There isn’t anything more satisfying than harvesting a tomato
you grew, still warm from the vine at its peak of perfection. A
quick slice, a little drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkling of sea
salt, a few torn basil leaves-also your own-and you are in
grow-your-own heaven. A kitchen garden is a wonderful thing. It’s
good for you, the planet, the birds and the bees. It doesn’t have
to be a complicated or daunting affair, and you don’t need acres of
land. A tiny urban plot will do. Even a few containers on a deck or
balcony can produce a surprising amount of fresh veggies, and a
windowsill planter means you’ll be adding fresh herbs to your
recipes all year “˜round.

We went digging for information with urban farm experts Arlene
Hazzan-Green and Marc Green, owners of the Backyard Urban Farming
Company (www.bufco.ca) in Toronto and here’s what we learned about
the urban farmers cycle of planning, planting, maintaining,
harvesting and putting to bed.

1. Preparation is Paramount

Before you get started, it might make sense to invest in testing
the soil for contaminants. Depending on the history of the area,
some backyard soils may contain pretty scary stuff, like lead and
chemical deposits. There are kits available and some municipalities
may even offer to test the soil.

Is the soil tired and hungry? Before sowing a single seed, the
soil may need a good feeding. Don’t resort to chemical fertilizers,
dig some compost into the ground, or give the yard a drink of
compost tea or natural fish fertilizer. Vermicastings-that’s worm
poo, folks!-is the most nutritious. For fun, check your local zoo;
some sell “˜zoo poo,’ composted manure from exotic animals. Also,
check with your municipality about free compost and mulch.

Open up the soil. Take a look, dig up a shovelful and examine
the earth. It might be hard-packed clay, and it may require
‘amending.’ It’s tough going for roots to push through dense soils,
so turn the ground and add things to create space and air pockets,
such as cocoa bean fibre, coconut fibre, composted leaf or other
organic matter. Peat is what most folks use, but sadly, peat bogs
are a finite resource and a unique eco-system that is in steady
decline due to over-harvesting. Raised beds are an even better
plan, as you can start fresh, with lovely, healthy, nutrient-rich
topsoil (and leave the peat for making scotch!).

Do your homework. Different plants want different conditions.
Many herbs are Mediterranean, so they enjoy lots of sun and dry
feet, while tender lettuces and other salad greens prefer it a
little cooler and more moist. Read up on what you want to grow,
find out the type of soil it likes, and how much water, sun, and
food it requires.

Know your zone. Find out what “˜plant hardiness zone’ you live
in. Check with Natural Resources Canada
http://atlas.nrcan.gc.ca/site/english/maps/environment/land/planthardi/1/
or pick up a copy of The Farmer’s Almanac.

Do a little shopping. You might want to invest in a rain barrel,
and you will need a few garden tool essentials: hoe, pitch fork,
spade, shovel, rakes, and even a wheelbarrow if your plot is big
enough. This doesn’t mean you have to break the bank; garage sales
are fantastic for finding bargains and online second-hand sites
such as Kijiji and Craigslist are treasure troves of used garden
and farm equipment.

Love thy neighbour. For some, toiling away in the garden is a
meditative, solitary act. For others, it’s a time to catch up,
exchange garden wisdom and war stories with fellow gardeners. If
you find the prospect of getting started is a bit daunting, you
might want to seek out a garden buddy. There are older folks who
possess all the knowledge (but aren’t interested in the labour), to
raise a bountiful garden. And don’t forget to share your bumper
crop with the neighbours!

2. Noble Rot

Compost is a gardener’s best friend. If you don’t already
compost, start now! Check with your municipality about rebates and
programs; some may offer free composters and free compost. For
apartment dwellers, there’s vermiculture or vermicomposting; indoor
composting with the aid of worms. Done right, it’s fast, efficient,
and odourless. Visit the webiste, Cathy’s Crawly Composters
(www.cathyscomposters.com) to get started.

3. Pests

There’s no getting around it. Even if you live in the core of a
bustling urban centre, our furry friends are going to visit the
garden and help themselves to some free fruits and veggies. In the
cities, it’s racoons, squirrels, skunks, and feral cats that will
take their toll by digging, defecating, or snacking, while farther
out into the suburbs and country, expect visits from ground hogs,
rabbits, and even deer. Covering the garden beds in bird
netting-available at most hardware stores-is an easy,
cost-effective and humane solution. Raised beds and fences help, as
does picking the produce just before it’s perfect, and at it’s most
appealing to four-legged diners.

Being bugged? If insects are the invaders, plant for protection
and take a pass on the chemicals. Marigolds, and to some extent,
onions, are great deterrents to all manner of unwanted critter. For
slugs, beer traps work beautifully, as does diatomaceous earth,
though beneficial insects can also be killed. And if aphids are
taking over, look into purchasing a bag of live ladybugs,
investigate all-natural insecticidal soap sprays, or plant a
nasturtium in a pot nearby. The aphids should be drawn away from
the veggies to the sacrificial nasturtium. And remember, don’t
compost cuttings from insect-infested plants.

4. Go Vertical!

Going up! Many urban yards are tiny, so think up, up, and away!
Tomatoes are vines, after all, so use arbours and trellises for
tomatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers, melons, and squash. That handy
bird netting can be stapled to a frame or directly to floor and
ceiling of a deck or veranda, too. Strawberries and cherry tomatoes
are gorgeous in hanging baskets, and some garden centres even sell
upside down tomato plants in just-add-water plastic growing tubes
for hanging.

5. Contain Yourself!

No yard? No worries. Start a container garden on a deck or
balcony, even a flattop roof. Just make sure it’s strong enough.
Remember, a container garden will need more frequent watering, and
the sort of soil used is very important. Look for a light, open
triple mix potting soil. It should include either vermiculite or
pearlite for openness and moisture retention. Plant, then top with
well composted mulch, or straw, and you’re good to go.

No deck? Don’t fret. A sunny windowsill will do the trick. Pick
the sunniest spot-a south-facing window that provides at least 4
hours of direct sunlight is best-and start a herb garden. There are
handy kits available that come all ready; just add water and
sunlight. Or start from scratch with a nice window box or
planter-remember to protect the sill from moisture-and pick the
herbs you want to plant. Basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano all do
really well indoors, and a potted bay tree (laurel) is very
impressive. And don’t forget, small containers combined with indoor
heating, means frequent watering.