Gardening 101.1

It’s spring, when young men’s fancy turns to thoughts of gardening

These days, there’s more talk of growing your own food because what could be more local than your backyard? There’s the organic thing too,  and again, what better way to control the kinds of nasties that go into your food than growing it yourself, sans nasties? It’ll be fresh, of course, having been picked thirty seconds ago. And it will taste fresh. It might save you some money, although that’s debatable. But best of all, growing things to eat is, at its root, participating in nature in a fundamental and meaningful way. It’ll feed your spirit too.

I keep getting asked to write an idiot’s guide to gardening for this site, and it looks like I’m going to. But you have to understand that it might be rather sporadic, since I can only write when it’s too wet to plough. Or plant. Or weed. Or stake. Or whatever.

You need to be warned about gardening. Like a cat or a spouse, your plants will need a certain amount of attention pretty much every day, and if you ignore their needs, a down-slide is in the offing. So if you want to do this, you’ll have to be willing to commit. But the risks of failure are mercifully low: a bed of dead radish and lettuce plants behind your house is not nearly as upsetting as an empty one upstairs.

Basics: seed, soil, sun

The simple essentials of gardening are a seed or baby plant, soil, and sunlight.

Soil, of course, is the starting point. Soil isn’t dirt. Dirt is what you sweep off your driveway or wipe off your sneakers in the porch. Soil, at its best, is an ecosystem unto itself. Light, loose, dark, moist, with lots of organic matter in it, teeming with microbial life.

If you cut the sod from some part of your yard, and loosen the uncovered soil, before you plant you’ll have to add compost, peat, rotten leaves, whatever you can lay your hands on, to lighten and texturize the dirt into soil. Topsoil brought in from elsewhere won’t do it, because that will likely be mostly clay, which will pack down and harden. If it’s brown, it’s mostly clay. The closer to black it is, the better. Don’t plan on buying garden soil – you won’t find any. You have to build it yourself.

Container gardening is fun, and more trouble-free than in-the-ground.

If you’re a beginner, a good start might be to grow plants in containers filled with a grow mix bought from a garden supply place. The ‘black earth’ I see everywhere is dicy in my opinion. I suspect it’s actually dyed black. You can add it to garden soil for texture, but for containers, use a grow mix. Container gardening is fun, and more trouble-free than in-the-ground. Last year I grew baby carrots in a rectangular plastic planter, and ate a surprising amount out of that. No weeds to deal with, nor creepy crawlies eating your sprouting plants before they get out of infancy.

Whether you grow in a garden or containers, you will of course have to keep your soil moist. Not saturated. You can drown a plant. In the garden, there’s no risk of that, because excess water just drains down through the ground. With a container, you should make sure there are drainage holes in the bottom, and keep it in a saucer. Water until the saucer starts to fill. That will tell you the whole container has been wetted, not just the top.

The commonest mistake is actually under-watering. It does no good to soak the top half inch of soil; you need to water the entire root system. Under-watering promotes shallow root growth, from which plants will suffer and grow poorly. You need to water when the top of the soil in the container starts to look dry. Likely, at least twice a week. In hot weather, with a big plant like a tomato or sunflower, you have to water every day.

Your garden or containers should be located where they will receive maximum sunlight. South or west facing is best. Ideally, they should get direct sunlight through the hottest part of the day, say ten to four o’clock. The more the better. Early morning and evening light is not very good. Heat goes along with sunlight, and plants need heat too, so a sheltered location is better than an exposed one. There’s a reason why the vegetation on Signal Hill is not the same as the Waterford Valley.

Frost warning

Frost kills plants. There can be overnight frosts in St. John’s as late as June 20th. Until then, check the forecast every evening, and if frost is possible, bring your containers indoors or cover your plants with plastic, cloth, or whatever comes to hand. If that’s not possible, pray. Hard.

A plant takes a number of days to mature. The seed package will tell you that. You can probably count on the last half of June, and all of July and August as growing weather, which is 75 days. You’re probably still okay with 80 or 85 days, taking in early September, but a 90-day plant should be started early and transplanted out when it gets warm.

Don’t get suckered into planting early because “it’s gorgeous every day”.

You can start seeds indoors in plastic cell packs, or peat pellets, or anything that will hold soil, and transplant them into the garden or bigger containers later when it’s warm enough outdoors. By which I mean say 15 degrees or better most days. Don’t get suckered into planting early because “it’s gorgeous every day”. A friend and I planted potatoes one May 24th weekend because it was a fabulous spring. The sprouting potatoes were nearly killed by frost THREE TIMES after that weekend.

You can buy seedling (started) plants in garden centres, which would take too long to grow if you started from seed, like broccoli, tomato, cabbage, corn, and cauliflower. Others you can buy as seedlings to get a head start, but you can also grow from seed if you choose, such as lettuce, peas, zucchini, and beans. Some you have to grow from seed, like radish, carrot, and spinach.

If you’re a beginner, I’d recommend you play it safe and grow a salad garden to eat out of in mid to late summer. Don’t take on too much. Lettuce and other salad greens, radish, carrot, spinach, swiss chard, that sort of thing. If you want to go further, go for peas, beans, and zucchini.

I’m crazy about pole beans – a relatively small plant that climbs a six or eight-foot pole and produces like crazy. In a container on a deck, it would take up relatively little space while giving a lot of food. Zucchini is pretty trouble-free and very productive, but takes up a LOT of space, even a single plant will fill a space a yard across or more. But they’re fabulous in salads.

Containers give you control

I grow in a garden and also in pots on my covered deck. The latter is easier by a country mile, because you’ve got better control and don’t have to worry about caterpillars, slugs, snails, carpenters, ants, and God knows what-all else eating your plants. And the deck being close to the house (just coincidence) means the plants are better sheltered from most winds. The tradeoff is you have to water religiously and provide plant food. I’m okay with that.

The in-the-ground garden is for plants that take a lot of room, like zucchini, and for perennials like rhubarb and strawberries, and other things which I could grow in pots but I want a bit of deck space for myself.

Okay. That’s enough for now. Are you thinking about it? Go for it. Only experience will tell you whether you’re meant to be a gardener or a supporter of Sobey’s.

More later.

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