Gardening: What does this even mean?


I was one of those kids who had no idea where or how a tomato grew! I have a great deal of sympathy for someone picking up a seed package who has no experience growing anything. People grow food and flowers for a lot of reasons. It’s nice to know where your food comes from, and fresh-grown food tastes better and is better for you. Growing food helps us focus on seasonal eating. Flowers help the pollinators, are pretty, and some are edible.

It’s still too early to be planting anything outside but cool crops can be direct sowed as soon as the ground can be worked. Direct sowing is when you plant the seed directly in the ground, without starting it inside or buying a plant from a nursery. Cool crops you can direct sow include spinach, broccoli, cabbage, lettuces, peas. When exactly the soil is workable varies. It depends on the drainage of your land, and which way your garden faces. Higher ground in the sun will be workable earlier than lower ground in the shade. Make sure you are not planting seeds in puddles. Cool crops can tolerate a bit of frost, and cold temperatures. They also grow best in cooler temperatures. Spinach or lettuce hate the high heat of July. It will bolt, which means it goes to seed and tastes very bitter. That’s why some people will start their kales and cabbage inside in March so that they can be planted outside once the ground is workable, and a good harvest can be had before the really hot days. Places further south than us can grow spring, summer, and fall gardens. In spring and fall, they can plant and harvest cool crops such as cabbage and peas, and their hot summers are good for growing peppers and tomatoes. Most root vegetables such as carrots or beets can withstand cool weather and a bit of frost.

Warm crops cannot handle frost at all. Some can’t even tolerate low temperatures above freezing. These crops include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, which all need a jump on our growing season by starting them inside. Vines like cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and beans are also warm crops. Warm crops will wither and die at the first frost, whereas the peas and turnips will still live. Cold will slow the growth rate down of even the most frost tolerant plant though. Some plants that can’t handle cold and frost, that have long growing seasons, don’t like being transplanted, so you have to be extra careful. Squash, pumpkins, or melons, for example, would benefit from a head start inside, but sometimes the shock of transplant will set them back, so that you’re no further ahead.

Make sure you harden off your seedlings. You do this by exposing the young plants to the outdoors in gradual increments. Start them outside in the shade for an hour or so, gradually increasing their time outside. A fan beside your seedlings throughout their time indoors helps strengthen them, and also can help prevent some fungus problems. Most seedlings from stores are already hardened off, but ask to be sure!

Often your seed package will give you timelines for starting inside or direct sowing outside. When it says “after all danger of frost has passed”, you know you’re dealing with a plant that will shrivel and die if the mercury plummets. When it says “as soon as the ground can be worked” in spring, you know the plant will tolerate cold. Climate change is making the weather more volatile, so we can get earlier or later frosts, and some oddly-timed super cold or extremely hot days. We are in Zone 5 A or 5 B here, depending on where exactly you are, and on the micro-climates of your gardening space. The average last frost day is just that, an average! Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) gives our average last frost date here as May 11. That means that “50% of the time there will be no frost after that date.” Last spring we had a hard freeze of minus 9 Celsius for a couple of nights in mid May!

The package will tell you how close to sow the seeds, how deep to sow them, and how much you need to thin them for optimal growth. Some seeds need to be soaked to germinate, and some need light. It is important to read the package for any special instructions.

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