So you want to grow veggies! Awesome! Super! Fantastic!
Now what? Where do we start?
First things first. Let’s pick a spot.
So you want to grow veggies! Awesome! Super! Fantastic!
Now what? Where do we start?
First things first. Let’s pick a spot.
Well it’s almost that time again . . . I’m still eating the canned tomatoes of last summer and already I need to start thinking about planting the seeds for this year. If you’ve read any of our earlier posts you’ll know I’m completely bananas for tomatoes. On our 33 x 108 foot urban lot, in amongst the gazillion other veggies, we planted 50 tomato plants last year, 12 varieties in all.
The neighbours thought we were crazy at first, but when the fruit started to ripen their comments stopped and suddenly they “conveniently” had plastic bags in their pockets on their evening walks, eager to inquire if I had a few tomatoes to spare! The cheek! I kept the old gal on the corner in steady supply of tomatoes for most of August, and introduced my newly-immigrated Chinese neighbours to the pleasures of tomatoes that come in colours other than red. They were at first perplexed when I told them I was growing purple tomatoes, but next thing I knew they were leaning over the fence politely inquiring if there were any more! Even my mail-lady bashfully admitted that she’d been sneaking cherry tomatoes off the arbour all summer. Thankfully there was more than enough to go around. I finally stopped weighing the harvest when the total hit 300 pounds!!
If you have never grown anything from seed before, heirloom tomatoes are just about the most wonderful veg I can think of to start on. Growing from seed is easy and can be done on the cheap. The tomatoes you see above would have cost me well over 200 dollars at the farmer’s market, but seeds are usually no more than 3 or 4 dollars a packet. If you’re really smart, you will do one better and find someone who already grows heirloom tomatoes from seed and pinch a few seeds off them.
Gardening from seed is like that song we used to sing as little kids – It’s just like a magic penny, hold it tight and you won’t have any. Lend it, spend it and you’ll have so many they’ll roll all over the floor! Sing it with me – Love is somethin’ if you give it away, you end up having more!
My singalong aside, this really is the magical thing about gardening. Unlike the Monsanto’s of the world who believe in the paradigm of scarcity, greedily hoarding the very seeds of life (literally) for fear that there won’t be enough for everyone so they’re going to keep it all for themselves . . . Any good gardener knows that in fact the opposite is true. Abundance shared is abundance multiplied. Life begets life.
The largest, sturdiest and tastiest tomatoes in my garden came to me free from my Mum’s neighbour, Ed. Ed has been growing and saving tomato seeds for who knows how long, and the plants grown from his seeds are keenly attuned to our particular climate. Even saving seed for just one go around will produce stronger, healthier, more locally-adapted plants. If Ed had been like Monsanto – hoarding his seeds, patenting them, charging the earth for them, engineering them to embody death rather than life like the terrible terminator seeds, then my garden, my family, my neighbourhood would not have been blessed by the ridiculously abundant harvest we enjoyed last summer. Tomatoes from Ed’s seeds still fill my pantry, even now in April. They have been enjoyed by family and friends and neighbours who before last August had never known that particular earthly delight that is the organic, home-grown heirloom tomato. In the spirt of things, I of course have paid it forward, sharing our seeds with our organic master gardener classmates, and even the man who delivers our local paper.
So how to do it? Easy peasy. Lots of people, myself included, are apprehensive about starting from seed, thinking it’s going to be complicated or who knows what. It isn’t complicated and it isn’t expensive. An initial expense and some creativity will keep you going indefinitely.
We grow strictly heirloom varieties for a number of reasons. Taste, biodiversity, the ability to save seeds, the sheer stunning beauty of them. There are a gazillion varieties to choose from, all with fantastic names, stories and different growing and eating qualities. A great place to start if you’re unfamiliar (or overwhelmed) is The Heirloom Tomato by Amy Goldman. A gorgeous coffee table book, bordering on tomato porn. Seriously, so beautiful. And lots of great information about a ton of different varieties. You can get seeds from friends, go to seed swaps, contact Seeds of Diversity in Canada or Seeds of Change in the USA, or any of the other seed providers listed in my links. Many will actually be labeled heirloom or heiritage. If not, look for OP or open pollinated on the package. If they aren’t OP, it means they are a hybrid and you won’t be able to save the seeds and have the plant come true to the parent. Another hint is indeterminate - this means they grow all over the place, rather in a contained little plant, which is what you want to get a nice tall vine. Don’t be scared – try a few varieties and see what you like. Some companies are now selling packets that have a variety like the one below.
