Introductory Video

Watch the February 28, 2023 launch of the Seed to Table program.

Extend the season with a cold frame or greenhouse

Gardening in Zone 3/4 is not for the faint of heart. Late frosts, cold nights, hot days, hail, chinook winds, and wild temperature swings can take out young seedlings quickly. Providing protection to plants when they are just starting can really help ensure success. If you are lucky enough to have space for a greenhouse, consider one to aid in starting your season off right. If you don’t have space or funds for a full greenhouse installation, there are still things you can do to provide a greenhouse-like environment for seedlings. 

Try a cold frame. These are essentially a greenhouse in small form and provide the same function by protecting from wind and frost. You can install one permanently alongside the foundation of your home, or use one temporarily right on top of your garden beds, then remove and store as the plants grow.

If that is still outside your resources, get creative. Temporary covers can provide many of the same benefits. Try clear containers like large plastic water bottles or food storage containers. Just cut off the tops, turn them over and press them into the soil around your seedlings. Clear storage bins can work the same way.  Remember that it can easily get too hot inside a greenhouse or cold frame on sunny days. Be sure to watch the temperature and open doors, and windows, or temporarily remove small structures. Wind is also something to consider. Be sure that structures are installed and anchored to prevent wind damage, and weigh down plastic containers with stones or bricks to prevent them from blowing away.


Potting up your seedlings

Your indoor seedlings are doing well and have one or more sets of true leaves, but you might be wondering if you should pot them up into a larger size pot. Here’s how to tell: 

  • Your seedling seems to be drying out faster than before, and you’re watering far more often to keep up. 
  • Your seedling has roots protruding from the bottom of the pot or, if you gently remove the plant from the pot, you can see the roots are beginning to circle around the bottom of the pot. 
  • Your seedlings (often tomatoes) are growing too tall and falling over. 
  • Your seedlings were started in a sterile medium. 
  • Your seedlings were started in a sterile medium and are beginning to discolour or you have noticed that growth has stagnated. 

Any of these conditions is a sign to pot up your plants. For tomatoes and squash that are tall and toppling over, prune off a set or two of lower leaves, leave the growth tip and at least two sets of leaves intact, plant the seedling deeper into the pot, and cover the stem. This will allow more roots to form along the stem and create a more robust root system.


Start seeds indoors

Starting seeds indoors is a fantastic way for gardeners without outdoor cold frames or greenhouses, to get a jump on the growing season. On average in the Calgary area, the growing season has roughly 100 frost-free days. This means that many plants, if sown directly in the outdoor garden, will be hit by the fall frost before they reach the production stage. Starting seeds indoors before the last spring frost increases the available growing time so the plant can produce for us.

What you will need:

  1. Pots, or something to start seeds in, such as a seed starting tray. Feel free to use items you may already have, like spent food containers. Some gardeners make pots from newspaper or toilet paper tubes. Err on the side of caution and choose small containers rather than large ones. You can always pot up seedlings if they outgrow the pot. 
  2. Consider the growing medium. There are pros and cons to all mediums, but for starting seeds, choose based on the following:
  • A sterile seed-starting medium will lessen the chance of mould or fungus affecting young seedlings. 
  • A fertile seed-starting medium will lessen the chance of seedlings running out of food before being transplanted into the garden. Either way, you may need to mitigate any fungal issues or fertilize once seedlings have their first full set of true leaves.
  1. Consider the light source. If you don’t have adequate light in front of large windows, supplement with grow lights. Grow lights provide a higher intensity of light and you can program them on timers to provide more hours of light in the day.
  2. Have a plan. Timing is imperative: tomato plants sown too early will take over your home before it’s warm enough to plant them out, and onions sown too late will never reach a nice, large size. On a calendar, note the last frost date for your area (usually after the May long weekend) and work backwards from there, based on information on the seed package, to figure out when to sow your seeds.

Seed Germination

While a seed knows how to grow, there are a few things we can do as gardeners to help it with its complicated job. A seed will germinate and grow when all the circumstances are correct for it to do so. This means it’s our job to identify what those circumstances are and to put them in place for the seed to use in the locations where we want them to grow.

