Editor’s note: ACTIVITY IDEA - We invite you read this informative gardening article with the parable of the sower in mind and see if you can find profound truths that relate to the kingdom of God within its words. Create your own parable and cultivate a rich harvest.
Living in Canada and loving gardening can be a challenge. Even though we are famous for our long summer days, our garden-growing boon only lasts a limited time. In this article I will describe a 21st century way to increase garden harvests. My intent is to obey one of God’s great commandments: “Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).
In the southern Canadian prairies, gardeners often feel that it is foolish to plant a garden prior to the long weekend in May, reducing chances of frost. In reality, there are many vegetables that can be planted in late April. For plants like tomatoes and peppers, however, this does not give enough time for them to mature before frost hits in the fall.
The answer is to start their growing process weeks earlier. I usually start seeds at the end of February or beginning of March. This allows the seedlings to be transplanted outside the second or third week of May. If they are maturing too fast for the target dates, their progress can be slowed with changes to light, temperature, and nutrients.
I use certified seeds from trusted seed companies, which results in germination close to 100%. The starting soil I use is sterilized—free from any weeds or other contaminates. This allows control over adding any supplements. A vulnerable new sprout can only utilize a small amount of nutrients. Gradual increases can be added as the plant grows.
The seeds are best started in trays that are divided into 72 squares that are approximately one-quarter inch square. The trays take up much less room, and each seed can have its own space. The depth of the seed is dependent on the type and variety. Once planted and covered with soil, they are given a misting of water. If water is given in greater concentrations than a mist, the force of the water can displace the seed or cause it to float to the top.
Nurture with Care
The trays are then placed under artificial light bars where they receive 16 hours of light each day. Light is not needed for seeds to germinate, but when they poke through the soil, the light is there for them. Once the first two cotyledon leaves separate, I give them their first feeding of nutrients. This is a balanced liquid blend that will help the growth of new roots and add strength to the stem.
Through this early stage of growth, nutrients are changed as needed. Temperature at this point becomes important. The ambient temperature should be around 18-20 degrees Celsius. If the plant is too cool, it will become dormant; if it is too warm, it will stretch upward too fast and become spindly.
Because these plants are in small pods, it is only a matter of about 20-25 days before they need to be transplanted into larger pots. I transplant them into three to four inch pots depending on the variety, with more than half the plant being under the soil. The newly formed stems are full of small hair-like roots waiting to grow.
Once transplanted, it is critical over the next 14 days that nutrients contain a higher level of phosphorus to make sure the roots are deep, strong, and numerous. The roots not only keep the plant stable but also send food up to the plant as it grows.
A regular watering and feeding schedule must focus on consistency. If the plant dries out and then is given extra water to 'catch up,' it loses strength and is vulnerable to disease. If this happens later in the plant’s life, it creates odd shaped produce.
Once the weather is warm enough so that a greenhouse can be heated throughout the night to no lower than minus 5 degrees Celsius, plantlets are ready to be exposed to natural light. The change from artificial to natural light is a stressful time for the plants during the first 48-72 hours. Natural light can be much more intense at mid day, so it needs to be introduced gradually. Changing temperatures also have an effect on the plant. If plants were cared for and strengthened properly, the transition can be done easily. For my set up, this change of a growing environment usually occurs around mid April.
By this stage the plants are growing quickly. They are, however, exposed to many other things: fungus, airborne diseases, and bugs. Regular inspection, treatments, rotation and environmental stability are required. As April turns into May, some days can produce very hot conditions inside a greenhouse: ventilation and fans are required. I have roof vents that open automatically as the temperature increases inside my greenhouse.
Rigid watering schedules and weekly feeding now become more important. The plants are preparing to set produce as blossoms form. Tomatoes and peppers are self-pollinating. If outside, the gentle shaking of the plant by the wind allows this to occur. Greenhouse conditions are much more controlled. It is necessary to shake each plant manually on a daily basis once a blossom is formed. It can be tedious to do, but the alternative is having plants that do not bear fruit.
Planting to Help Others
In the middle of May, when the weather looks like it will stay warm and not get too cool at nights, it is time to move the plants into their garden spot. If the plant has been placed in good soil, it will flourish and provide a large harvest.
If they were not started from indoor seeding and then moved to a greenhouse, they would only be starting their growth journey.
The earliest I have ever had a ripe tomato is July 1st.
For 2019, our Community Garden committee has asked for 50 tomato plants and 75 pepper plants divided into three varieties. Produce from this garden will be distributed to food banks and soup kitchens in Alberta. As a result, literally thousands of people across Alberta will receive needed food. For anyone wanting to help with community service projects, go to www.justserve.org.
Additionally, I will seed approximately 150-200 more plants for my personal use, for my children and their families, and some friends. My purpose in writing this gardening article is that those of us who are blessed to live in a rich land can follow the counsel of the Apostle Paul to Timothy and the faithful saints entrusted to his ministering care: “That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Timothy 6:18-19).