One story Erin Spencer hopes to pass on to her children is the story of food.
Spencer’s journey from new homeowner to backyard urban garden success story is chronicled in a web series on YouTube called Dirty Girl. In it, a film crew follows her from expanding her Woodbine and Danforth area home’s garden, through the process of planting, maintaining, harvesting, and finally, enjoying the literal fruits of her gardening labour.
Carly Spencer and Marc Simard from Killer Coyote Flicks found Spencer online, where she had been posting recipes and food articles on her blog and Facebook.
When they pitched the concept of starring in a web series it didn’t initially appeal to Spencer. She has worked as everything from an indie band manager (she met her husband, the manager for the Sam Roberts Band, on tour with the band she was working with) to a prop stylist and set designer.
“I said, ‘What are you, crazy? I don’t want to film a freaking gardening show,’” she said with a laugh. “I’ve never been on the other side of the camera before.”
But when producers said the whole thing could actually be filmed in her backyard, she relented.
“I decided if we’re going to do this, then let’s do it my way,” she said.
“I thought the idea of growing in an urban environment was an interesting idea.”
Spencer decided to learn as much as she could from organic farmers, hobby gardeners, chefs, neighbourhood grandmothers with local tips passed down generation to generation, even local artists and musicians with practical tips picked up through observation and getting their hands dirty.
That shared knowledge is passed on in each webisode on the ‘Dirty Girl Web Series’ YouTube channel.
The combination of trial and error and the advice she gathered from experts resulted in a bumper crop of produce, including – but certainly not limited to – radishes, chard, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, raspberries, herbs, carrots, garlic, and more.
So what has Spencer found does well in the East Danforth area?
When asked, she answers with no hesitation: tomatoes.
“They’re my favourite, and the most successful.”
Zucchini and beans also do well here, she said. Her raspberries also produce a large yield – so it’s great that her three and a half year-old, Griffin, is showing signs of having green thumbs despite his young age.
“He’s already a huge helper in the garden,” said Spencer. In a few years, her weeks-old newborn will be joining his older brother helping out in the backyard.
Of course not everything always works out perfectly, even for those whose gardens are covered by a film crew for a whole growing season.
First, there’s the bane of Toronto gardeners: raccoons. Slightly less destructive but still a pain to deal with are squirrels.
Chicken-wire cages help protect some of the more tempting plants from hungry critters, and Spencer has discovered an added benefit to composting in the backyard.
“The raccoons stay away from my nice tomatoes, they seem to prefer the scraps,” she said.
Some plants just don’t seem to do well, even if the animals leave them be.
“Every year I try something new,” she said. “Okra? Total fail.”
Broccoli also hasn’t delivered, at least in Spencer’s yard, and it took up quite a bit of space in the meantime.
Parsnips, on the other hand, were a surprising success, though their proliferation spurred a sudden search to figure out what, exactly, to do with them. A visit with a chef friend resulted in a number of new recipe ideas for the root vegetable (who knew parsnips made great fries?).
While growing your own food can help save a bit of money and the health benefits are myriad, there’s an even better reason Spencer has for teaching her kids about growing their own food.
“The best part of having a backyard garden, or any kind of garden, is the taste,” she said.
Now that the series is airing online, Spencer is happy to have a document of her efforts to share with her children as they grow up.
“I just want my kids to know where their food comes from,” she said. “It teaches them respect for food.”
Dirty Girl airs on the Dirty Girl Web Series YouTube channel. So far five of 18 episodes have been uploaded, with new instalments added every Tuesday. Find out more at on the Dirty Girl Toronto Facebook page.