Spring into year-round food production

ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot

portait of Carolyn Herriot

Seed selection: To answer the question, “What shall I grow?” ask yourself what you and your family like to eat most. Plants adapt to cultural conditions so organic seeds grow best for organic gardeners and regional seeds have an edge over seeds grown in other climates because these plants have adapted to local conditions.

If you want to save seeds, start with open-pollinated varieties that have not had their genetic makeup changed by hybridization or genetic modification. Check number of days to maturity and select plants that will mature and produce in your garden’s microclimate. Tip: When purchasing seeds, order winter garden seeds at the same time to ensure you have the seeds you need at sowing time in June and July.


A 50-foot square garden grows a lot of food and seeds.

Separate seed packets into three categories: spring-planted, cool weather varieties, summer heat-loving varieties and winter cold-hardy varieties. File packets into three sections in a shoebox, using recipe cards marked A to Z to file seeds in alphabetical order in each section. Filing this way makes seeds easier to find and prevents reordering leftovers.

Soil: Most vegetables grow best in full sun, in well-drained, fertile soil (pH 6-7.5). A gently sloping site with full southern exposure would be ideal, but any site free of large tree roots that receives at least seven to 11 hours of sun a day could work. Adding organic matter builds humus in soil, which increases its ability to hold moisture and nutrients. Here are my ‘Four Secrets of Successful Soil Building:’ compost, manure, leaves and seaweed. If you add these amendments to soil every year, I guarantee you will notice an incredible difference in food quality and productivity.

I make ‘Super Duper’ compost using layers of leaves, weeds (no seeds), herbaceous clippings, manure (can be fresh), grass clippings, spoiled hay, seaweed, sawdust and whatever uncontaminated organic waste I can get my hands on. To make it ‘Super Duper,’ I add layers of comfrey, nettles and horsetail when in season. I don’t add kitchen waste because it attracts rodents. I stockpile food waste in a rat-proof composter and when full, I bury it into deep trenches in the garden. I plant on top of these trenches right away, as by the time roots make contact with buried matter, it will have been broken down by myriad soil microbes.

Fertilizers: Slow-release, natural-source fertilizer nourishes teaming microscopic soil life that makes nutrients available to plants. To make granular organic fertilizer with little expense, purchase ingredients in bulk at a farm supply store. Basic recipe: Mix four parts (by volume) seed meal (N) with one part dolomite lime (pH), add one part rock phosphate (P) and one half-part kelp meal (K).

Companion planting: Communities of plants work together to keep bugs at bay, attract pollinators and improve plant growth. Large-scale monocultures provide shining beacons to pests and disease and require constant use of pesticides. Small-scale, diversified food production, including hedgerows, flowers, grasses, herbs and berries, empowers wildlife to take control of potential problems.

Crop rotations: When plants are grown in the same place every year, it’s a question of time before problems arise. After seven years, club root develops in Brassicas; after 10 years, white rot develops in garlic, weevil populations explode where peas and beans are grown and blight is passed on to all members of the Solanaceae family. Crop rotations break the life cycle of common pests and diseases because the host plant is no longer present.

Pest prevention: Deer, rabbits, birds and raccoons play havoc with food gardens. Deer have a broad range of tastes ranging from fruit trees to broccoli. Raccoons and birds can cause a ripe corn or cherry crop to disappear overnight. Netting and other physical barriers work well to prevent this. In my experience, the only way to keep deer out is to erect an eight-foot-tall fence. For pest prevention, observation is key, followed by identification. Always know what you are destroying and use the least toxic method to begin.

Seeding: At The Garden Path, the ‘primary seeding’ happens in early March in a thoroughly cleaned greenhouse. All glass panes, work surfaces and the floor are scrubbed with a 1:10 dilution of hydrogen peroxide, with the intention of getting rid of algae build-up, botrytis, over wintering bugs, spores and egg masses. If you don’t have the luxury of a greenhouse, there are many ways to improvise cold frames using recycled wood and glass windows. Cool weather crops such as peas, lettuce, Brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts), onions, leeks, kale, chard, radicchio, endive and spinach can all be seeded in an unheated greenhouse.

Heat-loving plants such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cape gooseberries, tomatillos and basil need more warmth for germination and are grown in a propagation box, on top of heater cables covered with sand. They need longer to develop, unlike beans, squash and cucumber seeds that germinate fast and are seeded in May for June transplanting.

Weed control: The best time to weed is when the soil is moist and you can pull or dig established weeds out easily. In early spring, I roam the garden pulling weeds, especially perennial broadleaf – deeply rooted plants such as buttercup and dandelion. At the end of the season, I smother any weed seeds using thick layers of organic mulch or compost, an activity I refer to as organic weed and feed.

Saving seeds: Without access to local food seeds, we will not be able to feed ourselves in future so it’s imperative to start seed banks in every community for this purpose. I recommend that every seed saver at least obtain a copy of How to Save Your Own Seeds. You can order it for $15 from Seeds of Diversity at www.seeds.ca (Click on Publications.) Collect seeds from the recommended minimum number of plants in order to preserve genetic diversity of the stain.

Winter gardening: From October to April, many food plants can still be harvested. In harsh winters, cold frames may be necessary for leafy greens, but cabbages, leeks, collards, chard, beets and kale can survive freezing conditions outside. Direct seed the garden from June to August, following earlier crops of peas, potatoes, lettuce or garlic. Seed transplants from June to July (grow them raised up off the ground to keep bugs and slugs away) and transplant into the garden no later than mid-September so plants are well established by winter.

Carolyn Herriot is author of The Zero-Mile Diet, A Year-Round Guide to Growing Organic Food and The Zero-Mile Diet Cookbook (Harbour Publishing).

Leave a comment