Our start to vegetable gardening was not a success: we had tried to grow a few things on a borrowed plot with friends some years before trying our own and spent about $100 on seeds and supplies… and ended up with enough vegetables for one pot of soup! Undaunted, we attempted our first garden at our own home in 2015 with the help of my husband’s parents and grandparents. We’re excited to share what we’ve learned with you since then!
Key considerations when starting a garden
- Soil: Potting soil is a great option for containers. If a plant has a specific requirement, such as sandy soil, then the seed package or label will provide instructions.
- Sunlight: This is very important – fruiting plants like tomatoes and bell peppers need at least 6 hours of sunlight per day or they may not produce. Ensure you understand the hours of sun needed for the plant you’re considering and that your garden area can meet the requirements.
- Timing: We planted our peas too early this year and none of them came up! This illustrates why we need to know the right time of year to sow seeds or put plants in the garden. If it’s too wet or cold the plants won’t survive and you’ll need to replant–we replanted the peas!
- Succession planting: We didn’t do so well on this one either! This year we planted too much arugula to use at one time and it bolted (grew a stalk with a flower on it) in the hot weather we had for a couple of days and became too bitter to eat. The idea of succession planting is to sow a quantity of a plant every couple of weeks to provide a continuous, usable amount of harvest throughout the growing season. The reason for this is that once vegetables like carrots, radishes or peas are picked, they’re gone unlike tomatoes, cucumbers or greens that continue to produce once picked.
- Companion planting: Some plants grow well together and benefit each other while others are incompatible and could result in one of the pairing not growing well. For example, we are going to attempt growing nasturtium (a flower on a vine) among our kale plants in hopes of controlling the aphid that always seem to attack our kale.
- Spacing and depth at sowing and subsequent thinning: This was confusing for us at the beginning! This is important to ensure that there is enough sunlight and nutrient rich soil for each plant to thrive. If plants are too close together then growth will likely be stunted. Some seeds, like beans, cucumbers or kale, are planted in a grouping of 3-4 seeds in one hole or hill a distance away from other plants. You would then select the strongest seed sprout and clip any others that come up from that hill. Other plants, like radishes, are sowed in a long line or row, then later thinned. Thinning means that some of the seed sprouts are pulled from the row (when they’re very small in order to avoid disturbing the developing roots of the plants that you want to keep) to maintain the proper distance between plants. It is also important to plant at the proper depth – some seeds are scattered on top of the soil and raked in, where others have to be buried a couple centimetres deep in the soil. All of that being said – follow the directions on the package and if need be, do a bit of research to understand the requirements of the plants you want to grow.
- Pruning: most annual vegetable plants don’t require pruning although tomatoes should be maintained to maximize yields. We are not good at this – every year I try and every year our tomato plants are very unruly by the end of the summer! I did some reading about pruning recently and realized that there are other plants, such as cucumbers, that can benefit from pruning as well. We’ll be trying it this year and will update on how it goes!
- Pest control: Slugs, aphids, cabbage moths, wire worms, coddling moths – all things that we’ve encountered and struggled to control. This is an area we’re eager to learn more about as we are dedicated to using only organic methods of pest control. Will keep you updated as to whether our companion planting methods of pest control work this year!
- Watering: make sure you do! It’s easy to forget when life gets busy and gardens can dry out so quickly (particularly containers) in the summer. We like to use soaker hoses * throughout the garden that we can hook up our hose to and let work while we do other things.
Plants that are simple to grow
- Strawberries: these plants grow well in the ground, planters, or hanging baskets and are very hardy – and of course, delicious!
- Greens: we’ve had luck with arugula, kale, romaine and buttercrunch lettuce – if you cut the head of lettuce (romaine and buttercrunch) just above soil level it will regrow so you can have an ongoing harvest with a small number of plants;
- Zucchini: these plants require some space but once they start producing you’ll be amazed at the yield! Our first year we planted four plants and had so many zucchini eat and to give away;
- Tomatoes: these grow well in the ground or containers and produce well though they need a very warm and sunny spot; and
- Potatoes: they’re easy to grow in the ground and there are potato growing bags that would likely work for a smaller yard or patio.
This year we’re trying out a few new vegetables but mainly focusing on things that produce well and we eat. Our favourites are:
- Field cucumber;
- Bell peppers;
- Tomatoes – growing several varieties including Sweetie, San Marzano, Mortgage Lifter and Roma;
- Zucchini – sadly our seed starts failed so we had to buy plants;
- Buttercrunch lettuce – also failed starting these from seeds;
- Radishes – we seem to be getting pests in these so will have to figure out why;
- Onions – did well two years ago and not well last year, so hoping for the best!
- Brussels sprouts – new one for us!
- Cauliflower – new one for us!
- Peas – trying snap peas this year;
- Arugula – planted way too much!
- Kale – trying nasturtiums planted around our kale as we always seem to have large quantities of aphids in the summer;
- Garlic; and
We are not remotely gardening experts and are always learning! We’ve realized this year that we are not very good at fertilizing that so this is an area we need to learn more about. We’ve also failed at pest control on our apple trees and kale plants so we’re trying some new (organic) approaches this year.
These days time management is an issue for us as our extended family support system is not an option at the moment for help with our small children. We prioritized getting the plants in the ground but haven’t been allocating time to maintenance tasks like weeding. It’s not ideal but it’s challenging us to look at ways that we can reduce the need to weed, like mulching or growing ground cover around our plants.
Hopefully this inspires you to try to grow some of your own food! As you can see, we do not have a picture-perfect, organized, or meticulously planned garden. It’s always an adventure, often messy and experimental, and incredibly rewarding when you can make a meal with food you’ve grown yourself. So give it a try and please share your experiences with us!