Toronto Star column – published March 15, 2014
What to Grow
“Shipping is a terrible thing to do to vegetables. They probably get jet-lagged, just like people.” ~Elizabeth Berry
It may seem early for me to say this, but now is the time for gardeners to think about what they are going to grow in their garden this season. “But there are more than 10 weeks to the last frost date!” I hear you exclaim. Yup, and less than 4 weeks before you can sow your first pea seed.
Meantime, there is a lot of work to do.
Canadian gardening catalogues offer an extraordinary selection of vegetable, herb and flower seeds, and virtually all of them are available to the early bird. Wait much longer to order yours and you just might be out of luck. There is an extensive list of free catalogues on my website www.markcullen.com. Many of them are offered online.
Here is my garden primer of ‘what to look for’ when ordering seeds or buying off the seed racks at your favourite garden retailer:
- Tomatoes. One of the easiest plants to start indoors from seed. You won’t actually sow the seeds until early April [6 weeks before planting] but you will want to have the seeds on hand before then, to ensure that you have your first choice in varieties.
When I ‘shop’ for tomato seeds the first thing I look for is ‘blight resistance’. This is ‘public enemy #1’ to tomatoes. It is an air-borne disease that attacks the plant from the ground up. It appears from mid August through the early fall, at first yellowing the lower leaves and eventually enveloping the entire plant. Don’t underestimate the value of blight resistance in a tomato plant. This can make the difference between a great crop and a disaster.
I grow over 200 tomato plants and average about 20 different varieties. I try new ones and repeat many of my favourites each season, which increasingly include these blight resistant ones: ‘Defiant’ [ripen mid-season], ‘Mountain Magic’ [cherry type] and ‘Plum Regal’ [paste tomato].
For great taste and fresh eating I always plant some ‘Big Beef’ [All American Award Winner], ‘Sweet Heart’ [grape type], ‘Sweet One Million’ [super sweet cherry type] and ‘Early Girl’ [earliest ripening]. I like ‘Brandywine’ as an heirloom/heritage type but the blight can get it early in a wet season as it often does the heritage varieties.
For something different and delicious try ‘Lemon Boy’, a globe-shaped fruit, about 6 ounces, that is bright yellow throughout. It is a novel variety that I enjoy giving away to friends and neighbours: I challenge them to a blind taste test and ask them if they can tell the difference between a Lemon Boy and a good, red, eating tomato.
Note that tomatoes are generally classified into ‘indeterminate’ and ‘determinate’. The former produces a plant that grows aggressively and needs staking for support. It produces a crop over an extended season, which is perfect for the home gardener who wants to ‘shop the plant’ over a period of weeks. Determinate tomatoes are shorter, bushy and produce a crop in a short period of time. They are preferred by the home gardener who wants a large harvest in a short time frame for preserving and for ‘paste’ making. Commercial growers prefer them too.
- Peppers. Hot? Sweet? To eat fresh or preserve? Whatever you are looking for in a pepper remember to plant them in the hottest spot in your garden. They love the sun and heat. Personally I grow the sweet types: ‘California Green’ is a great old stand-by bell pepper, ‘Early Sensation’ is one of the earliest bearing, and ‘Fat ‘n Sassy’ produces enormous fruit later in the season. Hot varieties range from the large yielding ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ [nothing to do with a bikini wax, sorry, but when you eat it you might want to take some clothes off], ‘Cayanetta’ [All American Selections Winner], hot cherry ‘Cheyenne’ [a hot cherry type], and ‘Chichen Itza’ [a hot one].
Hint: if you are looking for hot/super hot pepper plants come spring, the best selection in the Toronto area, in my experience, is at ValleyviewGardens on Kennedy Rd just north of Finch Ave. http://valleyviewgardens.com/
- Lettuce and greens. An urban garden lends itself to growing lots of leafy greens: they take up very little space and they ‘crop’ very quickly, usually in less than 60 days. Look for Mesclun Mix, ‘Tango Green’ leaf lettuce, and ‘Lollo Rossa Red’ leaf lettuce, all available in the Mark’s Choice line up at Home Hardware. I grow lots of these in succession all season long. My first sowing is in cold frames late in February, followed by biweekly sowings through to late August. I sow over 10 packets of Mesclun Mix to keep up to the demand from the chef in our kitchen. As your greens mature, harvest daily.
- Leeks. I have a lot of fun growing leeks as they germinate so easily: you can do this on a sunny windowsill, sowing in mid March. Late April I line them out about 6 cm. [2 ½ inches] apart in rows about 30 cm [one foot] apart. They love the sun, are low maintenance, generally insect and disease free, and they are a joy to harvest late in the season when most everything else is done. Mound soil up the stems of the leeks as they mature through the summer. I do this as I hoe out the weeds every couple of weeks. This gives the main stem their signature white/cream colour and sweet flavour. I prefer ‘Lancelot’.
Other vegetables that I recommend for the space constrained urban gardener include:
Bush beans. Small but productive plants with green beans are ‘Provider’ and my own ‘Dusky Green’ [Mark’s Choice, Home Hardware]. Yellow beans include ‘Gold Rush’ and ‘Gold Mine’.
For fun grow some climbing Blue Hyacinth Beans. They twine around most anything for support, grow to 3 meters [14 feet], the foliage is an eye-catching blue/purple and they do produce edible fruit late in the season. But I grow it for its ornamental qualities.
Radishes. Haul the kids outdoors for radish sowing. They mature in an amazing 45 days or so, depending on the variety. ‘Rover’ performs in the heat of summer [less ‘bolting’ to flower] and ‘Cherry Belle’ is an old time favourite.
Carrots. Have fun with carrots and plant them in a deep [40 cm], sandy soil. When they are ready for harvest pull them from dampened soil, wipe them with a clean rag [your pant leg works too], and rinse them under your rain barrel. Eat. There. Nothing like it on earth. I like Nantes varieties best as they are easiest to pull and are the most productive per square foot. Look for ‘Scarlet Nantes’, ‘Bilbo’, and ‘Goldfinger’.
For space constrained gardeners I do not recommend that you plant the following vegetables as they are space hogs [better to buy what you need from your local farmers’ market]: corn, cucumbers [except the ‘patio’ type which grow compact], cabbage, broccoli, potatoes [which are very inexpensive in-season], parsnips, pumpkins [unless you have a sprawling compost pile in the sun: kids love this!], zucchini, and winter squash.
Do grow: onions, spinach, Swiss chard [one plant remains productive for more than two months] and the aforementioned veggies above.
Order early, shop the seed racks in March, and have fun!!
Note: most of the vegetable varieties that I list here can be found at Veseys Seeds (http://www.veseys.com) based in P.E.I. and other Canadian seed suppliers. Mark’s Choice varieties are available at Home Hardware (www.homehardware.com).