By Brenlee Brothers

Joni Wright headshot


BugHouse Jan2023Joni Wright vividly recalls feeling a sudden surge of humidity when she walked into a Toronto bank many years ago. Inside, there was a mesmerizing wall garden that transformed the environment of the building. “Just by walking into that space, the air that you were breathing and the atmosphere, led to a whole holistic reaction,” she said. At the time, Wright was unaware there was a term for this. It wasn’t until many years later, during her enrolment in the Living Green Infrastructure course at Gaia College, that she discovered the concept of biophilic design.

Biophilic design is a concept used in the building industry to connect people to a natural environment while indoors, by quite literally bringing nature inside. This concept is just one aspect of the wealth of knowledge Wright acquired through her coursework at Gaia College, which ultimately inspired her new landscape design and organic gardening company, Grass Roots Contessa.

Although Wright would like to incorporate biophilic design into her business, she’s not quite sure how to integrate it yet. For now, she specializes in creating drought tolerant gardens while ensuring soil health and enhanced biodiversity, as well as general maintenance for those who need an extra pair of hands in their soil. Through consultation, she helps clients create action plans for garden improvement, with plant suggestions and landscape recommendations specific to each property. Her clients are often people who are receptive and open to change - like incorporating more native plants in their garden, and learning to appreciate the vital role insects play in soil and ecosystem health.

 Wright is passionate about education. “For me, it's always about education,” she said. She ensures that her clients learn from her services - whether it’s just a matter of introducing them to the native species she’s planting, what pollinator plants are, or how to install a compost system. “I'm always trying to incorporate everything I've learned - and continue to learn - onto my clients. And they teach me things too, so we all win,” she said.

20230617 112928 LargeAs a lifelong learner, Wright has always had a passion for teaching and an interest in gardening. She has a degree in Human Services Management, and has taken many courses through the provincial instructor program at BCC. It was her diverse range of interests that led her to Gaia College in 2020, where she embarked on a new educational journey.

Through Westcoast Child Care Resource Centre, Wright offers nature-based workshops to Early Childhood Educators. She employs what she learned through her studies at Gaia College and shares it with EcEs in the hopes they transfer the knowledge to children through educational activities, such as explaining how a leaf works or how seeds travel. The goal is to encourage children to explore and connect with their natural surroundings, fostering outdoor engagement and environmental awareness. She also facilitates edible and ornamental gardening workshops for residents of the non-profit Metro Vancouver Housing organization, where she teaches people how to start seeds and establish a garden.

As someone who has worked in the nonprofit sector for a decade, Wright is heavily involved in her community. She volunteers for the city of Delta’s Adopt a Rain Garden Program, where she stewards one of one of the city’s many gardens, thanks to a partnership with Cougar Creek StreamKeepers. “We’re harvesting rain water, and we’re creating a beautiful environment as well,” she said. Participating in this project has shifted the way Wright looks at her surroundings - everytime she sees a puddle at the end of a driveway she sees the potential for a new rain garden. 

Wright’s diverse interests and education from Gaia College have empowered her to make a significant impact in her community while bridging her passion for nature and education. “What I've taken from the program and what I’ve learned are expansive. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to have those courses available, and to satisfy all of my interests as well.”


     before landscape photo        after landscape photo









To learn more about Joni Wright and keep tabs on her business, Grassroots Contessa, visit her website and follow her on Instagram!

Photo Credits

Joni Wright is an Organic Master Gardener, Landscape Designer and Educator. Joni Wright photo

A bug hotel Wright made using a deconstructed pallet, foraged material, and items from her garden tickle trunk. Joni Wright photo

Removing Himalayan Balsam at an invasive species removal event. Joni Wright photo

Before and after photos of a new garden. The homeowner had removed a large patch of Buttercup, which was turned into a garden. Joni Wright photo



About the Author

Brenlee Brothers lives in Prince Edward Island. She has an Applied Journalism Degree from UPEI and currently works in the native plant nursery at Macphail Woods Forestry Project. Writing articles for Gaia College helps bridge her interests of organic farming, ecological landscape restoration, and nature education.

