre

*Republished by permission with minor changes

Do you know where the food on your plate comes from? In many cases, our food travels a long way to get into our kitchens.

Photo: Churchill Northern Studies Centre

These food miles — the distance food travels from production to consumer — contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, which are a major factor in climate change, and can also lead to reduced food freshness and nutrient loss over time. Additionally, large-scale industrial agriculture systems, while far-reaching, cannot make it everywhere; remote and marginalized communities often fall through the cracks, their residents left in food deserts and food swamps, without access to nutritious food.

Thankfully, local food systems can fill that gap — and promote environmental sustainability in agriculture, too! By fostering a closer connection between consumers and their food sources, local food systems not only reduce carbon footprints but also enhance community well-being and resilience. Here’s a closer look at how these local systems bring widespread benefits.

The Power of Local Food Systems

Environmental Impact

Local food systems significantly reduce the need for long-distance transportation, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. When food travels shorter distances, there’s a substantial decrease in carbon emissions, making these systems inherently more sustainable. Moreover, local food production often employs sustainable farming practices that prioritize soil health and biodiversity, further contributing to environmental conservation.

Economic Benefits

Local food systems can invigorate local economies. By supporting small-scale farmers and local businesses, these systems keep money circulating within the community. This economic model not only bolsters local economies but also creates job opportunities, contributing to a more robust and self-reliant community.

Enhancing Food Access

Food access and instability are pressing issues in many parts of the world, particularly in remote or marginalized communities. These areas often face challenges such as limited availability of fresh, healthy food options; high food prices due to transportation and logistical costs; and a reliance on imported goods that can be disrupted by external factors like weather events or global supply chain issues. Food insecurity in these communities can lead to various health problems, including malnutrition, obesity, and diet-related diseases, while also exacerbating social inequalities.

Local food systems present a powerful solution to these challenges by establishing a sustainable and accessible food supply within these communities. By growing food locally, these systems can significantly reduce dependency on distant sources, lower transportation costs, and minimize the risk of supply disruptions. This ensures a more reliable source of fresh and nutritious produce. Local food initiatives can also be tailored to the specific needs and cultural preferences of the community, further enhancing food accessibility and acceptance.

Rocket Greens: A Model of Local Sustainability in Churchill

In Churchill, Manitoba, Rocket Greens showcases the incredible potential of local food systems in enhancing sustainability and food access. Churchill, faced with the challenges of remote living and harsh climates, has found an innovative solution in Rocket Greens. Here’s how this local food system provides vital support and far-reaching benefits for our Churchill community.

Overcoming Environmental Challenges

Churchill’s harsh weather conditions make traditional farming challenging — if not impossible — for much of the year. Rocket Greens addresses this through the use of hydroponic technology, which allows for year-round indoor farming. This method is not only efficient but also environmentally friendly, using less water and no pesticides.

Economic and Social Impact

Rocket Greens has become more than just a source of fresh produce; it’s a symbol of community empowerment and resilience. By providing locally grown vegetables, this initiative supports the local economy and promotes food security. Two-thirds of Rocket Greens veggies go directly to community members, showcasing the powerful role local food systems can play in remote and challenging environments.

Enhancing Food Access in the North

For the residents of Churchill, Rocket Greens is a game-changer in terms of food access. Rocket Greens is a hydroponic food production project operated by the Churchill Northern Studies Centre in northern Manitoba. Its mission is to improve our community’s access to affordable produce, no matter the season.

Rocket Greens offers a stable supply of fresh, nutritious produce, which is otherwise hard to come by due to the community’s isolated location. This accessibility to healthy food is a crucial step in combating food insecurity and promoting overall health and well-being in the region.

If you’re in the Churchill area, sign up now to receive a weekly LaunchBox filled with a variety of herbs and greens like bok choy, spinach, kale, leaf and butterhead lettuce, Swiss chard, arugula, and more. These leafy greens are as fresh as you can get, delivered right to your door!

The Churchill Northern Studies Centre is an independent, non-profit field station working to understand and sustain the North. The Centre provides accommodations, meals, equipment rentals, and logistical support to scientific and social researchers working on a diverse range of topics of interest in the subarctic. It also facilitates learning programs throughout the year for non-credit learning vacations, university credit courses, and youth programming. Explore Learning Vacations to see how you can experience the subarctic in a way that’s meaningful, personal, and unforgettable.

Support for Rocket Greens is an investment in a sustainable future through community-driven initiatives. If you are interested in helping to sustain and expand the Rocket Greens project to ensure that the community of Churchill continues to have access to fresh, healthy, and sustainably grown produce, click here.

To read the full blog article as originally posted, click here.


Keeping a Garden Journal

Keeping a Garden Journal

By Brenda Evans, Master Gardener


If you are the type of person who keeps lists, agendas, or journals to stay organized, then chances are you already have a garden journal. Journaling in general is considered a healthy practice. A garden journal is a valuable tool to record ideas, plans, and observations of your garden to refer to at a future date. It eliminates stress and worry as once you’ve recorded your thoughts you can just relax, knowing that it’s okay if you forget them, they’ve already been filed for safekeeping.

 If you are considering starting a garden journal or upgrading to a different style of journal there are many options available. However, to ensure that the style you purchase will meet your needs, you should consider how you are going to use it. The amount of detail you want to include is up to you.

It’s always helpful to include a map of your garden beds. A map can include site characteristics such as the location of any structures, utilities, trees, and plants as well as conditions such as the amount of sun or shade throughout the day and any windy or low-lying wet spots. Your garden journal can provide the names and locations of the plants along with their characteristics such as growing requirements and when they bloom, any pests and disease problems and action taken, soil conditions and amendments, seeds harvested and germination rates, seasonal chores, and more. Vegetable gardeners may journal harvests and crop rotations. Garden project journals include budgeting and expense worksheets. Other garden journals come with seasonal To-Do lists, inspirational quotes, tips, or instructions on gardening techniques such as pruning or other tasks. There are many options available.

