It begins: First seeds

Finally!  Even though there’s still 6 inches of snow covering everything, I’m planting!

My firsts under the lights include the cold hardy salads, mustards, and brassicas.  They germinated in the dark and after a week they’re a bit leggy.  Hopefully putting them under lights will remedy that.

I started Champion collards, Kolibri kohlrabi, and some rutabagas to finish off the tray.  For lettuce, I put a bunch of seed in rows in a tin tray for potting out later on.  I’ve got Buttercrunch, Fortress, Leaf (saved), Oak Leaf, Red Deer Tongue, Red Leaf (saved), and Romaine, on the go.  And then my other greens are Mizuna, Mustard, Pak Choi, and Tatsoi. Still working on the right time of year to grow these without the flea beetles or the cabbage moths getting them.

This weekend, I made some more of my “new recipe” potting soil (50% peat + 50% vermicompost) and seeded alliums, peas, spinach, and herbs.  I’m not too sure what I’m doing with some of these herbs, but I’ll start now so there’s time for corrections and replantings!

I’m trying some new varieties of onions:  Gabriella, and Bandit leeks (in addition to Lancelot and Tadorna leeks).  The herbs I started are Bloody Dock, curled Chervil, cilantro, Good King Henry, Italian dark parsley, and sorrel.  Wish me luck.

The peas are all snap peas (my favourite!). Perhaps this year I’ll grow enough to make it into the kitchen?  Snap (saved seed), Sugar Ann, and Sugar Snap are the varieties.  And last is my dear spinach. This year I’ve add a new variety called Corvair, also sown are Bloomsdale, Space, and the most delicious Viroflay.

And for perspective, here’s a shot of my winter sowing container outside, clearly not being pampered in any way.  I wonder when the snow will all be melted this year….

Winter sown seeds wishing they were under lights instead of under snow.



Chores while waiting for Spring

We’re a week out from starting seedlings indoors here.  It’s currently minus 26 Celsius and our area is under an extreme cold warning.  Happy March.

But, there’s stuff to do inside (thankfully).  I did venture outside to retrieve the frozen block of peat moss.  It’s inside thawing out so I can use it to make potting mix next weekend.  What a farce trying to wrangle that thing in over the snow with my not so robust upper body strength.  One advantage of have us as neighbours is there’s always something to laugh about!

Peat moss thawing by the back door. It’s heavy and frozen!

The peat moss is thawing so I can mix it with the vermicompost.  I currently have 20 gallons of double harvested vermicompost ready to use in the mix.

Next weekend will be the first harvest of the year from the existing worm bins.  My current method is to harvest the bins after 3 months, whatever the condition of the bin. The contents are mostly broken down but could usually do with some more processing.  I still harvest because the broken down material is not great for the worms. They will produce better with fresh bedding and food.  The harvested compost goes into 4 gallon pails and the worm bin is refilled with new bedding, a good amount of food, and 1 lb of wormies.  The harvested compost then sits in the pails and matures.  This time period allows any juvenile worms or worm eggs that were harvested with the compost to hatch and grow, and for the compost to further break down.  Every week when I go to feed the bins, I scrape off the top 1 inch or 2 of the compost from these pails and put that into a “finished” pail. This is what I consider the second harvest. The baby worms keep going deeper into the first pail away from the light and dried out surface area.  By the time I get to the bottom of the pail, the initial compost has mellowed into some fine material, and I can add these worms to my outside composters, or sell the excess herd.

Second harvest of vermicompost in 4 gallon pail.  It smells like a forest floor.

The last gardening chore today is harvesting my indoor salads.  This is the fourth harvest and the plants are not producing as much, but I’m still getting a decent bowl full of greens.  Next week will be the last harvest since I will need the space under the lights for my seedlings.

Indoor greens ready for harvest on March 2nd.

Spring is coming!

Winter snowing = Winter sowing

Snowing again this morning.  *sigh*

Gardeners from the Southern hemisphere are posting harvest photos and gardeners in higher zoned areas on this side of the equator are posting seedlings and planting photos.