 Temperature – some seeds have a wide variety of temperatures at which they will germinate, and some require cold stratification before exposure to warmer temperatures.

Moisture – seeds will not germinate if they are dry, and some need more moisture than others. 

Light – some seeds require darkness to germinate whereas others prefer to see the sun. 

The good news is that you can easily find most of this information on the seed packet. The only other thing we need to do is figure out how to generate those conditions in our growing locations, and we have tools at our disposal to help. 

  • Try heat mats to increase warmth under seed trays for starting seeds indoors and outdoors, and try creating a greenhouse effect with containers, domes, or actual greenhouses.  
  • Try self wicking pots, misters, drip irrigation, or bottom watering for maintaining adequate moisture levels. 
  • Try grow lights or ensure that seedling pots are located near bright windows or in locations outdoors that will provide adequate light. Ensure that seeds are planted at the correct depth.

Winter Sowing

Winter sowing is the process of planting seeds in containers that can then be put outside in the cold. This allows the container to act as a mini greenhouse and protect the seeds as they germinate and grow. 

Starting plants this way saves us from caring for seedlings indoors and allows us to get a head start on the gardening season. Winter sowing also mimics the natural process of seeds spending time outdoors and being exposed to cold temperatures (cold stratification). Some seeds will not germinate without going through a cold stratification process. One of the largest benefits of growing this way is that seedlings will not need much hardening off because they’ve been exposed to cold and sunlight along the way. Most often seeds are sown in milk jugs, but any container can be used if it will provide enough protection and enough space for seedlings to grow.

Tips for success:

  • Our growing season experiences many temperature fluctuations. Keep containers covered in snow, if possible, to provide insulation.
  • If the snow is all gone and the temperature is warm, be sure to keep the containers from drying out.
  • Store containers in a partially shady place so young seedlings don’t get too hot.
  • Ensure that containers have adequate drainage and large enough holes for a bit of snow or rain to get in

For in-depth instructions on winter sowing, visit the Royal Botanical Gardens of Canada tutorial


Getting seeds for less 

Some gardeners grow food to lessen their grocery bill but, if the aim is to reduce expenditure, then saving money at all stages of growing food is helpful, too. Getting our gardens going in the spring can be an overwhelming financial outlay, but these six tips will get you growing for less: 

  1. Trade with friends—you have seed, they have seed. Meet up and share! 
  2. Use previously saved seed—saving seed from last season’s garden is a gamechanger. If you’ve never done it, make a note to try harvesting seeds from your plants at the end of this season and, if you have done it, it’s time to remember where you put them for safe keeping. 
  3. Check your library–seed libraries are out there! Ask your library if they have one or suggest that a library starts one. Seed libraries are a fantastic community resource. 
  4. Scavenge seed from grocery scraps—scrape seeds from your store-bought tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. Not all seeds will be ideal, but many will germinate. 
  5. Check your pantry—whole seeds (not ground) from your spice bottles, such as dill, mustard, and coriander, are often viable as are most dried beans and some pseudo grains like amaranth or quinoa. 
  6. Skip the seed and grow from propagations—if you had a cherry tomato plant growing indoors over the winter, propagate suckers for new and free plants to use outdoors this season. 
  7. Overwinter. Some plants can be overwintered indoors and moved outside again in spring. Try this with peppers, citrus, hibiscus, and more.

