Working Smarter Not Harder

There is a really busy time coming up very soon in the garden. Prepping the beds, planting, weeding, watering: there is a lot of work to do and so it is a good time to think about how to do it all smarter not harder.

Here are a few things I have discovered to make gardening easier.

  • No-Dig beds are a lot of work to establish, but once done they are done – for decades!
  • Transplanting with a long-handled dibbler is incredibly easier than using a shovel or hoe. Seedlings must be planted in plug trays such that the plug fits into the dibbler hole, i.e. about a 2 inch diameter max.
  • An electric golf cart is the best gardening tool ever, a lawn chair is the next best and a long-handled dibbler comes in third. It is a tool that is simple to use and simple to make from a discarded rake or shovel handle.
  • Transplanting ensures there is germination but direct seeding into dry soil may be safer than transplanting into dry soil. Watering new transplants is lots of work. Consider not putting transplants out until it rains, if at all possible.
  • Carrying things in a pail at my side is easier than carrying things in a box in front of my body.
  • Carrying two small pails is easier than carrying one big one.
  • Choose what is planted based on workload in harvesting. Here are a couple examples for Carol Deppe.
    1. Squash and sweet potatoes occupy somewhat the same flavor and use niche. We grow lots of squash and no sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes don’t keep well under the conditions we have. That’s one factor. But in addition, sweet potatoes have to be dug. Squash plants are considerate enough to put their bounty up there above the ground where all we have to do is pick it up.
    1.  Picking pole beans can be done from a comfortable standing position. Picking bush beans requires much squatting or bending.
  • Late fall Pre-Seeding of crops to germinate in the spring makes better use of snow melt moisture than spring seeding those same crops.
  • Raised beds require a lot more watering than level beds, but raised beds that are wicking beds require less frequent watering.

An idea to try:

  • Save a lot of bending or kneeling by using a long piece of pipe when planting. Drop seeds into the pipe whose other end is in the spot I want the seed.  

The Year of the Bean

Each year, without intending to, I seem to concentrate one of my gardening efforts on one especially useful or interesting species. This year it seems to be beans. Coincidentally this is also the garden annual that the National Garden Bureau has chosen as one of its Plants of the Year 2021. (Who knew?) NGB is a USA based gardening group that promotes gardening for fun and food, so their work concentrates on growing zones higher that 1b, but even here in the frozen North we can glean some useful info from them.

Anyway, I plan on planting quite a few different species and varieties. I actually started late last fall by preseeding a few broad bean (Vicia fava) seeds into the front yard garden. They are about the only bean that can handle any cold weather. Most garden beans are cultivars of the species Phaseolus vulgaris that originated in warm areas of the new world and won’t handle any frost at all!

The many cultivars of P. vulgaris provide beans of several types and for many uses either as dried seeds or fleshy pods for fresh eating. This year I will be planting mostly pole beans for fresh use and freezing as green veg, because they are so much easier to pick! The largest crop for green beans will be Kentucky Wonder Wax – even though they are yellow – from my home saved seed. I like them best, but I will also be trying a newer green bean variety, Saychelles.

I will also plant some bush beans for dried beans: a third year grow out of the Jacob’s Cattle Gasless and a grow out of a variety known at this time only as “Rico” for Seeds of Diversity, and maybe a few Pencil Pod Black Wax to propagate for seed.

I will probably also plant some horticultural beans to use as pseudo lima beans which don’t do well in this climate and a few runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) just because they have such pretty flowers! I won’t be planting soya bean (Glycine max) this year since they did not yield well enough last season to justify the work and garden space, although the edamame was tasty. I grow mung bean (Vigna radiata) for bean sprouts all year and thought I might try a few in the greenhouse this summer to grow my own seed for next winter’s sprouts.

A reminder for myself and a tip for newbie gardeners: DON’T PLANT THE BEANS TOO EARLY! Beans are usually direct seeded and that is what I will do, but other than the fava cultivars, beans like WARM soil. I should let the first flush of weeds show that the soil is warm before I put the beans in the ground. If it is dry and cold they will just lay there until it warms up, but if it is damp and cold they will rot. In my zone 1b garden that probably means I should not seed beans until June 1st. A good way to tell is to go barefoot in the garden. If it is too cold for my toes, it is too cold for the beans. “Bean” there – done that.

