We are both feeling very fortunate in this time of “sheltering-in-place” to be able to stretch our limbs and spirits by working outdoors in our yards, now that the spring (-ish) weather has arrived finally in Edmonton and Toronto.
We both have decided to take this COVID time as an “opportunity” to try our hands at growing our own modest vegetable gardens, for the first time ever. Luckily for us, we have very generous friends who are willing to make the time to share their gardening expertise and tips with we two greenhorns (or should that be greenthumbs?), and which we are delighted to share with our Readers here.
The wonderful thing about becoming a vegetable gardener, motivated in-part by seeking out pandemic “garden therapy,” is that it is also very good for climate action we are happily learning. Thanks to Reader Nora for putting “Food Up Front” on our radar, to explain how.
As its website describes, Food Up Front is “a movement started by Transition Toronto to help you gather your community around local food. Growing local food is one piece of the puzzle in solving our climate crisis. It builds community resiliency by fostering a culture of sharing while reducing dependency on international agribusiness, it reduces the need for fossil fuel intensive farming practices while eliminating food-mile emissions and it helps to sequester carbon through hands-on soil stewardship. Overall though, the most compelling benefit is that connecting with home-grown food improves the quality of our lives….” To learn more about this organization, and even to get free seeds to start you on your gardening way (while supplies last), check here https://bit.ly/2xTbosq.
Vegetable Gardening Tips for Success – Guest Bloggers
We are delighted to welcome our friends Audrey, Shanthi, Leslie and Ross, who are all experienced and avid Ontario gardeners, willing to share their tips and lessons learned as our Guest Bloggers to generously “nurture” our vegetable gardening success.
Shanthi cautions, “Although it is tempting to get a head start on the season, wait until the ground warms and the last frost date is safely past before planting out your seedlings. The first week of June is usually a safe bet (in Ontario and Alberta).
However, there is still much preparation that can be done in-doors in April and May. “Starting seeds can be fun, especially as this can begin during the grim winter months”.
Audrey shares eloquently, “When a gardener plants a seed, they are in a hopeful mindset. There is no other way to describe expecting a tiny seed the size of a grain of pepper to turn into a lush plant and delicious food. Optimism abounds in gardeners. They don’t give up on a plant. They will water it, stake it, prune it, even talk to it (if no one is near). The partner in all gardening endeavours is Mother Nature and I never lose my sense of wonder at her power.”
“Canada’s growing season is not long enough for some fruit and vegetables like cantaloupe and watermelon, even tomatoes, unless you start with young plants rather than seeds. I planted cantaloupe in the first year and ended up with golfball sized fruit before frost ended the growing season. Garden centres have young plants at a price that reflects their time and effort or you can start your own plants indoors.”
“I planted three tomato seeds in the house in early April which is a few weeks too late. I pulled back the shutters so the pots would get as much light as possible and I tented the table over a furnace register so the warm air would help the seeds germinate. [I also started about 100 seeds for six different kinds of flowers for outside flowerbeds as I wasn’t sure nurseries would be open in May due to COVID restrictions.] As usual, 10-15% of the seeds did not germinate so I always sow a few more than I needed. Much TLC is needed – at a minimum, daily watering and turning so the plants grow straight.”
“Check out ‘Starting Seeds Indoors: How and When to Start Seeds,’ in the The Old Farmer’s Almanac at www.almanac.com for more information. It’s easy to get carried away when starting flower and vegetable seeds if you purchase all the ‘gear’ to do this. This is a great hobby but it is not a way to save money. However, the benefit and satisfaction of growing your own food is immeasurable. We always had a huge vegetable garden when I was growing up and I can remember my Grandfather being so proud of his gardening efforts. My perspective has changed and I appreciate gardening so much more now.”
Moving Outdoors – Choosing a Site
Shanthi’s advice is to “choose a sunny site as most if not all types of veggies require at least six (6) hours of direct sunlight.”
“Choose a site that is away from trees and shrubs as veggie seedlings that you expect to grow to produce a bounty have no chance against existing thirsty roots. If you have no choice, then dig about two feet down, remove any roots (provided you are not going to kill any nearby trees that you actually like or want) and put some barriers against them creeping back in. Or an easier and more popular method is to have a raised bed. There are many videos online about creating such raised gardens. They take much less work, you have more control over the soil, and they also have the advantage of allowing you to construct them as high as you like and therefore can be much easier on your back!”
Audrey offers this about another site option – community gardens.
“When we moved into our house almost four decades ago, we planted a locust tree in the back corner of the yard. As it grew, the yard gradually became more and more shaded. The tree is truly beautiful as well as necessary in the summer heat. Vegetables need full sun all day to grow well so four years ago I applied for one of the 103 plots in my local community garden, and have been growing my vegetables and flowers there happily ever since.”
Moving Outdoors – Preparing the Soil
Shanthi notes that preparing the soil “mostly involves spending a lot of energy, time, and money to ensure you have the right composition as once you plant your veggies, there is little or no going back.”
