Sowing Salad Greens in Planters


Mesclun mix

This morning the sun was shining brilliantly on my south-facing patio and it felt like spring had finally arrived in my zone 3 Edmonton backyard. Because we’ve had so much snow this winter, it’s taking forever for the grass to appear and the garden to make it’s way to the surface.

But today was warm, bright and sunny, chasing away the cold weather blues that have engulfed our prairie city for so many months. It seemed like the perfect day to sow the first of my outdoor seeds – the greens.

I don’t like to refer to my greens as “lettuce” because I plant so much more than that. My mesclun mix is a combination of lettuce, arugala, endive, mustard greens, radicchio and who-knows-what else. The oriental greens mix has gai lan, pac choi, mizuna, red leaf mustard, tokyo bekana, spinach mustard and toy choi. I don’t even know what half of those are!

I began by removing a significant amount of last year’s soil from two large planters I use for my salad greens, leaving about six inches in the bottom and topping up with fresh sterile starter mix. I do this so that I don’t have any random seeds in my mixed greens – I don’t want any poisonous plants growing among my yummy salad leafs. I wouldn’t know which were safe and which weren’t.

After I moistened the soil, I spread a small handful (about a teaspoon) of seed evenly over the surface and lightly pressed them in. I placed a brick under the back of each planter so they would tilt slightly to the sun, encouraging as much heat and light as possible on these early spring days.

Finally, I covered one of the planters with a specially designed wire mesh which I built last year to protect my seeds and shoots from the birds. The local sparrows were watching me closely as I covered their favorite open-concept dining room, and they were not amused.

In a week to ten days I’ll have my first few sprouts and within a month I’ll be eating fresh greens plucked from just outside my back door. By reseeding every two weeks I can have baby greens all summer long.


Eight Weeks and Counting (to last frost)

Starting to get a bit crowded already

Right now is the easiest period of seed starting – those quiet first few weeks before anything has begun to germinate. Once things start to grow, it takes a whole lot more work and energy to keep all of the tiny plants happy and healthy. 

Yesterday (on the spring solstice) I planted my tomato seeds and my Spanish onions. 

I started by soaking my pots from the bottom a few hours in advance of placing the seeds. This gives the planting medium a chance to be thoroughly moistened, which is critically important to germination. 

I like to use the bottom of a similar pot as a guide to mark the seeding holes, and a pencil with an elastic wrapped around it to control the depth. Maybe I’m just a bit retentive, but I like the look of evenly spaced plants. 

Onions aren’t keen on being transplanted as they develop so I planted four in each four inch pot, and they’ll stay there until it’s time to be transferred outside. 

I dropped two tiny onion seeds in each 1/4 inch (5 mm) deep hole and covered them with sand. Labelling each and every pot is so important that I can’t stress it enough. You may think you’ll be able to tell one from another a few months from now, but don’t count on it. 

These eight pots (32 plants once I remove any duplicates that come up in the same hole) were placed under my grow light and covered with plastic to help keep the soil moist until they germinate. 

Tomatoes need to be started well in advance, as they take a good eight weeks to grow sturdy enough to be transplanted outside. I love tomatoes, so plant four different varieties to enjoy; three are bush varieties and one is a staking tomato. More about that in a later post. 

Using a pencil to make a trough the length of my flat, I placed 9-10 seeds in each. I’m hoping for 50% germination, but I’ll pinch out and transplant any successful seedlings as soon as they have a set of true leaves. That’ll be in a few weeks, and I’ll blog about that when the time comes. 

Truth be told, I don’t need that many tomato plants, but I can’t help but plant more than I should. I’ve never had a friend or neighbour turn down a free tomato plant, and it never hurts to give away what you have excess of. 

Once the tomato seeds were sown, I placed them under the lights and next to the peppers from last week. They should germinate within the next 7-10 days. 

It’s starting to get crowded already under my lights and I’ve only just begun!

January is for Dreaming

Waiting to Start Seeds for 2011

January is a great month for gardening. Ok, I don’t mean that I’m out in the yard digging down through three feet of snow and amending my soil, but January is the month that I go through my catalogs and choose my seeds for spring.

This year is especially exciting because I plan to start many seeds indoors for the first time in ages. I used to start many of my own bedding plants, herbs and less hardy vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers back in the day, but for some reason I had convinced myself there was really no savings in doing so.

Well, that may be true. I suspect that by the time I buy soil, containers, fertilizer and seeds I’ll be wishing I’d chosen a money-saving trip to the greenhouse. And then there’s the used lighting system which I bought to consider. It’s not flashy and modern, but it has to be factored into the budget.

I’ve decided to be ambitious and try to start thirteen different vegetable varieties, ten different flowers and three herbs indoors over the next few months. If I consider the seeds that I’ll be direct sowing as usual, I’ll have a total of 35 different annuals, plus the potatoes. The chives, thyme, oregano, mint and garlic should have survived the winter and my coriander should self seed but I’ll help it out if it needs some additional seeds sown.

Edmonton has a last frost date of May 7th, but I’ve calculated my dates for sowing with an extra week of safety in mind – that’s to say I’m using May 15th as the last frost date and calculating backwards from there to determine when to start my seeds.

