Early Season Planting… Hurry Up and Wait!

Getting the garden going in the spring is always an exercise in patience. The snow melts, then it comes back. The temperature jumps up to 20+ degrees for a few days but then is back down to near freezing. It can be hard to know what should be planted and when, and how to plan for a garden that doesn’t all get planted at the same time.

Several crops can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked, and actually prefer to germinate in cool soil, including spinach, radishes, beets, greens, kale and peas.

Sprouted Giant Winter spinach, Jericho romaine lettuce and Early Wonder beets, early May

Sprouted Giant Winter spinach, Jericho romaine lettuce and Early Wonder beets, early May

Here is a list of everything that we planted outdoors in the month of April and the source of the seeds. The items that are in bold are things that we’ve done before that we’ve loved and would recommend:

  • Romaine lettuce (seeds harvested from 2012 season, originally Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Red Oak leaf lettuce (seeds harvested from 2012 season, originally Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Curly green leaf lettuce (seeds harvested from 2012 season, originally plant given by friend)
  • Astro Arugula (seeds harvested from 2012 season, Greta’s Organic Garden)
  • Black Seeded Simpson lettuce (Page Seed Co)
  • Giant Winter spinach (Greta’s Organic Garden)
  • Rainbow Dinosaur kale (Urban Harvest)
  • Vates Blues Curled kale (Urban Harvest)
  • Red Russian kale (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Plum Purple radish (The Cottage Gardener)
  • Raxe radish (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Atomic Red carrot (Urban Harvest)
  • Scarlett Nantes carrot (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Jerusalem artichoke (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Detroit Dark Red beet (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Early Wonder beet (Greta’s Organic Garden)
  • Sugar Snap pea (Ferme Tourne Sol)
  • Fordhook Giant swiss chard (Urban Harvest)
  • Sweet Peas flowers (Aimers – bought at Lee Valley)
Plum Purple radish and Sugar Snap peas, early May

Plum Purple radish and Sugar Snap peas, early May

This year we really had our shit together and got our early planting started as soon as the ground was thawed enough to turn over the top 12 inches of soil. But we didn’t just bury the seeds any-old-where in the garden. We planned the early planting with a few things in mind this year – succession planting, crop rotation and interplanting with later season crops.

Succession planting -  Some crops mature quickly, which means that you can/should plant several “batches” of them throughout the growing season to maintain a constant supply of your favourite salad fixin’s! These include lettuce, arugula, spinach, beets and radishes (and carrots to a lesser degree.) Successive rounds of planting can be done every 2-4 weeks for these crops.

This has implications for your first round of planting in the early season; it means that you don’t need to plant all the beets you can eat in one go! Plant some now and more later…  We planted our sunniest garden plot with a small assortment of salad greens, beets and radishes. 2 weeks later, we planted another plot in the garden with radishes and beets. Another round of lettuces will be planted in the coming week. It should be noted, however, that certain crops don’t do well when it gets hot, hot, hot. Spinach and beets will likely not do well when planted into July and August; best to do a couple of plantings in spring and wait for later summer to plant again for fall harvest.

(Tip: The book Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew has some extremely helpful and simple planting charts to help plan succession planting. Highly recommended for urban gardening newbies!)

 Crop rotation - Each crop in the garden needs a different balance of mineral nutrients (namely nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) from the soil. As a result, the soil can become depleted of one or more nutrients when the same crop is planted in the same place year after year. To avoid this, we are doing our best to switch up the location of crops in the garden. For example, cucumbers are nitrogen-suckers! We will be putting cucumbers in a different spot this year and planting beans – a nitrogen-replenisher – in their place. This is an important consideration in the early season as you plan out the location of your crops in the yard and put in some of the longer-growing early season crops such as kale, chard and peas.

Interplanting – This year we are going to dabble much more with interplanting – the art of planting more than one type of crop together in a harmonious and beneficial way. As noted above, we did our first spring planting in the sunniest garden plot, which is also occupied by our garlic, planted last fall. (See previous post Why yes I do have garlic breath.) This sunny spot is primo tomato growing location, so our plan is to interplant tomato seedlings with the early season greens, radishes and beets. As the tomatoes grow and require more space we will be eating the radishes and beets and will thin out the lettuce. In the heat of the summer the few heads of lettuce that remain will enjoy partial shade from the towering tomatoes and (in theory) will not bolt as quickly as lettuce that is exposed to the direct blazing sun… stay tuned to see how that works out!

If you haven’t planted anything yet and are reading this thinking “Aww man, I’ve missed the boat and now it’s too late!” then please stop worrying. You can plant now. Or next week. Just please do plant this spring!

Indoor planting… party?!

As if there is ever need of an excuse to eat fresh croissants with friends on a Sunday, but if you’re looking for one then an indoor seed-planting party is definitely a good one! The gist of the planting party is that everyone brings a little something to either plant or eat or both. Seeds are shared and planted in pots and flats, and everyone goes home with full bellies and an assortment of planted seeds to germinate indoors.

