Garden rookies: contain yourself!

🕔Apr 06, 2007

Spring! It’s here again: birds a-chirping, buds a-budding—and your neighbours a-honing their garden plans.

And you, wanna-be gardener, lamenting the factors that once again threaten to steamroll over your fantasy of actually starting a garden from seed this year.

What are they this year? A packed to-do list which prevents you from coaxing baby plants to life in January, unlike your garden-crazy neighbour Martha who will soon be gloating over her dazzling peonies? Lack of knowledge about what will actually work in northern BC, where 60 frost-free days per year is the norm in some places? A resistance to shelling out for chemically treated starter plants from some megalith-chain hardware store? Or perhaps you live in rented place, with no access to a garden plot and/or no certainty about where you’ll be living beyond a year or two.

We have good news. None of these factors need hold you back. Even a gardening newbie, with access to little more than a balcony or patio, can enjoy the satisfaction of starting a garden from seed, relatively cheaply, and enjoy bounty by summer’s end.

To find out how, Northword asked for suggestions from these knowledgeable northern gardeners: – Dave Phillips, owner of Copper Beech Bed & Breakfast in Haida Gwaii and author of Gardening in Haida Gwaii; – Barbara Gruber, who, with husband Robert Gruber, has developed a garden that is renowned in Prince Rupert; – Quinton Freeman, co-owner of Uplands Nursery in Terrace; – Diana Roberts, award-winning Burns Lake gardener who writes and edits; and – Karen Hong in Prince George, a gardening writer and photographer for Gardens West Magazine (

This gardening dream-team suggested workhorse plants that like containers, grow fast and relatively fuss-free, tolerate rookie gardeners’ mistakes, look cool and deliver something edible by the end of the season—even if you plant them now, from seed!

Of course, they’ll all work equally well in a garden plot… but for the latter you’ll want to consider garden design factors such as plant height, spread, colour and bloom time—which we can’t cover here.

Here are their suggestions:

Nasturtium: Practically bullet-proof, Nasturtium produces cascades of blossoms in hot tones like yellow, orange and red. They look great in containers, and both flowers and leaves are edible, adding a peppery-flavoured garnish to salads and soups. Start inside 4-6 weeks before your region’s usual last frost date (inquire of any local gardener to find out when this is), or plant outside after last frost.

Pickled nasturtium buds: Collect the green seed pods and soak for a day in brine made of 2 cups water, 1 tsp salt. Strain; fill small sterilized jars with seeds, add boiled white wine vinegar, pickling spices and fresh garlic to each jar. Seal, leave for a month, and use within a week of opening.

Amaranthus: Amaranth is one of the oldest foods on earth; its leaves are among the most nutritious greens. It produces dramatic plume- or tassel-like flowers, depending on the variety, in gold, red, burgundy and purple, with colourful foliage too. Grown in volume, amaranth is also harvested for its high-protein grain.

Start inside now for earlier blooms and move outside after your last frost date, or plant directly into pots when soil warms up to 18 degrees C. Look for varieties such as Love-Lies-Bleeding or Early Splendor, and plant at the back of your display because these will grow upwards of four feet tall…or look for dwarf varieties such as Joseph’s Coat or Hot Biscuits.

Scarlet runner beans: This is another seriously multi-tasking plant that produces gorgeous red flowers, climbs trellises quickly, attracts hummingbirds, AND produces tasty beans in about 65 days. “These almost grow before your eyes,” says Karen. Provide support for this quickly climbing plant: a railing, a trellis, a net along the wall. For best results, start inside or plant directly outside after last frost.

Calendula: This hardy flower generates lots of yellow and orange blooms about 55 days after germinating and well into fall; some varieties, such as Porcupine, offer rust-coloured, earlier-blooming flowers. Both flowers and greens are edible. Calendula has also been used topically to reduce inflammation, promote wound healing and treat acne, and internally to reduce stomach ulcers and reduce fever.

Get earlier blooms by planting inside four to six weeks before the last frost date, or sow directly in containers outside after all danger of frost has passed.

Sunflowers: What could be easier? Plant seeds directly outside after all danger of frost has passed. For container gardening and short-season growth, look for a variety called Paquito, which produces a blend of gold, red and bicolour flowers only 60 days after germination and grows less than two feet high. Collect the seeds from the prolific flowers and roast them—or eat ’em raw.

Zucchini: Plant outside after last frost. Yields vegetables (rich in vitamins B2 and E!) in as little as 50 days, and edible flowers are considered a delicacy in many countries. “I have stuffed the flowers with a garlic-and-cream-cheese mixture and sauteed them in garlic butter. Pick them before they start to wilt,” reports Diana. For best results, sow five or six seeds two inches apart after last frost date, directly into large, deep containers, and thin to a couple of plants.

