Gardening in Almonte: A time to sow!

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David

Seedy Saturday

Once again Seedy Saturday in Almonte, held Saturday at the Civitan Club, was an unqualified success thanks to Johvi Leeck, a young entrepreneur and owner of gardening venture ‘Beyond the Garden Gate’ (along with a bit of help from mom and dad). The Almonte Civitan Club was a jam-packed auditorium full of vendors of heritage seeds, a seed exchange table, presentations on gardening and tables for the Neighbourhood Tomato, our Almonte Seed Library, Lanark Master Gardeners, Seeds of Diversity and Almonte Horticultural Society. One of the most important aspects of the day for me (in addition to the home-made Civitan Butterscotch pie) was the opportunity for networking with many gardening groups to learn of their latest accomplishments and their plans for 2017. By closing time hundreds of visitors had come and viewed the treasures and purchased tiny grains of hope and left inspired for the rapidly approaching gardening season!

Seedy Saturdays are a remarkable phenomenon. The Canadian charitable organization Seeds of Diversity has taken on a loose organizational role, providing some guidance and some publicity for these events. They are not one event, but a series of separate events, which have sprung up across the country, each individually and uniquely organized under the same general themes of encouraging the use of open-pollinated and heritage seeds, enabling a local seed exchange, and educating the public about seed saving and environmentally responsible gardening practices.

For more details on the great network of Seedy Saturday (and Sunday) events taking place across the country, check out the Seeds of Diversity website. This year Seedy Saturday in Ottawa takes place March 4 at Britannia Park (Ron Kolbus Lakeside Centre) and Seedy Sunday is in Perth on March 5 at the Royal Canadian Legion.

Can I start planting seeds indoors?

I spent much of the day on Saturday at the Lanark Master Gardener table chatting to gardeners and responding to their gardening questions. Without a doubt the most common question was whether it is time to start some seedlings indoors under lights. Many gardeners, particularly vegetable gardeners, are starting to get gardening withdrawal symptoms, such as endless hours drooling over a seed catalogue.

The answer is not simple! As with many things in life, timing is all important – currently we are about 14 weeks away from the May 24 outdoor planting date for frost-sensitive plants. Peppers and eggplant can grow for ten weeks indoors or so and be healthy vigorous plants ready to plant in the garden in late May. On the other hand tomatoes need a maximum of eight weeks; otherwise they will be huge ungainly plants long before it is time to plant them in the garden. So yeah, it is far too early to start these heat-loving plants!

However, 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. When I mention the number of weeks growing indoors this is calculated by counting backwards from the time that the seedlings can be planted in the garden. If my goal is to have onions and leeks in the garden by the first of May and parsley and celery planted a week or two later (they have some frost hardiness so can be planted in the garden considerably before the May 24 frost-free date) then the calculation results in an indoor seeding date of precisely February 14 (just kidding – nature is a lot more flexible than this – this could easily be a couple of weeks earlier or later). So if you are planting onions, leeks and parsley under lights you’re in the right ball park! 

Growing Seedlings Indoors

The set-up does not need to be fancy.  I use utility wooden shelving and suspend four-foot fluorescent fixtures by chains between the shelves so that I can adjust them to keep them within an inch or two of the seedlings – this spacing is critical – seedlings need to be very close to the lights. 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 (I generally buy this from Carleton Place Nursery – they make their own pre-moistened mix) 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. This air movement keeps disease at bay and also produces stronger, stockier plants.

The Garden Calendar

It is a bit early, but it doesn’t hurt to start putting together a plan for the outdoor garden. 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 tomatoes, 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.  Spring in the Ottawa Valley 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 provide 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 mid-to-late October for the following 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 this area.  Semi-frost-hardy vegetables such as beets, carrots, chard and potatoes are best planted in late April or early May as they germinate very 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 happily.  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, garlic and spinach take frost in their stride.