Calling All Novice Vegetable Gardeners - theHumm May 2020

Calling All Novice Vegetable Gardeners - theHumm May 2020

By David Hinks

What is your reason for wanting to start a vegetable garden? You have found that grocery stores have lots of empty shelves? You fear that global supply chains are breaking down and trucks will not be able to cross the border? You’ve always wanted to try growing vegetables and now you have the time to try it? You’re desperately looking for a project to keep the kids busy?

The beauty of starting a vegetable garden is that there is no downside — even if there are no “dystopian-type” breakdowns in our food supply, what have you lost?

But where to start if you are a new gardener. The ideal would be to have been taught how to garden by parents and grandparents, but my experience in leading dozens of gardening workshops for keen young gardeners is that this knowledge has skipped a generation and many new gardeners can’t tell a rutabaga from a kohlrabi. The truth is that it requires a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge. Many techniques are learned only by trial and error over several seasons. But plants do just want to grow — if we look after the soil, water our plants, plant them at the right time and protect them from pests the results will be spectacular.

In the absence of multi-generational tutoring, there are many resources out there. But before you start surfing the web make sure the advice is suited for our area and is pitched to your level of knowledge. I highly recommend free introductory garden courses being offered by Ottawa not-for-profit Just Food .

What Do I Need?

The recipe for a successful garden starts with three ingredients: sunshine, water and soil.

The first ingredient we must satisfy is sunlight. Most vegetables require a minimum of six hours of direct sun — this is afternoon sun — morning sun does not have enough energy for plants like tomatoes. Leafy greens such as lettuce can do with morning sun and would appreciate some shade from hot afternoon sun.

The second is soil. Perhaps you think that you don’t have room in your garden for a vegetable patch? Do you think that the vegetable patch should be hidden behind the garage? You might want to reconsider. If you don’t have a lot of land, think about large containers on your deck or balcony or consider getting rid of that front lawn.

There are many edible plants that are both healthy additions to your plate and a visual feast in the garden. They make great additions to flower beds or ornamental borders. I have had the most success with vegetables that form vigorous, well-shaped plants with interesting or attractive foliage or fruit and that continue growing strongly through the summer and into the fall. I plant them where I might otherwise put annual flowers. The most important growing requirement is a minimum of six hours of full sunlight.

Plants that I would recommend include peppers, eggplants, globe artichoke, Swiss chard, kale and basil. Basil forms a compact rounded plant in many shades of green and purple. Thai basil such as “Siam Queen” also has very decorative purple flowers. There are many herbs such as oregano, parsley, rosemary and thyme that form well-behaved small compact plants. They can easily fit into a small corner of a flower bed placed close to the kitchen door and handy for the gourmet cook. These are just a few of the ideas that have worked for me. Let your imagination run wild. Carrots have lovely ferny foliage; corn makes a bold statement — the possibilities are endless. Who knows — you may decide to stop growing flowers!

An absolute necessity for growing vegetables is accessibility of water. To the best of my knowledge xeriscaping with vegetables is not a possibility. We expect vegetables to be lush, juicy and sweet; not tough, stringy and bitter.

Most vegetables require a minimum of one inch of water a week. In the Ottawa Valley, rainfall averages about three inches a month and there can be lengthy periods with little or no rain. For example, in 2012 there was a drought of about ten weeks in mid-summer. Rain barrels may provide sufficient water for a small garden but anything more ambitious requires access to a more reliable source.

Creating the Physical Garden

There are obviously many different approaches to creating a garden with correspondingly very different implications for cost, size and attractiveness. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of boxes versus in-ground gardens.

The most obvious disadvantage of gardening in boxes is the much higher cost. Raised boxes are obviously critically necessary for gardeners in wheelchairs and with other mobility issues. They are also essential where there is very little space or where there is concern about contaminated soil. And with the raised box it is easier to control marauding rabbits and invading weeds. The boxes do have a limited life, and at some point will have to be replaced.

For both boxes and containers, the maxim that bigger is better is very true. Small containers dry out very quickly and the hapless gardener may have to water two or three times a day in hot, dry weather.

Other approaches are often touted as being much easier, such as lasagna gardening. Cardboard is placed on the lawn and then covered with layers of soil and mulch. There are certainly places where this approach will work, but in a garden of any size it involves purchasing and handling huge volumes of materials.

In a large area, it may be possible to use a tractor or rototiller to prepare the soil. A smaller garden may be created by hand — stripping the sod, setting it aside to compost, adding some compost or well-rotted manure and then mixing it (hard work but very low-cost if you are able to do it yourself). Raised beds and well drained soil assist an early start by warming up much faster. Raised beds don’t need to involve a lot of work. I create beds a little over a metre wide and about three metres long with pathways about half a metre wide. Just scoop the soil from the pathways onto the raised bed, add some compost, mix it up a bit and you’re ready to plant. You can make it much fancier with cedar planks as edging, particularly if you want to raise it more than a few inches.

