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Why thinning?

That time has arrived for my earliest crops: they need thinning. I sigh, as I am wont to do over this task, and mumble once again, “Isn’t there some way to avoid this fiddly, tedious, extra task?”

Come on, admit it, doesn’t it seem like a make-work project to plant a bunch of seeds, and then, after a few weeks, take a bunch of them back out?

Why not just plant them all at the right spacing to begin with and be done with it, right?

Every year I think this, and every year I talk myself back into doing it the long way. Here’s some of the reasons why.

1. Bad germination. Sometimes only some of what you plant will actually sprout. I hate to break it to you, but there’s a lot that can go wrong before those little plants are even born.Could be heavy spring rains washing out or rotting seeds, dry weather frying them, critters stealing them, less than ideal soil temperature, or just plain bad seed. So you over-plant, improving the odds that you will have enough germinate for your needs, and insuring yourself against empty gaps in your rows or squares (along with the resulting urge to re-seed).

2. Plant strength. Not every seed is absolutely, one-hundred-percent identical. Each might respond differently to the exact micro-climate you place it in. By planting thickly, you can choose those plants that seem the strongest to focus your resources on, discarding those that are weaker– and you do this when they are quite young to give the survivors the best chance and the most room.

3. Nature of the beast. No matter how far apart you plant some seeds, you will always need to thin because the “seed” is actually a seed pod, containing a group of seeds. Beets are a good example. In these cases, just resign yourself to the necessity.

My biggest problem with thinning is this horrid feeling that I am killing tiny bits of life. All that potential! How can I toss it at the compost heap? But the truth is, by sacrificing those little guys, you really are improving the production of the rest. I had two big squares of carrots last year. One I thinned early, the other got pushed to the bottom of the list until well into July. You would not believe the difference in the harvest in those two squares (both seeded and germinated evenly): the first gave me pounds of medium to large sized carrots, the second had lots of tiny ones, the kind that are just annoying to try to clean and prepare.

‘Nuf said.

So away I go, with some good sharp scissors, and weigh my little seedlings in the balance. Those found wanting get a snip right at the soil line (yanking them up is more likely to disturb roots on the keepers).

There is the odd time you might find three really strong, healthy looking specimens grouped too close together. I have been known to dig some up and move them to a more suitable spot, but be warned: only try this on plants that don’t mind root disturbance.

Though I haven’t quit my grumbling about one of my least favourite garden chores, I try to keep as my mantra a little piece of wisdom I heard someone say somewhere, sometime: “I would rather grow a few plants really well, than an acre-full badly.”

Seeds: how old is too old?

When my grandpa died, my mom found all kinds of things in the basement and the garage, including quite an impressive collection of garden seeds. Some were at least ten years old, others could have been older. Not being one to waste, my mom planted a couple of the packets of tomato seeds, thinking she’d be lucky if a few germinated.

Well, you guessed it, dang near all of them sprouted. She was giving away tomato seedlings left and right. I guess Grandpa had them stored right (cool, dry, dark, with some air circulation).

Oh, the possibilities!

This week, a recently widowed friend offered me a similar collection of outdated seed that her husband had stored. With my mom’s story in mind, how could I resist giving them a chance? This couple being avid gardeners, there’s some cool stuff in here: there’s standards like kale and corn, but also gooseberries, huckleberries, an indoor cactus mix, rhubarb…

I feel vaguely like I’ve been given a lottery ticket: kind of hopeful, but not wanting to get too excited in case nothing comes of it.

I can’t bring myself to toss them, that’s for sure. It may be a waste of time, or, I guess I may have my own turn at giving away a lot of seedlings.

 

Garden friends come out of the shed

The flowers are slow this spring. It may have something to do with the weekly blizzards all the way through the month of April, but whatever: finally it’s May! And while I can’t be bothered to build a Maypole, I decided to celebrate by pulling some of my garden decorations out of the shed and choosing them new spots for the year.

I’m thinking I’ve got enough little critters (such as the ones below) and it’s time to think about some bigger, permanent art. I’ve got all kinds of projects swimming in my brain, and there’s even more ideas here.  I’d love to have an interesting hunk of architectural salvage in my garden (Garden of Ruins at Guildwood Park Toronto, anyone?) but I’m still a sucker for the cheap resin creations at the garden centre. Especially fairies and dragons.

I found this cute snail at Extra Foods (Loblaws) last year. He has settled down in front of my golden flowering currant.

