Unless you want to take risks with frost, in the St. John’s area you have to wait until mid-June to plant seeds outdoors in your garden or containers. And if a particular food crop takes, say, 60 days to mature and start producing food, then you won’t be eating out of your garden until mid-August. Bummer.
That’s one of the reasons why people go to garden centres to buy young plants, which were started weeks ago and raised in the warm of greenhouses. Getting a plant that’s a month old and transplanting it into your garden means you’ll be eating from it a month sooner. Mid-July. Bonus.
“Raising food is like raising children – you go for it, hope for the best, solve problems along the way best you can, but there are never any guarantees.”
The other reason for using started plants is if they require a longer growing period in good summer conditions than we are likely to get around here. Some plants take 90 days or more to produce food, and the likelihood of success in our climate is reduced. A plant started in a nursery and transplanted into your garden can make the difference between success and failure. Corn, pumpkin, and tomatoes are examples of crops that you’re unlikely to be able to grow from seed around here unless you’re an expert. Some take as much as 120 days – four solid months of good weather. What do you think are the chances of that?
You have to bear in mind that the 78 or whatever days given as the time to mature is under ideal conditions – lots of heat, lots of sun, enough moisture. On the northeast Avalon, the only thing we can count on is the moisture. So don’t be thinking that on the morning of the 79th day, you’re going to hop out of bed and head to your garden with a bushel basket. And that if there’s still nothing to eat that morning, that you’ll get your money back from wherever you bought the seeds or plants. Doesn’t work that way. Raising food is like raising children – you go for it, hope for the best, solve problems along the way best you can, but there are never any guarantees.
Buying started plants
Gardening centres are popping up all over the place. Many offer young plants for transplanting. Whatever suits your fancy – fill your boots. Even quick-growing plants like lettuce are generally available. The advantage of these, of course, is that you get to eat sooner. Slower growing plants like broccoli, for example, will also be available, and if you’ve a mind to have a go at these, by all means do. I’ve already talked about which ones are hard and which are easy. But it’s your life.
It’s still not too late to transplant even into July. But if you wait until then to buy your little plants, they might be sold out. So you’d best buy when you have the chance, take them home, and wait for summer to arrive. Keep them outdoors – too hot and dry indoors – where they’ll get good sun exposure. Shelter from wind is very important. As the plant keeps growing, it will need more and more moisture, and those little plastic cell packs can’t hold much moisture, so you’ll have to be really vigilant with watering. In good summer weather, you’ll have to water every single day. Watch the forecast too – if there’s danger of frost overnight, bring them indoors.
Starting your own
You can also start your own. If you don’t have any of those cell packs, you can use most anything that comes to hand. I’ve seen egg cartons used, single-serving yogurt containers, pudding cups, cut-in-half water bottles, bottoms of one-litre milk cartons. Most anything will do, but remember to punch holes in the bottom for drainage. Fill with soil, plant 2 or 3 seeds in each cell at the depth recommended on the back of the package, water, wait. Keep them in the best light available, like just inside a window. In a week or two a little embryonic plant will break the surface of the soil. Keep the soil moist, and give them as much light as possible. They don’t have to be in an especially hot place – room temperature at most. Don’t cover them, because too much humidity might bring on ‘damping off’, the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome of seedlings. Plants with damping off have their stems turn to mush and they die. Really upsetting. Regular house humidity is okay.
“You’ll get better results if you play God.”
Once the seedling settles down to growing, it’ll grow fast. And in the warm of the house, with relatively little light, they’ll grow long and lanky really fast, straining to get to the light. It’s an interesting phenomenon. A plant with insufficient light will ‘assume’ it’s being crowded by other plants and grow taller to try and stand above the crowd and ‘go for the light’. You can keep them from getting ridiculously tall and too lanky by giving them as much light as possible, and putting them outdoors on days when it’s warm and sunny. But watch the wind. They’re tender.
If they don’t have much soil, like in an egg carton, you may have to transplant them into bigger containers – teacup sized – when they outgrow their soil allotment. You’ll know by the soil going dry very fast, the plant starting to look less than prime, and the soil ball being a mass of roots. If that happens and it’s not nice enough to put them into the garden or big deck containers, transplant them into bigger (little) pots. Yes, I know – it’s work. But not much.
You needn’t worry about feeding the little plants. Water is all they’ll need until they go into their final growing spot.
If all the seeds germinate, you’ll have 2 or 3 in each cell. As they develop, one may emerge as the obviously most vigorous one. When it’s certain, cut off the others to stop the competition. If there are 2 that seem equal, wait a while to make sure, then flip a coin and kill one. If you put this off, you’ll still have to do it at transplanting time, because plants need room to spread roots, and two growing together will just crowd each other out. You’ll get better results if you play God.
Which to start or not to start
Not all plants are good candidates for getting started indoors. Generally, those that grow and produce above the ground are okay, like lettuce, peas, beans, tomatoes, and most of the cabbage family. Plants whose food comes from below the ground like carrots, radish and beets, don’t work as transplants. Apart from lettuce, most of the leafy food plants like swiss chard and spinach are also not usually started ahead of time. This is mainly because their growth period is so short that you’ll have no trouble raising them from seed, even around here.
Don’t grow onions from seed. Most varieties take a long time – up to four months. If you want to grow them, get onion sets. These are baby onions (similar to tulip bulbs) that you plant like seed, and the set gives you a head start and produces onions much more quickly than if started from seed.
Many people are fond of chives. You can buy chives in little pots at gardening centres, already started and ready for transplanting into a bigger deck pot or into your garden. They’re perennial, which is to say they’ll come back every summer. Whenever you’re making a salad, pull off a dozen of those lovely green stalks, chop them up, toss them in. Yum.
Same goes for parsley and a number of other herbs. Look for those at the garden centres too, if you’re interested.
That’s it for now. Word count out of control again. Pay attention to the weather, daytime highs, overnight lows. Gardeners need to be into that. Buy your potting soil, containers, a watering can, a trowel. Watch for garden centres opening up.
Later. Oh yeah – don’t let me forget thinning.
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