After last weekend’s gloriously beautiful weather it would be humanly impossible to not at least be thinking about being outside right now. In the spring, for those over fifty, this has traditionally meant digging in the dirt to plant a garden for the summer. But, as with preserving, gardening is a hobby that those of us under forty have taken up with gusto.
For three summers now I’ve (with a lot of greatly appreciated help) managed a small, but productive 100-plus square feet of vegetable garden at my family’s cottage. To that I’ve added a bunch of small-container-growing forays where I’ve been living in the city. I hope I can offer a bit of advice that will help you get into one of the most rewarding past times.
If you live outside a city and are interested in food you probably already have a vegetable patch--stay tuned for some tips on what to plant and where to get it from--but for those who live in a tiny, downtown apartment I know what your top excuse for not growing vegetables will be. You don’t have the space. Give me a break.
Finding Gardening Space
The best case scenario is to get yourself a plot in one of your city’s community gardens. Many in Toronto have long-ish waiting lists. I have to imagine that in parts of Canada where space is at less of a premium the situation will be better.
But even without a plot you can improve your cooking immensely with one moderately sunny window. One summer I filled three or four tomato cans with well-fed dirt and grew enough basil and thyme to satisfy my herbal needs for a few months. Friends Joel and Dana at wellpreserved.ca have grown vegetables on a coffee shop’s patio, a fire escape, and in their parking spot. The point is be creative.
Figuring Out What to Plant
Having found a space and conquered the idea that they have a black thumb first time gardeners quickly get to the “I’ve never grown anything before, what should I plant?” stage. For food bloggers and novice gardeners in general I’d say to start by picturing yourself in the grocery store or at a farmers’ market and ask “what is that I’m most annoyed about buying?” What are those things that you find yourself throwing out half of, what do you always forget you need to make a recipe perfect, and most of all what tastes delicious to you?
Herbs fit nicely into a lot of those categories. They’ll grow inside (in many cases), can be started pretty much now, and require little special attention. I’d start with three or four from the standby list of flat leaf parsley, rosemary, basil, mint, chives and thyme and branch out from there. Lemon chives or grapefruit thyme might look attractive on the seed packet but trust me that you’ll be better off with the standard version and a little citrus zest when that flavour is called for.
After herbs you want plants that produce for a long while and will be different from what you can find in the store. All of: cherry (or other small) tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, the chards and kales, and--most especially--hot peppers grow equally well in containers or an in-ground plot. Carrots, potatoes, and radishes are all recommended for beginners but the problem is that unless you're careful about staggering your planting (I've never managed) you get one big crop of them in the fall. And it comes when you want to be writing and posting about autumn preserving or the last summer tomato not about digging up tubers and tap-roots for winter storage.
Now that we have our list of what we want to grow the next step is to find the seeds. Remembering that we want vegetables that go beyond what we (and our readers) can find in the grocery store it pays to move beyond those racks at the local hardware store. For a national audience it's difficult to name local sources for heirloom seeds but I've always had good luck online with Urban Harvest, William Dam Seeds, and Salt Spring Seeds. I also have a full post here on my seed order from two years ago.
What to Plant When
It's equally difficult to give advice on timing that will apply as well to North Bay as it does to Victoria. Generally, March is when I start tomato and hot pepper seeds inside for planting out in May; late April is for starting melons and cucumbers inside, peas and broad beans in the ground; and then pretty much everything (except eggplant and peppers) can go in the ground by the end of May. Research the timing specific to your region (here's my helpful post on degree growing days) but I hope that rough outline guides you to what you should be thinking about in each month.
I imagine there is a glaring sense that I've given you just the tip of the iceberg here. Follow the links, read more, and ask questions below. I can confidently say that even not counting how much your food posts will be improved by your own fresh produce you'll be thankful for the experience, exercise, and fresh air.
As well as gardening David Ort writes about food and drink for several Toronto websites including his own, Food With Legs. For more information on his gardening adventures you can cycle through the posts in his category on gardening here.