Some Really Smart Ideas

Here are just a few I have come across lately!

square foot layoutSquare foot gardening layouts might be quite attractive to new gardeners, or old gardeners making new growing beds. Laidback Gardener Larry Hodgson has posted a list of not only the plants that can fit into a single square foot, but also the height of each mature plant. This is important to know so that taller plants don’t block the sun from their shorter neighbors.

Susans Trellis


Susan Mulvihill made a trellis for her pole beans to climb on. The concept of bending a metal frame to make a two-sided trellis is not unique, but Susan’s idea of spanning the pathway between the beds rather than the bed itself makes a lot of sense both for walking and saving growing space.



Charles Dowding says that, “If hoeing is hard work, you’re not doing it right”. The big thing there is using the right tool. For years I used a regular old garden or chopping hoe and it was real hard work! Then I inherited a stirrup hoe and that made all the difference. Whether it is a straight one or an oscillating stirrup hoe, using it means you are just moving weeds, not tons of soil.Hoes

AA700-lee-valley-seed-starter-u-01-rThis is another idea I can personally attest to. I have been using the idea of a capillary mat for several years for both seed starting set ups and growing small seed microgreens. This seed starting set up from Lee Valleyhas upped the game! I blew the garden budget earlier this year and bought the largest version. It has worked like a dream for onions and pansies – two of the species I have the most difficulty growing from seed!


sand box capillary matHere is a DIY idea along the same line. This tub full of sand is sort of a cross between a capillary mat and a wicking bed. It’s’s one  I might try in the greenhouse – it looks a little messy for the living room! Another DIY that I will definitely try is just a piece of capillary mat over a piece of 2 inch Styrofoam floating in a tub of water. As the water is used the Styrofoam settles into the bottom of the tub so it is easy to see when to add more water and the plants never get dried out.

Ground Cherry Grow Out

s of d logoAs well as growing fresh food for our dinner table, my garden provides a site for some gardening research. Most of that research is my own: experiments with new cultivars, attempts to stretch the limits of the growing season, ways to expand the variety of food stuffs available or techniques to make it all easier. This season however I am excited to be able to assist with some research being done by Seeds of Diversity.

ground cherry grow out May 26I am taking part in a grow-out of ground cherries that S of D is conducting to select for more upright plants that will subsequently yield more perfect fruits. Early this spring they sent me a package of seed which I started along with my pepper and celery starts in March. Initially the germination seemed slow but eventually I ended up with several viable plants. I will save some seed from the plants that demonstrate S of D’s criteria and return to them. I’ll also save seed from the earliest few fruits to mature for my own use.

This has been a cold spring, and  I suspect ground cherries are not very frost tolerant. Most nightshades like warm soil and sunny days, so I delayed transplanting them until just now into a bed with a southern exposure and protection form the prevailing west winds.

I’m a Lazy Gardener

planting onion setsI planted onions yesterday at the end of a busy day when I was really too tired to do it right. 100 each of red and yellow sets and 30 multipliers. Typically, I plant onion sets carefully into a prepared seed bed by pushing the sets gently into the soil so that the tips of them are just sticking out of the soil. The first rain or watering settles the soil around them, allowing just the right amount of the bulb to protrude while the roots are securely down in the moist soil. But this planting went a little differently!

We planted potatoes the day before. There was extra space in the potato field and the soil there is nice for onions; so Grandpa had made a row for me with the potato hoe on the tractor. The row was about a foot deep which is way too deep for onions but leaving most of that deep wide row open catches some extra moisture when it rains. However, it is ergonomically difficult to get the little bulbs set into the soil a foot below the grade level and my back was already sore!

Anyway, I got to thinking about how onions are planted for the commercial market. Well in the better light of day, I realize probably onion seeds are planted with a seed drill just the way farmers here plant grain. Last night tho’ I imagined some sort of machine throwing sets into the ground and the little bulbs just having to grow where they fell. So that’s what I did. I just tossed them into the bottom of the row and covered them ever so lightly with a rake. Then walked over the bottom of the row to pack them in a bit. I guess we’ll see what happens and find out if onions can actually tell up from down. The Egyptian onion bulbs that self-seed all over my garden seem to be able to figure it out so I suspect their cousins will too.

