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This is the time of cellular division, when gardeners are godlike

C.J. MacNaughton

May, 2011

Come February, pre-spring fever sets in. If you’re a gardener, you know what I mean.

It’s time to drool over seed-company catalogs, review last year’s notes and ponder just how many potatoes can grow in a burlap bag on the balcony. By late April, spring fever turns into full-blown madness. Many of the babies are sprouting—a reminder, along with the crocuses, that spring is in the air.

Ah springtime! The earth is full of promise and, in my case, compost. For many gardeners, this is the most special time—more so than the glories of harvest. This cellular division is as close as most of us get to being a god ... or a botanist. Every day our hands, like deus ex machina, pinch a little here, water a little there and then magically, the sprouts have grown just that little bit more. It’s intoxicating.

In just a few weeks’ time, well-established seedlings will be ready to plant outside. Canadian wisdom advises waiting till Victoria Day. You can cheat wisdom, though, with cloches and cold frames, glass or plastic windbreaks that protect tender seedlings—a mini-greenhouse, really. For many years, I had a few gorgeous Victorian cloches—they were made of heavy clear glass shaped like bells to be placed over the plants. An abundant modern-day version (not to mention free, if you don’t mind rifling through the neighbour’s recycling) might be a clear plastic pop bottle or milk jug with one end lopped off and placed over a cucumber plant or some such creature. Push it into the soil just enough to be stable and you’ll have a protective berth that will give you a few extra weeks in the ground.

In Montreal, that extra time can buy you beds of colourful annuals without springing for flats at the garden centre, or buy you watermelons by August. We did a small, reliable watermelon cultivar called Blacktail Mountain last year—prolific and delicious but mostly for the squirrels. They got six watermelons. We humans got one. Your pop bottles will even let you sow notoriously tender beasts like basil a bit early.

If you’re concerned that it’s too late for seeds, don’t be. A very few long-season vegetables and annuals might be off the list, but many prefer to be sown directly into their beds. Root vegetables are a great example. They can go straight in now, and crack out those pop bottles. Even when they’re not absolutely necessary, they are a great kindness and your plants will thank you with higher yields.

You can still order seeds from one of Quebec and western Ontario’s many fine organic seed companies. Look some of them up before you waltz into a big-box store to buy treated seeds. A great place to start is the resource list at Seeds of Diversity,

There is some bad news. The cardinal rule for pruning is: If it flowers late, doesn’t flower and doesn’t run sap, prune in your mittens. Now that we’re mitten-free, if you’ve not pruned your ornamental trees (maples excepted, of course), late-blooming shrubs, many broadleaved evergreens, and roses, you missed the best window. You might need to go easy for the year. That said, this is gardening, many plants are forgiving and I choose to have faith in them. I break the cardinal rule, especially with roses. I have been forgiven many times.

No amount of cloches and care will help if you don’t have decent soil. If you didn’t do it in the fall, now is the time to amend it.

Sandy soil, clay or loam; the best amendment is compost.

I don’t fertilize at all. Ever. A couple of inches of compost takes care of it. My preferred M.O. would be a composter, but I don’t have the space. Instead, I buy compost from Compost Montréal, a company that collects kitchen scrap and diverts it from landfill. If you are a client, you get a free dump of compost in the spring. Otherwise, you can buy it. Store-bought bags of mushroom, manure or sea life are all just fine. If you know a cattle farmer or a zookeeper, even better—well-rotted manure is outstanding. Triple mix is all right if it’s all you can get, but lay off on top soil and straight-up peat.

Peat is a wonder to use—acidic and absorbent. I love it, but I’ve given it up, as gardeners’ zeal, including my own, has caused widespread depletion of peat bogs. Why try to emulate nature if you’re destroying it elsewhere?

My first rule of gardening is, like the Buddha’s: Do no harm. That said, go forth and multiply.



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