Of course, to ensure your journal includes every possible feature you want, you could create your own garden journal. An electronic document could include all the worksheets, notes, plant lists, and as many inserted photographs as you like. The initial setup may take some time but would be worth it.

Another consideration is the actual size and structure of the journal itself. Does it lay flat so you can write comfortably, or do you have to place a heavy object on one side to hold it down? Consider a spiral rather than a glued spine for this reason. Some include a pocket on the inside cover to store seed packets or photos but if you have more than a couple of either that pocket may not be sufficient for you.

A three-ring binder is a good option because you can add pages as you go. Photo sleeves can be inserted to organize photos, plant labels and seed packets. It’s also easy to organize sections with separator pages. These days there’s a computer app for everything, even gardening. You can upload photos, observations and more and your records can be accessed from a computer or smartphone.

An instructor once suggested a journaling method that I have followed ever since. I use a simple 9”x 7” spiral notebook, the perfect size to be functional yet still fit in my bag. When visiting gardens, or attending workshops or presentations, I jot down any garden designs or plants that I would like to incorporate into my own garden, on the left-hand page of the notebook. The right-hand page is left blank for the present, providing a space to include my action plan for completing any tasks involved with the items I noted on the left-hand side.

Often, when I am without my journal, I take a photo or record a plant in the ‘Notes’ on my cellphone. Once at home, I can transfer this information into my journal for later reference. I find it much more convenient to have all this information together in one place.

Because deer are regular visitors to my yard, my journal also includes a running list of the plants that (supposedly) deer will not eat. Obviously, those in my neighbourhood haven’t read the list as it continuously needs updating with deletions. Likewise, the rabbits have a favourite selection of flowers to take note of for future reference.

At the end of the season, I like to summarize my garden’s performance in my journal. What did I like or dislike? There may be perennials that I would transplant to a more appropriate location, or just choose to donate to a plant sale the next spring. There may be annuals I’d choose to purchase again, or not. There may be changes I want to make in the yard to lessen the annual maintenance or lower my garden-associated expenses. Once I’ve completed my summary, I can just put the journal back on the shelf and not worry about it.

Early in the new year, I enjoy sitting down with my garden journal to begin the planning process for the coming summer. Rather than relying on memory, I can simply read my notes from last year and create my shopping list. When you find yourself at Seedy Saturday and MMGA or community garden club plant sales, you’ll find it much easier to focus on what you want and perhaps refrain from purchasing more than you need.

Whichever kind of garden journal you choose, you and your garden will benefit from the knowledge recorded within.

North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook/Appendix A – Garden Journaling

Banner Image: Chiot’s Run, Flickr, CC By-NC 2.0 Deed

Master Gardeners at Ronald McDonald House

Master Gardeners at Ronald McDonald House

By Lynne McCarthy and Lisa Renner, Master Gardeners


Ronald McDonald House Charity (RMHC), 62 Juno Street in Winnipeg, is a home away from home for rural Manitobans and out-of-province families with a child requiring treatment at a nearby hospital.

On September 14, 2022, RMHC Manitoba and its supporters celebrated the grand opening of its new Ronald McDonald House facility.

Photo: RMHC. Ronald McDonald House volunteers, master gardeners Lisa Renner and Lynne McCarthy.

Some years ago, a Manitoba Master Gardener intern, who worked at the original Ronald McDonald House on Bannatyne Avenue, began the conversation about creating a container garden in the courtyard with the help of members of the MMGA. At this time, Co-chair Diana Dhaliwal and Volunteer Director Dawn Hicks visited the house to ensure that there was scope for a project that included an educational component.

We, Lisa Renner, at that time a newly transferred MG from Ontario, and Lynne McCarthy, an intern who met Lisa at their study group meetings, partnered for the project and have volunteered for the Ronald McDonald House project since it began in 2017.

Photo: Lisa Renner. Raised beds.

The project included growing vegetables in the raised garden bed that was developed and beautifying the small, shady space with annuals and herbs grown in containers in order to create a welcoming atmosphere for the families. At times we were able to offer an activity for the children, like sprouting beans in a glass jar or carving pumpkins. The work was largely done without a budget. Containers were either there or recycled, plants were donated by a nursery, fellow MGs, and ourselves. For additional, usually small expenses we were readily reimbursed.

Photo: Lisa Renner. Ronald McDonald House gardening containers.

With the opening of the new facility in 2022, the scope has evolved. The House itself is significantly larger, with more families, more volunteers, and more staff. The courtyard is also significantly larger with space for four raised beds, four distinct garden beds planted with low-maintenance shrubs and vines, a pergola that shades a seating area, and a large play area with a play structure.

Photo: Lisa Renner.
Ronald McDonald House planting day.

Our focus during the first season was on the raised beds which were planted in a square-foot manner with vegetables, herbs, and flowering plants. Occasional help was provided to ensure timely weeding of the garden beds to prevent the weed roots from growing through the landscape fabric

The season was wrapped up on October 23, 2023, a week before the first snowfall. A last harvest of curly and Italian parsley and pineapple sage was set out in the communal kitchen to be used as were our previous harvests of kohlrabi, snow peas, beans, basil, and cherry tomatoes.

We took inventory of successes and failures. One notable failure was the bush delicata squash which took up a lot of room and produced just a few fruit, whereas in Lisa’s garden, the plants grown from the same seed source carried ample fruit. The failure of fruit set, we concluded, was most likely due to a lack of pollinators in the area. We plan to improve this situation with the addition of pollinator-friendly plants in the gardens.

Photo: Lynne McCarthy. Snow peas.