Adding Protein in Time of High Meat Costs

COVID19 seems to be playing some havoc with the nation’s meat packing plants and consequently the nation’s, or perhaps the continent’s, meat supply. It’s hard to predict whether an excess of meat animals on the farms and a shortage of meat processing capacity will result in higher or lower meat prices, or perhaps both in succession. In the meantime, it might be prudent to consider some vegetable sources of protein in one’s meal planning. Pulse crops like peas, beans and lentils grow readily on the Canadian prairies and are all good sources of protein. For example, USDA reports that 100 g of chickpeas contain 19g of protein which compares favorably to 14g protein in 100g of lean ground beef.  This year I am experimenting with some lentils, black beans and edamame in my garden.

pea soupConsider some of the traditional ways that pulse crops were used to supplement protein. Think Boston baked beans or French-Canadian pea soup. Comfort foods for sure! Cooking times for pulses are long and sometimes involve an overnight presoak, so I usually cook a large batch at a time and freeze the excess. The slow cooker is my favorite way to prepare them.

Through the past few months, we have been enjoying some sprouted lentils added to stir-fries and rice casseroles. Sprouting pulses reduces the digestive difficulties some people have eating large quantities of legume seeds.

Here is one of my favorite ways to add some pulse crops to our diet. It is not vegan or meatless but stretches a small amount of meat to serve a larger group. I usually use chickpeas and tomatillos for it. With both of them ready to use in the freezer, prep time is really quick and the slow cooker does the work.

pork stew 3

Baby Ladybugs

Grandpa got his first mosquito bite of the year the other day and I found the most pregnant of spiders crawling out of a raised vegetable bed yesterday. So, the bugs are coming out in spite of the cold spring weather. I am fighting with spider mites and aphids in the greenhouse. What I need is some warm weather so most of the affected plants can get out in the sun and wind. But, I also found a couple ladybugs in there so maybe they’ll get together with the aphids and mites for dinner!

ladybug 2

Lady bugs are interesting critters. The well recognized round orange beetle is probably the most beloved insect in the garden. Not only are they beneficial predators of pest insects, but they’re just soo… cute! Haven’t you always wanted to paint black spots on a red VW bug?



ladybug larvaBut there is a scarier looking aspect to the life cycle of the lovable ladybug. Baby anythings are usually cuter than the adults: kittens, puppies, etc. Wouldn’t you think baby ladybugs would be just adorable? Not so. The larval stage of the ladybug looks like something you would instinctively want to step on or run away from. But Be Careful What You Kill. This much more predatorily appearing beast is actually a big help for gardeners, consuming copious numbers of its vegetarian cousins in its race to adulthood. Fortunately they have no taste for human flesh! And eventually they will turn into adult ladybugs.

Sneaky Cucumbers

cucumber-sproutsVine crops are all sneaky plants, but cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are the worst. They only grow when you are not watching. You can direct seed them, which is often most successful even in zone 1b, and then you wait and watch and try desperately to see a little tip of green coming up in the row, and nothing. Then you miss checking on them for one day and boom there’s a whole row of cotyledons looking back at you. I have had them be even sneakier when I’ve tried to seed them early indoors. They wait until I’m not paying attention and pop up one at a time.  For sure if I plant six pots, three will show up within a couple weeks, another one a couple days later and two won’t grow at all until I am ready to toss them and then there they are, two weeks behind the ones I direct seeded in the garden.

Most varieties of cucumber do well in zone 1b because they are short season crops and we pick them as soon as they reach a usable size, well before they are actually ripe. As a direct seeded crop I usually plant open pollinated varieties, many from seed that I or others have saved. They are hardy and prolific and well adapted to local conditions. I have planted Straight Eight and National Pickling with good success. Pickling varieties generally grow shorter and fatter but have a good flavour for fresh eating too. Likewise, slicing varieties, that grow longer and thinner, can also make good pickles. Cucumbers like all cucurbits dislike having their roots tampered with so if you start them early it is best to start them in some pot that allows you to either remove the root ball easily or plant the whole pot. The nursery where I sometimes buy started cucumbers for my own greenhouse puts 2 seeds in a square two-inch plastic pot and does not pot them on to larger pots. They are sometimes root bound by the time I move them into the 5 gallon pots where they will live in my greenhouse, but slide out of the starter pots easily and I can drop them into a prepared hole in their new home without damaging the roots at all.

