Posts Tagged ‘vegetable garden’

Growing a Vegetable Garden 201

Well, the Mushroom Chapter is now closed, our beautiful vacation to Vancouver Island, BC has come and gone, and the fields and gardens are finally planted.  I decided it was high time to write another blog entry, and to let you know what we’ve been up to this past month.  (For those of you who haven’t heard, we are no longer growing mushrooms.  The barns that were home to oyster and shiitake mushrooms for almost 12 years are now being renovated for our new venture, Willow Tree Storage.  We hope to have a Grand Opening some time next month.)

This spring certainly offered challenges, weather-wise.  It arrived late, and it seemed to take forever to warm up and dry out.  Once it did, we didn’t have rain for at least a three-week stretch.  This meant that some of Ralph’s corn seeds had to wait for much-needed water so that they could germinate and start growing.  Also, because of the deep snow cover we had in the winter, my greenhouse got flooded with the spring melt, and I had to wait a bit longer than normal for things to start drying up inside.  Having said all that, though, we’ve made the best of it, and things seem to be moving along quite nicely – especially with the gentle rain we had this evening.

I thought I would write a sequel to the very well-received blog I wrote last year, Gardening 101. As I’ve been working in the garden and greenhouse, I find myself wondering about how those of you who are relatively new to gardening have been faring.  I also wanted to share with you a few observations and tips of my own that may help you, whether you’re a novice or not.


Redroot pigweed, my arch enemy in the gardens!


Over twenty years ago, I heard a saying that has stuck with me ever since:  “The best method for weed control is the Santa Claus method.  Hoe! Hoe! Hoe!” All kidding aside, it’s true.  My favourite hoe is a scuffle hoe, also called a stirrup hoe.  You can learn more about it here.  The best time to hoe, in my experience, is when the weeds are small.  I mean, REALLY small!  Trust me, it’s much easier to slice through the root of a tiny 1/2 inch tall weed than to try to chop through a 1/2 inch root!  Also, I find that hoeing early in the morning on a day when it is going to get hot is best.  It’s cool while you’re working, so you’ll do a good job, but as it gets hot later in the day, the weeds’ roots will dry and the weeds will shrivel, so there’s no need to remove them from the garden.  I just leave them in between the rows.

Of course, all the bigger weeds can be pulled by hand.  Make sure you get all the root, if possible, since some weeds, like redroot pigweed will send out multiple new shoots if they are just cut off at soil level.  Trust me, I’ve learned the hard way!

Another good way to help keep down weeds is by using mulch.  I used chopped straw, and because it helps hold moisture in the soil, the weeds are easier to pull out.  As well, many weed seeds will not germinate, or will not make it through the straw.

For more tips on weed control, here’s a great article from Johnny’s Seeds in the U.S.



This has been a relatively dry spring (once the snow melt dried, anyhow), and we find that there is usually more insect pressure during droughty conditions, than in wet conditions.  It pays more than ever to be vigilant, and to keep an eye on plants that may be more succeptible to insect damage.  Some of the early vegetables, including radishes, kale, cabbages and bok choy, are veritable insect magnets.  The trick is to get them planted early, so they can get established and a good size before insects appear, or to cover them with row covers.  The covers allow rain and light to come through, but prevents insects from chomping on your precious veggies, and from laying eggs on the leaves, for future generations of chompers.  The other thing is that it is important to walk you garden and inspect your plants as often as possible, preferably every day.  Unfortunately, some insects, such as flea beetles, can really make a mess of your vegetables in a few short days.