This little lady actually made it through the winter snuggled up to this Blue Star juniper. Loblaws a few years back.

Some of my best garden art pieces were found at the thrift store. This Asian couple on a raft will be taking up residence in the dry riverbed… as soon as I dig it.

This little guy came home with me for 25 cents. He’s supervising the daffodils that we planted last fall. Ornamental hops coming up in the back.
Joining the family this year: from Greengate Garden Centre in Calgary, the silly whirligig ladybug!

 

Soil health: starting the season right

I love this quote from Beverley Nichols that showed up in an advice article in my CG email this week:

“Light in a garden is a quarter of the battle. Another quarter is the soil of the garden. A third quarter is the skill and care of the gardener. The fourth quarter is luck. Indeed, one might 
say that these were the four Ls of gardening, in the following order of importance: Loam, Light, Love and Luck.”
 

In fact, several of the bits of advice in the article mention the importance of healthy soil.

I consider myself a fairly well informed gardener. I’ve gleaned quite a bit of knowledge over the years about all kinds of topics, and lucky me, I have a pretty solid memory retention. But when it comes to soil health, I’ve pretty much spread on the compost and crossed my fingers. Last year, I started feeling that my soil was getting depleted. I can’t tell you exactly why, just a general sense that growth wasn’t as strong as it could be, drainage more sluggish than normal.

So when I learned a class was being put on by a neighbour, an expert in agricultural soil health, I immediately marked it on my calendar. The evening was really valuable, and I learned a whole lot, but it truly is one of those topics that start feeling bigger the more you learn.

Some of the fundamental things I seem to be doing right, but I’ve never been one to add commercial fertilizers, and I think my compost is simply missing some of the trace minerals that plants and soil need. Your average garden-center NPK (Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium) products don’t have them either.

Here’s a few of the nutrients I learned about from my neighbour. A soil test is the best way to determine what you need, and a really good garden centre or agricultural consultant should be able to help you identify ways of adding them.

Nitrogen: encourages vegetative, or leafy, growth. If your pepper plants look gorgeous but aren’t flowering or setting fruit, they probably have (proportionally) too much nitrogen. Gasses off quickly, so must be topped up more frequently than other nutrients.

Phosphorous: encourages strong root growth and structure. Part of the problem with phosphorous is that it tends to bind with the soil, making not all of what’s in there available for plants to use. It’s needed early in the plant’s growth to do the most good.

Potassium: I always thought this was nutrient for flowering and fruiting, but the real benefit of this important nutrient is how it builds a plant’s aerial (above ground) structure: how strong the stems and leaves are, how well it can take up water, etc. Also fights high levels of magnesium.

Sulphur: competes with sodium. I need to keep the sulphur levels higher than my sodium levels and it will minimize the effects of an alkali (high sodium) soil–but that’s because I have a fairly alkaline (high pH) soil. If you have a more acidic soil, use calcium to balance out the sodium. (Are you confused yet?)

Calcium: among other things, contributes to the storability of the harvested fruit.

Boron: important in plant reproduction. When boron levels are low you end up with hollow potatoes and strawberries, or pea pods with only a few peas in them. But careful: high levels are toxic.

Then there’s magnesium and aluminum, which at high levels cause cracks on top of the soil and contribute to drainage problems. And selenium and zinc, which contribute to both human and plant immunity. But selenium is restricted in Canada as it’s categorized with–get this–arsenic.

Yikes. Apparently there’s a reason people go to universtiy to understand all the ins and outs of this science. I’m ready to throw up my hands and go back to my compost and crossed fingers.

But I did get a bag of fully balanced synthetic fertilizer, which I am spreading on this weekend–with the compost and the leaves.

 

How I accidentally joined a horticultural society

I was up in Calgary this week with Chris for an eye appointment and to see Neil Young in concert (why yes, it was amazing, thank you for asking) and we found ourselves with a few hours to kill in-between. He wanted to hit the hobby shop, and I wanted to have a tiny snooze before rocking it in the free world. So I parked the car, he went in, and I closed my eyes–but not before spotting the little house tucked beside the parking lot. The little house with the lovely, snow-filled garden and the sign reading “Calgary Horticultural Society“.

