A Weekend Affair
Getting Started in Spring
375 … 461 … 523 … Done! Total: 632 baby Tomatoes all potted up in 4” pots ready to fatten up for you! Add a sprinkle of my secret ingredient to keep them short and fat … (Shhh: a touch of Epsom salts) And now all I need is a bit of help from Mother Nature for heat & light, and it’s a go! We are all headed for the magical May 24th Victoria planting weekend >>>>
So spring-fevered “weekend-backyard-farmers”; it is gardening time! Hmmm … All those decisions of where, how and what you will grow? And: how to involve the kids? When my son & daughter were little, they used to get out their highlighter pens and mark in the West Coast Seed catalogue which variety of sunflowers and pumpkins they wanted each year … even if they were not directly responsible for all the rigors of planting and maintaining; they were first in line for harvesting and tasting! Now as young adults my daughter has green fingers to her elbow gardening as far away as Australia and my son is chased by the girlfriends here to do tonight’s tasty cooking … Growing your own food can open the door to all sorts of adventures!
… Will you garden in the ground, raised boxes or beds or in containers on a patio? Do you need to build those box beds or terrace now before the prime growing weather arrives?
… What exposure is your chosen site? The degree of shade will restrict your choices … most vegetables need a good 6-8 hours of strong direct light and warmth for success.
… Do you have an idea of the type of soil you have already; or will you bring in some fresh topsoil or amend what you have with supplements and fertilizers as you go?
All these boring questions need a moment before the fun of choosing seeds or starts for the final success … at the very least you will also need a few basic hand tools and a good kneeling pad. Perhaps even a wheelbarrow or wagon to garden smart.
There are lots of tricks to the trade, starting with the sanity of starting small! Before rototilling the whole back yard taking away the dog run and basketball court; try a box bed 12 inches deep by 4 foot wide and any length that suits the existing yard layout. (I like 4 feet by 8 feet boxes myself~ easy: three 8 foot boards with corner reinforcements ...)This way you can reach everything inside from the “out” sides. Lay a woven heavy duty landscape cloth on the ground first, then build & fill the box. If you change your mind; removal is easy for even rental lots, the ground level returned to where you started without unsightly excavations and the garden/box goes to the next abode!
February is as early as I begin “THE season” but that is because I am an incurable gardener, have the bonus of a nice big greenhouse and love the magic of starting from itsy-bitsy seeds early inside … Leeks & onions first, then those 600+ tomatoes!
Keen normal experienced “weekend backyard gardeners” start their season outside in late April/May: 6-8 weeks before the last frost date in May, when the soil is becoming drier and warmer. It is not too late to direct seed lots of everyday vegetables like carrots, beets, chard, broccoli & cauliflower, mesclun salad mix and lettuce as “late” as the first 2 weeks of June. A warmer planting window can spell better success for germinating your heat loving beans, squashes and pumpkins ... not forgetting Mr. Basil!
One year I tried mini rows of Basil every Monday starting very early in May into the last week of June … Once the soil temperature stayed above 10 C day and night, seeded Basil popped up in 3 days and the shivering cold early small Basil babies finally started to grow … all that fuss starting so early when the nights were still cool did not get me Pesto any earlier for my dinner! And the cosmic joke: by the second week of August, all the rows were all the same size …
Use this last early May cool spell wisely to build those box beds now, arrange the patio pots or clear out old flower beds all ready to go … Or start some seeding projects inside your home. One tip for success here: when starting seeds indoors use sterilized light potting soil, not your common garden soil, to improve conditions for the emerging babies. Garden soil runs the risk of being too heavy in texture and can harbour hidden fungal diseases, plus weed seeds. You also may need to invest in a small “grow light” for your seed trays to balance the easy heat of your home with the trickier balance of true direct light~ remember regular house windows only give sideway light & seedlings will stretch out of shape to reach it. It is a common dilemma trying to keep those baby seedlings short, fat and healthy on hold inside if outside night temperatures are still frosty … A temporary cold frame outside can be as simple as a strong open topped cardboard box on the deck with a sheet of heavy duty plastic over it at night, remembering to remove the plastic in the day time so it doesn’t become a box oven in the strong sunlight. This in-between zone lets your baby plant starts “harden off” and transit cozy inside conditions to the “real” world outside. Then when you transplant them into their designated growing spot, they will not suffer from transplant shock …
For direct seeding now, start first with the “cool hardies”: … seeds and starts that can happily snug down outside and get into the business of growing with the occasional frost, somewhat soggy soil and low light around. Cool hardy choices include sweet peas and eating peas; spinach, lettuce, arugula, coriander, chard, and dill…even radishes. Look for onion & shallot “sets” that are bulb-lets rather than seed to literally pop into place to get a head start and catch up to those onions I started from seed in February! Some years, I start my first batch of peas and bean seeds inside in deep 6 packs and pop them into the garden as 4” starts, cheating Mr Slug from an easy meal as the sprouts emerge from the ground and circumventing seed rot if the weather/ground has been particularly soggy …
As the soil starts to warm up, start broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and beets next. Be generous with liming the soil for the brassica family aka broccoli, cauliflower, and kale ~ this prevents a root disease called “club foot”… (My second secret touch here is to add a full cup of lime in each planting hole, mix it in with the soil, then pop in the baby broccoli, etc) This works even if you do have the club foot disease in your soil already for a healthy un-diseased crop. …
Do not think you have to plant your whole garden on only the day of May 24th! Do it in enjoyable stages …
One very easy launch into the “Grow-your-own-world” is to choose a salad garden theme with greens, herbs and tomatoes. Space permitting it could be expanded to include a couple of fat deep tubs for a vertical “garden” of peas and beans. Keep in mind small gardens or containers also need “small” or compact varieties of vegetables and herbs, sometimes listed as dwarf or “space saver”; there are even named varieties of Zucchini called “Space saver” and container varieties of Tomatoes that do not need any stakes.
Time too, no pun intended, to plant your basic hardy herb starts like thyme, regular frond fennel, sage, rosemary, Greek oregano, French tarragon, chives and fresh starts of parsley. Look for flat leaf or Italian parsley for flavour: curly parsley for looks … Try exotic Florence bulb fennel for a touch of Provence and Tuscany! I suggest you have a box bed of herbs next to your veggies as a good number of herbs are perennials and dislike you grubbing around harvesting spuds or disturbing their roots as you pull carrots. Interplant your annual herbs with your “annual” vegetables … this brings beneficial insects and pollinating bees as a bonus.
Try not to be tempted by early lush looking Basils, straight from a hot protected greenhouse … it is easy to rush out May 24th “with visions of Pesto dancing in your head” … plant a zillion Basils and forget that although it may be frost free now, they are heat lovers that need night temperatures to be over 10C to thrive. Wait a bit longer for transplanting heat lovers like Basil plus tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumber and squashes or direct seeding beans and corn ... Truly June is only days away from May 24th and some years my best Basil was planted June 15th.
Take one last look at your garden planting orientation to check that your tall sunflowers are not positioned at the front of your sunny side and shading your tomatoes and the rest of the veggies at the “back” … Plant smaller veggies on the sunny side, layering the heights of say, Broccoli next then pole beans, then Sunflowers: taller plantings will still get the sun light they need to thrive by peeking above.
My last secret: just simply start and be light hearted, play with growing your food! So much is learned just by the experience of doing and next year you will attack it like a pro! Your weekend affair with gardening can evolve into the love of a lifetime … with great dinner parties … Bon Appetite!
Originally published in the May 2010 edition of the Metchosin Muse