Back to the Basics – Prepping The Beds

Getting Back to the Basics: This is the time when one really must decide:

To dig or not to dig that is the question

The answer will depend a lot on what the gardener has available to work with.

For no-dig gardens the ideal time to have done this bed prep would have been last fall, but all is not lost. If there is some reliable source of water available, a small but productive veg bed can be created to plant this spring and have for decades to come. Simply lay some weed barrier like heavy cardboard or a few layers of newspaper over the intended area and cover with 4 to 6 inches (10cm) of well rotted compost or rich soil. Or, if the area is a previously productive, well-dug, weed-free garden, one might be able to just add a shallower layer of compost and begin planting. That is a lot of “if”s’ but this one is most important: On these intra-continental plains, IF you do not have a good source of unlimited irrigation water, you cannot garden on a layer of cardboard or any other water absorbing material. The cardboard will absorb whatever water there is and your plants will die of thirst.

“When tillage begins, other arts follow” said Daniel Webster of dictionary fame. Generations of farmers and gardeners through the eons of human existence have grown food in tilled gardens and you can too. If your intended garden space is hard, weedy soil lacking in nutrients, the easiest and fastest way to fix all these issues is to dig it up.

In what ever way the “bed” is prepared, it is easier to work with it at planting time if it is level and not too lumpy or rocky. Raking the surface to remove big things like larger stones, chunks of wood etc. is a good start, then turn the rake over to finish smoothing and leveling the surface.

 In the process of raking one can remove most of the weed growth that might be present, although some persistent perennial weeds like quack grass and dandelion will require digging out.

The moisture level of garden soil is an important consideration for both working with the soil and planting into it. Obviously, plants will need some moisture to germinate and grow, but the moisture content of the soil is important long before it gets any seeds in it. I am fortunate to have a very sandy loam soil in my garden which forgives me for stepping into or even manipulating it a little when it is wet. Although keeping it adequately moist for good plant growth is a little challenging. Clay soils are not so forgiving, and although they can be exceptionally fertile, working with clay when it is not at exactly right level of moistness can be problematic. Walk on clay that is too wet and you have pavement or rototill it and you can create the equivalent of a cobblestone road. Alternatively, working with clay that is too dry can pulverize it and turn it to dust that will blow away in the slightest breeze.

Fortunately, there is a solution for both the woes of clay and the permeability of my sandy soil. Just add lots and lots and lots of organic material: manure, compost, leaves, grass clippings, shredded newspaper, whatever. It will all improve the drainage, and tilth of clay and surprisingly also the excess permeability of my sandy soil.

These problems with manipulating wet soils may be good reasons to prep garden beds in the fall if at all possible and also to define where the planting beds and the walkways between them will be. Whether the beds are no-dig or well dug, fall prep enables the gardener to proceed with the planting without a lot of spring preparation. Just something to keep in mind for later this fall, after all we live in Next-Year-Country!

Back to Basics – Start Some Plants.

OK it’s finally time, even in Zone 1b. We can plant some of those seeds we scrounged up. It is the most Basic garden task!

This is a really good time to consider Grandma’s Principle of Gardening # 2: Gardening should SAVE money not cost it. Seed trays, potting soil, a cold frame or greenhouse – this could get to be a very expensive process. But it needn’t. The equipment one needs to start some seedlings can be very simple. What is needed depends on the process that is used and that depends on the species of plant. So, lets get into it.

Some veg are best seeded into the same pot they will live in until transplanted. These are generally species that dislike having the roots handled much. Cucurbits like squash and cucumber are the stars of this category, but most legumes (i.e. peas and beans) can be classified in this group too. My favorite equipment for these pots are 10oz. Styrofoam cups. But tin cans work well enough too and so do paper cups that you saved from your Tim’s runs. Even “pots” made from folded news paper can work. In that case the whole pot is planted into the garden soil at transplanting time and the paper rots away. The only must have attribute for any of these pots is some drainage holes in the bottom (and something that catches the drainage to protect your table).  For short term plantings, like cucumbers, this easy and cheap DIY peat pot substitute might suffice.

