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Do you have a question about gardening, beekeeping, or the local food system? Sustainable Food Edmonton has experts to help. 

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When should I plant my garden?

Did your parents or grandparents plant the garden the May long weekend? It’s a Canadian tradition, because it’s a good average. Like most averages, that can be deceptive, but a few rules can help.

Vegetables can be divided into cool & warm season, categories that work for when they grow & when to plant. Transplants, from seeds started indoors or bought, are almost all warm season plants that need a little extra care.

Green leafy vegetables - like spinach, lettuce, chard and peas - are examples of cool season plants. Greens do not thrive as well in warmer months. Seed these as soon as the soil can be worked. It’s worth trying to plant more than once, even in a small space, so that all the salad greens are not ready at the same time. Root crops, like carrots and beets, can be treated as cool season, because they are protected below the ground.

Warmer season vegetables, like corn, beans, tomatoes and peppers should be planted after the last frost, typically mid to end of May. Most of these will be transplants. If freezing temperatures are expected protect these tender plants with a light fabric cover like an old sheet, just not plastic. In a cooler year, planting later, even early June is a better idea. Remember to harden off the transplants by getting them used to living outside, a little at a time.

I'm new to gardening. What tools do I need to get started?

I wish I had asked that question when I started gardening. I would have lots more room in my garage today! Instead I bought things I didnʼt really need. What type of gardening will you be doing? If you are involved in a community vegetable garden, you wonʼt need pruning tools. If you are a balcony gardener, rakes and spades arenʼt necessary. But if you have a backyard and front yard, you will need quite a few tools to get you started. There are several garden stores and nurseries in and around Edmonton where quality tools can be purchased. Remember that most of the money spent in this cityʼs locally owned gardening stores remains here rather than going elsewhere when we buy from international chains. Also, garage sales are great places to pick up inexpensive used garden tools. Here are some of the tools I would recommend:

FORK and SPADE: A fork and spade are essential, but before purchasing them, check them for ʻfeelʼ. Are they are the right length and weight for you? Ask fellow gardeners to recommend their favourite brands.

TROWEL: Once upon a time every gardener had a trowel. Lately, many gardeners have switched to a hori-hori, a Japanese tool that is a cross between a knife and a trowel. It is useful for planting bulbs, loosening soil, weeding, and dividing perennials but not great for transplanting bedding plants.

WHEELBARROW: Try different models for comfort and maneuverability before purchasing. Be sure to check the April newsletter for the second installment of this Question and Answer.

WATERING IMPLEMENTS: A good hose, a comfortable watering can, a soaker hose, and a nozzle or wand with a shut-off valve are requirements. Comfort is important because holding onto a full watering can or nozzle for several minutes can tire your hands.

HOE: Useful for weeding and loosening soil, hoes are found in every culture. There are dozens of shapes and brands on the market. Look for a sturdy one that is comfortable on your hands and your back. One of the best is the stirrup.

SCISSORS: You need a pair of garden shears to open seed packages and bags of soil. They are useful for harvesting greens too. Garden Gloves Donʼt forget garden gloves, two pairs, and of good quality. Be prepared for at least two of the fingers to wear out in a season. Now that you have purchased all the tools you need, take care of them. Using a permanent marker, put your name in a prominent place on each tool so they donʼt disappear. Clean them after every use and return them to where they belong. Sharpen and oil them as needed.

How do I prevent my plants from being attacked by bugs or diseases?

Your seeds have sprouted and your plants are growing beautifully. But, unwelcome bugs and diseases exist in every garden. However, not all bugs are harmful and a healthy plant is capable of defending itself from an attack.

To ensure a bountiful harvest two things are important:

Keep your plants healthy. Regular watering and adequate spacing between the plants will help. Crowded plants compete with each other for nutrients and water. As well, there is less airflow between them and this can encourage disease development. Most seed packages will give recommendations for optimum spacing between plants.

Check your plants and the surrounding soil each time you are in the garden. Signs of trouble can be: slime on leaves or the soil; plants that were growing well but suddenly become wilted or stop developing; discolored leaves; leaves with holes or chewed edges; leaves that are twisted or curled; rounded spots, speckles, raised bumps or warts on the leaves and leaves with blotches. As well, monitor for insects that are visible on the plant surface looking at the underside of the leaves too.

If you find a problem, early diagnosis and then implementing solutions quickly will minimize damage to your garden. Happy gardening!

Help...our compost pile is always dry!

You're right to be worried...a dry pile is attracts wasps, both as a source of building material, or even to move in. Keep your compost moist! The challenge is to break up dry spots & work the moisture through the pile. It's easily done with a watering can & trowel, or for bigger jobs let the hose trickle on the pile while you attack it with a fork.

Remember, those dry piles from last year, full of partially decayed material, provide great mulching materials for between your rows or to hill potatoes.

The solution, of course, is for everyone to check the compost every time they're in the garden, & don't let your compost piles become "Fit For A Queen!"

What’s with the bales they have up at the toboggan hills? Are they straw? I’m curious about using them for gardening...

Two things well known to Canadian families are tobogganing and straw bales. These aren't drinking straws, they are compressed and bundled plant stems from local farms, and they’re great for composting, mulching, and building raised beds. The City uses them on toboggan hills to protect kids who go too fast or off course. It's a terrifying descent and high-speed impact into a wall of straw bales - what better way to end it than taking one of those bales home to compost?

Yes, there is an opportunity to take a few of them for your garden. When Parks staff takes down the toboggan hills in spring they will set aside bales in good shape for Community Gardens. Just let me know how many you want and I will arrange for a time you can pick them up.

First come, first served. Email me, as always, at settled in & off to a good start. Indoors the nutrient balance is too easily upset, & I’ve learned from experience that quality seeding & transplant mixes are the right choice for starting seeds.

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