Gardening guru shares his wisdom

  • Jan. 12, 2009 4:00 p.m.

By Eric O’Higgins-When Bill Mackay moved to Tlell 30 years ago he had a purple thumb – nothing would grow for him although he had just left a wonderful gardening guru in the Lower Mainland. It took years of trial and error and careful observation to learn his own Charlottes gardening secrets and now it’s his turn to be the guru.Saturday afternoon he talked turkey – including the joys of chicken manure – to 60 of the 100 members of the Islands Food group gathered at the Queen Charlotte Legion.Beginning with a historical survey of growing crops in Haida Gwaii, Mr. Mackay explained the early successes when most of Graham Island was divided into farms. Lawn Hill, now well-treed, was actually like a lawn in the 19th century after fire had swept from North Beach to the outskirts of Queen Charlotte. Soils were enriched for a few years by a layer of ash. The layer of charcoal from the fires can still be found today, Mr. Mackay said, as deep as eight inches in the hollows of the dunes.There are lots of nutrients for your plants in wood ash. (Somebody asked, Mr. Mackay answered.) The burned-up rotting woody litter could no longer soak up all the available nitrogen, which was another of his themes.It’s Mr. Mackay’s view that organically rich and fertile soil means healthy plants without much need for purchased chemical aids. The exception to that is something to sweeten our acid soils from a pH of perhaps 4.5, so low a number that most gardening books don’t even consider it. Powdered lime is pretty harsh stuff, he warned, just ‘cooked’ limestone. He recommended dolomite ground limestone. The bigger the particles, the longer the benefit will last.Clam shells? he was asked. Sure thing, and ground up crab shells from the plant in Masset would be even better.He suggested looking for some indicator plants: Sorrel likes the soil sour, for example, and is replaced by lamb’s quarters as the pH increases. Different grasses grow inside the dripline of nitrogen-fixing alder trees.In his early days when nothing grew, Mr. Mackay said, he stopped getting his seed from the prairie vendors who selected for the deep heat of prairie summers. When he ordered from an English company he got varieties intended for cool and misty conditions and immediately did much better. That was then and this is now when West Coast seed houses have the appropriate varieties listed.He handed around samples of Haida potatoes from his own supply, noting that they go back at least to 1835 and perhaps much earlier, even pre-contact. Flavor and texture came in for praise, as did suitability for this climate. Keeping them over the winter needs complete darkness, moist conditions and temperatures just above freezing. Mr. Mackay suggested keeping them in the ground until wanted, perhaps hilling up a little to avoid freezing the shallow tubers in a cold snap. Freezing turns them mushy.There were lots of hints for every interest among the Food Group people, who are a loose coalition of home gardeners, community gardeners, farmers and food supply activists. Mr. Mackay was kept fielding questions for two-and-half hours and was still going strong after people had started leaving to beat the darkness; a true enthusiast and glad to share. It’s the enthusiasm that keeps you young.

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