Margie worked out a battle plan that required all the timing and precision of a military campaign. Greenhouses are the ‘tanks’ in the war against weather, protecting the plants during the winter assault so they can move out eventually and capture the hearts and taste buds of consumers.
There are three tanks. A small moveable greenhouse adds about 5 degrees Celsius of protection, or one extra growing zone of warmth. A second, larger greenhouse can also be moved and has a double roof. Inside, the plants are nestled under a floating row cover, a kind of gauzy plant blanket. The protective quality in this greenhouse is almost 15 degrees or two growing zones higher than outside.
Finally, the Sherman tank of greenhouses, a huge 15 by 60 foot permanent structure that can be heated by a wood fired boiler connected to pipes that circulate warm water under the soil. This greenhouse fools the plants into thinking they are living much farther south in a climate that is 3 or 4 growing zones warmer. To prevent the plants from freezing and to reduce costs, Margie only turns the heat on when the outside temperature gets to -14C.
The smaller and medium-sized greenhouses are unheated but moveable. Moving them allows Margie to rotate her crops through a four-year cycle, let some nourishing rain fall on the plots and also, gives her a chance to replenish and condition the soil. But the most critical part of her strategy is the way Margie Loo organizes her battlefields for the 12 month campaign against Mother Nature.
In the spring and summer the routine is pretty conventional. She plants potatoes, head lettuce, spinach and carrots, and other crops, as early as she can in her uncovered fields. She grows tomatoes, basil, leaf lettuce, peppers and herbs in the greenhouses to get them to market as early as possible.
The two moveable greenhouses each service two identical size plots that sit in front of each other, like two pots lined up on a stove that use the same lid. The greenhouses stay on one plot from October of one year to October of the next year. In September, Margie prepares the adjacent, uncovered plot and then uses cables to pull the greenhouse forward to cover it.
Once the plots are covered, she begins an intensive planting schedule of all the crops she wants to harvest in each of the three greenhouses during the winter.
She makes five or six plantings each week of carrots, spinach, kale, arugula, basil, sorrel, peppers, herbs and six varieties of leaf lettuce. Everything has to be in the ground and up to size by the middle of December when shorter daylight means slow or no growth in the plants. From this time to mid-February, when the cold is most severe, the plants preserve their texture and flavour in a state of suspended animation.
Margie moves from greenhouse to greenhouse harvesting first from the small unheated greenhouse until mid-December. Then she picks from the larger unheated greenhouse through January, finally drawing from the large heated one through February. This routine guarantees she has something to sell at the Charlottetown Market each Saturday. By March, the days are getting longer and warmer and another cycle of planting and harvesting can begin. The harried General has roamed the battlefield, reacting to the elements, adjusting the defences and exhorting the beleaguered troops on to victory.
“If it’s possible to grow it here, then we should be doing that rather than using all that energy to bring stuff in,” she explains when I ask why she subjects herself to all this stress and hard work. And, she can make a reasonable income for a full 12 months and give herself a bit of a challenge. “Challenging yourself to take things a step further. I find that really interesting,” she says.
And at the Charlottetown Farmers Market, Margie Loo’s regular customers find it both interesting and rewarding that they can buy fresh, local produce twelve months of the year. In January and February, some newcomers even argue among themselves as to whether her carrots and lettuce are really local or from California. Margie just smiles. “It’s very funny to listen to. People just can’t believe!”
They might believe if they understood the Loo family tradition conveyed in the sign that identifies Margie’s stall at the Market. The sign reads, ‘Island Sunshine’. It’s the name Margie’s father gave to his first, revolutionary potato variety. Now, year round vegetables are Margie Loo’s contribution to that tradition of innovation.
Brian Kienapple, a journalist, is the Nova Scotia Slow Food Convivium leader