An incredibly beautiful Victoria Day weekend and it seemed like everyone I talked to was planning to get out in the garden and plant with abandon. Not like last year when we had freezing temperatures on the Victoria Day weekend.
The May-2-4 weekend looms large in the minds of many gardeners. That is the date to plant the vegetable garden! Not so fast – many common vegetables can take frost in their stride and actually prefer growing in much cooler temperatures.
No, Victoria Day is not sacred. In fact, long before Victoria Day, over half of my vegetable garden is planted. I am 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 the following vegetables:
• Sweet potato
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. Some of the vegetables that prefer cool temperatures follow:
• Cabbage family
• Onion family
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.
Many gardeners have been expressing concern about how dry their gardens are and whether we are heading for a repeat of the drought of 2012. Some rain is forecast for this week. We will have to see if Mother Nature comes through for us. Sufficient water is the single most important ingredient for growing a successful vegetable garden. A minimum of at least an inch of water is required every week for most vegetables whereas average rainfall in Ottawa is about 3 inches a month in the summer. There can be lengthy periods in mid-summer without rain. In 2012 this stretched to eight or more weeks with virtually no rain. Be prepared to water if you want to grow vegetables successfully.
I find that many people have no idea how much rain has fallen. People complain after 3 or 4 days of overcast weather with a bit of drizzle that we have had too much rain already. (I would certainly agree that we have not had nearly enough sunshine.) The reality may be that the total amount of rainfall has only been a fraction of an inch. I like to make sure that I have an empty bucket sitting on the patio if I know that rain is forecast so that I can tell at a glance how much water has actually fallen.
As I have mentioned many times, mulching helps to conserve moisture. As well proper soil preparation with lots of organic matter (compost) added improves the structure of soil allowing it to hold much more water. Surface soil that is loose or friable will prevent run-off in a heavy rain and absorb more water. A light sprinkling everyday is counter-productive as it encourages plants with shallow roots that will not have the capacity to withstand dry weather. Soak the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches and do it only once or twice a week. Do not water at mid-day or in the hot sun if you have alternatives.
Try drip irrigation or using a watering wand. If you have a sprinkler that puts the water way up in the air you are going to lose much more to evaporation. Try planting more intensively – shaded soil loses water more slowly. Plants require more water when blooming and in very hot or windy conditions.