Looking for pure, local and organic – yet convenient and wallet-friendly – ingredients? Don’t wait for the next perpetually jam-packed hipster restaurant to open; grow your own food. Two things you should know right away: 1) it isn’t too late in the season to plant; and 2) you can do it. Yes, you. It can be easily and affordably done in your own backyard, terrace or city balcony, even if your thumb is anything but green. Think it’s too much work? We have just the solution, and it’s far from your grandfather’s garden.
Founded this past spring, My Edible Garden helps Torontonians grow their own food. It is the goal of 30-something David Hlady and his team to educate the community on the benefits of urban food production and self-sustainability, and they offer the necessary education, tools and support to grow food successfully. The company’s group of urban farmers have backgrounds that range from botany and microbiology to landscape design and project management.
Unsurprisingly, some urban backyards lack ideal planting soil, but My Edible Garden offers an easy-on-the-eyes cedar box full of good, fertile soil and helps you start growing. For something more elaborate for the stylish set, some boxes feature stone sides and detailing. On every model, the sides double as a bench, making the garden easy to access (as in, you can sit on the side and pull weeds alongside a glass of sangria). At a general size of 4×8 feet, it doesn’t take up too much room, either.
In Hlady’s sprawling backyard garden in the late afternoon sun, it is evident that his vision is not only to grow his own groceries, but also to promote beauty in landscape design. Many of the company’s backyard projects mix flowers, plants and shrubs with vegetables to produce a mixed garden that offers the best of all worlds. Hlady tells us that some plants, like the bright, candy cane-like Swiss chard, are attractive in the garden, especially if you have a lot of green to contrast. Many veggie plants also offer gorgeous flowers.
Hlady calls his own his garden – with over 40 fruits and vegetables – a bit of a biology lesson, and we can imagine the time and dedication it takes to maintain. It includes things like eggplant, pumpkin, celery, green onion, kale, Swiss chard, spinach, turnips, zucchini, leeks and strawberries (plus many, many more), all mixed with brightly coloured flowers, like the purple bell flowers and campanula, or the bright orange edible nasturtium. Hlady also harvests just about every herb you can think of, from chamomile and oregano to fennel, sage and thyme.
Hlady offered a little more insight as to how we all can become urban farmers:
The numerous health benefits of eating organic are difficult to ignore. Organic foods offer more nutrients, taste better and are safer for children and the environment. In having a home garden, not only do you save money for what are usually higher quality products, but you don’t waste money either.
“Herbs are always a good thing to have in your garden because most recipes only call for a few little pieces of basil, oregano or parsley, so you end up throwing most of it out,” says Hlady. “If you have your own, you can cut what you need and let the rest keep growing.”
Most you can buy for $1 per plant and keep it for the entire season. “This rosemary I’ve had for more than three years,” he says. “I can keep it outside, and over winter I keep it in a garage.” Another benefit? Things like the 15 varieties of tomatoes from Hlady’s 62 tomato plants, and the sauce they produce, make great gifts for clients or dinner hosts.
What you can still plant now:
There is still time to plant now to produce vegetables that will last well into October or November and some even beyond. For some things, like kale and Swiss chard, frost is actually a good thing. Once they sense the cold, they generate more sugars, lose their bitterness and become sweeter. “Kale in particular is pretty hearty and can withstand freezing temperature,” says Hlady. “It will last all the way into fall, even into winter.” Arugula and mizuna will be ready in three weeks, and if simply trimmed down (much like a haircut) and not pulled from the soil, will regenerate and continue to provide harvests every 2-3 weeks following. “I have arugula coming up that was planted a week ago,” says Hlady. “Within three weeks, you can make a salad.” This means that, if you start now, you can produce four harvests this fall. Things that don’t fare well for fall? “When a tomato is hit by frost, it’s done, it turns to mush,” he says.
If your only outdoor space is a terrace or balcony, not to worry. For people who have small gardens or terraces, Hlady recommends things like long beans on a trellis. This can grow up to 10 feet of edible green wall. “You will be pulling beans off of it until the frost,” says Hlady. “It makes a great balcony border between you and neighbour, as long as you’re getting good sun.” Other vegetables, like tomatoes, lettuce, kale, onions and capsicum can be grown in containers. Potted herbs such as basil, coriander, parsley and chives also fare well on a balcony. “All you need is the right amount of light and exposure, proper sized containers and to keep them watered,” says Hlady.
For the Beginner Gardner:
“If you’re just starting, opt for things that will produce a lot in the least amount of work,” says Hlady. “Hot peppers, for example, are an easy plant; it likes the heat, isn’t too finicky, and you don’t have to constantly water it.” He advises to start planting slowly (don’t let your over-ambitious side get the better of you) and mix a few more things in your garden each year. Eventually, you will see the best of it.
Urban Farming 101 from My Edible Garden:
1. Find a sunny location in your garden, or place your container in a sunny location on your balcony.
2. Start with something easy to grow like arugula, mizuna, rapini or kale (they all grow well when planted at this time in the season and will produce continued harvest even after the frost has arrived).
3. Start small. Don’t overwhelm yourself with too much.
4. Buy organic, non-treated seeds (available at most garden centres and nurseries).
5. Spread seeds generously, using a technique called salting, whereby you sow the seeds much like you would coarse salt on your food with your fingers.
6. Planting in rows is easy and attractive, however not necessary.
7. Cover seeds with 1 cm of soil. Follow seeding instructions on the seed package.
8. Water lightly but thoroughly, as heavy watering will push the seeds further into the earth and may impede germination.
9. Keep the seeded area moist at all time, watering both in the morning and in the evening to ensure quick germination. Do not let the seedlings dry out once they have emerged (usually within 3-4 days).
10. When in doubt, ask a fellow gardener or the team at My Edible Garden – and have fun!