Uncertain Harvest

The willingness to take a risk may make the difference between ordinary and outstanding garden harvests this year.

Kelly McPherson of Dentoom's Greenhouses works with tomato plants in the greenhouse located north west of Red Deer at Highway 11A west of the QE2.

Kelly McPherson of Dentoom's Greenhouses works with tomato plants in the greenhouse located north west of Red Deer at Highway 11A west of the QE2.

The willingness to take a risk may make the difference between ordinary and outstanding garden harvests this year.

Noreen Williamson, a member of the Red Deer Garden Club, says the long, cold winter, followed by a late spring, has seasoned gardeners worried about what kind of crops they can expect from their vegetable gardens this year.

“I know everybody is holding back, because we don’t know what to expect,” says Williamson.

“I’ve been digging up my garden, but I wonder if it will be worth it this year. The ground is so cold right now, I’m scared to plant anything.”

Williamson is hoping the weather will warm the soil significantly by the May long weekend, when she normally puts in her garden. She says she may stick with hardy crops that will thrive in a short growing season.

“I’ll probably just plant lettuce, radishes, that kind of thing. I’m just not sure.”

Perennials, including rhubarb, are just starting to show and the tulips started blooming earlier this week. Those plants would normally be up a week or more earlier, she said.

Despite a sense of dread over what the coming weeks will bring, gardeners are filling the aisles at local garden centres, searching for old favourites and new varieties to bring life back to their yards and balconies.

Lori Bouw, operator with her husband John of Dentoom’s Greenhouses, said people have been coming in droves since Sunday, when their retail store opened for the spring season.

She finds that people are eager to shake off the dreariness of an unusually long winter, making them more motivated than ever to start thinking about what they want to do with gardens and planters this year.

“People are holding off on planting, but what I find is that they’re planning more container gardens this year. You can move them in and out.”

Frost blankets are among the hot sellers, says Bouw. While the weather doesn’t look too bad this week, there will still be some more frosty nights, she says.

Alfred Prins, greenhouse manager and certified horticulturist with Parkland Nurseries and Garden Centre, says people are desperate to see something green.

Although it’s still too early to set out most bedding plants, bulbs and seed potatoes are leaving the store at a high rate, says Prins.

Tomatoes are selling, too, but they’re going in sunny windows and greenhouses — not directly into the garden.

Normally, the last frost hits about June 1, after which most of the more tender plants are generally safe. Despite the cold, soil temperatures are warming up quite quickly now, says Prins.

“We had a probe outside and it was seven or eight degrees Celsius, out in full sun.”

“You can put seed in that will sprout and you can put out tubers. Any perennials can be planted out, as long as they don’t have big tall green tops on them, because then they have to adjust to the cold at night,” he says.

“We always look for shorter-season varieties, because we always have a shorter season here.”

Although gardeners have had to adjust their plans, a long and dreary winter wasn’t all that bad for their gardens, says Prins.

There was already a good cover of snow when the temperatures plunged, so perennials were well protected when the mercury dropped to -38C. Snow was plentiful and melted slowly, leaving a good supply of moisture to kick gardens and lawns into gear for spring, with no need for watering just yet, he says.

Cheryl Adams, cemetery specialist for the City of Red Deer, says any fears that gardeners may have has not slowed interest in the three community plots the city provides for people who don’t have their own garden space.

Most of the plots had been booked by midweek, with about half booked by repeat customers, says Adams.

While people may be worried about the growing season, they’re just as worried about the economy and the rising price of food. The community plots attract people who hope to get ahead of those trends by growing their own vegetables, she says.

Annelise Doolaege, an instructor in the horticulture program at Olds College, says Albertans are hardy optimists who aren’t going to let a little bad weather keep them from their gardens.

“Bottom line is, we will be fine this spring as we have in many past years. What we have recently gone through is, we have a little bit more snow, there’s no question, and perhaps people still have snow on the north face of their property.”

Doolaege encourages people to spread those remnants out to help the ground warm up a bit more quickly. They can then clean up the plant matter that left standing over the winter and start preparing for spring planting.

Gardeners need not feel anxious at this point about their plans for this year, says Doolaege.

“Overall, we are still in the first week of May. The bedding plant season, as far as planting, won’t start until the end of the month. We just have to keep that in mind.

“People are probably thinking: ‘On my goodness, it’s later than usual.’ But we tend to go from winter almost into summer in Central Alberta. Even on Sunday, it got up to 15, 18 in some places. So it was quite balmy and I was out working in my yard.”

Regardless of the economic considerations, large numbers of Albertans view gardening as a way to bring new life to their lives after surviving yet another winter, says Doolaege.

“We like to nurture and we like to have success in our work. We love to see change and bulbs are a perfect example. You have to plant them in fall to reap the benefits in spring.”

Perennials, including shrubs, trees and bulbs give variety through the entire year.

“As gardeners, we really like to see that change. Every year, you have another opportunity to do something different and to reap the benefits.”

Olds College offers an annual seminar in the third week of July for anyone who wants to learn more about gardening and landscape design. Search www.oldscollege.ca for more information about Hort Week.

bkossowan@bprda.wpengine.com