Most of the other veg that need to be started ahead of time can deal with a little gentle handling. These are the nightshades like tomatoes and peppers, and all the brassicas like cabbage and broccoli, and most salad or cooking greens. I like to start these seeds in small flats and then move them on (i.e. prick them out) to larger individual pots or module trays as soon as they are well sprouted.

One of my favorite seeding flats is the container that a BBQ chicken from the grocery store comes in. It is large enough without being too deep. The black bottom is light proof so doesn’t encourage algae growth and the clear lid creates a moisture trap to prevent it drying out. I poke a few drainage holes in the bottom and set the whole thing in an upcycled Styrofoam meat tray to catch the drainage or permit bottom watering. I use this set-up for species that I will seed quite a few of.

For species where I only need a dozen or so, I like to use these little spray-can caps in a bakery clam shell container. Setting them into the tray makes watering easier. I keep a piece of an old cotton towel in the bottom to keep the moisture even and just water from the bottom. Of course, the spray-can caps need to have holes to allow the water to soak in or drain out as needed.

Both these set-ups are just for sprouting the seeds. As soon as there is a true leaf or two these babies have to move on to their larger seedling pots.

 If seedlings are only going to be in their “pots” for a 4-6 weeks I like to put them into a plug tray, and again I put an old towel in the drip pan and bottom water them. If they are going to be longer than that they will probably have to be “potted-on” to a larger pot – like a repurposed drink cup.

Recycled plastic for pots, any well draining seed starting mix and some water and your plants only need one more thing: LIGHT! Plants live on light. A sunny window will do just fine at this time of year; but if there isn’t one some artificial light will be needed. A little grow light will cover quite a few seedlings and even a regular florescent will do, but the older incandescent bulbs probably won’t help much. Seedlings that are starved for light will grow long and weakly and not be strong enough to survive transplanting.

Read the seed package to see how deep to plant the seeds. Some things don’t want any light at all, and some are scared of the dark and won’t sprout if they are covered up.

It is a little too soon to direct seed anything into the garden or outdoor containers. Our last frost date is not until May 28, so let’s not get in too much of a hurry. Just have some fun playing in the mud with seedling pots for now – it’s just like making mud pies!

I can’t eat grass

Many years ago, when our children were still young, we moved into a house next door to an urban farmer. This was long before the whole idea became a fad and Mary didn’t know she was an urban farmer. She and her husband were a retired couple. They had moved to the city after some time on a small Saskatchewan prairie farm that had not proved profitable, and in this new location Mary just kept on doing the same kind of gardening she always had. In her mind it wasn’t anything special; just a way to supplement their grocery bill and keep her family fed.

On a single city lot Mary grew practically everything that they ate. It never occurred to her to spend money on chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Grass clippings from her small front lawn, kitchen scraps and garden waste provided the fertilizer, and her home-made garlic spray was the only pesticide. She saved her own seeds and grew her own bedding plants. Her whole yard was what we might now call an organic urban farm or food forest.

I learned a lot about gardening from Mary, and a lot about life. A few years after we first met them Mary’s husband passed away.  Her grown children thought she should reduce her workload by planting a lot of her garden space into lawn. She was not inclined to do so and came to tell me about their ideas. “They think I should plant grass. I can’t eat grass!” Her kids went back to Alberta. She didn’t plant any more lawn.

Looking at my own large garden area, the idea of more lawn mowing and less hoeing according to the plans I made last winter still looks like a pretty good idea, but I think I’ll find ways to grow the veggies too because I can’t eat grass either.

Cherish the Soil

We must constantly treat our existing food producing soil as the precious resource and gift of nature that it is. When I, as a farmer, look over the acres I have responsibility for, it is easy to think of it as a resource so vast that I can hardly deplete it. It is easy to forget about the many others who might depend, even indirectly, on those same acres for their nutrition.

