Remember the first spring of the pandemic, back in 2020? We were all convinced we’d have to grow our own food, and there was a shortage of seeds and gardening supplies. At the time, I had a yard far too small for a proper victory garden. But I felt the need to do something, and so I planted some seeds I’d managed to rustle up online from Salt Spring Seeds.
One of those crops was cannellini beans. I grew them in tiny planters, watered them diligently (I had nowhere else to go) and, when they were ready, harvested them, shelled them and served them gently boiled with olive oil, salt and pepper.
My first revelation from this experiment? Fresh-grown cannellini are spectacular, with a buttery texture that’s as different from the canned or dried ones as homemade cookies are from packaged.
My second? That quarter cup of beans I ate was tasty, but it wasn’t going to save me from starvation. Next time, I would need a better plan.
It takes a substantial amount of land to grow substantial quantities of food. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth digging into gardening if you only have a small space available. The trick is to be strategic. Here are some tips to help you make this the year you get to say, “I grew this!”
Consider why you want to start a garden
“Being able to care for a plant and watch it grow is a really meaningful experience,” says Hilda Nouri, urban agriculture manager at The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto. “I think it does tons for your mental health.” (Among other things, research shows that gardening can reduce depression and anxiety, boost self-esteem and increase life satisfaction.)
Nouri lists a number of benefits of growing your own food: it can offset food costs, help you connect with others and strengthen your appreciation of the farmers, including migrant farm workers, whose efforts bring most of the food to our tables. (All of these lessons are valuable for kids to learn, too.)
Knowing why you’re growing will affect the choices you make for your garden.
Assess your space
“Look at the site,” says Lori Snyder, an Indigenous Métis herbalist, educator and permaculture specialist in Vancouver. “How is the sun moving across? How does the wind move? Is the sunlight bouncing off a building so that it gets really, really warm?”
Whether your “small space” is a kitchen windowsill, a few balcony planters or an actual yard, its microclimate will determine what plants will thrive there. Estimate how many hours of direct sunlight your site has each day and how warm or cool it gets throughout the growing season, then match your conditions to the crops you plant. Kale and arugula, for instance, are happy with cooler temperatures and only a couple of hours of sun, while fruiting crops like tomatoes, eggplant and peppers prefer to sunbathe for a much bigger chunk of the day. (Seed packets and seedling tags will give you guidance on this.)
Related: 4 Gardening Basics That Every Beginner Should Know
Another key element is soil. If you’re planting in containers, make sure it’s good quality and designed for planters, and that water can drain out the bottom easily. If you’re planting in the ground, assess what kind of soil you have, and add compost and other amendments to improve its quality, aeration and ability to hold water.
Also know the history of the land and whether the soil might be contaminated. For instance, Snyder points out that it’s a good idea to avoid growing food around the perimeters of old houses that were painted with lead paint.
Build a relationship with your land
“Our true nature is to be a steward of these beautiful lands and waters that we call home, wherever we live,” Snyder says. “I feel that’s our responsibility.”
Treat your garden as part of the local ecosystem and learn to bring reciprocity with the land into your life. (Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass is an excellent introduction to this concept.) “Get to know the plants deeper,” Snyder says. “What are their personalities? What gifts do they offer us that we can honour and then reciprocate by planting more?”
Native and wild plants are important for our ecology, she continues, and incorporating them into your garden—or, in some cases, letting them grow where they already are—is a way to help feed native bees, butterflies and other creatures. Some common vegetable crops, such as tomatoes and squash, actually come from these parts, but you can also include flowering plants like goldenrod and asters that pollinators love. Look for varieties specific to your region. “We need to have the native plants,” Snyder says, “so that we can have everything else that exists along with them.”
And don’t be too quick to yank out so-called weeds, Snyder adds. Many of these are both edible and nutritious—think dandelions, stinging nettle and purslane—or work well as ground cover, helping to protect the soil. An app such as Seek by iNaturalist will help you ID what’s already growing and decide what to do with it.
Pick crops you value
“It’s important you grow something that you really like,” Snyder says. “I also think it’s important to grow something that’s really expensive.” Your efforts might as well save you from the worst prices in the store, right? She suggests berries as one option—anything from service, or saskatoon, berries if you have a decent-sized yard, to strawberries if you’re tight on space.
