Archive for April, 2014

Walk on the Wild Side: Amber Westfall’s Wild Garden aims to reconnect people and plants

Monday, April 28th, 2014

Weeds: they’re eye sores, right? Problem bits of green that blemish lawns and run riot in food and flower gardens.

Photo: Courtesy of Amber Westfall

All photos courtesy of Amber Westfall

Not so for Amber Westfall. An experienced forager, wild crafter and owner of a wild food and herb CSA farm called The Wild Garden, Amber regards everything from plantain to stinging nettles as valuable sources of food and natural medicine. “Wild plants extend the food season so we don’t have to rely on traditional crops with shorter life spans,” she says. “Learning about wild edibles and medicinal plants has really changed how I think about the environment. What I used to see as random greenery now stands out because I know it has an important role to play in the ecosystem.”

Besides growing wild edible and medicinal plants for her CSA members, she leads plant walks and workshops. This year, she’s offering a 10-session course that will include the basics of plant identification, harvesting, and post-harvest handling and processing.

Amber sat down with Earthward a few weeks ago to talk about her workshops, her farm and her love of the wild plant world.

How did you get interested in foraging and wild crafting?

I’d been dabbling in natural approaches to health since about 2005. At the same time, I was becoming concerned about the depletion of the planet’s natural resources and our tendency as a species to over-consume. To reduce my own footprint, I decided to start eating locally but there weren’t a lot of options for that at the grocery store. The more I learned, the more I realized that wild foods offered the variety I wanted, extended the season for fresh produce and offered a more natural and sustainable approach to health care. I was hooked.

How did The Wild Garden come into being?

I took a wild edible plant course with Ottawa educator and naturalist Martha Webber and did an apprenticeship near Wakefield. In the process, I began accumulating more plants than I could consume and wondered if I could turn my new-found passion into a livelihood. For a few years, I held workshops and led walks on wild edibles. Then, last year, I was thrilled to be able to launch The Wild Garden, stewarding a quarter-acre of land on the Just Food Start-up Farm.


Tell me more about The Wild Garden CSA.

It’s an herbal CSA, which is a relatively new type of CSA in Canada but has caught on in the U.S. The goal of an herbal-focused CSA is to take subscribers into herbal healing, wellness and learning.

Members can build their supplies of medicinal plants, support local organic agriculture (I’m in the process of getting organic certification for The Wild Garden), eat more nutrient-dense wild foods, and learn about wild plants that grow in the greater Ottawa bio-region. They also benefit from free Wild Garden walks and workshops.

Can you describe what a typical delivery from The Wild Garden contains?

Members receive quarterly deliveries which include herbs for infusion, dried tea blends, herb-infused honey and vinegar, wild seasoning blends, wild food preserves, herbal liqueurs and more.

What does it cost to be a member?

The spring (April to June) CSA is available in 2 versions: the large CSA costs $225 (6 products a month for 3 months), the small CSA costs $160 for 4 products a month for three months. Both are sold out!

Tell me about the walks and workshops you offer.

This year, my plant walks will be set up more like a course, with 10 classes over four months. Classes can be taken individually but will build on previous classes and cover themes and content in more depth.

By the end of the course, participants will have the knowledge and skills to recognize more than 45,000 species of plants by family, as well as to correctly identify many local, edible and medicinal plants and incorporate them into their daily lives. They’ll also learn about harvesting plants in a beneficial way for the environment, and about post-harvest handling, processing and storage.

What kinds of wild plants would people be surprised to learn are edible or medicinal?

Dandelion, for example, is a culinary vegetable in the Middle East. The stinging nettle’s early spring growth contains iron, vitamins and minerals and makes a tasty soup once the prickles have been removed by crushing or drying the plant. The early shoots of the common orange daylily can be used as salad greens and the plant’s tuber tastes like water chestnut.

Many local plants can be used to support health.  Red clover and raspberry leaf make nourishing teas, elderberry is effective against H1N1 flu, plantain and calendula make good salves for cuts and bites, and camomile, blue vervain and cat nip are good for stress.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

It’s such a joy learning about plants. We’re connected to them – and to the environment in general — in a deep, transformative way. I feel honoured to work with plants and to send them out into the community which can then benefit from them.

Amber Westfall’s 2014 Wild Edible & Medicinal Plant Course begins May 7. Register online for 10 ($165) or five ($85) classes. 

Have you ever foraged for wild food? Share your experiences.

Cultivate your food gardening skills with these spring workshops and seminars

Friday, April 18th, 2014
Photo by Hazel Owen (via Flickr)

Photo by Hazel Owen (via Flickr)

Spring in Ottawa brings a feast of workshops, seminars and other food and farm-related events, all geared to getting people to start growing their own food or thinking about it. The events run the gamut from vegetable gardening and tree propagation to seed-saving and food security.

