bean sprouting close up1

Beans, Beans, Bountiful Beans

Ever since I can remember, the 24th of May weekend was the peak weekend for gardeners, for that day was carved in stone as the time when our warm-weather crops could be planted, and the official gardening season was happily underway.

 As all gardeners know, this year has been sadly different. I know that compared to the rest of the country and much of the world, we have nothing to complain about, but we are Canadian and complain about the weather we do!

The bottom line is that it is still not warm enough for tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, squash, peppers, and other heat-lovers to be moved into the ground, but they do need to be moved into bigger pots to expand their root systems, and hardened off before putting outside.  Beans are typically seeded directly into the ground when the soil is warm enough to germinate the seeds. Planted too early, they are likely to rot before even thinking of germination, and this year even our beloved 24th of May weekend was still too early.

But there is an alternative to waiting.  The critical point for the beans is not the actual growing of the plant, it’s the germination of the seed.  Just like pea seeds, the bean seed is large and starchy, which easily rots and is great fodder for critters such as birds, rodents, slugs, etc. By pre-sprouting indoors in vermiculite (see blog on sprouting peas), that vulnerable phase is eliminated.

The process couldn’t be simpler; instead of starting the seeds in soil, plant in  vermiculite. Add water, push bean seeds into the damp vermiculite, and put in a warm spot in a sunny window sill or green house. My beans emerged within 5 days. Very cute little guys, the seed comes up on top of the stem, splitting and releasing its amazing cargo of leaves.

Bean sprouting in vermiculite

Look at the amazing root system of this bean started in vermiculite only 12 days ago! The seedling measures about 12” from top of leaf to bottom of that long tap root.


When the seedlings are about 4” tall or have three true leaves, it’s time to plant them into the garden.  First step is to prepare your soil, digging in some bone meal and compost.

Beans, as with all legumes, make their own nitrogen from the air, so it’s not necessary to give them overly rich soil, but it should have a nice well-draining texture.

If you are growing pole beans rather than bush beans, I strongly advise installing your climbing apparatus before planting, and I’ve found that a simple teepee of poles (8 feet is not too tall) works well, with about three or four seedlings at the base of each pole. Instead of a teepee, many people use netting or string against a fence or wall.

I tend to prefer pole beans rather than bush beans; pole beans will keep producing all summer, whereas bush beans have one crop and it all comes at once.  Pole beans are more flavourful as well, at least in my opinion, with their intense, earthy bean flavour they are delicious plain, or simply slathered with butter and lemon. My favourite recipe includes minced garlic, sea salt, balsamic, and mild walnut oil. Mmmmm, I can hardly wait.

There are many excellent varieties of pole beans, but one I always plant is Purple Peacock, because it can handle less sun than others, and I have a limited area of full sun in my garden. I usually plant only about six seeds of three different varieties, and we are eating beans all summer

Pole beans are prolific! Just remember to pick when small, and pick often to keep the vines producing.

If you choose bush beans, netting or supports are not necessary, and to avoid the feast or famine syndrome, plant successive crops every two weeks.

The little glimmers of warm weather are encouraging; yes, summer is coming and so are the delicious fresh beans we have all been waiting for.


THE GREAT CANADIAN REFRIGERATOR Or Planting Now for Next Winter’s Harvest.

Growing delicious vegetables at any time is satisfying, but planting now, with the knowledge that next winter you will have food in the garden, is nothing less than thrilling.  Yes, I realize the irony of talking about next winter’s harvest when we aren’t even out of this ‘winter’ yet.

These are a few seeds you can plant between now and late June:

Purple Sprouting Broccoli should be seeded from mid to late June for harvest next spring. There are several varieties, ensuring harvests from early February all the way to late May.

Brussels Sprouts should be seeded by the end of May, or first week in June at the latest. If planted later than that, the sprouts won’t be large enough by fall, and there will be little growth during the coldest months.

Swiss Chard can be direct seeded in May, with Cabbage and Kale following in mid-June. Here is my Lacinato (Black Tuscan) Kale, planted from nursery starts late last summer.  As I was a little late in planting, it didn’t do much until early this spring, but is now delicious and sweet, even raw.

Leeks for winter harvest should have been seeded in February or March (whoops, too late now), but we do sell the starts of winter-hardy leeks, which should be planted out in the garden now.

Be sure to check the variety when buying seeds, some are meant for winter harvest and some are just not hardy. Ideally, winter vegetables should be almost fully grown by Halloween if you expect to harvest in the coldest months. These winter veggies are always more delicious after being kissed by frost, so don’t worry about the cold.