The Seed Viability Test 

Did you find some old seeds and wonder if they are still useable? Instead of wasting time and resources watering seeds that will never grow, do a viability test first. Here’s how:  

Use a dinner plate or platter, depending on how many seeds you’d like to test. Ideally, you’ll test more than just one seed per package. Aim for 5 to 10 if you have a good supply. Lay a damp paper towel across the plate. It should be wet enough that water drops will release if you squeeze it, but not soggy enough that water is floating on the plate. Place seeds in rows across the paper towel. Clip the tips off very hard seeds like squash and sunflower seeds to aid in speeding germination because moisture will more readily affect the seed. Make a key for later reference by writing on a piece of paper what seeds are in what location. Cover the seeds with another damp paper towel, then cover the plate with plastic wrap and place it in a warm location. As seeds begin to germinate, take note of which ones look healthy and which ones are not growing. You can assume that seeds in packets with good germination are good to plant out, and seeds in packets with no germination can’t be relied on. However, you may still benefit from planting them out if it won’t waste too many resources to do so. Some might still produce but the germination rate could be lower than if the seed was fresh. Be sure you know roughly how long it might take to germinate a seed so you can decide whether a seed is viable. Some need more time than others. Refer to your seed package for germination information. If you have seeds with conflicting requirements, you may want to test them on separate plates. Timing can be critical. If you want to test seeds prior to starting them inside so they are ready to transplant after the last frost date, give yourself plenty of time. It can be helpful to note this on a calendar. Germinated seeds need not be wasted when your test is complete. Gently transfer them to a growing medium and care for them as required.


How many seeds to start? 

It can be difficult to know how many seeds to sow for each plant you wish to cultivate, but these tips will help guide you as you make your garden plan for the upcoming season: 

Read your seed packs 

As gardeners it can be difficult to resist the urge to stuff as many plants as we can into our space, but doing so could mean smaller yields as they compete for resources. Some plants can be planted densely, and some need more space to sprawl. Read your seed pack and it will tell you how far to space each plant from its neighbour. Then, calculate how many you will fit into your growing space and maybe add one or two extra seeds as a back up. You can always thin, sell, or give plants away if they all grow well and space becomes tight. 

How much do you eat?  

As a rule, plant more of what you love to eat and less of what you don’t. If you really dislike it, maybe don’t grow it at all. Many growers fawn over fancy tomato varieties but, if tomatoes don’t interest you, instead grow something that does. If beans are your favourite and you wish to freeze some for the winter, plan on sowing more of these and reduce the quantity of other plants if need be. 

Light will guide the way  

Maybe you love to eat spinach but have a small amount of space in the shade and the most amount of space the sun. You’re better off to plant fewer plants in the spot they will grow best instead of trying to plant more plants in a location that will make lush growth difficult. Keep this in mind as you plant out your growing spaces and adjust accordingly.


Make a garden map!

You don’t need graphic design skills or a colour-coded spreadsheet to benefit from making a garden map, although you certainly can go that route if you have access to software programs and a skillset to match. For the rest of us, pencil and paper will work and provide some insight into how we might plant our gardens more efficiently.

To start, sketch out a top-down view of your garden space, balcony, or yard. Try to make it as close to scale as you can but remember, it doesn’t need to be perfect. Next mark the orientation (north, south, east, and west) so you will know how the sun travels through the day. If you are unsure, find your home on a map or simply observe where the sun rises and sets. Observation will also help you determine which areas are in shade and which enjoy full sun. Mark these spots on the map as well by crosshatching the shade areas with pencil and circling full sun spaces. You may benefit from measuring your plots, beds, or planters, and then writing these measurements on your map. 

Now that you have the layout, lighting, and rough measurements available to you, you will be able to plan what items to plant where, how many seeds to start, and where you might be able to squeeze in one more thing.

Use your map year-over-year to keep track of where you’ve put perennials and adjust the map as you learn what worked and what didn’t.


Big Bounty

If you have a small amount of space and can only grow a few plants, these four suggestions will get you the biggest return for your efforts by volume or money saved over the grocery store.

Cherry tomatoes – Those little clamshell packs in the grocery store are expensive, and cherry tomatoes grow quickly, producing fruit continuously until the hard frost hits. Grow in pots or buckets to save on space. 

Lettuce – Most lettuces have a relatively short time to harvest ( 30–40 days), which means you can quickly be eating fresh lettuce on your burgers. Use the cut and come again method to keep the bounty coming in for weeks, and plan to sow a second harvest to refresh your crop going into the fall. Lettuce grows well in containers or semi-shaded areas where you may not have success with other crops. 