cucumber seedling is peat pelletI have used peat pots to start cucumbers with little success. The theory seems good; but for me they seem to always be either too dry or too wet. I generally start cucumbers in egg cartons as described previously. Another of my favorites for starting larger cucurbits and potting-on other transplants is actually 10 oz. Styrofoam coffee cups. They are large enough to hold the curbit plant until setting out time, easy to make drain holes in and one can write on them so labeling each individual plant is easy. At planting out time I can just break the cup around the middle, pull off the bottom half of the cup and leave a ring of Styrofoam around the stem of the seedling to discourage cut worms. I do try to pick the cups up after the season but if the ring gets left out and hit by the rototiller it is not a problem – just more perlite in the garden.

Cucumbers and their cousins have been grown since ancient times, but plant breeders continue to improve on them. The seed catalogues list enough varieties to be truly confusing for beginning gardeners; so it helps to know a bit about types.

Open pollenated cukes come in pickling and slicing varieties, although either can be pickled or eaten fresh. Pickling varieties tend to be rougher skinned and are generally picked as smaller fruits. Left to mature they have a shorter season than most slicing varieties, although both types will eventually turn yellow and develop a woodier texture to the flesh as they ripen. Some have a bitter taste at that point.

Hybrid varieties also come in pickling and slicing, but also in American and English (or European) types. The English varieties are typically longer and have softer, smoother skin. The American ones have the reputation for being more tolerant of outdoor conditions in the garden.

mono Cucumber-FlowersThen there are some classifications based on the way in which cucumbers bear fruit. Most varieties are monoecious, meaning they have both male and female flowers on the same plant, but not both sex organs in the same flower. It is easy to identify which flowers are which as the female flowers have a little baby cucumber at their stem end. Gynoecious varieties have only female flowers and must have pollen from another plant to be fertilized. This seems counterproductive but the plants do put all their energy into producing fruit. Parthenocarpic cucumbers really have it figured out. They simply don’t need to be pollinated at all. So called “burpless” cucumber varieties have been bred to contain less cucurbitacin which sometimes gives cukes a bitter taste and causes digestive upset in some people.

Cucumbers are part of a family of plants known as cucurbits, which also includes squash, melons, and citron; and they all have a few things in common. Most notably for gardens in Zone 1b is that the plants freeze easily. One degree of frost and the top leaves of the plant will die off. Two degrees and the whole plant might perish.

Another thing they all have in common is that they need space. There are a few summer squash plants that grow on a sort of bush like vine, but most cucurbits like to spread out; and they are big plants. If one’s garden space is small, there are some newer varieties bred to have more bush like vines. I have grown Bush Crop and Bush Pickle which have yielded well. Encouraging the vines to grow up a trellis might also be a space saving idea.

In my greenhouse I have usually grown Sweet Slice but this year I am going to try some parthenocarpic varieties. I built a lovely trellis of plastic lattice for my cucumbers to grow on. They are not appreciative. I have had to string either wire or twine over it to make them climb, they simply refuse to stick their tendrils onto that plastic.

cucumbers in gardenWhen it comes time to pick them, cucumbers get sneaky again. I watch and look over the vines waiting for the first pick-able cuke and when I find that first baby one starting, I watch it carefully, waiting patiently for it to get at least 3 inches long, salivating for that first fresh garden cucumber sandwich. When I think it might be ready and go to check after leaving it for a day or two, there is a dishpan full of them ready to be pickled. Sneaky things!

Amaryllis Resurrection

petunia 016My sister is a member of an urban community garden association. Last summer she noticed someone had tossed a couple plastic flowerpots (?) into the compost bin. Thinking to protect the compost and recycle the plastic pots she took them out and found that not only were the pots in perfect shape but so were the dormant amaryllis bulbs they housed. Undoubtedly, they were someone’s discarded Christmas décor.

002I inherited the pots and their bulbs on my next visit and put them away for the summer in my cold storage room where I promptly forgot all about them. In January when I decided it was time to bring out my geraniums, I found the amaryllis bulbs again. They seemed firm so I brought them into the house and watered them. In a couple weeks there were some green shoots and eventually lots of healthy green leaves. I really thought they would have to go through a whole year before I might see if they would bloom. Not so. With the increasing day length, both have burst forth in floral glory.

Where there is life there is hope. Garden On!