Saturday, January 30, 2010

Coastal Growing Season

One important thing to learn when growing food, is the growing season for your area & what it means when choosing which variety of plant to grow. I find living right on the water's edge, our growing season is widely varied - depending on what the climate is doing in our region. Is it an El Nino year or La Nina?

According to the Canadian Zone Map, (found on the Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada web site) we are located in Zone 8a. HGtv's web site shows Canada's plant hardiness zones too & allows to you find your zone & provides lists of plants that should do well in your area.The average winter minimum temperatures range from -6 to -12 degrees Celcius & our growing season is about 7 months (0r 215 days!) The first frost free date is April 6th and the last frost free date is November 9th (again, on average). I tend to think that our frost free dates are much earlier...

I think that our area actually has a much longer growing season. But these dates above are a good way for us to 'guesstimate' when we can start growing seeds indoors. That all important 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost is often a tough date to figure out.When I look at those dates & when to start my seeds, I see that I'm not really all that far off! I just need to invest in some equipment (more indoor lights & some heat mats) to help me along during the gray & cool days of March & April when I do start my seeds.

I've just come across a note that says I can actually start up my lavender in February...I am tempted, but I think I would need to have a heat mat underneath the seedling tray in order for that to work properly. Maybe using the space above the fridge is a good way to compensate for not having a heat mat this year...

I've been keeping a garden journal - just started on my 3rd year - and have noticed that last year at this time, we were experiencing sub-zero temperatures & we had snow as late as April 1st! This year seems to be much, much warmer so I'm really hoping that it will be an early spring & I can have much better success with my indoor seeds than I did last year!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Is it too Early to Call this Spring?

I took my first garden walk of the year (as I've been away for a while) & it was a wonderful sunny day. Hope the sun comes back!! Here are some of the things I saw already sprouting in the gardens:





Spirea leaves


Winter garden carrots

Winter garden kale

Spring garden sorrel

Spring garden fennel

Front lawn greenery

While it's still too early to start up seeds in the house, I'm glad to see things popping up in the gardens. This winter is not a cold as it was last year - but there are still a few more months left to go...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

My Green Thumb - Tales of a West Coast Gardener - Winter 2010 Article

This article is now published in the Barkley Sound Community Journal - The West Island Quarterly.
As I’m sitting here writing this article in the middle of November, the sun is actually shining! It’s a day for wandering down to the beach with friends or even to spend a few moments in the gardens to see what is still in flower & what has survived the first batch of drowning rain storms.

I think I have the gardens ready for the winter. My new additions to the landscaping projects have been the introduction of 11 peonies! I remember my mom’s peony plant from many years ago & thought that they would be a wonderful addition to my rather eclectic garden style. While I had only actually planned out spots for 6, I did manage to find homes for the other 5. Cross your fingers that I planted them correctly! My last one went in only a few days ago & is named ‘Sea Shell’ - a surprise gift from my mom from a nursery in Ontario.

I have found one way to keep on top of all the things that we need to do in our gardens is to follow a seasonal check list. Until you become familiar with your own specific garden chores, one great place to find such a list is Canadian Gardening  (

My fall check-list chores included:
  • harvest ripened vegetables
  • divide over-grown perennials (daylilies, iris, lady's mantle, feverfew, helenium)
  • plant spring & summer-flowering perennials about 6 to 8 weeks before winter sets in (peonies, columbine)
  • plant spring bulbs such as daffodils & crocus
  • clean up yard - leaves & dead plant material make wonderful mulch or compost
  • turn off water taps & store hoses
  • find lost tools, clean, sharpen & store for next spring
  • dig up tender bulbs & plants & store in a cool, dry & dark place (tulips, begonias, gladiolas, geraniums)
Wow! That seems like quite a list, but on those lovely Autumn days where the sun was shining & the air was still warm, these chores go by quickly. Before you know it, you are receiving the first of the seed & plant/bulb catalogues in the mail!

Yes, my first one arrived in early November & I couldn’t help pouring over it for days on end, thinking of all the wonderful flowers & vegetable seeds I want to include in next year’s gardens! I received one from a different company than I usually get; it’s from Ontario & is called: Thompson & Morgan. I’ve never heard of them & while their selection is great & varied, I had already decided last spring that I was going to purchase my mail-order seeds from something a little more local & from plants acclimatized to the west coast growing conditions.

