FILLING THE BOTANICAL HOPE CHEST
by Peter Gribble
As bears and gardeners stir in fitful hibernation – bears dreaming of salmon runs, gardeners of seed catalogues – anxious questions may trouble the long slumber, ‘Is it time? Has spring come early? Has the global warming tip-over occurred?’
It is rather doubtful. Unexpected blasts of winter hobble Spring’s slow stumble forward. I watch with dread nightly weather maps showing cold fronts sinking down from the north, buttressing up against the eastern Rockies, raising the spectre of Arctic air leaking over mountain passes and spilling into the Lower Mainland. My addiction to weather sites, meteorological analyses, erratic jet streams, deviation from average mean temperatures dims the prospect of a return to hibernation.
Gut reactions to television’s images imply if enough of us only got ‘out there,’ we could somehow ‘will’ those glowering arctic air masses just slightly further east of us … but logistics are elusive.
Yet January’s chilly days are no immunization against making a few purchases to plump up Spring’s dowry. If the ground is workable you can always garden but it depends how quickly your blood congeals. January enforces the dressing in layers – like tree rings – but for me hypothermia sets in within twenty minutes.
A warmer activity is browsing seed racks in garden centres. I’ll buy packages of this that and the other even though it’s too early to plant but it’s a comfort knowing they’re waiting in the botanical hope chest. You meet interesting, knowledgeable people at seed racks but behind the typical purchasers is a little demographic I wonder if seed companies are aware of.
These seed gatherers buy whenever they can, be it the height of summer or the depths of winter. They’re sending packages back home or to friends in faraway, invariably warmer climes. It’s surprising how far seeds will disperse. Most wing their way to places in Asia and India, though some end up in Europe, the south Pacific, the Caribbean and even Africa.
If ambition or temptation urges you to plant seeds now, review the Pots and Plants column for February 2018 to see why you may want to reconsider.
Winter is an ideal season to salivate over seed catalogues that start arriving in the mail as early as mid-December. It is lovely to dream of extended acreage filed with bountiful, beautiful blooms, veggies and whatnot as you turn the pages, without burning a single calorie. It’s gardening at its most leisurely.
The standard, local favourite seed catalogue is West Coast Seeds gardening Guide 2019. Available in garden centres since December, 2018, it’s a superb reference of over 1,100 vegetable, herb and flower varieties and ‘Untreated seeds for organic growing, non-gmo.’
Just scanning the sixteen varieties of peas made me want to grow them all, which would wreck my carefully managed crop rotation system built up over six years. Then there are the forty-two lettuces (not counting the blends, mescluns and salad greens), the thirty-four varieties of peppers and – never forgetting – the forty-nine varieties of tomatoes!
There’s a cornucopia of online seed resources if you don’t mind staring at a computer screen for hours. Here are four companies. Mckenzie Seeds (www.mckenzieseeds.com) is a Canadian standard (since 1896) and available at every garden centre. Another I like for its quality information on the package and the viability of their seeds is Renee’s Garden (www.reneesgarden.com). Nature’s Garden Seed Co. Inc. (www.naturesgardenseed.com) has a small catalogue for download in a pdf format and offers tree and wildflower seeds indigenous to Canada. Not always available at garden centers their small seed display rack is popular with foreign visitors who dream of one day tapping their own maple syrup or carving red cedar totem poles.
My favourite is Richters Herb & Vegetable Catalogue www.richters.com). Richters, a long established Canadian company located in Goodwood, Ontario has an international reputation for seeds and starter plants covering medicinal, culinary and utilitarian varieties from around the world including many used in Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic Medicines. They have the usual herbal and culinary standbys, of course, but in such varieties: fifty-one basils, thirty-eight mints, twenty-five sages, sixteen oreganos and a partridge in a … sorry, wrong catalogue.
An intriguing plant I might try this year is their African spiritual cleansing herb for anxiety and panic attacks, Solenostemon monostachyus sold under Richter’s trademark name of ‘Rescueherb™.’ I’ll need it by Spring for my first panic attack of the growing season: “Yikes! Where am I going to plant all this stuff?!”
Be advised: air shipping of live plants from Ontario is expensive and they ship only between April and November depending on the weather. Read their ‘Ordering Information” section and make your order worth while … perhaps another reason for buying a ‘Rescueherb™’.
