The need-to-knows for growing your own fruits, veggies and herbs in Calgary and Airdrie.
There’s a lot to love about growing your own food. Whether you’re picking your first perfectly ripe tomato right off the vine or savouring the taste of a true garden salad, it’s hard not to feel a tremendous sense of gratification from a homegrown harvest done right. Plus, with grocery prices on the rise and scarcity concerns mounting, growing your own food means saving cash, enjoying fresher produce and avoiding pesticides all in one fell swoop.
Although growing in southern Alberta comes with its challenges, our sunny seasons can be kind to budding gardeners. Here, with the help of Calgary-based master gardener Abbi Singh, we’ve compiled some tips and tricks to make your garden the envy of the neighbourhood, come hail or high water.
What to grow
Foresight is key when you make the foray into home gardening. Start with what you’re looking to grow.
For beginners looking to develop their green thumb, we recommend Swiss chard, kale, carrots, beets, potatoes, spinach and green onions, all of which have a high likelihood of success. You should also consider what you’d like to avoid buying from the grocery store when planting — homegrown spinach and potatoes, for example, are often higher quality than what can be found in stores.
Another decision you’ll need to make early on is what you’ll be direct-seeding, and what you’ll be growing from starter plants. While some items, like spinach and carrots, need to be grown from seeds, items with later harvest dates — such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers — are better served by transplanting a starter plant. In these cases, you can either start growing seeds inside, or you can purchase pre-started plants from garden centres before transplanting outdoors.
Where to plant
Once you have a handle on the what, you’ll want to think about the where. Your garden will need at least six hours of direct sunlight daily, which usually isn’t an issue in sunny Calgary and Airdrie.
However, your garden’s location still requires some thought. Be sure to avoid shadowy areas, whether those shadows are cast by your own home or a neighbour’s. Planting near a fence, tree or other solid structure can help shelter your garden from looming threats like wind and hail, but be careful not to sacrifice too much light for the sake of protection.
Next, it’s time to think soil — an integral part of the growing process. “The key to gardening is the soil,” says Singh. “Once you take care of the soil, everything is going to be fine.”
The suggested mixture for a hospitable soil is roughly 60 percent topsoil, 10 percent potting soil and 30 percent high-quality compost. And, if you’re a Calgarian, you’re entitled to your fair share of compost through the City’s green cart program. Book an appointment between late April and early June on the City’s website for your pickup.
When to plant
Singh suggests waiting until after the May long weekend to plant, maintaining it’s a general Alberta gardening rule-of-thumb. But there are some exceptions.
Most greens can thrive in cold conditions. Swiss chard and kale, for example, can be planted as early as late March, while peas and spinach are safe to plant in late April. Other crops, such as zucchini, carrots and bell peppers, are better saved for June. The City of Calgary has an easy-to-follow planting chart for planting dates.
Before planting, also be sure to map out your garden. You’ll want to optimize for airflow and avoid clustering.
“Try to keep all the rows in your garden about a foot away from each other,” advises Singh, who adds that you should also be conscious of the height your crops will reach as they near maturity. Tall-growing plants can cast shade over neighbouring low-growers.
How to plant
If you’ve planned properly, this step should be a breeze. Once your garden has been dug out and your soil has been mixed, you can just dig a slight line, place your seeds in a well-spaced manner, and press them in.
For your starter plants, make sure to transplant them into moist (but not wet) soil. Dig a hole just bigger than your plant’s root ball, and about as deep, then place it in. Fill and gently tamp the surrounding soil, then soak immediately to settle the roots, eliminate air pockets and cut down on the potential of transplant shock.
Firm up the soil once seeds are sown or starters are transplanted and mark where each vegetable is with a popsicle stick or other marker. Then you’re well on your way to a happy harvest! From here on out, it’s all about growth.
When to water
Once your garden is planted, you’ll want to focus on watering. While the general gardening rule is to water until the soil is damp to a depth of five to six inches (around 13 to 15 centimetres), Singh says using your good sense can often be the best policy. “Don’t flood the garden, but also be vigilant in ensuring it doesn’t dry out,” he advises.
After planting your seeds, you may need to water daily during the germination period. Beyond that, once a week usually does the trick with regular Calgary rainfalls. Water your garden in the morning for the best results, and consider mulching around your plants to reduce evaporation from the soil.
Dealing with pests and weeds
Calgary, for the most part, is unkind to pests thanks to our cool evenings. But there are a few unwelcome visitors you’ll want to keep an eye out for.
Aphids, for example, can wreak havoc on your garden, but can be avoided through a few natural methods. Spraying with a steady stream of cold water can wipe them off your plants. Natural and organic sprays are also available, though a mild solution of water and dish soap will often do the trick.
Slugs can show up in Calgary gardens as well. Singh suggests sprinkling dry grass clippings around your plants to deter slugs if you notice them hanging around. “The dry grass makes it difficult for the slugs to get through your garden because it sticks to their bodies,” says Singh. “It’s a natural thing that keeps them away.”
Meanwhile, with weeds, knowing is half the battle. Make sure you have a solid understanding of what your growing crops look like versus what various weeds look like, and move on the weeds quickly when you see them. Removal is easiest when your soil is still moist from watering, but be sure to pull the weeds by hand to avoid disturbing your well-loved roots.
Your seeding packages should give a reference for when your plants will be ready, but knowing the unique signs for each individual crop is also essential.
For tomatoes and other fruits, wait until peak ripeness before picking from the vine or branch. Onions and potatoes will tell you when they’re ready — their foliage will die when they’re good to go.
For plants like lettuce, broccoli and spinach — where leaves, stems, roots and other vegetative parts are harvested — you’ll want to harvest just before full maturity. Singh also suggests not getting too hasty when harvesting lettuces. By just picking the outer leaves, you can allow the inner leaves to continue to grow.
After harvest, all that’s left is to enjoy the fruits (and veggies) of your labour. Be sure to savour every bite!
A word from the wise
Gardening in Calgary isn’t always easy. Even a master gardener can’t prevent a hailstorm.
Your best bet is to start with hardy, rooted plants and branch out from there. When things don’t work out, don’t be discouraged. And when they do, celebrate your victories
“Gardening should give you a real sense of satisfaction, of going out there and being delighted to see what you planted,” says Singh. “You have to be excited about it. If it feels like a chore, it’s not going to work.”