Some of my earliest childhood memories involve sneaking into the backyard to stealthily snitch fresh peas, straight from the pods. Apparently, my sly skills required some honing, as I was an easy catch who left a trail of telltale pods in my wake. My garden raiding must be a genetic trait, as my mother was known for hiding in the tomato patch as a child, biting into giant beefsteaks like apples, salt shaker in hand.
To this day, nothing quite says summer like the first sweet baby peas of the season or a juicy tomato running down my chin. Homegrown vegetables are absolutely sublime and you aren’t limited to the classics. Today, my garden is just as likely to include rare purple tomatillos, throat scorching Hungarian hot peppers, heirloom cauliflowers as silky as butter, and bright pink and yellow beets. No matter how tiny your plot or how “brown” your thumb, the authentic taste of homegrown vegetables is just a season away.
The “Ground” Rules and Tools
First, a few ground rules about gardening (“ground” rules! Get it?). Gardening should be fun, affordable, and relatively easy. There is no need to spend a lot of money to have a great garden. The very first garden tool I ever bought is the one I use the most: a simple handheld trowel with a jaunty blue handle. Along with a good pair of gloves, it’s all I need for about 90% of my tasks.
The most effective gardening techniques are the tried and true ones. Stay on top of the weeds or they will be on top of you. Water when needed. I give my garden a good soak a couple of nights a week, watering in the evening so the moisture has a chance to sink in overnight.
Gardening is a never ending learning process and you don’t need any special skills to get started. Even voracious gardeners have failures on account of bad weather, bad seeds, or bad luck. Don’t be discouraged by a few early disasters — even the best gardeners experience them.
Where Can You Garden?
Literally anywhere! Tiny backyards and even tinier front yards, window sills and apartment balconies, fire escapes and front stoops, in old rubber boots and rusted out tea kettles — if it holds soil, it can grow vegetables. Unusual locations and conditions invite creative solutions. One of my neighbours once supported his acorn squash by winding the vines through a cedar hedge!
Will It Grow In My Town?
An easy way to know if a plant or vegetable will grow in your neighbourhood is to check your gardening zone. Temperature highs and lows, elevation changes, frost conditions, and more go into determining over a dozen garden zones in North America.
Don’t despair if you’ve fallen in love with an out-of-zone plant — it’s not always impossible, it might just require a bit more work. Do some research online, or check out gardening books specific to your zone (we’re partial to Timber Press’s gardening guides).
Where and How to Plant
Just like humans, vegetable plants thrive on a healthy diet! In their case, it’s a healthy, nutrient rich, fluffy soil with good drainage. Garden centers and hardware stores sell bags of black earth, animal manure (don’t worry — it’s odor free), and compost for you to mix in to provide nutrition. If you are passionate about starting a big garden project, you can buy easy-to-use soil testing kits to determine nutrient levels.
Container gardeners can purchase ready-to-use potting soil. Ensure your container has a method of drainage so the young plants don’t “drown.” I put a thick layer of pebbles in my containers before I add in the soil. As many containers are in a hot location with no shade, they will require more frequent watering. Keep in mind that tiny plants grow rapidly — they’ll need room to grow and establish roots.
Plants that grow down, like carrots and parsnips, need at least a foot of fluffy soil to grow unhindered. Plants that grow up, like peas, beans, and tomatoes, require a support system of stakes. Plants that grow out, like kale, squash, and cauliflower, require more than their fair share of space and may need some tough love pruning. And yes, every one of these can be grown in a container, provided you have the right size and depth. It may be somewhat unconventional but it can work.
When and What to Plant
All seed catalogues include a handy planting guide. It will tell you how to plant your seeds, care for young plants, and answer frequently-asked gardening questions. Plant seedlings come with a handy “cheat sheet” on the back of their plant label. It will tell you how much sun the plant likes and when and how to plant it.
I recommend starting with a mix of high quality seeds and established small plants from a respected garden center. The staff will be a wealth of information and the selection will be much more extensive. Starting with healthy plants will give you a great head start no matter where you are planting or how experienced you are.
My two favourite catalogues are Vesey’s Seeds of Prince Edward Island and Heritage Heirloom of Manitoba. Both ship across North America, are long established, respected, helpful companies, and offer a huge variety of selection. In particular, Heritage Heirloom has one of the rarest collections of vegetable seeds in the world. The scintillating descriptions of the dozens and dozens of tomatoes will leave you paralyzed with indecision!
7 Varieties to Fall in Love With
(Especially for the space challenged, brand new gardener!)
Wapsipinicon Peach Tomato: A yellow tomato covered with peach fuzz. Swoon! Tomatoes love a sunny spot and do great in containers. My second runner up? Ivory Pear — these are white-green, pear-shaped mini tomatoes that I could eat by the handful.
Kral Russian Parsnips: Parsnips are so underrated! Kral Russian parsnips are round, like a turnip, and are a great choice if you can’t find deep soil for traditional root vegetable growing.
Bulls Blood Beets: Impatient gardeners will love eating the delicious beet greens and pulling the young beet roots of this unique variety, whose “roots” go back to the Netherlands and France. The deep burgundy leafy greens are not only delicious but ornamental as well.
Yellow Carrot Rooted Radish: Dating back to at least the 1700s, this is an extremely rare version of the radish. Radishes are of the easiest crops for a garden beginner and their rapid growth is extremely gratifying.
Black Hungarian Pepper: It’s shaped like a jalapeno, it grows like a dream in wet and cold conditions, and it has a chili-pepper-like kick. Pair the Black Hungarian with the Wapsipinicon Peach Tomatoes for an unforgettable salsa! Another easy-peasy container plant.
Early Green Cluster Cucumbers: These container-loving, easy-to-grow cucumbers are delicious gems whose heritage dates back to the early 1700s. Great for pickles!
Dwarf Grey Sugar Peas: Perfect for small spaces, the Dwarf Grey is not as unwieldy as traditional peas, and the pretty blossoms double as garden flowers.
All photos are courtesy of the author.