By Jeff Tribe
Steph Muma’s wide-ranging exploration of the culinary arts has happily transitioned from chickweed “plating tweezers” to fruit tree grafting tools.
“I do appreciate the art of food, 100 per cent,” said owner/operator (with life and business partner Zack Muma) of Silver Creek Nursery near Wellesley. “But food is meant to feed and nurture you.
“If we are fortunate enough to be among those who eat two or three times a day, it should be treated with respect.”
An enthusiastic canner and freezer, Steph grew up with a large family garden and reminds herself to not take access to growing one’s own fresh produce for granted.
“The flavour, the nutrition, the satisfaction as well.”
The former chef school student also understands quite well how “cute little chickweed leaves” precisely positioned with tweezers can aesthetically enhance a plating of Eggs Benedict on a high-end restaurant’s breakfast line. But she is far more comfortable with broader access to food’s nutritive value, how we quite literally are what we eat, which can also be what we grow.
“Helping people grow their own food-bearing things is what gets me really excited.”
Passion project might not be entirely accurate, given the term’s potentially-inferred connotation of disregard for financial considerations. In order for Silver Creek Nursery to continue offering diverse products to customers and support not only the Mumas and their community through creation of two full-time jobs, part-time and seasonal employment, it’s essential the operation continues to “pencil out.”
However their commitment to self-reliant regenerative sustainability is passionately projected through not only the nursery, but a chosen lifestyle reflective of those principles, not just the what, the how.
“In nature, you’re probably never going to get perfect,” said Zack, alluding to one theory that corn, for example, utilizes as little as 15 per cent of its photosynthetic potential. “We’re probably never going to get to 100 per cent, but are striving to get better.”
Their approach is more gentle evolution than abrupt lane change for an environmentally-conscious business founded by Steph’s cousin Ken Roth. A fan of trees who learned grafting as a teenager, Ken’s vision was to supply overlooked and uncommon tree fruit varieties while justifying and funding his own growing collection. Roth began selling trees, from a small building in 2009, produced conventionally with an array of broad spectrum insecticides, fungicides, antibiotics and weed control spray, supported with high amounts of synthetic fertilizer.
Shifting away from his initial approach, through years of trial and error and modeling courtesy of Michael Phillips’ “holistic orchard” system, Roth eventually developed an integrated organic program operating within the symbiotic connections between all forms of orchard life: bacteria and fungi; pest populations, their hosts and predators, up through birds, coyotes and humans.
Roth simultaneously became more conscious of what he ate, believing sustainable, organic practices offer advantages in both nutritional density and flavour. It is no coincidence that the Silver Creek Line features organic-friendly species and sensitivity.
Steph grew up roughly 20 minutes away, near Ellice, working for her cousin during summers. When Steph was at the nursery full-time in 2018 during a hiatus from the culinary world, Ken outlined plans to either have her and by extension Zack take over, or sell the operation.
Zack grew up on a mink farm near Amulree, working in that industry and on a nearby dairy farm before earning a Mechanical Systems Engineering degree from Conestoga College. But amidst an ongoing fascination in exploring how mechanical things work, Zack’s farming itch, enjoyment in planting and growing things, ‘never went away.’
“That’s a requirement if you’re going to be my life partner,” laughed Steph. “Into food.”
In the intervening two years between official takeover in June, 2020, initial plantings and growth without return on investment through sales of marketable trees, Zack’s employment at a machine shop financially assisted their career transition. The Silver Creek Nursery line currently features around 150 different apple tree varieties, just over 40 pears plus quince trees and between five and 10 each of apricots, peaches, cherries and plums. They have expanded berry options considerably to around 50 including such familiars as raspberries, blueberries, thimbleberries, elderberries, gooseberries and currants as well as aronia, hardy kiwi, sea buckthorn and Saskatoons.
Beyond these core offerings, the couple also has experimental plantings, bringing their varietal range of food-bearing plants to between 600 and 700. A total of around nine acres is utilized, which in rotation with cover crops translates into four acres in grafted fruit trees plus an acre of seedlings and berries.
Beyond expanded diversity and preservation of varieties falling from commercial favour, including experimental plots offers experiential data on process and results enhancement, the opportunity to experiment with both variety and technique, and fruit production. Steph’s electrician father Gary Roth’s eventual retirement is anticipated to allow expansion in native nut trees and seedlings, plus rootstock propagation. A specialized and complicated niche, growing one’s own root stock would allow for more control of not only final product, but process and timing given the potential vagaries of root stock typically crossing the U.S./Canadian border.
