Thinning vegetables

Many vegetables have small seeds that are difficult to sow one at a time.  As a result, you invariably end up with too many small plants close together, fighting each other for the same space, air circulation, and nutrients.  In the case of beets, multiple seedlings almost always arise from each seed (which is really a clump of 4-6 seeds).

Here is a list of vegetables that often need to be thinned out:

  • Beets
  • Carrots and parsnips
  • Lettuce and other greens
  • Turnips and rutabagas
  • Various herbs, such as basil and cilantro

For greens and herbs, simply pull the plants out by the roots.  You can use these plants whether they are big or small.

For very young root vegetables, snip the tops off the extra plants; they will die back naturally.  Throw the tops into the compost.

For older root vegetables, wait for a day when the soil is quite wet, and slowly pull on the tops until the root emerges.  Keep a small spade or stick handy to gently dig out the root should the tops break off, leaving you nothing to pull.  Ideally, though, you should minimize disruption to root vegetables.  Carrots, for example, may fork is moved (although their shape does not affect their taste).  I gently pack the soil back around the side of the carrot that is bared when its neighbour is pulled.

Leave enough space for each plant to grow comfortably without pressing up against any others of its kind (or any other neighbours).  This will vary according to the type of plant.

Want to reduce the amount of thinning you have to do?  Try making your own seed tape.  Although you may find more gaps in your garden (where seeds along the tape did not germinate and did not have backup seeds to fill in), at least you will have less precious seedlings to pull.

Plant of the week: Beets

Beets are a deliciously versatile vegetable.  They’re grown for both their roots and their leaves (greens).  The beetroot is often eaten fresh, boiled, or pickled; the greens are added to salads or steamed.  A cousin, the sugar beet, is used as both animal food and to make sugar and molasses.  Natural red dye can be extracted from conventional red beets.

Beets are great sources of vitamin C and folic acid, and they also contain potassium.

Ideal growing conditions

Like most root crops, beets prefer well-cultivated, light soil that has been enriched with compost, and that has good drainage.  Beets prefer cool temperatures; they can be grown in sun or partial shade.

To improve germination, you can soak the seeds in warm water for 10-15 minutes before planting them.  Direct sow them about an inch deep and 2 inches apart, as soon as the soil has warmed.  As each seed produces multiple seedlings, you will need to thin them so that each seedling has adequate room to grow.  Enjoy the tender greens of the thinned beets!  You can repeat sowings every couple of weeks until the onset of summer.

Beets may benefit from a high nitrogen compost.  Do not water them excessively.


Beets come in a variety of shapes and colours, including red, white, golden, and striped colours, and bulbuous and cylindrical shapes.  Their leaves may be solid green or green with red stems and veins.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

In the fall, pull the beets from the ground, of lift them using a garden fork.  To store them as is, twist the tops off a few inches from the root, then keep them in a location that has high humidity and a temperature of around 0 degrees Celsius.

Cooking beets

Before you can freeze or pickle beets, or enjoy them as part of a meal, you must cook them.  Here’s how:

  1. Twist or cut the tops off close to the root.
  2. Immerse beets in a large pot of water and boil until the largest beet is tender in the middle (use a knife to test).
  3. Drain the hot water from the pot.
  4. Put the hot beets under the cold water tap, or in a bowl of ice water.
  5. Using your thumb and forefinger, push on the beet skin.  It should come off easily.
  6. Enjoy!  Try them in borscht, or add them to cake, to which they add moisture, colour, and sweetness.


  • Beans
  • Brassicas
  • Garlic
  • Mint
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Potatoes


  • They get along with pretty much everything!

Fun facts

  • During Roman times, beets were used as aphrodisiacs.  They contain (and need) large amounts of boron, which is used in the production of human sex hormones.
  • Beets can be used to make wine.


Direct sowing cool season crops

Once the snow has melted, and the soil is workable (that is, it is neither frozen, cold, or very wet), you may direct sow cool season crops.  These plants tolerate overnight temperatures that hover around the freezing mark, and even a touch of frost; they prefer the cool temperatures of spring and fall rather than the heat of summer, during which they may bolt (go to seed too quickly).

Refer to the seed package to see how many weeks prior to the last frost that you may sow the seeds.  The package may also list an ideal soil temperature.  You may choose to place row covers over the area that you are planting to expedite the warming of the soil and protect your plants from occasional cold nights.

