Brian Minter: High demand for seeds and transplants a sign of the times

There are many cool season crops, like kale, that mature fairly quickly so you don’t have to wait long to enjoy them!

The upside-down reality that we’re all experiencing is also being reflected in the world of gardening. Some garden stores have temporarily closed due to concerns about social distancing, and lower staffing levels are also a factor.

Of course, they need to be respected for doing the right thing. Many, however, having been deemed an essential service, are starting to reopen with shorter hours, and as in all other retail situations, they’re keeping people safe with strict sanitation protocols and by limiting the number of folks in the store at any one time. Even so, people who want to grow their own food are finding a shortage of some seeds due to an overwhelming demand.

The regular restocking of seed racks during the normal busy spring season has dramatically slowed because seed companies are also dealing with staff attrition, compounded by high demand.

To get a sense of current and future seed availability, I spoke with Alex Augustyniak, general manager of West Coast Seeds. They have been experiencing an extremely high volume of mail-order sales and have been working three shifts in an attempt to deal with the exploding demand.

He assured me, however, that there is adequate seed available, but the process of getting it out to both their own customers and the stores they supply is understandably slower.

Packaging is a huge issue as well. It’s not necessarily the availability of seed that is the problem but the packets they go in have been depleted and can’t be replaced quickly. Augustyniak said there will be some very plain seed packets out there as we move forward.

West Coast orders their seed based on prior years’ numbers. With this year’s high demand, some popular varieties have been sold out, but there are many other excellent varieties that will be equally good substitutes.

Augustyniak also mentioned that we have a wealth of local B.C. growers who have their seed stock already in place, so are expanding their production of vegetable starters for garden outlets.

Vegetable ‘starters’ can save anywhere from three to four weeks of growing time. So, in many cases, they will help you enjoy earlier food from your garden.

Today’s selection of starter plants has hugely expanded to include even root crops, like beets and carrots. Starter plants will often save you money on wasted seed because some plants, like celery and celeriac, can be hard to germinate.

 Vegetable starter plants are a great way to get a jump on the growing season.

Transplants of peas, beans and turnips are now grown as regular crops, offering far more choices.

Timing is a big issue. The demand for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash seedlings has been off the charts. Even experienced gardeners are surprising me by asking for these heat-loving veggies that shouldn’t be placed in any garden until the later part of May when we get consistent nighttime temperatures of 10 C.

The current demand for basil plants is extraordinary, but that can be a problem. Basil simply dies off in cool, wet weather. It needs the heat of June to do well.

Of course, people with heated greenhouses enjoy growing heat-loving starter plants in order to set out larger plants in May. Putting heat-lovers out in your home garden or on your patio this early makes no sense. Don’t even pick up heat-loving plants until mid-May, and don’t worry about garden stores running out. I assure you there is a very good supply out there.

The traditional time for starting a vegetable garden, right across Canada, is the May long weekend. At that time we get far superior growing conditions: the soil and air temperatures are far warmer, the weather is usually pleasant and we get those longer spring days. Gardens, which are started later, not only have fewer insect and disease problems, but they also grow twice as quickly.

It’s still April! So please, if you are keen to get your food garden growing, then starter plants or seeds of the following can go out now in raised beds or in containers — of course starters must first be acclimatized for the outdoors.

Now is the time to plant either seeds or transplants of broad beans, fava beans, brassicas, like cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli, kale, green onions, onion sets, all onion varieties, scallions, shallots, leeks, lettuce, mesculin, peas, early potatoes, radishes, spinach and swiss chard.

For good germination from seed and for success with transplants, heat-lovers, like green beans, beets, carrots, celery, celeriac, corn, cucumber, eggplant, melons, peppers, pumpkins, tomatoes and squash, should go out in mid-to-late May, and not before.

The whole concept of food gardening is to reap a bountiful harvest and to enjoy fresh, healthy vegetables. There is no need to panic. There is still lots of time and adequate seed and transplants for everyone to get growing. Patience and wisdom are your two best assets — and we’re learning a lot about both right now.

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