Another thing to think about is how your harvest will compare to store-bought. Home-grown carrots and tomatoes, for example, often taste a million times better than what you can find in the supermarket. Tender vegetables like salad greens and herbs that go bad quickly are more convenient to have at home—plus, you’ll likely be saving a lot of plastic packaging.
Have a planting plan
The next step is to match your plant wish list with your site. Think about your growing conditions and how much space you have, as well as when the plant or seed should go in the soil.
Nouri suggests companion planting and intercropping to make the best use of your space. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, for instance, can be planted together with herbs—tomatoes and basil are a classic combination—and onions up close with lettuce. You should also expect to share some of your harvest with neighbourhood critters; planting extra is a good way to mitigate that.
Related: How To Build A Garden For Birds, Bees And Climate Resiliency
One helpful tip is to look for compact varieties of common favourites like tomatoes. (The label should tell you how big the plant might get.) Nouri is a fan of mouse melon, a miniature cucumber that looks like a tiny watermelon and tastes like sour cucumber. “It doesn’t need a lot of room to grow,” she says.
Look to your community for seeds and plants
Yes, you can buy what you need at the garden centre. But in the spirit of thriftiness and self-sufficiency, it’s fun to see how many seeds, cuttings and plants you can gather without spending any money. This DIY approach to gardening is also a factor in food security and food sovereignty, Snyder says. “That diversity and trade of seeds is really, really important.”
Many herbs, like basil and mint, will root from cuttings. You can stick your green onion stubs into the soil and watch them grow happily all season. Other plants are extremely easy to save seeds from—think dill, beans and peas. You can tap into your own network, ask your local Buy Nothing Group, or attend a Seedy Saturday to score both seeds and know-how in how to plant them. Or look for a seed library where you live, via your public library or another organization. These groups give out seeds in the spring and ask that you return another set come fall.
Create a maintenance routine
“Checking your plant daily is the best way to become an expert grower,” Nouri says. “It’s a lot easier to deal with a problem as soon as you notice it.” Check below the one-inch mark for soil moisture, look under the leaves for disease and pests, remove suckers from the elbows of tomato branches and do other pruning, and remove yellow or dying leaves. If you do find insects like aphids, thrips or whiteflies, Nouri suggests using a DIY insecticidal spray made of a few drops of soap in water with a bit of vegetable oil to keep them at bay.
Smart fertilizing is one trick to growing lush crops, Nouri adds. She likes to spray the leaves with algae or fish fertilizer early in the season, and she recommends worm castings as a high-quality soil amendment. Snyder suggests composting at home if you can, with or without worms, so that you have easy (and free!) access to your own fertilizer as well as a useful place to put scraps and cuttings from the garden. Gather leaves to add to your soil and compost bin rather than removing them from your land (“I feel like we throw our gold away,” Snyder says). And if you’re using your garden year after year, think about rotating your crops to avoid nutrient deficiencies.
Know when and how to harvest
For each crop you’re growing, have an idea of when and how to pick it. For instance, Nouri likes to pick basil from the centre of the plant, not the sides, to encourage the plant to become bushy as well as to prevent it from flowering. With greens like kale and lettuce, on the other hand, new growth is at the centre, so you want to harvest the outer leaves first.
Related: How To Start Seeds Indoors For Your Vegetable Garden
As for fruiting crops like peppers and tomatoes, know that they’re a beacon for squirrels and other wildlife, so it’s best to pick them earlier. Once a tomato has a little bit of red, it will happily finish ripening indoors on your windowsill. “There’s so many people I know who had the most perfect tomato or pepper they were waiting to harvest and then the next day they wake up and it’s gone,” Nouri says. “It’s so sad.”
Start where you are
Gardening can seem daunting, but you don’t need years of expertise to try it out and experiment. “Just start,” says Snyder. “You’re going to make some mistakes, you’re going to start conversations with others, and your knowledge is going to grow.”
Ultimately, the process is as much of the point as the result. “I love being outside,” says Nouri. “I love getting my hands in dirt. I love noticing and caring for a plant and all the different stages it goes through, and I love being able to harvest it, eat it and share it with people in my life.”