I sat there pseudo-sleeping, thinking about popping in to say hello. I had been to their big garden show back in April, but had not signed up for a membership, rationalizing that I live three hours away and wouldn’t be able to attend any events anyway, except maybe the show again in the spring… Anyhow, I was supposed to be napping. Besides, even the term ‘horticultural society’ seems formidable… I feel like donning my rose gauntlets and a British accent as soon as I think the words. Aren’t these kind of societies for the snobbery? Will they test me on my Latin before starting any kind of conversation? I might as well have been back in high school, that’s how awkward I felt.

Well, the bunny got the better of me. Yup, right there in the heart of the city, a little brown bunny nibbling on the elite Horticultural Society ground cover. I got up and in I went.

This is the part where I apologize to Janet and Maryjo for the snobbery comments above, for the lovely ladies I spoke to in the office were anything but snobs. They welcomed me warmly and we had a short chat about upcoming events, their (beautiful and useful) newsletter, bunnies, and raccoons. Before I knew it we were swapping emails and I was promising to buy a membership and check out their online forums.

I feel silly now for being so apprehensive. I know I’m not getting everything I could be out of gardening unless I connect with other people who share my interest.  I love our ownCanadianGardening.com forums for this purpose, but I’m looking forward to the calhort.org ones, because only a Southern Albertan really knows the meaning of a chinook.

So that’s your challenge this week: search out a connection with your gardening community. Whether it’s someone down your street, at your favourite greenhouse, online, or in a club or society, we all need someone with whom we can share, complain, brag, and learn.

Gardening gizmos for the techy-types

As promised, I’ve been experimenting with a bunch of gardening apps on my iPad this week. Here’s the ones I tried, and what I thought of them. All available on the App Store; sorry Androidians, I can’t help you, but comment if you can help each other! Click on the images to see the details and screenshots for each app.

Toolkit HD, Applied Objects, $3.99

This is a slick, easy to use little package, an everything-in-one-place tool for to-do lists, your garden diary, and plant lists. Lots of nice features, like being able to tag your diary entries so you can go back and find your notes about the last time you pruned that apple tree, and making a plant list for your particular garden or gardens (up to four separate ones) with details such as when they were planted and when they will mature/bloom.  It gives advice based on your hardiness zone, but the plant lists (which I found on the limited side anyway) don’t adjust to your zone. You can add custom plants with pictures, along with all their sun/water/soil/temperature info, but they aren’t added to the main (search-able) plant list.  The Glossary is pretty good, a little simplistic maybe, but it links to Wikipedia if you want more info.  This strikes me as a great starting place for a beginning gardener who wants to be more organized, or the more advanced gardener if they’re looking more for record keeping.

 

Eden Garden Designer, Herbaceous Software, $1.99

This is a fun little app that is very visual, whereas Toolkit is very list-oriented. You can choose an imaginary background, or load a picture of your own landscape, and then fill it with plants, rearrange the plants, look at what would be blooming at certain times of year… you can even control the amount of wind and insects! It’s a great little gardening fix mid-winter or mid-city. That said, the plant lists are somewhat simplistic. There’s just “hosta”, no varieties or anything, and the plant choices are limited (you can buy additional groups of plants for $0.99). So as far as using this for designing, it’s great for generating ideas and getting a general idea for how things might look, but it won’t get you anywhere with detailed planning. Still, a fun little program.

 

LawnCAD, Nathan French, $4.99

This is a compact little Computer-Aided Drafting app that will likely appeal to the planners and math brains out there. I’ve never used a CAD program other than this, so I can’t really compare it or speak about its usefulness on a professional level, but as a layman I’m loving the interface, the preciseness, and the itty-bitty power trip that comes from building and erasing entire landscapes in one swipe. Warning: you must love nit-picky details to love this app.

 

Grow Planner, Growing Interactive, $9.99

A little more expensive than most, this app is really a case of you get what you pay for. Provided by the well-respected Mother Earth News, this app does everything but put the seeds in the ground. You draw the size and shape of the beds you want, choose the veggies, herbs, and flowers you want to grow (right down to the variety–it’s linked to all the best known seed catalogues) and it tracks how many plants should fit in that space, when they should be planted, when they should be harvested, and when the bed will be ready for succesion planting. You can choose traditional rows or square foot gardening. If you use it multiple seasons, it tracks what was where what year so you can ensure good crop rotation. Make notes, research varieties, tweak your frost dates, add custom plants. It will even email you planting reminders if you want. If you grow vegetables, you will love this app.

 

 

And now, just for fun:

Plants Vs. Zombies, PopCap, $0.99 (iPad version)

This is a ridiculously addicting game in which your garden plants defend your home from invading zombies. I know, ridiculous, right? But oh so fun.

