The Expert: Thean Pheh

Cold weather gardener Thean Pheh shares his knowledge.

Who: Thean Pheh

Age: 65

Experience: He grew up in Malaysia and worked for the country’s department of agriculture for 15 years. He moved to Edmonton in 1982 and became a fruit and vegetable technologist with Alberta Agriculture from 2002 until his retirement in 2007. Over the last 27 years, he has grafted 14 varieties of apples onto a single tree in his backyard. The fruit is larger and juicer than one would expect from our short growing season. Now he and his wife, Gaik Thuan Ooi, grow local Edens filled with blueberries, gooseberries, garlic, pears, squash, melons, ginseng and countless others at their Beverly home and at a farm near Mundare. That’s difficult, to say the least, in our central Alberta climate. The Phehs sell their produce and Thean’s gardening books at the City Market Downtown on 104th.

–  “I practise zero tillage. I will not till my vegetable beds, and I’ve lived on this property for 27 years. The first few years, you get lots of weeds. But after that, you won’t. We live in the black soil zone of central Alberta where soil has a very granular structure, which is one of the best soils you can find. When you till it, you destroy the structure, doing more harm than good.”

–  “You can graft anything of the same family. It’s hard to grow melons, because the soil and air temperature is cool. You can circumvent the problem by using plastic panels over the plant. But if I could find a cold-tolerant root stalk, I could try to graft my melon onto it and grow without the plastic panels. I had a fig-leafed squash in mind for the root stalk because it may be tolerant to our cold.”

– “Many people are trying companion planting as a natural way of controlling insects. So, one plant will produce a chemical that will prevent insects from attacking the other plant. For example, marigolds dispel nematodes [roundworms]. I also leave aside certain areas so that beneficial insects such as ladybugs, bumblebees and hoverflies have some place to be.”

–  “I consider honey bees to be highly unionized insects; they have strict rules among themselves. If the temperature is below a certain point, or the wind is up to a certain velocity, they won’t go out. So, they’re not actually that effective in pollinating our fruit trees in spring. Orchard bees and other native bees, however, go out no matter the weather and visit more plants than honey bees.”

–  “To attract bees that live in cavities, you take a piece of untreated wood, drill down about four or five inches into the wood, about one inch apart and they’ll use it as housing. For those that live in the ground, you just leave certain areas of your yard undisturbed and they will build a nest in the soil.”

–  “I prefer to water in the morning for two reasons: One is the slug problem – if I water in the evening, slugs come in and have dinner at night and finish off my plants – and the other reason is that an early morning watering allows plants to dry up before going to bed, reducing the incidence of diseases.”

–  “I use a lot of compost and I only correct deficiency with synthetic fertilizers. I can test to see if the fertilizer is working with an indicator plant. So I grow corn and from the symptoms on the corn, I can tell what is deficient and what isn’t. If nitrogen is deficient, the leaves will yellow; if leaves are purplish, it could be phosphorous deficiency; and if the leaves are thick and wrinkled, calcium deficiency.”

– “You can select vegetable varieties that are frost-tolerant up to minus-four degrees Celsius, including most of the cabbage family, spinach and an edible chrysanthemum from Asia. You can also consistently spray a fine mist on plants to protect them from frost during cold snaps. The water needs to freeze on the leaves and roots; it might be minus-three or -four outside and only zero inside the plant.”

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