“Most vegetable plants require a well draining soil with ample organic matter to enhance water retaining capacity as well as to add nutrients. Amend your soil as needed with compost and triple mix. There are other additives but be careful and Google a trusted source when in doubt. For example, adding fairly fresh manure can burn young plants, adding sawdust that has not been composted will add too much carbon that can kill plants. On the other hand, adding crushed eggshells is a great way of increasing calcium for your plants without harming them.” [See also our April 30 post on Ideas for Composting – https://bit.ly/3dFOLHd%5D
“Most vegetables also do better in a slightly acidic soil. A soil PH kit comes in handy but is not needed.”
“During the season, you can also add store bought fertilizers following directions on the packages (e.g. Miracle Grow)”.
Moving Seedlings Outdoors – “Hardening”
Early in June, Audrey gets ready to move the tomato seedlings she germinated indoors beginning in April, to the outside in the following way.
“I will put these plants outside for a few hours each day to ‘harden’ them so they won’t be shocked by being outside when transplanted. This year I’ve used pots that will decompose once in the soil so transplanting won’t disturb the roots.”
“When transplanting ‘hardened’ tomato seedlings, bury the plant up to the first set of leaves. Roots will grow along the buried part of the stem and give the plant a hardier root system. Water the roots before adding soil.”
Direct Seed Planting
Audrey gives us these tips from her experience about what works (and what doesn’t) for direct planting.
“Some vegetable seeds like lettuce, radishes, peas and root vegetables, are hardier and can be planted directly in the soil once the danger of frost has passed. As well as starting early, lettuce and radishes mature quickly, so you can plant a second crop after a few weeks and you have fresh produce over a longer period. Sometimes I leave an extra empty row, for sowing a second crop of lettuce later. Other times, I first harvest my radishes, which grow quickly, and then plant seeds for the second lettuce crop in that row.”
“An exception to this is peas which do not like hot weather so no second planting. I had decided this year to not plant peas because they are a lot of work for what feels like a limited return. They need a net or strings to twine up, they take time to shell, and you need a lot of plants to get a significant amount of produce. I say I’m not going to grow them every year and then change my mind because they taste soooo good. I have a new strain with supposedly delicious pods so will try those this year and skip the shelling step.”
Shanthi adds, “Beans can be sown directly outdoors when the ground is warm and it is recommended that you stagger the sowing so that your harvest is not all at once.”
Audrey shares this very helpful “heads up,” which she learned from a fellow community gardener.
“Not everything is a success. I planted cauliflower last year and then I learned from a neighbouring gardener that once the white part starts to grow, it has to be shielded from the sun or it turns a dark, unappetizing yellow. This is done by tying the large outer leaves into a tent over the centre part which we eat. I couldn’t get these centre parts totally in the dark so the results enriched the compost bin. Scratched that vegetable off my list and committed to doing more research when planning the garden.”
Growing Season – Caring for Your Garden
Shanthi advises, throughout the season:
- Water your plants regularly and consistently. Few plants appreciate a flood followed by no water for days at end! Try not to wet the leaves when watering (to avoid diseases) and so early on in the day is best as that would dry out any water on the plant itself.
- Feed: Either store bought fertilizers (a little goes a long way and excess can kill the plants) or more natural products such as composted kitchen waste, manure, even specially prepared garden “tea”.
- Monitor carefully for critters and bugs. There are some great ways to prevent these without using chemicals. Planting bug repelling plants among your veggies (e.g. marigolds), spraying with a mixture of water diluted with dish soap, etc. can help.
Guest bloggers Leslie and Ross agree with Shanthi about the benefit of insect repelling plants, especially their “magical marigolds”.
“We have a farm in Mono, Ontario. After buying our seeds, the first thing we do is purchase marigolds, orange not yellow, to plant around the border of our fenceless vegetable garden. Why? The marigold is known for its ability to repel aphids, mosquitoes, insects as well as animals. The deer, rabbits and other animals on the farm avoid the garden. Apparently it is the distasteful smell that repels. Destructive and time-consuming chemical use to rid these pests is not necessary. Occasional deadheading will keep the plants bushy and spry. We buy the short stocky marigolds in flats. If in doubt ask the nursery before purchasing the best species for this use. Planting around the perimeter of the garden adds colour and definition. After our first year of battle, for twenty years, we have found these plants to be magical in their effectiveness. Much information on marigolds can be sourced on the web.”
Audrey prefers orange marigolds too, especially a new strain called Durango ® Flame French Marigolds which you may see here: https://bit.ly/3fHh0ad. [She cautions, however, to ask your nursery first about their insect and animal repelling abilities, as they are a new strain that she has picked strictly based on colour]. She likes to complement their colour with fresh lime green plants, such as these Zinnia Queen Limes https://bit.ly/2WRKlGi.
Growing Veggies 101 – Part Two
Our generous Guest Bloggers return next week to share more gardening experiences and tips, including about growing Fruit Trees, Harvesting (the Fun Part), and Community Gardening while practicing social / physical distancing. Thank you Audrey, Shanthi, Leslie and Ross for your generosity and expert advice. We are excited to get planting our seedlings and seeds! (….and we are trying hard to heed your advice to wait ’til early June).
Next week we’ll also explore planting and soil temperature, and more!
Trees Get the Last Word – Sakura in High Park
Thanks to Nora, we end by offering this meditative three-minute video-clip of a beloved Toronto spring tradition – cherry blossom viewing (sakura), transformed by the City of Toronto in May 2020 for these unprecedented times, and offered now as a virtual tour https://bit.ly/2WnnHqu.