The gambling game of gardening

Really good anglers go whatever the weather, good and bad; gardeners try to outwit the weather, try to time it like a volatile stock market. Both start too soon in the spring.

Really good anglers go whatever the weather, good and bad; gardeners try to outwit the weather, try to time it like a volatile stock market.

Both start too soon in the spring.

Latest spring frost on record in Red Deer was July 1 in 1919 and the earliest fall frost was July 17 in 1904. The year escapes me, but the shortest number of frost-free days was 48, from June 27 to Aug. 14. In our time in Red Deer, the earliest killing fall frost was Aug. 25, 1992.

Last spring, we did not get on the “land” until May 10. It was pure mud up until then from the winter’s heavy snowpack and constant April showers.

This spring is different: scant winter snowfall and virtually no rain in April had us worrying about dry conditions; we dislike having to stretch soaker hoses and start watering as soon as the first of our progressive-successive plantings of potatoes and sowing peas is in the ground.

Yet perennial stuff already out there was urging us on, chives and tarragon greening, and some of the garlic poking through the mulch on April 9, the earliest ever. Only half of the new Hungarian garlic came up, not surprising since its former parents always plant it in the spring and it is not accustomed to the long semi-arctic winter under our ground.

Not that anyone can predict the weather in this country, but the long-range forecast was for rain and snow on April 23 and 24, followed by a rapid rise to warm spring weather. So we bought in to a niche opportunity, and Herself, our friend Gino and I got up and sowing, on April 22.

First in was a half row of Altesse peas, a new variety replacing old favourite, Green Arrow, which has not been doing well for us lately. We suspect the dreaded root rot, and welcome suggestions from readers.

Next half row will be Mr. Big, which is resistant to many diseases.

Next, 10 hills of Bintje potatoes, for the world’s best frites, or French fries, followed by the rest of that row and another full row of Norland, first in our progressive plantings program to eat sweet new potatoes into September. Then we did the first of four successive sowings of favourite lettuces:

Black Seeded Simpson, Buttercrunch, and Little Gem, and a new spinach, Avon. We finished with a long-shot weather gamble, direct-sowing some extinct Eureka broccoli seed and betting some Cheddar cauliflower at an outrageous 30 cents per seed.

For once the rain and snow came as predicted, the night of April 24, and all of April 25; it will bring along the deep spuds and help germinate the shallow-seeded varieties.

The day after our first plantings, the first asparagus was up in our beds, and we’ll enjoy eating lots of that well into June as we patiently wait for the annual bets against this area’s average 106 frost-free days and May 25 last frost day to become less risky. We’ll gradually plant some cold-tolerant varieties: shallots, Cipollini onions, and gradually sowing carrots, beets, beans, as it warms up, then corn and cucumbers through the black plastic mulch.

We’ll wait until June 1 to be sure to risk planting through the plastic our six tomato varieties and the Ancho-Poblano peppers now thriving under lights in the house.

I was finally persuaded to put on paper some of our methods, developed over nearly 50 years of gardens in Red Deer, for dealing with vegetable gardening in a tough climate. The result, Gourmet Gardening up North, is in the 2015 Special Edition, The Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Guide, now on newsstands.

Over the years, I have been frustrated by the sudden unexplained disappearances of favourite vegetable varieties from the seed catalogues: Jersey Acorn Squash, Bush Whopper cucumbers, Kandy Kwik, then Seneca Arrowhead corn, and Eureka broccoli. Last year, it was the superb Melody spinach suddenly gone.

Early this year, I went into a cold sweat when I could not find Early Girl tomato seeds in any of the dozen new catalogues I habitually pore over. For approximately 40 years, the Early Girl hybrid has been a cold climate favourite, producing tomatoes with both good size and superb flavour in only 60 days from transplanting out into the garden. Surfing the net, I finally found Early Girl seeds at Parks in South Carolina and at West Coast Seeds in Delta, B.C., and have secured a lifetime supply.

In studying those catalogues, I did find what could be prizes: two different hybrids of the San Marzano tomato claiming only 70 days to maturity.

San Marzano is the Italian paste tomato, but takes 80 days to mature, meaning they seldom ripen on the vine in Red Deer.

So, totally gambling on something new, the 70-day hybrids are the only San Marzanos now growing under our lights.

Barring odds-defying late and early frosts, gardeners always bet on good harvests.

Of course, it can hail any time and there’s always ants. …

Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at

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