 

 Happy Little Farmer, GiggleUp Kids Apps and Educational Games, $1.99

This is a gorgeous little game involving planting, caring for, and harvesting crops around the farm. My kids from 3 through 8 love it, and even my twelve year old can’t help watching. The motions are simple and the directions clear, and there are all kinds of cute little hidden surprises. An absolutely stellar game for little people.

The digging of the potatoes

After plugging them into the ground in early June, my potatoes have lived without the interference of human attention. Unless you count the sprinkler blanketed over the whole garden. My mom is visiting this week and she keeps asking what she can help with (!!). So far, she’s washed every dish as soon as it was dirtied and made some serious headway with the laundry. To spare her from reading the same Dora the Explorer picture book for the tenth time, I suggested we head outside and dig the last of the veggies. My youngest daughter had to get in on the action, of course. She seems way more excited about these potatoes than the ones I have put on her plate before. Think she’ll start eating them now?

Dirt: the book and the movie

At my local library last week I stumbled across a DVD brazenly titled “DIRT!” which I of course immediately picked up, being one of those people who knows I should use the term ‘soil’ but can’t resist the earthy real-ness of the d-word.
It’s a documentary about… well, dirt, and it’s role in farming, civilization, food stability, and the roots of life itself. Before you yawn, I must tell you that this is a funny, engaging movie, as well as being informative a thought-provoking.
There’s cute little animated dirt bits commenting on the scientific stuff, and astonishing news about microbial fuel cells (! I’d never heard of them before either). While it feels slightly soapboxy when it gets into mining and clear cutting, there are wonderful insights into traditional farming in India and digging up concrete playgrounds in NYC.
I found it well worth the watch (as did the people at Sundance) and am now hunting down the book on which it was based, Dirt: the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, by William Bryant Logan.
Happy Digging!

Lost and found

I’m forever losing things in the garden. I can spend ten minutes going back and forth the yard trying to locate the trowel that I just had in my hand. And despite owning three good pairs of secateurs, I’m pretty proud of myself when one is where it belongs in my apron.

I’m probably the only one this happens to. Maybe it’s just another symptom of my slightly scatterbrained existence. It’s usually harmless, at most mildly frustrating. I generally find what I’m looking for. Eventually. Even if it’s next spring.

But last week I lost something I don’t want to wait until next spring to find: my wedding band. It slipped off at some point, I’m pretty sure while I was in the garden. I’ve sifted through the piles of pulled weeds; nothing turned up. My usual patience with lost items is gone. I want to find that ring.

Chris has offered to track down a metal detector so we can keep up the hunt. It’s a great idea, but I do wonder what else will be found, once we actually go looking? Our house sits on the same land as the original community school did back in the day, so every once in a while we dig up a little piece of history, like this 1941 Canadian penny that recently turned up in my yard, King George and all. How many horseshoe nails will we find before my ring turns up?

I suppose it’s the unexpected finds–the things you weren’t looking for–that are the most fun, from volunteer plants and unusual wildlife, to coins and bits of farrier miscellany. I could wax philosophical here, about finding pleasure in the unexpected, taking life as it comes, not stressing out about things that don’t go according to your own little plan…

All true. But I really want my ring back.

 

Dear deer:

Hello. I don’t know if you remember me; I’m the lady you’ve dodged on the highway numerous times, the one who lives in the big white house you mosey past on your way up into the hills behind town.

It’s been lovely to watch you wander through over the years, and I don’t mind you bedding down in the back pasture from time to time. I have not even begrudged you the chomps taken out of some of the beets last fall. Overall, the unspoken understanding between us has been honoured: I leave you alone, you come and go with a minimum of disruption.

Until this year. I don’t know why you have broken our peaceful truce, but it is clearly over: every single one of my pea plants has had the top neatly munched off. Every developing pod is ending up in someone’s stomach, and it’s not mine.

I haven’t offended you in some way, have I? Is it repercussions from the collision two years ago? Are you against the lilac hedge we put in? Is this a protest?

I know you need to eat. I’m perfectly willing to feed you. There is grass, and buttercups, and lamb’s quarters… heck, have some stork’s bill! It’s abundant, and I have no plans to eat it, as opposed to the peas.

I bear you no ill will, but you must identify the offending Bambi and get him in line or I will be forced to take action. I have netting; don’t make me use it.

Sincerely,

April

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