This year on Earth Day I want to think about the soil that feeds us and some ways in which I can care for it in return. Conventional wisdom says “Buy land. They’re not making any more of it.” But somehow we are, all of us, globally, going to have to find some ways of making soil that can grow more food for our ever-growing population. As I look around at the farming that is happening in my neighborhood and see how it is changing so rapidly to accommodate efficiencies of scale, I doubt that it is a sustainable way to grow food. Increased mechanical, chemical and biological technology, and deforestation are the norm; where only a generation ago they were novel.

What can I do about it? Well, quite a lot actually. Firstly I can support those few farmers who are going against the trend and searching for ways to farm using sustainable methods. I can purchase organically grown seeds from growers who produce heirloom and open pollinated cultivars. I can continually examine the scientific research about the effects of different farming and gardening methods. And finally, I can care for the little bit of the earth for which I am responsible.

Some of that area is left in its natural state and the biome that inhabit it will live or die accordingly. Some other of it is seeded to perennial forage and is refreshed annually by the grazing animals that are fed on its bounty. The remaining little bit of it, I garden. That is the area where I can have the most impact. By returning all of its produce back to the soil in the form of composted organic material, except for the small portion we actually consume, the other life forms dependent on that soil are fed and in turn are able to release the nutrients that feed my plantings. While it may not be possible to increase the acreage of soil, it is certainly possible to improve the quality of the soil we have.

Gabe Brown, in his book, Dirt to Soil, writes that  “According to conventional thinking, it takes a thousand years to grow one inch of topsoil.”  When I started gardening on this soil there was a scant six inches of topsoil covering the sandy subsoil. There was probably more at one time, but the area had been conventionally farmed for several decades before I started with it. I have not dug down to the sandy layer for quite some time to see exactly what there is now, but I know there is more than a foot of topsoil. So it is possible with simple sustainable methods to return fertility and productivity to the soil.

As I am making my gardening plans this season, I’ll try to also plan for how I will support the soil life that will actually be growing my veggies.

Back to Basics: Planning and Planting – Get some seeds!

The time for thinking about what to plant where, and buying some seeds would ordinarily be about now, but these are not ordinary times. Once again, the pandemic disruption in our lives has impacted seed companies’ ability to supply and ship seeds. Add that to our enforced idleness and perhaps a bit of insecurity regarding our food supply and demand for seeds is again outstripping the supply. Or at least a timely supply. The bottom line for gardeners is get what ever seeds you need as soon as possible wherever possible, but don’t buy more than you need since someone else will undoubtedly need them too.

So getting Back to Basics, where can one buy seeds? The best option in most times is a locally owned and operated seed company. The seeds are likely to be of varieties that are well adapted to one’s growing area. However, not all these local companies may have what you need left in stock as other gardeners will have placed orders far ahead of time. If you find that is the case, check out the online catalogues from companies a little further afield but also consider in person purchases. Local garden centres can supply not only your seeds but also any seed starting supplies and garden tools you might need. Grocery, hardware stores, and lumberyards will all have received prepackaged racks of seed from the companies they usually deal with. If you get there before they are too picked over, you might find what you need.

The Seeds of Diversity member exchange is another option. These seeds have been saved by dedicated growers whose only aim to preserve the diversity in plant species’ gene pools for future generations of gardeners and thus maintain a good basis for future food production. Joining Seeds of Diversity might be something to consider. I am afraid the Seedy Saturdays may be fewer again because of the difficulty in organizing these events within the pandemic restrictions but some are happening and some are being hosted virtually. One does not need a membership to participate in these events. Seed libraries are also active in some communities.

Another option to consider is sharing some seeds with gardening friends. Sometimes seed packages contain more than the original purchaser needs to use and most gardeners are generous enough to share or trade a few seeds they are not going to plant this year. Just ask an experienced gardener if they have any extra. You’ll probably get lots of free advice on growing them too.