It is important to know what types of weeds you are digging out when you are preparing your planting beds. Some, like dandelions, have a long tap root – if you are able to get the whole root the plant will not come back; however, any piece of root left in the ground will regenerate. Perennial grasses are difficult to eliminate as they have long horizontal roots that may stretch half a metre or more. These are best removed with a spading fork. A rototiller will break those roots into little pieces, every one of which will send up a new plant.

So which way to establish a garden is best? My conclusion is that it is very much dependent on the particular situation, the size of the garden and your physical capabilities.

The Garden Calendar

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of trying to match the growing requirements of plants with the expected weather conditions in the growing season.

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 our area is still an important rule for heat-loving and frost-sensitive plants such as 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, onions, lettuce and spinach as early as the last week of March. Within our yards, the spot where the snow melts first may well be a favourable micro-climate and a great spot for a super-early start.

An early start is essential for plants that do not tolerate heat. Our Ottawa Valley 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.

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 late October for the next year’s crop – it emerges in mid-April and grows rapidly in cooler weather.

Onion “sets” are available very early in many retail stores. These are one-year old onions that have been grown under controlled conditions. They will grow into sizable onions for harvest towards the end of August. While it is possible to grow onions from seed, they would have to have been planted indoors in February. In the case of my main onion crop for storage onions I usually opt for the ease of sets — these are the simplest and most dependable method. For their early growth onions prefer cool weather conditions and plenty of moisture.

Frost-hardy vegetables such as lettuce, onions, peas and spinach can be planted outdoors as soon as the ground can be worked, often by mid-April in the Ottawa Valley. 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 tubers. Onions and spinach take frost in their stride.

Some plants that we grow in the vegetable garden are very hardy perennials. In particular, both rhubarb and asparagus will thrive in the garden for 20 or 30 years or more if the planting bed is well prepared, if the plants are given some time to get established (with asparagus this may take three years), if some compost is worked in around the plants in the spring, and if you are able to keep perennial weeds such as grasses and thistles from getting established.

Most herbs can be treated as hardy vegetables — oregano, mint, lovage, dill, chives, sage, tarragon and thyme are some examples. The exceptions are rosemary (which is a perennial but must be brought indoors in winter) and sweet basil (which is extremely sensitive to cold and is best started indoors from seed in April or grown from seedlings purchased from a garden centre). At the least hint of cold weather in September basil leaves turn black and start to fall off.

Some gardeners try to get a head start on the season with relatively tender plants such as tomatoes. I may plant a few tomatoes two or three weeks before Victoria Day but I spread my risks by planting the main crop when it is warmer.

Raised beds and well-drained soil assist an early start by warming up much faster. In order to determine if soil is workable, take a handful and squeeze — if it stays together in a ball it is still too wet; if it crumbles it is ready. Time to get out and get planting!

Starting Seedlings Indoors

While May is getting pretty late to start most seedlings indoors, the first of May is feasible for fast-growing vine crops such as cucumbers and squash and for heat-loving basil — get in a bit of practice before “upping the ante” next year!

The key to growing seedlings successfully indoors is lots of light. If plants don’t have enough light, they will be spindly and weak and will not be able to handle the transition to outdoor conditions. Even a very sunny window is unlikely to provide sufficient light given the number of cloudy days in winter; hence it is preferable to start seedlings under artificial light. It is also likely to get very cool at night close to the window.

The set-up does not need to be fancy. I use utility wooden shelving and suspend fluorescent fixtures by chains between the shelves so that I can adjust them to keep them within a couple of inches of the seedlings. 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 — watering from the bottom is preferable.

Seeds contain all the nutrients required for germination. I use a diluted organic fish-based fertilizer weekly after seedlings have been growing for a few 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 and new plastic inserts and by ensuring good air circulation by keeping a fan running constantly. The air movement also produces stronger, stockier plants.

It is very tempting, but it is important not to start too early. Tomatoes in particular can become very tall and difficult to keep healthy if grown too long under lights. The amount of time that seedlings can grow indoors before they become too large for indoor conditions varies considerably. Tomatoes only need six to eight weeks, peppers and eggplant eight to ten weeks, broccoli and cabbage five to eight weeks, onions and leeks ten to twelve weeks, geraniums twelve weeks and most annual bedding flowers from six to twelve weeks.

Several vegetables that I have tried starting early indoors and have found virtually no benefit include peas, corn and beans. Also, root vegetables such as beets and carrots do not transplant well. Peas can be planted directly in the ground probably by mid-April; carrots and beets by the first of May; and corn and beans close to Victoria Day.