Zucchini – We’ve all heard the jokes about having to pawn off excess squash to our friends, family, and neighbours. These jokes are funny, but they also ring true because the size of the yield can’t be beat for zucchini, patty pan, and other summer squashes. Grow zucchini in pots or tubs to save on space. Just be sure to provide plenty of nutrition. 

Beans – There are many varieties of beans to choose from and, like lettuce, they will produce quickly and often until the frost. Beans also have a higher protein count and that means they go a long way in our diets, allowing us to spend less on proteins at the store. Plant as many as you can for the best yield and don’t forget that these plants can be tucked into smaller spaces and even flowerpots.


Perennials to start by seed

If you’re looking to cut your spring gardening costs year over year, perennials are how you’ll do it! Many perennials are sold as tubers, crowns, or propagations, but did you know you could also grow them from seed?

It might require more time and patience but, in the end, it will save you money as seed is often less costly than a crown or plant. Here are some perennial edibles to consider starting from seed: 

Asparagus, walking onions, Jerusalem artichokes, rhubarb, strawberries, sorrel, horseradish, elderberry, and rose (petals, hips). Also try herbs such as anise hyssop, lovage, sage, chives, lemon balm, bee balm, and mint. Small seedlings for larger plants (rose, elderberry, etc.) may require more protection as they mature to ensure that they aren’t crushed or scorched.


So Many Choices! What Should You Plant?

With so much variety available to us, it can be difficult to decide what plants we want to grow and which seeds to purchase. Here are some questions to ask yourself when deciding what to grow for the upcoming gardening season: 

  1. What does my family like to eat? There’s no reason to struggle through cabbage moth control if nobody likes to eat broccoli or cabbage anyway. 
  2. What are the light conditions in my gardening area? If you’re trying to grow lettuce in full sun against the house, you may struggle. Take a few days to observe how the sun travels through your plot and plant to your lighting circumstances. 

How much space do you have to work with? A lot of things can be grown in pots if that’s all you must work with, but choose plants with smaller root systems and lower water requirements. On the other hand, if you have loads of space, consider taking advantage of this by using your resource to the fullest with crops like corn and squash. 


Seed Starting Mediums – Which Should You Choose?

What makes soil made for seed starting different from other soils? And does it matter? The beauty of gardening is that each gardener will develop methods and techniques that work best for them over time. Some prefer to use a seed starting mix which is, at it’s core, devoid of nutrients and sterile. These mixes are designed to hold moisture around the seed until it can germinate. The seed itself will contain all the nutrients it needs to germinate and grow its first set of leaves and the beginnings of a root system. After that, it will need sunlight and soil nutrition to be able to grow more. At this point, you may decide to use a fertilizer or transplant it into a soil with nutrients mixed in. Young seedlings are susceptible to damage by bacteria and fungus which is why they are removed (sterilized) from seed starting mixes. But it’s your choice. Either use a standard potting soil with nutrition built in and possibly need to mitigate fungus and bacteria, or you’ll need to add nutrition to a seed starting mix when the seedlings are large enough to want a meal. Over time you will discover a method that works best for you!


Should we starts seeds now?

Well, maybe. If you love growing hot peppers then you may wish to get those seeds started soon indoors because these plants need warm temperatures to germinate and grow. There are some flower varieties you may want to start soon as well, such as geranium and snapdragon. Maturing these plants for longer inside will mean you see flowers faster outside. But for most garden staples, it’s a little too early. Plants like tomatoes will be jungle big by spring and take over your house. It’s best to wait a little longer for those. Refer to your seed packets for best information on timing for each species. Most packets will tell you when to start the seeds


Be YardSmart Rain Barrel Stand

Use wood you may have on hand to build a rain barrel stand for a Green Calgary rain barrel.

Materials

  • One 8’ pressure treated 4×4 post
  • Half sheet of 1/2” Plywood (24”x 48”)
  • One 2×4 piece of dimensional lumber
  • 32 Deck screws (2.5”)
  • Outdoor stain or paint (oil-based)

View and Download the Assembly Instructions

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