The first seeds to sow will be the peppers – they require two months or more to get ready for moving outdoors. After that I’ll sow my tomatoes (four different types), then eggplant, and so on until they are all cheerfully growing under artificial light.

As far as flowers are concerned, I’ll start petunias early along with aster and viper’s bugloss. Impatiens and dahlia come next followed by coleus and cosmos and some other quick growing annuals.

Sure, plants such as lettuce and cucumber, or morning glory and portulaca can be sown directly outdoors in the spring but I’ve decided to experiment with starting them indoors to see if there is any real advantage. In fact, I’ll direct sow some as soon as the soil is workable and see how they compare.

Others just don’t do well when started indoors. Carrots are a good example – who wants to start a hundred carrot seeds in a tray and prick them out? Carrots, spinach, peas – they should all be directly sown in the garden. Today’s varieties are quick to develop and don’t need the boost of an extra few weeks indoors to get started.

Eggplant and cucumber are two examples of seedling that don’t take well to having their roots disturbed, so I’ll start them in their own 3″ pot. I’ve never found the season to be long enough to grow really good sized onions, so I’ll start candy hybrid onions four to a pot in March and see how they fair after I put them out in May.

Well, there’s lots to look forward to in the next couple of months and I’ll keep posting to my blog as I plant new seeds each week. Here’s my schedule for 2011 – Edmonton zone 3.

Vegetables   indoors outdoors
pepper serrano del sol Mar-13 May-15
pepper jalapeno mucho nacho Mar-13 May-15
onion candy hybrid   Mar-20 May-08
tomato tumbler (bush) Mar-20 May-15
tomato prairie pride (bush) Mar-20 May-15
tomato centennial rocket (bush) Mar-20 May-15
tomato charlie’s red (staking) Mar-20 May-15
eggplant hybrid hansel Mar-27 May-15
eggplant asian ping tung long Mar-27 May-15
lettuce romaine baby star Apr-10 May-08
lettuce esmeralda   Apr-17 May-08
cucumber hybrid diva   Apr-24 May-15
onion evergreen bunching x Apr-03
swiss chard bright lights x Apr-03
spinach razzle dazzle x Apr-03
spinach catalina   x Apr-03
carrots nantes coreless x Apr-10
beets deep cylinder   x Apr-24
peas mr. big   x May-01
potatoes     x May-15
beans straight n narrow x May-15
shock wave petunia   Mar-13 May-15
aster early charm   Mar-13 May-15
viper’s bugloss   Mar-13 May-15
impatiens super elfins blend Mar-20 May-15
dahlia unwins dwarf hybrid Mar-20 May-15
purple coneflower   Apr-03 May-08
coleus wizard mix   Apr-03 May-15
cosmos double click   Apr-17 May-08
portulaca sundial mix   Apr-17 May-15
morning glory carnevale Apr-24 May-08
sweet peas (from last year’s seed) x May-08
parsley champion moss curled Mar-20 May-08
thyme creeping   Mar-20 May-08
basil sweet   Mar-20 May-15

Making a Terrarium: Bringing the Outdoors In

In the fall it seems such a shame to lose all the lovely outdoor potted plants that can’t withstand a winter in zone 3.

Two Terraria

I am not an indoor gardener, but I like to save a few of my plants by bringing them indoors for the winter and attempting to keep them alive until I can place them outside again in the spring.

I’ve found that the best way of doing this is by making a low maintenance terrarium. Terrariums don’t need a great deal of attention, and that suits me fine.

I made two terraria this year. One vessel I found at Winners for four dollars and the other at a thrift store for two dollars.

To make a healthy terrarium, start with a layer of small rocks on the bottom, then add a layer of charcoal. The rocks act to hold moisture and the charcoal keeps that moisture from causing odors. You can buy the charcoal in the aquarium section of any pet store.

I dug up some moss from my yard for the next layer, then topped that with healthy sterile potting soil. The moss keeps the soil from mingling with the charcoal.

After rooting some of the ivy from one of my outdoor planters, I added it to the terrarium and it has been doing well with little or no personal attention for the past several weeks. Looks like it will need watering once or twice a month. That’s my kinda houseplant.

Edible Garden Tour 2010

Ron Berezan Talks to the Tour Participants

This year’s Edible Garden Tour, hosted by Ron Berezan AKA The Urban Farmer, was held on August 14th. Meeting at Giovanni Caboto Park on a cloudy Saturday morning, fifty enthusiastic gardeners split into two groups and proceeded to visit ten amazing gardens distributed about the Edmonton area. Some of those taking part in the tour already had enviable gardens of their own, while others were planning for the day when they might.

The tour featured everything from backyard orchards to front yard vegetable gardens, and was brimming with inspiring ideas for both experienced and novice gardeners.

Each home on the circuit incorporated aspects of permaculture gardening; landscapes that work with nature to provide food, medicinal plants, and animal products and in a sustainable way. Permaculturists create a sustainable, productive environment through recycling, composting, reducing water needs and using microclimates to their advantage.

