In an age where organic and locally grown produce is all the rage, many Canadian homeowners are adding a new element to the their home landscapes—the vegetable garden. Whether you're planting one or two items or ambitiously tackling many types of produce, vegetable gardening can be an overwhelming and often frustrating endeavour. However, with a little expert advice—and some common sense—you can bring fresh food to life right in your own backyard.
One of the biggest mistakes novice gardeners make is setting their sights too high. By starting too big, you will become overwhelmed and discouraged all the more quickly. Starting small will also help you gain some experience and victories before branching out into more ambitious plantings.
Remember, vegetable gardening should be fun; if the schedule of watering, weeding, thinning and picking becomes too tedious, you will probably give up before you really get started. That said, be sure you have enough time to devote to your garden. We all live busy lives, but when gardening becomes a chore rather than a joy, both you and the garden will suffer.
First and foremost, choose a site that gets at least six hours of sunlight each day. At first, a single raised bed measuring 2 x 3 m (6 x 9 ft) should suffice; you can always add beds later as your confidence and skills grow. If there is already a larger bed in place (from a previous homeowner or your own prior attempt at gardening), consider dividing it into smaller sections and adding some easy-to-maintain flowers or herbs to fill up any remaining space.
First steps to creating your garden
To prepare the site, remove any existing sod, shake off any soil and add the sod to your compost bin (to speed up composting, rip the sod up into small pieces first). Also remove any buttercup in the sod pieces; this species is very invasive and removing it early will save headaches later.
It is best to frame the bed area to create a raised bed. This can be done using landscape ties (available at local nurseries) or deck boards; if you are feeling particularly ambitious, concrete forms can also be used. Raising the bed will allow the soil to warm up sooner in the spring and help keep weeds at bay. A 300- to 450-mm (12 to 18-in.) deep bed works well for most sites.
Once the raised bed is constructed, fill it with topsoil. Then, add organic matter—be it compost or animal or mushroom manure—to a depth of approximately 100 to 150 mm (4 to 6 in.). Incorporate the organic matter into the top layer of soil and let it sit for at least a couple of days before sowing or planting. This will allows the soil to settle and the manure to cool down. Compost or manure should also be dug in and raked before sowing, to adequately distribute any amendments and create a smooth seed bed.
To sow or to plant?
You can (and should) start sowing seeds as early in the season as possible, even as soon as the first week of March. Of course, before doing anything, you must carefully select the type of seeds you want to plant.
As tempting as it may be to select some unique and interesting vegetables, try to focus on varieties you know you and your family will actually eat. Also, don't try to stock up for an entire year. As you start your gardening career, your focus should be on quality, not quantity. Aim for small successes upon which you can build over time.
There are various catalogues, gardening books and Internet resources you can use to help plan what seeds to sow at different times during the year. You can use the following guide as a general reference.