Have you ever thought about planting a garden in your backyard? Perhaps you’ve been too scared to try. After a few incidents of killing your houseplants and not knowing where you went wrong, it’s easy for any first-time gardener to feel defeated and like throwing in the towel. It’s true that there is some maintenance involved with gardening and probably a thing or two to learn, too — but with the right crops and an expert’s opinion, there’s no reason why you can’t be successful.
With the help of Steve Giampa, our resident Empire gardener, we’re giving you a fool proof guide to planting veggies for the first time — covering everything from beginner crops to helpful tips and tricks.
Meet Steve and Courtney
Steve is the Senior Graphic Designer at Empire Communities. He and his wife live in Barrie, Ontario, and spend their summers in the garden with their two cats, Penny and Randy. Over the past 3 years, they have converted their backyard into a garden that they can share with their friends, family and neighbours. Follow their Instagram page @GiampaFarms to stay up to date on their latest crop arrivals as they share their journey of growth and discovery.
Lettuce & Leafy Greens
Lettuce is a fantastic green to add to any garden. Most varieties prefer shadier spaces which makes them a great addition to covered areas or balcony pots. The beauty of lettuce is that the more you harvest off of the plant, the more vigorously they grow. “Four plants provided more than enough lettuce for salads throughout the entire season,” says Steve.
Tip: “When lettuce or other leafy greens begin to flower, otherwise known as bolting, the leaves will get bitter and unfortunately the life of the plant as an edible is coming to an end. By harvesting larger and mature leaves often, you will encourage growth and prevent early bolting in the season,” Steve says.
Common problems: If lettuce plants get too hot or too much sun, they can bolt early which means you’ll have to re-plant before the end of the season. Make sure to keep them in a shadier spot, especially in hot climates or seasons.
Larger beefsteak tomatoes and their smaller cherry varieties are surprisingly easy to grow. Tomatoes do require a bit more maintenance when it comes to staking or tying branches to a cage or trellis, but the fruits of your labour are bound to be delicious and plentiful. If you feel like trying something new, you can explore pruning your tomato plants to encourage fruit growth and new flower sites to mature.
Tip: “Tomatoes do best when they’re grown directly into the ground but they can also perform really well in a large enough pot. In this case, the bigger the pot, the better it is for your crop — great harvests start with healthy roots and tomato roots appreciate some space,” says Steve.
Common problems: “Blossom end rot (BER) appears when your tomatoes are not getting enough calcium from the soil. BER is exacerbated by drought conditions as the plant is unable to transport calcium to the fruit. You’ll notice the bottom of your tomatoes become soft and begin to rot over time before they are ripe. As a remedy, try adding some organic calcium supplements to your soil at first sight of BER, watering thoroughly and letting the soil dry in between. Gaia Green’s Gypsum is our personal product of choice.”
Beans are a great addition to your home garden. While there are a variety of beans that you can grow, there are two main types — bush and pole. What’s the difference you ask? Well, bush beans grow more compact and don’t stretch much higher than a couple feet, whereas pole beans grow vines that will climb as high as you let them. For Steve and his wife, their go-to is a variety called “Blue Lake Bush” which grows vigorously in part shade and produces buckets of sweet beans that are just as tasty freshly picked and they are raw. Experiment with multiple varieties to find out which cultivar you like best.
Tip: Beans are “nitrogen fixing” crops which means they will actually add nitrogen back into your soil over the season. This makes them excellent to be planted with other leafy greens which will feed heavily on nitrogen to grow.
Common problems: Many varieties of beans are susceptible to funguses that can cause leaf and stem issues in the plant. Most commonly you will notice your leaves “rusting” and becoming dry, curled and brown. To prevent fungus and mold, make sure you plant in an area that receives a breeze which will help promote airflow through the leaves and vines of your beans.
Radish is an incredible root vegetable to add to any garden. According to Steve, “they finish growing as fast as 30 days from when they’re planted and add an incredibly peppery flavour to salads.” Depending on the variety, radishes can be large and sweet or small and peppery. Do some research on the different varieties or try multiple types. It’s important to keep lots of radish seeds on hand as you will be re-sowing often and harvesting just as frequently.
Tip: Make sure to keep your watering consistent — fluctuations of very wet soil to extremely dry soil can cause the radish to split in the ground or stunt its growth.