I got this …

Snowy Saturday
Snowy Saturday

I succumbed to the temptation of planting something and did up a container of winter sown flowers.  Winter sowing is basically planting seeds that benefit from cold stratification, plunked out in the cold in a container that acts as a mini-greenhouse.  When the seeds decide it’s the right time to sprout, they grow into hardy seedlings ready to be planted into their spot in the garden not needing hardening off and able to tolerate cold better than their pampered cousins indoors.

I tried winter sowing for the first time last year.  It wasn’t very successful but I did get some plants out of the effort.  Learned a few things too so I’ll try again.  This year, I am using a plastic clam shell container that once held butter croissants (yum).

Repurposed container

I cut some drainage holes in the bottom of the container (lesson learned from last year) using a sharp craft knife.

Remember drainage holes!

Using my standard half potting soil and half vermicompost mix I filled the bottom of the container up.  (Yes, I should be using half peat and half vermicompost, but the peat is under 6 inches of snow and the potting soil is right here in the basement.  :-S )  The mix is about 2 inches deep.

Adding potting mix.

And then the fun part, choosing seeds!  I still have to wait to sow my cold hardy vegetables yet (12 weeks away from first frost-free day) so I chose some annual and perennial flowers.  If all goes awry, I won’t be too devastated.

Shoebox o’ flower seeds.

Using my trusty chopstick (a million and one uses in the garden!) I made a shallow furrow and seeded in my flowers (alyssum, prairie coneflower, cosmos, lupins, snap dragons, and sweet peas) covering up lightly with existing soil.

Seeding teeny alyssum seed.

Then I labeled everything up.  There is no way I trust my memory on this.

Labeled seeds.  Perennials get a white label.

And then into the harsh outdoors with them.

Outside in the cold waiting for spring.

This process is a little closer to what the seeds would experience without human intervention — mainly the freeze thaw cycle, but with a little added push from the gardener in that the seeds will sprout sooner due to the additional heat/protection from the container.

Do you winter sow?  If so, what do you put outside and when?

Back indoors for coffee and a cookie 🙂

Words to ponder.

I can’t stop thinking about this from Masanobu Fukuoka’s book The One-Straw Revolution.

“If we do have a food crisis it will not be caused by the insufficiency of nature’s productive power, but by the extravagance of human desire.”

Masanobu Fukuoka “The One-Straw Revolution.”

Winter salads, 3rd harvest

Having fresh leaves to eat in winter is a luxury in zone 4.  This winter I tried growing salads under my seed starting lights partly out of curiosity and partly out of desperation.

Indoor lettuce.
Indoor lettuce. Third harvest on the front left, to be harvested on the right.

This weekend is my third harvest of greens for cooking (pak choi and spinach) and for eating raw in a fresh salad (lettuce, spinach, mizuna, and orach).  I have been really impressed with the output of food for such little effort on my part.  I get a fair sized bowl of cooking greens and salad greens each week.  This is from 20 plants tucked on a shelf in the basement!

Each plant has its own 3″ pot and was potted from two seedlings.  The seedlings were then thinned to the strongest plant after a week in their new pot.  Upkeep has been wonderfully low maintenance.  I usually water the pots twice a week (Wednesday and Saturday) but this week I forgot the Wednesday watering and after a week, they’re still looking strong albeit a bit wilted.  They’ll perk up tomorrow after I watered them today, then I’ll snip off the largest outer leaves, leaving the growing center for another harvest in a week.

Post harvest — large outer leaves snipped off, the growing centre still producing.

I have used 1/2 vermicompost, 1/2 potting soil as the growing medium and do not add any fertilizer.  I’m noticing some nitrogen deficiency on some of the salad leaves this week, especially the spinach so I will top off the pots with some more vermicompost.

This gardening activity has brought me some green joy during this winter, and also some yummy lunches!

Hope you’re enjoying the bleak midwinter.  Remember, spring is coming!!

New seeds.

Have your seeds come in yet? What are you trying out this year?

Mine came in last week. Now I can sort my seeds instead of glowering at the grey coldness outside.

Along with new varieties of old favourites I’m trying out these new to me plants.