Here’s a sample of what’s happening over the next few weeks.

Food gardening

  • Beginner organic vegetable gardening workshops

This Just Food workshop is designed for the total novice and presented by David Hinks, from Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton. Choose from 3 different dates and locations.

When &               Wednesday April 23, 6-8 p.m.

where:                 Dempsey Community Centre, 1895 Russell Rd.

Monday May 5, 6-8 p.m.

Lowertown Community Resource Centre, 40 Cobourg St.

Wednesday May 21, 6-8 p.m.

Eastern Ottawa Resource Centre, 2339 Ogilvie

Cost:                      $5.00 or pay what you can

Register:              e-mail or call 613-699-6850 (x12) to reserve a spot on your preferred date

  • Organic Gardening in the City seminars

Put on by Canadian Organic Growers, upcoming seminars include:

Designing an Urban Organic Garden to Support Pollinators, Pest Eaters, and Pest Deterrents, April 22

Prolonging and Winterizing an Organic Garden/Herbs & Edible Flowers, April 29

When:                  7-9 p.m. (both seminars)

Where:                Ottawa City Hall, Colonel By Room, 110 Laurier St. W

Cost:                     $20 per adult; $14 per seminar for seniors and students with valid photo ID. Register for 6 or more and get 1 free

  • Permaculture workshops & courses

Permaculture refers to ecological design principles that can be applied to agricultural, architectural and other systems. In terms of food production, permaculture is often associated with food forests that mimic natural ecosystems and integrate multiple layers such as trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, cover crops, green manure, root crops and vines. The Permaculture Institute of Eastern Ontario delivers a variety of workshops on permaculture design, including:

Design: Your Life and The Outer Landscape (April 26) and Ecological Design & Gardening: Introduction to Permaculture (May 31, June 1).

Visit for more information on prices and registration.

  • Urban fruit and nut tree propagation workshop

Learn about the abundance of food that hardy fruit and nut trees provide and how you can grow them here.

When:                  May 3, 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.

Where:                Ecclesiax Church, 2 Monk Street

Cost:                     $65 – $125


  • Wild edible and medicinal plant course

Amber Westfall of The Wild Garden has been leading plant walks and workshops for several years. In 2014, she’s introducing a 10-class program, spread out over four months. Classes can be taken individually but are structured to build on one another.

Each session contains a short theory portion, learning activities, and hands-on experience with a select group of plants. By the end of the course, you’ll have the knowledge and skills to recognize more than 45,000 species of plants by family, correctly ID dozens of local, edible and medicinal plants, and more.

When:                  10 Wednesdays and Saturdays, May 7-Sept 6

Where:                 Various Ottawa South locations, and Amber’s CSA at the Just Food Farm, 2389 Pepin Court, Ottawa

Cost:                    $165 for 10 classes, $85 for 5 classes


Food security

  • Back to Our Roots: Parkdale Food Centre Gala

Support the work of the Parkdale Food Centre while enjoying delicious food and drinks courtesy of  the Urban Element, The Merry Dairy, Stone Soup Foodworks, Supply & Demand, Beyond the Pale and Stratus Vineyards. Each ticket includes three complementary drinks, with a cash bar also available for the duration of the event as well. The event will also feature a silent auction and live music.

Tickets are limited, so don’t delay if you’d like to attend!

When:                  May 1, 6:30 – 9:30 p.m.

Where:                Urban Element, 424 Parkdale Ave

Cost:                     $150 (with a $65 tax receipt)


Seeds and seeding saving

  • Seed justice: A talk with Tesling Andrews of Aster Lane Edibles

Presented by Transition Ottawa, this talk by Telsing Andrews of Aster Lane Edibles will cover the different reproductive strategies of plants, germination requirements of seeds, plant selection, and ways to share your seeds including swaps, seed libraries and public domain plant breeding.

When:                  April 30, 7-9 p.m.

Where:                Jack Purcell Community Centre, Room 201, 320 Jack Purcell Ln.

Cost:                     Free; donations are encouraged and go towards room rental fees, guest speakers, and other Transition Ottawa initiatives.


  • Seed-saving workshop for farmers and serious gardeners

Learn about the benefits of seed saving, selecting seed crops and varieties, how to plant and produce crops for seed, when and how to harvest, seed cleaning and storage, and record-keeping. The workshop will focus on producing peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and brassica greens for seed and is part of Just Food’s new regional seed bank program being developed in partnership with Seeds of Diversity. The workshop will be facilitated by Greta Kryger of Greta’s Organic Gardens which specializes in certified organic, open-pollinated, heritage varieties of vegetable seed.

