Welcome to Larch Grove Farm, an off-grid organic farm and artist residency in northern Alberta, Canada. We’re building home from the ground up: join us on the blog for photos of a farm in progress, Open Farm dates, books for sale, our food box program, and much more.

Latest from the blog

Building a Lake at the Farm

Howdy, gardening and farming friends! Hope you are well into your summers and the weather is being kind to you. We’ve been deluged with rain here in the north, and although the thunderstorms are a royal pain in the butt when it comes to trying to weed the market garden, the trees are loving all the moisture, so we take our lead from them! Wow, I bet the spruce have put on half a foot of new growth just in the past two months alone.

A young farming couple we met online just bought their first quarter in the next province over, and they’re chasing their own farm dreams – way to go! I was talking with one member of the couple a few days back over Messenger, and she was asking how we went about building our pond at the farm, as we had no water source on the land when we first moved there. That got me thinking! Why not write up a post about building a lake at the farm? In true experimental fashion, we’re not stopping at the trial pond. Our next step is to build a small fishing/swimming lake. But one thing at a time!

We began building the pond five years ago. At the time, we were working against the weather and a rather high water table, so the pond filled itself up pretty much right after we built it. Drat! We’d only been able to dig it three feet deep! And this is what it did during its second summer:

Yup – dangit! The pond dried right up. Thank goodness, the tadpoles grew up and evacuated the pond first.

So we got to work and built the thing right. In the photo above, you can see that the first task was strimming out the old pond, which had gone to grass and bulrushes.

Then the digger arrived:

We had the small backhoe delivered, but we did the work ourselves. It was a good solid learning curve, but a great skill set to develop for the farm’s future.

We had intended to dig the pond down deep into the clay (our farm has great deposits of slick clay underneath all that peaty soil), but the first attempt at the pond had filled up from the high water table before we’d been able to complete the digging. So we were working against the clock, knowing that the hole would soon start to fill with water…

Once we set any remaining peat aside, the clay broke apart in huge, weighty slabs that challenged the digger. We switched up buckets to a larger claw and went at it, building a ramp into the pond as we went along. We knew our local wildlife would be visiting the pond, and that meant moose, and we wanted them to be able to enter and exit the pond for safe drinking without risking drowning their calves.

The sides of the pond were thick, thick clay, so we didn’t need to firm them down further. We used the backhoe to level the pond’s base and tamp it down well so that no cracks could cause the water to seep out.

We bermed the peat around the rim of the pond to make a better planting surface for vegetation and clover. Here, you can clearly see the intended depth of the pond (we got there at last!). I took the photo looking up from the base of the pond, and I’m 5’2, so you can see the pond is easily 12’ in the middle.

And here it is today. This summer has been incredibly rainy, and between that and the snowmelt, the pond has filled up like billy-o. It’s about eight feet deep in this photo. The banks have been sown to clover, but they still need a good weeding, and the planting steps on the inside of the pond’s banks could use some aquatic perennials. But it’s fantastic to see the water appearing like magic! The moose and deer adore the pond, along with pipers and ducks, frogs and toads. After we finish planting its banks, our next step is to harvest fieldstone from the front field to build a solar-pumped waterfall to aerate the pond for fish. By next summer, this will be a complete ecosystem and the water should have good clarity.

It’s been a lot of work, but I think we finally have a solid sense of the tasks required, the timeline, and exactly how much a pond contributes to our farm. Aside from a great resource for wildlife, it’s a space of beautiful calm, potential food, and fire control (a big thing up here in the boreal). Once we have this pond landscaped, we’ll be drawing up plans for the larger trout/swimming lake we hope to build as we put in our farmhouse. We’ll need the clay from that pond for foundation work and road base, and the benefit will be a beautiful swimming area after we’re done!

Gotta love the farm. It’s an incredible place to play.

Farm Office

Howdy from Larch Grove!

The early summer photos will soon start coming thick and fast as the garden grows and settles in, and several of you have asked on Facebook for a movie of the farm, so stay tuned for that in a few weeks, friends. In the meantime, this is a short post to share with you one of our absolute favourite spaces on the farm: our outdoor office. When we bought the land ten years ago, the space on either side of the old storage shed was a mess of decaying fertilizer bags, castoff lumber, old horse tack, random farm hoardings, and porcupine poop. We cleaned the space up, and last year, we put a fresh coat of paint on the old shed and built this beautiful little patio for a place to hide out of the sun mid-day (July days can easily hit +35 to +38C out here, and the sun is fierce if you’re out in it from dawn). We take our lunch here in the shade, and it’s lovely when the golden hops grows and completely encloses the space, the bees visit the thyme between the pavers, and the hummingbird moths come down to feed from the pinks in the old fireplace planter.

What are your favourite spaces in your own gardens, friends?

