I recently sent off seed requests via Seeds of Diversity Canada, a seed exchange organization dedicated to the preservation of heritage varieties that I joined last summer. In the face of online ordering, the ease of PayPal transactions, and good ole’ email the whole experience felt downright old-fashioned, involving about three hours of painstaking reading and rereading instructions cross-referenced against further instruction. Having mastered that challenge I’m thinking about doing my taxes on paper, just for fun.
The process went as follows:
- Highlight selections. I chose yellow this time around. With a five-colour brick on hand I take my highlighting needs seriously.
- Next, decipher confusing abbreviated code and cross-reference abbreviated names and locations with a full list at the front of the catalogue to ascertain who to send money to and where.
- Address an envelope and affix appropriate postage. I can do this. This is familiar.
- Make copies of the printed form found in the middle of the catalogue. You will need copies if you plan to request from more than one grower or if you are prone to making mistakes on written forms yet insist on using indelible ink. I used the “copy” feature on my ancient and nearly useless fax machine. Surprisingly this was my second time turning it on in the same day. Hello 1993!
- Fill out the form. Oh crap, I do not know my membership number. Apparently I was supposed to keep the envelopes containing all correspondence from the organization since my membership number is printed on the mailing sticker. Apparently this was all outlined on my introductory membership letter. The introductory membership letter I filed away without reading because I do not care to read instructions. Write long-winded explanation for lack of membership number in supplied tiny space.
Was it worth it? Absolutely! The catalogue that arrived in my mailbox last month contained more plant names in one place than I have ever seen in my life. Making my way through it with the highlighter was a gardener’s wet dream, so-to-speak. Imagine 37 letter-sized pages of single-spaced text and no photographs dedicated entirely to tomatoes. From such an exhaustive list I bought only one variety, a purple cherry called ‘Haley’s Purple Comet’ that I fell in love with at a Tomato Tasting Party last August. I had not been able to locate seeds for this genetic fluke — a delicious love-child derived from tasty favourite ‘Cherokee Purple.’ And from another grower I ordered four lettuce varieties I have not seen available anywhere else: ‘Cheetah Oak’, ‘Devil’s Ear’s', ‘Ibis’ and ‘Drunken Woman.’ Surprisingly I ordered the last one for more than the name alone!
Placing completed forms and envelopes containing cash money into the mailbox this morning felt about as certain as making a dandelion wish and releasing it into the wind. Will my seed selections actually arrive or did I just buy lunch for some disenfranchised postal worker? Only time will tell.
This turn-of-the-century seed catalogue, John A. Bruce & Co.’s Illustrated and Descriptive Catalogue of Seeds, 1884, was perfect reading this morning as I prepared to make my final seed choices and orders for the 2008 growing season. The gorgeous illustrated book (do not miss the cover on page 6), reproduced in full and made available online as a part of the Ontario Time Machine project is fascinating to explore including vegetable varieties many of us still enjoy today (they sold my favourite dwarf pea ‘Tom Thumb’!). Reading through the book sent me off on some wild but fruitless chases for interesting varieties like ‘Alpha’ a blue wrinkled pea, and ‘Black Portugal Musk Rock’* (page 13) a fascinating, bumpy-skinned cantaloupe.
As you turn through the pages be sure to click on descriptive photos, text definitions and audio files that provide further insight and historical context.
I’ve got to include an additional shout-out here to my spouse Davin who designed the Ontario Time Machine website.
*Cantaloupes or musk melons were called “rock melons” around the turn-of-the-century due to their hard, rock-like rinds.
It’s been decided. The first round of seed-starting 2008 starts today. I considered shooting a mini video how-to of this procedure to post here but decided against it because it is another miserably grey and sunless day in Toronto and video would require the additional hassle of setting up lights. And of course I would need to shower, dress, and “style” my hair. My friend Jen insists these extra steps are not required but I’m convinced that a video shot in my pj’s is a little more truthiness than I’m comfortable revealing to the world. Rest assured, dear reader, that despite the occasional slip into TMI territory you will never be asked to peer inside my fridge, or my bag.
And in truth a seed-starting video how-to is redundantly painful when I think about it. Certain aspects of seed-starting are certainly troubling, but the part that involves plopping some seed-starting mix in a container, adding some seeds, and covering the hole with more soil really is that easy. I’m going away for a long weekend soon, smack dab in the middle of a critical point in a young seedling’s life, so I’ll be starting this batch in my self-watering seed-starter — my neighbour has enough stress dealing with the cat and house plants, I don’t need to add Keeping Very Important and Very Fragile Seeds Alive to the list.
