April 13, 2021

Tips & Tricks Learned From Our First Backyard Vegetable Garden


Last year was the first summer that I had my very own backyard vegetable garden. Yes, I planted a condo terrace container garden, but it's like comparing apples and oranges. They just don't align. While I learned so much from container gardening, I learned (and reaped) even more from the small raised bed vegetable garden. And today, I'm here to share that knowledge.

Read on to learn my tips and tricks learned from our first backyard vegetable garden - including what we'll be changing this year AND our current garden planting plan.

teaching kids about gardening

If you can remember back to the spring/summer of 2019, my family and I were living in a small 2 bedroom, 750 square foot condo. One of the mandates of all new builds in the city of Toronto is that they must have some type of 'green roof'. While the roof of our building had vegetation and community gardens, the large terraces (including our 200 square foot terrace) also had tall planters. When we moved in in spring 2018, they were planted with a variety of different perennials, including lavender. And while beautiful at first, unfortunately they also became a pollinator garden, attracting a variety of stinging insects. Not exactly ideal when this area is also the outdoor play space for your 1 year old and 3 year old. So, we decided to rip out the perennials and plant our own herb and veggie garden, while still satisfying the requirements of the condo bylaws. Long story short, you can read more about that here.

teaching children about gardening

Fast forward to spring/summer 2020. I know, many of us are probably trying to put parts of it out of our mind thanks to the global pandemic. But, for our family, we are now living in a house with a backyard! And a backyard that gets quite a bit of sun during the day, at that.

With the itch to go bigger and better, we decided to try our hand at vegetable gardening. After studying the sun for about a week, we picked a location and got to work building our 4 foot by 6 foot raised bed. 

Here's just a FEW of the tips and tricks that we learned from the whole process.

Tips & Tricks Learned From Our First Backyard Vegetable Garden

Create a Wish List

Always wanted to grow tomatoes? What about pumpkins for the fall? One of the first steps is to come up with your 'garden wish list'. What do you WANT to grow? A beginner tip - it's best to start small and simple for your first garden. And keep in mind it won't be perfect the first try. 

Of course, this wish list will quickly be approved or denied based on the size of your garden AND the light in your space. 

Map it Out

Now, it's time to determine the size of the garden you are going to have. What size can your space handle? Is it a few pots or containers? Or a larger raised bed or two? Certain plants have certain planting requirements when it comes to distance from others. Knowing the size of your space, and comparing it to your fruit and vegetable wishlist, will determine how much you can plant. For example, you will need quite a bit of space if you want to grow pumpkins or even zucchini. But, things like lettuce don't require as much space.

Have you ever heard of square foot gardening? It's the method that I use to map out my garden, and based on the name, doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what this basic concept entails. In a  nutshell, it is the use of square foot measurements to get the most out of your growing space. And it is perfect for beginners and/or small spaces. The steps are simple - build your garden bed, fill with your preferred soil, lay your grid and get planting! It is also handy to map it out beforehand (see my garden map below).

girl in vegetable garden

Location. Location. Location.

It is important to take what you WANT to grow, and determine if it is actually possible in your space. Some fruits and vegetables require more sun than others. Can you space fit their needs? 

The best way to determine this is before you plant, study your backyard. See how much sun it gets in certain areas to determine the best spot for your garden. For me, it was watching my backyard for about a week before we built our raised bed. Knowing what I wanted to plant and how much sun it needed, I determined the spot that got the most sun was right off our deck. So, that's where the raised bed went. 

Seed vs. Starter

Some plants can be grown outdoors from seed, whereas some are better off as starters. Some people enjoy starting their own seeds indoors, around March. While others prefer to buy their plants as starters. It's important to know which category you fall into. Maybe you want to do both?

My first year backyard gardening, I tried to start my seeds indoors. Key word TRIED. I quickly realized that our house doesn't get the light needed to grow seeds. AND, there is no safe space for those seeds, away from small, curious hands. While I thought I was having success because they sprouted quickly, they continued to grow and grow and grow and become too "leggy". Ultimately, I determined that they were becoming leggy because they weren't receiving enough light. They kept growing and growing to try and reach suitable light, only to fall over and die. 

So instead, I now outsource.

This year, I ordered my starters from an Ontario company called Plantables. The husband and wife duo behind the company started Plantables so that you could get the highest-quality, garden-ready plants planted, propagated and shipped straight to your door (rather than settling for the healthiest-looking plant from your nearest big box store). You are able to preoder from a variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs and select your delivery window based on your hardiness zone and planting time. Starters are only $4 each - which is extremely reasonable for locally grown - and delivery is free when you spend over $45. (*At this time, delivery is only to Ontario and Quebec.)

girl in vegetable garden
^^ The vegetable markers above were an easy DIY made using my Cricut Joy, permanent black vinyl, spray paint and paint sticks. Learn more about them here. ^^

Hardiness Zone and When to Plant

Speaking of hardiness zone - this is probably THE most important thing to know when it comes to planting your garden. 

Plants grow best when they’re planted at just the right time, and that changes from region to region. You want to ensure that you plant AFTER the last frost. And knowing when this is, means knowing your region's hardiness zone. For example, Toronto falls in Zone 6A, meaning last frost is between May 10-20. That tells me it is safe to do my planting after May 20, or the May long weekend. 