Starting the Market Garden

Whew! Greetings from the North Country and the season of eighteen-hour farm days, friends! Wherever you are, I hope the returning light and the gorgeous green and flowers everywhere are brightening your spirits.

Larch Grove is waking from a long seven-month winter hiatus. We were busy all winter clearing ground for the new farmhouse (all going well, 2017 will be the Year of the Farmhouse!), and winter is the ideal time for chainsawing and moving dead brush, doing rudimentary stumping, and watching where the light falls midwinter to see how it’ll affect a rooftop solar array.

With the ending of the worst night frosts, though, and the start of the long, warm days, the chainsaw got stashed away in the toolshed and we turned our minds to the market garden. The running sap gums up the saw, and with the fire bans in the North Country, we were afraid to continue using a warm engine out in the bush, so the season ended as it always does: in its own time, just as another season begins, and a different sort of work. But stay tuned on the blog this fall for more details and photos as we begin building the road and drop a well for the farmhouse…it’s gonna be an exciting time as we stretch out in a new direction on this home-built farm. Once the big house is ready (well, biggish; at 600 square feet, it’s gonna feel palatial), the cabin will be all set for our guests and visiting artists!

SEED-STARTING. Let’s talk about it, friends! I don’t know about you, but it is my favourite time of the year after a long winter when my mind is feeling a bit withered and colour-starved. Those first seedlings popping their heads up under lights in the grow beds…heaven.

All sorts of wee plants getting their start in a cool room under lights

When we’re in the city, a few fluorescent tubes over a grow bed makes a pretty good starting place for our market garden crops, but the seedlings really need heat to get them germinating, not light. Once they break the soil surface, it’s then they need consistent light. If you’re off the grid, a few cinderblocks or bricks on top of your wood stove to create thermal mass works a treat for starting trays of seedlings without electricity. Once they’re up, transfer them to a cool, bright window (don’t fry them in the full sun right off the bat), and voila – off-grid starter plants.

I have a severe chemical allergy, which is one of the reasons we started the farm – so much so that Thomas calls me the canary in the coal mine. If something is sprayed or treated, I’ll welt up within minutes of touching or eating it (yeah, restaurants are all sorts of fun!). When we start plants or propagate cuttings, we try to steer away from chemical inputs – not just for me, but because we don’t want any of that stuff ending up in our garden. Here are a couple of easy tricks if you want to dodge the chemicals this spring!

1) Chamomile. If you’ve started seeds, you know that one of the worst problems they face is damping off. It’s a fungal issue and can be caused by any number of different fungi, but most often Pythium. When you plant small seeds into cold soil and water them continually, they become subject to damping off, and it can kill a tray of new starts faster than just about anything. Now, there are a few chemical drenches you can use, but if you want to dodge those, I highly recommend chamomile tea! We’ve used it for years now, and we just about never lose a seedling to damping off. To make it, simply grab a box of your favourite pure chamomile tea, brew three bags fairly strong, let the tea cool, and cut it with regular tap water. Water in your seedlings for a couple of days using the mix, then switch back to regular water. Works like a charm. I’ve also heard of folks using cinnamon – I haven’t tried it, but you might want to! I bet it smells great in the seeding room.

Any kind of chamomile tea will work a treat

2) Willow water. For those who are a little leery of using rooting hormone, willow water is quick and easy. Spring is the best time to make this natural rooting agent, when the new growth is out, but you can really make it all summer long. Willows contain two things, salicylic acid and indolebutyric acid, that help cuttings to root naturally and to fight off fungal infections that can take over cuttings rooted using other methods. It’s really easy to make: in the spring, cut off a handful of new growth (if you’re making willow water later in the season, use the fresh tips of the branches). Pull off the leaves and cut up the willow pieces into one-inch bits. Put them in a jar and fill the jar with water, then leave the concoction in the sun for three days to “brew.” Discard the willow bits, and you’re good to go. There are a ton of variations on this recipe, but they all come down to willow twigs + water + brewing time. Can’t go wrong.

One more thing I couldn’t do without to start our farm garden? It’s not a natural remedy, but it’s as vital to me as chamomile tea: our greenhouse! Anyone can make one. It doesn’t have to be fancy and it doesn’t have to be big. Ours is an ugly bug made out of a cheap Costco carport that we covered with clear tarps and built end pieces for. It’s homely as all get-out, but it raises a perfect crop of tomatoes, peppers, and herbs every summer in a climate where we often have night frosts as late as July. Since we built the greenhouse, I’ve never lost another crop of tomatoes. Bliss!

Homemade greenhouse on the farm

Happy growing, friends! We’ll be sharing more posts from the field over the coming weeks, and we’d love to hear about what you’re looking forward to this summer. Growing a new variety? Planting a garden for the first or the ninety-fifth time? Let’s share stories!