The Urban Gardener

Graduating to green thumb

The Urban Gardener

Urban gardening is growing in popularity. Don’t have a yard? Try your hand at container gardening. Our tips will help you get started.

Graduating from greenhorn to green thumb

Ready to pitch the pansies and begin growing your own food? If you’re a city dweller and have dreams of leafy greens and fragrant herbs sprouting in your corner of the concrete jungle, you’re not alone. Everybody, it seems, has got the food-gardening bug, and is it any wonder?

Growing even a few edible plants is one of the best ways to connect with your food’s origins. It allows the whole family to participate and truly appreciate the work, the beauty, and the divine mystery of a tiny seed unfurling into a gorgeous rainbow chard plant, a juicy tomato, or an aromatic bouquet of basil.

If you’re more greenhorn than green thumb, however, you need to think through what’s needed to ensure successful food gardening.

All plants require three things: light, soil, and water. But growing edible plants generally requires a little more effort and care than simply putting a few seedlings in the soil. You need to carefully consider where to put that vegetable garden.

Let there be light

Getting adequate light to fast-growing summer vegetables and fruits is the urban gardener’s biggest challenge, says Marjorie Harris, one of Canada’s top gardening experts. Houses in cities are built closer together, fences may be high, and those trees that bring shade when the mercury soars will also throw shade over anything else you grow there.

“I’ve had calls from people saying, ‘I don’t know why my beans aren’t growing,’ and it always turns out they’re trying to grow them in shade,” says Harris. “What you have might be good for certain kinds of shrubs or other plants but not for vegetables. You need at least six hours or more a day of direct sun.”

The orientation of your property will also affect your gardening success. If your lot faces south, you’re luckier than someone with a north-facing lot. The latter shortens the growing season by about two weeks, because the soil in a north-facing lot takes longer to heat up and is hit first by frost.

Canadians, particularly those in the central and eastern provinces, already face challenges created by a shorter growing season, which is measured by first and last days of frost. Most summer vegetables will not survive a continuing heavy frost, so you need to know what your garden’s conditions are and plant accordingly.

We do have one advantage over more balmy climes south of us. Our days are longer in summer, and the extra light makes all plants grow faster, which helps make up for the shorter growing season.

If you eventually discover your gardening dreams aren’t going to come true with what you have, consider renting an allotment garden. Most major Canadian cities offer these at very reasonable rates. In Toronto, for example, you can rent a 200-square-foot plot for less than $70 a year.

Feed the soil, not the plant

Once you’ve determined a spot that gets enough sunlight, the real work begins—building up your soil to its maximum fertility.

Grass to garden

Beautiful soil makes for beautiful plants, but creating the ideal sweet-smelling, crumbly tilth takes time, sometimes several years if you’re stuck with poor soil. How can you tell? If you’re digging up sod to create your garden and the grass is naturally lush and green, your soil is probably in pretty good shape. If the grass struggles and the soil that shows through is hard and rocky, it will need major amending. The best way to improve soil quality is to work in plenty of compost and well-rotted manure.

Raised beds

Raised beds made with lumber or stone are another option. As long as the bed is at least 8 in (20 cm) deep, you can pile new organic soil on top of the sod, which saves work and gives you an instant garden plot.

One word of warning: don’t use wood that’s been treated with nasty chemicals such as creosote, as these will leach into your soil.

Flowers to veggies

If you’ve already got an ornamental garden bed you want to turn into an edible one, make sure the soil is free of chemicals—no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or other contaminants, because you’re going to be growing food to eat. If you do have contaminated soil, you may have to dig it up and replace it with clean, organic soil.

Gardening societies are located in Canada’s major cities, and many urban gardening groups have gone online. Check their websites to find the best sources for organic soil. Don’t just buy topsoil as it may have been treated with herbicides to keep weeds from growing. This will stunt the growth of plants until the chemicals become inert or work their way out of the soil, never mind the prospect of those chemicals finding their way onto your dinner plate.

Water wise

All plants need water, and some vegetables need more water than others, so you must have easy access to it. The best way to keep those carrots, beets, and lettuces happy is to use a drip system. For a small plot, a simple soaker hose placed near the plants should do the trick.

Overhead watering is wasteful and can actually harm some plants which prefer to have their roots watered rather than their crowns. One mistake novice gardeners often make is to water inconsistently and either too sparingly or too much. The rule of thumb when watering, especially during hot spells, is to make sure the soil gets damp to a depth of at least 6 in (15 cm).

Contain yourself!

Container gardening is a great option for those who don’t have land or have land that isn’t suitable for vegetables. Here are some tips for success:

  • Choose your container site carefully. Does it get at least six hours of direct sun for heat-loving plants such as tomatoes, and at least three hours for more tender plants such as lettuces? Is it sheltered or exposed to high winds and late afternoon sun, the hottest part of the day? Containers have limited space for root growth, and too much heat may stunt or kill the roots, while high winds may damage the plant or knock it over.
  • Pick a big container. Bigger is always better with containers, but if you’re planning to fill a large container with herbs and vegetables, make sure it’s in the right spot before filling it with soil or you won’t be able to move it.
  • Stay away from black pots. Just about anything can serve as a planter or container, but avoid black as it will absorb too much heat.
  • Never use garden soil in containers. Use organic potting soil specifically formulated for containers.
  • Never let the soil dry out. Make sure the containers drain properly, and water often during hot weather. If you’re going to be away for a few days, place the containers in large plastic pot liners filled with water.
  • Fertilize every two weeks. Vegetables are greedy feeders so during the height of the growing season, plan to fertilize every two weeks with an organic solution such as fish emulsion or liquid seaweed.

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