Is there anything more delicious than a juicy, ripe tomato plucked straight from the garden? Can anything beat the tasty crunch from a just-picked cucumber? Trouble is, many gardeners are too intimidated to plant a vegetable garden. But is it really that hard? We asked urban gardener Steven Biggs, the Toronto-based co-author of No-Nonsense Vegetable Gardening to share tips for getting started.
Is planting a vegetable garden hard to do?
No, it’s not. Think of vegetable gardening as ‘detox for perfectionists’. Because when you garden, things happen that sometimes you don’t have control over, so go into it with that mindset. I think too many people look at the picture-perfect books out there and they think they have to have this stunning, perfect garden. But most gardens don’t look like that anyway.
What’s the best way to start?
Think first about where you might want to put your garden: I’m a big fan of front-lawn veggie gardening, and I took out my front lawn for that purpose.
Think about the look you want: formal or informal. Some people mix veggies in with their annuals; for example, the cardoon – which looks like an artichoke and you eat the leaf rim – is a stunning plant, so it fits beautifully in an annual border.
Think about the workload: Do you have a lot of time for a big garden?
Think about the harvest: How many people are you feeding? It can be overwhelming when you have more veggies than you know what to do with, so plan according to your needs.
Think about the future: Maybe it’s just fine to start very small the first year, and expand another year.
What can you do about insects and squirrels?
I go into gardening knowing the squirrels will frustrate me periodically, so I just plant enough so that I still get some. If you’re not a professional market gardener, and you’re not spending your whole day tending your crops, you might not have a perfect crop. It doesn’t really matter if your lettuce has a little hole.
Slugs love places to hide, and they like cooler spots. So if you have a blistering part of your garden, you won’t have as many slugs. With aphids, a common insect pest on broad beans and peas, spray them with a strong jet of water right off the plant.
Should you plant seeds or plants?
Sometimes that step of starting plants indoors and then transplanting them can be too much work for people. So don’t do it. Buy those plants pre-grown. I avoid plants that are wilting, because they’re obviously under stress. I look to see if there are too many roots in the pot. Sometimes when a plant gets stressed like that, it never really recovers. I’m a big fan of things that we can sow directly into the garden: beets, Swiss chard, carrots or lettuce. I’ll start arugula and spinach in late February.
Don’t you have to wait until after the final frost?
Tomato plants grown indoors shouldn’t be put out until then, but other things can be sown weeks before the last frost. There’s this notion that we can’t start planting veggies until Memorial Day, and it’s so wrong! I have a cold frame – a mini-greenhouse – and in the fall, I pre-excavate the hole. Then in February, I’ll plop in some uncomposted manure and cover it with a layer of soil; it gives off heat as it breaks down. You can also use electric heat cables. This way, you can stretch out the vegetable gardening season way before May, and it doesn’t end Labor Day.
All photos: Courtesy of Steven Biggs