Will the situation be different next year? Well, we sure hope so, but that is what we thought last year too wasn’t it? This might be the year to consider planning to save some seed for next year. Legumes like peas and beans are easiest to do this with. Annual brassicas like radish and rapini and some herbs like dill and basil can just be left to bolt and grow out their seeds. Tomatoes are wonderful for seeds saving. You get to eat the tomato and save the seed!

Oh No! Snow!

April? The calendar says it is, but …. I guess this is the more solid form of “April showers”. I do hope there are some “May flowers” to follow!

Gardening in Zone 1b means that we have to be somewhat prepared for adverse weather to arrive at any time, and there are some benefits to even this weather event. Certainly the moisture that will result from this downfall will be welcome when it is time to put seeds in the soil, … but just when we had been hoping for an early spring it is a little of a setback.

Back to Basics – Got Some Dirt?

In the first post of the Back-to-Basics series I addressed some of the reasons why it is a good idea to grow some food, now let’s get on with some of the practicalities. One doesn’t need much in the way of knowledge or investment to start a little garden, but one does need some space to put the garden. A plot of land with good soil is nice, but a few containers of soil or even some space to put a hydroponic set-up (more on that later) will do.

Let’s first assume that there is some land. How much doesn’t really matter, but a smaller area is better to start with if one is a real newbie. Getting the land ready for planting will depend on what it is like to start with, and whether or not there is a good handy water supply and if there is any compost available.

If there is lots of water and enough compost, one might consider starting right out with a no-dig garden. It involves outlining the area of the garden bed – longer and narrower rather than wider and shorter is easier to work with, but one must use what one has. The area is then covered with some weed resistant organic material, like cardboard or newspaper and that is covered with compost. This works really well to snuff out annual and even most perennial weeds and create a nutrient rich base for plant growth, BUT without adequate moisture the cardboard or paper will suck all the moisture out of the bed and your garden plants will starve and die of thirst. In a costal rainforest area, it would work great, on the arid plains – not so much. I have been moving my garden into no-dig beds gradually for a few years now, but I started with fairly weed free beds and did not have to use any cardboard or paper for weed suppression. I have used black plastic tarping to keep light off some beds and kill weeds, but this takes the beds out of production for a whole season.

If water is limited, tilling the soil to remove weeds and compaction and incorporate organic fertility might be a better bet. It can be done with a mechanical tiller, or by hand with any digging tool – a spade or hand cultivator – whatever you have and can make work.  Of course, if there is already a previously used garden patch one could either dig or not. Many successful gardens have been grown using either system. In any case, a final raking to smooth the surface will make planting easier.

But what if the only land is covered with concrete? Consider container plantings. A surprising amount of food can be grown in a pot full of soil. Any fairly large container will work. Larger ones will need less frequent watering. Containers can be made of plastic, metal, wood, crockery or even fabric. The only requirements are that they hold enough soil to support the growth of the plant and have adequate drainage. If the container does not already have drainage holes, can it be drilled or punctured to make some? If not, it will be more difficult to maintain adequate moisture without drowning the plant.

The soil for container gardens also needs to have excellent drainage capabilities, but at the same time it needs moisture retaining capacity and exceptional nutrient content. It is surprising but the fix for all the above is just to add more organic material. Peatmoss and coconut coir will provide drainage and moisture retention. Vegetable compost or well rotted manure will help to fix the moisture issues and add to the nutrient content. The addition of some perlite and/or vermiculite will greatly improve the drainage capability of the soil and some worm castings will definitely boost the nutrient content. If you are limited to just one or two containers, purchased potting soil might be the most economical, but if one is planning a more extensive container garden, it is probably cheaper to buy the materials and mix it up oneself.

What can grow in container gardens? Almost anything that can grow in a land-based garden. In fact, there are new cultivars of almost every veg being developed especially for container gardens all the time.

That is some food for thought for a wanna-be gardener. We’ll think more about what to plant in the next post.

