Choosing Tomato Varieties

U of Illinois extension

It’s definitely time to think really seriously about planting some tomato seeds! If one has not decided on any particular varieties to grow this season, I have some really good advice from the University of Illinois Extension department. This website contains pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about growing, preserving and eating tomatoes.

DSCF0398My own personal favorite and possibly the only variety I will plant this year is Swift, a cultivar highly adapted to Zone 1b gardens. I may have mentioned this tomato variety in previous posts, because I am so enamoured of it. Swift is an older variety developed at the Experimental Farm at Swift Current and released for gardeners in the early 1960s[i]. So I guess that qualifies it to be called a heritage variety. Swift is a determinate tomato that grows medium sized fruits on relatively small bushes, rarely over 24 inches tall. It is very early maturing (54 days) and even in our short season area reliably produces vine ripened fruits for most of the summer as well as loads of green tomatoes to pick just before the killing frost and ripen indoors. Like all tomatoes, Swift is not frost tolerant but it does have the unusual trait of bearing its fruit near the bottom of the plant, which means that light frosts which might kill the top leaves of the plant do not harm the fruit. The small stature of the plants make them easy to cover when frost threatens.

Unfortunately, for the last several years seed for Swift tomatoes has not been commercially available. I suspect that as other cultivars became more popular, and the Zone 1b market was small, commercial seed businesses opted to give their shelf space to more lucrative varieties. I always save seed from my Swifts every year my saved seed seems to produce better as the cultivar adapts to my garden’s particular climate and soil conditions. For many years I have shared seed with gardening friends and this year I contributed some seed to Seedy Saturday events. I hope future Zone 1b gardeners will have an opportunity to grow this amazing little plant. Swift seed is listed in the Member Seed Directory at Seeds of Diversity.



Things You Didn’t Know You Can Eat.

In late winter there seems to be so much promise as we get close to spring seeding time, but so little is actually edible at this time of year. Winter stored root crops are looking sad and tasting over mature. We’re sick of sprouts and shoots. Many of the hydroponic experiments have been abysmal failures. Hmm… We just need something green and fresh! Well there are a few things to try.


  1. Pea plants. I’ve tried a number of pea varieties as shoots and not found them much to my liking. It seemed they were long and stringy or tasted like overripe peas. Nothing like the “sweet taste of fresh peas” that was promised. Then I discovered Tom Thumb.  This cultivar was developed as a container specialty. Short little plants that produce full sized pods of shelling peas. I planted a potful a couple weeks ago hoping for some early shelling peas. Of course I planted them too thickly so when they came up I had to thin them; and there in the compost dish I had a salad sized pile of healthy, fresh green leaves. Knowing that virtually all pea vines are edible, I ate one. Fantastic. Finally a pea cultivar that would grow some leaves that tasted good on a short tender stem. The next step is to plant a whole flat of them. Sage Garden Greenhouses suggest that Tom Thumb pea “will grow as a winter green for approximately eight weeks before a new crop needs to take over. Sow new trays every two to three weeks to keep a constant supply”.
  2. Sweet potato vines. I’m not so sure about the ones that nurseries sell as a “green filler” for decorative flower pots, but the leaves of all culinary sweet potatoes are edible and can be used in place of spinach or kale. The vines grow as shoots from the sweet potato tuber. By partly submerging a tuber in water or placing one end of a tuber in a dish cut side down and keeping water to about 1 cm up the side, one can force the tuber to grow some leaves that will eventually become slips to start new plants, or you can just eat the leaves. The slips take a long time to get growing but once well-established they can grow pretty quickly.
  3. Rutabaga Greens. If there are still a couple rutabaga in the cold room, even small withered ones, pop them into a pot of soil and water well. In a couple weeks they will have sprouted a forest of mild tender greens to sauté or just nibble raw.regrown celery
  4. Petioles regrown. Store-bought petiole crops like romaine lettuce, celery or bok choy, will often regrow a little. Try cutting the crown off a couple inches above the base and setting it in a shallow dish of water. There isn’t likely any root tissue so it probably won’t regrow a whole plant, just a few little leaves, but they will be tender, tasty and free.
  5. Beets. Microgreens can be grown any time of the year. Baby beet leaves are one of our favorites and one of the easiest to grow. A shallow flat of soil and a package of seed is all you need.
  6. Radish. This might be a great time to try a container of radish. Make a spicy pesto from the baby leaves or wait for the roots to grow.
  7. Herb seedlings. Nothing adds a burst of freshness to an otherwise humdrum bowl of lettuce like a bite of fresh basil. Even a few seedlings will be enough to completely change the flavor.
  8. And of course a multiplier onion will grow out from any bit of soil and add a fresh taste to any dish that no stored onion will provide.



Update on the 28 Day Green Growing Challenge

I have been participating in Sage Garden Greenhouses, 28 day challenge for gardeners to try growing some greens indoors in February. What a great way to shake of some of the winter blues! The sent me a free package of seed and I watched the learning videos on their website to see how to do it.

