I awoke to a rainy, chilly morning at the farm. A light drizzle was pattering down on my hammock tent, and I buried my head inside my sleeping bag. It was the perfect morning for a sleep-in.
But today, I was going for a road trip — if I got the animal feeding done in time this morning. I didn’t want to miss it, so I emerged from my tent and into the rain. You see, today, we were heading to Tree Paradise.
Okay, so it’s actually called The Living Centre — but it is a tree paradise. A very enchanting, magical place with different varieties of trees, plants and herbs arranged into beautiful gardens all around the 50-acre property.
Antonio was heading there to pick up some trees and plants for the farm — chestnut, hazelnut, Korean pine, kiwi, black currant, St. John’s Wort, cherry, goumi, and others.
On the ride over, I had asked why we were driving two and a half hours to buy trees. Wasn’t there a closer nursery?
Antonio explained that 90 percent of nurseries in Ontario sell ornamental trees — trees that are planted for aesthetic reasons, rather than for useful reasons, like growing food.
Finding edible trees and plants, and medicinal herbs, is a huge challenge. Hence, our road trip all the way to London, Ontario to pick up these precious trees and plants.
In the previous three years, Antonio had planted pear, apple, willow and oak trees, as well as currant, raspberry and gooseberry shrubs, at the farm. All of these trees and plants were perennials — hardy and an important part of sustainable agriculture.
“If they’re so good, why don’t we (the general “we”) grow more perennials?” I asked.
“A few reasons,” Antonio replied. “There’s less funding for developing perennial plants into systems. And they’re also harder to domesticate.”
Instead, conventional farms are drawn to growing annual crops. We know many of these well: corn, tomatoes, wheat, barley, soy, beans and rice. Because they complete their life cycle within a year, the rewards are more quickly reaped.
The problem though is that these crops must be planted again each year, continuously destroying the soil through the tilling process.
So, while we might gain instant rewards, we’re not creating a sustainable food system in the long run, Antonio said.
For Cavaleiro Farm, we want to look a few years ahead — even 20, 30 years down the line. That’s a lot of patience, but it’s also non-negotiable when your main priority is to respect the land and create a viable food future.
At tree paradise, we met Shantree, the founder of The Living Centre. The Centre is first and foremost an educational sanctuary that offers permaculture, herbalism and other workshops and mentorship programs. Trees and plants are sold twice a year through their Artemisia’s Forest Garden Nursery business.
“We teach people to learn how to love the land so deeply, that they will fight for it,” Shantree explained.
When Shantree first stepped out of his house, barefoot despite the chilly weather, I could sense a genuine, peaceful aura in his smile.
Shantree was clearly very connected with the land, and exuded a lot of passion and care for trees and plants — and not just the ones immediately surrounding him at home.
He said that of the 2,200 plants in our region, we’ve lost 200 in the past 15 years. Another 800 is predicted to be lost in the next 15 years.
“If we don’t use it, we lose it,” he said.
Destroying Diversity: The Monoculture Monster
Why does it matter? Diversity is an important part of keeping our ecosystem healthy and sustainable. And yet, modern agriculture has turned to monoculture practices, where only one type of crop is grown intensively in a field.
Nowhere in a real, natural environment would you find this happening. Plants grow with other types of plants and trees, as well as insects and other animals, that all interact with each other to sustain that ecosystem.
But to maximize yields and profits, agriculture has created these fake ecosystems to grow as much of one crop as possible within a short timeframe. Insects (relabelled “pests”) are eliminated from the environment with pesticides.
Here’s a slight segue into the monoculture of corn if you’d like to take it … During the car ride, Antonio explained the long-term repercussions of perpetuating such a monoculture system. Let’s take corn, for example. The seed to grow the vast majority of our corn is developed in a lab. The seed is bred for such traits as tolerating herbicides, to increase the likelihood of high yields.
But after three years, the performance of that corn — i.e. the amount of corn that is able to be produced — drops. Why? One reason is that genetically modified corn has stayed the same, while the environment has continuously changed around it during that time.
Of course, the seed gets modified once again to develop a new, “better” corn. But with each modification, the percentage of protein in the corn is diminished. There is less and less nutritious substance in the corn that we’re being sold, buying, and feeding ourselves.
In the opposite case of organic (“open-pollinated”) corn, corn gets to interact with other corn in the field. Through sex, they produce the next generation of corn.
The corn that is reproduced isn’t exactly the same as its predecessors (as is the case with GMO corn). That’s because the organic, living corn learns and adapts to its environment. And that is practicing sustainable agriculture. … Okay, back to Tree Paradise.
Walking around the gardens at The Living Centre, Shantree introduced us to some different trees, and even offered us a bite of a plant stem — it tasted just like licorice.
We stood by a beautiful cherry tree, white blossoms adorning its delicate branches. Shantree spoke of the relationship he had developed with many of these trees.
“I knew this one since it was this high,” he said, placing his hand near his knee. “It’s been 15 years now. I’ll come out and ask it, ‘Hey, how’s it going this spring?’ That bond is really important.”
As I heard the love in his voice for the tree, my eyes welled up with tears.
“Oh no, I’m going to cry,” I said, waving my hand in front of my face.
“I just feel so emotional around trees,” I explained. Given that I was around a whole lot of them here, my heart felt like it was just about to burst with happiness and emotion.
I had experienced many moments sitting on a campsite in the backcountry where I’d look out across the lake to the rows of majestic trees. Their presence would always made me feel safe and unconditionally loved.
Trees seemed to me the wisest beings, graciously accepting whatever Mother Nature brought their way, and weathering the toughest storms. I felt that we could learn a lot from trees.
Shantree encouraged me to keep being passionate about the trees. He was happy that we, and others, had taken action to grow these much-needed trees and plants.
As Antonio had mentioned earlier, they might take years to bear fruit — the Korean pine trees would produce pine nuts after 25 years! — but their hardiness would ensure that when climate chaos ensued, they’d still be around to provide for us.
“Three thousand trees and plants left the nursery yesterday,” Shantree said. “Knowing they will find their homes in forest gardens across the province is so gratifying.” He placed his fist to his heart at the thought.
Well, I completely fell in love with this nature sanctuary during our visit. I even adored the outhouse! I decided to leave a little note of thanks while I was in there 🙂
After gathering the final group of trees and plants we’d be taking back to the farm, we said our goodbyes to Shantree. I felt uplifted by this experience, and grateful to know that there were many others who felt the same way about caring for our trees and protecting our natural sanctuaries.
Plant on, friends!
Thank you to Shantree for graciously having us at The Living Centre today, and thanks to Antonio for generously sharing your knowledge about trees and plants with me.