Andrea Blum used to build and operate airports around the world for a living. Now her life’s work has shifted to helping people build nutrient-rich soil through her Pacific Composting Company.

pacific composting andrea pic

Andrea Blum, Serena Haley photo.

From Aviation to Agriculture: Andrea Blum's Transition from Building Airports to Building Soil

By Brenlee Brothers

Andrea Blum used to build and operate airports around the world for a living. Now her life’s work has shifted to helping people build nutrient-rich soil through her Pacific Composting Company.

pacific composting lavender 1After living and working in Latin America for a decade, Blum decided it was time to leave the aviation industry and return to Canada to put roots down with her family. They settled on a 14-acre property just outside Duncan, B.C., and Blum decided it was her duty to make the property as biodiverse as possible. 

Through this pursuit, she found Gaia College. It was during one of their courses that she built a DIY worm bin as part of a composting assignment, and had the thought, “This is what I was put on this planet to do.” To take what would otherwise be waste and convert it into an incredible, highly valuable resource that sustains gardens and greenspaces. The idea sent Blum on a mission to educate people about the benefit and utility of composting.

After completing her Diploma in Organic Land Care at Gaia College, Blum worked with the college for three years, handling social outreach and marketing efforts. “I’m so grateful to Gaia College for the excellent education and wonderful community they have been cultivating for over 25 years,” Blum said. She also completed four foundation courses at Dr. Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web School.

Since then, Blum spent several years consulting with worm experts from around North America before launching Pacific Composting Company in July 2023. “When you find what sets your soul on fire… it's like all the pieces just fall into place,” she said. 

Blum has tested every composting system readily available, and only sells those that meet her standard and provide good value. Her company promotes multiple composting approaches such as vermicomposting, layered composting and bokashi, providing solutions on scales ranging from apartment balconies to farms. “We prefer to promote multiple composting approaches, as well as various integrated systems and other farming practices, to demonstrate that there is even more potential when you combine strategies and just generally view things from a more holistic perspective,” Blum said. 

pacific composting wormsIn basic terms, an outdoor layered system is great if you have a lot of food and yard waste, bokashi uses an anaerobic process to ferment food that cannot normally be turned into compost such as meat, dairy, citrus, garlic and onion, and the most popular option is vermicomposting – worms that produce a nutrient rich excretion called castings. Though each system can be designed specifically to meet its user’s needs, all three options make great partner systems, Blum said.

Municipal recycling strategies across Canada are often changing,which may put more  responsibility to deal with food waste onto residents. Knowing how to effectively turn food waste into compost is an important and empowering tool.

Blum’s clientele is targeted at eco-conscious homeowners, homesteaders and small soil blenders, which makes up a diverse range of people. A lot of people want to get into composting, but they don’t know how, Blum said. “They need the educational component.” And education is at the heart of what Blum does. She has spent countless hours volunteering at local schools and community events to educate students and people about the magic of compost. “Whether communicating with existing customers, or the public at large, we always aim to go above and beyond to provide people with the information they need to be successful in composting,” she said.

Blum hgeodesic domeas set up her property with education in mind by building a geodesic dome to offer workshops about organic gardening, composting, native plants, ecological landscape design, foraging, and permaculture.

 Pacific Composting is building an extensive library of composting resources and information on its website. “You can’t expect people to change or want to do these things if you’re not going to provide the support,” Blum said. The website also has a quiz where you can find out which composting system works best for you.

On her property, Blum has built a 1,500-square-foot “Worm Pasture” which, to her knowledge, is the first in Canada. She has been adding to the layers in the pasture for a year, starting with a thick layer of alder chips, followed by layers of manure, alder bark mulch and various other materials. The pasture was seeded with fall rye, then the process of adding manures and seeding was repeated several times. This past summer she grew 30 kinds of crops in the worm pasture, including borage, radish, melons, and bok choy. At the end of the season she did a chop and drop, layered manure on top, added more worms and seeded it again with fall rye.

worm pasture

 Red wigglers need a lot of organic matter, she said. “That's why we don’t recommend putting them in gardens, because they need steady moisture and high organic matter which a lot of gardens can’t provide. This is a very specialized and built system that seems like a big garden, and in essence it kind of is, but it’s been very properly layered and strategically built. So, if the worms have what they need, they're going to stay. If they don’t, they're going to keep on going in search of it.” Food grown in the worm pasture is incredibly nutrient dense because it’s grown in castings, and the worms help to aerate and fertilize plant roots.