Jaune Flamme seedlings

Jaune Flamme seedlings

Due to Ottawa’s short(ish) growing season, if you’re planning on starting everything from seed, there are certain veggies that should be started up to eight weeks before the last frost date, which is May 6th, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. We held our planting party March 10th*.

Here is a list of the seeds we planted indoors and the source for each:

  • Jaune Flamee tomato (heirloom, Ferme Tourne Sol)
  • Black Cherry tomato (heirloom, Ferme Tourne Sol)
  • Montreal Tasty tomato (heirloom, Ferme Tourne Sol)
  • Mixed bell pepper (seeds harvested from 2011 planting)
  • Beaver Dam Hot Pepper (The Cottage Gardener)
  • Hungarian hot pepper (The Cottage Gardener)
  • Evergreen bunching onion (Urban Harvest)
  • Rosa Bianca Eggplant (Urban Harvest)
  • Dill (Greta’s Organic Gardens)
  • Cilantro (seeds harvested from 2012 planting)
  • Basil (seeds harvested from 2012 planting)
  • Sunflowers (Seeds of Creation)
  • Watermelon (seed trading table at Seedy Saturday)
  • Cantaloupe (from Ben’s dad)
Pepper seedlings

Mixed “Mystery” bell pepper seedlings

Here is a list of some things that are important to prep before you host your own planting party:

  1. Have all of your seeds in order and sort out those that should be planted indoors. All seed packets will come with planting  instructions will say whether a crop should be started indoors.
  2. Determine approximately how many plants you would like of each crop… I tend to err on the high side because it’s fun to give away seedlings to neighbours, friends and colleagues. (It is amazing the goodies you can trade for you home-sprouted seedlings!) Once you know how many you want, you can figure out home many pots/planting flats you need, and how much potting soil you will need.
  3. Make sure all of your pots and/or planting flats are the type that allow drainage. Some of the flats come with a clear plastic lid which provides an excellent greenhouse effect for little seedlings.
  4. Have some trowels and a small watering can or spray bottle on hand. Ask friends to bring their own trowel and any small tools they think they’ll need.
  5. Labeling is key, especially when you have many people planting several different types of seeds. Have masking tape and a few sharpies on hand and make sure people are labeling as they go… last year we somehow ended up with something like 2-dozen eggplant plants and no pepper. Whoops!
  6. Pick your house’s sunniest spot and clear out an area for the flats to live for the next 6-8 weeks.
  7. Good music, good friends and good food also help make a highly successful indoor planting event. Duh.

Once seeds are planted they need to be kept warm, moist and sunny. Take good care of these little babies! In the week leading up to the planned date of outdoor transplanting, the indoor seedlings should be left outside for several hours a day to “harden” them. Read more about seedling hardening here.

Afterthought: We had good germination on most of the above listed crops, with the exception of the onions… I think this will be the last year we bother trying to start those by seed indoors.

It’s a little seedy around here

At this time of year, I get a lot of people asking me the same question when I tell them about the vegetable garden: “Where do you get your seeds?” In case you are also interested in the answer to this question, dear reader, I will tell you. There are the several places we get our seeds…

First of all, as much as possible we harvest seeds from our own garden for future planting. To date we’ve had success doing this with peas, beans, peppers, basil, cilantro, cantaloupe, lettuce, spinach and arugula. (Stay tuned this summer for a video blog series dedicated to showing you how to harvest from various crops.)

Hands down the best seed-buying event in Ottawa is Seedy Saturday – an event held in early March each year where numerous local (ON and QC) organic farms sell their seeds. For the last three years we have come home from this event with way more seeds than we planned from several of the farmers selling there, and have yet to be disappointed. The event also has a seed exchange table (i.e. FREE seeds if you have something to contribute to the table), some highly instructional gardening workshops and all sorts of scrumptious artisanal goodies to be found. Check out the Ecology Ottawa website for next year’s date.

Sugar snap pea seeds

Sugar snap peas from Ferme Tourne-Sol

There is one farm from which we’ve had some particularly incredible seeds: Ferme Tourne-Sol co-operative farm (les Cèdres, QC.) We have tried several of their tomatoes, beans, lettuce, peas, radishes, carrots and kale and everything has been very well germinating and producing. If you missed them at Seedy Saturday you can always order seeds from their website.

We are trying some fun potatoes this year! We have ordered four different varieties of fingerling potatoes from Bryson Farm.

We’ve also had good results with seeds from Greta’s Organic Gardens (Gloucester, ON) and Urban Harvest (Toronto, ON.)

Finally, I have been know to pick up certain herbs (rosemary, thyme, dill, chives) at the Parkdale Market, where you can often buy 3 plants for $5.

So, you could say we are not really one to buy seeds at Canadian Tire, preferring to take time to choose seeds that are heirloom as often as possible, and from organic producers. BUT, if that is what is easiest for you in order to get growing, then what better way to spend your CT dollars!