While gardening, we have engaged with many of the families, staff, and volunteers who have an interest in learning about or already have expertise in gardening. These conversations allow for many cultural and educational exchanges which go both ways. As MGs, we learn about different uses of plants in other cultures such as the use of pineapple sage in chai tea. In return, we teach about good gardening practices and introduce easy-to-grow vegetables like kohlrabi and snow peas. Some of the conversations also led to new ideas for the next gardening season: among others, to include plants in the gardens that are significant to the indigenous community with the advice of the on-site Knowledge Keeper, and to consult with the staff responsible for meal planning for the house residents in choosing what vegetables and herbs to plant, particularly vegetables that can be served as healthy snacks.

Photo: Lynne McCarthy. Ronald McDonald House tomoto harvest.

Lynne and Lisa are excited to be part of this evolving project at RMDH. The staff is always supportive and open to new ideas and the exchange with families and their children heartwarming and rewarding. Every year we look forward to the new gardening season and the promises it holds.

What’s that on my flower?

What’s that on my flower?

A simple guide to bees and things that look like bees
By Betsy Thorsteinson

There are hundreds of species of bees, wasps, and flower flies, and often it is not easy to identify which is which when you see them on your flowers, but they all do an important job, and our world could not go on without them. This is a basic guide to tell them apart.


Wasps visit flowers for nectar, but unlike bees, who are pollen-eaters, wasps are hunters and eat other insects. The wasp and bee illustrated below were photographed in the middle of May, both seeking food from early-blooming plants in my garden. They both have four wings. The wasp is social and lives in a hive constructed of paper, and the bee is solitary and constructs its nest in the ground.

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Northern Paper Wasp, Polistes fuscatus
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson.  Mining Bee, Andrena sp.

So, what else makes them different? 


A very common bee in gardens is the western honeybee, Apis mellifera. These bees are often the first bees you will see in the spring, as they fly before many of the native bees emerge. They are medium-sized and often have orange colouring at the top of their abdomens, though some do not. They carry pollen in pollen baskets on their legs and can also be distinguished from similar wild bees because they fly with their legs down and at an angle. This habit is pretty distinctive and is an easy way to identify them as they buzz around your flowers.

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Western Honeybee, Apis mellifera, with orange band.
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Western Honeybee, Apis mellifera, without orange band.
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Western Honeybee with legs down.
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Wild bee (family Megachilidae) flying with legs tucked into her body.
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Western Honeybee with pollen basket.

Because they are out so early, western honeybees collect pollen from the flowers of Siberian squill. I found out that the plant has blue pollen when I photographed the bees!

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Western Honeybee with blue pollen of Siberian squill.

Bumblebees are everyone’s favourite: they are big and fuzzy and seem to defy the laws of aerodynamics when they fly. They are also notoriously difficult to identify, as they have many colour variations. The first bumblebees to fly in the spring are the queens, newly awakened after hibernation, and seeking food sources and nesting sites. You often see these big bees flying low in zigzag patterns searching for just the right site to start a new colony. As with honeybees, they have pollen baskets on their legs. There are a few bumblebees in Manitoba that I find are easy to identify.                                        

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Yellow-banded Bumblebee, Bombus terricola
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Yellow-banded Bumblebee.

This bumblebee is apparently declining in some of its range but is a regular visitor to my garden in spring.

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Tricoloured Bumblebee, Bombus ternarius
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Tricoloured Bumblebee.

This beautiful bumblebee is quite common in our area, and easily identified by the three colours on its abdomen: yellow, a bright orange band, yellow again, and then black. It also sports a distinctive teardrop-shaped black spot behind its head. 


As with bees, there are many species of flower flies. These are important pollinators, and they look like they might be bees, but they differ from bees in having two rather than four wings. (The European woolcarter bee in the photo below looks like it has two wings, but the dark bottom edge of its forewing is the hind wing hidden below it. When it flies, the smaller hindwing is attached to the forewing with a series of hooks.) All flies have two wings: in fact, their scientific name is Diptera, which means two-winged in Greek.

Flower flies also have short antennae, big forward-facing eyes, and thick waists, and they lack pollen-collecting hairs on their bodies or legs. They do not sting or bite, but they mimic the colours of insects that do.

Of all these features, I find that the short antennae and big eyes give them away as flies.

Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Flower Fly, Helophilus sp.  
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. European Woolcarder Bee, Anthidium manicatum
Photo: Betsy Thorsteinson. Bee from the family Megachilidae with its four wings spread and hooked.

Featured banner photo: Betsy Thorsteinson

Volunteering at Fort Whyte Alive

Volunteering at Fort Whyte Alive
By Judy Heppelle, Master Gardener

My volunteer role at Fort Whyte Alive (FWA) came about by chance. In 2010, I sat beside Jane Zoutman at one of the required classes for the Master Gardener (MG) designation. We started talking, Jane telling me about Fort Whyte and her various ‘jobs’ there. At the time, she had just finished cleaning out and revamping the two small garden ponds, “one heck of a smelly, messy job”. To learn more, read Jane’s “Building a Pond Garden.”

She asked me where I was volunteering. I said, “Nowhere, I just want to take these courses; they sound interesting.” She encouraged me to go talk to the volunteer coordinator at FWA. I did just that, had my interview, must have passed the muster, and started volunteering in the gardens the next summer.

There are dozens of volunteer opportunities at FWA – animal tracking with young students, canoeing, Bannock making, Goose Flight attendants in the fall, snowshoe trekking in the winter, and more, but gardening was what I wanted to do and what I did ­­– weeding, raking, mulching, trimming, pruning, and planting in the gardens and yard around the two main buildings, the Alloway Centre and the Interpretive Centre.