Pacific Composting emphasizes the health and well-being of its worms, Blum said, and encourages customers to do the same. “When you understand the biology and ecology of these amazing organisms, and you do your best to help them thrive, the results are going to be that much better.”

Composting is a helpful way to lessen your carbon footprint, creating nutrient and microbe rich food for your soil. Blum would like to see a world where everyone composts their food waste. Pacific Composting provides the systems, supplies, and education needed to make soil richer.

pacific composting red wigglers

Photography credits

Lavender from Andrea’s ¼ acre lavender labyrinth. Serena Haley photo.

Red wiggler worms in their climate controlled facility. Serena Haley photo.

Geodesic dome for indoor workshops. Andrea Blum photo.

1,500-square-foot worm pasture. Andrea Blum photo.

Packaged worms from Pacific Composting. Serena Haley photo.

To keep up with Andrea Blum's business, Pacific Composting, visit their website and follow them on Facebook and Instagram

About the Author

Brenlee Brothers lives in Prince Edward Island. She has an Applied Journalism Degree from UPEI and currently works in the native plant nursery at Macphail Woods Forestry Project. Writing articles for Gaia College helps bridge her interests of organic farming, ecological landscape restoration, and nature education. 

Connecting Gaia College to the East Coast

By Brenlee Brothers

Richard Greene and Caroline Hall

Richard Greene and his stepdaughter Caroline Hall

Richard Greene is a Red Seal Landscape Horticulturist and Gaia College Diploma graduate who is passionate about spreading awareness and education about organic land care, while working to promote Gaia College on the East Coast.

Greene spent most of his life living in Prince Edward Island, but relocated to Nova Scotia almost a year ago. 

After working in the fish farming industry for a couple decades, Greene wanted to make a career change toward something more aligned with his interests. In his spare time, if he wasn’t trout fishing, he was working in his yard, or gardening - often giving away the veggies he grew to his neighbors. 

So when someone suggested he get into landscaping as a career path, he started looking online. There were a lot of options for online learning, but he liked the natural approach that Gaia College offered, so he signed up for three courses right off the bat: Organic Horticulture Specialist, Ecological Plant Knowledge - Natives, and Business Skills for Landcare Professionals. 

When it came to gardening, “I thought I knew what I was doing,” he joked. But he was blown away by the material offered in the courses. “It changed me completely,” he said.

Knowing the course material is accessible on an online library platform after you finish each course is something he really values about the college, he said. “I like to be able to have all the material at your fingertips whenever you want.” Greene thinks landscape companies should be required to take these courses to expand their ecological awareness, “they should have this knowledge” he said. 


Loon Haven: A SketchUp of their property in Lahave, Nova Scotia where they are creating a vast collection of gardens.

It was during the business skills course that Greene had the idea of becoming a Red Seal Horticulturist. In order to attain it, he needed to have experience in irrigation, stone work, retaining walls, and lighting. He did his apprenticeship under Mike Gallant of Beyond the Garden Landscaping in Summerside, P.E.I., where he learned all the necessary skills, while continuing to work toward his Diploma in Organic Land Care. The courses he took through Gaia helped prepare him for each block in his Red Seal, which he completed in March 2022. 

A lot of people are interested in stone work, he said. But oftentimes there is not a lot of plant material that goes back into the area, so the challenge is finding a balance between hardscape and soft scape to enhance biodiversity.

Greene’s stepdaughter, Caroline Hall just completed two courses through the college as well, so the two have started a business where they can offer landscape design, property assessments, and health management plans to property owners within the maritimes. “We really have to encourage the east to get involved with this and start educating ourselves...a little bit of knowledge goes a long way,” he said.

