Gardening: What’s the deal and how do I get started?

Anyone noticed an increased interest in gardening and indoor grow-lights? Feeling a little left out? There’s a few reasons why the increase in all this plant talk is blowing up your social media feeds, and I’ve got a few tips to ward off that FOMO.

With the feelings of food scarcity from reduced selection at our favorite grocery stores, people are considering their food sources now more than ever. There are still plenty of options within our grasp; farmer’s markets, local grocers, local produce curators, and of course the big box stores. But our sense of control is seemingly outside of our reach, and more people are choosing to take the matter of feeding themselves and their families into their own hands.

Less extreme, and more pleasant to think about, is the fact that gardening and nurturing plants in general is really good for us. Projects give us a sense of purpose and control, working with soil exposes us to really good nutrients and sensory stimulus through our hands, and moving about in our yards, lifting and bending is basically plyometrics in a cute sun hat.

So if you want to regain a sense of control, expose yourself to a bit more wellness, or just grow and eat some tasty snacks, I’ll give you some high level tips to get started.

1. Ask yourself what you want out of your garden.

Whether it’s adding color to your space with beautiful flowers, challenging yourself to caring for something that requires a bit of science and commitment, adding food security to your current situation, giving back to your neighbors and friends through produce share, or convincing your kids to eat more vegetables, your space has to give something back to you for the amount of work you’re about to put into it.

2. Determine the production you’d like.

If you decide to build a veggie garden, ask yourself what you like to eat. Don’t grow broccoli if you or your family member won’t eat it. Don’t add variety for the sake of adding variety. If you know you’ll eat green beans and carrots until the world’s end, then buy a couple varieties of each and fill your boots!

3. Evaluate your space.

Do you have lots of room, or just a little bit of room? Gardens can be all shapes and sizes. Do you get lots of sun, just a little bit of sun, or not a whole lot of sun? There are plants to suit all of those conditions.

4. What does your access to a water source look like?

Can you hook up a hose or sprinkler? Do you need to run watering cans out of your kitchen sink? Can you hook up a hose and run it from your sink to your garden once a day, and would you mind doing that for 4 months? Match the scale of your garden to the convenience of the systems you have in place.

5. Start small. Don’t convert  your entire space into a flower bed, or vegetable garden. I guarantee it will turn into more work than you think, and you’ll lose interest faster than you gained it. If you have a yard, start with one or two 4 foot by 4 foot raised boxes and a couple of varieties of vegetables. If you have a balcony, purchase a couple of pots and see how those go. You have about a month of time that you can direct sow seeds and see a yield for the summer, so see how the first couple of weeks go, and add more later.

6. Zone and companion planting – are we still speaking English?

Once you’ve determined your commitment level, water resource and sun exposure, and amount of space you’d like to commit to your growing space, go ahead and plan out the plants you’d like to grow. Consider the plants that grow well in your zone (Calgary is Zone 3), and companion plants (you can find companion charts all over the internet). Some plants don’t get along with others in the same bed, and some plants need others to thrive. Go ahead and order seeds or pre-grown veggie/flower. Some need a head start and some can be planted directly into the soil. Do your research.

7. Beds and pots.

Raised garden beds are beneficial in a Zone 3 climate, or any climate that drops in temperature in the evening. Raise beds allow the soil to warm up more quickly than planting directly into the ground. They also allow veggies to root more successfully, which will result in larger beets, carrots, parsnips, etc.

Raised beds are relatively easy to construct; purchase untreated lumber, with cedar being the most durable option. Treated lumber will have chemicals that leach into your soil over time, which isn’t ideal for edible plants. You can find loads of how-to tutorials on Pinterest, and building your own will allow customization of size. The most ideal planter size is one where you can reach the center without reaching too hard, or without having to step on plants to access what you need. Plant multiple smaller beds, or place walking stones between crops so you protect what’s grown. Beds should be at least 8 inches high, but you can make much higher beds if you can’t sit or kneel on the ground!

Of course, you can purchase pre-fabricated garden beds at any garden centre, on, or even at Costco. All are great options.

If you don’t have quite as much space for a garden bed, pots and planters make great alternatives. You can grow almost anything in a planter or pot that you can in a garden bed, so long as you leave enough room for everything to grow. Planters can also be hung along fences or over balcony railings to maximize vertical space. Planters and garden boxes can work really well together; veggies in the box, with bright flowers in the pots to attract good bugs for pollination.

8. Soil, Compost, and Mulch; a layered effect.

Planters, pots, and garden boxes should all be filled with high quality soil. If you’re starting from scratch almost all soil will be high enough quality in the first year. Superstore has 25L bags of soil for $3.00 that work great – so you don’t need to spend an arm and a leg to fill your pots. Purchase enough compost that you can layer 2 inches on top of the soil, and mix it in. Top up your beds each year with a bit of fresh soil and some compost. Many municipalities that have organic bins as part of their waste management program will have compost giveaway days, so stay connected to city programs and announcements! Mulch should be made of natural, dye-free material, and it goes on your garden beds around your seedlings, so that the moisture and soil stay in the bed. Mulch also prevents weeds from growing to keep the maintenance down.

9. When to plant. Okay, NOW can we get going?

Starting a garden for the first time is exciting. You have your beds built, your soil in, and your seeds purchased. But you must wait until it’s warm enough, or all of your hard work and investment will be for not. You’re in the clear to plant seeds, smaller plants, and flowers after the last frost. Check weather forecasts, garden center resources, and the Farmer’s Almanac to confirm when the last frost is predicted. In Calgary, this is generally after May Long Weekend. Seeds that are planted directly in the soil can withstand a bit of frost but you’ll want to avoid planting tomato plants or anything else above ground until nightfall stays above freezing.

10. Join the community – Facebook garden groups, The Calgary Horticulural Society, and Instagram have a lot of great content and people available to ask questions to. The Farmer’s Almanac has a Pinterest page, Instagram page, website, and yearly guides to reference. As you become further connected, swap seeds and veggies with your peers. The more we share, the more positive the garden experience is for everyone!

11. Keep planning!

As you get the hang of things and your green thumb starts to glow, you’ll find niche areas that interest you, whether it be growing different varieties, permaculture, growing a better yield, or simply expanding your project. Start a wish list, journal, and take lots of pictures to share with your friends and look back on during the winter. Spruce It Up Garden Centre is a locally owned shop in Calgary that has a wish list catelog system to help you learn more about the plants that would grow well in Zone 3, and keep all the plants you’d love to add to your collection in one location.

As you can see gardening isn’t a cut and dry project, but it can also be as simple or as complicated as you make it. It’s a life-long learning and I’m still a beginner myself. Afterall, I’ve only had one season of growing my own garden, which means I’ve only done this once! Ask lots of questions, share what you know, and keep it fun.


Companion Gardening:

Farmer’s Almanac:

Calgary Horticultural Society:

Facebook: Alberta Garden & Yard Tips & Tricks

Spruce It Up Garden Centre:

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