In 2016, Annette Bell (a long-time, 35-year volunteer), was cutting back on some of her responsibilities and asked me to take over the team responsible for the North Garden area. There are four garden teams at FWA: the North Garden team, the South Garden team, the Hill Garden team, and the native plant Solar Garden team. The Solar Garden team does not utilize generated solar power to grow plants; that garden sits in front of the bank of solar panels. What else would you call it? There was no Hill Garden or Solar Garden when I first started, and the North Garden was smaller then. The teams have evolved and developed over the years, and as most of the gardeners are at FWA only one day a week, it was less overwhelming and more practical to break up the space into separate teams. Each space has its own unique elements that the garden teams address, including sun/shade, new soil/older soil, and slope/flat challenges.

Besides dealing with what nature throws at us weatherwise including late springs, early frosts, drought, hail, windstorms, and invasive plants, there are animal invaders: rabbits and deer that will eat almost anything (as gardeners know), geese that pull out our newly planted annuals and perennials, and mink that hunt the ponds for frogs, minnows, and goldfish.

Renovations at FWA and regulations due to COVID made the last four summers especially challenging. During the entire summer and fall of 2019, the Interpretive Centre was a construction site. The gardens and building were cordoned off; there was no weeding or planting that summer.

Volunteers weeding North Garden. Photo: Judy Heppelle











Then came the COVID lockdown. There was no gardening in 2020, very little done in 2021, except for the occasional solitary soul pulling weeds occasionally, and then a slow return from the pandemic isolation in 2022. This last season of 2023, we were back to full force with a focus on returning the area to something that at least looked cared for. The most pressing and the toughest jobs were to remove, by any means possible, the Canada thistle, prairie sage, ground vetch, poplar tree shoots, and invasive honeysuckle bushes that had taken over everywhere.

Closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii). Photo: Judy Heppelle






It was amazing to find a small rose bush, blooming, hidden under all that unwanted vegetation; the closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii), blooming, and holding its own; betony (Stachys officinalis) sending up its spires of pink blossoms; and a small evergreen sending out new growth. We had survivors!

North Garden Pond. Photo: Judy Heppelle





Also, this year a new pump was bought for the North Pond; it worked so well (meaning that it kept its pressure and stayed clean all season) that the expiring pump in the South Pond will be replaced in 2024.
We have a lovely new garden shed with adequate room for all the tools of the trade, a new wheelbarrow, and several lengths of 100-foot hose enabling us to reach the farthest areas of previously inaccessible garden spots.

The Hill, devoid of its Canada thistles and most of its prairie sage. Photo: Judy Heppelle











Several dozen perennials were planted, including varieties of rudbeckia, echinacea, liatris, day lily, iris, ajuga, lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), and penstemon, to name a few. Native grasses and perennials were planted as well along with a few dozen shrubs with the hopes that in a few years they will be the backbone of the North Garden and the Hill. Also planted were ninebark, spireas, Rosa glauca, ‘Gro-low’ sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’), and various diervilla. Herbs, sunflowers, and flowering vines thrived in the large silver planters on the east side of the Interpretive Centre, offering a great source of touch, feel, and smell for visitors.

At FWA, as to be expected, the emphasis is on native plants and shrubs whenever possible, but not exclusively. Gardeners, more knowledgeable and studied than me, have published articles about the benefits of mixing native and non-native plants. If the plant is not invasive, is not a rabbit or deer favourite (think hosta), is enjoyed by pollinators or birds, and has at least two seasons of interesting leaf or colour effect, it’s in! And these plants must be tough. We don’t, we can’t, coddle the greenery at FWA.

Each team volunteers for only one day a week from late April into September. Our team is there Fridays, for no reason other than we’ve always gardened on Fridays. If there is more work to be done or a special project planned, then more hours are scheduled. If the project requires more than one team, we solicit help from the others.

As gardeners, we don’t formally have meetings and tours with the public but there are always kids and adults on their way to classes or events who will stop at the garden to ask questions about individual plants or shrubs. What is that plant? Is that fruit edible?

The South (east side) planters: marigolds, cosmos, vines, herbs, sunflowers, etc. Photo: Judy Heppelle








Fort Whyte has been a wonderful place to volunteer; the experience has been nothing but positive for me. As a team leader, I’ve had to constantly research what might work and what won’t work at FWA. There is some coordinating required including confirming start dates, updating volunteers on various plans, deciding what to purchase, shopping for sales as the season progresses, filling in spaces that cry out for a plant to replace the one we just put in last year that has since been eaten to the ground, discussing what to order for the following gardening season, and presenting next year’s budget to FWA management before year end.

There are Master Gardeners on all the gardening teams. Not all the volunteers are MGs but all of us enjoy gardening, have or had gardens of our own, and enjoy the friendships we’ve made at FWA.

We constantly get “looking good!” from individual staff and acknowledgements from management that we are a vitally important resource for FWA. It’s good to hear that our efforts are “greatly appreciated.”

P.S. One volunteer opportunity often leads to another. One of my team members, Lois MacLellan, an MG herself, is responsible for the grounds and gardens of Oakview Nursing Home on Ness Avenue. A few years back, she asked me if I would help her out there, so I now volunteer on Tuesdays (spring to fall) at Oakview.

The Apiaceae or Carrot Family: The Good, the Bad, and the Dangerous

The Apiaceae or Carrot Family: The Good, the Bad, and the Dangerous
By Linda Dietrick, Master Gardener
Eastern black swallowtail nectaring on catmint flowers. Photo: Linda Dietrick

I hope that, for most of you, finding an Eastern black swallowtail caterpillar on your dill or parsley or carrot tops is cause for joy. Within a few weeks, those greenish-yellow caterpillars with the black and yellow stripes will crawl away, pupate, and emerge as one of our most spectacular butterflies. With their black wings spotted yellow, orange, and blue, and the tailed hindwings that give them their name, they are unmistakeable.