At West Coast Seeds they specialize in organic, open pollinated, heirloom and heritage seeds if you are interested in  organic growing. They are based out of the Vancouver area & I believe I just might have better success with their varieties than the ones I tried this past year that came from back east & as far away as Germany!  While I don’t want to put down the other catalogue, I find that purchasing seeds or plants on-line or even through garden centres, requires research & a good recommendation from someone who’s had success with the product. So—I will let you know next summer what happens with my next attempt at growing vegetables!

Winter is a time for reading gardening books & planning for spring. I’d rather skip the rain & gray skies all together!

Let’s just move into spring where February is one of my favourite months. Not only is it the shortest of the year, but we get awesome amounts of sunshine & it’s warm enough to get outside for the first hit of gardening fun! I will be found in my raspberry & loganberry patches, pruning out last year’s dead canes & trimming up this year’s canes. Transplanting is easy as the ground is still workable, if a bit chilly, but the muscles really appreciate the work-out after a few months of inactivity.

My early-spring garden checklist includes:
  •  houseplant maintenance - dust off in the shower & fertilize at 1/2 strength
  • start seeds for annuals, tomaotes & peppers (not too early like I did last year - wait until at least April 1st...)
  • yard clean-up of twigs & leaves (mulch)
  • start cool-weather crops: radish, peas, onions, lettuce, leeks
  • fertilize fruit shrubs & canes: blueberries, raspberries, loganberries & mulch with shredded newspaper
  • fertilize flowering shrubs: roses, rhododendrons, azaleas
  • start weeding out the gardens & flower beds of buttercup, dandelion & grass

This is just a short & quick list; I know of other things that I do in the garden in the spring (weeding out the dandelions from the yard, digging in compost gathered during the winter, sowing seeds of annual or biannual wildflowers). I also hit the garden centres for any left-over bulbs that should have been planted in the fall as they are usually greatly reduced in price & will typically give a good return of flowers the following year. And I also take lots of time to enjoy the crocus that are now appearing - yellow seems to be the first colour of spring & I'm glad I have some in my deck boxes!

If you have any questions or comments you’d like to share, email me. It’s great to see so many people in our community getting into the gardening spirit! Grow Bamfield, Grow!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Things to do in the January garden

'Those who dwell among the beauties
And the mysteries of the earth
Are never really alone
Or weary of life'
- Rachel Carson (1907-1964), American biologist and environmental activist, author of Silent Spring.
  • before purchasing seeds, take an inventory of seeds left from last year. Onion, leek, parsnip, corn, larkspur, geranium & salvia seeds are short-term keepers that should be kept for just one year - that is, for planting a second year only.
  • try something new this year. Scan seed racks & catalogue pages & select a flower or vegetable you've not grown before.
  • check the soil moisture (underneath house eaves) where there are plants growing & water as needed. Plants such as camellias, if allowed to dry at the roots, will dry or drop their flowerbuds.
  • if a snowfall occurs, knock accumulated snow from shrubs & hedges to avoid broken branches from the snow's weight. Leave snow on witner vegetable plots & perennials bed, for it offers the plants some insulation against the cold.
  • use pleasant January days to do outdoor repairs - on fences & gates or work on garden construction projects such as a cold frame or a trellis.
  • plan flower & vegetable plots as you organize seed purchases. Shift the different blocks of vegetables - the roots, the peas & beans, the cabbage family - away from their locations of last year. Change the annual flower plantings in each area from year to year as well.
  • gather & prepare supplies for indoor seeding.
  • start lettuce seeds indoors for plants to set out in frames or under plastice tunneling next month.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Year-End Reivew of Seeds: The Herbs

I'm starting to develop my love affair with herbs. Not just your typical, ordinary herbs. I don't even keep dried herbs in my kitchen anymore, unless they have come out of my garden. Each year a 'new' herb comes to my attention that must somehow find a home in my herb garden or in a deck pot or in some nook or cranny in a flower bed.

This year my herbs were subjected to the same treatment that my vegetables were. They were started indoors much too early & many didn't survive being thrust outdoors in April & had to be reseeded. I also had quite a collection of 'older' seeds that underwent the test of germination too.

So, I had packages of sage, summer savory, parsley & thyme that were ooold - have no idea, but none of them germinated. I also had seeds from 2008: sweet basil, fernleaf dill, curly parsley and borage. My 2009 herb purchases were: orange thyme, marjoram, chamomile, rosemary, lavender, sorrel, anise, oregano, Santo corriander, Delfino cilantro and nasturtiums.

