Having grown up in a big family with a half-acre garden, I am partial to very fresh produce. Our gardens provided most of our vegetables for the entire year, and many memories: chasing my siblings down endless rows of corn, hand-picking potato beetles off the dark green leaves and plopping cherry tomatoes warmed by the sun directly into my mouth. My transition from a rural oasis to city living made it difficult to find the space to grow fresh produce and enjoy it at its nutritional peak. So, when I heard about a community garden sponsored by UHN in my neighborhood, our family of two was thrilled to have the opportunity to make new memories with neighbors and once again get our gardening on!
With a background in education and research, I approached our assigned 8’ x 3’ raised bed, one of 16 beds in the garden, as an experimental space. I had two questions:
- How much food can we grow in this space?
- How many different plants can we grow in this space?
Well, it turns out that we were able to grow quite a bit, just over 15kg. Fifteen kilograms may not sound like a lot, but this was mostly in the form of lightweight greens and herbs. That is equivalent to having over 25 small containers of salad greens per month – all organic! We harvested everything from kale to lemongrass from early July to early November with more than two dozen different plants thriving in our 24 square foot space.
The square foot gardening method was used to grow as much food as possible while decreasing the need for watering and weeding which also lowers the risk of plant diseases. Square foot gardening separates the bed into 1 ft. squares to create very productive gardens in small spaces. Our goal was to have fresh produce for as many months as possible with a high nutritional value. Having a garden space gave us the option to decrease the amount of processed food being consumed while increasing the amount of organic produce in our diet. For this reason, we planted mostly greens and herbs to give maximum variety and maximum nutrient content per gram. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy the fresh scent of basil when digging into a summer salad?
A visit to the local Toronto Seed Library, seedlings from nurseries and some seed exchanges with family provided the beginnings of our garden. By the third week of May, we had peas, beans, kale, celery, arugula, mint, thyme, and oregano planted. Some seedlings and seeds were lost due to the relentless neighborhood squirrels who apparently thought the community gardens were created just for them. A fellow gardener installed a motion sensor with a light to deter the squirrels, but it disturbed the neighbors more than the furry diggers. As a result, some seeds needed to be replanted. After this, the seedlings seemed to stop growing with the lower leaves turning yellow. I didn’t understand why even the beans were turning yellow. A quick internet search indicated that the soil pH was probably too alkaline. Another search showed how to use baking soda and vinegar for a simple soil test for pH. After adding vinegar to a soil sample from our garden bed, the massive fizzing that resulted, meant our soil was definitely too alkaline. Another search suggested pouring a mix of a cup of vinegar in a gallon of water over the garden with a watering can. The addition of the diluted vinegar turned the leaves from yellow to green within a couple days. Phew – problem solved. Our stunted seedlings were now reaching for the sky.
Starting in the first week of July, we began harvesting bok choy, kale, arugula, peas and beans. We were able to continue harvesting enough greens about every three days to the point where we did not buy any produce for salads until mid-November. The plants were producing more than we could eat in a week, so we were able to cook and freeze or preserve the excess in the form of pesto, celery and nasturtium soups, Italian seasoning cubes, pickled nasturtium seeds (taste a bit like capers), nasturtium butter, green tomato chutney, beet juice cubes for drinks, cooked Asian greens and a variety of other dishes. Our freezer was full, and we were eating freshly picked organic produce every day.
It is now February with a bit of snow on the ground this morning. Our windowsill has thriving basil, purple basil, Thai basil, thyme, chili and garlic chives that were all moved inside from the garden to keep over the winter and our freezer is still providing healthy produce from the bounty of our 8 x 3 square foot garden.
Gardening is a feast for the senses. Though it’s winter, this is the perfect time to share seeds with family, friends, neighbors and make a plan for growing as much fresh produce as we can in the space we have. For 2023, I wonder if even more space can be found in Toronto to grow a more sustainable future for all?
Dig deeper with these links
Garden Soil Testing includes pH
The Pros and Cons of Square Foot Gardening
And how it all began, back in 2021…