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The Edible Garden


Published: 08/01/2012

by Richard Rix

Comparatively few Toronto-area gardeners grow vegetables. Most deem their lots too small or shady for the practice and are afraid it will prove labour intensive. As well, vegetable gardens tend to be unattractive and often yield a particular crop all at once, creating a glut: there's only so much zucchini you can eat, after all.

True, vegetables can be greedy for space and need at least a half-day of full sun for good results. But they require little more care than does a rose garden and you can always share your bounty with friends and neighbours. If you stagger your plantings, you can extend the harvest period over many weeks of summer and fall. Green beans, for example, can be planted every couple of weeks from mid-May to late July, for crops lasting three months or more.

A vegetable garden also offers the opportunity to grow produce that you may not be able to buy in stores, such as heirloom tomatoes. Bear in mind too that what you buy at the supermarket isn't grown so much for its taste as for its ability to withstand a lengthy journey from the farm. What you grow will often taste much better. You are also assured that what you eat hasn't been blitzed with pesticides or force-fed with harsh fertilizers.

Most vegetables really appreciate a warm bed, for the heat encourages their roots to grow. The best way to achieve this is with a raised bed -- in other words, building the soil up about 10 cm from the surrounding area before planting.

The requirement for warmth is at odds with early season mulching, which tends to keep things cool, so you will have to rely on shallow cultivation to keep weeds in check until July. Then you may apply mulch and relax a bit.

Incidentally, building up the soil does eliminate the need to remove dirt to make room for compost, peat moss or manure. You can just pile it on and mix it up.

Water is a crucial matter. Most vegetables can endure some drought, but there is a critical period when they must not be allowed to dry out, such as when broccoli and cauliflower are setting their heads, or eggplant and tomatoes are developing fruit. As well, you must be generous, with at least 2.5 cm of water each time. Sprinkling just won't do. You have to get down at least 15 cm, so use a soaker hose rather than a spray.

Among the easiest vegetables to grow are tomatoes, lettuce, carrots and beans. Each has a distinctive growth habit but they share a common characteristic: the faster they grow the better. In fact, this is true of most vegetables. You need to feed them well and cultivate often to encourage the most rapid growth of their edible parts, for best flavour and texture. This is why they tend to need lots of space, though you can plant more closely if you intercrop (such as lettuce with squash or beets with spinach) and provide the right nutrients. This usually translates as higher amounts of phosphorous and potassium than nitrogen, such as is the case with 4-12-8 fertilizer.

Tomatoes are perhaps the most popular vegetable grown in the Toronto-area garden (or, more accurately, the most popular plant that is grown as a vegetable, since they are actually a fruit). They don't take up a lot of space for their yield and are easy to grow, requiring little more than frequent watering and the occasional feeding with specially formulated tomato food.

One thing you should learn, however, is correct pruning of the tomato plant as it starts to grow vigorously and bear fruit. This consists mainly of pinching off the sucker growth that appears between the stem and the main leaves. Of all the vegetables you can grow, the tomato is probably best suited to container growing on patios and balconies, just so long as the container is at least 30 cm wide.

We mentioned earlier that the vegetable garden can be unattractive, but the situation may be improved by intercropping with such flowers as marigolds and nasturtiums. As well, flowers can serve as decoys, luring pests away from your crop.

Of course, vegetables are quite susceptible to pest damage, such as is caused by caterpillars, slugs, hornworms and maggots, so do keep a sharp lookout for them and deal with them appropriately. This will often involve hand-picking them rather than relying on pesticides, which are seldom effective without direct contact and are potentially harmful to ingest.

A few other pointers: cabbages and peas are two plants that don't like hot weather and should be planted out as early as possible. When sowing small seeds such as carrot, first mix them with fine sand before sprinkling them along the prepared bed. That way, they will be sown more evenly.

If you have a lot of lettuce coming to maturity at once, pull some of the plants out of the ground, roots and all, leave them in the shade for an hour, and replant them. They will survive, but the shock will prevent them from bolting and becoming inedible.

For a truly appealing combination, try growing runner beans up sunflowers, though you have to get the sunflowers started a few weeks earlier. You can plant two to three beans around each sunflower (not too close, for its roots will spread) and get great results.

Finally, a couple of stories have stuck with me regarding vegetables grown in Toronto gardens. One old-timer wanted to grow potatoes but simply did not have the room to do so. However, his garden backed onto a Hydro right of way, which he encroached upon for years. He grew the best potatoes there that anyone ever tasted.

Then there's the father of a friend who brewed his own beer. He used the spent hops and other by-products as fertilizer for his vegetables. The story goes that he kept half the street stocked with produce and the other half happily inebriated! So, which half would you choose to be in?


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