Gardening in Almonte: Gardening as a team sport!


I often think of gardening as a very individual pastime. I appreciate the solitude to commune with growing things and connect with the essential elements of life. In my pre-retirement days when I would spend eight hours or more in front of a computer screen or in meetings (which often seemed endless and pointless) getting into the garden after work and turning the soil and planting and harvesting vegetables was a way to reconnect with the physical component of life and maintain my sanity.

However humans (even gardeners) are social beings and often join with like-minded individuals to share their passion for gardening and to do good works together. We are very fortunate to have many local gardening groups. The Almonte and Pakenham Horticultural Societies are great places to network with fellow gardeners. For really obsessive gardeners we have the Lanark Master Gardeners group who volunteer at many venues to answer gardening questions.

And for local community vegetable gardening we have the Neighbourhood Tomato Community Gardening Project. It is a community gardening phenomenon that owes much to the support of the Mills Community Support Corporation, to the creative and promotional inspiration of community developer Jeff Mills and to the dozens of committed volunteers in our community that toil long and hard every summer. The Tomato started in 2011 with the construction of a few raised gardening boxes at group homes and at the hospital. It is now a multi-faceted community program. I will be writing much more about it in weeks to come.

I have written before about a group of fellow gardeners that have been exploring the potential of a large Hoop House to extend our gardening season with a truly local and sustainable approach. I will be talking about our experiences at the Almonte Hort meeting February 22, at Cornerstone Church (at the traffic circle) at 7:30pm. (Photos taken by Rick Scholes)

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For another great opportunity to network with local gardeners remember to circle the date of Saturday February 20 on your calendar when Seedy Saturday comes to Almonte. It will take place at the Civitan Club on February 20 from 9am to 3pm. Seedy Saturdays are relatively informal events with seed and other vendors, educational workshops, information booths for not-for-profit groups, informal seed swaps and on and on. For more details on the great network of Seedy Saturday events taking place across the country, check out the Seeds of Diversity website.

I have agreed to lead a workshop and I know that there will be lots of excellent presenters. This event is being supported by our area Horticultural Societies, the Neighbourhood Tomato Community Gardening Association, the Lanark Master Gardeners, the Canadian Organic Growers and the Seed Library at the Almonte Library. It promises to be another amazingly successful Almonte event and a terrific opportunity for gardeners from the area to network, for local producers to showcase their wares and for learning.

Starting Seedlings Indoors

Last week I talked about the timing of getting an early start indoors as many gardeners, particularly vegetable gardeners, are starting to get gardening withdrawal symptoms, such as endless hours drooling over a seed catalogue. It is not too early to start seedlings of celery, parsley, onions, leeks and globe artichokes which benefit from a ten to 12 week head-start indoors.

The set-up does not need to be fancy.  I use utility wooden shelving and suspend fluorescent fixtures by chains between the shelves so that I can adjust them to keep them within a couple of inches of the seedlings. Used fluorescent fixtures are available for next to nothing at garage sales.  I use only the cheapest four-foot fluorescent tubes as my results have been just as good as using special “grow” tubes.

I turn on the lights first thing in the morning and turn them off when I go to bed.  I water only when the growing medium is dry to the touch but before the seedlings wilt and drain off any excess water that has not been absorbed in a couple of hours. Seeds contain all the nutrients required for germination.  I use a diluted organic fish-based fertilizer weekly after seedlings have been growing for a couple of weeks.

Seedlings are very vulnerable to certain kinds of viral diseases, commonly called ‘damping-off’.  Seedlings that appear healthy topple over from the base and die.  I have found that this is virtually eliminated by using a commercial soil-less mixture and new plastic inserts (I use 25cm x 50 cm plastic trays with a 32 pot insert). I also insure good air circulation by keeping a fan running constantly. The air movement also produces stronger, stockier plants.

The Garden Calendar

Beginner vegetable gardeners often get the impression that the whole vegetable garden gets planted on the May 24 weekend. No, Victoria Day is not sacred.  In fact, long before Victoria Day, over half of my vegetable garden is planted.  By then I am even harvesting and eating some of the early crops, such as lettuce, radish and spinach.

The Victoria Day rule for planting the garden in this part of the continent is still an important rule for heat-loving and frost-sensitive plants such as peppers, eggplant, basil, pumpkins, melons and cucumbers.  However there are a large number of vegetables that can be planted in the garden as early as the first week of April.  Some years I have planted peas, potatoes, onions, lettuce and spinach as early as the last week of March.

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. Lettuce and spinach will “bolt”, that is produce flowers when temperatures climb above 20C, resulting in bitter unpalatable leaves.

Onions and garlic are a special case.  They need cool weather to produce the foliage which will provides the energy for the bulbs that start forming when day length begins to shorten in late June.  Garlic is very hardy and I plant it in late October for the next year’s crop.

Frost-hardy vegetables such as lettuce, onions, peas and spinach can be planted outdoors as soon as the ground can be worked, often the first week of April in Ottawa.  Semi-frost-hardy vegetables such as beets, carrots, chard and potatoes are best planted in late April or early May as they germinate slowly in cold soil.

So what happens if the weather turns really nasty?  One year I had peas that were about 10cm high when we had a late snowfall of 20cm.  Once the snow was melted the peas were still growing with no problem.  I have had potato foliage frozen to ground level – it didn’t take them long to spring back with fresh growth from the roots.  Onions and spinach take frost in their stride.