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Brian Minter: Veggies for cool gardens

Many of us are anxious to begin our food gardening, even if that means planting a container on the 27th floor of an apartment. In fact, I know folks who, despite February’s rude weather, have already planted seeds and early transplants.

As a longtime fan of Mother Nature, she’s taught me many lessons. The most important one is realizing how little I understand the complexities of her many cycles. One observation that I have clued into is her starting gun for early planting — the yellow forsythia. When its blossoms first open, it’s her signal to begin planting cold-hardy vegetables. My other guide is reasonably consistent daytime temperatures of 10 C.

It’s also important to have a location somewhat protected from prevailing winds as they can be quite cooling, as well as a spot that gets at least three to four hours of sunlight, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the sun’s intensity is the strongest.

Proper soil preparation is also essential. Open, porous soil with some good moisture-retaining qualities is ideal. Working in well broken-down compost adds beneficial bacteria, and composted manures provide rich, organic nutrients. If you have only a small space, compost and manures are available in bags at garden stores. Sea Soil is also a very helpful additive. For container growing, use only quality soils. I like the Sunshine and Pro-Mix brands that contain mycorrhizae, a beneficial bacterium. Both also use OMRI-certified organic soils.

Today, raised beds are the most popular way to grow veggies. No matter what is used to construct the raised beds, building them to knee-high height provides the best depth of soil. I often joke that the older you are, the higher you should build them.

Even basic gardens should have rows of soil bermed up at least eight to10 inches because the soil will drain more quickly and will also be five-to-eight-degrees-Celsius warmer.

The acidity or alkalinity of the soil is important too. Our garden beds are the recipients of seasonal rains that can alter the pH level of soils. A little lime, either Dolopril or the organic eggshell lime, will amend the acidity levels. The calcium in lime provides a beneficial element to plants, especially tomatoes. As a rule of thumb, even though the bags provide estimated coverage, for small areas, a four-inch grower’s pot of lime per four cubic feet of garden space is a good ‘guesstimate’ of the amount to apply. As long as the pH level of your soil measures between five and eight, you should be fine. There are pH testing kits available, but they simply provide approximate measurements.

So, what to plant early? Potatoes are right up there, but they need to be planted in an area that hasn’t had lime or manure applied, in order to remain clean and free of scab. There are so many innovative ways to grow them, such as potato bags. These heavy-duty, reusable bags hold enough clean soil to grow several potato plants, making them ideal for small spaces. Potatoes grow well in raised beds, but if you plant them in level ground, copy the local potato growers who keep their spuds warmer and drier by planting them in raised berms that have a good soil depth to allow the tuberous roots to grow deep.

Using small potato seed is best but can often be hard to find. Cut larger seed potatoes into two or three pieces so that each piece has two or three ‘eyes’, which are basically baby sprouts that must be planted facing upward. To prevent rot, the cut pieces must be allowed to dry for at least a day before planting. I also spray or dust them with sulphur powder, and organic liquid sulphur is also available. The sulphur odour tends to keep insects away.

Potatoes come in many varieties: early, midseason and late. At this time of year, plant only the early ones. Locally, ‘Warba’ and ‘Norland’ are two of the most popular varieties and can be ready in as little as 55 days. Despite the unhealthy reputation of potato chips and french fries, potatoes are actually nutritious when prepared without a lot of added calories. They have more Vitamin C than an orange, and it’s hard to beat that new potato flavour.

In early gardens, onions also play a starring role. It’s a little late to start them from seed, although it can still be done, but there are great alternatives for a faster crop. Many folks use so-called ‘Dutch sets’ for nice medium-sized onions ready in about 90 days. They also come in Spanish and red types for different flavours. You simply plant them in well-draining soil about three times as deep as the width of the bulb (i.e. a bulb one-centimetre across is planted three-centimetres deep).

The most popular onion in B.C. is the ‘Walla Walla’. It’s not a great keeper, but the flavour — wow! ‘Walla Wallas’ are also the hardiest onion, often tolerating winter conditions of -23 C. Many growers provide starter packs for easy planting. Another favourite is the larger bunches of seedling onions that are grown in Walla Walla, Wash. I cut about one-third off the tops when I plant any of these seedlings to make them sturdier for transplanting.

With onions, size matters. The giant ‘Kelsae’ onion is king, often growing up to the world record of 15 pounds and producing great flavour in 110 days. ‘Ailsa Craig’ is another whopper at eight inches in diameter.

For green onions, use the multiplier bulbs and, of course, where would we be without shallots and bunching onions?

Peas are next on the popularity chart, and you can either plant them from seed now or buy transplants that are ready to grow. The old-time traditional varieties, like ‘Little Marvel’ (62 days to maturity), ‘Green Arrow’ (62-70 days) and tall ‘telephone’ types like ‘Alderman’ (70-78 days), are still great but to be honest, I’m a fan of the super-snap varieties because certain ones can be shelled like regular peas or you can eat the sweet pod and all.

Many super-snap peas are harvested as flat snow peas, but varieties like ‘Sugar Daddy’ (68 days), Sugar Ann’ (56 days) and ‘Super Sugar Snap’ (70 days) — all AAS winners — produce tasty peas as well. When the weather suddenly turns hot, they maintain their sweetness as well.

The next most popular early season crops are the brassicas, such as kale, baby broccoli (‘Aspabroc’ broccolini 50 days). All brassicas have early, midseason and late varieties that perform best in their specific time frame. Select the newer hybrid varieties not only for the best garden performance, but also for improved flavours and disease resistance. From broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage and cauliflower to the many new Asian brassicas, like sui choy, there are many novelty varieties that are culinary treats. Be sure to lime the soil where your brassicas will be grown.

Even though you can still seed, brassica transplants will save you four weeks of time. When you set the transplants out, bury them deep so the soil is up to the bottom leaves, and when you see those cute, but hungry, little white moths flitting about, either cover the plants with floating row covers or use the bacterial spray B.T.K. When you purchase cauliflower, make sure to get the self-wrapping type to keep those heads pure white.

My how lettuce has changed over the years. There must be a huge craving for Caesar salads because some of the best-selling varieties today are all the romaine types (50 days to maturity). Next on the lettuce hot list are the looseleaf and bibb types. With these kinds of lettuce you can harvest the outside leaves for a long period. ‘Buttercrunch’ (67 days), ‘Grand Rapids’ (65 days), ‘Salad Bowl’ (60 days) and the lovely red types, like ‘Red Sails’, are colourful and delicious. Head lettuces are still available, but the gourmet blends, with all their unique colours, are taking over in popularity.

‘Simply Salad’ lettuces blend many flavours together in seed clusters not only for beauty, but also for great taste. My favourite, ‘Simply Salad City Garden’, can be harvested from May till August. As well, there are radicchios, mesclun bends, arugulas, mustards and many other Asian greens available today for an amazing selection. From the new colour blends of swiss chard and spinach to pak choi and even beets, there are lots of wonderful salad greens that will tolerate our April weather and produce within a few weeks.

Broad beans, too, can be planted now for a June harvest.

These early vegetables will do well in our cool gardens. So, when we reach 10 C days, and when you see forsythia in bloom, let’s get growing.

PS: If Mother Nature is a bit fickle and throws a colder curve at us, floating row covers or the thicker N-Sulate fabric will protect all your plants from a late frost.