Meet Ana Valean from Montreal, Canada

“I am a mother of two wonderful boys and I love to do things that allow me to connect with nature and that ground me.

I was born and raised in a small village in Eastern Europe and growing our own food was the only way we could feed ourselves during Communism. My parents had a small vegetable garden where we would grow tomatoes, beans, onions, cucumbers, lettuce, cabbage, carrots and some peppers. Whatever we would not eat my mother would can or dry for the winter. When I was about five years old, my mother gave me two small tomato plants to take care of. I remember checking on them several times a day, watering them, making sure that there were no weeds around and even singing to them. I think that was the moment when I started appreciating growing food. Every time I am in the garden I see that little girl singing and dancing around the tomato plants and this sparks so much joy. Growing food is magical.

Fast forward to the present, I now live in the West Island of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Food is not an issue in a developed country but clean and honest food is a major issue. And I want my kids to know the difference. I want them to know how much work is needed to get that juicy, sweet and flavorful, imperfect tomato. I want them to know that we can make a difference in this world simply by choosing what we put on our plates.

I started my 200 sq ft. garden 5 years ago when we bought our house and I made all the mistakes I could have made. Its first location was in the shadiest corner of our back yard, on the squirrels playground. I think that first season we were able to eat around 10 % of what we had because the squirrels destroyed almost everything. I would describe that first growing season as “how not to garden". But it was also a very steep learning curve and I took the long winter to properly prepare for the following season. Also, my husband is the most handy and creative person I know and he came up with all kind of solutions to protect our veggies from the wild animals that roam in our neighborhood. Presently the growing space is close to 500 sq. ft. We have a hoop house of about 200 sq. ft which is also a nice season extender, two very large raised beds in the front yard and one in-ground bed in the back yard.

My favorite plants to grow are the tomatoes (no surprise here, I guess). Over time and with a lot of research I have learnt about high density planting, inter-planting, crop rotation, vertical gardens and I am using all these techniques in my garden and they allow me to grow a lot of food in such a small space – beans, cucumbers, kohlrabi, onions, kale, lettuce, peppers, cabbage, carrots and a lot of flowers. Every year I add new veggies to my portfolio.

I grow everything organically. I only use compost to improve the soil and I don't use any pesticides or soil amendments, not even the ones that are certified for organic growing. I have a “no dig" garden approach and this, along with the compost, ensures a healthy soil. My best pest management practice is by far the bird netting. Since our main issue were the squirrels we discovered over the years that they don't like the bird netting so our hoop house is wrapped in that and we did not lose any tomatoes ever since. For the groundhogs we use either chicken wire or some stronger type of plastic netting. As for other types of pests, like cucumber beetles, Japanese beetles, cabbage moths… I use the pick and drown in soapy water method, it is very tedious but is organic.

I only buy seeds from local Canadian companies and I always buy heirloom. Basically it is a one time investment and then season after season I am saving my own seeds. I am also member of the Horticultural Society in my town and we have seeds exchange within our group.

My biggest hurdle when it comes to gardening is the limited growing space. I would love to have more land to grow more varieties. Maybe one day…

I love to eat and I love to cook. And I love good food. So my biggest reward is knowing that what we eat is grown by us, with love. And it is clean. Like my mom, I can, dry or freeze everything so we can enjoy the food from our garden in the winter too. My kids know the taste difference between a home grown vegetable and a store bought one and this makes me hope that when they grow up and leave the nest, they will make conscious decisions about their food choices.

As part of the Pointe Claire Horticultural Society I am one of the few members that grows veggies intensively. Last year during the members’ garden tours my garden was designated as one of the most inspiring gardens in the community and after that I was interviewed by a local Montreal newspaper. I think my passion for gardening transpires during my conversations with people in the neighborhood and some get inspired by it. I am using my garden as a teaching spot for people in our community and I have started offering home garden consultation too, especially on tomato pruning.

In my first few years of gardening I shared a lot of the veggies with my friends and neighbors. I still do it today, but to a smaller extent, as I prefer sharing now seeds or seedlings to encourage them to grow their own food. Every one of my neighbors now has at least one tomato plant from me.

Don't be afraid to try new things and to experiment with the plants. They are more resilient that we think.”