Back to Basics – Reasons to Spend Time in a Garden

Looking over my recent posts, it seems perhaps I have been writing more about the garden related topics that interest me instead of providing the essential info about gardening on cold prairie climates that I wanted to share and was my reason for blogging in the first place. So as this gardening season progresses, I will try to make a point of getting Back to the Basics about the tricks and techniques I have found useful in a lifetime of growing food in Zone 1B.

The first thing to consider when planning a garden is to ask why one is doing it all. With less social interaction due to the pandemic, and perhaps a little more insecurity, many people have decided to increase their gardening efforts. Here are some reasons we are doing it.

Connecting to Nature: In our busy urbanized lifestyles it is easy to become disconnected from the natural world of which we are part. It is good for our minds, bodies, and souls to reconnect with the earth and its biosphere. Putting hands and feet in the soil, doing the tasks required to nurture new growth is one of the best ways to accomplish this.

Relieve Stress: This is a “maybe”. Physical exercise and success are factors that contribute to improved mental health but have-to tasks like weeding and harvesting that add to the workload might not be. You decide.

Improve Your Memory: Fresh air, exercise, and activity are all good for our brains, but I find it helps to put lots of labels and row markers out too.

Express Your Creativity: Design a palette of beautiful flowers and tasty fresh veg. Create meals that temp. Invent your own techniques, doing things in ways that work for you and meet your objectives. Gardening offers so many ways to express you unique talents.

Great Family Activity: Getting the whole crew together to plant, weed and harvest provides and opportunity to create great memories, have fun and communicate without the competition from other activities, and pass on some practical skills.

Clean Air: Think about how wonderful the air smells in a forest. Plants breath and what they exhale all day is oxygen. When you are out there with them, you get to breath it in. The other thing plants do is sequester carbon in their tissues. Undisturbed soil full of plant roots becomes a carbon sink that can keep some climate changing CO2 out of the atmosphere. Every little bit helps.

Plants Never Talk Back or Argue: I have never really experimented with it but apparently there is some evidence that talking to plants helps them grow and some even respond to music. An old gardener I once knew claimed she had “hoed off many a good mad”. It is sometimes helpful to have some thing to complain to, yell at or even violently assault (save that for the weeds!)

Make You Happy: Just try to look into the face of a sunflower in full bloom and not smile. Or taste a sun ripened strawberry and not experience a little bolt of pure joy. There is satisfaction in observing beauty and usefulness that you had a hand in helping nature create.

Hope Gardens

I am not sure exactly why, perhaps it is an effort to combat a national COVID inspired depression, but for whatever reason the Communities In Bloom (CIB) organization is asking us to plant “Hope Gardens” full of yellow flowers in our yards this spring. I will comply. It is an easy enough thing for me to do since there are lots of varieties with yellow flowers that I already planned to grow anyway.

The first showy crop of yellow flowers that I expect to see will of course be the vigorous dandelions that pop up almost as soon as the snow is gone. Perhaps this will give me an excuse for enjoying them. It may be too late to change my planting plans for perennials, but I did put in a few tulips, lilies and daylilies last fall that should bloom with yellow-ish flowers this spring. 

There are also plenty of yellow annuals that I will intentionally plant. Marigolds, calendula, and nasturtium are easy to grow, attractive to pollinators, and almost always part of my garden plans,

And of course, there will be sunflowers. What could inspire more hope than that! 

I don’t usually grow a lot of them but celosia, snap dragon, pansies, and zinnia all come in yellow hues. There is plenty of time to start the transplants if I can find some seed!

There are also a few veg that will contribute to my Hope Garden. All the cucurbits like cucumber, squash and pumpkin, and many nightshades, have brightly coloured flowers that are mostly yellow.

But if CIB really wants to see yellow flowers they should come here in mid- July. Won’t they be impressed when the canola blooms?!

It’s Spring!!

Today is the equinox which officially makes it spring; but in Zone 1b the weather isn’t usually very spiring like for at least another month. This year may be the exception.

