Last spring, as the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down, Canadians across the country started looking for new ways to spend time outdoors while staying safe. In the early days of lockdown, now over a year ago, greenhouses and seed suppliers saw a huge boom in sales. In fact, according to one report from Halifax’s Dalhousie University, 51 percent of Canadians got their hands in the dirt last spring and summer to grow at least one type of fruit or vegetable. And of those home gardeners, nearly one in five (or about 17.4 percent) were first-timers.
It makes sense that gardening is booming during these uncertain times. Aside from increasing access to healthy fruits and veggies, gardening is also great for our mental health. It helps toreduce stress, boost confidence and self-esteem, and even reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Plus, being outside and soaking up the rays boosts your body’s production of vitamin D, which is thought to raise serotonin levels and elevate your mood.
We spoke to Jillian Bishop, founder of Peterborough, Ontario-based seed supplier Urban Tomato, about how you can start a vegetable garden at home, no matter the size of your space.
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Follow these tips and tricks to increase your chances for a successful growing season.
First, make sure you have good soil. “Soil is really critical, whether you are in a large or small or container space,” says Bishop. “It can really impact the amount of harvest you have and it can prevent pests and other challenges you might come across.” The exact type of soil you should be on the lookout for depends on a lot of factors, like whether your garden is indoors or outdoors and if you’re using planters or growing straight from the ground. But, generally, including some compost or some other sort of nutrient (like fertilizer) is always great to mix in.
Another important tip Bishop has for first-time gardeners is to not be afraid to pick at your food. “The more you pick them, the more they produce,” says Bishop. “If you see a bean and then you pick it, it’ll tell the plant to keep making more.” This can help you have a big harvest even if your space is small.
And finally, plant something you’ll actually want to eat. Focussing on things you like will help you narrow down what to grow and get you excited for your harvest. “Picture yourself in August and think about what you’d like to be harvesting and work backwards from there to decide what you’d like to plant in the spring,” says Bishop.
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If you have an outdoor space like a back or front yard that you’ve never used as a garden, the first thing you need to do is get rid of the grass in the area where you want to plant. While last fall would’ve been the best time to do this, starting in spring is still possible. You could start by pulling out the grass, but “digging it up by hand is a nightmare and will probably destroy people’s will to garden,” says Bishop.
Instead, Bishop suggests using a technique called “lasagna gardening.” Basically, put down a few layers of thick cardboard over the area where you want your garden to be. This will start to kill off the grass. Then, build up layers: add dried leaves, straw, soil, compost, triple mix and keep layering. This will create rich soil as all the different components break down. Don’t forget to keep it moist so the organic materials start to decompose.
Once you’ve got your garden bed ready to go, it’s time to add either veggie seeds or seedlings (either are great options for an outdoor garden). Some of the easiest veggies to grow from seeds include radishes (which take 30 days) and any sort of leafy green like lettuce. Bishop also suggests beans and herbs like basil, which are also really easy to grow and don’t take too much time before you can eat them. “You’re just waiting for the plant to have enough energy to produce the leaf that you eat,” says Bishop.
And with outdoor gardens, timing is everything. Plant too early, and you risk losing your crops to a frost or a late snowstorm. Plant too late, and things might not have enough time to grow. Generally, the old wives’ tale of waiting until Victoria Day, the May Two-Four long weekend, to plant is a good guideline. But a lot still rides on the specific weather conditions in your area. Bishop suggests checking the good ole Farmer’s Almanac or even weather networks for long-term forecasts and information on when the last frost has come and gone to help you decide when to plant.
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The first thing you need are planters to house your garden. Aside from taking into consideration the types of veggies you’ll be growing and how much space they need, the main thing to look out for is drainage. “If the container is sitting somewhere you don’t want itto get wet, make sure you have something under to catch the water,” says Bishop. “But most importantly, the water needs to be able to flow through so the plants aren’t just sitting in a pool of water.”
Another important thing to be wary of is overcrowding. Some plants, like tomatoes or cucumbers, start off really small but then grow to be quite big by the time you’re ready to harvest. “It’s tempting to put three tomatoes into one pot, but you’d probably get more of a harvest if you only planted one,” says Bishop. “Otherwise [the plants] will compete with one another and they probably won’t be as productive as you would like.” To combat this, Bishop suggests interplanting, or planting different herbs and veggies together in the same planter to make the most out the space while avoiding overcrowding. This might mean planting one tomato plant among smaller plants that need less space like herbs or lettuce.
And while you might not have too much horizontal space on your balcony, you can take advantage of your vertical space and grow plants that will climb. “In a container, you can really think about growing up,” says Bishop. “Cucumbers, for example, will grow up a trellis, or climbing beans. You can really maximize space by growing up.”
(Related: 10 Easy Plants You Can Grow in Containers)
If you live in a home without any outdoor space, you can still create a small garden on a sunny windowsill. There are tons of indoor planters on the market. While some come with bells and whistles like lights and self-watering systems, your basic terracotta or plastic pot with a drainage hole at the bottom will work just as well. “If you have a really bright, sunny, south facing window, [planters with built-in lights] aren’t necessary,” says Bishop. Something to catch the water that will flow out of your pot, like a plate or a stand, is totally necessary though.
In an indoor space, you will be a bit more limited in what you can grow, but you can grow just about every kind of herb—they’re typically low maintenance, and just need a sunny window and frequent watering. Bishop also says that microgreens are another easy-to-grow veggie that would work well in an indoor garden. “They’re really high in nutrients, they grow really fast, and they don’t need a ton of space,” says Bishop. Plus, since you’re only eating the sprouts, you’ll harvest them before they get too big.
Now that you know how to start a vegetable garden, here are 37 sustainable swaps to make for a greener spring.