Hall and Greene recently visited plant nurseries in their area to drop off business cards and talk with the owners, and from the conversations they had, it seems as though there is a need for the kind of services they want to offer.

Spiral Garden

This herb spiral garden was made from old block wood.

Now located in Lahave, Nova Scotia, Greene lives on an established property with lots of trees, shrubs and flowers, where he has intentions to start growing native plants and open a nursery in the future. They have started around 30 different perennials and some annuals (mostly vegetables) that will be going into the ground soon. Greene also plans to become a Certified Organic Land Care Professional, a two year process administered by SOUL. The goal is to become confident at growing food, and using his property to showcase what native plants can do. He says, "we've got big plans, but it's just baby steps right now". Hall is currently working on developing a website for their business: The Greene Hallway to Ecological Landscape.

Water Feature

A water feature rock garden to provide a water source for insects, birds, and plant material for pollinators.

Cowichan Bay Gardening Services

A new business venture for the Cowichan Recyclists

by Brenlee Brothers

Erin Ward and her son Eric with the Cowichan Recyclists bike and trailer, which will be used for her gardening services.
Patrick Devlin photo

Erin Ward is coming back full circle to a dream she’s had for years. Cowichan Recyclists has started offering gardening services by bike and bike trailer in the Cowichan Bay area on Vancouver Island. Co-owner Erin Ward specializes in food growing, native plants, and low maintenance pollinator gardens, with deer resistant and drought tolerant plants. 

Ward has had many years of experience working in environmental stewardship projects, such as the creation of community gardens and natural habitat restoration projects. She has a Diploma in Organic Landcare from Gaia College and a Degree in Geography and Ecological Restoration from the University of Victoria. 

When she moved to Cowichan after completing her degree, Ward had a lot of knowledge around native plants and forest ecology, but not so much awareness around growing food. At that time, she didn’t even know what rosemary was, she said. “When I moved here I was more of a nature background person, I was interested in native plants and getting to identify them.” But Cowichan’s culture of local organic food growing really enveloped her.

Before taking courses with Gaia College, Ward worked at Cowichan Land Trust as a Landowner Contact. The position involved helping landowners identify native species on their properties and formulating restoration plans. “When I was doing that, I always felt really frustrated that I wanted to know more, and have more answers for people,” she said.

The diploma program at Gaia supported her to develop knowledge and confidence in relation to her work. The school’s insightful awareness about the sensitivities of other living beings and caring about the landscape was really impactful to her, she said. “There is sort of a land stewardship ethic to Gaia College.”

Ward and her husband Patrick Devlin enrolled in the courses together, with the intention to start their own garden business. But things ended up going in a different direction when they took ownership of Cowichan Recyclists in 2017. Devlin had been working with the business since 2011 - which if you aren’t aware - picks up recycling and organics by bicycle.

The initial owners saw a need for this service because in the town center of Duncan, businesses have to take care of their own recycling. The city streets are also very narrow, which makes it hard for big trucks to get in. It didn’t make sense to have trucks idling fuel while picking up recycling, so the business has been “pedaling waste alternatives since 2007,” and now serves 140 customers.

While running the Recyclists full time and having a child along the way, there wasn’t much time to think about a gardening business, but it was always in the back of Ward’s mind.

In 2021, Ward started volunteering on the garden committee at her son’s school, where she helped create planting plans for the raised garden beds and planted the forest restoration sites at the school. “I kind of inspired myself all over again from that experience,” she said. Which ultimately led to the Recyclists gardening idea. “I guess maybe I didn't have the guts to do it until recently, because it’s too close to my actual dreams.”


A Food Forest Project where Ward designed the terraces, pathways, pergola location and plantings for this part of the garden.
Erin Ward photo

It will be nice to branch off the family business and separate from the husband-wife collaboration a bit, she said. Devlin will continue with the recycling business, while she digs into the gardening service - a welcome change for Ward. “I need to be around things that are beautiful,” she said. ”I need to feel inspired or I just can’t function.” Considering that housing and the cost of living is so high, most people feel like they don’t have time to grow food, and instead just want low-maintenance plants, she said. “I’m really interested in promoting and supporting people to grow food.” She would like to meet her clients wherever they’re at, with the intention of building long term relationships.