New plant seeds for 2019.

It turns out most of what I ordered are edible greens which makes sense as I have been craving fresh salads from December ’til present!

I want to grow Bloody dock as a pretty, edible perennial. My spinach bolts quite early here so I’m always looking for a plant to supplement my salads in the hot summer months.

Chervil has appeared in quite a few books for cool season gardens. I’m looking forward to trying this french parsley in omellettes and salads.

I enjoy cilantro, and because parsley does well in my garden, I’m going to see how cilantro does. So tasty in salsa and makes a nice garnish.

Good King Henry sounds like the start to a nursery rhyme, but I chose to try it this year, like Bloody dock, as a spring green perennial. Apparently it is common in Europe and is used in spring salads with dandelion, sorrel, and nettles.

Sepp Holzer advocates a brew of Stinging nettles as a fertilizer and insect repellent. It can also be used as a medicinal herb, and a cooked green. I’m going to try it out in my back alley hugelculture bed primarily as a compost accelerator and garden mulch.

And since one cannot live on greens alone, I got sucked in by the delightful description and pictures of alpine strawberries. Sweet, tangy berries … on compact, runnerless plants… If I can get them to grow I have great plans to add them into salads, or make a vinaigrette with them.

Oh, Spring, hurry up please!

Winter salads.

Who else craves a fresh salad in winter?  One of these days I’ll get a beautiful greenhouse or hoophouse or cold frame and have the space, knowledge, and capacity to grow winter greens! But in the meantime, here we are.  What’s a zone 4 gardener to do to get luscious leaves in winter?  Well, I do have some grow lights and a bunch of empty pots in the basement so let’s get growing greenery.

Mizuna and orach growing in 3.5″ containers.

Rifling through my seed packets, I selected a bunch of fast growing greens and seeded them in rows in a leftover tin package.  (It’s now doubling as a tray for the plants above.)  The tray  went on top of the water heater for germination with a cover of saran wrap to keep in the moisture.

Even though I used older seeds, there was good germination so the strongest 6 seedlings of each type were potted up into 3.5 inch containers.

Pak choi ready for harvesting.

And then I waited. The grow lights were on a timer, for 14 hours a day.  I watered twice a week (Wednesday and Saturday) and was delighted to have to keep raising the grow lights to accommodate the growing plants.

After 5 weeks, the plants were large enough (and I was hungry enough!) that I picked off the outer leaves and had a salad!!  The plants still had enough leaves and roots to grow a second crop so back under the lights they went.

Pak choi (and one spinach) after harvesting.

To be honest, it was not much of a salad and had to be supplemented with some store bought romaine lettuce.  It wasn’t as tasty as I had imagined, and I still miss my garden greens.  However! it was a fun winter diversion and whetted my appetite for a greenhouse or hoophouse or cold frame.  How are you coping with the winter gardening blues?

Six week salad.

Seed starting mix results

Context:  Observations from my manure bioassay led me to question the efficacy of my usual seed starting mix.

3 wk germ test
6 cells of each medium.  Results after 3 weeks.

Setup: Basically I grew lettuce and peas in different media to see which worked best.  The media were:  100% peat moss, 100% purchased potting mix, 100% vermicompost, 50% peat 50% vermicompost, and 50% potting mix 50% vermicompost (my usual mix). Full description here.

Materials used:  Peat moss, Miracle Gro potting mix, vermicompost, lettuce and pea seeds.

I wanted to test the materials that I usually use and have on hand.  It has been documented that using only 10% vermicompost is plently for most plants.  My percentages are much higher because for me, vermicompost is a free material that I make — I try to be as sustainable as I can so if I don’t have to buy stuff for the garden, great.  My bias would be to use 100% vermicompost.  Using higher percentages of vermicompost does not hurt plants or seedlings but does not seem to increase yield either. Others advocate using 100% vermicompost to produce the best seedlings.  I’ve had trouble using 100% vermicompost so I usually mix it with another material.  I also realize that some people are reluctant to use peat materials. I rely on Sara Williams‘ judgement.  Canadian peat moss is a sustainable industry.  It constitutes 25% of the world’s peat lands; peat regrows after 20 years; only 0.03% of Canadian peat is harvested each year; the amount of peat moss harvested from Canadian peatlands every year is nearly 60 times less than the total annual accumulation of new peat moss.  (source: The Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association) For me, peat is more economical and uses less fossil fuel for harvest, manufacture, and transportation than the oft mentioned alternative: coir.  We’re far away from tropical beaches where the coconuts grow.