The worst offender is the cucumber beetle.  A few years ago, I had neglected to check on my cucumber plants for several days.  In the meanwhile, the cucumber beetles had moved in, and the damage they did to the leaves and flowers of the plants more or less wiped out a big part of my crop.  Yesterday, I checked my pumpkin patch (same family as cucumbers), and sure enough, found at least a dozen of the litte critters.  Since relocation is not an option, I squished all the bugs I could find.  I did some research, and learned that a deep straw mulch may deter the bugs from travelling from plant to plant.  Worth a try, so they all got mulched.  This morning, I scouted the patch again.  I learned that although the single beetles are difficult to catch, if I placed one hand under the leaf they were on, a quick clap of my hands usually got them.  Also, bugs that are occupied with “doing the dirty deed” are a lot easier to get!  One more option I am going to try this week, is a spray recommended by a neighbour.  The “recipe” is 2 tablespoons artificial vanilla flavouring (apparently, only the artificial one works!) mixed in one quart (or litre) of water.  Spray so that the whole plant is drenched.  From what I’ve read, it’s the smell that tricks the beetles from recognizing the plants.   I will certainly let you know how this works.


General Tips

The spinach was seeded this spring.  The tomato plants and dill are "volunteers"

The spinach was seeded this spring. The tomato plants and dill are “volunteers”

Try successive planting.  Simply put, this means planting your garden, and then as some crops are harvested, to reseed that area right away.  The spot that had early radishes in it can later be home to beets and carrots, which are harvested later.  Also, you don’t have to plant all your bush beans at once.  By staggering the planting by a week or two, you will also spread out your harvest time.

Lettuce is traditionally a cool season crop, with early spring and early fall being the usual times to seed.  There are, however, many varieties that can take the heat of summer, and mature in 25 – 30 days from seeding time.  I love a mixture called Bon Vivant, which I buy from William Dam Seeds.

And don’t worry if your garden isn’t “picture perfect”.  Many of us don’t have the time, or help, to keep on top of all the chores in the garden.  Do your best.  Sometimes, “mistakes” or procrastinating can lead to good things.  I often don’t have time to pull old plants out of the garden or greenhouse in the fall.  This year, I have another beautiful harvest of “volunteer” lettuce plants, since the mature lettuce plants from last year went to seed, and got a head start.  I also have some great tomato plants coming along, and dill and cilantro sprinkled throughout the greenhouse 😀

Thanks for visiting!  I look forward to your comments and questions.  Happy Gardening!


The lettuce in this photo is from last summer’s plants, gone to seed!


A few more pictures:

My first year for sweet potatoes.  They are in tubs, in the greenhouse.  Lots of heat that way!

My first year for sweet potatoes. They are in tubs, in the greenhouse. Lots of heat that way!

First blossoms on the Kibitz Ukrainian paste tomatoes

First blossoms on the Kibitz Ukrainian paste tomatoes

We ALWAYS grow our own potatoes.  This year, we are growing them in straw beds.

We ALWAYS grow our own potatoes. This year, we are growing them in straw beds.

Growing a Vegetable Garden 101

growsome(My contribution this month to Stacey Fokas’ Freshalicious website)

Recently, a friend asked me for some advice on starting a garden.  She wanted to grow her own organic food, but had never grown a garden before and needed to know everything.  I discovered how much I had taken for granted, knowing all about growing food, because I had been doing it since my childhood.  Wow, where to start?

The first advice I gave her was to make sure she was starting with good, healthy, fertile soil.  Depending on where you live, you may have sandy soil, heavy clay, or if you’re lucky, some beautiful sandy loam.  Most garden centres will be able to help you identify your soil type and to suggest what soil amendments you may need to make.  Regardless of your soil, a good layer of compost should always be added….every year, in fact.

Next is the selection of where you’re going to plant.  Most vegetables need to have lots of sun to grow, but there are some that will be fine in light shade.   If you don’t have space in your yard, don’t give up!  The solution is container gardening….pots, large boxes, hanging baskets and bags – use your imagination and you’ll be surprised at how much food you can grown in a small amount of space!  Again, just be aware of how much sun/heat or shade your plants will be getting.  Remember that small pots will need much more frequent watering than larger containers.greens

And then there is the matter of what to plant…  As my friend remarked, going through a seed catalogue or the seed racks at the garden centre was almost overwhelming, there was such a huge selection!