Like most butterflies, black swallowtails have specific larval food needs – in this case, plants in the family Apiaceae or, to use the older family name, Umbelliferae. The latter name comes from the fact that most members of the family have umbel-shaped inflorescences, with flower stalks of nearly equal length arising from a common center and forming what looks like a flat umbrella. Think dill flowers. Many kinds of insects feed on these flowers. The foliage, however, contains toxic compounds called furanocoumarins that black swallowtail caterpillars have uniquely evolved to tolerate.

Young black swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley. Photo: Linda Dietrick

A large number of vegetables and herbs belong to the Apiaceae family and are therefore potential black swallowtail hosts. Most butterfly books and websites only give a partial list, so here is the most comprehensive one I could assemble: angelica, anise, caraway, carrots, celery, garden chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), cilantro, cumin, dill, fennel, lovage, parsley, parsnips, and sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata).



Black swallowtail caterpillar on a dill plant. Photo: Linda Dietrick

If you grow any of these in your garden, you might have visitors. The butterflies lay tiny, pearly white eggs individually on the host plants. After four to ten days, the young larvae hatch, at first brownish-black with a white band, then becoming lime green and striped as they eat and grow. One caterpillar can clean the foliage off a single parsley or dill plant, so be generous and grow enough for yourself and your visitors.

Other than American angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), which is native to eastern North America, all of these umbelliferous herbs and food plants were introduced to this continent by European settlers. So, you might well wonder what the black swallowtail larvae were eating before that. There are in fact a number of plants indigenous to Manitoba that also belong to the Apiaceae. Not all of them are suitable for gardens because of their toxicity to humans, as I’ll explain. But these three are excellent garden candidates:

Heartleaf Alexanders (Zizia aptera)

Yellow umbels in June provide pollen and nectar for early pollinators. Reaching 30-60 cm in height, they prefer sun or part shade and tolerate dry soil.

Black swallowtail caterpillar on golden Alexanders. Photo: Linda Dietrick

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)

With similar flowers, these are taller (60 cm) and prefer more moisture than heartleaf alexanders.




Aniseroot or long-styled sweet cicely in Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg Photo: Linda Dietrick

Anise root or long-styled sweet cicely (Osmorhiza longistylis)

Not to be confused with the non-native herb Myrrhis odorata, this is a woodland plant for a shady spot, about 60-90 cm. Dainty white umbels appear in June.




Common cow parsnip in Riding Mountain Park. Photo: hannerbanner via iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

In addition, you might consider growing common cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum syn. H. lanatum) as a statement plant reaching up to 2.5 or 3 metres. Lyndon Penner recommends it in his book Native Plants for the Short Season Yard on pages 99-100. It is a black swallowtail host and good for other pollinators. Lyndon doesn’t mention, however, that the furanocoumarins it contains can have an effect called phytophotodermatitis. If the sap gets on your skin and is then exposed to sunlight, it can produce serious burns, especially in sensitive individuals. As a matter of fact, the foliage of any of the Apiaceae, including food plants like carrots, can have this phototoxic effect, though apparently some are worse than others. As a precaution, wear gloves and sleeves when handling them, and wash clothing and skin after any exposure.

You may have heard of giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), an invasive non-native plant from Eurasia that is downright dangerous for its phototoxicity. It has not yet been found in Manitoba, where it is listed as a Tier 1 noxious weed (eradicate without conditions), but it could survive our winters. It is already a problem in Ontario and British Columbia. Kristin Pingatore, Selkirk District Weed Supervisor, tells me she has been getting calls from people who have spotted common cow parsnip and worry that it’s giant hogweed. They both have white flowers, but the latter is much bigger – up to 5.5 m tall (see for a photo).

Another non-native umbellifer that has become a weed is wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa). It is actually the same species as the domestic parsnip grown in gardens, but it has escaped to the wild and become widespread. Reaching 1-2 m in height with yellow umbels, it is moderately phototoxic. In Manitoba, it’s a Tier 3 weed, which means it must be controlled if it is likely to impact the economy, the environment, or human well-being in the area where it is growing. You can report big infestations to your local Manitoba Agriculture office. If you go hiking, in the same way you would avoid poison ivy, stay away from plants with umbels.

Returning to your garden: one of the best known ornamental umbellifers is the annual Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota). Essentially, it is wild carrot, from which our domestic carrots are descended, but I don’t recommend planting it. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a native wildflower, but a Eurasian species that has become invasive in many parts of North America. Another annual that is sold as Queen Anne’s lace is Ammi majus, which has a popular red cultivar called ‘Dara’. It too is non-native, but so far, it has not proven invasive. However, it is phototoxic and poisonous to dogs, cats, and humans if ingested, so plant it at your own risk.

Finally, if you have ever battled that invasive plague bishop’s goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria), you will know from the flowers that it is in the carrot family. However, it is not a host for black swallowtail caterpillars, nor is it an exclusive host for any other insects. It is starting to invade woodlands and parks in Manitoba. Declared invasive in Ontario and an “alert” species in Alberta, its sale is banned in several northern U.S. states. It is on the list of Canada’s Unwanted Invasive Plants prepared by the Canadian Council on Invasive Species. Don’t plant it, and if you have it in your yard, please get rid of it.

Good alternatives to goutweed include Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis – native), wild ginger (Asarum canadense – native), fleeceflower (Persicaria affinis), and barren strawberry (Waldsteinia ternata). Or plant some nice parsley for yourself and the swallowtails.