There are some particular issues that food growers face on Vancouver Island. With increasingly hot summers, the Island is seeing intense periods of drought, and sometimes barely any rain for five months at a time. In Cowichan Bay, water restrictions are getting pretty heavy, Ward said. “We even had poor water quality issues this year, where we had to boil water for a while.” Choosing plants for all the environmental changes is hard, but it’s also why she wants to focus on incorporating drought resistant plants into her garden plans.


The first Recyclists garden project after being planted and composted in November 2022. The plants shown here are deer resistant, drought tolerant, and pollinator plants.
Erin Ward photo

An issue that food growers face in the Cowichan Valley region is the pervasiveness of deer eating everything in the area. Although deer fencing is an option, it can be expensive and sometimes special equipment is required to get through the soil, and even then it’s not very aesthetically pleasing. Ward is interested in collaborating with someone who has building skills to offer a well-rounded service to people in the community. I like the idea of collaborating, she said. Someone can build the fences, and she can focus on beautifying them to make them fit into the landscape somehow. “I think the comradery and the knowledge sharing would be exciting to be a part of, because owning your own business can be stressful,” she said. 

Ward wants her gardening business to feel like it’s a community of local neighbors, and she wants to be able to help people enjoy their gardens. There’s something that feels really cozy about that to her. Sometimes it helps to not only have plants, but to have insects and birds to lure you in, she said. ”So I can talk to people about how enjoyable that is and how interesting it is to just sit there and watch the bees...otherwise, life is so busy,” she said. “If I can do designs or be creative about solving problems in the soil, that's going to be really fulfilling for me.” 


This beautiful flower is Camas growing in their home garden. Camas is a starchy bulb that you can cook and eat. It was a highly consumed and highly traded plant among First Nations people in the region.
Erin Ward photo

You can learn more about the Cowichan Recyclists gardening services on their website, or check them out on Facebook.

Also - for other folks thinking about an electric bike gardening business in B.C.,the government offers a rebate when you purchase one as part of a provincial climate change funding initiative. Cowichan Recyclists received a $1,700 rebate.


A Lifelong Passion for Gardening

Developing landscapes and ecosystems across continents 

by Brenlee Brothers



Sarah with freshly harvested carrots. Sarah Valentine photo

Sarafina Valentine has been gardening her whole life.  As a child, she spent lots of time meandering through her grandmother's garden, which seems to have been the spark that led to her passion many years later. 

Now, her home garden in Pemberton, British Columbia is a labor of love and means of sanity for Valentine. She grows a wide variety of food, herbs and pollinator flowers and works to develop structure in the landscape by using a range of shrubs, trees, bulbs and grasses. “We get heavy snowfalls and jaw-dropping cold temperatures here, so having winter interest in the landscape is crucial,” she said.


The backyard garden on Sarah's property. Sarah Valentine photo

Valentine has saved her seeds ever since she started gardening. “As much as I like lazy gardening, I like free gardening even more,” she joked. And she has recently started collecting seeds from the wildflowers she grows, with plans to start a local native seed website in the spring.

After completing a university degree in Tropical Ecology, Valentine decided to return to her homeland of Australia, where she was born and lived for several years before immigrating to Canada. She ended up falling in love with the country and spent the next 10 years living in the Far North Tropics. “Being the tropics, you could literally throw pumpkin seeds into your compost heap and before you know it, there’s a massive pumpkin vine growing from it.” 

It was while living there that Valentine started to explore landscaping and ecosystem development. The little cottage she rented was in a small clearing in the middle of a lush jungle. Valentine wanted to recreate the same lushness closer to home, so she developed little ecosystems around the house, using propagated ferns to create a gully around one corner of the cottage. She collected bromeliads (which are from the pineapple family, and have bright colors of magenta and lime green), and collected stones from a nearby river to create a spiral pathway from the front door of the cottage, lining the path with the bromeliads. “On the far side of the cottage, I had planted huge tree ferns that created a shady north-face area, so every side of the cottage had a different ecosystem room,” she said.