For instant gratification, there is nothing like radishes or lettuce.  They germinate easily and quickly, and will produce something you can eat in about a month. However, keep in mind that soil and air temperature are also factors on when you can plant your seeds or plants.  The list of veggies that can be started now, as soon as the ground is dry enough, includes peas, radishes, spinach, lettuce, green onions, kale, chard, beets and carrots.  I start all of these plants from seeds, rather than purchasing plants.  Once all risk of frost has passed, you can plant the heat-loving veggies, such as peppers, tomatoes and beans.  (If you haven’t already started your tomato or pepper plants, I would suggest you purchase them this year, then consider starting your own next year, around the beginning of March.)


The chart on the left shows optimum soil temperatures and the number of days it takes for the seed to germinate.  Most seed packets will tell you how to plant the seeds, when you can expect them to germinate (ie. sprout), and how many days it will be before you can harvest your vegetables.

You will also have to decide on how big to make your garden.  Some plants can be grown quite close together, such as lettuce, while others (tomatoes, potatoes), will take quite a bit more room.  The chart below helps explain how densely you can plant your garden.squarefootplantingguide

Finally, there is the decision about what varieties of plants/seeds you will be buying…For example, there are hybrid and heirloom types of tomatoes.  Hybrid seeds have been bred to grow consistent produce, with specific traits, such as no seeds, or a thick skin/rind (which makes for better transportation). The downside is, when you use hybrid seeds, you cannot save seeds from this year’s crop and grow them next year.

Open-Pollinated, heirloom seeds, on the other hand, have a much wider diversity, and can be saved and re-planted, year after year.  There are many benefits to this.  Obviously, there is the cost-saving factor, but more importantly, as you grow your own saved seed each year, the plants will adapt to your specific garden environment (climate and soil type), and produce more robust plants each year.

Whatever you decide to grow, and wherever or however you do it, my last suggestion is to get everyone involved.  There is something so satisfying about pulling a carrot out of the ground, knowing that you’ve grown it yourself, and eating it.  Picking peas and munching them in the garden is almost as wonderful as popping a warm cherry tomato in your mouth… The more helpers you have with the planning and planting, the more involved they will be with the weeding and harvesting!

Eating local and organic starts at home! Happy planting and good luck!

Diversify, Diversify!

Usually, people associate the word “diversify” with something that’s done in a stock portfolio….or maybe, it just stuck with me from my days working in the industry…  Nowadays, I see the importance and relevance of diversity in all facets of life.

The first association that pops into my mind now has to do with food (of course!)   Because we grow so much of our own food ourselves, I have spent alot of time learning about plant cultivars and seeds.  I start the majority of our garden from seed, including the heirloom tomatoes, unusual beans and old-variety carrots and squashes.   One thing that I do look for, where possible, is open pollinated (ie. non-hybrid) varieties.  This means that I can save seeds from this year’s plants to sow next year.  I’ll be writing about that later in the season.  As well, if we were to limit our garden vegetables to the plants that are provided at most grocery stores or garden centres, we would be limited to only a few varieties of tomatoes, probably 2 varieties of peas, and 4 or 5 types of beans.   I am happy to say that I am finding more heirloom seeds and plants at our local garden centre.

Green “Taxi” tomato

Yellow Brandywine

This year, I am growing (only) 6 varieties of tomatoes, but they have been specially chosen for their diverse flavours, growing times, and heat requirements.  This diversity will enable me to enjoy the low-acid taste of the medium sized yellow “Taxi” tomatoes (which have started setting tomatoes already!)  weeks ahead of the also-early Grightmire’s Pride rosy tomato.  Following about a week later will be the gorgeous orange/red/yellow mottled large “Old German” tomatoes.  “Manitoba” is a short-season variety that will take cooler nights, and the Amish Paste tomatoes will be providing us with  fleshy fruit that will be used for paste, spaghetti sauces and salsa.  “Yellow Brandywine” tomatoes also have yellow flesh, and the leaves look more like potato leaves than tomatoes.  The cherry tomatoes are blooming now, too, and will be tasty snacks as we stroll through the gardens and greenhouse.

(Is your mouth watering yet?  Because that was only the tomatoes!)

I have greatly diversified our bean and pea varieties this year, too.  Three types of peas went into the ground. The first seeded were the “Avalanche” snow peas, which we are enjoying out of the greenhouse already.  Next were the “Aladdin”, which is a shelling type pea, but is heat tolerant and resistant to powdery mildew – it is one of my favourite varieties.

