Sunday, April 1, 2012

How To.... Start a garden for the season (Part 1: Seeds vs. Seedlings)

My good friend Julia came to me and asked a question that made my heart go pitter-pat. She said, "Can you tell me how to start a vegetable garden?"
If I had a tail, it would have been wagging. I wanted to hug her. I had so many things just spilling out of my mouth at the same time. I wanted to tell her about seeds and seedlings and that so much can be planted before the Victoria Day weekend. I wanted to tell her about garlic and asparagus. Then the bell rang.

I remembered I was at work. I remembered I have other responsibilities. And I remembered my life feels like one race after another these days. So I said to myself, I shall blog my advice to Julia, incrementally, when I have spare moments.

I'm going to assume Julia has already selected a section of her yard to sacrifice to the vegetable gods. I will assume she knows she has to choose a place with some sunshine and that drains fairly well (a.k.a. isn't a marsh) and that if she adds some nutrient-rich compost, it'll do better.


Seed or to Seedling?
When Julia asked me if she should grow her plants from seeds or from seedlings, my knee-jerk response was, "Oh, if this is your first garden, from seedlings for sure!"
However, I'd like to take a step back and answer more carefully right now.
Many vegetables can go into the ground directly as seeds as soon as the soil can be worked (around the GTA, that's mid-April or so). Other vegetables need a long growing season, but aren't tolerant to frost.  So you have to wait to put them into the ground until after the frost-free date. However, because they also need a fairly long growing season, they have to be started earlier in the year (indoors).

So, in late-April to early May, I plant the following vegetables, from seed, directly into my garden:
peas
lettuces
spinach
swiss chard
carrots

Peas are AWESOME to grow. They grow fast. Starting about a week after I've sown my peas, I go out every day to check on my pea sprouts.  And I'm rarely disappointed.  They make me so proud.

You need to give pea plants something to climb. I bought three thick six-foot bamboo poles and some green plastic mesh and I make a "wall" of sorts. I attached the mesh to the bamboo poles with those twist-ties that come with plastic bags. Then I planted peas on either side.

If you're like me, you get so excited to get as many peas into the ground as early as possible, and you'll end up with two weeks in May or June with peas coming out your ears.  However, if you are a bit more organized, you can plant some of your peas, wait two or three weeks, then plant the rest.  This will stagger and spread-out your pea harvest. This is called succession planting.

Lettuce and spinach will also give you huge harvests all at once, so they're excellent candidates for succession planting too.  Spinach is especially tricky because once its deep green leaves appear, you need to eat them up before the flowers peak through.  Once the flowers sprout up, the spinach turns sour and a milky substance oozes forth when you break the leaves.  This means they're not good to eat any more.

Swiss Chard is an excellent alternative to spinach.  Swiss chard can be found in really beautiful colourful varieties.  It can be used in lots of the same ways as spinach, but it will give you a harvest that extends from spring to fall! It's the leafy green that keeps on giving.

Carrot seeds are super duper tiny.  It's hard to space them out because of their size.  I once read a helpful hint.  Someone suggested putting carrot seeds into a salt shaker with some sand (no salt). Then shaking them out into the ground.  Once the carrot seedlings sprout, you can pluck some out intermittently to space the remaining carrots out so they will have room to get big enough.  My soil is very dense and clay-rich.  This makes it tough for carrots to penetrate the earth.  Consequently, I get very thick but very short carrots.  Sandy soil is better for bigger carrots. And carrots take a long time to grow, so that's why it's best to plant them early.

*Stay tuned for more on what to grow from seedlings, how to grow garlic, asparagus and what to do about pests*

~Miss Greenish Thumb~

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