A bowl of nature's bounty. Sarah Valentine photo

When she moved back to Canada, Valentine worked as a concierge at a hotel in Whistler for 13 years, spending most of her free time gardening at home. I was obsessed with my garden, she said. “I spent most of my money at the nursery.” 

When the pandemic hit, Valentine was laid off from her job at the hotel, and was forced to think of other means of making an income. It was her husband who suggested she pursue something in relation to gardening, so Valentine started searching for opportunities on the internet.

When she found Gaia College, she was thrilled, and quickly enrolled in the Organic Master Gardeners course. “I fell in love with it. I was taking every single garden book out of the local library and rereading the good ones,” Valentine said. 

Within two and a half years, she completed the diploma program. The courses completely changed her mind-set on how to garden ecologically, she said. “Gaia College was a huge shift in my knowledge. Reading the course book changed the way I thought about nature. What I suspected about connections between plants and animals were proven with science; I like that.”



Another colourful summer harvest from Sarah's home garden. Sarah Valentine photo

It’s important for humans to realize that we are all connected to Nature down to the smallest microbe but beyond that, we are all connected to Earth, she said. ”I also found a lot of inspiration in how Heide teaches her courses, her writing is inspirational. I loved the community that she helped create and she made me feel positive about my life’s path to share my love of gardening and plants while also creating wildlife habitat.”

In the summer of 2020, Valentine was offered a job at the hotel again, but she decided to follow her passion instead. “I wanted to do landscape design, using permaculture and what I was learning at Gaia College,” she said. And so she started her own landscape and garden design business that specializes in creating biodiverse, functional spaces.

Her landscaping company Sarah Valentine Design is growing slowly, and she has a few large clients to keep her busy. “I prefer a slow growth, so I can create unique designs that are suitable for the property, as well as putting a few automated systems in place,” she said.

“I’m more interested in creating mini ecological garden systems than pretty gardens, but I also want to show clients that ecological gardens can be beautiful.”

Since moving to Pemberton, Valentine has witnessed the growing season shift with the changing climate. When she first moved there, Pemberton was a strong zone 5-6, now it’s a full zone 6. “We know how severely B.C. has been affected by drought, wildfires and then flooding, but I’ve noticed my migrational bird visitors are decreasing,” she said. “The hummingbirds have been having an especially hard time lately.” Since having very low temperatures last winter, there were hardly any sightings this summer, which is not a common thing, she said. Typically they have dozens of hummingbirds fighting over the same feeders. “I’m devastated as I am guessing that they might be our canaries in the coal mine.”



The hummingbird is drinking from a Beebalm flower. Sarah Valentine photo

In today's world, it's hard not to feel completely dejected over the state of the planet, she said. But she is hopeful that as more people develop a deeper connection to the natural world, they will be more inclined towards healing the planet than using it for unsustainable means. 

Going forward with a holistic approach is what is needed in life right now, she said. “We need to think deeper about the cause and effect as the caretakers of the planet.”

More information: 
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Sarah will be launching Yogardens Wildflower & Native Nursery in late spring. Please contact her for more information. 


More Photos:



Perennial garden. Sarah Valentine photo 


Before and after photographs of Sarah's yard transformation:



The family had to bring in many yards of organic soil from local composter to fill in the rocky landscape. Sarah Valentine photo



Kid #1!  Sarah Valentine photo



Sarah's husband installing makeshift irrigation. Sarah Valentine photo



Kid #2! Sarah Valentine photo



Sarah testing out the slackline! Sarah Valentine photo



Transforming the yard to become more wildlife friendly. Sarah Valentine photo

Sustainable perspectives

Strengthening relationship with place, ecosystem and community

By: Brenlee Brothers

Common milkweed seedlings from Sundaura's nursery. Sundaura Alford-Purvis photo
Common milkweed seedlings from Sundaura's nursery.
Sundaura Alford-Purvis photo

Sundaura Alford-Purvis has been hooked on gardening since she was around four or five, when she remembers planting squash seeds and watching them grow into humongous vines. It was the coolest thing in the universe, she recalls. “It was magic the first time and it has never stopped being magic.” 

