Home & Garden

How to start a vegetable garden

How to start a vegetable garden

Author: Canadian Living

Home & Garden

How to start a vegetable garden

Choose a spot
• Start small, with an area two to three metres square, so that you don't get overwhelmed.

• Look for a level, sheltered site that's sunny for six to eight hours a day, and close enough to a faucet or rain barrel that watering won't be a problem.

Pick the plants
• List your favourite vegetables, then add a few that are hard to find or expensive at the market. Consider the amount each plant can produce; plan for preserving or freezing extras so nothing goes to waste.

• Look for varieties that are disease-resistant and early-harvest (a real plus with Canada's short growing season).

• For small spaces, choose compact, dwarf or bush hybrids; pass on corn.

• For lots of variety, buy directly from seed companies; most now have online shopping (see page 3). A combination of seeds, homegrown seedlings and nursery plants may work best. Some vegetables thrive when sown outdoors; other varieties do better and yield faster when whole plants go into the garden.

• Keep co-planting, or companion planting, in mind. For example, for pest control, plant basil close to tomatoes; marigolds keep bugs away; borage attracts bees.

Plan the plot
• Draw a rough design (graph paper is great for this), consulting seed packets for spacing, spread and height information. Place tall plants along the northern edge of the plot so they don't shade short ones.

• Design plantings in single wide rows, staggered rows, in blocks or in raised beds (each about one square metre). You may want to plant a few rows of annual flowers to cut for bouquets, or devote a space in the garden for perennial herbs.

• Include permanent paths, 30 to 60 centimetres wide (a good idea, since soil gets compacted underfoot).

• Mulch with bark or straw, or lay stone or brick pavers.

Prepare the soil
• Be patient in the spring – working soggy soil compacts it, making it harder for plants to thrive. Squeeze a handful of soil; if it falls apart when you open your fingers, it's dry enough to dig.

• Measure and mark out the plot with stakes and string, then use a squareended spade to cut it into a grid. Lift out each square of grass with a garden fork and shake off any soil. To deter weeds, you can push in metal or plastic edging around the perimeter.

• Using a garden fork and shovel, turn the soil to a depth of at least 30 centimetres, removing all roots. Cover with about three centimetres of composted manure, then work that in, adding compost and a few handfuls of bonemeal, if desired. Finish by raking the surface into a fine texture.

Plant the garden
• Follow seed-packet instructions for planting, then tamp soil and keep it moist until plants are established.

• Plant homegrown or nursery plants on cool overcast days, if possible, to reduce transplant stress.

• Stake peas, beans and tomatoes; use branches, a fence, tomato cages, old hockey sticks or ski poles.

• Leave space for successive plantings, such as lettuce, to ensure a fresh supply, or a midsummer planting of corn or beets.

• In the following years, remember to rotate crops. Don't plant the same thing (or a related plant) in the same spot two years in a row.

Page 1 of 3  -- Learn great tips to start a backyard compost bin on page 2Weed and water
• Don't just storm over plants with a hose. Water directly on the soil around plants with a watering can or lay soaker hose along the rows. Either method conserves water and keeps plants dry, reducing mould and disease.

• To make it easy on plants, hand-pull or hoe weeds before they get big – half an hour a day should do it.

Basic gardening tools
The most basic tools needed for gardening haven't changed for centuries. Invest in tools that feel well balanced when you pick them up, don't weigh too much and feel comfortable when gripped. The better the tool, the longer you will own and enjoy it. Here are some essentials you'll want to have.

• A square-ended spade and a round-ended shovel for digging.
• A garden fork for light digging and harvesting.
• A steel rake for breaking up soil.
• A hoe for weeding and cultivating.
• A trowel for planting and transplanting.
• A garden hose and a watering can.

Clean compost
The secret to having the most prolific vegetable garden is a compost pile yielding heaps of “black gold” every season. Clean compost improves garden soil without attracting critters or bugs – or even smelling bad. Here are some tips to get your own clean compost pile started.

• Select the location based on function and aesthetics. Choose a spot handy to both the garden and the kitchen, where most of the scraps come from. Be sure the site has good drainage and has a water source close by to keep it moist.

• Choose the right bin. Many different types of plastic composting bins are available at garden centres. They have closed lids and are ideal for urban environments. Rural dwellers can use open wooden bins if desired.

• Be mindful of what you add. Kitchen scraps, leaves and lawn trimmings are great. Avoid meat, bones, fats, pet and human waste, diseased plants, weeds and lawn trimmings that have been sprayed with chemicals.

• Chop kitchen scraps into small pieces before adding to the pile to speed decomposition.

• To maintain a healthy compost pile, turn it weekly with a garden fork and water regularly to keep it as moist as a wrung-out sponge.

• Cover large additions of kitchen scraps with dry leaves or dirt to keep pests away. 

Container gardening
Even if you don't have a backyard to dig into, some cared-for containers placed on the patio or deck can produce veggies just the same. Here are some tips to help you get started.  

While any pot might do, some will be better than others for particular plants. Consider the porosity and drainage of each pot and talk with staff at your local garden shop to determine which type best suits your needs. 

Soil mix
Growing plants in containers is much different than growing them directly in the ground. Plants in containers are dependent on the soil to be the optimal growing mix, because roots have much less space to creep around in to find the nutrients they need. Use potting soil, not topsoil or garden soil, which become too compacted and waterlogged in containers, suffocating the plants. 

Page 2 of 3 – Find seeds online from our list of favourite online stores on page 3.
What to plant in your container
Most vegetables can be grown in containers; some tried-and-true ones include tomatoes, lettuce, Swiss chard, sweet and hot peppers, and herbs. For other vegetables, look for varieties labelled bush, dwarf or compact, because these will fare better in small spaces.

Vegetables like sunshine, so select a location that gets at least six hours per day.


Plants in pots need regular watering. Keep surface moist by watering regularly, perhaps more than once a day in the heat of summer, instead of one soaking a week. Check for pests and disease; plants in pots can be affected by the same problems as those grown in the ground.

Finding seeds online
From organic to heirloom, artichokes to zucchini, there's an incredible variety of seeds that can be shipped right to your door. Check out these websites for inspiration.

• Stokes, stokesseeds.com
• Seeds of Diversity, seeds.ca
• Burpee, burpee.com
• Prairie Garden Seeds, prseeds.ca
• Richters, richters.com
• Salt Spring Seeds, saltspringseeds.com
• Stellar Seeds, stellarseeds.com
• West Coast Seeds, westcoastseeds.com 

Know your frost dates
Canadian winters vary from coast to coast to coast, thus does the length of the growing season, which is the period from the last frost in spring to the first killing frost in fall. Knowing these dates for your region helps you determine when to plant seedlings, when to transplant and how long to stretch the growing season before harvest. Refer to seed-packet instructions for information for specific plants. Check almanac.com/ content/frost-chart-canada for the frost dates for your region. 

Know your agricultural zone

The map of Plant Hardiness Zones from Agriculture Canada shows the different zones across the country where various plants will most likely survive. The map is based on the average climate conditions of each area. Use it to help determine which plants are best suited to your garden.

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Home & Garden

How to start a vegetable garden