Kelowna wants to dig in the dirt

With the arrival of spring comes a growing interest in the community with growing things, especially food.

Early daffodils brighten the UnH20 Xeriscape Demonstration Garden at the H20 Centre.

Early daffodils brighten the UnH20 Xeriscape Demonstration Garden at the H20 Centre.


There’s a growing interest in growing things—especially food.

And, suddenly, the least likely people want to know when, what, where and how to plant; whether to buy ready-sprouted ones or put in seeds; how much sunlight different plants require, and how much water to apply.

There are even little tomato plants in plastic coffee cups on the windowsill in the sports department of the Kelowna Capital News.

Everyone’s doing it.

But local garden experts like Gwen Steele, executive-director of the Okanagan Xeriscape Association and Don Burnett, columnist and garden show host, advise that you gather a bit of information before you dig over that first spadeful of virgin ground, purchase your first packet of seeds or pick up a plant at the store.

Both agree it’s vital that you properly prepare the ground before rushing to plant. But, before you do that, make decisions about what you plan to grow, so you know where best to dig.

Steele and Burnett warn gardeners to stay away from growing plants that can be invasive. There are lists available at

Vegetables and herbs generally are heat-loving plants, so you want to locate them in a bright, sunny part of the yard.

If that means interspersing them amongst the flowers, go for it. The lacy leaves of carrots, ruffles of lettuce, upright stalks of chives and onions are quite attractive and some even produce flowers.

Herbs are particularly pretty and an accepted occupant of the flower border and rock garden, plus many are very drought tolerant and easy to grow, including the many thymes, sage, oregano and parsley.

Once you’ve selected a site, the manual labour begins. It may involve removing some turf and either rototilling or digging the ground over. Then you’ll want to add compost or well-rotted manure—some type of organic matter to improve the soil, especially for vegetables, which tend to be heavy feeders.

Now, you’re ready to plant, but timing is important.

Burnett divides vegetables into cool weather and warmth lovers.

The first ones to go in include a wide variety of greens, peas, radishes, carrots and onions, then broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, parsnips and turnips while such heat-lovers as tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans, cucumbers and squashes shouldn’t go into the ground outside until the temperatures have warmed up, generally mid-May to the Victoria Day long weekend.

He has some memorable advice about how to decide whether it’s time to plant those in the first group. “Years ago, a little old lady told me she never puts her bedding plants in until the soil is comfortable to your bare bottom.”

He also advises that you shouldn’t go seed shopping when you’re hungry because too often people plant too much. There’s also a tendency to plant seeds too close together.

Planting the seeds, he points out, is just the first step. Following that is maintenance, including removing weeds as soon as they pop up and definitely before they set seed. Watering and thinning are also necessary tasks once the seeds sprout and begin to grow.

“People want gardens they don’t have to look after, but even xeriscapes need maintaining,” he points out, adding that they can also look a bit messy and they’re not everyone’s style of gardening.

Both Burnett and Steele grew up in Kelowna, but that doesn’t mean they always agree on everything.

Steele is passionate about growing drought-tolerant and native plants wherever possible in this near-desert climate, and even in growing water-thirsty vegetables, she tends to mulch heavily to conserve water, suppress weeds and enrich the soil.

She’s delighted to see in her own neighbourhood that people are removing their water-hogging lawns and planting native plants, shrubs and vegetables there, with lots of mulch.

“People are intrigued by the fact I grow vegetables in raised boxes in the front yard, but I’ve found it’s a great way to meet my neighbours. It can create community—one front yard at a time,” she comments.

Her next door neighbours are young people who bought the property because there was enough land around the house to grow food, she notes.

And, in the north end of Kelowna, young people who have moved in recently are asking their elderly neighbours with their large vegetable gardens how to grow like they do, she says.

“We’re fundamentally connected with Nature and we need food to survive. Putting our hands in the soil reconnects us to the earth and it feeds our souls as well as our bodies,” she believes.

“Gardening makes you aware of all the life in the garden: the butterflies, hummingbirds and the pollinators.

“I’m not able to meditate because my mind is too busy, but when I’m in the garden, there’s a calming of my mind,” she says.

In the flower beds, she advises planting self-seeding annuals like tagetes marigolds, cosmos, zinnias, calendulas, nasturtiums, sunflowers and poppies.

Many spring-blooming bulbs will also spread or self-seed, including many that are currently in bloom, like scillas, chionodoxa and grape hyacinth. They’re all blue and are colourful paired with the many varieties of narcissus, and generally the deer don’t bother any of those flowers. They do love tulips, but if you don’t have visiting deer, plant tulips with those low-growing blue flower bulbs that naturalize well. Most bulbs must be planted in the fall, to provide spring bloom.

Whether you’re growing flowers or vegetables, she emphasizes that it’s vital to begin with good soil, and enrich it with compost regularly.

Before visiting the nursery, do some research, she suggests. Plants in plant hardiness zones one to five are suitable for the Okanagan, with its cold winters, she notes.

There are hundreds of colourful drought-tolerant plants, with photos, listed on the OXA website at: along with photos of xeric landscapes and information about xeriscaping.

Steele feels strongly that we should provide young people with opportunities to grow their own food and she’s pleased to see the appearance of school gardens at many sites. “Kids are excited about seeing their food as plants. I think every school should have a garden that includes food.”

She suggests both for youngsters and for beginning gardeners, that such vegetables as scarlet runner beans are very rewarding because they grow quickly, have flowers that attract hummingbirds, and result in a bean that can be eaten for a snack or for dinner. They can also provide a privacy break and shade, but they do need a trellis or other support to grow on.

Zucchini are also satisfying to grow because they can reach an enormous size, look attractive, suppress weeds and provide a multi-purpose vegetable as well.

Or, simply let kids plant spuds in a tub in the yard. They can watch them grow, measure their progress, then eat them. Steele notes that kids’ old wading pools work well for little gardens for them too.

For those with balconies on which they want to grow, her advice is to make sure you use large containers like half wine-barrels, so they don’t dry out too fast during our hot, sunny summer days.

Interestingly, although technology to do with communication has certainly changed over the years, very little about gardening has.

“We still use a spade, a fork and a wheelbarrow,” comments Burnett, adding, “We plant seeds and water them in.”

In fact, in some ways, we’re returning to some of the old ways of gardening, with our focus on the use of natural fertilizers and soil amendments like compost and manure.

Like many systems in nature, there are cycles, as experienced gardeners have discovered along the way.


Kelowna Capital News