By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
There’s a curious vine growing in Ben Caeser’s greenhouse at Fiddlehead Nursery near Kimberley. Maybe it’s not how curious the vine is, but HOW it’s growing.
Emerging at regular intervals from the centre of the greenhouse are seedless grape vines, which have been trained to grow straight up and then spread across the crossbars of the greenhouse. During this interview in late April, it’s hard to imagine why someone would grow grapes inside a greenhouse.
“Actually, when the vines leaf out, they provide the shade the plants need from the hot sun inside the greenhouse,” explained Caesar. “Before they leaf out, I get all the sun I need for spring seedlings.”
“Where did you get that idea from,” I questioned, marveling at the ingenious concept for non-mechanical greenhouses. “I thought of it myself actually,” says Caesar, quietly.
There’s a lot to learn from this man who was 27 before he even put a shovel in the ground. Educated in English literature and a carpenter by trade (he still does carpentry in the winter) Caesar was helping a friend plant nut trees one summer when he felt a shift in his life’s purpose. That friend, Ahren Hughes of Blackshire Gardens, was passionate about permaculture and edible landscaping.
“He really inspired me,” remembers Caesar. “I had been concerned with the environment my whole life but my concern was very top down.” He participated in protests but saw no change or consequences to his actions. “I felt very deflated.”
Learning about permaculture, Caesar decided to take a “bottom up” approach and take responsibility for his own actions. “The idea of self-sufficiency really appealed to me.”
Reading books and learning from others fine-tuned his thoughts and drive to create edible forest gardening techniques. He began research on which plants would work well in the Beaver Valley/Ontario climate and he soon realized how difficult it was to find perennial salad greens and vegetables.
“So I hatched my dream to start a nursery with plants that I had trouble finding,” he says. He purchased a 30-acre horse farm just off the Niagara Escarpment 11 years ago. Fiddlehead Nursery was born a year later and continues to expand its offerings with such perennial vegetables as:
• Seedless sorrel – great for salads and as a raw vegetable
• Cutleaf coneflower – the leaves are edible and the flowers attract pollinators
• Patience dock – eaten when the greens are young
• Sweet Cicely – the leaves taste like licorice and the seeds are great for pickling
• Caucasion spinach – a vine related to spinach that thrives in the shade
• Hostas – the spring shoots are edible, all varieties, and are popular in Japan
• Stonecrop – succulent leaves are great in salads are year around
• Solomon’s seal – the spring shoots are like asparagus
• Hops – young shoots are edible and the hops can be used in brewing
• Daylilies – the flowers are excellent in tempura (like a squash flower) and the unopened buds are used as a vegetable in China and Taiwan
Sorrel and chocolate mint are popular sellers along with anise hyssop, a native plant from which the leaves are good in salads. It also makes a great tea, says Caesar.
Caesar loves experimenting with international varieties of plants, believing they add biodiversity to the landscape and to the human diet. “A diverse diet means a more nutrient balance which leads to a resilient immune system,” he says.
He does advocate the growing of native plants but believes there is room for all plants For instance, Autumn olive, a deciduous shrub native to Asia, is an invasive plant on his farm. “It’s awash with insects that get their food from it and in the fall, it produces berries for wildlife and for me,” he says. “Plus, autumn olives are great nitrogen fixers.”
“It is important to plant native species but not demonize non-natives,” he says.
Non-native plants he is experimenting with include:
• Korean aster: “This plant is foraged in the wild in Korea.”
• Victory onions: “These are foraged in Siberia and northern China and used to make a fermented paste.”
• Honewort: “These are native woodland perennials that taste a little like parsley.”
After a chat in the kitchen, Caesar takes me to his outdoor perennial vegetable garden where I sample sorrel leaves, fennel, sweet cicely, plantain dock, caucasian spinach and hops. I refuse to sample lovage because I’ve grown it before and the celery-flavour is not appealing to me. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the flavours of the other perennials.
It was April when I visited Fiddlehead and even this early in the season, there were enough perennial vegetables to harvest for a salad or vegetable entree. There is much to see here. Casesar has a tree seedling starter, a fruit shrub cutting centre, an old bank barn foundation where he overwinters the perennials, plus the greenhouse with its grape canopy. A burbling brook runs by the greenhouse and fruit trees line the laneway. There’s a lot to see, some perfectly neat, some areas not, but all the result of much research and understanding of plant culture.
Caesar shares his knowledge by offering tours to horticulture groups and other interested parties. He also offers workshops on edible garden design and taste-tests of the perennial plants.
A basic tenet of edible garden design is to not disturb the soil to allow the sequestration of carbon in the soil. Low maintenance is another focus and he advocates the use of perennial groundcovers to prevent weeds. His top five recommendations for perennial groundcover mulch include:
• Seedless sorrel
• Jerusalem artichoke
• Chinese artichoke
Rhubarb seemed a surprising choice but Caesar encouraged me to think of my own rhubarb patch and indeed, there are no weeds under it as the leaves form a perfect weed-deflecting canopy. Strategically placed in a garden, rhubarb serves the same purpose.
Strawberries are also valuable as ground cover. While the plants won’t be as productive, they do outpace the weeds.
Another element of edible garden design is to design the canopy first. “Trees take the longest to establish so space them so that when they are mature, you still have a gap between them to plant in between.”
Caesar’s knowledge and plants were in high demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. While he couldn’t host as many workshops, his greenhouse business has been booming the last two years. “A lot of people were keen on growing any type of food,” he says. “A lot of people who come here are new to gardening and are hungry for information.”
He gets the biggest reaction on his taste test tours. “They taste flavours they have never had before,” he says.
Plus, perennial vegetables can serve up salad or stir-fries long before the first lettuce and peas are ready from the annual plants most gardeners grow. There’s a whole world of perennial salad greens and vegetables to uncover and Caesar is helping guests to his greenhouse discover it. ◊