HPIM1600I planted my seeds the day they arrived on February 8th. The Gemstone Greens Mix seed they sent were small but looked to me like mostly brassicas and came up showing the typical four bulged cotyledons of all brassicas. The secondary leaves however are something I did not recognize. I think it might be mizuna. Well it is now March 8, twenty eight days after seeding and here are some pics of the progress.


The resulting seedlings are definitely brassicas, taste like mustard leaves – quite spicy actually; but did not amount to more than some spindly microgreens. However, they will make a tasty addition to tonight’s supper salad and it was a most interesting experiment. Thank you Sage Gardens.

P, S. Sage only charges a dollar for shipping if you are only ordering a packet of two of seeds!

Soon Time!

I have often reflected upon the fact that when you plant a seed into soil, you are also planting hope. The seed harbors much more than its humble outer shell reveals: it is potential life. And, because life is unpredictable at times, anything can happen between the sowing of the seed and the harvest. That is where the hope comes in.                                                                             – Tom Sterns of High Mowing Seeds

It’s getting very close to that time when seeds need to be planted to start the next season’s gardening process. It’s exciting! I have already sorted the seed box and ordered most of the seeds I will need. I’m trying to exercise a lot of restraint, but the seed catalogues are so tempting! Deciding to purchase bedding plants or grow one’s own is part of the planning. I’ll do a little of both. Some things are harder to start than others and I may leave the geraniums and begonias to the professionals.

Readers will know that I have been experimenting with indoor vegetable growing for several months now, but that is really incidental to my actual annual garden plan. It is way too early, but I have already planted a few seeds for some very long season crops – just to check for germination success.

pepinoEach year I like to experiment with a new species or variety. This year I am trying to grow Pepinos. They are a South American nightshade (like tomatoes and potatoes) whose fruit is said to taste like melons. They have a long growing season so I have started a few of the seeds already.

Like many tasks, when planning seed starting it is best to work backwards. I don’t want to put tender annuals outdoors until there is NO danger of frost and in Zone 1b that means the first of June. I will calculate the weeks that each species needs to be ready for that date and look backwards on the calendar from that date to decide when to start them.  Sask. Crop Insurance has a map to show the likely last frost date.

Starting the seeds too early is my greatest gardening failing. Every year I have to remind myself to WAIT and ALWAYS use the shortest time frame suggested by the seed packages. I made a little chart so I can keep myself on track.

seeding dates chart

Once the seedlings are well established they will have to be potted-on, hardened off and eventually transplanted out to the garden. I will be using DIY cheap peat pots for seed starts again this year, but I am still on the lookout for an idea for some of the larger curbits that detest having their roots messed with. So far a large Styrofoam dish seems to be the best bet. Any ideas?

I’m so sorry.

I have come upon a new word and as a result I must apologize. The word is biophilic. As opposed to biophobic? Perhaps. According to Wikipedia, Edward O. Wilson defines biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. His biophilia hypothesis “suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life”. Ah… yes… the great Oneness. For anyone who is a gardener it makes perfect sense.

Further research points out my error and insists that I apologize to anyone whom I accuse of having “forgotten how to garden.” One of my favorite sources, the Greenhouse Grower, points out that “one out of five new gardeners are millennials according to the National Gardening Association [USA] — rooted in technology [they are] becoming more biophilic, and how that deep yearning for connection to nature was impacting issues from food waste to water use to soil health,” says Monrovia’s Jonathan Pedersen. “What we see in 2019 are the strands coming together to show a compelling path forward.”

96a94029d1d6a1916ec3739c8feabfd9However not all of these new (or older) gardeners are DIY’ers. Perhaps Monrovia, a California based nursery company, reinforces my earlier posit, “40% of Americans with a yard turned to pros in 2017, and the findings of at least one important study of 6,000 participants by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that spending about $100 to $200 per month outsourcing tasks such as garden care increased life satisfaction by more than 40%. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) forecasts a boom year in 2019.

Not everyone is a “gardener,” but apparently many are finding that a beautiful garden installed and managed by someone is worth every dime. And no matter how they get made, the world is a better place with more gardens.” Can’t argue with that.


As I look around it does appear that plants and especially food plants are becoming more important parts of the urban landscape. Where once the vegetable plot was hidden away in the back yard, urban gardeners are now taking gardening classes, forming clubs, even planting edibles in the front yard. Smit et al.’s (1996) research (as cited by Fairholm et al.) “indicates that there are 200 million urban farmers in the world who supply food to 800 million people, or about 12% of the world’s population.

They point out that in many Asian cities, “food production is promoted and recognized as a critical urban function. For example, Hong Kong one of the world’s most densely populated cities produces two thirds of the poultry, one-sixth of the pigs and close to half of the vegetables eaten by its citizens.” That’s phenomenal!

