A Vancouver gardener finds space in small-town Ontario

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I have to start the majority of my warm season/ full season crops in the kitchen under lights. Last year I had 30 broccolis, and 52 tomato plants in my kitchen between late January and May. For the latter part of the time I diligently dragged them all outside into the tunnel for the day to begin the hardening off process and then would drag them all back in at night.

How Ontario gardeners start the spring. Photo by Danie McAren.

Q: What are the biggest differences between gardening in Vancouver and in Ontario?

A: Planning ahead is absolutely crucial here. You simply can’t get outside in February and direct seed a garden bed like I was doing in BC. You have to start transplants if you want to grow a lot of food. Having enough space to do that is something I could see as the biggest challenge for urban farmers here. Unless you buy your seedlings, which is a great solution, but then you miss out on the fun of watching seeds come to life.

Q: How have your agricultural studies changed the way you grow food?

A: I wouldn’t say that they have changed the way I grow so much as they have given me more tools for problem solving. I know more about diseases and insects, and plant nutrition. 

The hoop house full of tomatoes and peppers. Photo by Danie McAren.

Q: What’s the biggest gardening mistake you’ve made?

A: Definitely the biggest mistake I have made is assuming that if my plants aren’t doing well it is because they are lacking something. So my first instinct was always more water, more fertilizer, more light. More often than not all that “more” just did more harm.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you have for an aspiring gardener or farmer?

A: #1 PLAY. There is no better way to get started than to just get out there and even if you have two feet to grow in, plant it up. Get to know what plants you like to grow, and get to know your soil. A note on soil: don’t be discouraged if your garden is failing, it might not be you. Explore your soil well, feel it for moisture, turn it over and look for pests, rub it between your fingers, check how it crumbles. All of that tells a story and you need to know that to be successful.

#2 ASK. This is always a hard one for me. I tended to shy away from asking fellow gardeners how to grow, assuming their knowledge was like a secret sauce recipe that they would never share. I was so wrong. If you have a neighbour who grows amazing tomatoes, go ask them to show you how they do it. Don’t be afraid to call up specialists at universities or garden centres if you have problems either.

Lastly, please talk to farmers. I went to a kitchen table meeting through the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (a group to know out here - they have so many excellent workshops). I told everyone I was only starting out and the storytelling began. By the end of the meeting I had heard about all of their rookie mistakes so I could avoid them, the ways they grew that were working for them, and I had contacts to ask questions of in future.

Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and Houzz.com gardening contributor. She blogs about urban food gardening at http://abundantcity.net.

The hoop house full of tomatoes and peppers. Photo by Danie McAren.

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