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GOOD TASTE | Glorious Greens

Glorious Greens

Newly chic, vegetable gardens bring a backyard bounty

By Rita Bailey

Vegetable gardens are sprouting up everywhere these days: in backyards and on boulevards, in city parks and suburban school grounds. While your granny’s veggie patch may have marched in military rows somewhere between the clothesline and the compost pile, today’s gardens, and the gardeners, have changed. Ever since Michelle Obama dug up a patch of the White House’s South Lawn last spring, North Americans have been following suit, on their own land or in community garden plots. Devoted fans of local food – locavores, in popular parlance – know that nothing is more local than home. But aesthetic balance is critical. When I decided to turn my tiny city backyard into an ornamental vegetable garden, I wanted both beauty and bounty: tomatoes ripening among the roses, and red runner beans mixed with nasturtiums draping the fence. Interested in eating from your backyard this summer while being surrounded by beautiful plants? Read on.

Location, Location, Location
In gardening as in real estate, location is everything. A level, sunny spot with good drainage, that’s within reach of a hose is ideal. In semi-shade, try salad greens, cabbage, kale, chard, beets, radishes and parsley. Russ Ohrt of Backyard Harvest, a Hamilton business specializing in edible gardening, says even sun-loving tomatoes and peppers will grow in part-shade, although the harvest will be less abundant. Poor soil can always be amended with lots of compost and manure, and drainage can be addressed with raised beds. If you have no soil at all you can grow in pots. Connie Dam-Byl, of Dam Seeds in Dundas, recommends they be at least 18 inches in depth and width.

Know Thyself
Gardening is hard work, requiring a strong back, some basic skills and a minimum of two to three hours a week. Start small, enlist a friend to help, or try a plot in a community garden. To gain skills join a Horticultural Society, or take a course – both Mohawk College and the Royal Botanical Gardens offer a selection. If you need professional help, choose carefully. I hired Ohrt of Backyard Harvest because of his experience in urban farming. He hauled away debris, designed and dug beds, installed a patio, corrected drainage and trucked in organic cow manure. Terra Greenhouses has landscaping coaches who will provide advice on design, planting and pruning. Finally, roll up your sleeves. You learn to garden by gardening.

Start a Compost Pile
This is the secret of every good garden. Compost is free, and you can make it yourself just by layering vegetable scraps with leaves. Next year you will have moist, crumbly humus, a nutrient-rich material that houses many beneficial micro-organisms, conserves moisture and improves drainage. Composters can be purchased or homemade, but they need to be big, about four feet in all dimensions. It’s best to have two: when one is full, turn the contents into the second bin and start anew.

Make a Plan
It doesn’t have to be professional; a rough sketch will do. Include beds, pathways, tool storage, a compost area and structures such as trellises, arbours and fences. These vertical elements add bones to your design, giving your eye something to look at during the barren winter months. Divide this into a three- to five-year plan, as finances permit. Make paths wide enough for a wheelbarrow, and beds narrow enough so you can weed and harvest without stepping on the soil – it needs air just as you do.

Before you purchase plants or seeds, do some research. Look at seed catalogues for varieties that offer colourful foliage, ornamental leaves, attractive flowers and fruits. Dam-Byl recommends Redbor Kale, Bright Lights Chard and Super Chili Pepper, all of which can be grown from seed. Shelley Peterson, a landscape designer and president of the Mount Hamilton Horticultural Society grows gourmet vegetables such as fingerling potatoes, rhubarb, shallots and herbs tucked between the flowering shrubs and rare perennials of her plant lover’s garden.

Record what you plant where. Next year you will want to rotate crops to prevent pests and diseases. Consider beauty as well as bounty: Imagine a frilly border of lettuces around your perennials, lacy dill next to the daylilies or an edging of chives and parsley along your pathways.

Laura Bitner, a landscaping coach at Terra Greenhouses, likes to weave ornamental edibles such as marigolds, calendulas, nasturtiums and herbs through her perennial and vegetable beds. These attract beneficial insects and add beauty both to your garden and the salad plate. Be sure to include space for chairs and a small table. Eating in the garden is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Feed Your Soil
Healthy plants need healthy soil. Remove the sod, add a layer of compost and manure an inch or two deep, and dig it in well. Both Hamilton and Burlington distribute free compost at designated times in the spring. Manure can be purchased from a local farmer or a bulk soil business. If this sounds like too much work, try the “lasagna method.” Thoroughly water the soil to bring the earthworms to the surface. Cover it with layers of newspapers, compost, manure and leaves. Do this in the fall, and your beds will be ready for planting in the spring.

If you’re a beginner, you’ll find that it’s easier to purchase some plants such as tomatoes, peppers and parsley. Before you plant, make sure both seedlings and soil are moist. Dam-Byl adds a liquid kelp emulsion to water her seedlings. Most vegetables, however, are easy to grow from seed.

Radishes and lettuce grow quickly in the spring, and beans and basil are easy once the weather warms up. Read the seed packages carefully: They will tell you everything you need to know about planting. Don’t fret about having everything done by the long weekend in May. Last year I planted most of my crops in June and some in July, and still had four months of great eating.

Weed, Water and Watch
After planting seeds, keep the soil moist until the plants are established. A good watering can and a hose with a very fine spray are essential tools. As soon as your plants are about 15 cm tall, mulch the earth around them. This will keep weeds down and help conserve moisture. Linger in your garden daily, to indulge your senses and observe your plants. Last year I noticed the leaves on my tomato seedlings withering and turning brown. Closer observation revealed hordes of tiny black bugs that I was able to dispatch with a simple soap and water spray.

Homemade Remedies
Vegetable plants work hard, many of them growing from seed to fruit in just a few months. To keep their strength up, they need occasional doses of organic fertilizers. I brew homemade compost tea made in a plastic garbage bin. Put a few shovels of manure in a burlap bag, tie it with string and fill the bin with water. In a few weeks it will turn the colour of strong tea. Use it diluted in a 1:5 ratio to water your plants, or as a foliar spray. You can also purchase fish and seaweed emulsion, and use this in the same way. Think of it as a vitamin tonic for your plants. For bugs, I use a few drops of natural soap in a spray bottle, or just a good blast of the hose to dislodge them. For stubborn critters, Ohrt suggests a garlic and hot pepper spray. Make it like compost tea, mashing a head of garlic with some hot peppers. Tie this in a cheesecloth bag, and suspend it in a bucket of water for a few days. Dilute it in a 1:4 ratio with water and spray it directly on the bugs. Use gloves, wear eye protection, and don’t wipe your forehead – it will burn!

The act of harvesting is a sensual pleasure, one that you can enjoy every day. Peas, beans, peppers, cucumbers and eggplant will yield more if picked frequently. Herbs will grow compact and bushy if they are regularly plucked. Some greens, such as lettuce and spinach, can be snipped and will come again several times.

Share your bounty with your neighbours, or learn to preserve your food, and savour the taste for many months to come. One easy way: fill an ice cube tray with chopped herbs, then cover them with water. When frozen, pop the cubes into freezer bags. Use in soups and sauces to perk up your winter recipes.

When plants go to seed, pull them up, add some more compost and plant a second crop for the fall. Or try saving some of the seeds by letting them dry and go brown on the plant – then shake the dried seeds into a paper bag and label it with the plant name and date. Store in a cool, dry place such as an enclosed porch and plant them next year.

A gentle word of caution: gardening is an addiction, but one that’s good for you and the planet. So go ahead, indulge. The garden beckons; the season has begun.