Do you know how many plant hardiness zones Alberta gardeners contend with? What about drought, winds and wild temperature fluctuations across the prairies? There's no shortage of gardening books on the market, but there are relatively few that address prairie-centric issues; things like chinooks, soil erosion, freeze/thaw cycles, hail damage and short growing seasons.
With the newly-released Guides for the Prairie Gardener series, thin volumes of Q and A on specific themes, Calgary writers and long-time gardeners Sheryl Normandeau and Janet Melrose aim to fix that, answering prairie-focused queries like 'Can the garden come back from hail damage?' or 'Where's the best spot in the garden for tomato seedlings?'
"We want the books to sound and feel like it's just Sheryl and I having a conversation--approachable and easy to reference and carry out to the garden with your bucket and trowel," said Melrose, who is also known as Calgary's Cottage Gardener but started her love affair with the land while growing up in Trinidad. "There's no time off from the garden there. I think that's why we love house plants here--it's a way to keep that interaction going with nature even during the cold months."
Kicking off the series, The Prairie Gardener’s Go-To for Seeds and The Prairie Gardener’s Go-To for Small Spaces are joined by two other go-to books on Vegetables and Pests & Diseases. Another two volumes will come out next year, on soils and trees and shrubs.
"We're blessed with six biomes in Alberta; (grassland, parkland, foothills, boreal forest, Rocky mountains and Canadian Shield) in hardiness zones ranging from about 1a to 4b. That creates a huge range of conditions. And Manitoba/Saskatchewan issues are sometimes different again," said Normandeau, a Calgary freelance writer, volunteer and urban gardening advocate. Though she lives in an apartment and does edible small space/container gardening on her own balcony--think carrots, beans, tomatoes, herbs and greens--Normandeau is also big on community plots and--through her work with the Alberta Gardening Facebook group--she sees the explosion of interest and questions gardeners grapple with time and again.
"The Facebook group went from 9,000 members to 50,000 during the pandemic," she said. "People want to be self-sufficient; they want food security and they're also looking for activities to do at home. Though there are so many new gardeners now, people do keep coming back to weather-related issues, or about transplants--what seeds can be sown directly and when, what is hardening off, how to deal with insects and pests? People aren't always able to Google answers applicable to our prairie climate, so our books' easy-to-read format makes the information relevant and accessible."
As a gardening consultant and practitioner of horticultural therapy, Melrose regularly works with individuals and groups on how to grow things, yes, but also on the bigger concepts of self-reliance and reconnecting with nature. She says gardening addresses our physical, emotional, social and spiritual sides, offering a sense of accomplishment for those who take care of, harvest and eat their efforts.
"This is something I've been doing for 25 years now, and the world is catching up. For me, the connection is in my blood going back generations to my grandfather the potato farmer and a long line of English gardeners," Melrose said. "But you can't take away without giving something back to the soil. That's a passion of mine, teaching how to invite nature into our backyards, understanding what grows well here and honouring that."
Melrose, currently acting president of the Master Gardeners Association of Alberta, adds gardeners shouldn't stress out about what plants succeed or fail, but rather to enjoy the always changing experience that is gardening.
"Things don't always work out in the containers on my balcony either," added Normandeau, who holds a Prairie Horticulture Certificate and a Sustainable Urban Agriculture Certificate.
Look for Normandeau and/or Melrose on social media too. The AMA's Good to Grow Facebook page regularly reaches out to the pair, and an ongoing Facebook Live series with series publisher TouchWood Editions features episodes with the authors.