Spring Gardening in Colder Climates

Two men and a dog with a McCormick tractor 1950s

I grew up in a mining city in Northern Ontario. Up there snow can arrive as soon as September and doesn’t usually disappear until mid-May. The Southern Ontario Victoria Day (May 2-4) planting schedule doesn’t apply there. My parents learned this the hard way.

They were both southerners, well relatively speaking at least. Dad spent his early years in a small town north of Toronto where his parents struggled to make ends meet with a depression era gas station. His mother’s diaries show they managed to keep themselves fed thanks to a vegetable garden out back. As a student he was placed in rural Alberta farm country. He was able to experience the crop cycle and on occasion, he drove a tractor. Now in his 80s and living with health issues, Dad still grows his beloved beefsteak tomatoes on the back deck.

boy holds cat in garden
Dad’s early days in the garden

Mom was one of nine children of a family of modest means from cottage country. I am not sure if her family had gardens but I know that Mom loved flowers, especially lupins and irises. She didn’t care for bleeding hearts (though I found them pretty). Mom was also fond of flowering trees and was delighted to eventually have a flowering crab tree out front. She would leave the kitchen garden to Dad.

woman and man lean on 1950s car
Jean and Bill in the dating years

They met in Toronto in the 1950s while studying at university. He became a minister, she a trained nurse. They married, honeymooned in Florida, and after a few years in Mattawa, spent over forty years living, loving and raising a family further north.

When they moved to a new home with a large backyard, good black earth and an already established rhubarb patch, Dad plotted out his vegetable garden. Mom had a nice patch of earth by the front which caught the morning sunshine, a perfect spot for flowers.

They excitedly planted their gardens in late May. But Northern Ontario is not Florida, and it is not even balmy Toronto. A beautiful swirling snowstorm descended by the middle of June. After a clean up, new crops with shorter growing periods were planted.

As in life, sometimes you learn the most about gardening from your mistakes. The growing period can change and the weather seems to be increasingly difficult to predict. You might need to be ready to cover the early plantings of May and you might find be out late at night picking cherry tomatoes before the first fall frost sets in. I may even be out in the garden with my flashlight tonight.

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