There are a million and one ways to approach just about any gardening procedure and everyone will tell you their way is THE RIGHT WAY when in fact there are lots of right ways. That is the first and most important lesson beginner gardeners should know if they want to save themselves a whole lot of future hair-pulling.
Below, in a nutshell, is how I get my seeds started:
- Assemble tools and ingredients including but not limited to: Seed-starting mix, empty containers or self-watering device, seeds, water. If your containers are previously used you’ll probably need to wash them in some hot soapy water. Add a few splashes of oxygenated bleach.
- Moisten a batch of seed-starting mix by dumping it in another container, adding in enough water to make the mix damp but not soaked.
- Loosely fill each container or chamber with the pre-moistened seed-starting mix and lightly press the soil to eliminate air pockets and bubbles. Another container of the same size works well and of course so do your fingers.
The goal here isn’t about seeking a perfectly level surface, reasonably level with suffice. The key is to try and leave a little space between the tamped soil surface and the top of the container/chamber so there is space to cover the seed/s later on. The only trick here is to make sure the amount of space left is relative to the depth each particular seed needs to be buried. Seed packets will tell you what’s what but a good general rule-of-thumb is to bury the seeds approximately as deep as they are in size. So following this theory a tiny seed like basil would need to be buried quite close to the surface while a pea or bean would need to be buried about a half-inch or so below the soil surface.
I prefer this method to making a hole because it allows me to space as many seeds as necessary. Of course making holes will work just fine too.
- Sow a seed or two or three in each container/chamber. I sow more than one to be sure at least one germinates but how many depends on the size of the container. You can always cut extras out later but you waste time trying again with seeds that don’t germinate. If you’re unsure about the shelf-life of a pack of seeds you can always try testing them out first.
- Cover the seeds with a layer of seed-starting mix. I’ve used vermiculite too but to be honest haven’t noticed a difference. Either works just fine. Remember that the amount of coverage required varies depending on the seed. Consult your seed package or use the general rule of thumb I mentioned above.
- Place your containers on a tray and water from the bottom (into the tray rather than the container). Remove any excess water that is still sitting in the tray 15 minutes later.
- Place your tray in a warm spot. It’s optional but I can’t say enough about a heating mat. They’re not cheap so I don’t recommend it if you’re not yet sure if seed-starting is your thing. However, a mat (sort of like a bottle warmer for plants) will provide constant heat at just the right temperature. At this stage in the game light isn’t an issue (for most seeds) but warmth is critical in aiding germination. Unfortunately the warmest spot isn’t always the most convenient — appliances make adequate but slightly dangerous make-shift heating mats!
- Tag or label each container. Do not delude yourself into thinking you will remember what you’ve started where. I’ve grown enough mystery plants to have developed a deep appreciation for labeling.
- Keep the soil damp like a sponge that has been wrung out but not soaking wet. Now relax and wait for the magic to happen.
Another Seedy Saturday Toronto has come and gone and like last year I managed, with great effort, to make it around to a few booths and pick up some seeds. The event was more packed than ever this year making it nearly impossible to leave my brother/assistant alone at the table for any length of time or push through the crowds lingering around some of the larger seed sellers. The sellers I did manage to get to were often sold out of items on my wanted list. And forget the Seeds of Diversity trading table. I had high hopes but only managed to snag a pack of red orach seeds. Next year I plan to employ the strategy of browsing during setup, BEFORE the crowds arrive. Next year.
Here’s what I managed to bring home with me:
- Red Orach – A trade pack harvested from Jackman Public School’s Learning Garden.
- ‘Early Yellow Crookneck’ Squash – A trade with a You Grow Girl forums member. I thought I needed squash but then got home and realized I have several varieties in my stash. This is why I should have brought a list.
- ‘Dragon’ Carrot – Another trade that I already have. ‘Dragon’ is a beautiful purple carrot. If I had to choose I suppose I favour it over ‘Purple Haze’ although ‘Dragon’ would crumble in a Best Name competition.
- Love Lies Bleeding – I’ve been trying to grow more amaranth over the last few years and ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ is a classic that never gets old.
- ‘Blue Spice’ Basil – Another trade. I don’t think I have grown this variety which is kind of amazing since I’d swear I have covered just about everything in the unusual basil category at least once.
- ‘Purple Calabash’ Tomato – I fell in love with its ugly beauty last year. I am planning to grow less tomatoes this year and have not finalized my list as-of-yet. Who gets cut will be the hardest decision I have to make this year.
- Painted Lady Sweet Pea – I just love the fragrant sweetness of sweet pea flowers but tend to steer clear of them due to their attractiveness to aphids. I decided to try my luck and grow a few varieties this year. I can always pull them out if things get nasty. This variety really does look like the runner beans of the same name. I know it seems redundant to grow them when I can just grow the beans later in the season but I can’t cut those flowers and I am really craving cut sweet peas for my desk.