Knowing you hardiness zone also tells you what plants can grow in your area, as some are not suitable to all climates. For example, you can't grow a palm tree in a snowy climate. 

If you live in Canada, here is a website to help determine which hardiness zone you fall into. 

Pests

No matter where you live, something you will have to think about is the pests. Whether that is large hoofed animals, animals that like to dig, scavengers or insects that you can barely see with a naked eye, the pests will be different for all of us. But one thing that is the same is arming yourself with how to deal with them. Whether it be as simple as adding a fence or cover, or more complex like creating the perfect soil mixture, etc.

And yes, I do lump dogs and small hands into this category. Which is why this year I will be adding chicken wire around the entire raised bed to deter any potential destruction. 

If you're looking to minimize insect-type pests in your garden, consider companion planting. Companion planting - planting certain plants beside eachother - has a bunch of benefits. Specifically related to pests, planting in proximity to plants which produce a surplus of nectar and pollen can increase the population of beneficial insects that will manage harmful pests.

Teaching Opportunity

Whether it be fruit, vegetables, flowers or all of the above, growing a garden is the perfect opportunity to teach your children about nature and where our food comes from. Morley enjoyed helping with our condo container garden, but this time, she was all in for getting her hands, feet and every body part in between dirty. That meant digging holes for the starters, watering and harvesting (her favourite part). 

If you follow us on IG (@toandfro21), you may remember her massive sunflower garden. When the sunflowers reached peak bloom towards the end of the summer, Morley decided she wanted to give them to our neighbours, for a donation to our local dog rescue. After two sales and completely selling out in less than an hour, she raised $160 for dogs in need! I was so proud of my girl, and can't wait for more sunflowers this summer.

girls selling sunflowers

Patience

Like I mentioned before, growing your garden takes time. Like anything, there will be success and there will be failure. You won't get it right the first time. Have some patience. Make some mistakes. Learn from those mistakes. Try again next year. 

Practice makes perfect.

What We're Changing This Year

Despite some great success in our first backyard garden, we also had some great failures. And because of that, we will be changing a few things. For the most part, we're sticking to the same plan and plants, with a few tweaks. While initially I wanted to go bigger and build a second bed for the summer, I think it is best if we keep the same size for at least another year, perfect that bed and then move on to more. I don't want to bite off more than I can chew (no pun intended).

Thinning Tomatoes

One great tip I learned from a friend was about thinning your tomato plants. About half way through the summer, they started to completely take over the garden. I could barely see through them to pick the fruit. The process involves removing any "suckers" from the plant - stems and leaves that do not bear fruit. These suckers are literally sucking energy from the plant, and reducing the harvest. Once you remove these excess stems, your plant will have more energy to put towards growing fruit. Trust me, it is a scary process AND you will think you destroyed your plants with the amount of suckers you remove, but trust the process. It really works.

Spacing

While seed and starter packages give you the recommended spacing required per plant, I have found that this sometimes isn't always accurate. It is a bit of trial and error. I planted my lettuce and kale way too far apart. This summer, I will be planting them closer together to maximize the square footage in our garden, and be able to harvest more. 

Seed vs Starter

One of the plants that I started from seed (in the garden) was zucchini. The two plants grew very very quickly, but did not seem to be producing any fruit. Until the very very end of the summer, when temperatures started to drop. Compared to the starters my mom had planted, we may have harvested a total of a dozen zucchini. I considered it a bit of a fail for sure. This year, I plan to do an experiment and to see if starting the plant from seed was the issue. I will be planting one from starter and one from seed to compare the two. I will also ensure they have adequate space between them. 

Another experiment I plan to run this summer is with our sunflowers. I harvested some of the seeds from last summer's blooms and plan to plant them this summer. I will also be planting some packaged seeds. Hoping the seeds we harvested work out so that we can share the wealth with our neighbours in the future. 

Pests

While the biggest pest to our vegetables was our new pup, we did have some concerns with the sunflowers we grew. Initially, we had planted about 12 seeds in the space. Eight of which grew quick. If you've ever grown tall sunflowers before, you know their stalks are quite thick. BUT, they are no match for raccoons. Apparently raccoons LOVE chewing on stalks. And let me highlight the word chewing, because it's not like they do anything other than chew the stalk down and leave the corpse lying for you to find in the morning. Those eight quickly dwindled to three stalks. BUT, those three stalks were quite impressive when they bloomed. 

Fencing

Last but not least, we will be putting a chicken wire fence around the entire raised bed. Not for the squirrels or the raccons, but for small children and furry paws that enjoy digging in the dirt. 

What We're Growing This Year

And incase you're interested, this is what I will be growing this year:
  • Beefsteak tomatoes
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Red and yellow bell peppers
  • Kale
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Mini cucumbers
  • Zucchini
  • Green beans
  • Basil
  • Lavender
  • And a few undecided others

Here is an example of our square foot vegetable garden map. For your interest, you can download our draft garden map here
square foot gardening map

Note: Please keep in mind, these tips are just suggestions to keep in mind when planning your own garden. Each garden is unique and many factors should be considered during the planning and planting stages.

I would love to hear - do you have your own backyard fruit and vegetable garden? What do you grow? Did I miss anything important on this list?



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tips and tricks learned from our first backyard vegetable garden




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