Results:  Only one cell didn’t germinate:  one pea plant in 100% peat moss.   Other observations:  lettuce grew better with peat moss (both 100% peat and the 50/50 vermicompost mix); peas grew better in 100% potting soil.   Lettuce did NOT like the potting soil or the vermicompost.

100 peat
100% peat moss.
100 potting
100% consumer potting mix
100 vermi
100% vermicompost
50 peat 50 vermi
50% peat moss, 50% vermicompost
50 potting 50 vermi
50% potting soil, 50% vermicompost (my usual mix)

Looking at overall germination and robustness of seedlings, it appears that 50% peat moss and 50% vermicompost is the winning combination in this limited test.  I will use this combination as my seedling mix this coming gardening season.  Caveat:  this is hardly a scientific experiment and definitely not definitive.  It was interesting, and for me, something new to try.  I hope you all try out some citizen science to see what works for you with your setup and resources.



Seed starting mix experiment.

One inadvertent result of my manure bioassay was noticing that germination was quite poor in the control medium. I usually start my seeds in a 50/50 mix of purchased potting mix and vermicompost. This mix is what I compared the manure to. Lo and behold, the seeds germinated better in the manure. Hmmmm. 🤔

After observing the difference in germination between the garden manure and my standard mix, I thought I had better test some different combinations. I may need a different seed starter!

Testing setup

My control medium is 100% peat moss. I chose it because it is sterile, has no nutritional benefits, and is considered soiless (plus I had some!) The testing media are 100% potting mix, 100% vermicompost, 50/50 peat and vermicompost, and 50/50 potting soil and vermicompost (my usual mix).

Mom gave me a multi seedling container while she was cleaning out. Little did she (or I) know it is ideal for this test! I chose to try lettuce and peas for germination since they both had similar germinating times and temperature (plus I had some!)

Germination tray and setup.

Each mix got 6 cells of the tray * 5 mixes = 30 cells total. For each mix 3 cells were planted with lettuce (2 seeds) and 3 cells were planted with snap peas (1 seed). All lettuce was covered with vermiculite. All peas were planted 1 inch deep. They were watered in, the cover attached, and then popped under the grow lights (mainly for warmth).

I will provide an update after a week. I’m curious to know with what seedling mix you’ve found most success.

Manure bioassay results.

My 2018 potatoes were slow to emerge and grew with stunted, curled foliage.  They were planted in purchased manure so I suspected aminopyralid contamination.

Certain herbicides can linger even after passing through the digestive tracts of ruminants and can affect sensitive plants like tomatoes.  Time and the biological actions of soil inhabitants will eventually dissipate the harmful effects of these herbicides, but meanwhile I have to plan my garden for 2019.

To assess what will grow in the beds where I spread the manure I conducted a bioassay for seedling germination and leaf curl.  I did not test any sensitive plants like tomatoes since I will be growing those elsewhere.  I tested the seeds of plants that I wanted to grow in these beds.

After 3 weeks under indoor lights, I recorded the final results of how many seeds germinated in the manure versus the control (potting soil and vermicompost) and compared the seedlings for any signs of leaf curl or stunting.

Comparing seedlings.

Long story slightly shorter, I plan to go ahead and plant brassicas, beets, and carrots in the beds since they did not seem to suffer any ill effects.  Whether that carries through to harvest will remain to be seen.  Squash will also be planted out in these beds since they loved the manure last year and I suspect will do fine once again this year.  My potatoes will be planted in buckets and will hopefully produce a decent yield next year.  The other change will be to be much more careful with any products I bring in to supplement the garden soil.  I will be paying more attention to producing my own compost next year too.

Happy garden planning to you.