When:                  April 28, 6-9 p.m.

Where:                Just Food Farm, 2389 Pepin Court, Ottawa

Cost:                     $30 (payable at the door)

To register:       Contact or 613-699-6850 (x15)


Starting a farm business

  • Is starting an agricultural business right for you?

The course is designed to help aspiring farmers learn what is involved in starting and managing their own farm business and also looks at other possibilities to participate in agriculture. Course content reflects agricultural trends and opportunities in the Ottawa region.

When:                  Course is held over 4 Wednesday evenings: May 14 and 28, and June 11 and 25. All sessions run from 6 to 9 p.m. and cover different content.

Where:                 Just Food Farm, 2389 Pepin Court, Ottawa

Cost:                      $225 (includes manual and visit to an area farm. Reduced cost for a second person from the same potential farm).  Pay when you register.

To register:       Contact Leela at or 613-699-6850 x15



What food will you grow in your backyard or on your deck this year?

Why a diverse local seed supply is key to a secure food system

Friday, April 11th, 2014
Photo: peppergrass (via Flickr)

Photo: peppergrass (via Flickr)

Having reliable access to local foods, in Ottawa or anywhere else, depends on the ability to cultivate crops from a wide variety of seeds grown in the region and adapted to its soils and climate.

The problem is that the genetic diversity of seed is declining worldwide, thanks to industrial farming and industrial seed production. For example, in Canada, we now rely on four plant species (wheat, maize, rice and potato) for nearly two-thirds of the calories we eat.

According to National Geographic, in the early 19th century, 302 varieties of sweet corn were grown in the U.S.  By 1983, there were just 12. Over the same period, the 408 varieties of tomato, 497 types of lettuce and 341 strains of squash available for cultivation dwindled to 79, 36 and 40, respectively.

“About 75% of the world’s crop diversity has disappeared,” says Aabir Dey of the Everdale Organic Farm and Environmental Learning Centre and Ontario’s regional coordinator for the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security. “Of the remaining 25%, only 10% are available to farmers.”

Industrial agriculture has also eroded the age-old practice of saving, exchanging and passing on ecologically grown seed – a practice that’s essential to conserving varieties that thrive in local conditions.

If we want a secure, resilient food supply that’s able to withstand climate change, Dey insists, we need to nourish local seed capability.

Seed diversity under pressure

Many factors are taking a toll on local, national and global seed supplies:

  • a handful of companies dominates global seed production, producing high volumes of uniform seed for a narrow range of crops and crop varieties
  • 95% of the seeds that produce Canada’s major food crops are bred for uniformity
  • most vegetable seeds that Canadian farmers buy have not been bred for our soils or climates
  • the lack of diversity makes food production more vulnerable to pests and disease, as well as to the extreme weather events that go hand-in-hand with climate change
  • habitat loss and environmental exploitation put further stress on plant biodiversity; as a result, about 100,000 plant varieties around the world are now at risk

USC, Seeds of Diversity and Everdale

In response, efforts such as seed banks and libraries, and seed exchanges (Ontario’s Seedy Saturdays are a good example) have sprung up to help farmers and food gardeners preserve ancient and heirloom varieties of key food crops.

In addition, USC Canada launched the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security last year in partnership with Seeds of Diversity. The initiative works with farmers, researchers, businesses, governments and others across the country to boost production and conservation of high-quality Canadian seed that’s regionally adapted and ecologically grown.

Everdale acts as the initiative’s regional hub for Ontario. The Guelph-based teaching farm offers hands-on food and farming education, operates a CSA, hosts an on-site seed library managed by Seeds of Diversity and provides workshops on seeds and seed-saving. It also works with regional growers on variety trials and conducts “grow-outs” for Seeds of Diversity.

“Let’s say you have bean seeds in a seed library,” Aabir Dey explains. “You need to plant them periodically, and grow them out to create a crop of back-up seeds. It’s an important way to scale up the seed supply.”

But don’t think you have to be a farmer or seed specialist to help develop a diverse local seed supply for the Ottawa region. There are several easy ways you can make a difference, Dey says.

Buy local, save and swap

  • Buy from local seed providers who grow out a lot of their own seed, such as Greta’s Organic Gardens which specializes in organic fruit and vegetable seeds, and Castor River Farm, a small-scale diversified operation that focuses on different types of wheat, buckwheat and other grains.
  • Attend a Seedy Saturday event to swap seed with local growers, meet local vendors and attend seed workshops. Ottawa’s 2014 Seedy Saturday is over but, as with seed-saving workshops, you can put one together yourself.