Why start herbs from seeds? Well, transporting flats of seedlings to Bamfield can be a heart-breaking adventure. We have to somehow pack them into over-stuffed vehicles so that they don't bounce around too much while on the almost 2 hour journey down a dusty, bumpy logging road. Then if you happen to live on the other side of the harbour, they must be brought down to the boat in all kinds of weather conditions - mostly wind during the spring - and boated across, transported up to the house & then quickly revived with a bit of water & a shady spot.

Honestly, growing herbs from seed is so much easier! We just have to lug a few bags of sterile soil...

Well, I did buy some seedlings this year - 6 stevia plants & 6 french tarragon plants. I've not much experience with tarragon, but wanted to add it to my collection & currently have a few jars of tarragon vinegar, as well as a bottle of cherished tarragon oil. I hope the tarragon will come back next year, but I did leave it out of the greenhouse for the winter since I didn't have a cold frame built in time... The stevia is an ambitious bit of exploration into alternatives to sugar. I've tried liquid stevia & found it tasted too 'fake' so thought that growing my own, drying & grinding it up, might get me appreciating the flavour a bit more. I have a large jar dried in my cupboard, but was hoping to see the plants flower before the frosts hit. No such luck & I'm not sure they will survive this winter. I should have taken cuttings!!

I will say that I had much better success with my herbs than I did with any other seeds. I had chamomile coming out my ears & was constantly pruning it back only to be rewarded with more blooms. The parsley is still going strong in my deck pots & in the fall it was lush & I kept finding hidden pockets of the herb where I guess I had tucked it away because I had so many seedlings. The orange thyme did much better than the regular thyme & is interesting in that it's a much more compact little plant. I didn't harvest much of it this year as I wanted it to become more established for harvesting or cuttings next year.

Some of the less hardy herbs didn't fair so well & that might be because of the live-or-die attitude I have with regards to watering & fertilizing. Also the herb bed was the last one built & didn't receive as much care & attention to removing small rocks or adding compost or peat. Now, I tend to think that most herbs we grow are originally from Mediterranian climates & don't require much water or fertilizer or even that great a soil - for the most part, that's right. But the dill, anise & marjoram really did need a bit more attention than I gave them. We'll try them again next year.

I had borage in large deck pots & they just loved it! I thought the constant breezes would keep them stunted & the rich soil wouldn't allow them to grow too tall (weak stems due to too much nutrients), but they grew into monsters & even after being pruned heavily towards the end of August, they gave me a second bloom & lots of seeds - well, the ones I could catch. I have the feeling I'll never need to sow another borage seed again as they were literally flying off the deck in all directions by the end of September!

I do like the sorrel plant - takes a bit of getting used to, but I found a sorrel pesto recipe that just puts a fresh twist on salmon dishes! I will have to divide the plants up in the spring & spread them out, but I think I got at least 3 big harvests off the plants - I cut them right back to the ground & they came back strong!

But this was not a good year for nasturtiums - at least not for me. They took forever to get going & then were lovely for about a week before being hit by some rain. They went to seed very quickly & never seemed to recover from pruning. But there's nothing like that sharp bite of fresh nasturtium flowers or leaves in a salad!

I found out that I just do not like oregano - at all! Well, at least the fresh herb. Marjoram & summer savory are much nicer & I'll keep seeding the annual marjoram. But fresh oregano... just too sharp! Unfortunately, it's one of the successful herbs... Maybe I should just deligate it to a hanging basket & not worry about harvesting it!

A word about growing lavender & rosemary from seeds. It takes a great deal of patience. I LOVE lavender - I will grow some from seed every year because I harvest the blossoms for use in soaps, vinegars, rubs for meat & in salt. My rosemary seeds took almost 6 weeks to sprout - but I wasn't having much luck getting cuttings to root up & last winter, almost everyone in Bamfield lost their rosemary plants due to a very hard freeze over the holidays. My main plant survived, but it was too small to harvest too much off of this year. I've now got my seedlings in the back part of my laundry room under a grow light.

Well, considering I have been gone for a month this winter season these lavender seedlings don't look too bad. I decided not to have someone come in & water them, as they were really wet when I brought them into the house a month ago. I did decide to install the grow lights though as I thought it would keep them moderately alive. I think I've got the timer set for only 3 hours.

But my poor rosemary seedlings really didn't survive. I am going to pull them out, water them & see if I can at least have one or 2 survive the rest of the winter indoors. I quickly checked the ones I planted outside in the fall & it looks like they are doing well - but we are a few months away from proper spring weather...

