Gardening in Northern Climates
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Gardening is a very practical hobby and many great virtues are taught and required by its discipline. Patience, persistence, work, planning, faith, vision, etc are all required in order to be a gardener. To be a gardener is to have vision and hope. Many times the harvest is unsuccessful and that is where persistence and patience come in. Recording the method, weather and possible problems will help improve the results next time. My favourite plants to grow are those that require some pruning or managing. These plants yield a harvest in proportion to the skill and diligence and understanding of the gardener. I have had many immigrant neighbours and friends that were from the old country, where gardening and raising animals was very common. I would see these people grow five foot tall tomato plants that would look to me like torchered barren plants until you consider the half a dozen 600+ gram tomatoes hanging off one plant. Obviously these people knew something I didn't. I asked many questions and read much on growing tomatoes and over the years my crops have increased as I learn how to manage the plants. Managing is to understand what the plants need, and making sure they get it. I have been very unsuccessful with apple trees because I do not yet understand what I am failing to provide for the trees, or protect the them from. Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman (gardener). ...I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.... Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples."
Jesus is the plant stem or trunk that supplies the moisture and nutrition to the branches. It is the branches of the vine that produce the fruit, but it is the work and skill of the husbandman (God the Father) who gets the branches to produce that fruit. A properly maintained grape vine will produce many times more fruit than a "wild" vine. Our problem is that we need to allow God to do his work and recognize that Jesus is the source of all blessings and strength.
I will add more detail and photos as I have time and the summers progress.
A couple of years ago my friend Vince gave me some Italian variety tomato seeds to try (they look like the "Oxheart" variety). This tomato type is indeterminate, which means it requires supporting and pruning. A concise definition is HERE to teach us the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomato plants. Both require very different types of management. This OxHeart variety grows vigorously, and produces a series of flower sets and produces one massive flower that produces one massive distorted tomato. One tomato last year weighed 908 grams, that is almost 2 pounds! The normal tomatoes on this type weigh between 500 - 600 g. I will try to add photos over this summer to let you see how to handle this variety. The basic plan is to allow the plant to grow until August while diligently pruning the sucker shoots. By August nip the top off so the plant will not get any higher. The reason to trim on this date, is because in our area there is only about four to six weeks until the frost and the plant will never be able to finish anything it starts after August 1st. When the plant top is trimmed off, the plant will try very hard to produce new sucker shoots and more flowers. Keep these trimmed back because they will slow the ripening of the more mature fruit. By the end of August the plants will start to topple over your cages unless they are secured very well.
Although there are not to many insects in our area that hurt the fruit, blossom end rot is a real problem in my garden. (1) Avoiding getting the fruit wet when you water the plants, and (2) adding calcium to the soil will really help reduce blossom end rot. In our area it is very common to have a calcium deficiency in the soil. Agricultural lime works OK, but the best thing I have found to add calcium is to just save your egg shells over the year and crush them up a bit and throw them on the surface of the soil shortly after you transplant the little tomatoes into the garden. This adds calcium and also repels slugs. Slugs will sometimes eat the fruit as it is ripening and the sharp shells help keep them away.
It is also important that the plants are never stressed for water as the fruit is ripening. If the plant is stressed, the plant will pull water from the fruit to feed the plant, and when the soil becomes moist again, it will split the skin of many of the tomatoes. Once this happens, then fungus moves in and the fruit is lost.
The summer of 2014 has been unusually cool. By August 1st the plants had only a couple of 1/2" fruits. I not only pinched off the top of the plant, but went through and pinched off the really yellow young flowers. Only the pollinated flowers were left. Those flowers are dull and the petals are drying up. There is only a few weeks left in the season, so the plants must be forced to finish up the fruit that have a chance of ripening. All suckers need to be removed as soon as you notice them so the plant does not waste any energy on them instead of the fruit.
Another plant that I have started to grow in the last few years are grapes. They also require pruning and planning, but it is very satisfying to see the yields increase year after year. Again, my Italian friends help a huge amount. Here is a concise description of how to prune grapes for better yields. Last year my kids counted 70 bunches of grapes on one plant! That variety produces fairly small grapes, but the kids really like them.
