The best time to start a garden was many years ago, and the next best time is now.

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Photo: Sonja Seher

Vegetable gardening is a bit of a lost art in the 21st century. Where just a couple of generations ago most households kept a garden, less than half of British Columbians grow any of their own food today. Yet interest in gardening has been on the rise, especially with the supply-chain disruptions and rising food costs of recent years. Despite that interest, however, many potential gardeners cite “not knowing enough” as a reason why they don’t try to grow their own food. So if you’d like to grow, but don’t feel like you know enough, where do you begin?

Photo credit: Trixie Pacis

First, grow what’s easy
Like most Canadians, we suffer from a short growing season: too few days where the weather is warm and the sun is high in the sky. And it is especially hard to grow in the mountains, mainly due to our cold nights. We have fewer frost-free months, and even in the hottest summer, we can sometimes have a day-to-night temperature swing of 20°C. Plants, especially root and fruit-bearing plants, don’t like that. They need warm temperatures to maintain continuous metabolism throughout the day, and when it gets too cool, they switch off. Then it takes them much of the day to wake up and get growing again. 

If you fancy greens of any kind — spinach, kale, chard, lettuces — they are an excellent choice. Not only do they grow well in cooler climates, but they grow quickly. You can be making a baby greens salad or smoothie in as little as 30 days from planting! Plus, you can grow them in pots or planters on your deck or sunny windowsill. If you only take the biggest leaves, or cut the tops off and leave an inch or two at the bottom to regrow, you’ll get several harvests off them before they get woody or bitter. Plus, they are high-value produce… think of how many $8 clamshells of spinach you won’t have to buy.

Second, grow what you like.
If you have a favourite herb, or you really like tomatoes or squash or beans, start with that. Do a little research into things like: How long does it take to grow (‘mature’)? Do we have a long enough season to plant it from seed, or should I purchase seedlings? Does it grow well indoors or outdoors? Warm or cool? Full sun, partial shade, or dappled light? Then find the supplies you need and give it a go. 

Third, keep your expectations realistic.
That is, keep them small. How much space do you have? More importantly, how much time do you have? Once you get used to the rhythms of growing, gardening doesn’t have to be overly time-consuming. But it does take some effort to build and learn to maintain a garden, so starting small with a single ground or raised bed is a good way to keep you from getting frustrated and overwhelmed. Even one or two plants on a windowsill can be enough to begin with. To rework an old adage, “the best time to start a garden was many years ago, and the next best time is now”.

Finally, approach your gardening as a learner. 
Gardening is, above all, a lifelong learning process of experimentation. There are no masters, only students. If you start small, with plants that you like, you can grow along with them. As you troubleshoot issues throughout the lifespan of your plants, you will build a lot of very transferable knowledge (think water, sun, soil, and so on) and problem-solving tools for your future projects. Have a talk with the folks at Top Crop. Stop by the Kimberley Community Garden or the Cranbrook Public Produce Garden, or visit the Kimberley Edible Gardens & Greenhouse (KEGG) up in Townsite, and get your hands in the dirt alongside people who know a thing or two. If you approach gardening with the humility and curiosity of a learner, your confidence will grow.

Photo credit: Unknown

Bonus Tip:
Ground soils are notoriously poor and rocky in a lot of our yards in this area. If you want to build a garden bed and save money by not buying (too much) soil, you can use this strategy: 

  • Dig a shallow outline or place a layer of cardboard over the footprint of your planned garden bed to suppress and destroy the weeds and grass underneath.
  • Put down a thick layer of dead leaves — there are lots of them laying around, half-decayed right now! —  and mix them with as much compost and vegetable cuttings as you can find (the pile will decompose and compress over time).
  • Put on a top layer of soil, as thick as the depth your plants’ roots will go.

The first year of growing might produce mixed results, but as you add supplements over the seasons and the bugs and microbes go to work breaking down all that organic matter, the whole mess will transform into a rich deep soil.

Interested in getting that hands-on experience? Connect with Chad, the Sustainability Coordinator at the Kimberley Community Garden.