Backyard Bounty: How to Ensure Your Kitchen Garden Flourishes
A kitchen garden is not just focused on food production. It's a more whimsical space for growing herbs, veggies, pollinator plants and flowers prized for their beauty, taste and ecological function. Photo: Helen Rushbrook/stocksy
We began worrying about access to fresh food during the pandemic, and now, in 2023, our grocery bills are jaw-dropping, as food prices rise faster than inflation, at an estimated five to seven per cent a year. The obvious answer: Start a kitchen garden. A 2020 study of about 1,000 Canadians by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax found one in five Canadians started growing their own food in 2020, and about half the population is growing at least one kind of fruit or vegetable today.
Hard times breed ingenuity, and today’s kitchen gardens harken back to relief gardens planted during the Great Depression and the backyard victory gardens sowed during both world wars. Promoted by the government as a patriotic contribution, there were some 209,000 victory gardens across Canada in 1944, producing 57 million kilograms (125.7 million pounds) of vegetables each year.
After many years as a single mother living in rental properties, I went big with my food-provisioning fantasies last year after my husband and I bought a farm in Huron County, Ont. Suddenly, I had the boundless potential to grow food, and it made me realize I should have been doing it, at any scale, a long time ago. We started small, as the big fields were overwhelming. Still, the first season’s bounty from a patch of raised beds – dwarfed by our five hectares (12 acres) – was ridiculously rewarding, and kept us fed for the summer and fall. It produced so much that I had to share the harvest, which allowed me to meet my neighbours, learn about rural hospitality and how sharing the wealth builds community. You don’t go anywhere in farm country without a basket of peaches or a bag of corn or kale in your hand. It was pretty profound stuff that grew from some digging and sowing and weeding. If you don’t have your own patch of land, fear not: Old-fashioned allotment and community gardens are a great option. Allotments are plots, usually on municipal land, that you have to apply for to tend and pay rent, while community gardens are a group project where people reap what they sow in labour. (Toronto’s Foodshare.net is a good resource if you want to start, or participate in, a community garden project.)
Homesteading has exploded on social media, where aspirational lifestyle gurus – with pantries reassuringly stacked with colour-coordinated preserves – tout sustainability and self-reliance, and parade their savings at the till. It has trickled down to less committed kitchen gardeners, who are showing an interest in heirloom and native seeds, closed-loop food waste systems and preserving in-season ingredients.
You don’t need a huge backyard to start a kitchen garden. From grow-light systems for indoor growing to container gardening and raised beds, kitchen gardens are scalable. Here is some practical advice if you are taking up a trowel for the first time, or refining a lifelong food-production hobby.
What to Plant
One thing I discovered when I started growing food is that gardening enthusiasts will talk your ears off about what works and what doesn’t, so avail yourself of the expertise, whether it’s from garden centre staff or neighbours tending their own plots. I had great success with the easier stuff: tomatoes and cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkins, beans, peas, radishes, peppers of all kinds, chards and lettuces. And my kale survived a brutal winter with just a little tent of plastic. Can you imagine how rewarding it is to pick kale in Canada when it’s -12 C? For the OG source for planting, buy the Canadian edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac or check out (almanac.com) for the best combinations of plants and flowers to deter pests without using harmful chemical pesticides.
If you are new to gardening, first you have to determine your plant hardiness zone (planthardiness.gc.ca), which will tell you what to grow, when to plant and when to harvest.
In the last few years, the big trend is raised beds, and most nurseries, big box stores and online retailers like Amazon sell kits you can install and fill with a mix of organic filler, soil and compost. My husband built our raised cedar beds, which was a fairly simple and satisfying project, and I’m betting they will last a couple of decades. These are easier to tend, because there is less kneeling, crouching and bending, and you can generally get away with fewer soil amendments (adjustments to raise and lower pH, and improve aeration, drainage and moisture retention). If you’re planting in your own dirt, buy a soil-testing kit so you know how heathy it is and what you need to enrich it and grow beautiful fruit and veg.
You can’t have fruits and vegetables without pollinators, and there is a grim future for Earth if we don’t save the bees, birds and bugs. Actor Morgan Freeman, 85, converted his 50-hectare (124-acre) Mississippi ranch into a bee sanctuary, planting lavender and magnolia to feed and shelter the insects, and setting up about two dozen hives he tends himself. To figure out which plants feed pollinators, go to pollinator.org. The North American Pollinator Project has regional planting guides where you just plug in your postal code.
