Location: Early’s Farm and Garden Centre, south of Ruth St on Lorne Avenue.

Disclaimer: despite growing up on a farm, I know very little about *crooks pinky out* Gardening. If you sense inconsistencies or inaccuracies, yell at me on the Twitter. I’ll investigate further, otherwise I’m just regurgitating what I learned at the seminar, which is mostly that I don’t know very much and I’ve managed to grow plants despite myself somehow.

This seminar is being held by Vicky, a longtime employee of Early’s and gardener par excellence. I’ll just sort of paraphrase and neatly arrange (ha) the information here.

 

Two things for container and/or small space gardening:

1. Consider the micro-climate  in your location:  sun exposure and duration, wind speed, soil quality.   Few vegetables do well in 100% shade – some root vegetables may do okay, but it’s not ideal. Some plants can’t stand up to a lot of wind – hanging baskets especially. (Don’t buy the 8″ hanging baskets, they are useless.)

2. Look at the dimensions of your space. If you’ve only got about 6 square feet, pumpkins and squash aren’t going to give you the best ROI. Think about going vertical as much as possible – trellises, netting and chicken wire are your best friend. Also put a lot of thought into staggering plants with different maturity dates, i.e. planting lettuce and carrots in the same area. The carrots will be just coming in as the lettuce is finishing off. Plan to re-seed any resulting bare areas – you can get more than one crop of lettuce in a growing season. Gardens needn’t be a square plot in the middle or back of your yard – a 2′ wide strip along the fence covers the same amount of area with minimum encroachment. You can also use the fence to hang netting or wire in order to train straggling plants like cucumbers, peas, and beans up rather than out.

Container gardening can be intensive but highly rewarding. There are many considerations when container gardening. Generally, larger pots are better than smaller ones; lighter-coloured and plastic pots do not dry out as quickly as black and clay ones; and never, ever, cheap out on the potting soil.

This is a no-brainer, but consider pot size. Root vegetables and tomatoes need a bigger, deeper pot. Herbs and salad type things can do okay in a shallower basin. Bonus: if you get a big pot, you can just put a smaller pot upside down at the bottom for drainage. The smaller the pot, the more often you have to water. (She had some nice long rectangular pots with a “W” cross section, for fitting over balcony railings. The bottoms of the W hold more water and allow for larger/deeper plants. Hot tip from an attendee was that Lee Valley has the nicest ones.)

Using poor soil can reduce your yields by 75%. Ideally, the soil should be light. Dense, heavy soil that feels like cement will rot in the container. Mixing peat moss and vermiculite in can help poor soil – a 1:1:1 ratio of soil, peat moss and compost/vermiculite is the norm. Vicky doesn’t recommend using soil from your garden, since most potting soil is sterile, pH adjusted and drains nicely. You can re-use potting soil from year to year as well, just refresh it with the aforementioned nutrients. (Unless you have disease issues, then you’d better just start fresh.) Also: Never use the potting soil with “water saver crystals” for vegetables. The crystals are leaching crud you do not want to eat.

Pots must be watered every day and fertilized at least every ten days. No ifs, ands, or buts. Lee Valley has a wicking jobby that you can hook up to your pots with a 5 gal pail of water, which should see you through a weekend. You can also put some slow release fertilizer in the pot when filling it with soil; however vegetables that are a heavy drain on resources, ie. tomatoes, will require frequent fertilizing even with a slow-release fertilizer present.

Don’t be afraid to thin out your pots. Almost everything you plant will grow, and if you let everything grow they’ll choke each other out and subsequently die. (I believe this is known as the tragedy of the commons.) Anyways, practice eugenics when selecting plants and be ruthless. This is also why you shouldn’t fall prey to the wiles of overstuffed hanging planters – they look great in the store, but awful two weeks later when all the flowers are dead from overcrowding.

 

Plant choices for small containers.

Key words to look for when choosing plants: bush, compact, and space-saver. (Unless it’s bush peas or beans. These are not space-savers.)

