Pop The Question: Donna Balzer

Since the age of three when she’d question her parents on when the garden carrots would be ready to eat, Donna Balzer has been passionate about how things grow. Authour, award winning journalist, columnist with CBC radio and the Calgary Herald and blogger (GardenGuru.net); Balzer took some time out of her busy schedule to share her love of gardening including which plant she wishes she could grow here in Calgary.

CREB®>> How did you get into gardening?

DB>> I was born gardening – or at least my parent’s claim I was outdoors like a shadow following my dad around asking questions from an early age. When I was three, my mom says I particularly wanted to know when we could eat carrots and when the strawberries would be ready. When I was 17 I left home to study horticulture at university! My summer jobs always included gardening as well and at one point I was working full time at the University of Alberta’s vegetable field trials on the campus, working evenings maintaining landscapes for clients of my professors and working weekends back on my parent’s farm. And I loved it!

CREB®>> How important (if at all) is patience when it comes to gardening?

DB>> A garden is a three-ring circus so there is no need for patience. In a well-planned garden there is always something happening as the garden evolves over the seasons. The blooms will start in Calgary by mid-April with foliage unfurling in May on shrubs and brilliant summer colour followed by fall colour and winter interest. So really, while you are doing one task — such as seeding your veggie garden — you are enjoying the birds arriving and blooms opening on your apple trees. A diverse garden, like a well-co-ordinated outfit is the most interesting type of garden and there is never a dull moment or any patience needed to see it unfurl. If a gardener has extra time they can add grow-lights indoors or a greenhouse in the garden to expand the fun.

CREB®>> What are some plants/produce that grow well in Calgary’s ever changing climate?

DB>> I have a seven-page list of plants I use for clients, checking off the ones they need in their part of town to get the look they are trying to achieve. Once the big architecture plants such as trees and shrubs are chosen it is up to the gardener to find the accessory plants and here’s where it gets really fun. Two plants that work well everywhere in Calgary and also blooms extremely well and early are the Double Bloodroot and Gentian acaulis. They are like diamond studs at a cocktail party. Obviously the dress and hair are important but the little detailed plants bring a lot of joy as well.

CREB®>> Is there a plant you wish you could grow in Calgary?

DB>> I would love to grow the big bold broadleaf evergreens in Calgary. I also have a garden in Qualicum Beach, B.C. and the Laurel there is a dappled yellow-green with hand-sized oval leaves. They are green all year so you ignore them in the summer except as a backdrop. Come winter they can’t be replaced because they are deer tolerant and bring a brilliance to the landscape you can’t get from ordinary evergreens.

CREB®>> What is the number one mistake gardeners tend to make?

DB>> New gardeners assume the soil is just a material to give roots a place to secure themselves. In fact soils are everything and if you assume the soils here are the same as the soils where you gardened before think again. Our soils were formed when a large lime mountain was crushed and dragged by glaciers over our land. They are very full of calcium and that makes them limey and sometimes hard to grow in.

CREB®>> What are some good tips for gardeners just starting out?

DB>> Plan first and then plant. If your gardening activity starts at the store you have skipped a step and it will show in your garden. For one thing most of the plants in gardens in Calgary are purchased in spring and people buy what they see in bloom. Gardens around town are lovely in spring but what about summer and fall and winter interest? If you take an hour or two to work with a garden planner or to read a few books or leaf through magazines for inspiration your rough idea plan will surely be better than no plan at all.

CREB®>> What makes a good community?

DB>> A good community is where everyone plants their little piece of green to make the city a better place for everyone who walks, bikes or rides the bus past your house. This is your positive externality to the world – the front yard. The greenery filters water, cleans the air, calms our jagged nerves, inspires others with its points of interest and generally offers a touch of colour and changing interest. The colour green promotes creativity so even if your whole garden is done in shades of green it presents a tapestry of interest and sparks ideas. One garden triggers the care of another garden and several gardens decrease vandalism and promote community.

CREB®>> What’s the best way to spend a day off in the community?

DB>> The best way to spend a day is to jump on your bike and head out to one of our cities parks. You can enjoy two rivers, mature trees, birds and wildlife as well as wild and cultivated flowers in our city parks.

CREB®>> What’s your favourite room in the house?

DB>> I love the kitchen. I always like to look out at a view and in the house I just sold I could see the birds landing on my little stream for a refreshing drink and watch the blooms pop out from the shrubs and perennials as I sat in my window seat in my cozy kitchen. I have downsized to a smaller condo but even there my husband tore out a wall so we could see the park just outside from our kitchen. We can watch the seasons and plants change. A link to nature no matter how small is so important to me. Even apartments or condos without a view can build a dramatic pot on their balcony so they can always see a hint of green. If you don’t have a balcony, buy a tropical plant or install a living wall.

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