- Persian Broad-Leaf Cress – I have grown a number of pepper cresses but like that this variety is described as milder than other cresses.
- Tendergreen Mustard Green – I’m on a personal mission to try growing just about every salad green under the sun.
- ‘Queen Anne’s Pocket Melon’ aka ‘Plum Granny’ – I’m planning to grow some melon this year but admittedly this one was an impulse buy and not on the list. ‘Plum Grannies’ are tiny melons known for their intoxicating fruity smell. I can not resist a good back story and the story for these citrus-sized melons is that Victorian women carried them in their pockets to fight street stench. The thought of two of these in a breast pocket has me thinking about another derivative of the colloquial use of ‘melons.”
- Swiss Chard ‘Ruby Red’ & ‘Golden Sunrise’ – I’ve grown the ‘Rainbow’ mix and other coloured varieties but these two are my favourites for their saturated colours that look so beautiful in containers of contrasting colour or as a burst of brightness tucked beside boring veggie varieties.
- ‘Selway’ Lettuce - Brightly coloured greens are another edible trick I employ to brighten dull corners and containers. Consequently I am always on the look out for a good red variety. We’ll see how these fair against ‘Lolla Rosa’ aka ‘Lollo Rosa’ which still reigns as my favourite red.
- ‘Cimmaron’ Romaine Lettuce – An unusual romaine with a deep, reddish purple hue.
- ‘Yugoslavian Red’ Butterhead Lettuce – A really beautiful butterhead variety with shades of green tinged by deep red.
- ‘Black Spanish’ Radish – I’m very curious about the flavour and how to eat this root vegetable.
- ‘Black Jet’ Soybean – I have to admit I bought these for the dark bean colour. I’ve had a lot of success with soybeans in containers on the roof but that dang groundhog just LOVES to eat the plants as they emerge from the soil at the community plot.
Don’t forget to enter the Haiku Contest!
This is the first package of seeds I have purchased for the 2008 growing season. Of course I have acquired other seeds via trades but this was the first I bought. It has a decidedly Canadian sounding name, no? It makes sense given that the plant heralds from Beverlodge Research Center in Alberta. I bought it because one of my longterm goals is to try as many tomato varieties as possible to determine which varieties are the best for container gardeners. My criteria for judging ranges from how they fair and yield in smallish containers to taste and attractiveness.
People often ask me about my own gardens and I often feel I have to explain that despite the fact that I am an artist, they are not really self-expressive or artistic gardens but have become experimental spaces. In some ways they aren’t really mine to do as I please but where I try out different plants, varieties and techniques so I can learn as much as possible within each growing season.
From ages 13-18 I was determinedly set on an educational path towards becoming some sort of scientist. By age 18 I was starting to question that choice as I also had a deep longing to make art and interests in other areas (i.e cultural theory and other humanities subjects). Everything changed one evening when I looked around my grade 13 Chemistry night school classroom and had the sudden, clear realization that while I liked the gadgets and the experimentation I was not at all cut out for a life in science. The reason why I am telling you that bit of history about myself is to explain that forgoing the personal choice for experimentation is not exactly a hardship. I enjoy it equally to self-expression.
In that sense I think I am drawn into gardening through a range of interests. I like the physicality of it, of using my muscles and interacting with soil and plants. I like it as a creative outlet, making beautiful spaces with plants and junk. Which leads to my life-long appreciation for making something out of nothing. Sure we can’t garden with literally nothing, this isn’t magic after all. It’s easy to get caught up in all of the “stuff” we think we need, but in the end we can do a lot with just a handful of seeds and somewhere to put them. It is in that sense that I don’t understand why we focus on depicting gardening as an expensive pursuit. People of all classes garden. Of course there are financial limitations (who owns space and has access to it, and resources that are both financial and in the form of leisure time) but I am just as amazed by the back alley tomato farm as I am by a high-faluting potager. Every garden is a place of wonder with so much to discover and learn from. That aspect of it connects me to my child brain, where my interest in the sciences was really more about uncovering and reveling in a sense of wonder and awe about nature. From that perspective the choices that led me to being so deeply entrenched in this pursuit were the right ones. It taps into several different sides of my brain and has pushed me in areas I didn’t realize needed pushing.
Gardening is a unique activity in that it can be approached from so many different angles. Every gardener has their own personal reasons for being drawn to it and for sticking with it throughout their lives.
So today’s post ends with a question for you. Why are you drawn to gardening? How does it tap into your interests?