The following plants are quite hardy, and can tolerate a soil temperature of around 5°C:

  • Leeks
  • Peas
  • Radishes
  • Spinach, lettuce, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, and other greens
  • Sunflowers
  • Turnip and rutabaga

The following plants are also quite hardy, though they prefer a slightly warmer soil temperature of around 10°C:

  • Broccoli (shown above), Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage
  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Chard
  • Kohlrabi
  • Onion sets
  • Potatoes
  • Parsnips

The great zupumpkin!

In one of my first small gardens, I planted a pumpkin plant and a zucchini plant next to each other.  I didn’t save any of their seeds, but the next year, when I spotted a pumpkin plant coming up from the compost, I let it grow.  It started out looking like a bit like an elongated pumpkin or some sort of squash.  Then it ripened to the above specimen, which was christened the zupumpkin.


Cross-pollination occurs when an insect or the wind carries pollen from one variety of plant to another.  The resulting seed, when planted, sprouts a hybrid of its parents.  Since zucchini and pumpkins are both varieties of the same species, they can create the zupumkin (or zumption or pumcchini–your choice) but a cucumber and squash can’t procreate because they’re different species.

Cross-pollination does not affect the current year’s crop, but rather the next year–with one exception: corn.  If the pollen from the tassels of one variety of corn are blown into the silks from another variety, the cob that develops is a hybrid.

Self-pollinating plants

Vegetables like beans, peas, peanuts, eggplant, peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes are self-pollinating. Their seeds will produce plants like the parent, but insects will occasionally cross them, so if you want to be absolutely certain that your seeds will grow true to type, plant each variety at least 10 feet apart.

Insect- and wind-pollinated plants

Vegetables that are pollinated by insects or wind need to be separated by variety, and grown a distance apart (the distance varies with each type of plant).   To ensure that your seeds grow true to type, grow one variety of each type, or separate the different varieties.

Vegetables that willingly cross-breed

The following plants or plant families are prone to cross-pollination.  If you are planting them with the intention of keeping their seeds, keep varieties well separated.

  • Beets and Swiss chard
  • Cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, and broccoli
  • Corn
  • Cucumbers
  • Honeydew, cantaloupe, and other melons, excluding watermelons
  • Peppers (hot and sweet)
  • Squash (some varieties)
  • Zucchini and pumpkins

From the side dish to the main course

Recent studies have shown that the ideal diet is one that is rich in vegetables and fruits.  The benefits to our health increase if we go beyond the traditional options, such as carrots, potatoes, and beans, and eat a wide variety of vegetables and fruits.  No one plant contains all of the nutrients we need, so it’s best to mix it up, and enjoy a rainbow of colours, textures, and types.

Health benefits

The benefits are widespread:

A diet rich in vegetables and fruits can lower blood pressure, reduce risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent some types of cancer, lower risk of eye and digestive problems, and have a positive effect upon blood sugar which can help keep appetite in check. (source)

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that dietary patterns emphasizing fruits and vegetables may be linked to better psychological health.[i] A recent study found that higher fruit and vegetable consumption may increase well-being, curiosity and creativity, possibly related to micronutrients and carbohydrate composition.[ii] This is probably related to the fact you are giving your body and brain more healthy vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber. (source)

Meatless Monday

The Meatless Monday campaign, which started in 2003, encourages participants to abstain from meat on Mondays as a way to improve their health and that of the planet.  Why not expand this campaign to your garden, and try to grow a favourite vegetable, or something new, and use it as a centrepiece for your Monday meals?

Fun vegetables to grow

Here are some suggestions for interesting and healthy vegetables to try:

  • Rainbow chard is rich in vitamins.  There are many ways to cook it, or you can enjoy it in salads.  You can use it as a replacement for recipes that call for cooked spinach.
  • Sweet potatoes are extremely high in vitamin A and rich in fibre.  They are delicious baked and in soups.
  • Beets are versatile.  You can eat the greens or the beetroots themselves, or grate them and add them to cake.  They come in a variety of colours, like red, gold, and white.  They’re high in folates, iron, and other minerals.
  • Kale, like most green vegetables, is high in iron.  It likes the cold weather and doesn’t mind a little snow.
  • Eggplants/aubergines are often used as replacements for meat.  There are several varieties to choose from.
  • Winter squash are great in soups, casseroles, or as side dishes.  You can grow them in many colours and unusual shapes.
  • Ground cherries taste like a combination between pineapples and strawberries.  They can be eaten fresh or used in preserves, pies, and other sweet treats.

More resources

Information on plant-based proteins.