This is totally up to you. They don’t need to be huge – even 1″ square is fine. You can use little paper pots, scavenged pots from the plant shop, recycled plastic bottle bottoms, pre-bought seed trays, whatever suits your fancy. Make sure they have adequate drainage in the bottom and are about 1 1/2″ deep. One thing you SHOULD NOT use is those stupid little peat pellet things. Just don’t. No matter what they tell you, do not believe them when they tell you peat is a renewable resource. It’s about as environmentally friendly as a clear-cut. You will need a tray to set your pots into because the best way to water is from below. Again totally up to you.
Planting time is a busy time for us, and being that we both have day jobs, we don’t fuss about here, we just buy organic seed starter mix. But again you can get creative as you like. Apparently soil cut with worm castings is one of the best home-made seed starter out there. Whatever you use, get it damp like a run-out sponge first, then fill your pots up. All you have to do then is tuck your seeds in, label them, give them a water from the bottom of the tray, cover them with a plastic dome, reused clear plastic bags, whatever, and put them in a warm place. I’m spoilt and have heated floors in my kitchen, so that’s my spot, but just on top of the fridge will do fine for most people.
Within a couple of days you should see sprouts. Make sure it doesn’t get too hot or humid or your seedlings will damp off and rot. As soon as your little darlings pot their heads our, put them under the lights.
Jeff rigged me up a growing station in our den that reminds me of my grade 12 biology class room. Simple, cheap shop lights with full spectrum florescent bulbs, attached to coat hangers and hung on wires. Key is keeping the lights as close as possible to the seedlings as they grow; this will keep them from growing too leggy.
Once you have the first true leaves, give them a dose of organic fertilizer. As they grow occasionally brush your hand through them. This will keep them strong and sturdy. As they grow and the leaves begin to touch it’s time to pot them up. Make sure before you put them out into the ground that you give them a chance to harden off, exposing them to the elements a bit at a time. And that’s it, that’s all there is to starting tomatoes from seed!
Well it’s February 18 and much to the dismay of a lot of Olympians, there is no snow . . . but my garden is not complaining! The cherry blossoms are already out in full force, a full month early and my garden is suddenly exploding into action.
Jeff and I took advantage of the sun on Sunday and bolted into the garden first thing. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that we were taking a sigh of relief at the end of the growing season, and already we’re chomping at the bit to get back at it again. You really have to love Vancouver – mid-February and I was gardening in a t-shirt.
Thankfully most of the heavy work is behind us now; there will not be multiple truckloads of compost, or turf to remove, or beds to build. Coming into our second year in the garden we are now able to focus on smaller details, tweaking pathways, refining bed placement and adding structure to the garden.
That means we can spend more time on the really important things, like planting lots of peas!!
Jeff and I have been on the lookout for a more practical support for our peas this year. Last year we grew maybe a 6 foot row and I ate them all, toot-suite. This year we are going to line our entire back fence with them and with any luck a few might actually make it into the freezer for winter eating. (Don’t bet on it.) Peas are a cool-season crop and can be grown pretty much as soon as the soil can be worked and then succession sown all the way into May for a continuous harvest through early summer. Jeff found some wire fencing that he stapled to the fence = five times as many peas! Whoo!
We’re growing three varieties; Tall Telephone (Alderman), Little Marvel and Progress #9. Be prepared – the Tall Telephones are TALL. The first year we grew them the quickly outgrew the 6′ tall supports we had and ended up climbing into the branches of the plum tree. Tall. The Little Marvel were sweet and we’ll let you know about Progress #9.
I can’t say I pay too much bother to my peas. Plant em and they’ll grow. Slugs seem to find the seedlings quite tasty, but plant plenty and there’ll be enough for your and your slimy friends. The only thing I’ve ever noticed being a real annoyances is a light powdery mildew if they don’t get enough sun. Keep them in the sunshine with good air circulation and it shouldn’t be a problem.