Avalanche Snow Peas – great name, given they’re “snow” peas!

Seeded last were the “Super Sugar Snap” peas, which can be eaten whole or shelled when fuller.  Not only are these three varieties offering different flavours/types, they are allowing us to enjoy the peas over a longer period of time, because they all have different maturation dates and heat preferences.

Rows of bush and drying beans

The last few years, I have grown pole-type beans, because it’s sure alot easier to pick beans standing up, rather than hunched over a row.  This year, I have planted “Romano” heirloom beans.  It is one of the first to produce in the summer and will keep on going until frost, provided I keep them picked.  I did plant some bush beans, “Blue Lake” and “Igloo”, which is good for early vigour and can take cooler temperatures (not an issue in the May we just had, but I will seed them again to get a late summer crop).  The beans I am really excited about this year are the drying bean varieties.  “French Horticultural” is  a beautiful rose and yellow bean,and has been grown since the 1800’s!  Another exciting variety is an organic “Orca” bean, originally from Mexico.  The bean is as the name suggests, black and white…absolutely gorgeous!  Lastly, I put in some “Dark Red Kidney” beans, for our winter chilis.

Twenty years ago, I would have planted only two varieties of beans, a simple yellow and a green bush bean, both maturing around the same time.  This year, I will have some beans ready in under two months’ time, with the taller, pole-type Romanos ready two weeks later.  The drying beans will probably be the last to harvest, as I will have to wait for the plants to start to dry down…  6 bean varieties, wow!

I could go on with all the other plants, but I’ll finish up with my lettuce/salad greens.  Diversifying the salad bowl has been the most fun, because it is the most colourful, and we eat salads every day.  A great way to diversify is to buy a Mesclun seed mix.  This traditional Southern French salad blend contains curly endive, various lettuces, chervil, arugula and chicory – all great greens to kick-start our bodies in the spring.  I also started Corn Salad, Butterhead types, and some Romaine.  For the hotter months of summer, there is a great salad mix called “Bon Vivant”, specially selected leaf lettuces which are heat tolerant and mature in about a month.  All these different varieties mean wonderful flavour and colour varieties in the salad bowl.  As well, each different “green” has it’s specific minerals and vitamins that it contributes.  Our daughter tells us that she simply cannot eat at a restaurant salad bar any more, when all they offer is bland iceberg or plain romaine lettuce….she has gotten used to the diverse and nutritional taste of the ones we grow at home!  I also grow Swiss Chard, two varieties of kale and “Bull’s Blood” beets (big tops, tiny beets) which are tossed into our lettuce mix.

Black Nero kale and Mesclun Salad Mix, in the greenhouse.

Bull’s Blood beets

Now, I have to admit, I am extremely fortunate to have so much space for our gardens, as well as a greenhouse.  Our unheated greenhouse allowed me to start seeding at the beginning of April this year, and we were enjoying greens and herbs in a month’s time.  As well, it is the space outdoors that allows me to have so many varieties of vegetables.  If you are limited on space, by all means, be creative like my friend Wendy in Maine.  She uses creativity and resourcefulness to put out as much food as she can from their small lot using container gardens, and ingenious growing methods.  They even manage to have rabbits and chickens!

So that’s my take on diversifying in the vegetable garden.  There are so many unusual and interesting varieties out there.  West Coast Seeds and William Dam Seeds are my two favourite seed catalogues, offering heirloom, untreated, open pollinated and organic seeds.  They do also have the common varieties you may have become fond of.  It’s still early in the season.  If you have the space, it’s not too late to try a new vegetable variety.  Diversify your garden, your taste buds will thank you for it!

P.S.  Most of all these yummy vegetables will be available at the farmers’ markets I do:  Inglewood Farmers’ Market, Wednesdays 3:30 to 7 pm, starting June 20, and Elora Farmers’ Market, Saturdays from 9 to 1 pm, Bissel Park Elora, running now.  Hope to see you there!