How would you like to enjoy fresh vegetables straight from the garden and tended to by your own hands?
Not only is gardening one of life's simple pleasures, but it can also help you save on the cost of store-bought produce. Planting your own veggie patch is easier than you think! Read on for tips to get started this spring.
Photography: Getty Images/E.
Select the Right Spot
Ideally, your vegetable bed should be placed in a location that receives six to eight hours of sunshine a day. Don’t worry about a bit of shade—it may even be beneficial during the afternoon heat—but for tasty ripe vegetables, you’ll need plenty of sun. If you only have four to five hours of sunshine, you can still successfully grow many leaf and root vegetables, since they are more tolerant of lower light.
Make sure the bed is situated well away from tree roots that may creep into the plot and take away water and minerals. Equally important is avoiding steep slopes and places where water pools after rain, which indicates poor drainage. You’ll also need access to the garden from all sides, so make sure to leave room for foot traffic between any walls or fences.
Only have access to a balcony or deck? No problem! You can grow a perfectly viable vegetable garden in containers. While small pots may suffice for most herbs, vegetables need more space; otherwise, they tend to dry out too quickly. Consider using a medium-size container that can hold a large mass of soil, like a plastic storage bin. Drill a few holes in the bottom for drainage, fill with soil and plant. Voilà: a mini vegetable patch!
It’s best to start small. If you have enough space, you can always gradually increase the size of the vegetable garden over the years. A plot of 120-centimetres by 120-centimetres or by 280-centimetres is a good size to start with. You may find it useful to make a wooden frame of 25- or 30-centimetre boards to help delineate the garden and hold the soil in place. Using rot-resistant wood, like larch or cedar, will help to ensure a longer life.
The biggest investment in any vegetable garden should be soil. Always use top-quality vegetable garden soil: it’s never wise to skimp on it! You’ll need enough soil to fill the frame, which can run up a bill; however, it will repay you for decades to come. Your local garden centre will know how to calculate the necessary quantity of soil if you provide them with the vegetable bed measurements (width x length x height).
When to Start?
Some vegetables need to be sown early, so aim to start planting in mid-spring, as the ground begins to warm up; usually in late April to mid-May for most parts of Canada. That said, don’t hesitate to buy seeds in advance: garden centres sometimes run out of certain popular seeds.
You can place your vegetable garden directly on the lawn: no need to remove the sod or work the soil. But be sure to place a temporary barrier between the lawn and the soil you add to smother any weeds that may try to force their way up. The barrier can be as simple as seven to 10 sheets of newspaper or a single layer of cardboard (only use unwaxed cardboard). The barrier will eventually break down and allow the roots of your vegetables to reach deep into the ground.
The first step is to install the barrier—it should extend beyond the frame to keep weeds from moving in from the sides of the bed, then lay the frame over top. Next, fill the garden with soil and, if desired, add 2 centimetres of compost and mix it with the soil (if you’re using high-quality soil, there is no need to add compost in the first year). Mix in a slow-release granular organic fertilizer to feed your vegetable garden all summer long. All that’s left is to rake the soil flat and you’re ready to sow and plant!
Square Foot Gardening
Square foot gardening is a method that can produce more vegetables in the same amount of space. Simply divide your garden patch into 30-centimetre by 30-centimetre squares using wood or twine. Decide on your vegetables: It’s recommended to plant one large, four medium or nine small plants per square. Sow seeds or plant seedlings at the recommended depth and spacing for each vegetable. Cover with soil and water well.
Vegetables to Sow
Some vegetables grow very quickly, so it’s easy enough to start from seed rather than spending on plants. Buy seed packets and sow the seeds directly into the vegetable garden. In this group, you’ll find all the leaf vegetables (like lettuce, Swiss chard, spinach, etc.), root vegetables (such as carrots, turnips, radishes, beets, etc.) and some fruiting vegetables (like peas, beans, squash, cucumbers, seed potatoes and onion sets). If you’re thinking of growing garlic, you’ll have to wait until the end of summer to plant from cloves since it needs to overwinter in the ground.
In general, leafy greens, root vegetables and peas germinate well in cool soil, so you can sow them about two weeks before the last frost date in your area (ask your local garden centre when that is). Other fruiting crops, including beans, squash and cucumbers, don’t tolerate cool soil, so wait until the soil has warmed up and the nights are above 10°C before sowing.
Don’t forget that the information listed on seed packets can be very useful! It tells you when to sow, how deep to do so (usually three times the height
of the seed) and how far apart to space the seeds. If you’re sowing in rows, it will also show the distance between rows. Using a garden trowel, dig a furrow of the recommended depth and drop the seeds in one by one at the recommended spacing, then cover with soil. Finish by watering well. It’s that simple!
Pro Tip: Avoid standing in your vegetable patch, which can compress the soil, damage roots and reduce the harvest. As long as your bed is no more than 120 centimetres wide, it’s easy for a person of average height to reach all the vegetables from one side of the garden or the other, without ever needing to set foot in it.
Vegetables to Plant
For this first experience, simply purchase tomato, pepper, eggplant and other vegetable plants that need a major head start on the season. You’ll find them in garden centres, grocery stores and farmers’ markets. It is possible to sow these vegetables from seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost date, which saves you some money but requires an extra step. So to keep it simple, start with purchased plants this year and experiment with starting your own plants indoors next season.
Vegetable plant seedlings are cold-sensitive, so wait until the soil and air stay above 10°C at night before planting them in the ground. Transplanting seedlings is very easy. Dig a hole large enough to accommodate the root ball (for most of these vegetables, a spacing of 30 centimetres will do). Gently remove each plant from its pot (often cell packs have a flexible bottom: just push on it with your thumb to extract the plant) and drop the root ball into the hole. Fill in all around with soil and finish by watering well.
Pro Tip: In a container garden, place a single sheet of newspaper or a paper towel at the bottom of the pot to cover the drainage holes before adding soil. Since paper is permeable, any excess water will simply drain out and the paper will keep the soil from flowing out with it!
Caring For Your Vegetables
- Limit your choice to a few plants from four or five vegetable varieties (two or three to sow and two or three to plant). You can always add more over the years as your garden grows.
- Check the soil moisture level two or three times a week by sticking your index finger into the soil. If the soil is dry, water thoroughly. Otherwise, don’t water.
- Some tall vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, row beans) will require a trellis or stake.
- Pull up any weeds right away.
- When the plants reach 10 centimetres tall, cover the soil with mulch (available at garden centres). This helps keep the soil more evenly moist and prevents weeds from germinating.
- When it comes time to harvest, recall what the vegetables look like in the grocery store. It’s a good marker to know when they are ready.
- When you’ve harvested the fastest-to-mature vegetables (like lettuce, spinach and radish), you can sow again in the same space for a prolonged harvest.