Advice for new gardeners: Kick the tires, then grow potatoes in them

The kale took longer than expected to come up. I suppose that’s because kale, when fully grown, will overrun a garden like a particularly delicious weed in about the time it takes to sneeze.

The kale took longer than expected to come up. I suppose that’s because kale, when fully grown, will overrun a garden like a particularly delicious weed in about the time it takes to sneeze.

I thought it would be quicker to rally. Had I underwatered it? Overwatered? Maybe it was too cold? I planted a cold-tolerant variety — Russian Red — but did cold tolerant mean Yukon-cold tolerant? Maybe it already sprouted, but the seedlings had died.

I tried not to think about it; I’m terribly sentimental. I had planted the little black seeds carefully in a trench I had dug with one finger and lightly covered them over with a sprinkling of dark, loamy soil. It made me sad to think of the sprouts half-uncurled, cotyledons pinched off by frost and damp, dead.

I was relieved of my impatience when the first shoots — two leaves, then four, that were a shocking electric green — began to emerge.

After that, I watered them with a light hand each morning, covered them each night with plastic in a makeshift cold frame. It’s a folk belief that plants grow better in the presence of classical music, but I prefer my plants have a little better-rounded education and when when I work in the garden I listen to podcasts: Quirks and Quarks, Ideas, Snap Judgement, Daily, The Moth.

Even after the kale surprised me, I was still impatient — I put out a pumpkin plant I had started indoors much too early and it withered up, curling in on itself and turning brown like a dried out sea-creature. Instead of taking it out of the bed right away I left it there for a couple of days, sad and sick looking, to remind myself of the failure, an admonishment to be more careful in the future. Gardening is a meditative process for me of risk and reward, although some people, such as Randy Lamb, who has been president of the Downtown Urban Gardeners Society (DUGS) for the last 15 years, are much more light-hearted about it.

“I love the rewards of gardening, the daily, weekly rewards that come all season,” he said. “And there’s nothing like a fresh, warm tomato on your lunch break.”

DUGS runs the community gardens in downtown Whitehorse and has resources available on their website for gardeners who aren’t sure how to begin, Lamb said, including planting charts and a free, printable guide for beginners.

Lamb recommends new Yukon gardeners consider a variety of factors including soil nutrition, availability of sunlight and water, and wind protection.

“I’d say — if you’re starting in a new bed, especially — work in some compost,” he said. “Unless you know what the existing fertility is, you need to add in something.”

The best plants for beginning gardeners are “reliable producers,” like root vegetables, greens and some varieties of peas, he said.

“Potatoes are always good, especially if you have a new garden,” he said.

Short-season crops — plants that take under 100 days to reach maturity — are the easiest to grow in the Yukon, although longer season crops are possible, if more difficult and and labour intensive, Lamb said. The weather in Whitehorse can vary even between neighborhoods, creating “microclimates” such as in Riverdale, he said, where it is sometimes possible to grow producing tomatoes outside without a greenhouse.

“Every once in while, we’ll get a year where maybe it’s really warm and dry,” he said. “One of those years, the compost pile at the community gardens actually germinated, and there was an absolute mountain of squash growing out of it. It was an incredible event.”

While it’s not strictly necessary, having a greenhouse is really helpful, especially when starting plants, Lamb said. A greenhouse also lets northern gardens grow things that might not otherwise stand a chance outside.

“I know people who grow corn in their greenhouse every year,” he said. “They have a little feast at the end of every season.”

I don’t have a greenhouse, so I buy some of the plants I don’t have the space or time to start inside — such as herbs like basil, which are typically very slow germinators — from growers who do.

Bart Bounds of Elemental Farms sells seedlings at the Farmers Market at Shipyards Park. He said that what you should plant early in the season, “really depends on your situation,” but that lettuces, radishes and spinach are all good early-season, outdoor bets. His personal favourite garden plant to grow, however, is the “Tokyo Market” turnip.

“It’s white, super-sweet and juicy. You eat it fresh, it’s good stuff,” he said.

When it warmed up a little, I put in black emperor radishes, red dragon carrots, wasabi arugula and sweet beets. I also planted little blue potatoes, the seed stock from the folks at Circle D farms, buried in old tires I hauled from the dump. The tires heat up in direct sunlight and maintain a higher temperature, so they are supposed to be good for growing plants that need warmer soil. It’s little tricks like these that Lamb recommends. Northern gardeners need to be creative.

“I know people in Inuvik who start their potatoes indoors and then move them outside in the spring, because the growing season is so short,” he said.

Above all, people shouldn’t be afraid to take risks in their garden, he said.

“Do at least one experiment, try one new thing every year.… There’s always little treasures that pop up, things you never expect to do well,” Lamb said.

This is a sentiment with which Bounds heartily agrees.

“Feel free to experiment, do something new.” Bounds said. “Don’t be afraid.”

Contact Lori Garrison at