Since December I have noticed a thickening of the canopy of the poplar forest that we don’t usually see until into March; as the trees begin to form the buds that will soon become their leaves. In January I went for a little snowmobile ride and stopped by a willow bluff in the swamp to pick some pussy willows. They should not be out until April. Everything went on hold while we waited out February’s Polar vortex, but the last couple weeks of above normal temperatures have melted at least half of the snow. This morning I saw an English sparrow checking out a birdhouse that was left to dry on the patio table late last fall after a coat of paint.

Global warming? Climate change? I don’t care. It’s spring – even if it only lasts a few days and then we are back to winter, it is a taste of the summer to come!

Just a Little Greenhouse

I’m looking out the window at my little greenhouse. It looks so sad all covered with snow and ice.

Last year we started heating the greenhouse on May first and three weeks later were able to turn off the furnace.  I seeded some plants in the house much earlier than that of course, where they happily waited until the greenhouse was warm to move out there.

The earlier seeded veg stayed either in their seeding flats or first potting-on to plug trays until they went out to the greenhouse. May 1st was enough time to pot on tomatoes and peppers and sow some brassicas for setting out the transplants on June first. The little bit of heating energy expense for one month is well off-set by the savings on plants not purchased. Previously we had heated the greenhouse with a portable electric space heater but last year Grandpa installed a thermostatically controlled propane heater – so much more convenient! I swear if that man set his mind to it, he could fix a rainy day! I was a little concerned about accumulation of carbon monoxide, but neither the plants nor I suffered any ill effects. During the daytime, the sun warmed the interior so much I had to open windows and vents so the air was freshened when I was working inside.

I do feel very fortunate to have this little building at my disposal, but since it is not something everyone would be lucky enough to have, I thought I might share some of the other ideas I or others have used to facilitate getting some seedlings off to an early start.

Of course, the simplest idea and one I still use for many veg varieties is a sunny windowsill. Here on the 51st parallel we are now getting about 10 hours of daylight. That is plenty for the seedlings that need the longest pre-transplanting window to grow in a sunny south window without getting too leggy; and it is still plenty early to start even celery and onions.

The next simplest idea is a cold frame (so called because it has no additional heat). There are many variations on this idea. Essentially plants are sitting on or near the ground and covered with a translucent film that allows the sun to warm the small area under the film which then traps the accumulated heat after the sun goes down and keeps the plants from freezing. This is fine for late spring or even as a season extender in fall but will not suffice unless nighttime temperatures have only a degree or two of frost. Of course one can always throw an old quilt over the whole thing on very cold nights.

Here are few pics of some others that I thought were quite workable.

The oldest, and simplest version of this I have used is simply an old window placed over a wooden box, but there are many variations on the theme: hoops that suspend plastic sheeting over a garden bed, glass or plastic cloches over individual plants, even the newer floating row covers. Last spring, I put an inverted clear plastic tote over some early lettuce seeded in my garden. It worked very well.

The only problem with cold frames is that they can get too hot when the sun is bright, so they take some tending to maintain an even temperature. There is a little invention that can help, but they are pricy. It is a hinge attached to a tube that extends when it gets warmer and so opens the lid on a cold frame lid or greenhouse vent.

After considering all the ways one can advance the season for growing veg in Zone 1b, the best advice this Grandma can give is to be patient and wait a little longer before putting the seeds in the pots. Small seedlings will suffer less transplant shock. So, just wait a little longer. Spring will come.

Pie Day!

This year it will not be a fruit pie but rather a savory pie that will use some of the veg I put away last fall. A thick savory tomato sauce filled with chopped veg and lean beef topped with garlicy mashed potatoes and baked to a crispy crust, will make a hearty dinner.

Flower Love?

I couldn’t have said it better than the Garden Supply writer,

“If you’re a gardener looking for hope in the middle of an icy January day, there’s no better balm than a geranium seedling. The tiny leaves have the characteristic rounded shape, with contrasting bands of maroon. Aw, shucks they’re cute! But the power — the thing that tells you spring is coming and gives you hope — is in the smell, that one-of-a-kind geranium fragrance. Even in the dead of winter, those tiny leaves smell like summer on the porch.”

