By Peter William Gribble
Last month an international team of researchers led by Adam Martin, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, reported that global crop diversity has declined. Large-scale industrial farms have dedicated nearly 50 percent of the world’s entire agricultural lands to growing only four crops: soybeans, wheat, rice, and corn, and usually single genotypes.

All in the name of cost-benefit.

The limits of agricultural sustainability and much else are being tested. Our food concerns accumulate to a tipping point but a steady consumption of worry, fear and doubt leads to paranoia … not part of a balanced diet … unless …

It leads to gardening!

Start your cabbage seedlings now and cut big Agro out of the picture!

Start now! Counter big Agro’s methods!

March is seldom a hop, skip and jump into spring, but planting seeds indoors jump-starts the season.

Indoors, every flat surface from counters to table tops counts as acreage. Mescluns, lettuces and cabbage, can be started in March. If you are ambitious, go ahead and plant your seed trays with broccoli and cauliflower. And yes, you can start those precious tomato and pepper plants now. Be warned though. If everything germinates according to plan, you may run out of room as your progeny grows. Check out the February 2018 Pots & Plants column to see what happens when enthusiasm outstrips square footage.

The one-room apartment can be an indoor source of excellent year-round nutrition. Full-spectrum lamps are admittedly not cheap, but if you grow easy mesclun greens in seed trays you’ll have a tiny edge over the mounting grocery bill. In January, I invested in a three-tray sprouter, which has transformed my salads and stir-fries. It’s just a munch not a meal, and while the soup may be store bought, the sprout garnish on top is not.

Some sprout seed varieties are more expensive than others, yet a single packet yields multiple harvests. The best bonus: wait time from package to harvest is measured in days. I tend to favour sprout blends to avoid aping the single genotype, monoculture habits of four-crop Agro-business but that’s just me. A substantial part of my harvest is the satisfaction of knowing exactly where some of my food comes from.

Advisories for starting seeds:

Use a seedling mix soil as it is formulated specifically for seeds and their need for a porous, well-draining medium. Recent advice from the University of California recommends adding a half inch layer of dry sphagnum moss to the top of your seedling mix. Not only does it retain moisture but inhibits diseases that young plants are susceptible to. Choose seed varieties suitable to our Lower Mainland conditions and refer to the seed catalogue to determine best times for sowing. Use cell pack inserts for easier transplanting later, or individual containers. Plastic yogurt cups are good for larger plants (drill a hole in the bottom for drainage). Slightly moisten the soil mixture before planting as it’s better than watering afterwards unless you’re misting your babies. Use warm water to speed germination. Cover with either clear plastic wrap or a low plastic dome to maintain moisture levels. Remove the plastic once the sprouts come up and water when the soil is dry to the touch.

Beware the wily fungus gnat. A little yellow sticky trap will stop their forays.

If you spot little, dark flies, it’s a sign of over-watering. These are adult fungus gnats who during their larval stage eat seeding roots. I use yellow sticky traps to break the reproduction cycle. Keep your grow lights (not incandescent) about an inch above your seedlings and give them an average of 16 hours of light a day. Raise the lights as your seedlings grow. Do not use a window for light as it is too variable, unidirectional and will set plants back. Another novel practice comes from Mother Earth News, which recommends lightly brushing your hand over established plants from time to time to promote sturdy stems. Transplant your plants as they outgrow their containers.

When daytime temperature reach a consistent 10 degrees Celsius (50 F.) transplant them out in the garden.

Gardening is not all about food. Flowers calm the harried soul. There are few signs yet of the hyacinths I planted in the garden but I recently bought a pot of three hyacinth bulbs with blooms coming on. At home, they flowered fast and the stalks drooped but the wafting scent went far to mitigate the winter storms outside. I’ll plant the bulbs when the ground warms up where they will naturalize and bloom again next year.

As for storms outside, Yogi(ni) Woollybear, my prognosticating pet caterpillar of the yellow tiger moth (Isia Isabella) species is wisely hibernating through it all. About once a week, I check under the layered nest of dead leaves in his/her protected, covered flower pot. During February’s cold, snowy snap, s/he was partially curled up with mandibles in a hold-fast grip into the edge of a dried leaf. I’ve left an occasional freshly washed lettuce leaf in case s/he has a craving for a midnight hibernating snack but so far, nothing’s been touched.

For outdoor beds and garden plots, many vegetables prefer cooler growing conditions. Spinach, collards and many greens from arugula to kale can be direct sown in the ground. So should turnips, radishes, peas and broad beans, which do not transplant well.

Be alert to the crow and squirrel patrols keeping you under surveillance. They watch and wait until you retreat inside after your labours, then harvest your seeds before they germinate. As effective deterrents, I use plastic trays (the open trays garden centres provide you to carry your purchases home) turned upside down and weighted with stones or secured with pegs.

Information in catalogues and packages tell you the number of growing days needed between sowing and harvest. Gardening doesn’t start in earnest until the May long weekend. You can wait until then, skipping the seed planting stage and purchase starter transplants. In a nod to cost-benefits, one transplant can cost as much as a package full of seeds.

Regardless of beginnings, all vegetables require full sun for best results.

Herbs also need full sun, with one exception: mint. Keep mint in its own large container as it’s a spreader and will choke out other plants. An herb variety’s cute or clever name may sway your choice (it does me) but pinch a leaf before purchase and smell your fingers. Do this with all herb varieties. You’ll notice very clear differences, which will steer your preferences. Similarly, I never buy a rose unless I smell the flower first. Roses don’t show up in garden centres until April and won’t be in bloom until May or June, unless raised in greenhouses.

Daffodils are flowering. Bluebells, tulip tips and others poke up from the ground. Perennials are stirring. Nut tree catkins blow off their pollen on sunny days. Cherry tree buds are swelling – some were blooming in January, poor things – more are blooming now. Chickadees and song sparrows announce the news: Spring is here!

That first sweet bite of your home-grown tomato is reward enough!

Balcony and small space gardening heightens the appreciation and celebration of the tiny harvest. Biting into the first (and perhaps only) tomato of your own cultivation, you know such scrumptious bounty is never pyrrhic. It re-instils a respect, if not reverence, for your daily fare: where it first put down roots, how long it took to grow, and how far it traveled to your plate.

Witnessing a seed germinating or a plant coming up are calls to renew ourselves, our gardening and the tiny plot of the world under our brief stewardship. Bring a courteous reverence to your gardening and to nature, which will enhance the balanced diet. Though before each meal, regardless of origin, whether from a far distant country or your balcony steps away, take a moment to say grace and give thanks.

It’s an excellent antidote to paranoia.