Waiting for spring

March 11, 2009

seedsWell, my untreated, heirloom seeds are ordered from the William Dam seed catalogue and my little greenhouse is assembled (thanks John!). Now all I have to do is wait for spring to hurry up already and get here!

Turns out I’m not alone when it comes to thinking ahead. According to this article in USA Today, seed sales for 2009 are expected to soar to new heights. 

Have you started planning your garden yet? If so, will you start with seeds or plants? I like starting with seeds because there is generally more choice than when you buy live plant stock. (I find it frustrating to be at the garden centre searching for varieties they don’t have in stock.) Besides, it’s so exciting to see little filaments of green popping up through the soil and then, just weeks later, standing tall and fruit laden in your garden!

Likewise, if you are a veggie gardener, what’s your motivation: lower grocery bills, a commitment to locavorism or something else altogether?

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Dana’s Big Gardening Adventure – week four of the tomato experiment

April 25, 2008

As part of my Big Gardening Adventure where I’m going to reduce my food miles for produce to 0 as often as possible, I’ve chosen three kinds of heirloom tomato seeds to start from seed and then grow using organic means:

• Brandywines
• Aunt Ruby’s German Green’s
• Cherokee Purple

All three of these varieties are supposed to mature within 70 to 75 days so if all goes well, I should have a pretty abundant crop of colourful tomatoes to share by the end of July (the line up starts from the left!).

In the past I’ve written that you should start tomato seedlings indoors no more than 6 weeks prior to transplanting the tomato plants to the garden, but I started mine earlier this year due to the crazy extended winter weather. The general concern with starting seeds too soon is that the young plants can become leggy and weak. To prevent that problem, I’m going to transplant my seedlings into larger pots in enough peat moss to help support the bases. We’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, here are my tips for successfully transplanting and growing tomato seedlings. Print this page or bookmark it so that you can come back to this info later in the spring and summer when you need it.

I’ll be testing my theories as the season progresses. Then, I’ll report back on how things worked out when I followed my own advice (wish me luck and, if humiliation ensues, please be kind):

• Before planting tomato seedlings, work a spadeful of compost into each hole. This should be enough fertilizer to feed the plant for the entire season.

• To help new tomato plants to establish themselves in cool spring temperatures, protect the seedlings by cutting the bases from 2L soda bottles. Place a bottle over each seedling until temperatures become warmer.

• Since hot summer weather can lead to dry soil conditions, be prepared to water tomatoes often during hot spells. Ideally the water used to water tomato plants should be ambient temperature (this is where my rain barrel will come in handy!) since cold water may prevent the roots from developing. Likewise, it’s better to water tomatoes at the base of the stem with a watering can than to use a hose that drenches the whole plant.

• When mature, tomatoes ripen to optimum flavor when grown at temperatures between 13°C and 27°C. As a result, tomatoes must be planted so that the fruit will mature when this temperature range is common in your area.


Dana’s big gardening adventure – week four: preparing the site

April 18, 2008

According to my reading, preparing the site for your garden is one of the most crucial steps to ensuring your veggies have a chance to succeed.

My garden is well established but has been fallow for at least three years. During that time my habit has been to dump all the leaves, cuttings and weeds from the rest of the yard into this space. When weeds have sprung up my landscaper has tilled them under with the Rototiller. I have a feeling that my soil is going to be very rich in organic matter but also thickly populated by weeds. So, as soon as the mud will allow, I’m going to put on my gloves, grab my hoe and pull out any little shoots that are popping up.

I’ve been told that the best technique is to till the soil in the fall so that you’re all set up in the spring and can plant earlier. However, I didn’t know I was going to use this vegetable patch last fall so
I’m going to use a Rototiller this spring to break up the soil and make it easier to weed and plant (actually my mom’s boyfriend John has offered to till the garden for me if I make sure there aren’t any big stones in it first – thanks John!). I was told by a knowledgeable farmer friend that tilling too often – especially in spring – should be avoided since it forces organic matter that needs surface bugs to be broken down too far below the surface. Regrettably, I’ll have to take that chance since my soil is pretty compacted.

In the meantime, while I wait for the mud to be less squishy, I’m busy inside nurturing and transplanting my seedlings to larger pots so that I can have nice robust plants ready when planting day arrives.

I planted my seedlings in peat moss not just because it’s recommended as a good starter, but also because it was the only soil I could find at the garden centre this early in the spring that didn’t contain any chemicals. Shocking, no?

I bought way too much peat moss, though. To plant all my corn, cantaloupes and pumpkins (that’s one seed starter kit worth of cells) I thought I’d need three 9 L bags of peat moss. I didn’t even use one full bag! No matter. I’ll soon have tomato plants to transfer and it will come in handy then.


Dana’s big gardening adventure: week three

April 11, 2008

Seedlings week two

Since last week my seeds have germinated but there really isn’t anything exciting to see yet in my seed starter kits. I’m sorry I can’t share a more interesting picture with you (turns out being a better Earthling isn’t visually stimulating at the early stages). What I can share is advice for planning your summer 2008 garden; so, this week we’ll discuss planning and choosing your plot (I’m referring to gardens, not burials BTW).

Although there are still many weeks before people in my corner of Canada will be doing any outdoor gardening, now is the time to plan your garden if you will be starting a new one. I’m lucky that the yard behind the test kitchen has a well-planned garden plot created by the previous owners. Once spring actually arrives, I’ll be able to get to the business of planting and growing my seedlings with very little effort.

