Gardening Tips: When Less is More

What to do this week

This week we need to have a talk. Yes, it’s advice I find hard to follow myself, but just between you and me, we’re going to have to suck it up. It’s for our own good. The advice? Don’t take on more than you can reasonably manage. I know, we’ve all been drooling over seed catalogs and we’re ready to spend more than we can afford on seeds and plants, but just put the credit card in the freezer for a while.

Are you a new or beginner gardener? How much land are you going to actively cultivate this year? I always say that it’s better to start small, do it successfully and then expand, than to go big and walk away mid-season, discouraged by weeds, bugs and an aching back. If you are digging your plot by hand or plan on raised beds, your space will be limited. Plan on growing things that give you a big freshness bang for your buck, like lettuces, peas, tomatoes and baby carrots. You can’t buy good snap peas in the supermarket. Think about getting a larger packet and doing several sowings, a week apart, to ensure your supply. Cascade is a good pea variety that is adapted to succession planting (not all are) and has the advantage of short vines that don’t need staking. Green beans too are nicest fresh and if you plant pole beans they can be trained on sticks forming a tipi to make an edible hideaway for youngsters. Still too much work? A short row of bush beans will give you plenty for summer meals.

Colorful carrots from Polignano, Italy. (Photo by Angelo Signore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons)

Colorful carrots from Polignano, Italy. (Photo by Angelo Signore, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

At first, consider growing only determinate varieties of tomatoes – they don’t need staking. They still need plenty of room, though. They need to be at least a couple of feet apart. Too close together and they will crowd and starve each other, as well as being vulnerable to fungal diseases. I do recommend starting from seed, as the choice of transplant varieties is usually so limited, but small packets will do. You can always put away the extras for next year in carefully labelled mason jars. Tomato seeds will stay viable for up to 10 years this way.

Carrots are delicious fresh from the garden but if you have newly turned or heavy soil, go for baby varieties or at least the ones good at muscling through clay, like Royal Chantenay and Danvers 126. Short carrots like Paris Market grow fast and should be eaten small.

Leave the year’s worth of potato production for people with tillers and muscle power to spare. You can grow some potatoes for fun in a bin or an old burlap sack filled with dirt, but wait until you are sure you’re enjoying this before you decide to feed your family for the winter on what you grow. By the same token, a plant or two of summer squash or zucchini will be ample for a family’s seasonal needs (choose bush varieties to save space) but be aware that most winter or storage squashes need lots of elbow room even for a single plant.

Are you an experienced gardener? Don’t be afraid of trying some new things. How about seed-saving? By now, you are used to how far you can push the season in your microclimate but if last summer taught us anything, it was to expect the unexpected. (Yeesh, cold and wet then hot and dry, it nailed us both ways.) Climate change means diseases and pests are changing along with the weather and we gardeners on the fringes have to be nimble to keep up. If your favorite hybrid beefsteaks work for you, great, but consider planting some of the many open-pollinated tomatoes. They are often better adapted to variable conditions and less-than-perfect soil. Plus, growing them your way over the years gradually adapts them especially to your garden. You will need to keep them isolated from other tomatoes by at least 10 meters if you want to save seed. You can grow all the other eating tomatoes you want in a motley clump as long as you keep the ones for seeds that distance apart from the others. Plan on at least six of that variety to prevent in-breeding depression.

If seed-saving is not your thing, try growing some unusual vegetables, just a few at a time. Carrots don’t have to be orange – that’s just been the fashion. They originally came in all sorts of red, yellow, white and purple shades and many of these are making a comeback. What fun! I like to try a couple of new things each year. Sometimes they flop but some become staples, like Red Swan fresh beans, or Peruvian Purple potatoes.

By now, beginner or old hand, it should be clear to you that you need to map out your garden plan. Use graph paper and do it to scale if that helps. Try to remember what you planted where last year so you can rotate your crops. Plants from the same family should not follow each other in the rotation. Tomatoes and peppers are the same family, and peas and beans should definitely not follow each other either. It can get complicated, especially when you add seed-saving to the mix. A large sheet of scrap paper and a pencil with an eraser are your friends! Orient your map so you know which way is south. Don’t forget to draw in major garden features like hedges or trees so you know where the shade will fall. This is especially important in urban plots. When planting season comes, there will inevitably be changes as we all frantically seed and transplant in any space available, but a master plan now will ease the frenzy and help ensure a healthier, more manageable garden.





Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.