Common problems: Planting too densely can result in tiny radishes with more leaves than root. Once they sprout, thin out your radishes 1-2 inches between plants so they have ample room to plump up underground.
Zucchini is an incredibly easy crop to grow right from its seed. According to Steve, its leaves will get very large so be sure to plan for up to 3 feet of space around these monstrous plants.
Tip: “Unless you have lots of squirrels and rabbits in your area, 2-3 plants of zucchini should suffice and will allow you to save space for other vegetables in your garden,” says Steve. According to him, one plant produces a surprising amount of fruit so make sure that you use the extra space for more variety.
Common problems: The most common issues that gardeners have with zucchini are pests and powdery mildew (PM). Unfortunately, according to Steve, “there’s not much that you can do to prevent pests from taking little bites out of your young zucs’ or stealing the entire flower off the plant. If your backyard has lots of squirrels or other ground pests like rabbits or mice, planting more seeds may increase the chances of you enjoying at least some of your crop.” To combat powdery mildew, you can thin out your plants to promote better airflow and try not to let water sit on its leaves.
Helpful Tips & Tricks
The soil in your garden is the single most important factor that determines how productive and healthy your plants are. Make sure you mix plenty of compost into your soil to properly feed the plants that will live there. Avoid using topsoil for filling your gardens and opt for a triple mix instead — you can also add compost and peat to your topsoil to create your own. At the end of the season, leave the roots of your plans in your garden. The roots from your previous season will compost down and feed microbes in your soil. These microbes will break down organic material into available nutrients for next year’s crop.
Fertilizing isn’t entirely necessary in your vegetable garden, provided that your soil is healthy and rich in nutrients. If you feel that your garden could use a boost, Steve recommends to use an organic fertilizer as a top dressing to your soil. “A wonderful all-purpose organic fertilizer that we use in our pots and gardens is Gaia Green’s 4/4/4 All Purpose. With any amendments, always make sure to follow the directions from the manufacturer and if in doubt, a little goes a very long way.”
Some of the most common issues new gardeners have with their plants, especially potted plants, is under-watering or over-watering. Learning to let your plants tell you what they want is going to take some practice and patience, but a good rule of thumb for pots is to water thoroughly and let the top inch of soil — about 1 knuckle deep — dry out before watering again. Too much water in the soil can promote root rot and unhealthy plants. Unfortunately, the symptoms of over-watering are similar or sometimes identical to that of under-watering so it can be difficult to diagnose. Following a watering routine like the one outlined above should help control moisture in your soil and promote healthy root systems in your plants.
Create Your Own Garden Beds
Making a garden bed at home is very easy and only requires a few tools and a bit of planning. Read below for Steve’s step by step process on how to make them all on your own:
What you need:
1. Lumber: For one 3×8′ garden bed at a height of 12″, you’ll need four 8′ boards and two 6′ boards. To join the side lengths together to get a height of 12″, we used some lengths of 1×2. Lastly, you’ll need a few corner braces to join your four corners. We used 1×1 stakes but you can use any scrap wood or even some 2×4 pieces, too. If you chose to use pressure treated wood, check with your lumber supplier which method is used to treat the wood. Some methods that are still used today can leach toxic runoff into your soil. Pressure treated lumber will last longer but you’re unsure about the safety of the treatment, use an untreated wood instead.
2. Screws: Any galvanized decking screws will work well — just make sure that their length is appropriate for the lumber that you’re using. You can also use nails if you prefer.
3. Tools: You’ll need a measuring tape to measure your cuts, a saw to cut your boards and a drill to drive your screws.
1. Make your cuts: For a 3×8′ garden bed, you’ll need four 3′ boards for the ends of the bed so cut both of your 6′ boards in half. Measure and cut two 2′ lengths and two 6-7′ lengths of 1×2 to join your side boards together. Lastly, if you need to cut down your corner braces, make sure you do that as well.
2. Join your side boards: Place two of your 8′ boards beside each other on a flat working surface with a 6-7′ length of 1×2 running down the middle of the two boards. Fasten the 1×2 to the boards to hold them together using screws. Repeat this process for the remaining 8′ section and your two 3′ sections as well.
3. Join your sides to the corner braces: Fasten one corner piece to a length of one of the finished sides at the end of the section using screws. Repeat this for the other ends of both side sections. Next, place the end sections up against this piece at a 90 degree angle and fasten it with screws. Repeat this with the other ends of both sections.