The whole idea of growing vegetables to harvest in winter or early spring is a vast subject; we are fortunate to have not only West Coast Seeds, but Linda Gilkeson’s book Backyard Bounty for everything you need to know to be successful, and truly turn your garden into The Great Canadian Refrigerator.

basil starts in jiffy pelle

Potting On The Tomato And Basil Seedlings

First published May 8, 2011 – It’s early May, and the tomatoes are now well established in the seeding trays, ready to move into larger pots.

They have been ready to move for at least three weeks now, but it’s funny how bad weather outside makes one not believe the reality that spring is coming, and even some indoor garden chores get neglected.

Tomato seedlings on right were moved out to greenhouse earlier than the ones on the left.

Most of the tomatoes have remained in the laundry room under the lights until now. However, this does make them lanky and weak. The one variety that I did move out to the greenhouse earlier looks shorter and stronger than the ones in the house. As this was my first try at “tough love” with the seedlings, I was hesitant to move all of them out at once.

This is my main lesson learned this spring—pot the seedlings on earlier; get them into real soil as soon as possible, where they will grow sturdy and strong.

I started some of the tomatoes and all of the basil in the Jiffy Pellets, as mentioned in my blog on April 3.  The basil is better than previous crops; it has remained short and healthy, not leggy. I think the mix in the Jiffy Pellets may be well suited to its needs. They too are ready for larger pots and real soil.

Basil starts in Jiffy pellets.

The tomatoes grown in the Jiffy Pellets seem to have a smaller root mass than those started in starter mix, yet the tops are significantly bigger. This was a surprise. The clean and easy process of growing in these pellets may well make the slower root growth worth it, but the final product is all that matters, so I’ll let you know.

Remember, each time you pot your tomatoes up to a larger pot, strip off lower leaves and bury the plant a little deeper.  The soil mix for the 4” pot stage can be just sterilized potting soil, but Linda’s book Backyard Bounty gives a recipe you can make yourself; 1 part each finished compost (either home-grown or purchased), perlite or vermiculite, coir or peat, and the best garden soil you have; (home-grown or purchased). I must confess that the mix I used was simply the Growell bagged garden soil we sell at the nursery, amended liberally with the seed starting mix, which is primarily the other ingredients anyway.  I will fertilize weekly, alternating half strength solutions of liquid seaweed with liquid fish.

Don’t be too eager to move your newly potted seedlings outside, they must be hardened off slowly; bringing them in each night until the minimum temperature is reliably 12 degrees or above. This year, it may be July!!!  An unheated greenhouse or cold frame is the best place for them now,  but be careful to leave the door open when (or if!) there is any sun, it can very quickly get too hot. Plants need to get used to sunshine and wind just as much as they need to get used to the cold.

It’s still too cold outside for the basil, so while they will benefit from the better soil and more room in a 4” pot, keep them inside under the lights until it warms up and eventually pot them up into larger containers; I find basil just doesn’t do well in the ground.

Around the May long weekend, or early June this year, the tomatoes should be tough enough to be planted outside; I’ll write more about this later, but you want to get them as big and strong as possible before this move.

For those looking for seedlings to purchase, now is a good time to buy them in 4” pots or the 6 pack, and follow the potting up routine above.  Summer will come, even if late, and you don’t want to miss those juicy red fruits along with basil, good bread, balsamic……….


pea seedlings in trench

Peas In Particular


I really put a lot into the carton, too many it seems, however, they all rooted just fine.

It’s a beautiful sunny day, April 8. The peas started in vermiculite are now in the ground, germinated and well-rooted.

I will never again plant peas into cold soil and wait, and wait and wait for them to emerge. Usually one third rot in the cold wet ground, another third get eaten by slugs, and we wax eloquent over the few remaining peas that we thoroughly enjoy in summer.

My pea shoots in just 10 days. I had no idea they put down such a deep tap root.

Following the suggestion by Linda Gilkeson, mentioned in my last blog about planting seeds, I germinated the peas in vermiculite, starting on March 28. I moved the milk cartons outside a few days ago just to harden them off a little bit, and today simply pulled each little stem out; the vermiculite doesn’t grab onto the delicate root hairs so there was no resistance and no damage to the roots.

The picture below shows the amazing root system formed in only 10 days, in my warm laundry room.

I then simply dug a shallow trench at the base of my bamboo trellis in one of the raised beds, lay the seedlings in the trench, covered them with soil and watered them in, leaving only about half an inch of green shoot showing above ground.

I planted them so the green shoots were just above the soil surface.

Since we actually had frost last night, I did put a little plastic shelter over them, as well as I could, given that they are planted at the base of the trellis. I also put some netting on the other side to keep the birds and squirrels away. Not a lot of effort, and a whole lot better germination than ever before; they are off to a very good start in life.

