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Head-Start With Vegetables
by Donna Balzer
by Donna Balzer


If you somehow missed her on the award winning garden show Bugs & Blooms (now in re-runs on HGTV and around the world), you can catch her in the summer answering listener questions on CBC. Failing that, open the Calgary Herald and you’ll find her on-going gardening column. There’s also a good chance you’ll see her work in either “Garden Life Magazine” or “Canadian Gardening”

Donna’s work has also been recognized through several awards. Her first book “Gardening for Goofs is a Canadian best seller and her second book “The Prairie Rock Garden” received the Carlton R. Worth award for writing. In 2003 Donna received “The Distinguished Agrologist Award” from her peers in Agrology. HGTV’s hit internationally broadcast gardening show “Bugs & Blooms” won Donna and her Co-Host Todd Reichardt the Garden Globe Award for best talent in electronic media in 2002.

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March 8, 2009

The soggy smell of warm sun on moist soil draws gardeners into action as surely as popcorn draws snackers into the concession line at the theatre. By early March the irresistible urge to get a head-start on the vegetable garden is the final straw after a long dormant season when itchy green fingers are suddenly ready for action. For vegetable gardeners interested in growing short season plants such as radish, lettuce or spinach, the only action needed now is the purchase of desired seed. For hardy long season or delicate warm season plants, getting a head-start means physically getting the seeds started in a warm, well-lit environment so that the young seedlings have a chance to develop before they are moved outdoors later this spring.

It isn't true that every plant needs a head start every time. For fast season crops such as leaf lettuce it is almost as good to just pop the seeds in the ground as soon as the soil can be worked. If you want to extend the harvest season, or if a slower growing type of head lettuce such as Cos or Iceberg is desired , an earlier harvest may be achieved if a few plants are started indoors in early April. A second crop, planted directly outdoors, will give an overall longer season of harvest.

If you are able to start corn indoors in long narrow containers such as one liter milk cartons and then transplant these outside under a protective cover some time in Mid-may there is an overall better chance of harvesting by Calgary¹s first fall frost. Corn was my personal nemesis when I fist came here from the unlikely gardening climate of Grande Prairie, Alberta. Although spring almost always came later in the north the day length was so extended during the summer that it was reasonable to expect to harvest corn from seeds placed directly out in the garden in late May. In the Calgary and Airdrie gardens I¹ve had, successful harvest only came in years with extraordinary long frost free falls using extremely short season cultivars (Buttervee, Sunnyvee or Extra Early Supersweet), placed in the warmest part of the garden and ­ preferably ­ started indoors first.

Inexperienced gardeners often presume that starting seeds early indoors is good for all vegetables. This is true to a point. With all the Cole crops- including broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Brussel sprouts, cabbage and kale - a brief indoor start will speed up overall outdoor garden time but too early a start may be a problem. These crops require a cool growing period so if they are started too early in the home under lights or in a warm greenhouse, they will bolt into bloom or become far too leggy as compared to the shorter tougher more cold tolerant seedlings that grow right from seed outdoors or from very young April started seedlings.

This is why the advised start date for cole crops is as little as a month before the planting out date and frost ­ unless it is more than minus 5- will not usually damage these young plants so row covers are not essential unless the gardener is in a high elevation location such as Bragg Creek. In chilly places a cover of Reemay (also known as spun-bound polyester or sold as garden row covers by specialty garden stores) gives up to eight degrees of frost protection.

As a general guideline the list of dates included here are ideal for the southern Alberta gardeners closer to the mountains than to Saskatchewan. These cold-climate, mountain influenced locations are clearly cooler than the seed developers ever imagined possible especailly with the killer 1999 July frost still fresh in the memory of gardeners from Calgary north to Olds. If the crop needs a warm temperature make sure to keep the row covers on long into July. If you suspect your garden is subject to cool air again before the end of August, it might be best to keep these covers on all summer long or invest in a greenhouse. Various more permanent style cold frames may also be built in truly harsh areas ­ such as Coaldale- which is listed by Environment Canada as having the fewest annual frost free days in Alberta ­zero.

As rivulets of snow melt create warm patches of moist fragrant soil it is going to be hard to resist the smell and dodge the urge to begin a few seeds. Luckily the seeds are in stock now in local stores and many seed catalogues are available free for the asking. If the scent of soil is reminding you of past give in to the urge and start filling trays this weekend then plan to fill them with seedlings ­ gradually I presume -over the next few months leading into spring.

Veggie Get Growing List

Type of Vegetable Approx. Start Date in Calgary Outdoor
Planting Date
Start Indoors?
Artichoke January May in coldframe Yes, a must
Beans ­ bush late May late May No
Beet as weather permits April-May No
Broccoli April 10-15 May Yes, but cool
Brussel Sprouts April 10-15 May Yes, but cool
Cabbage April -May May Not necessary
Corn April After last frost Yes, it helps
Cauliflower April 10-15 May Yes, but cool
Celery January-February After last frost Yes
Cucumber Late April June ­with cover Yes, warm
Kale April 10-15 May Yes, but cool
Leek January-February April-May Yes, high light
Lettuce April-late May April-late May Yes and No
Melon April June ­ with cover Yes, warm
Parsnip April-May April-May No
Pea May May-warm soil No
Pepper March-April June with cover Yes, warm
Pumpkin May June, warm soil, cover Yes, warm
Radish April-May April-May No, cool
Spinach April April-May No, cool
Squash May-June May with cover No
Tomato March June with cover Yes

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