The forest garden is one example permaculture in action. Berezan’s own backyard is a testament to multi-layer design with stacking of canopy trees over shrubs and herbaceous plants followed by root and cover crops. Each layer in this polyculture interacts, creating a complex yet fundamental ecosystem.

A visit to the Mustard Seed Community Garden, aptly named “Peas Be With You”, demonstrated what can be done when a small plot of land is transformed into a neighbourhood garden space. Shared by both local residents and the homeless, the Mustard Seed garden produces food that is prepared and eaten by the green thumbs that participate.

We saw some amazing private gardens throughout the city as well. The fruit of years of grafting and nurturing were apparent in one homeowner’s apple orchard which featured trees drooping under the weight of as many as four different species of apple.

A Glenora area homeowner encourages people to slow down and smell the roses – literally. She has incorporated rest stops in her front garden and a nearby public access area with signs which invite people to stop and explore.

We met Roy Berkenbosch, winner of this year’s Front Gardens in Bloom (Edible Garden Category). Roy and his wife have transformed their front yard into an edible landscape full of beans, beets, and other culinary treats, while maintaining an attractive aesthetic.

I personally enjoyed our visit to a backyard apiary, although I have to admit I was worried that the bees might be able to smell my discomfort. As many as 50,000 bees inhabit this backyard beehive and it has already produced over 40 lbs of honey for the amateur beekeepers.

The 2010 Edible Garden Tour was an amazing private view into the yards of ordinary Edmontonians with extraordinary vision. I’m always inspired by touring other gardens, and this year was no exception.

I’m already working on plans to build a solar food dryer, rebuild my square foot raised beds to be more efficient, and I’ve dug my mom’s old canner out of storage so that I can experiment with canning more varieties of vegetables this fall.

Thanks to the Urban Farmer for hosting the tour. Here’s hoping that after Ron departs for warmer B.C. climes the tours continue. Permaculture is increasingly popular among those of us who enjoy the feel of dirt under our nails, and we can all use a little inspiration now and again.

Blooming Bargains for the Budget Conscious Gardener

Rudbeckia gloriosa

Rudbekia gloriosa (gloriosa daisy), Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed-Susan), and all of their cousins are fantastic heat-tolerant cold resistant proliferative self-seeding wonders. Their colourful blooms begin in July and last into the fall, long after summer’s less enduring flowers have gone to seed.

The family Asteraceae, also known as the daisy, sunflower or aster family, is home to the  genii Rudbeckia, Echinacea (cone flowers) and Gaillardia (blanket flowers).

Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower), is a fantastic garden flower grown for both its beauty and its medicinal qualities. It’s hardy to zone 3, making it a valuable plant in the Canadian prairie garden. A spiny central cone is characteristic of the genus; Echinacea is derived from the Greek word echinos, meaning hedgehog.

Another of my favourites in the heat-tolerant category are Gaillardia aristata (common blanket flower). Seeds can be planted directly outdoors in the late fall or early spring. Blanket flower plants may not appear until June, but they grow vigorously and bloom throughout July and August.

I enjoy the colourful yellows that these flowers bring to the late summer and fall garden, and they are definitely a great bang for the buck. Be sure to save some seed for next year if you’re truly a budget-conscious gardener.

May 2010

August 2010

Update: Upside-Down Tomato Planters

Tumbler Tomatoes

This year I made three hanging planters and tried the “Topsy Turvy” method of growing tomatoes. Topsy Turvy is a brand name which has become associated with this type of planter, but there are other brands and numerous self-made models on the web, including my design in my April 2010 blog post.

See April 2010 Making an Upside Tomato Planter

Down Having done some research on cultivars to use, I opted for the Tumbler tomato because of its suitability to growing in containers. In my raised beds I planted a Tumbler among my regular Roma tomatoes to use as a comparison.

Two of the three plants in my upside down planters have done remarkably well; the third has suffered from poor rooting from day one. I suspect that I didn’t plant it deep enough initially, as it has never thrived. It has produced a number of tomatoes despite it lack of vitality, but it’s hanging on (literally) by a straggly thread.

A clear disadvantage to the reverse planter is that it requires a significant amount of watering as compared to the traditional method. This would be expected given that the water can run out and/or evaporate from the bottom of the planter with relative ease. I’m sure much of the water consumption could be attributed to the voracious thirst of the wave petunia I placed in the top of each planter; the petunias have grown to produce a massive display of colorful blooms.

On the positive side, I’ve had no problem with any of the typical disease and pests that affect the plants grown in the ground. My traditionally-grown plant is similar in size but spotted with a mild case of blight.

I’ve been feeding my tomatoes on a regular “Fertilizer Friday” schedule, despite having used a high quality planting soil with fertilizer incorporated. Tomatoes can be fairly heavy feeders, particularly while they are producing.

Overall I’ve been happy with the outcome. I’ve been plucking fruit on a daily basis since late June and there appears to be no end in sight to the flowering. My Romas won’t be ready for several more weeks, so having the bite-size Tumblers to munch on is a treat.

May 2010

June 2010

July 2010

July 2010

These planters were filled in May with one wave petunia

These wave petunias have been outstanding