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Back to her roots

In her new gardening show, aboriginal journalist Coleen Rajotte learns to plant the traditional way

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There's a dearth of new gardening shows on television lately, but Winnipegger Coleen Rajotte is breaking new ground by producing and hosting the first-ever series on horticulture from an indigenous perspective -- and it's all home-grown.

Vitality Gardening is the latest endeavour from the award-winning journalist, who has a Cree and Métis background. It combines traditional and contemporary wisdom about growing healthy food in our cold climate using completely organic methods. It's an entertaining and educational show on APTN -- ideal for novice gardeners but also reaffirming established ideology for experts with well-worn green thumbs.

Rajotte's journey of discovery has taken her as far away as Nanoose Bay, B.C., and the Mayan territory of Mexico, where she traces the origins of cultivated corn crops. But the series, which provides tips on how to start your own organic vegetable garden and how to gather wild plants for traditional aboriginal remedies, begins right in her own backyard.

"I had never gardened before," the former CBC journalist explains. "I've never had time to have children, let alone garden." Rajotte's original intention -- to explore gardening through the eyes of a neophyte -- took on an added dimension when she met an aboriginal gardener in Winnipeg who enlightened her on the history and influence of traditional gardening.

In the initial episode, Rajotte plants her first-ever vegetable garden using methods handed down by generations of North and South American First Nations peoples. These principles of cultivation, preservation and sustainability -- thousands of years old -- are still being practised today and centre on the "Three Sisters": corn, beans and squash -- indigenous staples that, when eaten together, provide a balanced diet.

Rajotte admits she was skeptical when told about "companion planting," whereby corn and beans are grown together on a large mound of earth, with squash planted at its perimeter. Essentially, as the corn (a heavy user of nitrogen) grows, it provides support to the beans (which replenish nitrogen through the roots), while the squash acts as a ground cover, suppressing weeds and shading the soil to conserve moisture.

With the coaching of experienced gardener Audrey Logan, Rajotte learns the importance of soil preparation and how to add essential natural ingredients such as composted leaves to our heavy clay soil to improve its texture and boost its fertility. The women even do a little back-lane bin-diving to score some discarded straw to use as mulch.

Companion planting is a running theme throughout the series, as Rajotte also learns to include flowering plants to attract important pollinating insects to her sunny backyard plot. Using a piece of antler fashioned into a traditional digging tool, Rajotte and Logan plant Jerusalem artichoke, another staple grown throughout North America, for its edible tubers, which can be harvested year round. Small seeds of lettuce and beet are broadcast in patches, not planted in rows, to thwart cutworms, and onions are planted at the perimeter of the plot to discourage critters. "Everything is interconnected," Logan explains.

The second episode takes Rajotte to a small community just south of Thompson, where she learns how to prepare a bare patch of land for planting and the importance of knowing the area's first and last frost dates for planning crops. Digging in decomposed leaf mould scavenged from a stand of poplar and bush nearby, Rajotte and a helpful, knowledgeable local expert battle bugs and discuss how the harvest from a small garden can help feed a large family in an area where fresh vegetables are expensive and hard to come by. The advantages of growing vegetables in raised beds is another option that is examined for northern climes.

An upcoming episode will be about community gardening, an idea that is quickly catching on as people come to understand the economic and health benefits of eating locally. A later episode takes viewers to Nanoose First Nation, where Coast Salish people created a garden for day-care children that has had a healing effect on the community, and to the Halalt First Nation, where locally grown organic produce is sold at a farmer's market to raise funds for a youth group.

"In Nanoose, many kids had never seen fresh vegetables growing before, and they were weeding, watering and picking strawberries," Rajotte said. "When kids realize food grows out of the ground, it changes their outlook on healthy eating."

Though we probably take it for granted, we have ancient indigenous cultures to thank for corn, chocolate, vanilla, beans, squash and other staples of our modern diets.

"This show has taken me on a fascinating journey," Rajotte said. "I've interviewed thousands of people and this is the most interesting story I've done."

Vitality Gardening airs at 3:30 p.m. Saturdays on APTN.

Go to www.watchvitality.com and click on the links for more information on the Three Sisters and other crops domesticated by indigenous peoples, gardening tips and what vegetables to grow for a northern climate.

-- With files from Canwest News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 18, 2008 D5

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