Through the Seasons in a Quadra Food Garden: Blog #2

By Valerie Barr

It feels like Spring has just arrived. These last few weeks the birds are returning.

During the early part of winter we see flocks of Black-capped Chickadees foraging. We know Winter Wrens have been around because they leave white plops on the top step at the front door where they perch at night. And there is a pair of resident Ravens on the bluffs behind the house that have lived there for generations, 365 days a year. Do you know that Ravens can live 15 years (just looked it up)? The pair of Ravens pass the house windows about the same time every day with their powerful gliding flight, and we can see them play in flight or walking around in the garden. Lately they have been imitating the “eeye eeye” call of the Bald Eagle which gets our attention as something different in the neighbourhood, but it is the Ravens not an Eagle.

This week I have seen Varied Thrush in the trees, and the quick movements of Towhees under the perennials which, from the corner of my eye, could be a rat the way they quickly move around. Last week I saw the first Hummingbird of the season, probably an Anna’s since it is before any Salmonberries are blooming and it just seems too early for the Rufous. We saw our first Pileated Woodpecker on the tree stump behind the house on February 20th and hope they might nest there, which they have done in the past. The birds are one of the joys of working in the garden and you get into a close relationship with them when both human and avian species are working on the same ground.

Although the Salmonberry is not yet blooming, we have plenty of flowers to enjoy. Yellow crocus in a sunny area close to a pink and a purple Helleborus hybridus. The allium bulbs are sending up their rosette of leaves, a strong show in a warmer part of the garden. Snowdrops are in a cooler part of the garden and are holding their white heads up waiting to spread open when more warmth hits that area. The Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’ has been blooming for a month through several snow storms and its pink clusters look lovely from a distance but a bit soggy close up. We know that Spring is just starting.

Starting Leeks & Onions

So, it is time to start the early seeds in the house. Every year we use West Coast Seeds’ Bandit leeks which is a winter variety. I start them while we still have a few of last year’s stalks holding on in the garden, about to be harvested (they start to get a bit slimy on the outside leaves in the Spring). We have eaten them all winter, having covered them with a thick layer of maple leaves before the coldest temperatures arrived in December.

We are still eating the long keeping yellow onion Calibra, which may keep for another month or more. After we dry them in September, I select the best Calibra and hang them in our pantry using the mesh onion bags reused from store bought onions. Rossa di Milano (West Coast seeds) is a red onion variety we have grown for many years and we have just eaten the last large red onion a few weeks ago. They can get quite large and taste like a sweet onion with tang. We eat the red onions first which are more prolific than the yellow, but softer, and not as long storing. I also have tried growing Apache scallions, but decided that the wire worms like them too much to try again. I use up my leek and onion seeds in the year I purchase them, so if there are too many for your garden, share them with a friend.

To set up the trays for seeding, I use the sterilized nursery trays with large holes, and I use newsprint in several layers to hold the soil. I think this sounds strange to have wet newsprint holding soil in very open trays, but this works for me. You might want to use a more substantial container, and for onions you will want something with a few inches of soil depth. I lay in the newsprint and fill the tray with potting mix. Putting each tray outside on a deck while I heat the kettle, I then soak each tray with boiled water which helps the peat-based soil to absorb moisture. Then I leave them outside till they drain and cool down. I will transplant the onions directly from these trays into the ground when they are ready to be planted out.

I have in the past used a nice seed potting mix from a local Vancouver Island source, but like so many supplies you get attached to, it is no longer available. On Root Greenhouse on Quadra Island carries seedling mix and will probably be open in early March. At Art Knapp in Courtenay the staff recommend using Promix premium all-purpose potting soil with mycorrhizae and controlled release fertilizer. I was a bit skeptical at first, worrying that it may not be sterile enough for this purpose, but in the last three years, I have not had any problems with the Promix soil. Art Knapp’s large 112 litre bag costs, after my Garden Club discount, $19.79, and will probably last my full season of seedling starts. Any soil left in trays after I transplant is used for potting up seedlings or for outdoor planters, so that it is not wasted. I no longer fertilize the trays as the seedlings mature, since there is added fertilizer in the Promix. If you are using a non fertilized-soil I suggest using very watered-down organic liquid fertilizer but only as the seedlings mature enough to absorb the nitrogen etc.

My trays are prepared, the grow light hung on wire above the counter, and I am ready to seed the first three flats and label them correctly with the onion variety and date. Onion seeds need light to germinate so do not bury the seed with soil but spread them on the surface of the soil. I actually do this dropping of seed with most of the seed started indoors.

The magic of getting onion seed to germinate is fascinating. You need to provide light, moisture (but not too much), and warmth.

Since my soil is quite damp from being soaked with boiling water, I water as needed with a spray bottle until eventually it looks like the soil needs more moisture, which I add with a small water can. My spray bottle is a one-litre size and I probably purchased it at a janitorial supply or hardware store.

The light in my grow room comes from both a sky light in the roof and my grow lamp. I have had this grow-lamp since the 1980’s and so it is not something modern but it is simple and works. It is a four-foot fluorescent lamp with two natural light all spectrum tubes. We have replaced the ballast on this lamp at least once over the years and the tubes a few times but it keeps on working for me. I leave the grow lamp on for 12 hours or more a day.

For heat, I always place two seed trays on the top of the fluorescent fixture which gives off heat, but does not get hot. Once the seed has started to grow, I move the tray down under the lights. Three years ago, several friends were talking about how great their heat mats were for speeding up germination, so I purchased a McKenzie ‘Heated Professional Greenhouse’ which is a plastic tray for peat pellets and a clear plastic dome and the wanted heat mat (Canadian Tire). It works like a charm and was reasonably priced.

Onion Seed generally takes ten days to germinate but I am always curious and check it regularly making sure there is the right amount of moisture to keep the seeds happy.

Next post I will write about starting edible pod peas and two kinds of peppers. I also am planning to dormant spray our fruit trees and my roses so will talk about the why and how of preventative spraying.

Finally, following my last post on sterilizing trays, a bit of advice from Barb Mindell about an alternative to bleach: try using a high percentage H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide). Barb sells it at Amped on Nutrition and has experience with it as a sterilizing agent. Barb says that On Root Greenhouse carries H2O2 in larger volume sizes. I have not used hydrogen peroxide yet, maybe next year.

Grant Hayden and Val Barr are happily retired to play in their garden as they like.  Val worked in horticulture for almost 45 years and started her first food garden at 18.  Grant grew up as a prairie farm-boy and his last occupation was in forestry.  He has planted thousands of trees and cut quite a few down as well.

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