Planning your plot
“The starting point for our urban garden was the idea of maximizing every inch of the property,” says Ricardo. “We wanted as little grass as possible in favour of raspberry bushes, tomato plants and grapevines. But the goal was also to give the RICARDO team a communal project. Employees can get their hands dirty—and having fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs at arm’s reach is a constant inspiration for our Test Kitchen.”
Whether you’re planning a sprawling garden, a rooftop installation or a couple of containers on a patio, the biggest question to answer before you start sowing should be: How do you intend to use the fruits of your labour? Do you want cherry tomatoes for your salads? Or do you need a daily supply of fresh herbs? Let your answers guide your choices, keeping in mind that in many cases, four or five types of plants will be enough: The fewer you plant, the fewer you have to take care of.
With an idea in mind of what you’re after, you’ll be able to pick the best spot to plant your garden. For example, if you hope to grow strawberries, tomatoes or carrots, an area with a minimum of six hours of daily sun exposure is recommended (this may mean some sacrificial pruning…). “You’ll have to make some compromises,” says Ricardo. “If the area doesn’t get direct sunlight, you can forget about juicy tomatoes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t plant other fruits and vegetables. And you’ll still have fun!”
Made in the shade
“It’s not impossible to grow a garden in a shady spot,” notes horticulturist Antoine Trottier. “However, you have to really like greens!” Think: leafy greens like lettuce, cabbage, arugula and herbs. Fruits? Not so much, and you can rule out root vegetables and tubers that thrive in sunlight. City homes often end up with a shaded front yard or balcony (thanks to trees, adjacent buildings, etc.) and a sunny backyard. “Take advantage of the different conditions so you can get the most out of both spaces,” recommends Ricardo. “Grow rhubarb in a container in the shade, and heat-loving fruits and vegetables where you have better sun exposure.”
Eggplant and cherry tomatoes yield excellent crops and practically grow like weeds. Other no-fail options for the urban garden include herbs, lettuce, chili peppers, Swiss chard and arugula.
Growing seedlings: Pros and cons
On the one hand, growing from seed gives you access to rare and heirloom varieties that you won’t find in garden centres. Beginning indoors will also give you a jump-start on the growing season. However, for the inexperienced gardener the results can be underwhelming—plus, the process requires some equipment and a whole lot of patience. (Not to mention that, even in the best-case scenario, there will be some loss to contend with.) Practice makes perfect, but growing from seed is not for everyone. “I have to admit I don’t grow from seed,” confesses Trottier. “I much prefer to buy plants in boxes.” Ricardo agrees: “Growing seedlings is for the truly dedicated. Having said that, growing different varieties—plants that you won’t necessarily find in your neighbour’s backyard—does make it very tempting…”
So, When should you Get started? “Whenever you want! ” says horticulturist Antoine Trottier (Below). Since the more interesting plants start popping up in markets and garden centres around mid-may, The beginning of the season is a good time to spring into action!
Gardening should be simple and affordable. When it comes to gear, all you need are containers, vegetable compost and maybe a watering can. If you’re lucky enough to have a large gardening space, we suggest investing in a hoe (to remove weeds) and a garden fork (to aerate the soil).
Buying bins and containers
Buy or DIY—that’s the question. Thankfully, (almost) anything goes when it comes to gardening bins and containers. If you’re feeling crafty, Pinterest can be pretty inspiring: You’ll find large metal cans for herbs, upcycled wood pallets for lettuce, buckets for tomato plants and recycling bins for the rest… Trottier notes that you can also make life easier by buying containers specifically made for urban gardening—like the Alternatives Container ($40; rooftopgardens.alternatives.ca), which comes with a 14-litre water reservoir that can last up to four days without being replenished. (It gets our stamp of approval as the go-to container on our rooftop.) Another excellent option? Smart Pots by Urbainculteurs are small planters made of geotextile canvas (starting from $8; urbainculteurs.org). “The advantage is that they’re inexpensive and last about eight years, but because they’re porous, frequent watering is necessary,” stresses Trottier.
If you’re blessed with space and light, growing in-ground is a possibility for most residential properties. Another option is to build a raised garden bed using a pile of soil enclosed with wooden planks and a geotextile bottom.
Last summer, Ricardo and Antoine trottier had a mission: a RICARDO media HQ Garden, Using the rooftop and the space around the building—They even planted raspberries in the parking lot! All kinds of urban gardening material was tested, from geotextile canvas (for the fig tree at left) to environmental planters and lots of bins. Their experiments paid off—this year we plan on doubling our garden space.
If you have access to vertical space (think fence, trellis or grate), use it! Heat-seeking crops like beans, Lebanese cucumbers, certain types of squashes and cherry tomatoes prove excellent climbers. The caveat? A vertical garden will likely cast shade on the ground below, so plan your surrounding areas accordingly.
While you’re away
If you’re heading out of town, an in-ground garden is unlikely to dry out. However, container gardens need a bit more TLC. If you’re going to be away for some time, it’s a good idea to ask a friend to drop by to water regularly—or invest in a watering timer. “If you’re reaching out to neighbours, offer them some of your produce in exchange,” suggests Trottier.
Choosing your bedfellows
To optimize an urban garden’s tight quarters, planting several vegetables in the same container is a good idea. The key is compatibility. Generally, you want to pair a more demanding plant (eggplant, tomato, pepper, etc.) with a leafy counterpart. Here are two examples of “companion plantings” we’ve had success with on our rooftop:
- Three onion plants in the centre flanked by a cherry tomato plant and a chili pepper plant, with a nasturtium and a marigold to attract pollinating insects and keep aphids away.
- One eggplant and one bell pepper on each side, with a cosmos in the back and a strawberry plant as ground cover.
Companion plants help each other thrive, aid with pest control and maximize the use of space. Herbs like sage, cilantro and thyme are excellent at repelling parasites—and even if they aren’t edible, flowers contribute to the good of the garden thanks to pollination. Housing the same plant family in one container means the fruits—or vegetables!—of your labour will likely be rampaged by pests.
Keeping squirrels at bay
Want your garden to feed your family, not the local squirrel population? Trottier has a few ideas. “Placing a net or wire mesh around your plants works well, and homemade cayenne pepper spray can also discourage rodents, but don’t forget to reapply after rainfall and watering. You can also try placing dampened granulated chicken manure—available at garden centres—on the soil. The smell seems to repel those furry foes.”
Trottier prefers watering in the morning, when plants need the most moisture. “Watering first thing creates a routine that’s easy to stick to.” If possible, avoid watering midday so you don’t lose excess water to evaporation; water droplets can also scorch the plants if they’re in direct sunlight. “Nighttime watering is another option, but damp leaves at night can encourage fungus problems in your garden.”