  • Carrots – find ones with an early maturation.
  • Cucumbers – you want ones that grow close together, usually labelled “bush”. Fanfare, Patio Pickles and Bush Pickles are recommended.
  • Eggplant – works very well, although they may need staking.
  • Green beans – look for pole beans, which grow up, not out. These will require a frame for climbing. If you pick them continually they will keep producing for months.
  • Green onions – bunching onions grow fast; you can cut off the tops, leaving the rest to grow. Since they do not take up much space you can use them as an interstitial solution.
  • Lettuce – grows very well in containers. To prevent bolting (flowering) move the pots in and out of sun. Harvesting outer leaves only will keep the plants producing for months. Keep re-seeding to ensure a steady supply.
  • Radishes – do nicely in pots and also benefit from the sterile environment, avoiding root maggots.
  • Squash – same considerations as cucumbers. Err on the larger side when choosing pots.
  • Parsnips: Albion, a new varietal that’s not in the Early’s catalogue yet, grows well in pots as it’s stubby.
  • Peppers – amazing in pots. Grow even better than in the garden. Peppers thrive in hot spots but can’t tolerate <10 degrees at night. Use your concrete patio or south-facing foundation wall to keep them warm at night – the concrete will give off heat absorbed during the day, keeping the plants warm.
  • Tomatoes – look for cherry tomatoes. Tumblers are the best producers, but sag (“tumble”) over the edge of the pot, requiring a stand so they don’t touch the ground. Tiny Tims are more sturdy but produce less. 2 Tumblers in a 4 gal (my estimate; pot was about 15″ high by so wide, I am terrible at guessing volume) will produce 400 tomatoes in a season. (Whee!)
  • Spinach – Thai or Melody (sp?) spinach grow the best. Do not let it flower!
  • Swiss chard – The rainbow varietal looks especially nice as a decorative (and delicious) plant.
  • Herbs – Vicky likes to use a wider, shallower pot (about 18×8″) and plant the herbs all together at one go. Basil does not transplant well, so start it in the big pot. Pinch back the center growth to make it bush out, rather than scraggle upwards. Again, never let herbs flower, as then the leaves become bitter.

 

Some notes on Saskatoon soil and fertilizer choice.

Saskatoon soil is heavy, dense, and rotten. Add axis (sp?) and calcium nitrate, in addition to your peat moss/compost/manure/fertilizer treatments. Often Saskatoon area soil is low in calcium. A good way of determining the level of nutrients in your soil is to let a large weed grow, pull it out, and then slice the root in half vertically. If your soil is rich, the root cross-section will be white; if it’s poor, the root will be dark. (The darker the root, the less nutrients there are.) Sometimes adding sand can help, but be careful – it can end up turning into concrete. Phosphorus can also help to lighten heavy soil. If you’re really OCD, get the agro types out to test your soil for micronutrients to find where you’re lacking. Soil amendment can be expensive but will reap rewards.

The most commonly recommended fertilizer is a 20-20-20 mix; however Vicky prefers to use 10-52-10 to start and then 15-30-15 when the plants are established nicely. When starting out with the 10-52-10, phase it in gradually – 1/4, 1/2, and then full strength. The middle number is nitrogen; it stimulates growth, root development, and blossoming, so you can’t hit young plants with too much of it. The last number is potash, which fights disease. Generally Saskatchewan soil has, surprise, sufficient potash.

 

Suggestions for plants that are both nice to look at and good to eat.

  • Pole beans and peas are no longer a mealy compromise. Scarlet runner beans also have lovely flowers.
  • Bright Lights Swiss chard looks pretty, as mentioned earlier.
  • Asparagus peas also look very nice, but must be picked while small to avoid disappointment.
  • Carrots can look quite attractive while growing; tomatoes and potatoes also have flowers. (You can also get potatoes that grow in a bag so you can just toss ’em anywhere and then open the end of the bag to reap your tuberous bounty.)
  • Mask your ugly veg by growing tasteful flowers in front. This also looks nice if you’re doing the fence-strip method as mentioned above.

 

Some notes on small garden space optimization:

As noted earlier, think vertically. Ensure whatever scaffolding you’re using will hold the weight of full-grown plants and their yield. Another way to maximize a small area is to grow things in squares, not rows. Again, pay attention to maturity dates to maximize your harvest. If you’re attaching netting to a fence, fasten the bottom a foot away from the base of the fence. Indeterminate varieties of tomatoes, if properly staked and pruned, will not take up as much space as regular tomatoes. Pumpkins, squash, bush beans, and bush peas will eat up your real estate with little to show for it.

Also: only old-fashioned marigolds, the open-pollinated varieties, repel bugs. New hybrids are nice to look at but no threat for insects.

I am super excited to actually grow spinach and Swiss chard this year, as well as peppers and herbs. How hard can it be?

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