Spring is coming; we are on the down-slide out of winter now. Everyone join hands and sing because I think we’re gonna make it (after all).
I’ve been receiving a number of emails from readers looking for spring gardening advice: starting seeds, edibles to grow in containers, favourite varieties, etc, so I think it’s high time for a spring gardening recap. I’ve gone through the archives (11 years worth!) and selected how-to articles that will help you get started or provide a little inspiration if you’re feeling stuck.
To begin, please check out my books as they provide all sorts of advice, projects, and processes to follow that are not available on this website. You Grow Girl is a general guide for small space gardening that covers a wide range of plants and topics, and Grow Great Grub is all about growing FOOD in small spaces.
When we moved, I abandoned the cobbled together grow light setup I had been struggling with for years in favour of beginning again with a much improved, bigger and badder system.
In the old place I had to stuff the grow light shelving system into a corner nook of my office. Consequently, it couldn’t be more than 2ft wide. Have you ever tried to buy a shop light that is only 2 feet wide? Good luck. Yes, they are available, but they are built in a boxy shape and are meant to be wired in as under-cabinet lighting. I had to do a bit of precarious electrical wiring in order to attached a plugin cord to my lights. Because they were mounted and stationary, I had to lift my seedlings up to receive the necessary amount of distance between them and the bulbs as they grew. This meant regularly adding and subtracting stacks of books that I had placed underneath flimsy trays that wobbled and spilled liquid whenever they were shifted.
As you can imagine, this method did not always work out well for the books.
And then there was the shape of the shop light boxes themselves. Boxy shapes with sides that come down straight don’t reflect light well. I made due, but the set up was what it was. At the time I was happy to take what I could get.
So when we moved I abandoned that mess of wires and spare parts with the dream of something less ramshackle in mind. And then… work, life, moving, stuff. Finally, it all came to a head during the Holidays when the unheated front porch froze and several plants that should not have been out there but had no where else to go, froze. I needed a lighting system stat.
Here’s what I built.
I’ve had my new lighting setup in place for a while now, and last week I finally got around to sowing the lithops seeds I purchased almost a year ago. Here they are this morning, a few days after they first started to emerge from the soil.
Based on the size of the vermiculite, you can see just how tiny they are. So adorable.
We have been enjoying an unseasonably warm March here in Toronto that has lead into the warmest early April I can recall, ever. Temperatures are supposed to soar this weekend, sending gardeners (including me) into a flurry of activity. I have already sown spinach and mâche into containers on the roof. The chives have been shooting up slowly over the last few weeks, and I am starting to identify lettuce seedlings that have self sown where I let mature plants go to seed last season. I intend to spend this weekend cleaning up, amending the container soil, and getting all of the gardens into shape.
Meanwhile, over at the greenhouse, my little seedlings are go. I started tomatoes and peppers on March 5 and have sown the odd thing here and there since. I’m enjoying the simplicity of this stage of the growing season very much. I’ve been through this stage countless times now and you’d think it would get dull, but it never does. Every year there is something new and even the same old same old haven’t lost their appeal. On a basic level I am amazed by my plants’ progress every time I visit the greenhouse. I am relishing just observing the beauty of new seeds as they come out of the package and discovering the early growth stages of plants I have never grown from seed before. This is a happy time all around.
These are a pansy called ‘Caramel Spice’ from Botanical Interests. It’s a little late to start pansies and violas from seed as they are typically started in January. In fact, I just bought the first pansy cell-packs of the season yesterday. Unfortunately, these seeds came late but I figured I might as well give it a shot anyways. I can always try tucking them into a cooler spot once the summer heat hits and hope they make it to the fall cool-down.
This is cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), one of my fun experiments for the 2010 growing season. Cardoon is a gorgeous, and rather massive plant that looks an awful lot like an artichoke or giant thistle. In fact, they’re related. What’s interesting is that you eat the stems of the plant, not the flower bud as you do with an artichoke. But before you harvest it you’ve got to “blanch” it, much like celery, by covering the stems with a large box or some other cover to keep light out and soften the leaves. Perhaps a bit complicated but my curiosity has got the better of me so here we go. Another fun fact: cardoon is often used as a vegetarian rennet substitute in cheese making.
I like the seedlings at this stage; so perfect.
Last week I traveled to Montreal to speak at the Montreal Seed Fair and sign copies of the “Grow Great Grub” book in support of the collective food gardening group, Action Communiterre.
Toronto’s Annual Seed Fair is coming up this Sunday and is expected to be packed to the gills. I find it difficult to shop at this event since I am a vendor and need to focus on working, so I took the opportunity to get some seeds for myself at the Montreal event.
Shopping for seeds in French turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated. Here in Canada we are taught French in the public school system, but despite years of lessons, none of it has stuck. I can say, “I don’t speak French” and ask “Where’s the bathroom?” and that’s about it. Most seed packets had the Latin botanical name on them so that helped. But they were often organized according to the common name, which was in French.
