After my gloomy April 3 trip west, I’m having a hard time believing how fast those record snows are disappearing. The downside is the reader reports I’m getting of mud in every flowing river and stream, ending any good ice-out fishing.
On the upside for another outdoors recreation: green shoots of the garlic cloves we planted last September started showing above their mulch on April 10, the earliest ever; last year, it was May 1.
Old Farmer’s Almanac forecasts of a warmer and drier than usual April and May for us, giving hope of getting rid of the mountain snowpack without the annual monsoon to boot, finally shifted me into gardening gear and seeding this year’s tomato plants under lights in the house, to be perfect size for transplanting outside after May 24, when we like to think the late frosts will be over.
The first really sunny spring day lured us to a local supplier for two bags of Norland seed potatoes and four big packets of Green Arrow peas so, as soon as the soil is dry enough to rototill, we can start planting successive rows of potatoes and peas. When the first row of Norlands is big enough to hill, we plant the next row, and so on for five or six rows, and when the first row of peas is big enough to grab on to its fence, we plant the next row of three, total, so that we can enjoy new potatoes and young peas into September.
At the seed rack, our grey thatched minds were picked by a sweet young thing who was getting into veggie gardening and wanted to know what seeds to buy. Predictably, she was ignoring days to maturity given on the packets, and her first interest was the toughest: tomatoes. We advised forgetting starting tomatoes from seeds inside, and especially outside, and buy some Early Girl and Sungold plants at a nursery and transplant them into her garden around June 1 to be safe.
Like many new veggie gardeners, she was getting into it to save money. Years ago, I learned that was akin to delusions of tying flies or hand loading ammunition to save money; you grow your own vegetables for quality, variety and flavour unavailable anywhere else, but it costs time, hard work … and money.
We touted the young lady on some of our successful flavour favourites that do well in Central Alberta: Simpson Elite, Little Gem and Buttercrunch lettuces (short rows of each four times in the gardening season), Amsterdam and Danvers carrots, Detroit Dark Red and Touchstone Gold beets, Bush Blue Lake green and Stringless Golden beans.
The warm soil loving, longer maturity time vegetables in our gardens are either direct-seeded, or transplanted to two large areas in our garden covered with black construction plastic, anchored to the soil by eight-foot one-by-six boards with four holes drilled for eight-inch spikes. The plastic “mulch” warms the soil, conserves moisture and kills weeds. Each fall, after rototilling compost in, we “flip” the sheets to next year’s next door location, using the anchoring boards on that side as a hinge.
Through the plastic we direct-seed Eureka broccoli, Raven zucchini, Cheddar cauliflower, Salad Bush cucumbers and Seneca Arrowhead or Horizon corn, or the surest of all, Sunnyvee (66 days to maturity), and also transplant my lights-grown tomato plants through holes cut in the plastic: Parks Whopper (65 days), Early Girl (57 days), Sun Gold (65 days) and San Marzano (85 days) tomatoes, after the usual last day for risk of frost has passed, and cover them for a week or 10 days with Sun Hats. All these varieties have been chosen for their proven superb flavour and workable maturity times, so that they can be harvested at their flavour peak.
In 45 years of gardening in a harsh climate, using the plastic, we have never failed to ripen tomatoes (even San Marzanos) on the vine, or pick perfect cobs of “better than Taber” corn when they are young and sweetest.
There’s something new every year. This year, we’re trying 40-day Patio Snacker hybrid slicing cucumber to see if it can match tiny Salad Bush, which produces huge crops of the world’s tastiest slicer cukes. Pearl lettuce is an improved Little Gem, a combination of butterhead and romaine types, and replaces Baby Star, which just would not germinate. We will be intrigued to see what comes of Black Magic Kale, the first new take ever on our favourite, the ancient Black Tuscan Kale. The new Roma Supremo paste tomato beats the San Marzano maturity by 20 days, but will it come even close for flavour?
Then there is always something either old or new with the weather of our intemperate climate: I have an awful feeling of one more blizzard that is not alleviated by my pictures of our snowy garden on May 24, 2007; something for everyone to remember when tempted to get stuff out there too early.
Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.