Planting inside and out

 by David Hinks

One thing I neglected to mention last week when I planted oats. Stand back when you plant them; they come up very fast!! Eight days after being planted the seedlings are twenty cm high! The mesclun mixture and the tomatoes are also doing well but certainly not as dramatic as the oats.

With the warmer temperatures the snow has been melting quickly. Within our yards the spot where the snow melts first may well be a favourable micro-climate. I have one of these next to my shed where the snow has been gone for some time and the frost is mostly out of the ground. Time to plant peas! One caveat – do not try this if your soil is really muddy – my spot is well-drained soil that has been amended with lots of compost.

I was out in the garden on Saturday March 30 and planted a ten-foot long row of peas. Not quite as good as last year which was truly exceptional when I planted my peas on March 18. So what happens if the weather turns really nasty?  One year I had peas that were about 10 cm high when we had a late snowfall of 20 cm.  Once the snow was melted the peas were still growing with no problem.

An early start is essential for plants that do not tolerate heat.  The Ottawa spring can be incredibly short, with snow still on the ground at the end of April and 30 degree temperatures by late May.  Some plants such as peas, broccoli, cabbage and turnip grow quickly in cool temperatures and practically stop growing in the heat of the summer. Others such as lettuce and spinach will “bolt”, that is produce flowers when temperatures climb above 20 C, resulting in bitter unpalatable leaves. Onions and garlic need cool weather to produce the foliage which will provide the energy for the bulbs that start forming when day length begins to shorten in late June.

If you did not get your garlic planted in October, don’t despair. Garlic planted in the very early spring (as soon as the ground can be worked) will do almost as well.  Buy from a local producer – garlic that is sold in supermarkets may have been shipped in from southern producers and may not be hardy in the Canadian climate – many of the imported varieties are easy to braid whereas the hardy stiff-necked varieties are not. Garlic prefers well-drained soil with lots of compost worked in. Break the garlic bulb into individual cloves. Plant with the pointed end up 15 cm apart in rows 20 to 25 cm apart. Push the cloves into the soil until they are covered with about one or two cm of soil.

With the beautiful weather it has been difficult to tend to the indoor chores. But it is time to start some Sweet Potato slips. Unlike regular potatoes where the tuber is planted in the garden, Sweet Potatoes are started by planting either shoots (called slips) or vine cuttings in the garden. Slips can be purchased by mail order (one Canadian source is Mapple Farms) or can be grown by placing tubers in water or moist peat moss 4 to 6 weeks before slips are required for the garden.

I used some of the smaller tubers that I had grown last summer and had saved over the winter. I laid them in the soilless seedling mix in Styrofoam boxes and will keep them moist.

The key to successful growing of Sweet Potatoes in Ottawa is choosing a variety that will produce a good crop during Ottawa’s short summers. DO NOT try to grow slips from a tuber purchased from a supermarket. The varieties found there generally require 120 days to produce a crop compared to the 90 or so days of hot weather available to the Ottawa gardener. Georgia Jet is by far the best variety that I have found for the Ottawa climate, having excellent taste and producing many large sized tubers.

This past weekend was also a good time to start herbs, particularly very tender Sweet Basil. Once again I am using a commercial soil-less mixture and new plastic inserts (I use 25cm x 50 cm plastic trays with a 32 pot insert).  I’ve filled the pots with my seeding mixture, I let them absorb moisture over night, drained off excess water in the morning, and then planted one or two seeds in each pot (following directions on the packet as to seeding depth), and then covered with a clear plastic ‘green-house’ lid (which I remove as soon as the seed has germinated). I’m planting 4 types of herbs (8 pots each) – Sweet Basil, Sage, Thyme and Thai Basil (which is also a great ornamental plant).

 It was also a good time to start bedding plants such as Asters, Marigolds, Salvia, Snapdragons or Dianthus which can use up to eight weeks of growing time indoors before being transplanted outdoors. This time I’m using a 48-pot insert so that I can grow a greater number of plants to cover a larger area in the garden. What I started this time is Goldilocks Rudbekia, Sanvitalia or Creeping Zinnia (a beautiful 10 cm high annual ground cover with small yellow flowers), Bronze Dragon Snapdragons and Cotton.

Cotton? Yes, the real thing – it is a fast-growing plant reaching 60 cm with Hibiscus-like flowers that are followed by green seedpods that mature and burst open to reveal woolly centres. Like oats, it is a very easy plant to grow. It is the type of plant that most people no longer see close up – we start to believe that only large-scale agri-business is capable of growing our food and in this case our clothing.