Victoria Day is not Sacred

David Hinks ­ Ottawa Carleton

No, Victoria Day is not sacred. In fact, long before Victoria Day, over half of my vegetable garden is planted. By then I am even harvesting and eating some of the early crops, such as lettuce, radish and spinach.

The Victoria Day rule for planting the garden in this part of the continent is still an important rule for heat­loving and frost­sensitive plants such as peppers, eggplant, basil, pumpkins, melons and cucumbers. However there are a large number of vegetables that can be planted in the garden as early as the first week of April. Some years I have planted peas, potatoes, onions, lettuce and spinach as early as the last week of March.

An early start is essential for plants that do not tolerate heat. The Ottawa spring can be incredibly short, with snow still on the ground at the end of April and 30 degree temperatures by late May. Some plants such as peas, broccoli, cabbage and turnip grow quickly in cool temperatures and practically stop growing in the heat of the summer. Lettuce and spinach will “bolt”, that is produce flowers when temperatures climb above 20°C, resulting in bitter unpalatable leaves.

Onions and garlic are a special case. They need cool weather to produce the foliage which will provide the energy for the bulbs that start forming when day length begins to shorten in late June. Garlic is very hardy and I plant it in late October for the next year’s crop.

Frost­hardy vegetables such as lettuce, onions, peas and spinach can be planted outdoors as soon as the ground can be worked, often the first week of April in Ottawa. Semi­frost­hardy vegetables such as beets, carrots, chard and potatoes are best planted in late April or early May as they germinate slowly in cold soil.

So what happens if the weather turns really nasty? One year I had peas that were about 10 cm high when we had a late snowfall of 20 cm. Once the snow was melted the peas were still growing with no problem. I have had potato foliage frozen to ground level – it didn’t take them long to spring back with fresh growth from the roots. Onions and spinach take frost in their stride.

Some gardeners try to get a head start on the season with relatively tender plants such as tomatoes. While gardening is not a competitive sport, there are those who take a certain amount of pride in having the first juicy red tomato on the block. I may plant a few tomatoes two or three weeks before Victoria Day but I spread my risks by planting the main crop when it is warmer.

Raised beds and well drained soil assist an early start by warming up much faster. In order to determine if soil is workable, take a handful and squeeze – if it stays together in a ball it is still too wet, if it crumbles it is ready. Time to get out and get planting!

Dinah Wilson,
Apr 5, 2010, 1:11 PM