Lessons in Weird Plants

It’s officially fall, and we’ve hit the ground running in our final semester of the program: projects are coming due, notebook margins fill up, classes are counted in weeks. Outside the classroom, moisture-loving plants we remember from last winter push up from the ground, and landscapes swell a familiar green. Witnessing this cycle feels good, like casting your eyes over a favorite line of poetry again. We might actually know something this time.

We’ve ramped up our Business Development and Project Management classes this semester – pulling together threads of knowledge gleaned through the year, curating interests and sharpening specialties, bouncing ideas off one another. What does it take to make a business work?

A semi-dwarf pear tree at Tiny Tree Herb Farm, laden with late-summer fruit after a student-led sheet mulching over the winter.

On field trips, hints at an answer sometimes feel intrinsically woven into our hosts’ own biography. Early this past summer we visited Heather Stretch, a co-owner of Saanich Organics and coauthor of All The Dirt, on her home turf at Northbrook Farm for what became an operations talk with a side of homespun philosophy. When we shifted gears this past week and visited a pair of perennial food production sites, I thought of Heather again: her model and scale of production is very different than those in evidence at the more recent visits, but there are also some hints of commonality worth teasing out.

Northbrook neighbours Ravenhill Herb Farm to the east, separated neatly by a close-packed stand of trees but sharing its sunny southern aspect. The twenty-acre farm feels comfortably established, and beds ramble down the side of the hill in a patchwork. A clutch of handsome heritage chicks, Mistral Gris, skitter around outside a brooder. Blueberries, which Heather has gently rehabilitated from a bout of mummy berry disease, sit stout and bushy on a flat tract at the foot of the hill.

A fallen leaf from a bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) rests on a bed of seaweed at Mount Douglas Beach, Victoria.

Heather is sixteen years at the helm of Saanich Organics, but that isn’t all that’s going on at the farm, a sole proprietorship: tools and land are shared with farmers Chrystal and Ilya of Square Root, who produce brilliant greens on a ribbon of land at the side of the property. A seed business called “Seeds of the Revolution” has been operating here for seven years, at least partly as a labour of love. Salad greens and strawberries are the farm’s moneymakers, Heather tells us, and the seeds decidedly are not. But “they are meaningful, and they keep skill here on the site […] and we’re not beholden to multinationals.” In a greenhouse are tall, teetering specimens: parsley, echinacea, overwintered raddichio, Nepal tomatoes, and eggplant, all tended with an eye to finding the most regionally-adapted seed.

Market sales and CSAs are significant revenue drivers, but direct sales to restaurants and grocery stores are the main event for Heather. Saanich Organics draws from a wide pool of area farms, giving it access to a variety of different crops during shoulder seasons and offering a buffer against each farm’s own fluctuations through the year. Farmers themselves save time otherwise spent calling around to restaurants and organizing delivery logistics. Unsold market produce is routed to local organizations LifeCycles, The Mustard Seed, and Food Not Bombs. In turn, this enables the farmers to grow on a smaller scale while enjoying the reach and efficiencies available to a larger farm operation.

A bee fly atop a purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) at the #VillageGrowShow V1 garden, Victoria. A member of the Aster family, the purple coneflower’s composite head is made up of hundreds of individual disk flowers, making it an attractive target for pollinators.

Weeks later, we stand in a fenced backyard on the northern fringe of Oak Bay, in Victoria. Now it’s the first whispers of fall: time for the fruit harvest, cool evenings inviting time in the kitchen spent processing and preserving. We’re at a garden nicknamed “V1”, part of The Village restaurant’s #VillageGrowShow initiative. Whereas Heather’s farm benefits from the reach afforded by Saanich Organics to sell to city restaurants, this garden benefits from its literal proximity – a doorway opposite leads into The Village restaurant kitchen, and staff glide in and out to snip sprigs of French sorrel and pluck borage flowers for plating. When we’d rounded the front corner of the building a few minutes earlier, I saw that the restaurant patio was packed with a garrulous weekday lunch crowd.

We’re joined back here by Jason Chan, owner of The Village, and by Matt Gravel of Plant Buoy, a local edible landscape company. Beside me, schisandra, the five-flavour berry, snakes up a trellis staked in front of some false solomon seal. Russian mammoth sunflowers loom over us from the back fence. Jason recounts how, as the owner of a hotel restaurant a few years earlier, he’d felt unhappy about his food supply options: deliveries came in the form of refrigerated trucks from a corporate multinational wheezing up to the back door. “We had young kids,” he said, “and I didn’t want them eating this food.”

Daisies stretch from a raised bed at a Hatchet & Seed client’s residence in North Saanich; a sapling props open the gate to the Hatchet & Seed nursery; skipping rocks at Mount Douglas Beach, Victoria.

Jason sold the restaurant and bought a stake in The Village, shifting his focus to breakfast and brunch and working to cultivate connections for sourcing local produce. Combing through the Vancouver Island growers’ scene on Instagram, Jason recalls spotting Plant Buoy’s account: “Those are some weird plants!”  Before long, the two had met, “weird plants” were produced for examination, and the rest is history, laughs Jason.

With the restaurant’s backing, Plant Buoy Matt went all in, designing edible perennial landscapes behind the kitchen as well as at Jason’s house. Things started slowly, Jason recalls, as the kitchen was wary of the unfamiliar offerings – and unaccustomed to harvesting ingredients directly from their own plants.

A trio of birds survey Mount Douglas Beach on an overcast morning in Victoria.

It’s obvious, as we stand back here in the garden, that things have changed. A salad dressed with a minutina and wild mint vinaigrette from the perennial greens out back features prominently on the lunch menu. The eggs benedict boasts French sorrel pesto. But the real buzz around town comes from an offering on the drinks menu: a recent ban on plastic straws in Victoria opened the door for The Village to debut pickled lovage stalks as their Caesar straws, a clever repurposing that drew the attention of local TV outlets.

Like Heather at Northbrook Farm, Jason and Matt are animated by a desire to make healthy local food more accessible. But where Heather uses the marketing power of farm partnerships to reach local restaurants, the #VillageGrowShow takes production to the restaurant itself. Whether island palates can be fully won over by the underexplored flavours of these many perennials remains to be seen, but the early returns are good. Lessons for our business class? There’s more than one way to succeed growing food for production. Collaboration helps. And so does having some plant swag on your Instagram feed.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.