Confessions of a Farmer: Ready, Set… Grow

By Terri Smith –

Spring has officially arrived and it’s time to think about how to wake up the garden and get it growing again. As winter comes to an end I am always so excited to get back out there and start growing (and eating!) again, but my excitement is also always tempered with some feelings of trepidation as I try to prioritize what the garden needs and try not to feel too overwhelmed.

Until spring really arrives and I can starting sowing the garden I've had to make do with sewing a garden. Photo: Mark Rupp

Until spring really arrives and I can starting sowing the garden I’ve had to make do with sewing a garden. Photo: Mark Rupp

So, where does one begin? Lists can be a great help here, and while there are as many ways to grow a garden as there are gardeners, I will give you a general breakdown of what the next few months will look like for me in case you are feeling stuck and are unsure of how to get started. Again, let me just say, this is a general sort of list and it is just my own. You do whatever you want to do for your own garden.

Before we begin, though, a note about what I call the “holy-grail method” of gardening: this is the no-dig, no-weed, no-till, no-water, no-work… and really, no harvest method. Over time people have noticed that tilling not only depletes the soil, but also causes compaction. The ideas that ‘no one has to water the forest’ and that soil does best when not disturbed have led to some great movements based on alternative and less labour-intensive methods of gardening.

However, it isn’t easy to seed an untilled bed. You need soft soil to seed. Permaculture is great, but it works mostly with perennials—plants that establish themselves and come back year after year. If you are growing in the north and you want to grow food for yourself and your family, I’m afraid you’re going to have to get your hands dirty. The first year is the hardest, but as you build your soil, it gets easier. Sometimes, with great soil that is rich in humus, you will only need to aerate a little with a digging fork and then rake the surface, and if you transplant you don’t need as fine a seedbed.

But the methods that claim you don’t have to do anything are not exactly true. Most of our food plants are not native to this area. You can find things to eat that will grow well here with little input from you, but you will still need to be involved in raising them at times. Our weather has also become so changeable that one year you may not ever need to water your garden and another year you may find you must water every few days. One year might be a great year to mulch the heck out of everything and the next year mulching may end up causing slug problems galore and all sorts of mildew-y diseases. My point is that the gardener does need to be involved with the garden.

April: This is the precursor month to serious gardening time. It is the time to prepare the garden for planting, but for the most part it is not time to plant yet. April can be fickle, and we wasted a lot of time over the years when we had amazing weather early on. We would drop whatever garden improvement or expansion projects we were working on and start planting. But time after time we found that we didn’t gain anything. While the greenhouse can be planted in April and do well with the spring crops, most of what we planted outside and then babied along for the extra month would be at about the same stage in its life a few months later as the next succession planted a month after when everything is warmer and things in the wild are growing. You can push what Nature wants to do a little bit, but in the end, things grow when they’re good and ready, and not when you want them to.

What I do in April:
• make a list of everything I’m planting and when. Main references: Stella Natura planting calendar, seed catalogues to find out how many days from sowing to transplant and then to harvest.
• clean the greenhouse. Ideally this is done in the fall, but often, it isn’t. Take out last year’s plant carcasses and compost them, add compost to soil, make beds
• prep beds. This means all sorts of different things, depending on how you garden. This year, because I am trying to build and improve soil, I will be beginning with the double-dig. I always dread the double-dig, but it’s not really so bad. It is a fair amount of work at the start, but it helps to create excellent soil that just gets easier to work with and healthier over time. Realistically I won’t do this to the whole garden, just the places that really need it. This method is outlined in very great detail and with lots of illustrations in one of my favourite resource books: How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons.

Pro tip: If you do till, don’t be too hard on yourself. Just because it’s not trendy at the moment doesn’t mean it’s wrong. On a small scale and with a hand-held tiller, tilling will probably be just fine for your garden. Just be sure to add organic matter (compost is best) any time you till so you don’t lose nutrients. (PS: I till).

• now that the beds are prepped I like to cover the beds with row cover for a few weeks until planting time, this will allow weeds to germinate, so you can then easily kill them with a hoe before planting—most planting won’t happen until May.
• start any seedlings you want to transplant out in May and June. I start seedlings in the house and then move them into the greenhouse once the night temperature is warmer.
• late April-early May I plant the greenhouse with spring crops: salad mix, spinach, salad turnips, radishes, a few kale, a row for baby June carrots. This first planting will be harvested out by mid-June, when I will add more compost and replant with the transplants I am starting now.

What I do in May:
• transplant the more cold-tolerant crops outside: cauliflower, broccoli, kale, Swiss chard, onions, leeks, Brussels sprouts, lettuce.
• hoe prepped beds, or make beds now. Direct seed all/most other crops this month (if succession planting then continue to seed some things every few weeks)
• end of May/early June: transplant squash outdoors or into a hoop house or both. As space becomes available in the greenhouse, tomatoes and peppers can move in. Cucumbers can also be transplanted or seeded now.

As I said, these are my general guidelines only. Good luck and happy growing!

Terri Smith is a non-certified organic vegetable farmer in the Cariboo. She is passionate about writing, art, goats, and feeding good food to good people. She believes in following your heart, living your dreams, and taking care of the planet.

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