In 2013 I ordered several seedless varieties, including Earliblue (Zone 4), Somerset (Zone 4), Pink Pearl (Zone 4) from Green Barn Nursery near Montreal. The reason I chose to order from there is because they have a wide variety of winter hardy fruit trees. Some Hardiness Zone charts put Thunder Bay in Zone 2 or 3, but I have seen our area classed as 4. All the varieties survived last winters very long, very cold winter, where the lowest temperature at our house was -44C (without wind chill). The fact that these grapes survived is encouraging. (Even though the plants survived, several branches did die back.) My first grape plants were cuttings from a friend of mine who grew some unknown variety. They seemed to do well, but two winters ago, and this winter, they died way back. A few years ago I ordered a seeded variety called "Valiant" from T&T seeds in Winnipeg and it has survived really well with minimal die-back. When I got it in the order, it was about as big as a match stick with a thumb sized root ball and one surviving bud. The thing made it to about 8" the first year, and now it is about 3 meters wide!
The accepted pruning procedure is to make a main stalk with 6 or so main horizontal branches, but a couple of times the stalk died during the winter even when they were 3/4" diameter. I have one plant that has a "fan" shape due to many (5-8) smaller branches growing from the base. I will try this pruning pattern to see if it increases yield. If the main stalk dies during the winter, then all the fruit is lost for that season. If there are more than one stalk, and even half of them die during the winter, at least you get half a crop.
HERE is a good video on how to prune Cucumbers
We got plants from two different mail order places, and what arrived were small blueberry plants about as big as your fist. These struggled for several years and as of now, they are about 20" high and are beginning to produce significant amounts of fruit. I bought a couple of large plants three years ago about 14" high and they are producing really well and are about 24" high. We got about 10-12 kg of blueberries last year.
The soil needs a lot of peat moss or conifer chips mixed in to drop the pH to 4.0 - 5.0 and to add organic matter. The plants are also subject to a microscopic mite of some kind. Spraying with the dormant oil really help reduce the die back from that.
2014- All the plants survived very well even though last winter was very cold and long. The summer of 2014 produced several kg of blueberries, and once I figured out how to prune them, they shot out lots of new growth.
2015- build three new garden boxes and mix 4 bales of peat moss, 1 pound of sulphur and a pound of 19-19-19 fertilizer into the plots. Transfer the smaller and crowded blueberry plants on May 18th. I noticed that the plants that were in regular soil (no peat moss, just spruce chips and soil) the root system did not grow very big. I will watch to see how much the plants and roots grow in the peat mix.
2017- the plants have grown very well in the peat moss mixed with our heavy loam soil. One thing I forgot about was the importance of pruning. The yield was down this year as the old wood became unproductive. This fall I boldly pruned off most of the shaggy old wood and we'll see how that helps in a couple of years.
HERE is a good video of how to prune the blueberry plants. Our blueberry plants here in Northern Ontario are way smaller than the ones in the video.
During the summer of 2014, I finally discovered the benefit of pruning blueberry plants. Inevitably, disease will set into some of the branches at the tips and slowly work back toward the main trunk. If there is no pruning, then the plant spends a lot of energy in fighting this losing battle. Only a few shoots will sprout, and the plant mostly stagnates as it continues fighting the disease. If you snip off the diseased part about an inch below the effected area, the plant is free to put its energy into new growth and fruit. After I did this, the plants sent out a lot of new shoots. These new shoots form next years leaf and flower buds before the plant goes dormant in the fall. Proper pruning will greatly increase fruit production.
Heirloom Seeds are the best seeds to use if you intend on collecting seeds from your plants. HERE is an example of an heirloom seed company in Canada. It is best to get seeds from a local supplier so that they will survive the local weather, pests or soil conditions.
HERE is a really good website that has a great video on how to make more blueberry plants from cuttings. You will really like this video. One thing I don't think he mentions, is to use a year old stem, not the thin very light green new shoots for cuttings.