Peas have been in my garden for years, they are a mainstay, except for last year when the first crop rotted and the second crop was eaten by critters (birds? squirrels?).  But there have never ever been enough; maybe this is the year.

Is there any crop more delectable than fresh peas eaten outside while standing in the garden? If so, I’m not sure I’ve tried it.  Looks like it will be a good year for my peas, and perhaps for the first time, I’ll even have enough to cook a few.

seeds in trays

Seeding Vegetables For Summer Harvest

Why is there so much fuss about seeding? Is it rocket science? Seeds have been grown since the beginning of time, yet we all dither and wring our hands about “is it time?” I have come to the conclusion that all one really needs is the West Coast Seed Catalogue, and Linda Gilkeson’s book Backyard Bounty .

Of course there are many other seed companies, and many delectable varieties only available from obscure sources, but you get my gist.

My honourable co-worker Lynne has stated the obvious, it’s still too cold and wet outside to direct seed, but in our short growing season most things seem to do better if started indoors anyway.

It’s April 2, and pouring rain. Music playing, and a cup of tea in hand, I seeded part of my summer crop today, in my dining room.

I’m learning so much in Linda’s class at Glendale, and one of the most surprising things is that while seeds need the heat to germinate, the seedlings actually grow more dense and bushy if grown on at cooler temperatures.   So once a crop is up and off to a good start, it’s time to start hardening off, weather permitting. An unheated greenhouse or cold frame is the best place to start.  At first, I was hauling all the trays in every night, but that was too much effort; I now give “tough love” to all my seed babies; they are now sleeping in the greenhouse at night.

For the potting medium I use a starter mix such as ‘Islands Finest Starter Mix’. (Confession: I do not sterilize my seeding trays. I do blast them clean outside with the hose, however.)

So far I’ve got beets, leeks, spinach and lettuce seedlings in the greenhouse, and today planted the warmer weather plants.

Seeds in trays.

Tomatoes and basil are in the Jiffy Starter Trays from the nursery, this is a clean and complete way to start. Since the actual planting holes are quite small, it works well for my system of potting on into 4”, then larger pots. By late May my basil and tomato plants are in the greenhouse with large root masses, ready for their final transplant.

The Lemon Cucumber seeds go into larger pots or trays with huge planting holes, as cucumbers resent root disturbance, yet need to wait for the warmer weather.

Linda sent along her great idea for pea germination in her “Linda’s List” email, (which anyone can register for on her website) that is to start them in milk cartons with vermiculite for the planting medium.

Peas (germinating) in vermiculite.

It’s easy to remove the seedlings from the vermiculite without root damage, and they will be off to a good start when I plant them outside, probably within a week or two. It’s just for germination, remember. I’ll recycle the vermiculite in my container plantings, as it lightens the soil and retains moisture.

I love to grow seeds for friends, nurturing them (the seeds, not the friends) until ready to plant outside. I plant way too many seeds and love every tiny one of them.

Let me know how yours are doing— any tips?

Leeks in snow

Long Standing Leeks

During the big snowfall in February, I harvested my leeks.  I can’t believe I’m saying this! I harvested my own leeks, with a foot of snow on the ground. What a marvelous crop this is, growing steadfastly through last year’s cool spring, brief summer heat, autumn rains and two snow storms.  So when I say ‘long standing’ leek, I mean that literally.  I planted leek starters from the nursery last spring. I put them in front of my climbing roses, since I have limited areas of sun and must use all available real estate in the pursuit of more food in the garden.

Leeks are also heavy feeders and need good drainage, so the rose bed seemed a perfect spot with its frequent amendments of manure, compost, and organic fertilizer blends.  I was lucky that the deer didn’t bother them on their way to the rose course, but I’m advised that leeks are often on their menu, so protection may be needed if deer graze your garden.

Visually the combination was very pretty, since I have a row of Stipa tenuissima along the driveway edge, falling in blowsy soft billows, then the erect 2’ stems of strappy green leek, and then the roses climbing on the fence.  Growing veggies amongst ornamentals is a feast for the eyes as well as a delicious way to enjoy fresh, home-grown food.

Don’t believe what they say about leeks needing a trench to form the white stems, I just planted at ground level, and they had lovely firm and clean necks, tall and sturdy. This year I’ll plant seeds rather than nursery starts, for more variety and lots more plants; there are so many recipes I want to try.

In Linda’s book she mentions some varieties that are hardy for winter; one is Bandit. For summer harvest Varna is the variety to start now; it is not winter hardy.  Both are from West Coast Seeds, available at the nursery.  I’ll plant them this week, indoors. I have a simple grow light suspended in my laundry room, and now is the time to start my crops for summer and next winter.

