As pretty as flowers can be, a pot full of petunias won’t connect you to the land like a planter full of rainbow chard, which, sautéed with a little homegrown garlic, transforms you into the ultimate land-loving locavore. As long as you have a patch of outdoor space that gets a good hit of sunlight every day (at least three hours for shade-tolerant veggies like spinach, six for tomatoes, peppers and other full-sun lovers), the size of the plot doesn’t matter. Veggies aren’t biased. Here are a few ways to make the most of the space you’ve got as you join the legions of Canadians minimizing their food miles and maximizing their harvest, eco-style.
Front Yard Veggie Gardens: Who says vegetable planting has to be a secret backyard affair? (Unless, of course, you face a busy thoroughfare with lots of sooty auto emissions.) Now, that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice aesthetics and grow yawn-inducing (and neighbour-inflaming) rows of carrot tops. Veggies can be landscaped, too. The French have been doing so for years with what’s called potager gardens (i.e., attractive kitchen gardens). Think of planting raspberry and blueberry bushes where you might otherwise put a hedge. Mix herbs, curly lettuce, tomatoes and your favourite veggies in with pretty indigenous flowers. And, so your garden looks ravishing long after harvest season, give it good bones with evergreen bushes, maybe a recycled stone pathway, a trellised fence (great for growing vertically), even a little wooden arbour.
Balcony Veggie Gardens: Not everyone has room for row after row of sprawling squash. If your space is limited to a balcony/deck/fire escape (or you’re stressed about pollutants like lead in your graden), get yourself a bunch of containers, and, really, any old ones will do, from vintage wooden crates to tin buckets with holes punched in the bottom. Of course, the bigger the pot the deeper the roots can roam and the healthier your plants will be, though I’ve seen veggie gardens take root in everything from plastic garbage bags to old plastic water bottles with drainage holes (though I can’t promise that plastic won’t leach).
What grows in a pot? Well, leafy greens like lettuce and spinach and hardy fall greens like kale. Peppers, eggplant, cukes, green beans — hell, even corn will thrive. And in my opinion, tomatoes are actually much tastier in a pot regularly laced with molasses water than they are planted in the garden. Avoid potting soils containing ecologically troubled peat moss (see the For Peat’s Sake sidebar).
Square Foot Gardening: This technique hit it big right about when Hall & Oates were top of the pops, but it’s still perfect for anyone with space limitations or those with crappy and/or polluted soil. To carry out this intensive gardening method, you build raised wooden beds in a 4-by-4-foot (roughly 1.25 m2) grid, lay down cardboard or a plastic-free landscape cloth as a weed barrier, fill the frame with soil, then plant each square foot (marked off with string) with a different veggie seed, like, say, one big tomato or broccoli plant or 16 onion or carrot seeds. There’s a whole breakdown in Mel Bartholomew’s bible All New Square Foot Gardening (squarefootgardening.com).
You’re supposed to fill your box with 15 centimetres of “Mel’s mix” (one-third compost, one-third vermiculite and one-third peat moss), but stay away from the eco mess that is peat harvesting (see the For Peat’s Sake sidebar) and try substituting coconut-based coir fibres instead. You can also replace vermiculite with perlite (a volcanic glass). Proponents swear these compact, veggie-dense
eco-systems translate into less watering, less weeding, less space-wasting and zero added fertilizers. Just ignore dodgy suggestions like building your beds out of vinyl sheeting (unless you want to eat lead).
CLUCK IF YOU LOVE EGGS
Okay, urban/suburban hen-raising isn’t quite legal in most jurisdictions, but if you live in Vancouver, Surrey, Victoria, Niagara Falls, Brampton or Guelph and have an itch for local eggs, you’re in luck. (That’s not to say dedicated egg lovers aren’t doing it on the downlow in other cities.) Really, owning your own hens is the single most direct way to get fresh, organic, free-range eggs, and you’ll never have to worry again about your brekkie coming from crowded battery cages. The little cluckers will also help you with your gardening by munching on weeds, grubs and all sorts of pesky insects. Plus, their poop makes excellent compost. For more info on coops, organic feed, winter care tips and more, peck around at backyardchickens.com,torontochickens.com, urbaneggs.com and omlet.us.
SPIN (Small Plot Intensive farming): Dreaming of pitchforks and farm life, are ya? Well, you don’t need to move out of the city to live off your veggie-growing habit. If you’ve got a green thumb the size of a cornfield but nowhere to park your imaginary tractor, check out the wonderful world of SPINning, where the “back 40” is measured in feet, not acres. SPIN stands for Small Plot Intensive, and those small plots are basically rented ($100/1,000 square feet) or bartered from anyone in your ’hood who’s open to you ploughing their land in exchange for fresh organic veggies. Serious SPIN farmers focus on high-value crops like heirloom beets and heirloom tomatoes that can spin out, oh, a good 20 to 30 weeks of income, but you don’t have to be a full-on farmer to put their ideas into practice.
8 GREAT TIPS FOR A TRULY GREEN GARDEN
#1 Plant native plants indigenous to your home province. They know how to grow on your home turf without the help of pesticides and excessive amounts of H2O, plus you’ll be attracting plenty of biodiversity to your garden (for a list of recommended trees, shrubs and plants native to your province, see evergreen.ca).
#2 Ditch the water-thirsty lawn. If you do have grass, go with low-mow, low-maintenance rye or fescue.
#3 Get a rain barrel. Why waste rain-water when you could be feeding it to your plants all summer long?
#4 Turn sprinklers on once a week max, and only in the morning or evening, when the sun ain’t beatin’ down, so you don’t lose water to evaporation.
#5 Grow your own organic veggies! You can’t get a more local and nutritious food source. Any produce you can’t eat yourself, donate to a shelter (growarow.org).
#6 Preserve a piece of history by planting heirloom tomatoes, beets, flowers and more that haven’t been genetically modified or hybridized. Check out Seeds of Diversity’s annual heirloom seed swap (seeds.ca).
#7 Ditch chemical pesticides and reach for homemade solutions.
#8 Turn in your two-stroke gas mower and swap it for the push-powered kind or an exhaust-free electric mower (mowdownpollution.ca). You can even snag yourself a solar-powered mower for a little extra cash (solarispowerproducts.com). Home Depot’s carrying them now.
So how do you incorporate SPIN into your private patch? Forget waiting for conventional frost-free dates (see almanac.com/garden/frostcanada.php) to pull out the spade; you can plant cooler crops like arugula, chard, green garlic, spinach and more weeks before the frost lifts. You’ll also want to fan out your planting so you can produce all summer long. Lettuce can be started mid-April, rotated with scallions (your “relay” crop), then planted again in mid-August. Max your growing space by converting your front yard, fence, hanging baskets, even rooftops and spare rooms (full of pea and sunflower shoots) to brimming harvest zones. For a full breakdown of the Canadian Prairies-born SPIN doctrine, check out spingardening.com.