Dig in: Don't fear killing the plants and other gardening tips from Edmonton horticulturist Jim Hole
With the Victoria Day weekend here, garden guru offers suggestions to get growing
When worried new gardeners would fret about how to get started, Lois Hole would gently encourage them not to let fear get the upper hand.
"People would come to my mom and say, 'Can I plant these seeds now? And my mom would say 'That's a $2 package of seed. Put it in. Live dangerously.' It's cheaper than a coffee," said Jim Hole, gardening guru and son of the beloved former lieutenant-governor, during a Thursday question-and-answer session.
That said, Hole has gathered plenty of horticultural tips and tricks — learned from his mom, from growing up on a farm and from helping run his family's greenhouses business — which he happily shared during the session hosted by Edmonton News at 6 host Nancy Carlson.
But the most important suggestion he offered Thursday was not being afraid to try.
"We all have this fear of killing plants," he said. "I can tell you any great gardener has killed a lot of plants ... and they've had to learn from their mistakes.
"But the reality is we have so much fear built up — and it is unwarranted."
Let's dig in.
The dirt on dirt
The Edmonton area has some of the top soil conditions in the world, black and extremely rich, but it does have a lot of clay, he said — which isn't a bad thing in the right amount.
"When you get excessive amounts of clay, you have sort of this caking on the surface, the roots have a hard time penetrating," he said.
Clay loam soils benefit from an annual injection of organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure. Digging it into the soil helps clay particles bind, together allowing for better root growth, he said.
But don't go overboard.
"What I see is, [people will] put a ton of compost in, a ton of manure in, and that really throws the plant balance off ... all kinds of top growth and very little root growth," he said. "The rule of thumb is, you might put down a couple-inch layer per year and work it in. But do it every single year."
To till or not to till?
A rototiller can help loosen up clay lumps or other big clods, and be a big boost for seed germination. But there are plenty of cons to consider, Hole said.
Rototilling causes organic matter in the soil to be lost and compacts the earth, removing some of the "core spaces" that are helpful to plant growth, he said.
As for weeds, rototilling might get some of the annual ones out but it is guaranteed to make your perennial problems — like quack grass or thistle — even worse, he said.
"It will make your quack grass beautiful. It will come back like crazy," Hole said. Rototilling cuts the plant's rhizomes, or underground stems, and every cut piece can start a new plant.
Hole's recommendation on rototilling? "Middle of the road. Do some. Don't overdo it."
Let the temperature be your guide
Despite the fickle, often chilly nature of an Alberta spring, about 90 per cent of a vegetable garden can go in the ground this weekend, Hole said.
Good performers include potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, peas, parsnips, spinach and Swiss chard, all of which can be directly planted as seeds, straight into a garden or into raised containers.
"It is so simple to do raised containers," he said. "I do raised containers right out the front door. Takes me five minutes. Make a little divot with an index finder, put the seed in, cover it up, water it. Boom. You can have carrots."
Other good early plants to get in now are cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli, he said.
Cold and frost, even snow, aren't problems for any of these crops, he said. "You just have to get out there … get the seeds in."
Tomatoes — Hole's favourite thing to grow — join peppers and cucumbers on the list of plants that should wait until the risk of frost has passed.
"Warm season crops, you just want to hold off on those until it warms up a bit," he said. "They don't like the chill."
Cool overnight temperatures play particular havoc with plants like basil and peppers.
The latter, he added, should be nearly flowering if you have any hope of picking peppers before the season is done.
A patio paradise
Hole said there is no particular magic to setting up a balcony garden, but rather to follow the basic rules of gardening.
Inside the pots, use a high-quality, soilless potting mixture, which is lightweight and clean. It dries out quickly, so it is important to keep it watered, he said. Then ensure that tall plants are staked or caged for good support to protect from the wind.
Even rhubarb could be planted in a pot — as long as the pot is big enough, he said.
"It's not difficult," Hole said of container gardening.
"Bigger containers make it easier to manage, and just make sure you've got the plants that aren't going to overtake the area. Then you're set to go."
Accessorize your garden
Under the milk jug dome: Hole doesn't recommend the practice of placing milk jugs or other plastic containers over the top of new plants, a practice of some gardeners to ward off cutworms. He said the artificial hothouse it creates isn't good for the plant's health.
Blankets and covers: Fabric blankets do a great job of protecting plants from frost or overnight chill. Hole recommends getting the blankets onto the plant before temperatures have cooled too much, to ensure the cover can trap some heat to keep the plant cozy.
Landscape fabric: Unlike the blankets and covers, landscape fabric doesn't serve any great purpose in the garden, Hole said. It doesn't stop weed growth but, worse, it doesn't allow any organic material to naturally get into the soil.
Fences: This year, the City of Edmonton encouraged citizens to consider planting food gardens in their front yards. Hole said a fence might help ensure that your neighbourhood rabbits aren't getting the benefit of your hard work.