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A time to plant

Tips from Hall of Fame gardener Ross Traverse for those hoping to grow their own for the first time

As doubts about the stability of North America’s food supply creeps into some people’s minds because of the Covid-19 quarantine, some are thinking about planting their own vegetable gardens this spring. For many, while they have memories of parents and grandparents tending patches years ago, it will mark the first time they’ve cut the ground and planted seeds of their own.

“It doesn’t take long for one generation to lose some of the basic skills,” allowed renowned Newfoundland horticulturalist Ross Traverse. Few people know as much about gardening as the former provincial government horticulturalist turned garden company owner and gardening advisor on CBC Radio, who is also a member of Canada’s Agricultural Hall of Fame. Now at 75, and retired, he’s still willing to share a bit of advice.

“It’s interesting that there’s such a demand for seed,” said Traverse, acknowledging the new found public interest in gardening. “Some of the mail order seed companies have indicated there are going to be long delays in getting seed (out).”

For those who don’t know, or can’t remember, the time to start preparing the ground for planting root vegetables is as soon as it dries up a bit, according to Traverse.

“You don’t want to work the soil when it’s wet,” he said. “As soon as it dries up you can dig up the garden and work in some organic matter. You’ll need lime and fertilizer, of course, and that’s the basis of it.”

This is usually around the middle part of May month. A general purpose fertilizer will do it. You’ll need about 10 lbs of lime for every 100 square feet of ground, said Traverse, along with 2 lbs of 6-12-12 fertilizer. You mix both ingredients into the soil to prepare a bed of nutrients for the seeds.

How much soil preparation you have to do depends on the ground that you want to plant.

“If it’s just a backfilled site, which most of the modern houses are built on, then you’ll need to purchase some soil, because most of that stuff is just gravel,” Traverse explained. 

Around the end of May when the weather warms up, you plant the seed.

Then you have a summer of weeding ahead of you, interspersed with spurts of “feeding” the plants.

“The main thing is to improve the soil,” said Traverse. “Even if you buy soil, often it’s got nothing (nutrition wise) in it. And this so-called topsoil that you buy in bags, that’s really not good stuff. It’s only organic matter. Organic matter, of course, improves the soil, but it doesn’t add any nutrients or anything like that.”

Feeding the plants, Traverse, explained, consists of adding a soluble fertilizer, that is one you can mix with water. “One of the most common ones is the formula 20/20/20,” he noted. “It doesn’t matter about brand names. Brand names don’t mean anything. The important thing about fertilizer is that it is required by law to have the formula on it, the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. If you go by that, that’s the important thing.”

It is possible to overfeed the plants. Two or three “feedings” over the course of the summer is usually fine for most plants, Traverse said. 

For novices, the easiest thing to grow are potatoes, probably, said Traverse. “But there’s not a big lot of economics to potatoes in a small garden,” he cautioned. “Because potatoes are cheap, right now, anyway. So carrot and lettuce and beet – these are things that are easy to grow from seed.”

If you plant in late May, you can probably leave your carrots in the ground until late September, said the expert. Beet can be harvested in July and lettuce about six weeks after you plant it. 

If your yield is modest, Traverse said, you can store it during the winter in your refrigerator, or a second old fridge, if you have one. “As long as you don’t let it dry out,” he said. “Otherwise, you’ve got to have a cold garage, or something like that, something that’s just above freezing. That’s the best way to store vegetables. That’s what the old-fashioned cellars did. I’ve got a cellar in the basement that’s insulated from the rest of the house. That’s a cold room where I can store the vegetables all season. I can store turnips and potatoes right up to next season.”

As for the bane of all gardeners, namely pests, you’ll always have them, Traverse conceded. “Usually in the first year you don’t have much of a problem, because they build up over time,” he said. “Although if you do, you’ll have to spray them with an insecticide, or in the case of slugs, which is the biggest problem – they’re not easily controlled with any chemical or anything –on a small garden you go out with a flashlight at night and pick them off, because they feed at night.”

Traverse also has some advice on how to cook – another important but lost art, lamentably, for too many folks. But that will have to be a lesson for another day. Perhaps after your first harvest.

Traverse said the importance of being able to grow your own food was instilled in him as a boy growing up in Notre Dame Bay. “My father was always talking about when the next Depression comes,” he said. “He was always prepared for that. But we hardly knew there was a Depression on because we were pretty well self-sufficient when it came to food. All you needed (to buy) was a little ‘baccy and tea.”

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