Central Kootenay Invasive Species Society: “Giant Hogweed” brochure.
Canadian Council on Invasive Species: “Canada’s Unwanted Invasive Plants.”
Lyndon Penner: Native Plants for the Short Season Yard. Brush Education, 2016.
“Phytophotodermatitis.” Wikipedia article.
Manitoba Agriculture: “Look But Don’t Touch: Poisonous Plants of the Carrot Family” brochure.
“Goutweed,” iNaturalist taxon guide.

“Growing under Cover” with Niki Jabbour

“Growing under Cover” with Niki Jabbour

MMGA Presentation on Saturday, March 23, 2024
11:00 am CST via Zoom

Tickets available on our website in the new year
Members $10, non-members $15
Watch for registration information on our home page

Join award-winning author Niki Jabbour as she shares her techniques for growing more food, reducing pest problems, and dealing with unpredictable weather in her Nova Scotia vegetable garden. With the special challenges of Manitoba’s climate in mind, she’ll spotlight a wide variety of season extenders like shade cloth, row cover, cold frames, and polytunnels, as well as show you how to use garden covers to prevent damage from deer, flea beetles, and cabbage worms. She’ll also share some of her stand-out crops and varieties for fall and even winter harvesting.

Niki Jabbour
About Niki Jabbour

Niki Jabbour is the best-selling, award-winning author of four books including The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener and Growing Under Cover. She’s a two-time winner of the prestigious American Horticultural Society Book Award, and has been a radio host for 16 years. Find Niki on

Growing Calendula officinalis for Year-round Sunshine

Growing Calendula officinalis for Year-round Sunshine

By Emily Glover, Master Gardener Intern

You will always find Calendula officinalis growing in my garden. I included calendula in my first garden on a whim without realizing it would become one of my favourite plants of all time.

I love a little chaos in my garden so I let it self-sow wherever it pleases — little canary yellow, tangerine, and amber stars haphazardly settled between the tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans in my vegetable plot.

Calendula is a powerhouse plant in both the garden and home and can be beneficial in your life even outside of our short growing season.

In the garden

Calendula. Photo: Emily Glover

Calendula, sometimes referred to as its less glamorous common name pot marigold, is a member of the Asteraceae family. Despite the name, calendula is not the same as the other common garden plant marigold (Tagetes spp.) It has a long history of cultivation, going back to at least the 12th century. Because of this, its exact origins are unknown but are believed to be southern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.

In zone 3, you can expect self-sowed calendula to start popping up sometime in mid-spring with blooms in full effect from July to as late as October, depending on the weather. Calendula is easy to start indoors and transplant if you’re eager for earlier blooms.

It is an incredibly easy to grow annual and can tolerate many growing conditions but prefers well drained soil in a sunny or partly shaded location. Volunteer seedlings that show up where you don’t want them can be transplanted throughout your garden spaces or into pots.

Calendula. Photo: Emily Glover

Regular deadheading encourages consistent flowering throughout the summer; however, I pluck about half of the heads in their prime to dry and use throughout the rest of the year. I always make sure to let several heads from each plant go to seed in preparation for the next growing season. Despite calendula’s tendency to drop seeds, it isn’t considered an invasive plant and will generally stick around the area where it was originally planted.

Not only does calendula offer stunning colour for the entire season, it’s also a trap crop. A trap crop, sometimes referred to as a sacrificial crop, is a plant that attracts pest insects to keep them away from your more valued plants. Aphids happen to love the resin calendula produces, which gives the added benefit of attracting lady bugs.

Lady bugs aren’t the only beneficial insect that will show up because of calendula. Bees and butterflies also love the brightly colored blooms, making it a great companion plant in your garden.

In the home

Calendula’s petals and leaves are edible. The leaves make a great addition to salads and the petals can be used to add a pop of colour to just about any dish. In the past, calendula has been referred to as “poor man’s saffron,” helping to add colour and even flavour into things like butter and cheese.

Calendula has been well known for its medicinal properties since at least the 12th century. In fact, the officinalis in its scientific name denotes plants and herbs that have use in medicine. In the distant past, it has been used to treat various ailments such as upset stomach and menstrual cramps. There is little scientific evidence that taking calendula solves these issues; however, it is still a common ingredient in some homeopathic treatments.

Today, it is most often used topically to treat skin problems. Calendula produces a resin that has been shown to reduce wound healing time. You’ll find calendula in many commercially available skincare products, but it is easy to incorporate your home-grown plants into your routine with just a few ingredients.

I personally collect the heads of the flower to dry them for a skin healing salve. I simply infuse oil with the dried flower heads for several weeks and then slowly melt beeswax into the oil to create a balm that is perfect for dry skin and that helps to heal basic wounds like scratches and irritations. I’ve gotten positive reports from friends who have used my homemade balm on irritated new tattoos and eczema spots.

You should always check with your doctor before using any herbs that may be a contraindication to medications you are taking or will affect any allergies you have.


In spiritual practices, calendula is associated with the sun, light, and fire and is commonly used as an offering to the gods of those elements.

Calendula has been used by many ancient societies in both culinary and medicinal ways. In the Middle Ages, it became popular with Europeans who nicknamed it “Mary-Gold,” dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which is possibly where the common name pot marigold came from.

It is often included during winter solstice celebrations as a reminder of the return of the sun and light. In magical and witchcraft circles, calendula is used in spells for prosperity, luck, love, dreams, truth, and confidence. Garlands of calendula hung in doorways are thought to ward off back luck and energies.

Calendula officinalis’s long and varied history of use in all areas of life highlights its powerful nature. For those many reasons, along with how easy it is to grow, I’ll never stop singing the praises of it and encourage all garden lovers to give it a chance!


‘Planet Soil’ Film Review

Planet Soil Film Review
By Darlene Belton, Master Gardener

On November 18, a sell-out audience of privileged gardeners and friends participated in the premiere showing in Canada of the internationally acclaimed, award-winning documentary, Planet Soil. Filmed in the Netherlands, the 77-minute film explores the intricate connections linking the staggeringly abundant life beneath the soil with that above to create and sustain the mysterious systems of our living planet.