Peas like any legume are nitrogen fixers so they’re a fun candidate for intercropping. The front of these beds will be seeded with our root veg and chard.
Many of my neighbours scolded me for being in the garden so early in the season, reminding me of late snows and frosts to come. But that’s the great thing about knowing spring is on the horizon – you can’t help but be an optimist when you’re surrounded by daffodils!
Here’s a few things to ask yourself as you’re planning your garden (which will be lovely and creative and not even a shadow of it’s former square self!) :
If you don’t have at least a few sunny spots you’re going to be limited as to what you can grow. If you have mostly shade, don’t despair, but don’t hold your breath waiting for your peppers to ripen, either. Instead turn your mind to veg that prefer a break from the heat – leafy greens, some herbs, cabbage and anything that might bolt if they got too hot. Now start sweet talking your neighbour with the south-facing lawn to let you plant peppers and tomatoes there.
No point in planting a ton of veg that you can’t stand the taste of. In our house, we plant insane numbers of tomatoes because we adore them and will take the time to can them. That said, somethings are worth planting even if you don’t absolutely love them yourself. Even at 28 years old I still don’t like brussels sprouts, but I know they will look striking in the garden come winter. (my mum’ll eat ‘em.) Also keep a mind to what kind of veg are expensive in the store or at the farmer’s market, or where store bought can never compare to homegrown. Especially if you’re short on space, pick veg like peppers, heirloom tomatoes, fancy herbs and garlic – store bought will cost you the earth and won’t be nearly as tasty. I’d never spend 250 bucks on tomatoes – but if I bought them at the market – that’s what only one weekend’s harvest would have cost me. (Suddenly a little dirt under the finger nails seems like a small price to pay, doesn’t it?!)
Do you entertain? Have kids? A dog? Make sure you make space for these things in your plan. We’ve put some features near the spaces where we spend the most time; table grapes climbing over the arbour where I can munch and read, the fish pond by the shady spot where we sit with guests in the summer time. Think about how your planting can not only accommodate what you want to do in your yard, but also how it can contribute to it. For example, we’ll have chickens this year, so I’m making sure the plants I select to camouflage the run will also serve as chicken feed.
Is there a path worn in your lawn where you are constantly walking to get the hose? Or do you dread taking out the compost because its stuck behind the cobwebby shed? Don’t fight the natural flow of things, you’ll only get frustrated. Put in a path where you actually walk, not where you think you SHOULD walk, and put the things and veggies you use most often in accessible, easy-to-notice-as-you’re-laying-in-the-hammock-drinking-a-beer, spots. If you do this you’ll be less likely to get a face full of spider webs and you might actually notice the slug assault in the lettuce in time to do something about it.
Especially in a small yard, vertical gardening is key. Once you start thinking up and down rather than just in boring rows in a raised bed - you’ll see the sky really is the limit and you’ll increase your space’s productivity exponentially.
Free yourself of the tyranny of the monoculture and mix your plantings. We are constantly intercropping – one bed alone held beets, peas, beans, carrots, chard and garlic. Think about how you can grow one veg up and over another, or around the base of a tall plant to mulch it and hide it’s ugly stem. Use your imagination. If it doesn’t work – just eat your mistakes!
Think seasonally as you plan. Remember eventually that spectacular cabbage will become supper – be ready to have something to replace it.
Your garden can provide privacy, security, buffer noise and pollution from the street, stop the neighbourhood kids from using your yard as a cut-through, offer shade, scent, beauty, medicine and attract wildlife. Figure out what you need and then try to ensure that every plant meets multiple needs. Redundancy is nature’s insurance policy and will ensure you have a vibrant, dynamic ecosystem in your garden.
At the end of the day, there are no rules in the garden. Don’t be afraid to take risks and to make choices that might lead your neighbours to think you’re off your rocker. Sometimes its the most out-there ideas that have the most impact. The tomatoes climbing my front gate got plenty of ooohss and ahhhs and kept me (and my mail carrier) in healthy snacks-on-the go all summer.
When I plan my garden I often think back to my days in art school and one of my favorite quotes by Picasso:
Now go. Make a pot of coffee and get dreaming!