By: Kristy Onclin
Growing up in rural southwestern Ontario, my parents always had a giant garden. They grew all types of vegetables. Radishes, beans, tomatoes and more. Rows upon rows of perfectly parallel mounds of dirt yearning for the rain and the sun to nurture the seeds within. The harvest was always plentiful, and a lot of it was then preserved for the winter. Looking back now, it was heavenly; but had you told me then that fifteen years later I’d be writing a guest blog about being an avid gardener in the middle of suburbia, I’d have laughed at you.
My hobby started small. It was my first spring in my first home and I was gifted a few tomato plants from my father (who still to this day grows an incredible garden). I tended to them a bit, forgot to water them often, and was surprised when I actually pulled a few tomatoes off of the plants later that summer. Now, three houses, two kids and many gardening fails and successes later, I am happy to share with you the how, the why and a few things you should consider when growing a veggie garden in the city.
Why grow a veggie garden?
This could be an entire article on its own, citing studies that show how microbes in the soil are a natural antidepressant and increasing the amount of greenery in and around your home can help to battle anxiety. Great added bonuses, but not the reason I started growing veggies.
Fresh vegetables are great for our bodies, but not necessarily great for our wallets. Whether you purchase from a Farmer’s market or a grocery store, fresh vegetables can be pricey. These two reasons were why I continue to grow my own garden. As I became more knowledgeable about nutrition, and my passion for the environment grew, I started eating more vegetables to support a mostly plant-based diet. My garden grew in size and variety because of this.
Having my own garden means I can control how my plants are grown, how the soil is tended. The accessibility of the vegetables (in proximity and in price) increases the ease in which I can eat plant-based and lowers my eco-footprint. Since I only have to walk outside of my door to cut some lettuce or pluck a red pepper removes all of the transportation needed during the normal process of shipping the produce to the store and onto my plate!
The best reason though, is the experience it gives my family. Obviously, the health benefit of consuming fresh vegetables rides high on my priority list, but better yet is the time we spend together planting and tending to the seedlings. My children, now 4- and 6-years old, love to count the seeds, practice their printing when labelling the containers, measuring how tall the plants are, and predicting which seeds will grow first. Once we take the seeds outside they love carrying buckets of water from our rain barrel to water the plants. It takes them twice as long as it would if I just did it, but they giggle when the water splashes on them on a hot day. They have names for some of the plants, and when the fruit is ripe they love to ‘sneak’ the cherry tomatoes off the vine and eat them.
Where to put a veggie garden in the city?
The first thing to consider is space. Whether your space is limited to an apartment balcony, or you have more yard space available to you, I am a fan of keeping gardens up and off the ground. This is great for people who are renting homes or condos as it doesn’t leave any permanent changes to the yard.
This way of growing your own vegetables is great for people who have patios or large concrete areas. It is also a great way to take advantage of small spaces, or spaces that don’t get a lot of sunlight as they can easily be moved around. Vegetables such as beans, tomatoes, and peppers do well in pots.
If you have a fence around your yard, hanging or building planter boxes is a great way to decorate your fence while also maximizing space. Anything you put in a pot can also be put in a planter. I like a deeper planter box as it expands your options for vegetables to things like carrots, onions or chives. Fence planters are also great for lettuce. Placing the fence planters lower to the ground provides a great natural climbing surface for cucumbers and peas.
This style of garden can be any size. I like this type of gardening in the city, because it is high enough off the ground that small animals like rabbits cannot get in and destroy your seedlings. It also minimizes the weeding necessary because you are not fighting with whatever has already been growing in the ground for years as you would if you dug up some grass space in your yard. Again, anything mentioned above can be grown in a raised box, but if it is larger it gives you some room to experiment with things that require more space, such as zucchini, cantaloupe, broccoli or squash.
Where do you get your plants and seeds?
Many popular stores have garden centers when the season starts. They have seeds you can start on your own, or pre-grown plants. When I first started I loved the ease of purchasing already growing plants. Tomatoes and peppers are commonly bought this way because they take longer to grow and need to be started much earlier in the spring.
If you are interested in trying to start your own seeds, they are very fun and easy to do. All you need is a window that gets plenty of sun, some potting soil and something to hold the soil. Egg cartons work well as they decompose as you move the seedlings into larger pots. Paper cups, or plastic tubs work well, but remember to poke a hole in the bottom for water drainage. Tomatoes and peppers need to be started early, around mid-March for those of us whose outdoor season runs from Mid-May to late September. Broccoli and cauliflower also require plenty of growing time.
If you are like me, you will likely plant way more seeds than you need. If it is extra plants you have early in the season, you may be able to find other gardeners to trade with to expand your vegetable options. You can also give them as gifts to friends to encourage them to grow a few plants, or donate to community organizations.
Don’t stress too much about what to plant next to each other. At the start of this article I spoke about my parents gardens in neat little rows, that is not how I garden. I place things where I have space, and all over the place. The raised beds and purchasing bagged soil remove the hassle of weeding.
Plant things you like to eat. I don’t plant beets or radishes (although they are very easy to grow) for this reason. I have planted them in the past thinking “maybe I will add them to a salad” and I never do. So now, I save the space for my favourites.
Watering is important. It is hard to overwater a vegetable garden. Sunlight, temperature and wind all remove water from the soil, so water daily, especially in the first few weeks of planting. Living in the city, sometimes the treated water can be a bit hard on the plants due to the level of chlorine and other chemicals. If you can collect rainwater in some way, (ex: leaving a pot out on the corner of your patio, or at the end of a down spout) this water is much more gentle on your plants.
Don’t be afraid of planting too much. You will always have neighbors who are overjoyed to receive some fresh produce, or again trade with another gardener to gain a variety of plants. Just because you grow a garden does not mean you have to preserve them for the winter months. My career picks up in intensity in harvest season and I don’t have time to do this. These two things are completely removed from each other.
So good luck, and happy gardening!