July 1st, 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 26
A CBC garden guru’s six tips to getting the most from a short growing season
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Once you’ve been gardening for a long time, especially in a very short growing season, it becomes inevitable that we start looking for ways to lengthen our growing period or at least try and get more out of it! There are some ways that are fairly obvious, and some ways that are not. For example, having a greenhouse built and starting seedlings indoors is a pretty basic way of extending your growing season. An early start inside can make the difference between having a prize winning pumpkin and not having any pumpkins at all. However, since there is plenty of information on the internet regarding greenhouses, we’re not going to make that the focus of today’s presentation. As a long time gardener who lives in Alberta, I have come up with five basic rules (suggestions) for making the season here a little bit more manageable.
1. Cold Frames- Not everyone has the space or the income to have their own greenhouse, but most people can have a cold frame. These need not be complicated things. My first cold frame, when I lived on my own, was composed of three straw bales and an old storm window that I bought at an auction sale for just a few dollars. Cold frames are shallow, usually rectangular boxes with no bottom and they should slope south to better capture the warming rays of the sun. The sides can be wood or straw bales or recycled material of some kind- people have used tires, scrap metal, etc. Then you need a lid that can be made of glass or plastic or any other solid, clear material that can be propped up. The cold frame is open during the day when temperatures are above freezing, and closed at night and the plants are nice and cozy within. Plants that like cooler temperatures- such as anything in the cabbage family- flourish in cold frames, and they can be producing up to a month earlier than plants put directly into the garden. Some people even use their cold frames as “hot houses” in the summer- for growing melons, peppers, eggplants and other heat lovers. This is a great way of extending your season into the fall. It should be noted that cold frames are not low maintenance. You (or someone) needs to be around to keep an eye on the temperatures. If the cold frame is left open and it gets too cold, the plants could freeze. If it gets left unopened in the summer, your plants could barbeque. I recommend putting a cold frame somewhere in the yard where it is easy to monitor and easy to access; up against the house often works very well. If you are inclined to be high tech and sophisticated, you can get very complex devices that measure temperature and open and shut the cold frame automatically.
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2. Frost Mapping- This is something that can take a bit of time, especially if you’ve just moved into a new place and haven’t had lots of time to figure out “the lay of the land” just yet. Every garden has a microclimate somewhere. Perhaps you have a corner of the garden where a big rock traps heat and the annuals you plant there are always the last to freeze. Maybe you have a section that is very quick to thaw out in the spring and that’s where you have tulips blooming 10 days before they bloom anywhere else in the yard. Keep a close eye on pockets and sections of the yard and keep a journal where you record these things. If you have a section where the heat always lingers, maybe that’s where you grow your squash; thus giving them an extra two weeks of growing time. Or maybe you have the opposite- a low lying, wet spot that is always the first place in the garden to be hit by frost. Maybe avoid growing the tomatoes in that location. Frost mapping takes time, but it can be very useful when plotting out a garden especially for vegetables.
3. Raised Beds- More and more gardeners are creating raised beds, not just for vegetables but also for flowers. They warm up much faster, making weeding easier, and often make the garden more accessible, particularly to those with disabilities. Since raised beds warm up much faster than the ground in the garden does, including these in your design right from the outset can be a very good idea.
4. Plant Often- I tell people to plant as soon as the ground can be worked. If you can dig, you can plant! Plant as early as you possibly can! I have planted potatoes in the middle of April. Some years I have been unable to do it until May. Sometimes it gets cold and wet after an early planting, and the seed or the tubers rot and I have to start again. Usually though, what it means is that I am harvesting several weeks before anyone else. I have gained far more from early planting than I have ever lost! I seed lettuces, spinach, radishes, etc. as early as I can and often at two week intervals. You don’t want everything ready to eat all at once; you want to string it out a bit. (What would you do with two rows of lettuce and all of it comes together at one time?) If you seed successive sowings, and only plant what you can handle at any one time, things will go better for you. I seed cool season plants as early as I can, and often again in late August or early September. I plant heat lovers indoors and try to extend their season that way. If you seed peas and beans and they don’t germinate or the pests eat them, try again! Even if they DO grow just fine, once the first row is two weeks old I will often seed another row. I often seed things several times throughout a season, and thus have both a prolonged harvest and a greater probability of success.
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Often people will say “I planted cucumbers and they died.” Meanwhile, I will have sown them several times and the probability that I will be successful at least once is very good- usually I am successful more often than not. Thus I have a continuing supply of goods from the garden, and not a produce explosion all at once.
5. Early and Late Bloomers- When we speak of extending the season, all too often the focus is entirely on vegetables. We also need to consider having things in bloom from April to October! Yes, this is entirely doable in our part of the world! When winter ends, Canadian gardeners are desperate for color, so we go to the garden center in May and June and buy anything that happens to be in bloom. This means that a lot of us have phlox, irises, peonies, and roses and then July comes and the party is over.
It is important that we plant things that bloom as EARLY as possible, and things that bloom as LATE as possible. Make a careful inventory of your garden and determine when you have “gaps”. The garden is at its most colorful when? When is it lacking color the most severely? Make a list of what you have in your garden and chart it as to what blooms when. How many April and May bloomers do you have? Is it 10 % of your garden? Is it 35% of your garden? If 80% of your flowers bloom in June, you will have a problem. Be meticulous about including as many seasons of bloom as possible. You should have things in your garden that bloom from thaw to freeze up. Most of us fail in this regard, but it’s an easy thing to remedy!
6. Native Plants- What could possibly be better suited to your climate than the plants and flowers that evolved to handle those conditions? We don’t use nearly enough indigenous plants in our designs! They are beautiful over a long season, rarely troubled by pests or disease, and are often excellent ways to assist local pollinators. Digging native plants from the wild is unacceptable for a variety of reasons, but it’s okay to gather some seeds or take cuttings. There are also some really excellent local sources for native plants, including Bow Point Nursery in Springbank and Wild About Flowers in Okotoks. (
July 1st ~ Vol. 85 No. 26
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