The Blakeney Project is an initiative of the Lanark County Food Bank (The Hunger Stop)* located on a two-acre field east of the Village of Blakeney and 8km north of Almonte. Thanks to generous landowners, some initial support from Community Foundations of Canada to buy equipment and seeds, and an annual crew of over 40 volunteer gardeners, this sheep pasture has been transformed into a gardening paradise. At the end of the third season in 2023, the project had produced over 45,000 lbs. of vegetables and some fruit (an estimated dollar value of $139,000).
But paradise doesn’t come without its challenges! A critical component of growing vegetables is the development of strategies for dealing with wildlife. The previous two years saw racoons rampage through the patches of sweet corn being grown by the Project. The garden is on the edge of a 25-foot-deep ravine that serves as a four-lane highway for racoons. This year we were determined to win the battle.
A bit of research suggested planting a patch of corn close to the ravine as a sacrificial decoy for the racoons, then planting our main patch of corn as far away as possible and surrounding it with squash or pumpkins. This advice appeared consistent with descriptions of Indigenous gardening practices.
Gardening lore paints a rosy portrait of the historical gardening practices of Indigenous people featuring “the three sisters” — sustainable patches of corn, beans and squash with a fish buried for additional nutrients. Our Canadian Agricultural Museum has even named their educational hall on the Central Experimental Farm the “Three Sisters Hall.”
Many years ago, I personally tried this approach and ended up with a tangled mess. When I tried to pick the beans and the corn I stepped on the squash plants, and it was difficult to find the beans amongst the corn and the prickly squash vines. In hindsight it appears I made a few wrong assumptions.
Rather than planting sweet corn and beans for picking fresh, it works a whole lot better if corn and bean varieties are chosen that are allowed to reach full maturity and are then picked and stored as dry beans and corn. The prickly vines and leaves of the squash plants act as a deterrent to wildlife such as deer and racoons — as well as to humans!
Since we were planning to harvest fresh sweet corn at the Blakeney Project, we decided to go with only two sisters. A small patch of corn (about 500 square feet) was planted near the ravine as a decoy, and a much larger main patch (about 5200 square feet) was planted on the opposite side of the garden. The small patch was not protected in any way. The larger patch comprised twenty 50-foot rows of corn, surrounded by 70 hills of pumpkins. The pumpkins vines spread out to form a 12-foot-wide barrier on all sides of the corn patch.
So, was it successful? The small patch was planted on May 18 with Revelation, an early 69-day corn. As expected, incursions by the racoons began a couple of days before the corn was ready for harvest. Cobs were ripped from the stalks and the patch was soon demolished. Thankfully, there appeared to be no interest in the large patch.
Half of the large patch was planted on May 25; the second half on May 30. We used a later 78-corn, Honey Select. A large pumpkin variety named Mustang was planted on May 26 and 30. Growth was very vigorous, benefitting from the frequent rains in mid-summer. The corn attained heights of eight feet with large, well-filled cobs; many of the pumpkins weighed in at 35 to 45 pounds.
The corn and pumpkins have been a huge hit with Food Bank clients. We were delighted that there was minimal damage from wildlife. (In my mind I picture one very smart racoon who figured out a path through the pumpkins but was not willing to share his secret with the rest of the tribe).
Our success led me to further research — Indigenous knowledge about food security is incredibly complicated and regionally diverse, depending on climate and other resources. The “three sisters” concept was more apt to be a model for agriculture in southwestern Ontario. Indigenous people in our region collected and ate a large number of berries, nuts and other plants, and I was surprised to learn that wild rice was a very important food staple.
Wild rice is Canada’s only native cereal. It is a wild grass that grows from seed, annually producing a very valuable grain that has been used by Indigenous people as food for thousands of years. The plants grow in shallow water in small lakes and slow-flowing streams; often only the flowering head of wild rice rises above the water. The grain is eaten by aquatic wildlife as well as by humans. It is often harvested by canoeing into a stand of plants, bending the ripe grain heads over the canoe and threshing the grain by beating it with wooden sticks.
If you want to help the community and learn more about vegetable gardening (and try new, exciting techniques!), I suggest volunteering at the Blakeney Project of the Lanark County Food Bank. This two-acre garden will be starting its fourth year in May 2024. Volunteers are asked to commit to a weekly 3-hour shift throughout the growing season. Experienced gardeners lead the work in a gorgeous rural setting.
For more information, please contact the Lanark County Food Bank manager Tammy Parent at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Blakeney Project Coordinator
* The Lanark County Food Bank started operations in October 1988, when a group of concerned Carleton Place residents recognized the problems created by the recession of the 1980’s. It began in the living room of one of the volunteers and kept growing to fill the 4,000 sq. ft. space of our current home at 84 Mill St. in Carleton Place. We presently serve over 1,200 people every month in our catchment area – White Lake to Franktown and Ashton to Innisville. That is an increase of 45% in the number of people, relative to 2022.