The journey of Planet Soil to Winnipeg’s Cinematheque theatre began with the team of dedicated filmmakers who created Planet Soil, leading to an August 19, 2023 Winnipeg Free Press review article by MMGA co-founder and journalist Colleen Zacharias, who described the extraordinary filming innovations that brought microscopic soil creatures to the big screen. Colleen’s article spurred Sophie Munro of the Charleswood Garden Club to email her extensive gardening network to stimulate interest in bringing the film to Manitoba. Two horticultural organizations responded – the Manitoba Horticultural Association (MHA) and the Manitoba Master Gardener Association (MMGA). Contact was made with the filmmakers, Mark Verkerk and Ignas van Schaik, who were pleased to hear of our local interest. Plans took off rapidly and the two organizations co-hosted this event so important for the knowledge base of all gardeners.

Besides revealing miraculous soil life never before seen in this intensity on screen, the film is beautiful. Brilliant use of time-lapse photography shows us the lace-like explosion of fungal growth over four to five months in seconds as the narrative explains how mazes of threadlike microscopic fungal hyphae permeate the soil to find nutrients to bring to plant roots in exchange for the sugars from photosynthesis that fungi need to survive but cannot produce themselves. We watch as the excretions of earthworms and nematodes lubricate the soil as they burrow to help create aggregates that allow for the passage of water and air to sustain smaller life forms. We see a mole blindly tunneling to find earthworms and soil-dwelling insects as it plays out its role in the soil food web. And we see more, much more.

Probably as important as the extraordinary cinematography, the film offers hope, hope that is so needed in our climate-stressed era. We see some regenerative projects in Europe that utilize this emerging science-based knowledge of living soil as the very foundation of all land-based life. The projects often involve children who learn to appreciate, not fear, the soil’s unfamiliar or strange-looking small creatures.

For those who missed the inaugural screening and due to the acclaim of viewers, another showing will be hosted by the MMGA and the MHA on Saturday, February 3rd, 2024, at 12:00 noon, also at the Cinematheque theatre (tickets available via the MMGA and MHA websites in early January). Like the first event, this showing will be followed by a Zoom Q&A with Mark Verkerk, director of Planet Soil.

The Zoom Q&A at the November viewing was a surprise for me – and was a significant bonus, showing that our Covid lockdown years managing Zoom meetings were not wasted. As I had to leave early, MMGA member Lisa Renner took notes for me from the Q&A, referred to below.

Highlights of the live Q&A session with Mark Verkerk

Explaining that he was not a biologist, Mark responded to the first question that the film missed aspects of the complex relationship of the soil, air, and water, by saying that Planet Soil’s goal was intended to be a first level, graphically visual introduction to present how significantly below-ground activity impacts life above ground. He added that there could be 100 more films made on this topic. Mark described the technical challenges of capturing the enormous range of soil creatures, from earthworms to bacteria, and then demonstrating their interrelationships. Microscopes and a specially developed lens system created depth for the colourful three-dimensional shots.

Electron microscopes were not used, Mark said, because this requires organisms to be killed and their intention was to represent live interactions. The filmmakers showed admirable respect for their small subjects. For example, fresh soil plugs were placed in containers with holes to permit filming, then the soil and its living contents were returned to the exact extraction sites.

Special methodology was used to keep fungi alive and its growth filmable over the three-to-four-month period of its beautiful, intricate expansion to present in mere seconds through time lapse photography. Recordings of the ‘sound of soil’ were done by musician and recording artist Cosmo Sheldrake. The captured sounds, mostly beyond unassisted human hearing, are increasingly tapped into by scientists to assess levels of soil biodiversity.

MMGA emeritus member Lenore Linton captured the sentiments of many in the audience with her heartfelt thank you to Mark and the film team for always relating what happens below ground to its impact above ground, plus, among much else, to our duty as gardeners ‘to give back’ when we take from the earth. She referred to the scene where beet leaves were left on the ground to nurture the soil, adding that she even eats the beet leaves!

To this remark, Director Mark Verkerk generously replied, “But if you are composting, you are giving back.”

“Leaf” It in the Garden

“Leaf” It in the Garden

Using leaves and leaf mulch in your garden

By Virginia Stephenson, Master Gardener
PHOTO: V. Stephenson. Leaf mulch as a natural uniform ground cover.

Traditionally, when fall rolls around we grab up our rakes and leaf bags, gather up all of our leaves, and dispose of them. But if you have a look at nature, where resources tend not to be wasted, you will see all the leaves lying in a carpet on the forest floor. This carpet of leaves protects young and tender plants during winter, provides food and shelter to small creatures, and eventually returns nutrients to the soil as the leaves decompose. Leaves and leaf mulch can do all these things in your garden, and more.

What is leaf mulch?

Leaf mulch is nothing more than leaves chopped up and possibly mixed with some grass clippings or other plant material. The easiest way to produce leaf mulch is with your lawn mower. Instead of raking up your leaves, collect them with your lawn mower, bagging them as you go, and, presto, you have leaf mulch.

Why mulch your leaves instead of leaving them whole as they are in the forest?

When you mulch your leaves, they become much denser and take up less space if you are storing them for later use. Mulch is easier to handle and spread in the garden and provides a more compact and uniform cover than whole leaves. As the leaves are already cut into small pieces, they decompose more quickly, returning their nutrients to the soil sooner than they would if they were whole.

When would I use whole leaves and when would I use leaf mulch?

If and when you mulch your leaves will depend on when and for what purpose you are using them.

