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More and more people are giving their best trying to grow food in their backyard or balcony.

Some people get it right the first time, most have some success but learn from the experience.

Factors that influence success (as in good yields without many problems) are based on:

  1. Site location
  2. Container choice
  3. Planting schedule
  4. Soil choice
  5. Planting companions
  6. Good design and management.
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Edible garden install Toronto, ON, 2010

The urban grower is limited by their site options. To overcome this requires installations the rural counterpart – the farmer- never has to think about. Using containers and raised beds is how most people grow their food in the city but sometimes there is enough space for large plots. Trees and buildings make shade the biggest issue for many growers. Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done about buildings – and most edibles need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day for proper growth. If you can give your plants that much sunlight, you can then go ahead with the design and install.

Based on how much you want to grow you’ll choose containers/ raised beds or ground plots at the size you’ll want to manage. As for containers and planters there are many options either bought or recycled. Drainage holes are a must and water reservoirs are recommended for small planters. Raised beds are larger, but can be planted on cement etc, if they are built up high enough. They are usually a minimum of 8” high if on lawn or soil, and 24” if on soilless ground. Ground plots are simply gardens right on the ground.

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Next, quality soil mix is bought and mixed. If starting out, it doesn’t pay to cut corners on your soil mix. Get it right, go for a rich mix high in stable organic matter and supplement with kelp and alfalfa meal, blood and bone meal as needed.

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After choosing your plants, make a planting schedule with direct seeding, transplanting and harvesting dates. For example, if the seed package for tomatoes says 70 days to maturity, look carefully. For tomatoes, this means 70 days from transplanting. It takes another 8-12 weeks of growing indoors or in a heated greenhouse beforehand. Most small time growers buy transplants for hot crops like the nightshade family, as well as some hard to germinate herbs.

In any case, the goal in short season Canada is to get a harvest as early as possible, yet, we’re constrained by the last spring frost and the first fall frost.  Plan for transplanting hot crops from Mid to end May, cool crops as early as mid April. Fall frosts come usually at end September in Zone 5, but it usually only gets basil. Determine the earliest safe date for seeding or transplanting, then allow for a second planting if the spring is cool. Measure out the days to harvest and you will know when to expect your crops.

Now you have a spot, the soil for the plants and a schedule for your crops.

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Organizing the plantings to maximize yield and vitality can be challenging for new growers. It pays off in the long run to design good interplantings and rotations.

Companion planting done right minimizes pest and health issues, and this goes a long way towards making the growing experience a fun one.

Planting at the right density is another crucial element of the gardening game. Different types of plants can be planted close together, if they grow at a different rate or height, have complimentary feeding needs and are harvested at different times. This is where it can get very artistic and technical…

Pruning plants to allow more sunlight and air flow is an advanced technique for those with minimal space. Fruiting plants be leaf pruned- within reason. So can roots crops, edible flowers and even leafy crops.

Good air flow helps lower the onset of bacterial and fungal diseases, and balanced organic soil mixes help sustain the plants and protect them against bugs and aggressive microbes.

Most plants like moist but not soggy soil. A soil mix with a good blend of water retention and permeability is ideal.

Once all the plants are in, it’s waiting time!…Well, it’s not so simple. The garden must be tended until harvests are ready. Believe it or not, watering properly is the hardest part! If overwatered, plants invite diseases. If underwatered, they won’t grow well. If watered erratically, plants can grow mishappen harvests.

Plants must be monitored for the destructive effects of bugs and diseases. Boost the plants immunity with compost tea. Keep a stock of biological controls in the shed in case the onslaught is severe.

As the plants get close to readiness, the harvests begin. Harvest the crops as they come, about 2-3 times a week for fruiting crops, once a week for leafy crops, and as needed to thin out the rooting crops. Harvest when the plants are dry, and when cutting plants, use sharp knives.

Once the harvest is done for any plant, the material is removed for the compost pile. The compost pile -and any seeds saved -should be seen like your garden bank. This is where the currency is kept. It’s hard but not impossible to save seed in really small spaces. Composting is easier. It can be done outdoors 8 months of the year and indoors with worm composters year round. Mix your green materials with dry material and soil and either turn the pile every couple of weeks, or let the pile sit for a year or two once it is mixed correctly. Compost is ready in as little as 30 days, or as long as 3 years depending on the technique. It’s not realistic to expect mountains of compost from a small urban property, so focus on quality over quantity.

The garden is cleaned and mulched in the fall, and the memories of all the good meals live on until the next spring, when the hands get dirty once again.

So remember:

  • The right site or container for the plant
  • The right soil mix
  • The right amount of sun
  • The right amount of water
  • The right plants beside each other
  • And a tending, caring hand…

Happy Gardening!

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