After working in garden centres, studying architecture and trying that for a year, Alford-Purvis spent 24 years working in the horticulture industry as a professional garden and landscape designer. Overtime, she became more aware of the sheer environmental impact of hard materials used by the conventional horticulture industry. From the manufacturing and transportation of materials, to the use of gravel base that is mined somewhere else entirely. “It was bothering me more and more,” she said.

Eventually it became too hard to ignore the common practice of forcing ecosystems out of their natural state for the purpose of human aesthetic desires. She went from working with people and plants to change landscapes, to working with the land and plants to change people. “How do we actually adapt to an ecosystem and become a functioning part of it?” she asks. More people are starting to think about what plants they can use to support the ecosystem as opposed to what plants to use to create the garden look they want, she said. “There’s a lot of people starting from a different question now.” With ecosystem care at the forefront of people’s minds. 

Alford-Purvis is a strong believer that we should practice being in relationship with complex living systems instead of simplifying them. Currently, she is focused on ecosystem enhancement through the use of native plants in Ontario. Last year she started her own micro-nursery, growing over 100 native species from seed this spring to sell to people in the surrounding Ottawa area. “Selling lots of different species so people can actually get the diversity growing in the landscape that you really do need for healthy ecosystems,” she said.

Native plant nursery in the spring.Native plant nursery in the spring. Around 650 plants were sold in the first week.
Sundaura Alford-Purvis photo

“All you can do is work on healthy relationships with place, ecosystems and community,” she said. In an effort to create spaces and activities for others to work on these skill sets, Alford-Purvis created the Landcare Collective, an in person, hands on course, where participants work on garden projects outside and learn how to build up soil health instead of replacing it. The course asks questions like, what materials do we have to work with? What if we can figure out how to actually incorporate what’s here into what we’re trying to create? This looks like weaving together cuttings from invasive shrubs to make compost bins or protection from critters.

Most students are new to this and wondering how to do things differently, she said. “Everyone seems to be having a great deal of fun, which is always the best way to do things.” The course runs one evening, every two weeks from May to October. 

Last Winter, Alford-Purvis did a really neat project where she posted one Ontario native plant a day on facebook, in the order of bloom season, for the entire winter. She included a bio that described each plants’ personality and role in the ecosystem. “It builds up interest just by putting pictures of pretty plants in front of people who otherwise have not seen them,” she said.

Gathering Field Pussytoes seedheads in 2021. Sundaura Alford-Purvis photo
Gathering Field Pussytoes seedheads in 2021. 
Sundaura Alford-Purvis photo

At her house in urban Ottawa, over the past four to five years, Alford-Purvis has been converting her garden beds into native species spaces. “The pollinator population in the yard has just gone through the roof,” she said. “There’s at least three different species of bumblebee that basically complete their life cycle in my little urban yard… literally the yard just hums from spring to fall.”

“I’m trying to really look at what native species can extend the bloom season in a hot year, because last year it was so hot here from early on in the season, all the plants bloomed two weeks early.” By mid-september there were very few blooms left, she said. She plans to collect seeds from the last plants to bloom each season - even for something like common goldenrod - to try to extend the blooming season, she said. “What are the things we can do within an ecosystem that actually might increase our capacity to support life, including our own?” she asks. 

“I would love to see a transition from trying to force the spaces in our communities to be low maintenance and start shifting towards them being spaces that are high engagement, so that we can have lots of relationships with them.”

Sundaura Alford-Purvis
Sundaura Alford-Purvis photo

Sundaura has been working in the horticultural industry since 1998, and was an avid gardener for over a decade before that. In addition to her role as the executive director for the Society for Organic Urban Land Care, she worked for 18 years as a landscape designer and has recently turned her attention to growing native plants and leading hands-on courses to help restore care-based land and plant relationships, with a particular focus on native species, local ecosystems and sustainable food relationships in urban environments.

