Cool spring latest factor to have our gardens a bit under the weather

Opinion: It may be the May long weekend gardening season kickoff, but we need to reassess when to set out our cool- and heat-loving plants

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The Canadian Garden Council has declared 2022 as The Year of the Garden. Ironically, so far it’s been one of the most challenging years for our gardens. Extreme heat, destructive rainfalls, a winter that has heavily damaged or destroyed many plants and a chillier-than-normal spring have all taken a toll.  

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Right across our country, the May long weekend is considered the kickoff for the main gardening season, but with so many weather uncertainties I think we all need to reassess when to set out our cool- and heat-loving plants. Even cold crops are being pushed back because of the excessive wet conditions and significantly cooler night temperatures. Long-established dates on our gardening calendars are no longer relevant. Weather now determines when, what and how we plant.

Today’s successful gardens are the ones that are the most versatile. Traditions need to be replaced with practicality, innovation and strategic thinking. We may even need to consider moving the location of both our gardens and our plants. Exposure to as much sun as possible, especially from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., is now more important than ever. 

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Cold, prevailing winds can result in more than a few degrees of cooler temperatures. Putting up wind-barrier fencing is an excellent way to create warmer soil. It can also provide climbing opportunities for vines like peas, beans, cucumbers and squash.

The use of protective coverings, like cold frames, cloches and tomato bags can also make an enormous difference in how soon plants can safely go out.

Raised beds can warm soil temperatures by eight to 10 degrees Celsius. Even berming up the planting beds in larger gardens will make a significant temperature difference. Our neighbours plant their garlic in raised, two-foot soil berms. Not only does the garlic sprout earlier, but it can also be harvested much sooner.

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This rainy, chillier-than-normal spring has challenged our traditional planting season.
This rainy, chillier-than-normal spring has challenged our traditional planting season. Photo by Minter Country Garden

There are steps we can take to deal with inevitably warmer summers. Heavy soils can be made more porous with the addition of fir or hemlock sawdust or fine bark mulch, and then further enhanced with quality compost and manures. These organic additions will allow our soils to retain more moisture, thus helping our plants get through heat waves. They will also help in the process of creating a no-till garden.

One of the most important issues when setting out transplants is ensuring that the plants are properly acclimatized before going into our gardens. Whether you are starting your own seedlings or purchasing them from a garden store, they need at least a week to “harden off” before they are set out in the garden. As part of their production process, many commercial growers set their plants in a cool, unheated greenhouse for a few weeks before selling them, so these plants are usually well acclimatized. If, however, you grow your own starter plants indoors, they need to be set outside in a protected location, out of the wind and sun, for a good week. This will ensure they are well adjusted to outside temperatures and weather conditions.

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Even with all these precautions, early in the season we can sometimes get a sunny day with clear night skies — ideal conditions for a light frost. In this situation, using a floating row cover, like Remay cloth, is one of the quickest, easiest ways to prevent damage to your plants. The cloth can lay right on top of your crops, with the edges secured by soil, stones or wire pins.

For many gardeners, especially novice gardeners, timing tends to be one of their biggest concerns. They worry about being too late to plant their favourite vegetables, but that is rarely the case.  Canada has many good seed companies with great catalogues that will tell you how many days it takes for a seedling, once it has sprouted, to mature.  For example, most bush beans mature in 55 to 60 days; broccoli in 50 to 70 days; lettuce in 45 days; tomatoes in 65 to 80 days; peppers in 70 to 80 days; and cucumbers in 55 to 65 days.

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Don’t panic. Each day we get more and more light until the summer solstice in June, and then we still have long days well into September. The sun is also more intense during this time, and we get more heat units in June, July and August. I have a friend in the Yukon who grows a remarkable garden simply because of the long days that region enjoys.

Using teepee tripods for growing vines adds height and interest to a food garden.
Using teepee tripods for growing vines adds height and interest to a food garden. Photo by Minter Country Garden

There’s one area I think we can all improve in our food gardens and that is the overall appearance. We tend to treat these areas as utilitarian spaces that don’t involve much imagination. With a little creativity, we can make them look far more attractive and even more productive. One of the easiest, best and most fun ways to achieve this is to create vertical lift. Using pergolas, arbours, trellises and tripod supports for some good height will elevate the look and feel of your veggie garden. Don’t be shy about creating height. With a teepee tripod made of 12-foot bamboo stakes, we grew more pole beans than we could use.  

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Scattering tall sunflowers throughout your garden is a nice touch, too. Being creative with curved pathways and beds and by adding garden follies, your garden will become a most welcoming place to be well into fall and winter.

This is just the beginning of our gardening season. We have four months to plant, grow and enjoy some amazing flowers and foods. This year, because of our cool night temperatures, timing is everything. Plant when the weather is right for each type of vegetable or annual. Most of all, relax: Enjoy the growing experience, learn lots and have some fun.

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