The Edible Garden: 10 Tips for Growing Your Own Food
You can’t get more local than food you grow at home. We’ve got 10 tips to help you dig in.
With rising food costs and concerns about food safety, more people are returning to what used to be a way of life: the edible garden. Growing your own fruits, vegetables and herbs can be a fun and healthy hobby as well as a money saver. It can also be an educational project to share with the kids in your life.
Whether you’re starting your first edible garden or looking to brush-up your skills, here are some tips to help get you started.
Not a lot of space? No problem!
Edible gardens aren’t reserved for people with lots of space to spare. In fact, you don’t have to have a yard at all. There are plenty of options:
— If you have limited space, soil that won’t easily support plants or mobility concerns, try container gardening or raised gardens. All you need is a sunny spot to set up some pots or larger containers – like a corner of your patio, balcony or even your front step. If you’ve got some yard space, you can build raised gardens or buy container kits. (For more details, see Contain those vegetables).
— If you want to grow food year round, set up a greenhouse or mini-greenhouse in your backyard.
–Got a sunny window or window sill? Try a smaller version of a container garden with a growing kit. The kits include everything you need — seeds, soil and a pot — and you can grow a variety of herbs, flowers or even vegetables. (They also make great gifts.)
— And if you don’t have any space at all, consider renting a plot in a community garden or volunteer with a local gardening group.
Crunch the numbers
How much money can you save? It depends on what you grow, how much you grow and how much it costs to set up and maintain your garden. Once you’ve considered your options, it’s time to do a little number-crunching and come up with a budget.
In many cases, a new edible garden is a long-term investment because initially you’ll need to factor in things you don’t already have — like materials to enrich the soil, pots and containers, gardening tools, contract labour and any equipment needed to build raised gardens or greenhouses. Ongoing costs will include yard maintenance, mulch, plants and seeds as well as increased water usage.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees you’ll see a return on your investment. Some problems you won’t be able to anticipate — like if pests eat your plants or your crop fails.
Plan, plan, plan
One of the biggest mistakes gardeners make is not doing their homework. Before you begin, you’ll need to know some key pieces of information about your garden, like which spots get more or less sunshine and how much drainage or irrigation is needed. (A drawing or diagram of your garden can help).
Next, it’s time to start matching plants to both your culinary preferences and your space. Some plants will do well in shady spots while others need full sun, and some varieties of plants are bred specifically for container gardening. Consider: What plants are going to grow well in which location of your garden? How much space will it need (including how high and deep it will grow)? What’s going to climb or spread? Which plants will come back year after year, and what will you need to replant?
Online information, a class or seminar, a visit to your local gardening centre and a good gardening guide can be instrumental in finding the right plants for your garden. Ask what plants will work well together, and what ones shouldn’t be placed too close. A word of caution: Make sure the information is tailored to your climate and location.
Prep the soil
You’ll have greater success if you match plants to the type of soil you have, and if that soil is healthy and fertile. You’ll want to make sure it has the right balance of nutrients and a healthy pH — and that it’s free of chemicals.
How can you tell? You can have your soil professionally tested or buy a home kit from your local garden centre. Home tests start at $20 and should be purchased new each year to make sure the chemicals are still fresh. If you want a pro to handle the job, contact your province’s Ministry of Agriculture for a list of accredited soil testing laboratories.
Once you what you’re dealing with, you can purchase products to improve the soil’s texture, drainage and nutrients such as manure, compost or other organic matter and fertilizers.
(For more information, see the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Get to Know Your Soil page).
Use water efficiently
Conserving and effectively using water is one of the principle tenants of eco-friendly gardening, but it might also become a necessity if your community faces a water shortage this year. Luckily, there are many rain barrels, water conservation systems and irrigation systems on the market to collect rain water or divert it directly into your garden. In case you haven’t heard it before, rain water is good for the garden because it’s soft and warm, — unlike the cold, chemically-treated hard water from the hose.
Some other essential watering tips:
– Water in the early morning before the heat and wind pick up. (A timer can help).
– Water deeply, and less often.
– Use mulch or ground cover to help keep moisture in the soil.
– Use a rain gage to see how much water the weather (or your sprinkler) actually provides.
You can also collect water from around your house — like the water that goes down the drain while you’re waiting for tap water to heat up or cool down.
(For other watering tips, see Have your water and garden, too from the University of Vermont Extension).
Vacation-proof your garden
Your garden doesn’t take time off even if you do, so you’ll need to enlist some help from a “garden sitter”. Document any instructions for regular care, such as your normal weeding and watering practices, and make sure any required supplies are available.
And make sure to give your garden lots of attention before you go — like a good watering and a shot of fertilizer (think coffee grounds or compost tea for eco-friendly options).
In the case of edible gardens, you should also pick any food that’s ripe and properly store it, freeze it or give it away before you leave. Make sure your garden sitter knows what to do with any produce that reaches its peak while you’re gone. Provide storage containers and fridge access for your sitter – and of course it’s good manners to share.
Keep pests and pets away
The neighbourhood wildlife may be thrilled with your new salad bar, and the four legged members of your family may think the garden is a great place to run, dig or “do their business”. (They might also enjoy fresh vegetables as much as you do).
The good news is there are a few options on the market to help:
– Physical barriers like fencing or screening can be installed around plants.
– Garden stores carry products you can sprinkle around your plants to deter pests.
– Strips with soft plastic spikes can deter animals that like to dig. (Don’t worry — they won’t cause injury).
– Some plants such as marigolds make decorative borders and help to keep the nibblers away.
– Non-toxic products like the Waspinator can help keep certain insects away.
Experts note that the sooner you start, the better. Discouraging pests right from the beginning is easier than trying to change bad habits.
Include the harvest in your meal plans
What will you do with your bumper crop of fruits and vegetables? Your return on investment will be higher if you use everything you’ve got rather than letting it go to waste. This means accounting for the vegetables in your meal planning, such as making up a pot of homemade tomato or chili sauce, baking and making jam or preserves. Consider what can be frozen and how so you’ll be able to enjoy the produce throughout the winter. (See Savour summer all year long for tips on freezing and preserving your harvest.)
Alternatively, you can share or swap the surplus with friends and neighbours, or donate it to a local shelter.
And while herbs won’t last too long in the fridge, they can easily be dried and used later on. Pesto recipes can also use up an abundance of basil and cilantro, and the tasty sauce can be frozen as well.
Take safety precautions
It’s up to you to prevent injury and illness in your garden. For instance, check that your tetanus shot is up to date to prevent illness. Warm up before you garden with some light exercise and stretching, and keep tools out of the way to avoid falls. Use ergonomic tools and take frequent breaks to avoid repetitive stress injuries in the joints and muscles.
In addition, proper washing and storage of foods isn’t just a matter of keeping food fresh — it can also help prevent food-borne illnesses.
Get a jump on next year’s garden
As mentioned before, an edible garden is an investment you’ll enjoy year after year. As the growing season draws to a close, here are some things to think about:
– Draw a diagram of this year’s garden and mark down any successes and failures as well as perennial plants that will return next year. This reference can also help if you want to rotate plants and crops to enhance soil quality.
– Let some of your vegetables go to seed. The seeds can then be collected and saved for next year’s planting, or you can save them for a seed swap.
– Clean up any dead or dying plant material and compost or mulch it if possible. This will help create rich soil for next year.
For many, edible gardening is a labour of love. Whether or not it’s cost effective is a moot point for people who do it for the pleasure and pride of growing their own food. With all of the information, products and support out there, this may be the ideal season to get a start.
Got a favourite gardening tip? Sharing with others in our comments.