From the Ground Up

By Brenlee Brothers

In this interview with Gaia College student Arlene Hazzan Green, we learn about Arlene's journey from working in the film industry to being a Gaia College Diploma graduate and launching her organic backyard urban farming business, BUFCO. 

Photo Credit: Matt Madd

After 30 years working in the film industry, Arlene Hazzan Green switched paths completely. She decided to turn her love for gardening and working with the earth into a vocation.

With the intention to ignite passion in people by helping them grow their own food and reconnecting them with nature, the Backyard Urban Farm Company (BUFCO) was born. The Toronto based organic vegetable landscaping company builds, installs, plants and helps maintain edible gardens for both residential and commercial clients in the greater Toronto area.

BUFCO actually sows seeds for urban folk who either don’t know how, or don’t have the time to do it themselves. Their garden team will lovingly care for each plot throughout the season; returning as often as needed to water, weed and harvest.

When Arlene and her husband Marc Green started the company in 2009, Arlene had already been a vegetable gardener for many years. “I was doing it as a hobby; just as fun and enjoyment and also as a way to get my young son connected with nature more than anything,” she said.

At the time, she was working in the film industry as a writer and director, something she had been doing for many years. “I was feeling less and less enthusiastic about the kind of work I was working on. The really good projects seemed very few and far between and television was going through a really big transition.”

Photo Credit: Matt MaddHer writing became almost entirely focused on gardening, farming and sustainable practices, but the industry wouldn’t take the bite. “I just got less and less interested in that and more and more interested in my garden,” she said.

The seed was planted when Arlene and Marc decided to transform their urban backyard by installing raised garden beds. After seeing their neighbours express interest, they started to think, “Maybe we can do this as a business.” 

What began as one client, turned into 10 the following year. Now BUFCO is spreading knowledge and creating beauty, as they graciously seed, plant and care to the organic edible gardens of 40 to 50 clients each year.

The Organic Master Gardener Course at Gaia College was a key component in helping Arlene’s knowledge evolve. “When I took the Organic Master Gardener course, it was the first time I felt like I had actually found my mentors and I was getting it from the ground up quite literally.” From learning about the health and texture of soil, to how water runs through it, to how grass grows and how to maintain it; every bit of content in the course is so important, she said.

It came at the right time as it helped take her practical and self-taught knowledge to the next level. “I already knew basic plant schedules and plant care, but to be able to really, knowledgeably diagnose problems when they come up... having that foundational knowledge enabled me to develop systems that we could count on.”

BufCo Lab sideTaking the course was a really valuable asset for her business, she said. “It Increased my confidence and helped me make decisions about how to build a maintenance plan for the soil.”

The course structure allowed Arlene to take her own time and go as deep into the curriculum as she wanted. “I’m such a person-person that I didn't think I would enjoy an online course, but I actually found that when I did need to connect, I was able to do it through emails with a lot of different people from all over the country, so I got a really great cross-section of different types of growing environments and knowledge about those.”

After finishing the course in December 2018, she was able to take an exam through SOUL (Society of Organic Urban Landcare) to become an accredited landcare practitioner. SOUL provides a process of accrediting, legitimizing and identifying the specific skills of a knowledgeable organic landcare professional. “There’s a bunch of different things you can do to gain credentials, which weren’t around when we first started the company. We were kind of by ourselves in the wilderness it seemed like. But now there is so much more available to all of us, which is so great.”

BUFCO Lab2014Since BUFCO has continued to grow, Arlene and Marc were able to leave the film business completely. Now they have a total staff of 13 people; two of whom also have their Organic Master Gardener Certificates through Gaia College. It’s really beneficial to have their lead gardener and office manager, (who is also a gardener) all have the same vocabulary and educational experience. “We’re all working together to build greater knowledge and to spread the organic gardening and landcare word,” she said. “So now we are armed with a lot of information.”

Arlene’s passion for doing what she loves is truly inspiring. While running a successful business and having a family, she slowly but surely worked her way towards a Diploma in Organic Landcare and now calls herself a Gaia College Diploma graduate!