A garden for all seasons

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Patricia Watters of Oregon designed her Biodome Garden in 1980, which is the inspiration for the Ottawa proposal. (Courtesy photo)

OTTAWA — Imagine it’s mid-February, the snowbanks are piled high and the icicles hang low. Inside, a family sits down to dinner, enjoying a salad of fresh kale, cherry tomatoes and sweet red peppers that were hand-picked earlier that day from their backyard biodome. Wishful thinking? Not according to Michael Oster and the Brewer Park Community Garden volunteers.

The group is finalizing a proposal for the City of Ottawa to install a biodome garden in their community plot to show it is possible to extend the growing season and to highlight issues of healthy eating and secure, natural food production.

“The main purpose for the biodome garden is to address food security in Ottawa, as well as showing the art of the possible and encouraging others to be innovative in sustainability solutions,” says Oster, who is leading the biodome proposal.

“In the case of Canada, we’re bringing in fruits and vegetables at a high environmental and economic cost from other countries without fully exploring how we can grow food locally,” he says.

Oster filed an application for funding to the Better Neighbourhoods program. The city provides up to $30,000 in support to approved applications, but said it was too early to talk about potential projects.

Biodomes are usually large constructions that try to replicate ecosystems for educational and research purposes. The Brewer Park gardeners want to build a small environment enclosed in a “passive solar greenhouse system,” which conserves water and is primed for food production.

Their design was inspired by the work of Patricia Watters, author of The Biodome Garden Book. Watters said she created the original plan and coined the terms biodome and biodome garden in the early 1980’s.

Ottawa councillor David Chernushenko supports the biodome proposal and its benefits of being able to garden in a cold climate.

“I think there is something in our subconscious that recognizes (growing food) as inherently good in some way.”

While community gardens are growing in popularity, integrating them into public spaces is not without challenges, Chernushenko says.

The design calls for raised beds for conventional crops to be installed in the park in June. Then, around mid-September, the beds will be covered by a dome made of polycarbonate panels. The dome would be powered and heated by solar and radiant energy.

The community gardeners hope to work with professors and students from Algonquin College and Carleton University to fine-tune the architectural, horticultural and mechanical aspects of the year-long garden.

Paula Claudino, a master’s student in applied science, also volunteers with the Brewer Park Community Garden. She is focusing her thesis on her efforts to make the biodome garden as energy efficient as possible. She says the key to success is creating a space that can handle Ottawa’s seasonal fluctuations in temperature.

Volunteers will cultivate fish and plants in the biodome garden through a process called aquaponics. Water containing fish waste will regularly soak and nourish the roots of the crops, which grow in a medium of small pebbles rather than soil.

“You can think of that fish excrement as waste, but it’s very rich in nitrogen and phosphorus so you can also think of it as a nutrient source for vegetables which need the nitrogen and phosphorus,” Oster says.

“The plant roots never dry out but the plants welcome the fresh surge of water and it causes a surge of growth. There are some studies that show up to four times more food can be grown in aquaponics than conventional growing systems.”

The group will experiment to find out which crops do the best during the minimal light and varying temperatures of winter and what fish will provide the best amount of nourishment.

Garden president Danielle Cantin says she was shocked when she didn’t see many community gardens around town after moving to Ottawa from Montreal 10 years ago. She is finally realizing her dream of seeing a community garden flourish.

Last year the garden hosted 29 plots. This year they’re adding 35 plots plus the planned biodome and some berry bushes.

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