Gardening Tips: Lettuce Rejoice!

Editor’s Note: We’ve been reaching back into Michelle Smith’s archives for always timely gardening tips. This column was originally published on 22 May 2019.


What to do this week

I finally got my tractor going after having it sit all winter and as soon as the soil dries a bit after the recent rains, I will get going on the mid-spring planting. I generally wait until the lilacs are putting out their first leaves and the daffodils and flowering quince are in bloom. This usually occurs two or three weeks before the last frost date, so the weather should be warm enough for cool season annuals.

Lettuces are ideal to sow in this cool, drizzly weather. The lettuce transplants can go in as well — once they are properly hardened off as we discussed earlier this month. If you want to assure yourself of a continuing supply of lettuce, sow a few varieties every week until the first or second week in June. That way whatever the weather — warm and dry or cool and wet — you have the stuff for salads. You can still get in some spinach if you sow it in the next couple of weeks. After that it tends to be too warm for it to germinate.

Kholrabi photo: H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

All the brassicas as well, whether direct seeded or transplants, can go in the ground. Brassicas include cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi and cauliflower. I strongly recommend you plant those brassicas under row covers to exclude flea beetles and cabbage worms if you had these problems before. Often if you can miss the first generation hatching of these pests at the beginning of June, you can avoid the worst of the damage, so either delay planting or keep them under row covers until then. Some gardeners sow brassica seed in between the transplants for a later harvest.

Beets and chard can be sown now as well. They need good rich soil to do well. I try to plant them the year following a well-fed squash or potato planting. Peas can go in the ground too. I ensure a steady supply of peas by planting varieties with different days to maturity. I used to try to make successive plantings of a single variety, but I found our springs so late here that the day-length adaptation of peas kicked in and the second and third planting produced very little.

I also take this time to transplant my onions and leeks. These guys don’t like dry feet at all, so it is important to get them into the ground to get established before the drier summer weather. Onions are also day-length adapted and start their bulbing trigger around the summer solstice. So the more growth they can get before that will mean bigger onions.

If you are hankering for a taste of baby carrots, you can fluid sow them now. Carrots take a while to germinate and I find that by the time they come up either the weeds or the slugs have taken them over and I end up planting them two or three times before I get some that take in the normal way. My solution to this is to adapt a technique used by high-tech industry growers.

First, I pre-germinate the seed indoors, the same way you would make your own alfalfa sprouts. Rinse them twice a day in a mesh-covered mason jar. Don’t let them soak, just pour cold water on them and let them drain. As soon as you see little tails on the seeds, no more than 1/8 inch long, they are ready to plant. I make up a gel mixture of cornstarch and water cooked until it sets, then cooled completely. You don’t want to use warm gel – it will cook the little seedlings! I use a whole box of cornstarch to about three gallons of water. You don’t need this much if you are just doing a home plot, though. Mix the seedlings in the cool gel until they are evenly distributed. Make lots of gel for this and you won’t have to thin the carrots as much. Put the mixture in a plastic bag with a little hole cut in the bottom corner and squoosh it out into your furrow and cover with soil. It is a little messy. I tend to be covered in dirt and gel by the time I’m done. But the carrots emerge way sooner than they would with ordinary seeding, and this gives you a chance to stay ahead of the weeds and avoid the slugs.

Rust Fly photo: Katja Schulz via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

This technique also provides a way to avoid the worst of the carrot rust flies. These emerge at the beginning of June, so if you can delay planting until later in that month it helps a great deal. The trouble is that the soil in later June is often dry and difficult for germinating carrots. Fluid seeding solves that problem. Those pesky little flies eat any related plants like wild carrot and caraway, but the first emergence is the most devastating while the second in August is not so bad. Fluid seeding also works with parsnips and salsify.

If you possibly can, try to get ahead of perennial weeds with long rhizomes or root systems like couch grass or yarrow. At this time of year they are relatively easy to pull from the ground and have not yet made enough growth to feed those root systems. After they get six or more inches high, however, they are fully in their growth cycle and are harder to pull out. Be sure to get as much of the root as you can, as every little piece left behind will send up a shoot, multiplying like the brooms of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Dandelions are also easier to pull this time of year. Use a dandelion fork to get them deep down and don’t neglect to lime if they are a problem. They thrive on calcium deficient soil and will out-compete everything else under those conditions.


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.