University of Saskatchewan has the best info I have found on these plants. HERE is a really good overview of the plant from U of Saskatchewan. There is a lot of info there. I ordered some plants from their test plots in 2012 and planted very small fist sized plants that summer. Last year I transplanted the little shrubs into a better location and they seem to be doing well. There was no winter die back like the blueberries and they grow fast and with no bug problems. I had purchased a couple of larger plants from a local greenhouse in 2011, and they produce fairly well. U of S has some bushes producing 7kg/ plant !! Yikes, that's a lot. The berries from those is not quite as good as blueberries, but they ripen very early. One thing I did notice last year is that, once the little birds found the berries, there were almost none left for me !! I will have to put a frost cover on them or something this year. The little shrubs from U. of S. should produce a few berries this year. We will see what they taste like. I noticed on one website that mentioned leaving the berries on the plant until the centres turn purple. This is good advice since the berries are not fully ripened when they turn blue.
2015- May 18th- The fist sized Haskap plants from 2012 that were just planted in a clearing in the bush are now 18" - 24" tall. There was nothing special done to them. I did not have room for all the plants in the garden so I planted them temporarily (almost 3 years ago!) intending to move them into the garden when I made more room.
Just as the berries were ripening this summer, a group of Cedar waxwing birds showed up and cleaned out every single berry. If it were not that those birds are very rare in our area, and that they are a very pretty bird, I may have been upset, but I think it was worth the crop to see those birds. HERE is a description of Cedar Waxwing birds.
HERE is a very good video of how to prune the shrubs to make better flowering. Last summer we put in a Ground Source Heat Pump and needed to do some landscaping when we were done. I decided to dig up 30 or so lilac sucker plants off one of our lilacs and then plant them along the rocky edge of our GSHP loop field. If they take root, then they will help keep the thistles from taking over where I can't use the lawn mower.
Scarlet Runner- Every year I always try several types of plant I have not grown before. Our garden has a 35 foot X 7 foot high trellis for climbing plants. A couple of years ago, I tried growing scarlet runners and I was surprised how fast these things grow. They also produce a large rough looking beans which looks tough, but we found them to be less stringy than the Blue Lake pole bean variety we grew the same year. We used to grow about 200 lbs of fresh green beans per summer and it was always a drag to get the kids to pick them because they are so low to the ground. I tried the pole variety to see if they would be easier to pick. So far, the kids seem to complain less with the pole variety because you can stand up to pick most of them, and when the beans are 8" long, it doesn't take long to fill the basket. Like any green beans, if you pick them too late, it is like eating pieces of rope, so pick your green beans before the seeds really develop too much.
HERE is a good link about Fava Beans. They are really unlike any beans I ever grew. They will germinate in fairly cold soil, way before all the other beans, they are neither bush nor climbing. And you don't eat them the same as other beans. Fava beans are like Lima Beans but not nearly as "mealy". They grow pretty easily and they will fix a lot of nitrogen to your soil without fertilizer. Mine grow about 3 feet tall and will fall over easily when they get loaded with beans. Tying them up a bit helps.
The beans are grown until the seeds are about 1.2 cm across, then picked, shelled, and boiled. Most people slip the bean seeds out of their skin before eating, but I usually just add butter and salt and pepper to my beans and "dig in".
I have dedicated one garden box for Asparagus. I bought some root stock from a nursery and they are doing well. This spring, I picked the red berries from a dried up older plant that fruited last year. After about three weeks, these little plants poked up and I transplanted them into rows.
Salsify is a root plant like a carrot, but it is white and grows with a more complicated tap root system. I tried a few of these plants in the summer of 2014 and they did OK, but with the very cool summer they did not produce as big roots as usual. They taste OK, but the small roots were a bit of work. I will try them again to see if a normal year will produce better results.
I have tried many different varieties over the years.Butternut is always a favourite at our house if the season is long enough to ripen them. In 2014 the best producing variety was Sunshine F1. Very orange like a pumpkin and pretty good flavour.
The most surprising variety was a white scallop summer squash. If you pick them before the seeds fully develop, then bake them as they are. The flesh is good tasting and a bit softer than I like, but the skin turns nice and crispy. With a bit of salt and butter these were my favourite this year.
2015- Trying Scallop, Lebanese White,Golden Crookneck and small pumpkin plants this year in a small "greenhouse".