So perhaps we have not forgotten how to garden; it just fell out of fashion for a time. “All that is old will be new again.” I wonder if that works for old gardeners as well. Hmm….

Starting Seeds

Ok it’s time to start a few of the veggies that need a really long time to get ready for the garden.


Of course one can buy pre-started transplants from a nursery or garden shop, but starting my own transplants saves money, gives me a greater choice of varieties and it’s really not very hard.

Onions take a very long time to get big enough to survive in the garden, and I have not had much luck with starting them from seed; so I will be planting onion sets instead. Sets are little baby onions that can be seeded directly into the garden and are almost guaranteed to grow into large bulbs by fall.

peppersPeppers also need a longer pre-transplant time. This year I am using up seed left over from the last few years, so I put the pepper seed into a germination test set-up to see if they will grow. In their home areas, peppers are a perennial nightshade so they can live a long time in a pot. Whatever germinates in the test set-up, I will move into flats filled with potting mix and eventually pot-on to individual pots. This year I am planning to keep most of the pepper crop in containers in the greenhouse all summer and move a few of the better plants into the house in fall to try overwintering them.

Celery is another veggie that is slow to get growing. This year I am planting Tango variety. Both the U of S trials and Greenhouse Grower suggest this is a superior variety to the older Tall Utah.

ground cherriesIt’s probably a little early to do it, but I also planted a few Ground Cherries. I have had trouble getting them to mature before the frost in fall so I thought I’d give them an early start. I am hoping for a big enough crop to try canning a few. It seems every year I am adding another nightshade relative to my garden. I hope these are not quite as invasive as the Sun Berries I tried a few years ago. Maybe I’ll keep them in some big pots.

herbsThe only other cultivars that I will be starting really early are some herbs. I’ll put them right into potting mix  in my DIY “peat” pots, but double seed them since I am using old seed. Some of the herb seed is so small it would be almost impossible to plant single seeds anyway. I am starting oregano, thyme, sage, stevia, lemon balm and rosemary now. I’ll do some basil and parsley later on.

Just ignore the snow out there and plant something indoors. Spring IS coming, really!


seed cataloguesThe seed catalogues have arrived! I consider myself really lucky that seed companies continue to send me a real paper catalogue every year in spite of the fact I rarely order from the actual booklets. Most seed companies are now also offering online catalogues and I do most of my seed searching and ordering on line. Perhaps they are just trying to tempt me with the pretty pictures!

In any case, it is time to be planning gardens and ordering seeds for the upcoming planting season so I’ve been thinking about sources for seeds.  Larry Hodgson, The Laidback Gardener, has a nice list of seed companies that will ship to Canadians in his blog A LOVE AFFAIR WITH PLANT CATALOGS,  but he missed one that I like. Lindenberg Seeds of Brandon, MB has a reputation among locals here as a purveyor of quality seeds for northern gardens. I have also noted that their price per package is lower than many seed houses. (See Principles of Gardening )

germination testMy favorite seeds and the ones that usually grow best for me are the ones I have saved from my own garden. I’ll write more about that in the fall when it is time to consider saving seeds for next year. In the meantime, I will do some germination tests on my saved seeds. My favorite way to do that is to just sprinkle a few on a damp paper towel on a small plate and cover them with an inverted cereal bowl. I check once in a while to see that they haven’t dried out, and expect to see some evidence of germination in a week. If they haven’t sprouted in about 10 days, they probably won’t; but they usually do.

Another fun way to get some cheap seeds is to attend a Seeds of Diversity Seedy Saturday.

seedy saturday

They usually have some interesting speakers or displays and a table where other gardeners have some seeds to share or trade. Take a long any extra ones you might have to share. Here is a list of some of the planned sites for Seedy Saturdays that may be near gardeners in the colder growing zones. Note that some of the Seedy Saturdays are actually held on Sundays.

Meadow Lake Senior’s Activity Centre 406 – 5th Ave W Sunday March 24, 2019          

Indian Head Heritage Club 505 Otterloo Street, Sunday March 10, 2019 1-4

Saskatoon Station 20 West – 1120 20th Street W  Saturday March 9, 2019          10 to 3  

Moose Jaw Public Library 461 Langdon Cres Sunday March 3, 2019   10 to 2

Prince Albert John M Cuelenaire Library, 125 12 Street East Saturday February 23, 2019 9 to 5

Regina St. Paul’s Cathedral, 1861 McIntyre Street Saturday March 2, 2019     

Yorkton SIGN on Broadway (345 Broadway Street West)  Sat. Feb. 23, 2019 11am to 4:30pm


Edmonton 11113 113 St Sunday March 17, 2019          11 to 4

Calgary Hillhurst Sunnyside Community Association Saturday March 16, 2019     10 to 3

Stony Plain gym at the PERC building Saturday March 30, 2019          10 to 3

Red Deer College (Cenovus Learning Common) Saturday March 23, 2019        10 to 5