Leafy greens, herbs and sprouts are generally the best choices for indoor or window box gardens, but it really depends on your commitment level. There are endless options for indoor grow lights, and The Old Farmer’s Almanac breaks it down: Fluorescent lights supplement natural window light; energy-efficient LED lights are good for bulk growing and save on electricity costs; high-intensity discharge lights are pro quality, produce a lot of heat and are expensive to operate. While much of the thrill of playing in the dirt is about growing food the way it’s been done for 10,000 years, the future of food is in technology, and it can be harnessed to grow provisions in small or dark spaces. There are nifty containers that make balcony gardens viable, with maximized yield. Lee Valley offers a line of UV-resistant plastic container gardens called Vegepod, with a removable and permeable mesh cover (to protect plants from pests) and a built-in reservoir that provides water when you are away. You can grow small to medium vegetables in the units.
In many urban areas, food-waste guilt has been offloaded into green bins. But these compost programs are really very expensive – Toronto, for instance, pays $80 million a year to collect organics and put them through anaerobic digestion. Because of the cost, many communities, large and small, do not have green bins. Wouldn’t it be great to take your food scraps and turn them into fertilizer? Outdoor composters have traditionally been ill-suited to city life, since they are smelly magnets for bugs and rodents. This is where eco-entrepreneurs Elizabeth Coulombe and Valérie Laliberté come in. The Montrealers created Tero, a countertop composter, while they were studying product design at the University of Laval. “When food gets thrown away, it ends up in landfills and creates methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide,” Coulombe says in a Zoom interview. The bonus is Tero takes 95 per cent of food waste, including meat and bones. There is no smell, and it operates quietly, turning a week’s worth of waste into ready-to-use fertilizer in about four hours a week. The only downside is the price – from $695 – but it is heavy-duty and durable, and you only need to replace filters over time.
If you have the space, I personally recommend the dual batch rolling composter from Lee Valley, which turns yard waste and food scraps into compost in four to six weeks. It’s an above-ground barrel with two compartments (so you can have batches ready at different times) that you spin every few days. You can’t put cooked food and animal bones into a manual system: It runs best on vegetable trimmings, but if you have a kitchen garden, those do add up!
Horticulturalist Peg Brule tends a one-hectare (two-acre) garden on her 100-hectare (250-acre) farm just outside Richmond, near Ottawa. She is the long-time content-marketing specialist for Lee Valley in the garden, home and kitchen areas. She helped pick out a few items for beginner gardeners, and a couple of aspirational investments for established gardeners to drool over.
First up is the brand’s self-watering seed kit. “It’s foolproof, and there is no transplant shock,” says Brule, referring to the setbacks seedlings suffer when transferred from sprouting mediums to the ground. She also recommends a journal to record what grows well and what doesn’t so you don’t repeat a failed crop, and Lee Valley’s journal has technique and soil info sprinkled throughout the 10-year diary. Brule suggests your first purchase should be a trowel, and to try a few to see how they feel in your hand. “It’s an extension of your hand when it comes to closer work. You can remove dead plants and weeds and make soil amendments.” You will need some mid-length digging tools, like a trenching hoe, bed rake, crack weeder, three-prong cultivator and a bulb planter. A hand-loop weeder is useful for a congested garden bed, she says, as the rigid, stainless-steel blade allows for targeted weeding. Also: You can’t get by without a garden hose. “Lightweight is more practical, but it depends on how much land you are watering.”
For “the world’s most highly regarded” hand pruners, Brule recommends Felco, which she calls the best choice for the serious gardeners. Invest in brass Y shut-off valves and quick-connect couplers for your hoses, because they are long-lasting and easier to work with if your fingers are less dextrous.
“Gardening is hard on a body. As we get older, it gets more difficult,” says Brule. She says Radius hand tools are more ergonomic and lightweight, and suggests looking for a larger handle on your trowel so you don’t need to grip as hard.
Brule says one purchase you won’t regret is a folding kneeler stool with a tool holder. It keeps your knees dry and helps with stiffness when you are weeding for long periods of time. Flipped around, a kneeler is a handy seat. Raised beds, and drip irrigation systems, are also time and energy savers, ideal for older gardeners.
A version this article appeared in the April/May 2023 issue with the headline ‘Backyard Bounty’, p. 72.