Vine crops, such as cucumbers and melons, do not like to have their roots disturbed when they are transplanted into the garden, but they do benefit from an early start, so I plant them in pots that I can put the plant and its pot directly in the garden. I use a pot that is biodegradable and will break down over time as it lets the plant’s roots grow through the pot wall. There are three possibilities for pots that I am familiar with — peat pots, coir pots and Cow Pots. I have used peat pots very successfully in the past but some gardeners are opposed to them as they use a non-renewable resource. Coir pots are made of coconut husks — I have found that they did not break as much as I had hoped in the soil. Cow Pots are made from the composted solids of cow manure and indeed break down quickly in the garden.

One thing I do after planting the seeds is to maintain charts of what I have planted — both indoors and outdoors — at times I supplement this with labels but I find that these get lost, move or fade. No job is finished until the paperwork is done!

It is necessary to harden-off seedlings before planting them in the garden. They need to be given gradual exposure to outdoor conditions, an hour or two the first day, a few hours the second day until they are outdoors full time in a week or so. Transplanting outdoors is best done on a calm, cloudy day. As I plant these lush green growing plants into the garden, it always seems miraculous to me that just two or three months ago they started from small hard apparently lifeless objects.

Planting Outdoors

Don’t try to work the soil too early. In order to determine if soil is workable, take a handful and squeeze — if it stays together in a ball it is still too wet; if it crumbles it is ready. If it clings to your boots and shovel in great clumps wait a few more days.

To create a raised bed about a metre wide and three or so meters in length, I dig over the area and get rid of any weeds, then I dig out the pathways between the beds down about three or four inches, tossing that soil onto the beds on either side of the path, I then add some compost — some of my own and a bag of composted manure. I then mix it up a bit with a spading fork and am ready to plant. I use the back side of a steel rake (I could have used a hoe instead) to dig three parallel rows about 1cm deep. I then plant three rows, for example one row of a mesclun mix of a variety of greens, a row of carrots and a row of spinach, then draw the soil back over the seeds and tamp it down lightly with the bottom of the rake.

A technique that will make your life much easier is the use of mulch, particularly in the pathways between the growing beds. Hay or straw is most commonly used in this area. I generally use straw as I find that it has far fewer weed seeds than hay. Any seeds of oats, barley or wheat that germinate can be easily pulled by hand or dislodged with a cultivator as they are shallow-rooted. I apply a layer of 10–15cm which often approximates one “slice” in a bale of straw. By the way, I am talking about the old-fashioned bales of straw weighing 15–20kg — not the large round ones that can only be lifted by a tractor. The use of mulch also helps to reduce moisture loss. If I use the mulch on the growing beds amongst the plants it is best applied early for cool-loving plants such as broccoli, and later, once the soil has warmed up, for heat-lovers such as peppers. Plants such as tomatoes that require an even supply of moisture through the growing season especially benefit from mulch.

One concept that you may want to include in your gardening plans is that of crop rotation. This is an important control method for insects and disease, as many pests are specific to one type of plant and may over-winter in the soil. It also may help to avoid soil degradation as different crops use varying amounts of nutrients. For example, peas and beans may add nitrogen to the soil whereas most green leafy vegetables are high users of nitrogen. It is important to note that rotation plans have to apply to vegetable families, as members of the family are generally vulnerable to the same pests. For example, the Brassica family includes broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kohlrabi.

Another concept that is useful for vegetables such as beans and beets is succession planting. Rather than plant all of the beans at once, plant some every two weeks or so thus spreading out the harvest over an extended period. This can continue over the summer. The average bush bean takes about 50 days from seeding until harvest (beets take 55–60 days). Given that the weather will likely start to cool off considerably by mid-September, I will want to plant my last crop of beans around the first of August. This also creates the opportunity to have more than one harvest from the same plot of land — I will be putting my later plantings of beans and beets in areas where I have harvested lettuce, spinach, peas and early onions and potatoes.

Dealing with Pests and Disease

Organic practices start with garden design and layout. The front-line of pest deterrents includes cultural practices such as beneficial habitat, crop rotation, diverse inter-plantings, and various partitions (row covers, screened hoop houses and other insect barriers) to minimize pest problems.

Although many organically-derived broad-spectrum pesticides are condoned by the Canadian Organic Standard, try to avoid their use altogether. The goal is to create a balance where the “good guys” keep the “bad guys” in check. Cultured lady bugs and praying mantis, parasitic wasps and a naturally occurring soil bacterium can be used when required, as these have no adverse effect on the ecosystem. The best way to prevent pest and disease problems is to raise strong healthy plants by building soil organic matter and maintaining the integrity of the soil structure by making extensive use of green manures and green mulches, by practicing minimal till or shallow till farming and keeping the soil covered. Compost tea, disease resistant cultivars and partitioning or putting distance between patches of plants are all strategies to deal with the threat of disease.

— David Hinks is a Lanark Master Gardener and Garden Programs Coordinator at the Lanark County Food Bank


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On This Month’s Cover - theHumm May 2020

A veritable garden of art!

(clockwise from top left)

Claire Jacobs,

Sally Hansen, ...more