I can almost smell that Leek and Potato soup simmering on the stove…

Principe Borghese tomato

Veggies For A Cool Summer aka Hedging Your Bets In The Vegetable Garden

Tomatoes for bad weather: For many years I called myself a vegetable gardener, when in reality I was just a tomato grower. Oh, I’d put in a few peas and maybe a few lettuce starts, but mostly I grew tomatoes. Summers came and went, and it was just by luck that the tomato varieties I chose were the ones that didn’t mind cooler temperatures. Siletz was my default ‘regular’ tomato for slicing, and Principe Borghese was my favourite cherry tomato. Both early varieties, as it happens. I was happy.  Tomatoes ripened, and friends and family enjoyed the fruits of my labour.

‘Principe Borghese’ tomatoes

Over the years I became more sophisticated and chose some pretty fancy tomatoes, including San Marzano, Black Krim, Brandywine, which turn out to be all heat lovers. Some years they flourished and other years they barely ripened.

You may remember last year with its long, cold and wet spring, followed by a pretty dismal summer. Then came September, normally a fine ripening month for tomatoes; it shuddered by in a blur of rain and cold. Green tomatoes languished on the vines. The gardening season ended, not happily.

Without a crystal ball to show the weather for the coming spring and summer I’ll still plant some exotic varieties, but I’ll also be sure to have a good supply of Siletz, Early Girl, and Oregon Spring. For cherries I won’t be without Principe Borghese, Sweet One Hundred, or Sweet Million. The mixed tomato platter isn’t complete without some yellows, and my favourite is Yellow Pear; while not the earliest one it did ripen, even in last year’s dismal season.


Cool weather beans: It’s worth noting that even among heat lovers like beans there are varieties that are more tolerant of cooler weather.  Some like Venture Blue Lake bush beans have a good ability to germinate in cool, moist soils.  Both Kentucky Blue and Purple Peacock pole beans are tolerant of cooler temperatures, the latter even producing well in less than full sun. Scarlet Runner beans, botanically different from either pole or bush beans, actually prefer cooler weather and drop their blossoms if it gets too hot.


Root crops are far less picky about weather, as long as the drainage is excellent. Within the beet family, Red Cloud and Early Wonder Tall Top are both particularly cold tolerant, although beets in general are safe to plant and easy to grow in our climate.

Carrots never fail to please if planted in deep friable loam, and seem to love the cool soil, as do radishes and parsnips.  (To avoid carrot rust fly, cover carrot crops with row cover before they germinate.)

Potatoes are a cold tolerant vegetable that more of us should grow, providing we have good drainage.  With so many varieties, colours, and sizes plus solid nutritional value it’s too bad they are often overlooked.  For those with limited space, there are lots of options for growing potatoes in containers.


Most people know that leaf crops thrive in damp, cool conditions, but many haven’t yet tried some of the hearty, nutritious chards, kales, and Asian greens.  Two springs ago I planted Bright Lights chard as starts from the nursery; they produced well all summer and winter, right up until they were replaced by new seedlings at the end of the following June.

Kale is so cold tolerant that it’s best planted in the spring for the following winter harvest.

Cabbage grows best in cooler weather, with the West Coast Seeds catalogue singling out Early Jersey Wakefield and Derby Day as growing “rapidly in the chill of spring.” Yes, some years the chill of spring can be followed by the chill of summer, so plan accordingly, and diversify.

Broccoli, like other brassicas, is known to prefer cool weather. Broccoli raab, also called rapini, is a headless broccoli that is delicious steamed or stir fried. In particular, Zamboni raab tends to bolt in summer heat. That’s not surprising, is it? Hockey fans unite and grow Zamboni raab!


While cucumbers are thought of as a hot weather crop, and require very warm soil to germinate, once growing they seem to produce adequately in less than perfect conditions. I have grown Lemon Cucumber for years, started inside in individual pots as their roots resent disturbance. WCS catalogue mentions Marketmore and Fanfare as having early and extended harvest, respectively.


In many cases I will give spring a helping hand by starting my seeds indoors. I now have a simple grow light suspended in my laundry room, and by using row covers I can warm the soil in my garden and give the seedlings a little protection after transplanting.  By being careful with the crop choice and variety selection, and knowing the microclimates within my own garden, I can expand my harvest.

It’s probably better in our currently unsettled climate to plant according to temperature, not calendar date. Planting too early is a major cause of crop failure; hardy plants go to flower prematurely, and heat-loving plants become stunted or perish.


Will I still grow eggplant, squash, and those wonderful San Marzanos? Yes of course, I’m an optimist; and what is gardening if not a thrill and a challenge, with delicious vegetables as the main prize. But by planting both cool weather plants and heat loving crops, I will enjoy the harvest no matter what the weather lottery brings us this summer.