The seedlings in the back are my geranium cuttings that I'm experimenting with. They seem to have done very well with the time away - the soil was super-dry so I have them a good soaking - from below. The pots in the foreground were just some leaves from my scented geraniums that I stuck into the soil just before we left. I didn't think they would survive, so I'm surprized. The main plants (not shown just yet) have growth again - very pale leaves due to lack of sun light. I might haul them up to the main part of the house the first week in February & start watering them again...

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Year-End Review of Seeds: the Vegetable Disaster

This is the first year that I've kept 'accurate' records of my seeds so I thought it was about time I went back over my notes to see what the end result was this year. In one word: disaster!

I recall starting my 2009 gardening season in February when I dug up, divided & transplanted my raspberry canes. The original patch was getting crowded & this year I was starting my gardens-proper in a new location. So, when the sun started to shine in that crazy winter month, I was out there having fun! That led to my desire to continue gardening indoors. I actually stated my seeds on March 8th... yes, that early. I tried to rein myself in by planting only once a week, but by the end of the month I had about 12 trays of seeds/seedlings in my front room.

It was a daily chore to mist, cover, uncover, rotate, check for germination, raise the shades or lower the shades, clean up the dirt... Was a circus!

Let's start with my veggies...

I inheritated a rather large collection of older seeds from a couple of people & thought this would be a good time to seed if they were still viable. I had green & yellow peppers, a spinach & salad mix, peas, green & yellow bush beans from 2007 or earlier. Then from 2008 there were packages of green bush beans, grape tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, peas, and soybeans. My 2009 veggie purchases included bush cucumbers, shallots, radishes, yellow zuchinni, corn, carrots, asparagus, kale & beets.

Did I even have enough room for a few of each?! Not really, but I knew some would not germinate. The older seeds I should not have even bothered with - if there was some that germinated, they didn't survive the outplanting stage & if they survived that, they were not healthy & just took up space in the bed that could have had been used more wisely.

I managed a very nice crop of baby carrots & beets - which were all pickled as I was too busy working away from home & knew that they would not be eaten before they went off. I did try a second seeding of them in August, in the hopes of having more for a fall harvest, but that didn't work out very well. There are a few remaining in the garden & I should actually get out there to pick them now that we've had a good hard frost.

The peas were demolished by the deer. Just as they were finally gaining some growth, producing flowers & pods, she came along & munched them all down to about 4 inches tall. What a disappointment! But this is the 2nd year of the deer - we've not seen them in Bamfield for many, many years & I think as wild gardeners, we've forgotten the tricks that are required to keep them away without fencing ourselves into our gardens. The peas continued to struggle for the rest of the season, but surprise-surprise, I did have a late harvest!

The kale grew strong very quickly. I was eating it by late June & was wondering how large these plants were going to get over the rest of the season. I did a large harvest in July - over half of each plant & ice-cube sized frozen kale are waiting for winter soups & stews.

I'm in love with spring radishes! I planted the seeds in early April & when it came time to thin them, I carefully pushed those extra seedlings into new rows between the original rows. I managed to extend the harvest that way. The variety I chose for my first radish attempt was an Easter Egg variety. Not hot or woody & wonderful colours - red, white & deep purple. So much fun for the spring salad!

The shallots were seeded directly into the beds & it took them a long time to grow. I still haven't really done anything with them - they are in the ground & I'm afraid with all the rain & now frost, they are mushy reminders that I really need to have a better harvest plan.

Amazingly, I grew corn - well, corn stalks. They were probably too crowded to get properly pollinated, but I am very happy with the results of my first attempt at corn. I learned a lot this year & will try them again next year - but will try starting them indoors a bit earlier instead of waiting til the end of May for direct seeding in the ground. My neighbour did seedlings & she was eating her corn in mid-August instead of mid-September which was when I harvested mine.

The asparagus did not get planted this year. I know I'm doing things the hard way - but for me, a large part of gardening is the challenge instead of the convenience. I've got the seeds & know they MUST be planted this year if I want to get this project started. It will be 3 years before I'm harvesting my own asparagus, so this is now on the top of my priority list!

Yellow zuchinni did better in the ground than it did in pots. One of my gardening books said that zuchinni will grow up a tomato cage, thus saving on room & damage to the bush & fruit. It sort of worked & will be tried again next year.

I believe a large part of my failure with vegetables this year was that I started the seeds indoors much too early. Also, the vegetable gardens were brand new & I didn't have the opportunity to amend the soil as much as it needs. There are lots of small rocks in the soil & I will have to sift them out this spring. But I do have a crop rotation plan lined up & hopefully in the next 2 years or so, I will have much better success with healthy plants grown from local (west coast) seeds.