Helen Chesnut's Garden Notes: Gardening success starts with soil preparation

Dear Helen: Thank you for the article about finding garden spaces and using containers for growing vegetables, especially as produce prices are expected to rise this year. What I’d appreciate now is some advice on soils for growing vegetables, in garden plots and in pots.


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For success in growing vegetables, sunlight and adequate moisture are important, but apart from these needs, it’s all down to soil quality.

Almost all the time and effort involved in any of my planting projects goes into soil preparation — the major investment in ensuring the project will yield a pleasing supply of full-flavoured vegetables. Once the preparation is done, the seeding or transplanting go quickly.

In the garden, I define the area to be planted with a specific vegetable or group of vegetables before clearing it and digging it over deeply. Then, I dust the surface liberally with lime (except for potatoes), top that with a scattering of fertilizer and a five-centimetre layer of compost, and mix it all into the soil. Once a plot is prepared, I’ll often leave it to settle for a few days before planting.

The fertilizer I use is a natural-source blend that makes nutrients available to plants during about a three-month period. It actually feeds beneficial soil organisms, which, in turn, release nutrients for plants.

Such blends are available at some garden centres. They consist of materials such as seed meals for nitrogen, lime to counter the meals’ acidity, bone meal or rock phosphate for phosphorous, and greensand (which comes from marine sediment) and/or kelp meal for potassium.

I’ve used natural source (not chemically treated) fertilizers for decades. Apart from their ecological virtues, using them eliminates the need for followup fertilizing.

I use the same type of fertilizer blend in the soil mix for container plantings, again to eliminate the need to fertilize through the summer — a job I know I would not get around to anyway.

For planting vegetables (and flowers) in containers, many gardeners simply use a purchased potting blend and get satisfactory results. I’ve found that for carefree container plantings — ones that need only watering through the summer — I spend a little time plumping up a commercial mix.

I start with one of these blends. Currently, I use Pro-Mix BX (stands for “Basic"). To it, I add some real, sterilized, bagged soil, along with a purchased compost such as fish compost and a natural-source fertilizer mix. The soil and compost lend a certain “staying power” or “oomph” to the mix, adding to its ability to nurture plants over a longer period.

To plant, I line up the pots, baskets or patio tubs I need, check that they all have working drainage holes, and begin filling them. To reduce weight and save on the planting mix when filling large containers, I put some sort of lightweight filler material at the pot bottoms.

That might be perlite, or some of the bagged wood shavings I always have on hand for spreading on back garden pathways. The shavings are the ones used for animal bedding

When a pot is filled about halfway with planting mix, I spread a light sprinkling of fertilizer blend and a thin layer of fish compost as a “feeding station” for lengthening plant roots before I fill the rest of the pot.

Firmed down gently, the mix should have a slight gap before the pot rim to accommodate watering. With that, the container is ready for transplants.

Dear Helen: Is wasabi just another name for horseradish? Can it be grown on Vancouver Island? If so, what sort of conditions does it need to grow well?


Wasabi (Wasabia japonica) is the Asian equivalent of horseradish (Armoracea rusticana). Both plants are in the brassica family. Horseradish has oblong leaves about 50 centimetres in length. Wasabi has kidney-shaped foliage. It grows throughout Japan and is commonly found beside mountain streams.

Wasabi can be grown from seed in the spring or from root divisions in spring or fall. Grow in part shade, in moist or wet soil, at cool temperatures, ideally in the 10 to 15 C range.

The plants are ideally grown in clear running water, but pots of wasabi can be set in dishes of water that is kept fresh with frequent changing.

The roots are harvested 15 to 24 months after planting, in spring or fall. At the same time, divisions can be made and planted. The roots are used fresh or dried for grinding into powder.

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