I basically felt like a total idiot most of the time, especially when I launched into Spanish when I meant to reply in French. I’m nowhere near fluid in Spanish (I speak it on an infant level) but the language seems to come more naturally to me. As you can probably predict, mistakes were made. For example, I bought morning glory seeds thinking they were something else. I won’t tell you what that something else was — it’s too embarrassing.
That said, I did come out with some good stuff, even if most of it wasn’t on my mental list for this year. Not that I had a mental list, or any sort of list at all for that matter. Year after year it is always the same with me. Try as I might, I am not a planner. I am an experimenter. I pick and choose for the season based more on impulse and the possibility of an interesting experiment than planning. Sometimes plants choose me. For the most part I just go with what comes.
And then I try to stick it all somewhere appropriate in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. Below are the items I bought that I will be attempting to stick somewhere this spring.
Top Row (left to right):
- Seed Potatoes ‘All Red’ – I was amazed by how many vendors sold potatoes at this event. Thank you! I bought this small bag of seed potatoes for $3. I’m a small space gardener — I don’t require pounds and pounds of seed potatoes. So every year I buy my potatoes in the quantity I want from a local organic produce store that I know carries decent stock. The only drag is that some of those potatoes probably come from… who knows where, and aren’t adapted to this climate. These seed potatoes were produced in Quebec. Close enough. And now, I FINALLY get to grow the ‘All Red’ variety that I’ve had on my list for years. Hooray!
- Jerusalem Artichoke ‘Red’ – I bought this red variety because I was under the impression that I have only been able to grow the yellow variety. I’m not so sure now. I guess I’ll find out in the spring when the soil thaws. These were also $3 a bag.
- French Shallots – As you can imagine, several vendors in French Canada had shallots for sale. This is something I rarely see in Toronto so I bought a bag for $3.
Middle Row (left to right):
- Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfolita) – Residents of California will think it strange to purchase claytonia seeds since it grows like a weed there. Here in Toronto claytonia is a rare sight in edible gardens.
The next four packages were bought from La SociÃƒÂ©tÃƒÂ© des Plantes who happen to make very nicely designed packages. I didn’t REALLY need more claytonia seeds but I will eventually… and look how nice the package is! That’s my excuse. I showed someone the packages and her response was, “Does that matter?” Hell, yes! Not only does it show that they have great taste but demonstrates that they put an extra bit of effort into their product. Some might say that’s just superficial, but I think it is Classy (with a capital ‘C’).
- Shungiku (Chrysanthemum coronarium) – Shungiku is an edible chrysanthemum that I have grown a few times. You can eat both the tender leaves and the flowers. The flavour is hard to describe but I’d say pungent and a bit how chrysanthemum flowers smell.
- Purple Plantain (Plantago major ‘Purpurea’) – One day I’ll tell the story of plantain and what it means to me, but in the meantime I’m very excited about this purple variety.
- Morning Glory (Ipomoea purpurea) – Embarrassing mistake. Let’s never speak of it again. I’m going to give these away or trade.
- Chufa Nuts aka Tiger Nuts (Cyperus esculentus) – The description of this plant is so interesting I couldn’t help being intrigued. The seeds are tiny little tubers that grow into a grassy, sedge plant. At the end of the season the tubers are dug up and dried. Apparently they taste like coconut and can be made into a Spanish drink called Horchata that is different than the Mexican rice drink of the same name. I think this will do well in medium-sized containers.
- Red and Black Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor gr. Saccharatum Ã¢â‚¬ËœBlack AfricanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢) – I first came across black sorghum last year on a trip to the Montreal Botanical Gardens so how fitting that I bought seeds there less than a year later. I was told that the red variety grows to be as tall as 12 feet while the black variety is much shorter. I’m planning to try growing these in the street garden. If they don’t get destroyed or urinated on, I might just try pressing out the juice for homegrown sweetener. I also recommend the film “Red Sorghum” by Zhang Yimou.
Bottom Row (left to right):
- Morelle de Balbis (Solanum sisymbrifolium) On the night before the event, my friend Gwynne was telling me about her experience growing this plant on her farm and I was intrigued. The next day I found seeds! It reminds me of naranjilla, but even thornier and more dangerous looking. Do you think this might keep the urinators out of the street garden? If you’re looking for seeds, Solana Seeds carries a wide variety of interesting and exotic tomato family plants.
- Blue Flowers – These were from the trade. They were listed as “fleurs bleues” and can’t for the life of me recall the name. The flowers eventually turn to seed pods that look like tiny Chinese Lanterns.
Does anyone know the name? Update: Thanks to Dan of Ferme CoopÃƒÂ©rative Tourne-Sol for identifying these as Shou Fly (Nicandra physalodes).
- Ginkgo Biloba – This is the third time someone has given me ginkgo seeds. If I believed in The Secret and manifesting from the Universe and all that jazz I would be getting the distinct message that I am supposed to grow this plant. I will admit that it is a gorgeous tree and if I had the space I would indeed grow it. Who doesn’t love ginkgo leaves? But I don’t have space, so growing one is not likely to happen anytime soon. I’ve got to find a spot for that 12 foot red sorghum first! I’ll happily send these to the first person in the comments who is interested in growing them. Bonus points for making it this far down in the post.