Drought conditions in spring and summer are a problem for some crops, no worries for others
It was a coolish, overcast weekday July morning after a couple of days of much-needed rain. On a whim, my daughters and I went berry picking at the Sunflower Gardens on Meadowview Drive, just a few kilometres outside the city. We had already missed the strawberries (they’re the first berries ready at the start of July), and weren’t sure what we’d find given the terribly dry conditions the Prairies have experienced this spring and summer.
Surprisingly, there was plenty ready to pick at this 37-acre site nestled alongside Lois Hole Provincial Park in Sturgeon County. Amidst a mass of sunflowers, a children’s playground and colourful dollhouse-type buildings, farm owners Roger and Jaenie Ayotte run a busy operation from May through September. They’ve no time for the farmers market – it’s a cash-only operation where visitors from near and far, many with young children in tow, come to pick the bounty of the harvest – locally grown, fresh produce that starts with strawberries and ends in October with a heap of vegetables – potatoes, onions, beets, Swiss chard, zucchini, cucumbers and tomatoes.
Right now though, there’s big, leafy rhubarb, plenty of dark red raspberries and an amazing crop of saskatoons – big, plump, juicy saskatoons that can fill a four-litre ice cream pail in quick order.
“In the 10 years we’ve been growing and selling here, this year has been the worst for dry conditions,” said Jaenie, who still rarely waters any of the crops, letting nature take care of or ruin her plants as it will. “We’ve got no beans, really, and peas are struggling too. The raspberries and strawberries needed water, so it has been a so-so crop, with mostly smaller berries.”
But for some reason, the saskatoons are thriving, attracting fruit pickers from all around. “One lady told me saskatoons have long roots and love the heat, so they’ve been able to tap into moisture deep in the soil, and bask in the hot sun – it has been perfect conditions for them,” she added.
On one side of the garden, long beets are doing well – on the other side, round ones are shrivelled from lack of rain. It’s a puzzle to Roger, who accepts the ups and downs of growing crops and being at the mercy of the weather. “We don’t water – just wait for the rain – whatever comes,” he said.
Amidst wee children picking and popping more raspberries into their mouths than make it into the bucket, my own daughters, now 21 and 16, are more focused on the task, gingerly picking saskatoons off the tall bushes. It’s a wealth of riches on this day, and we are able to fill three four-litre pails with raspberries and saskatoons in less than an hour. The berries were about $3 and $4 a pound and, on this day, were bound for a batch of scones, with plenty left over to freeze for another day this summer or into the coming months.
Sunflower Gardens is part of the Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association, which each year helps direct people to growers, farmers and U-pick gardens to experience a taste of the country. St. Albert is near many such acreages throughout the capital region and central Alberta, including Don’s Berries & Vegetables, (less than 10 kilometres north), and T & D saskatoons, also less-than a 10-km trek north.
Directions and details on what crops each farm sells are available at albertafarmfresh.com and through a map available at each location.
TIPS for a U-PICK
• Wear comfortable, loose clothing – dress for the weather – but long-sleeved shirts and pants are a good idea. And don’t forget a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses and insect repellent.
• Bring a picnic cooler with ice packs to keep your produce cool
• Bring cash – many vendors don’t accept any other form of payment
• Call ahead to see what’s available for picking today – you don’t want to be disappointed
• For berries, store unwashed in the fridge in shallow containers, loosely covered, and wash just before use.