For those of you who aren’t as lucky, here are some tips for choosing a good site for a garden plot:

• You’ll need a patch of land that receives 8 to 10 hours of sun per day.
• Look for a level site (if that isn’t an option in your yard, then you may have to build a retaining wall and build up one end to make a level growing space.)
• If possible, dig your garden near a water source. My own garden is far from the house so I’m going to set up a rain barrel to use for quick watering. For deeper soaks, I’ll be lugging around a muddy hose.
• Make sure the soil is safe and has a good base of nutrients. You can do that by purchasing a soil test kit at a garden centre.
• Although by August you may be worrying about drought and sick of rolling and unrolling the hose, if you haven’t chosen a well-drained area for the garden earlier in the year you’ll have problems with ground water, which can lead to root rot, fungus development and other nasty stuff.
• If drainage is a problem, consider raising the beds by surrounding the garden with a wall or a few stacked railway ties. Add a good layer of screenings, sand and top up with a deep layer of topsoil and you’ll assure good drainage.
• Don’t let your ambition outstrip your needs. Start small and, if you find you love vegetable gardening this year, then add extra rows next year. A 10-foot square plot is a large starter garden while a 20 x 40-foot garden will provide enough produce for most families to eat all summer with extra bounty to share with neighbours or the food bank.

Next Friday: Deciding what to grow
Friday after next: Site preparation tips


Dana’s big gardening adventure week two: starting seeds

April 4, 2008

Seed starters

Just before Easter my father and I had an interesting conversation about an annual contest he and his friend Marshall have to see who can grow the most delicious tomatoes. When I asked my Dad (who was raised on a farm) to share his tomato tips with me, I discovered that although I’m a relative city slicker, I’m a much ‘greener’ gardener than my dad.

While I’m starting three kinds of heritage tomato seeds on the window sill and intend to pamper my plants with non-toxic organic matter and kill any nasty leaf munching bugs with soap and water, my dad will buy his plant at Walmart or Home Depot and douse it regularly with commercial fertilizer and clouds of tomato dust bug killer. I’ve eaten the sandwiches made with his tomatoes in previous years so I know his method will create a great tomato. What I don’t know is if mine will be better. So, I’m going to invite myself to his tomato contest this year to see if my experiment results in more than just added peace of mind (or is it piece of mind? I’ve always been confused by that saying).

For those of you who plan to start tomatoes or any other garden plants from seed, here are my seed starting tips:

• I like the seed starter kits pictured above. They’re easy to use, lightweight and tidy. I bought my seed starter trays at the hardware store but you can order them from places such as Lee Valley as well.

• It’s never been easier to find heritage seeds. I saw some at the grocery store the other day and found even more in the garden section at the hardware store. However, I did order seeds for some specific items from an online seed catalogue. I found my supplier through Seeds of Diversity but a quick online search can point you in the right direction as well.

• This year the tricky part about starting seeds is anticipating when to take the plunge. My strategy has been to delay starting seeds for two weeks longer than usual to compensate for the crazy cold weather. (I can’t imagine I’ll be planting anything outdoors before late May this year).

• I’m also starting the plants that have a long maturation such as corn and pumpkins in pots. I’m hoping that by planting these items outdoors as plants instead of seeds that I’ll have some hope of a harvest before the fall frost comes.

• I label each row of seeds clearly. It’s important so that you can tell exactly what each plant is later on when it comes time to choose an appropriate place for it in the garden.

• In past years I found that the cells in these starters can be too wet to germinate seeds without growing mold. So, I recommend soaking them and then letting the cells stand for 12 hours before adding seeds. Later, water them often but sparingly (a spray bottle is ideal) so that you don’t wash away the seeds before they can drop roots.


Dana’s big gardening adventure begins

March 28, 2008

seeds.jpg

Like so many people, I’m intrigued by the idea that I can be a better earthling by making some small changes to my daily habits. As a foodie, I find the locavore movement that sees more consumers and chefs choosing ingredients based on the fewest number of miles foods have been shipped particularly inspiring.

And, like Malcolm Jolley at Gremolata, I see backyard garden plots as a logical extension of this trend. If you want to save fossil fuel use by limiting the kilometres that foods are trucked, the best thing you can do is grow them at home, right?

As some of you may recall, I was for several years the food editor for Gardening Life Magazine. In that post I developed recipes for seasonal produce and offered tips for home gardeners who were keen to grow food. Although I learned a lot writing those articles, my gardening preference as an adult has been to grow decorative rather than edible plants.

This year, I’m ‘between gardens’. We moved into a new house last summer and our home landscaping is very basic right now. In fact, until next summer when our pool, fencing and beds are complete, I have very little digging or pruning to do in my home yard.

Fortunately, my test kitchen is on a large piece of wonderful, fertile growing land with an established garden plot. Since we took the property over, our landscaper has been tilling all of the cuttings and leaves into the garden so that it is filled with wonderful organic matter and nutrients.

I’ve decided to plant a vegetable garden this spring behind the test kitchen. I’ll follow my own advice and talk to experts and see where the project takes me. So far, I’ve assembled some heritage and other seeds and made a mental plan for the garden.

My first step will be to spend this weekend planting seeds for various kinds of heritage vegetables which I’ll harden off and plant later this spring (if that ever arrives). During my big gardening adventure, I’m going to share my successes and failures here with you.

Each Friday I’ll post about what is happening in my vegetable garden and what I’ve learned. I hope that you’ll chime in with tips and advice when you see me going astray. I’m not a complete newbie but I have a lot to learn. Any help you can offer will be accepted with gratitude!