I seeded these from some home saved seed on the 25th of January in a chicken dish flat (my favorite seedling flat) and put it on a heat mat. In four days the first ones poked their heads up followed by many of their siblings over the next 10 days. On the 3rd of February I pricked out a dozen (who would need more than that?) and seeded some home saved petunia seed into the same soil in the flat. That might have been a mistake. I had not cleaned the geranium seed very well, so it was difficult to actually know how many I had planted and now several more have grown up among the tiny petunia seedlings and I will have to remove them, or they will crowd out the petunias. 

I don’t grow a lot of flowers and saving seed from them was a bit of an experiment last year.  So far – so good.

Now a month on, the interesting thing is that the later germinating geraniums in the flat seem to be growing better than the first ones. Is this telling me the four packs I moved the first ones into are too small, or that geraniums just love living with petunias?

Easy Sterile Potting Soil

As we get ready to start some seedlings for transplant to the summer garden (yes it will eventually be summer) finding some good potting soil is necessary. Of course, the easiest way to do this is to motor over to the nearest garden shop and purchase some in a bag. It is all mixed in good proportions for moisture retention and good drainage and probably even has some fertilizer mixed in for good measure, and it is sterilized so should not contain weed seeds, live bugs, or pathogens.

That is the easiest, but not the cheapest and it is not what I am doing, this year especially, for a couple reasons. First, Grandpa and I have not been vaccinated yet for COVID 19 so we are still self isolating or social distancing or whatever, so I don’t want to make nonessential shopping trips.  Also, I have a deep-seated aversion to paying good money for dirt when I already own a quarter section of sandy loam.

Last fall I mixed up a couple plastic totes full of potting mix and put them away for spring. I used about equal amounts of very well rotted cattle manure, my own garden soil, perlite, and vermiculite. The stuff is beautiful potting soil, but it is not sterile. The idea of using sterile potting soil for those first tender seedlings seems like a very good plan.

 I have previously put some bits of soil in the oven and baked it sterile – not a nice task, but effective, but this year I was looking for a simpler solution. I have been using heat in the form of boiling water. I fill a plastic coffee can about ¾ full of the soil mixture and pour a litre of boiling water from my electric tea kettle over it. Stir it around a little and cover and let it sit until it is cool. So far, I have not had any weeds germinate, nor have I had any problem with damping off or other bacterial infection. I like things that are easy and work!

Polar Vortex Tomatoes

Grandpa has been admiring the fruit on these tomato plants sitting in a south window in our living room. I am not sure if he is looking forward to ripe tomato on toast for his breakfast or fried green tomatoes for supper, but they are getting to the stage where one could expect either quite soon. I am sorry the picture taken against the light lacks photo quality, but I wanted to include the snowy scene outside the glass.

The other part of this story is seen in this second picture that Grandpa took about a week ago. Not really tomato weather!

The tomatoes are the Swift variety that grows so well here in summer and I have had much success with for indoor plantings both in the greenhouse and in my sunroom. I started these in my Aeorgarden in early November but moved them into soil pots as soon as they showed some root development. From then until mid January, they sat on my plant light table in front of a south window in the sun room. To make room for new seedlings they then moved into the living room. They are growing in home-mixed potting soil (about equal parts of well rotted manure, vermiculite and perlite) and I have been watering them with a one quarter strength solution of commercial tomato food.

Lettuce and tomato have been the most successful of the winter growing experiments this year. I have been trialing some parthenocarpic cucumbers, but none have actually produced any fruit. Last year the open pollinated Bush Pickle did give us a few fruits but had to be hand pollinated, which I probably was not consistent enough with. However, spring is coming; and anyway, the Cucumber Man has to make a living too.

Spring is Coming!

Well, in Zone 1b it is going to be a little while yet, but March is the month of the spring equinox so we at least have some longer days even if they are not much warmer. This is also the month when I look over the seed boxes again and decide which ones I can start. I am trying NOT to plant anything too early. Smaller, younger transplants suffer less transplant shock and don’t need to be potted on to larger pots as soon. That means they take up less space – not so much of a problem once they are in the greenhouse, but a big problem when they are in the house before moving out there.