If you are covering your garden perennials with leaves for protection in winter, you may wish to use whole leaves, as they will provide a looser cover, which will allow air to circulate, and make it easier for the plants to push through in spring. If you have access to oak leaves, they are excellent for this purpose, as they are quite fibrous and do not break down easily. They are therefore less likely to become a sodden mass weighing down your plants, making it difficult for them to emerge. When I have covered my perennials with leaves in the fall, I will often go out in the spring when it is getting warmer and the plants are ready to emerge and pull the leaf cover off the plants, so that the heat and light of the sun can reach them. I will, however, leave a wall of leaves around them, and possibly a few dry oak leaves partially covering them, to protect the emerging plants from any late frost.

If you wish to use your leaves as an organic fertilizer and benefit from their nutrients, then mulch them in the fall and spread them over your garden beds. In vegetable gardens or annual flower beds, they can then be gently incorporated into the top few centimetres of soil when you prepare it for planting in the spring. You can also pull back the mulch to create seed rows or openings for seedlings and leave the mulch on the surface of the surrounding soil. In perennial beds or shrub borders, spread the mulch around the plants and simply leave it there to decompose.

If you are interested in providing food and shelter for the small creatures in your garden, then use whole leaves to create a loose layer of leaf litter in your garden beds. Birds, small mammals, amphibians, and insects will all enjoy and benefit from this leaf litter.

PHOTO: V. Stephenson. Leaf mulch in foundation beds.

In my garden, I use both whole leaves and leaf mulch. In the fall, I gather the whole leaves from my lawn and spread them over my flower beds for winter protection. In the spring, when the garden is emerging (perennials), or ready to be planted (annuals), I remove the layer of leaf litter and run it through the lawn mower to create leaf mulch. The leaf mulch is then returned to the garden to cover the soil around the plants.

Note that the mulch should not be touching nor piled against the plant stems, as this may keep them too moist and cause them to mildew or rot.

What are the benefits of using leaf mulch in my garden?

Using leaf mulch to cover the soil around the plants in your garden beds has a variety of benefits both practical and aesthetic.

PHOTO: V. Stephenson. Leaves at the base of clematis to keep the roots cool.

Soil moisture: Leaf mulch will help to retain moisture in the soil. By protecting the surface of the soil from direct sunlight and exposure to hot dry air, you can reduce moisture loss from evaporation, keeping more moisture in the soil for longer periods. This retention of moisture can provide a variety of benefits to you as a gardener:

  • By retaining moisture, the mulch helps ensure that more of the water that you put in your garden goes into your plants. As a result, you may find that you need to water less often and can save money on water over the course of the summer.
  • We all know that the soil in containers tends to dry out very quickly and needs constant watering. Lyndon Penner, the head gardener at Riding Mountain National Park, is a big fan of mulch, and recommends using it in all your containers. A good layer of leaf mulch on the soil in your containers can help to keep the soil cooler and moister than if it was bare soil.
  • Some plants, like clematis, need to have their roots in cool soil and others, like astilbe, do best in moist soil. A layer of leaf mulch around these plants can provide these conditions and help them thrive.
  • The soil under the mulch stays soft and moist, which makes it much easier to dig and plant in than bare soil which has dried out and hardened.
  • Our clay-based soils are very prone to surface drying and cracking. The mulch layer covering the soil surface and protecting it from drying can help to prevent soil cracking.
  • Our clay soils, as they dry, are also prone to shrinkage with the result that in hot, dry weather the soil may pull away from your foundations. A thick layer of mulch in any garden bed against your foundations can help to keep the moisture in the soil and help prevent the deep drying which results in the soil pulling away from the foundations. Note that you do have to put the moisture in to start with and you should water your foundations in hot dry weather.

Weeds: Mulch will help to keep the weeds down by preventing weed seeds from touching the soil and germinating, and by keeping weed sprouts covered so they don’t get sun.

Fertilizer: Leaf mulch is an organic fertilizer, which will return nutrients to the soil. It is free, readily available, and easy to use.

Backsplash: A layer of leaf mulch on the soil around your plants can prevent mud from splashing up onto your plants during watering. This is a plus in terms of aesthetics and can also help to prevent the plants from being infected by soil-born fungi.

Aesthetics: Aside from preventing unsightly cracked soil, a layer of leaf mulch can provide a uniform and finished but natural look to your garden. It does not draw attention away from your plants to itself as some commercial mulch may. Empty areas between plants also look more natural and do not look as empty as bare soil tends to.

Are there cautions or counter indications for using leaf mulch?

Dust: Working with leaf mulch can be quite dusty, so you might want to wear a mask when bagging or spreading it, especially if you have respiratory issues.

Soggy leaves: Tree leaves are the best source for leaf mulch. Avoid using plant leaves which break down and become soggy after being frozen, as these can weigh down your plants or may cause them to rot.

Diseased or infested leaves: If your leaf source is diseased or infested with fungus or insects, avoid using these leaves to make leaf mulch, as you do not want to infect other areas or plants in your garden.

Grass clippings: If you gather and mulch your leaves using a lawn mower you are likely to have some grass clippings mixed in your mulch. This is not a problem if you let the grass clippings dry before bagging the mulch, as you do not want them composting in the bag. Avoid adding extra grass clippings, as too much grass can form a solid mat on your soil surface which can repel water and make it hard to get the water into the soil.

Wet soil conditions: If your soil is very wet in the spring, you may want to let it dry out somewhat before applying your mulch. The point of the mulch is to keep the moisture in the soil, but there is such a thing as too much moisture, which can be harmful to plants.

No leaves: If you do not have trees and leaves of your own, ask a friend or neighbour, who will probably happily donate as many leaves as you want from their spring or fall cleanup.

So, give it a go. Don’t throw away your leaves and see what leaves and leaf mulch can do for your gardening efforts.

FEATURED PHOTO: V. Stephenson.