How I started Autumn Seedlings…and Survived a Heatwave Wipe-out (Maybe).

When surfer Garrett McNamara was interviewed after he rode a 100-foot world record wave, he imparted some sage advice for the rest of us mere mortals. He said that if you’re riding waves or dealing with any situation in life, if you’re in the moment, you’re really connected to what’s going on, whether you’re getting sucked over by monster waves or wading into danger to help a fellow surfer. What’s more, he claims to enjoy whatever situation he’s in, no matter how crazy or dangerous, because that’s where he learns how to handle it. His motto? ‘Just deal with it.’

It all started with a burst of excitement on August 1st, when I planted a full roster of autumn crops for the first time. I’m used to gardening on a very small balcony with little room for starting seeds without ripping up still productive summer crops. (I’ve harvested tomatoes in November on more than one occasion. No way I was giving that up!) Our patio is about three times the size of my old balcony. More space means more crops, so I got to work planting new lettuce, Fun Jen mustard, beets, daikon radish, pak choi, new kale and Swiss chard while beans, cukes, older kale and Swiss chard, herbs and flowers kept right on growing. Excellent!

A few days later, a heatwave hit with temperatures in the very high 30’s to low 40’s C – not exactly the ideal temperatures for cool weather crops, especially not ones planted on a paved patio surrounded on all sides by concrete walls. My garden and I were sucked into a furnace-like vortex of heat and there was little I could do but move the plants around to more sheltered locations, apply row cover and shade cloth and keep the containers and plug trays well watered. Not surprisingly, germination rates were extremely spotty for beets and lettuce.

I am a beet!

The daikon seedlings I’d sowed directly in containers weathered the heat pretty well:

Daikon Radish

I’d planted Fun Jen mustard in larger cells. They did fine, too.

Fun Jen Mustard

The kale and lettuce in the smaller plug tray? Not so much.

Lettuce and kale…the heatwave edition.

The pak choi didn’t come up at all, no doubt baked into oblivion by the heat.

I think the main lesson here is that bigger containers + more soil = more available water and nutrients for the plants to draw up in times of stress. The plug plants couldn’t draw up enough sustenance from the soil because there wasn’t very much of it to begin with. Also, the soil had to be kept really moist for them to survive at all, which meant they sometimes got waterlogged. I don’t have an indoor grow space (yet) so I set the plug trays outside in a makeshift nursery I made from an unused plant cage draped with floating row cover. In hindsight, I probably should have put them under shade cloth too when the heat hit but I didn’t. The result? Stunted, anemic seedlings.

What to do? If I’d been Garrett McNamara, I would have been caught up in the moment, blissed out on the enjoyment of raw experience. This, I couldn’t manage but his motto, I embraced with a crazed fervor: ‘Just deal with it.’

First, I sprayed a kelp/fish emulsion fertilizer over the mustard I’d planted in larger cells and the kale and lettuce in the smaller plug tray. I covered the entire nursery in shade cloth and let the plants rest. I also put in a second succession of beets, hoping they’d germinate when the weather broke. (They did.)

The next day, I peeked into the nursery. The plants had rallied overnight but I didn’t want to leave them in their small plugs any longer. I got busy amending the soil in each container, adding a mixture of horticultural sand, sheep manure and all-purpose organic fertilizer. As afternoon shade crept across the garden, I transplanted the seedlings and dosed them with kelp/fish emulsion fertilizer to help mitigate transplant shock. (I always use this mixture during transplanting and find that it really helps to stave off wilting leaves and drooping stems – the classic signs of shock. The recipe? I litre of water mixed with ½ tbsp of liquid kelp fertilizer and ½ tbsp of liquid fish emulsion fertilizer.)

I’d planned to cover the newly-planted containers with shade cloth but there was no need. As I worked, the heat broke over the city like a cresting wave, drawing cooler weather along in it’s wake. I noted each perky plant with satisfaction. Not one of them had gone into shock.

In the future, I’ll use bigger cells for autumn planting and cover the nursery with shade cloth during heatwaves for extra insurance. Or I’ll just sow seeds directly into their containers. I’ll save the smaller plug trays for spring planting. Because riding the weather is like surfing a wave: you never know when it will turn.