“Seed skills are very valuable and we’ve lost touch with them,” Dey notes. “If we want more local, organic food, we need more local, organic seed.”

Where do you buy your seeds?

The Food Read Round-up: GM alfalfa launch delayed, plus — food insecurity in the Far North, regional food hubs, and why food sustainability matters to consumers

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014
The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto is one of a growing number of food hubs that aim to make healthy, sustainable and fair accessible to all. Photo: Toban B. via Flickr

The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto is one of a growing number of local food hubs that aim to make healthy, sustainable and fair food accessible to all.
Photo: Toban B. via Flickr


The Food Read Round-up curates media stories about food and farming in Ottawa, across Canada, and around the world.

Farmers and consumers force delay in introduction of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa in Canada. Opposition from farmers and consumers has forced Forage Genetics International to delay its plan to release GM alfalfa seeds in Eastern Canada this spring, according to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

If launched, the seeds would have been the latest in a line of GM products sold in this country. The list includes corn, canola and soybeans and could eventually include GM varieties of apple and salmon. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has approved five types of GM alfalfa for sale, deeming them to be safe for people, animals and the environment.

The GM alfalfa from Forage is engineered to resist Monsanto’s Roundup, a herbicide farmers spray on their crops to kill weeds. Since alfalfa is a perennial that’s pollinated by insects, the GM varieties would be guaranteed to spread, contaminating non-GM alfalfa and hurting the livelihoods of conventional and organic farmers.

Alfalfa is Canada’s most widely grown forage crop. Besides feeding livestock and dairy animals, it helps enrich the soil and represents $80 million in exports to other countries, many of which don’t accept GM foods.

Visit to find out more about GM alfalfa and how you can help stop its sale in Canada.

Food insecurity affects a disproportionate number of Aboriginal peoples in Northern Canada. A new report on food security* from the Council of Canadian Academies urges Canadians to deal with the disproportionately high levels of hunger and malnutrition among northern Aboriginal peoples. Entitled Aboriginal Food Security in Northern Canada: An Assessment of the State of Knowledge, the report provides data on the different rates of food insecurity among Indigenous populations, outlines the factors that contribute to it, and explores the health implications, which can include anemia, heart disease, diabetes, child developmental problems and more.

Among the data it presents, the report points to the results of:

  • the 2007-2008 International Polar Year Inuit Health Survey showing that Nunavut had the highest documented levels of food insecurity for any Indigenous group living in a developed country
  • the 2011 Canadian Community Healthy survey indicating that off-reserve Aboriginal households across the country experienced rates of food insecurity more than double those of all non-Aboriginal households

Given the many factors involved, from climate change to cultural and economic realities, the report recommends that Northern communities, governments, business and institutions work closely together to find solutions.

The report uses the widely accepted definition from UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Food consumers are making sustainability a priority.  Good news: new research suggests that more North American consumers are making sustainability a priority when they buy food. While safety and nutritional value remain the biggest considerations, the survey shows that at least two-thirds of Americans also take sustainability into account, placing importance on where the food was produced as well as on eco-friendly production and packaging, animal welfare and  GMO-free. About 66% would pay more for food produced closer to home. In Canada, consumers demonstrate similar concerns. According to a 2011 survey from Vision, an agriculture research panel, 95% of Canadians reported that buying locally grown food was important to them while 43% said they would pay more for it.

Regional food hubs catch on. Regional food systems practitioners, supporters and food hub developers gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina, last week for the sixth National Good Food Network (NGFN) conference. It’s another sign of the growing popularity of food hubs. According to a March 22 piece in Food Tank, hubs are the key to scaling up the system for food that’s healthy, eco-friendly, fair and affordable.

What’s a food hub? There are different definitions, but basically hubs are managed locations that bring together food producers, distributors, processors, consumers and other buyers. Food that’s been verified at source as local or regional can aggregated, stored, processed, distributed and marketed. Hubs may also provide space for wholesale and retail sales, social service programs, community kitchens and other food-related activities.

There are an estimated 200 food hubs across the U.S. and many have sprung up in Canada as well. For example, the Toronto’s The Stop Community Food Centre works to increase access to healthy food   through a comprehensive program that includes a food bank, food and community gardens, a greenhouse, bake ovens and markets, education on sustainable food systems, community cooking, and more. Closer to home, Ottawa’s Just Food Farm is being developed as a community food and sustainable agriculture hub. In Ottawa West, the Torbolton Institute is planning a multi-purpose hub that would combine a community SPIN garden with a food storage facility, farmers market, forest farm, and space for food and recreational activities such as cooking demonstrations.

What food stories have you been reading?