After finding a place in a shared garden space, now what?

So, you found a plot of earth to call your own this summer and are now realizing you don’t know a thing about gardening. Don’t worry! You’ve come back to the right place. Read on for a step-by-step description of how to turn your seeds into salads.

The master plan

Begin your gardening season with the formulation of “the master plan” (deciding what you’re going to grow and mapping out where you’ve going to grow it in your plot). Start by measuring out how much growing space you have and begin eyeing out the amount of sunlight your plot receives.

The Edmonton Public Library is stocked with a huge selection of gardening books, from general how-tos to the nitty-gritty of soil science. Photo by Elyse Williams

Next, make a list of the plants you want to grow and do a little research on them. Find out what kind of growing conditions the plant requires, how much space it needs, what sort of maintenance it requires and how long they take to mature (produce fruiting bodies or vegetables). Decide which plants you will start from seed and which plants you will purchase seedlings to transplant, keeping in mind Edmonton’s relatively short growing season of about 140 days.

Finally, draw up a map of your plot and plan how you will lay out your garden. Imagine how the sun reaches the different parts of your plot and the amount of space your different vegetables, herbs and flowers will require.

Nursery visit

Now that spring has arrived, you’ll want to make at least a few visits to local nurseries, home centres and farmers’ markets to compare plant varieties, quality and price. I especially love trips to The Enjoy Centre and Greenland Garden Centre, as they have beautiful cafes in their greenhouses where you can sit and daydream about how you will win a City of Edmonton Front Yards in Bloom award, or maybe just contemplate what sort of tomatoes you will grow in the summer. Remember to bring your list of plants and plot map with you (I find this helps to prevent me from getting a little too excited with what I’m picking out).

If it’s your first season gardening or if you are trying out a new crop, don’t hesitate to discuss your master plan with other gardeners or nursery staff during your visits. Experienced gardeners have plenty of tips and suggestions and can help you pick out vegetable varieties that are suitable to the conditions in your garden.

You might also consider taking a class or workshop as part of your spring preparation. The Devonian Botanic Garden, Salisbury Greenhouse and Greenland Garden Centre have some good lists to start with, or simply search “Edmonton gardening classes” online and you’ll find plenty listed throughout the summer. Alternatively, you could volunteer at the University of Alberta’s Green and Gold Garden or Prairie Urban Farm to learn all about vegetable gardening.

Prepare your soil

This year, I’m trying a “worm tower” compost in my garden plot to help keep soil nutrient levels high. Photo by Elyse Williams

Once the ground has thawed and temperatures are beginning to warm up (late April or early May), you’ll want to turn over and mix up your soil with a shovel or rototiller. This aerates your garden and spreads out the top, nutrient-rich organic layer throughout your soil. It’s also a good idea to mix in a bit of fresh compost or manure to add nutrients to your soil, especially if you are gardening in a raised bed or containers. About one ice cream pail’s worth of compost per yard of soil should be plenty.

After you’ve refreshed your soil, you may want to try testing its pH, as different kinds of plants prefer different levels of acidity. For example, most vegetables and annual plants do not grow well in acidic soil, as the acidity prevents their roots from taking up nutrients. If you want to maximize your garden’s potential, you can treat your soil with lime, bone meal or compost to raise the pH back to a neutral level.

Get planting!

While it never really feels safe to start planting in Alberta thanks to our unpredictable weather, gardeners generally start when nighttime temperatures regularly stay above freezing (usually mid-May).

If you’re planting seeds, simply read and follow the easy instructions on the back of your seed package, making sure to space seeds and rows as directed. If you’re transplanting seedlings you started indoors or purchased at the nursery, you’ll want to “harden off” the plants (gradually expose them to outdoor temperatures, humidity and wind) by moving them outside during the day and bring them inside at night. Start hardening off your plants about one week before moving them into your garden.

It is a good idea to protect your seedlings with hoop houses or mini greenhouses at the beginning of the growing season, as your new plants can be delicate and easily damaged by harsh weather (which I feel inevitably occurs the day after I plant my garden).

Managing your garden

While some people complain that managing a garden is too much work, it’s what I think is the most fun! If you stay on top of weeds, water regularly and maintain your plants by making frequent visits to your plot, things will generally stay in control, keeping the workload light(ish).

Last year I learned the south half of my plot is quite shady, so I’ve adapted my “master plan” and will plant my tomatoes on the northern sunny half this year. Photo by Elyse Williams

The most important part of managing your garden (after watering, of course) is making sure to remove weeds while they are small, before they out-compete your vegetables. Use a shovel to dig out the whole plant, including the roots, and dispose of the plant. Don’t put weeds in your compost, as they can go to seed and show up in next year’s soil!

You will also want to fertilize your garden throughout the summer to make sure plants get all the nutrients they need to flourish. Fertilizers come in many forms (liquid, powder, etc.) and can be organic or synthetic. A balanced fertilizer of equal parts nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) is a good, basic fertilizer to start with. If you’re feeling adventurous, try using a variety of fertilizers throughout the summer, according to your crop and its growth stage. For example, fruiting crops, like tomatoes, benefit from potassium-rich fertilizers once flowers begin to appear, as it encourages more flowers and fruit formation. Leafy vegetables, like lettuce and spinach, thrive when given nitrogen-rich fertilizers.

Well-maintained plants can get so big that they may need a little support, so make sure to provide your bigger plants with cages, stakes or trellises to grow on. You may also need to “thin out” (remove) or transplant plants that are growing too close to each other. Some plants also require pruning, which will actually lead to better fruit production. Remember, keep doing your research and continue to ask your fellow gardeners questions.

If you see something strange happening in your garden, like signs of pests, disease or fungi, take a picture or bring a sample in a clear bag to the garden centre for treatment advice.

Finally, and most enjoyably, you will also want to spend lots of time dreaming up recipes and imagining the delicious meals you will soon savor.

Prepare for harvest

Go for a stroll through community gardens in July and August to see them bursting with life! Photo by Elyse Williams

Gardening does take time and effort, but your first bite into a warm tomato off the vine or garden salad made with the fruits of your labour reminds you that all your time spent digging and weeding was well worth it. Keep an eye on your produce and make sure to harvest it when fresh. If you let things go for too long, you can miss the most opportune harvest and end up with lettuce that has gone to flower (or “bolted”) or split tomatoes, so be sure to check-in on your garden regularly.

If you’re lucky, you may end up with way too much crop for yourself. Trade with fellow gardeners, share with friends and family and learn how to preserve your produce to prevent waste.

Your first season (or every season, if you’re me!) can feel a bit overwhelming as you try to figure things out. Just remember, gardening is meant to be an enjoyable and relaxing hobby. Not all of your plants are going to be bursting with life and monster-size fruits, but that’s okay! Have fun experimenting, learn as you go and enjoy the dirt under your finger nails as you grow your green thumb.

The first post in Elyse’s gardening journey, options for where and how to find shared garden space, can be read here.