Swiss Chard: For a beautiful as well as delicious and vitamin-rich crop that thrives in cool weather, look for one of the multi-coloured varieties such as Rainbow or Bright Lights. Plant chard after the last frost, and enrich the soil with compost.

Kale: This very frost-tolerant plant can be planted directly outside as soon as the ground can be worked and tastes even better after a frost! “Cold crops like kale, spinach and salad greens are super easy to grow,” says Karen Hong. Use leaves anytime—in salads when young; steamed or sautéed with sesame oil, garlic and soy sauce or red wine vinegar for a real treat. For colourful foliage and leaves you can harvest in as little as 25 days, look for varieties such as Red Russian, with its magenta-coloured leaf spines, or the blue-green leaves of Nero di Tuscana (also called Dinosaur, Lachinato).

Chives: These are actually a perennial, and relatively slow out of the gate when started from seed. If you can get a chunk of chives to plant from a friend to start, so much the better! We’re including them here because chives are excellent in containers, require relatively little care, can be nibbled from constantly and also generate pretty, globe-like purple flowers. Plus, you can take them indoors over the winter.

Mint: Also a perennial, mint will yield small blue flowers and harvestable leaves in its first year. It repels pests too—particularly those which attack kale, cabbage and tomatoes. Start inside now, and plant outside after the last frost. Keep this one in a container, because unleashed mint will spread rapidly throughout your garden. Take it inside over the winter.

Use mint in teas, jellies, salads, or add to your bath! Make a mint-infused massage or bath oil by drying fresh mint leaves overnight, chop, and fill a (not aluminum or copper) pot with the leaves. Completely cover with almond or grapeseed oil PLUS two inches. Heat slowly over low heat for about three hours; strain and pour liquid into a clean airtight container and store in a cool, dark place.

Location, location…Once you’ve decided what to grow, pick a sunny spot that has handy access to a water source; you’ll get earth-friendly bonus points for figuring out a way to capture rainwater. Remember that large containers, once planted and watered, can be heavy to move.

Contain yourself: Before you buy containers, take note of the spread and height of the plants you’d like to grow—information which is typically found on the seed packet. Your budget, taste, and salvaging talents all come into play here. Plastic containers from the garden store to high-end hand-crafted cedar boxes, old wine barrels or fruit-picking bins, biodegradable peat pots—the choice is yours. In their lush Prince Rupert garden, Barbara and Robert Gruber swear by old tires—they keep soil warm overnight and can be raised incrementally (one atop the other) as needed.

Whatever you use, make sure your containers have been thoroughly washed if they’ve ever been used for plants before. And consider this fundamental question: how will excess water drain out of the pots? If there are no holes in the bottom, you will want to add some. Enhance drainage further by putting a generous bed (up to one-sixth the height of the container) of small stones or gravel at the bottom before adding potting soil. Depending on what you want to grow (some you’ll need to start inside before your last frost date; see seed package directions), you may need a few seed-starting trays as well.

Dish the Dirt: No, you can’t just put regular garden soil into those containers; it will get too soggy and compacted, inhibiting root growth. A lighter, more aerated growing medium is required. You can purchase potting soil that has been sterilized and contains water- and oxygen-holding granules of vermiculite or perlite (made from mica and volcanic ash respectively, both heated to the point of expansion).

Or, be a purist and mix your own potting soil. Try this mixture, suggested by Diana from Burns Lake: one part each sandy loam soil, mature compost, and peat moss or rotted manure.

Ready, set, grow: Plant seeds and seedlings in containers according to package directions. Pay special attention to species-specific instructions for successful planting.

Water is especially important in containers, which dry out quickly. “People wrongly assume you don’t need to water containers on cloudy days,” says Quinton. “And on hot days, containers can dry out within eight hours—you may actually need to water twice in the same day.” Dave Phillips on Haida Gwaii recommends giving plants a small drink of water “to set the roots in action” before you give them a longer drink.

Feed your plants organically with matured compost, which can be dug right into the soil or spread thinly on the surface.

Watch for pests, such as aphids, which can multiply quickly. Try this organic pest control method suggested by Diana: To a gallon of water, add a tablespoon each of earth-friendly dish soap, powdered or pulverized garlic (not garlic salt), and Tabasco sauce. Spray it on plant leaves.

Karen recommends keeping notes about dates and conditions of planting, blooming, and producing…they’ll be helpful next year.

Further resources: Once you’re hooked on gardening, check out the excellent resources listed above for more information on northern BC gardening. Also see Gardening Between Frosts, by Dave Havard, renowned Smithers gardener.

Garden clubs and community gardens in your area are excellent sources of that most precious gardening element: local knowledge.

In Prince George, a 10 × 20 foot community garden plot can be rented for as little as $20 per year. Ask around for information about community gardens in your area.

© Larissa Ardis 2007