Seed catalogues’ generous information makes you an informed gardener regardless if you only purchase a single mature tomato plant in mid-summer for the sunny slice on the balcony.
Yet as the Recession deepens, seed catalogues increase in value. What can you actually grow on your balcony? Prices of vegetables were on the rise all last year particularly after cannabis was legalized. Foreign countries find growing coca leaves and cannabis more lucrative than food crops, ingredients seldom found in cookbooks or a well-balanced diet.
Why wait for balconies to warm up or the slim, miserly shavings of sunlight to increase? Set up a small full-spectrum lamp indoors and you can grow your own tasty mesclum greens twelve months of the year. Even easier are sprouts. High in nutrients, loaded with vitamin C, sprouts need no sun, soil or a prison cell-sized balcony and are ready for you to eat in days. The counter top is your year round piece of acreage. Start with a sprouting jar or, better yet, invest in a three-tray sprouter with water reservoir to stagger your sprout crop or grow multiple varieties simultaneously for a constant harvest. Both mescluns and sprouts bring a fresh, flavourful zest to meals … and to have grown it yourself?
Well! It’s one small step for a gardener, one giant leap in food sufficiency.
One of the essential rigours of gardening is weeding. If you do have outside acreage – balcony or yard – this is best time for weeding. Get the wretched things out now when the temperature slows their growth and the rain has softened the ground for easy pulling or digging. My personal weed warfare is with a tiny, invasive nuisance that garden centres and growers ignore or IF they notice it shrug their shoulders at. For me there can be no armistice where Bittercress or Cardamine is concerned. Sadly, it is NOT ‘Cardamom,’ the spice (if only) but Cardamine. It can be a miniscule plant but will flower under the snow, in the cold … whenever it feels like, which is always. The minute flower is white but easily missed unless your eyesight has been sharpened by longstanding battles. I can spot the tiniest Cardamine plant instantly. If there’s one, there are more within a radius approaching 6 feet – a quarter to half inch tall plant can catapult its ripe seeds enormous distances. I pull them all up and return a week later to confirm eradication.
Of the several varieties, Cardamine occidentalis and Cardamine oligosperma are the two Bittercress you’ll most likely encounter.
Plants of Coastal British Columbia (Pojar & Mackinnon, 1994) has a succinct description of the leaf: ‘deeply divided with opposite paired lobes and a larger lobe at the end, in a loose rosette.’ Once you can identify it you will suddenly see it everywhere. It is edible, tasting a little sharper and more peppery than regular watercress, which is Nasturtium officinalis. Cardamine was a famine food among Coastal First Nations and may yet be again for us all. If you like the taste, include it in your sprouter, but don’t let it escape!
An additional note: whenever purchasing a plant, examine the soil surface. If you see signs of Cardamine (it can be very small), this is a sign more seeds lurk in the soil. Remove the top inch of soil and throw it out – NOT in the yard waste but in the garbage.
The odd dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) will bloom in January. They are trickier to weed because the root tends to break deep in the soil and grow back when you’re not looking. To prevent this, use your weeding tool and pull up gently and ease it out rather than with an arm wrestling yank. Like Cardamine, dandelions are also edible. The roots were used as a diuretic and newly emerged leaves are an excellent, tangy, healthy addition to the spring salad.
It’s satisfying when weeding doubles as foraging but by April dandelions are developing a bitter taste and a stringy texture.
The Solstice was December 21 yet days drag on dark and drear. In January, the sun’s acceleration advances in two minute increments per day. It’s fatiguing just to think of it.
To lift the spirits, I check on my old winter dependables: Sarcoccoca, Chinese witch hazel, winter jasmine, Japanese quince, miniature bulb iris and the occasional Grecian windflower. Of course, there’s the requisite January snowdrop count. Camelia sasanqua are still blooming this time of year. Those that have finished flowering, give them a quick, light prune now if they need it. Shade-loving Hellebores have been available since October but reach a peak of choice in garden centres in January. Hellebores sport long-lasting flowers and are ideal for winter’s gloomy balconies and need little care except for watering.
It’s January, so bury your worries and enthusiasms along with your Spring blooming bulbs and wait for more reliable temperatures. Don’t worry about the global warming tip-over for now. The groundhogs of February will wake to their shadows and their second opinions.
Roll over and go back to sleep. There’s something to be said for a long winter’s nap.