Most trees are grafted, beginning with selections from 20-40 common rootstocks on the market, featuring varying characteristics ranging through full-sized, dwarf or semi-dwarf, as well as vigour, disease resistance, cold hardiness, time before bearing, height and soil adaptability. The variety (Gala, Honey Crisp, Empire or whatever) is defined by grafting stock, either scion (dormant) or bud wood grafted onto the root stock. Trees are ready for sale roughly two years after grafting and planting, an approach offering earlier production and also consistency of production through clonal matches.
Silver Creek is also experimenting with seedlings through seed propagation, which due to the fact apples accept three or four sources of pollen, leads to less consistency, which depending on one’s point of view, can be a plus or minus.
“Like humans, you’ll get a genetically-diverse child,” says Steph.
Grafted stock is planted six inches apart in rows four feet apart. The Mumas’ transitional approach to regenerative farming has embraced the concepts of compostable 12-by-12 or 18-by-18-inch hemp mats for organic weed suppression, along with cover crops over mechanical cultivation. In the shorter term, cover crops may attract insects and require scything or mowing. Zack is however experimenting with Joel Salatin-inspired pasture-raised poultry option, the chicken tractor, a mobile housing/protection unit which facilitates sequential grazing for a flock of meat birds. His laying herd is housed in a “chickshaw”, a scalable hand-drawn mobile coop loosely based on a rickshaw based on a design by Justin Rhodes, combined with mobile fencing. Chickens being chickens, a couple of outriders tend to roost in nearby spruce trees.
“They come down and join the flock every day.”
An experiment in a nursery area proved successful, meat birds both trimming the cover and gobbling up roaming insects, with minimal impact on the trees.
“It went well.”
Zack has also tested the concept of cover-crop-pastured pork, a small sample size revealing the necessity of constant monitoring and regular moving to avoid over-rooting, as well as the mess following seven inches of concentrated rainfall.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re doing it the hard way,” Zack admitted, realistic yet not discouraged from closing one regenerative loop through a cover crop/grazing animal rotation, which ideally, will mean less work while working within, rather than against, nature. “It’s another resource potential instead of maintenance cost.”
There was however, no qualification to the success of his determination to build a tiny house from largely compostable or recyclable formaldehyde-free materials, many of which were also recycled. Encouraged by a shared weekend-long course on designing and building one’s own home and using natural techniques, “I just kind of went for it.”
The ensuing 28-by-10-foot structure was constructed on a purpose-built tiny house trailer, hempcrete (a quick-setting combination of hemphurd, a cokbination of hemp and fibre), hydrated lime and hydraulic binder around a 2-by-4 frame. Setting up within an hour, it continues to harden further over time.
“It makes a nice, plasterable surface,” says Zack, who added fibreboard exterior walls to protect integrity during moving, and former mink barn metal roofing and siding on top of that. Hempcrete has an R value of two per inch, translating into roughly R15 overall given seven-and-a-half-inch thick walls (floor and roof insulation are offered through raw sheep’s wool mainly from a local shearer) featuring six inches of “crete” which also adds thermal mass, mitigating the rapidity of temperature change.
A plumbed, hard-wired four-season 350-square-foot structure, including a sleeping loft, is heated via electric heater and small wood stove and features a basic composting toilet and shower from a repurposed wine barrel Steph soldered together.
“You ‘brained’ it all,” she said, crediting Zack’s design that followed international tiny house code guidelines for both safety and functionality and took roughly a year to complete.
“I probably made mistakes here and there,” confessed Zack, who did the lion’s share of the work himself. “But that’s part of it,” Steph rejoined.
In a nutshell, those two sentences may sum up their decision to move forward with Silver Creek Nursery, in the manner they are. It’s a choice that requires long hours, particularly in the spring, and an abundance of hard work. But there’s also an abundance of fulfilment in being able to ‘brain it all out’, incrementally moving toward self-sufficient sustainability in an industry built around the positive progression of things growing and living and thriving.
“The magic of plants growing is all I need,” Steph added. “That’s where I get my kick.”
Having enough money to survive, support the entirety of the endeavour, consider children someday and replace securely rented property with their own ground, is important to the pair. So, too, is finding fulfillment in one’s life choices beyond simply making money. It’s about continuing to progress; continuing to evolve.
“To be able to do your own thing, to make your own mistakes and learn from them and change your course of action,” Steph summed up in conclusion. “If you are the owner, you can take those steps.” ◊