It’s quite easy to veg out

Author Steven Biggs says throw out the rules and have fun

Are you a little green in the veggie-growing department? It can be intimidating if you’re a newbie, but starting and maintaining a vegetable garden needn’t be a major science project.

Toronto gardening expert Steven Biggs, co-author the new No Guff Vegetable Gardening that’s hitting the shelves of indie book stores and Sheridan Nurseries locations, says you can have a no-nonsense approach to gardening whether a novice or a pro.

Biggs’ philosophy is that you can make gardening a whole lot less stressful by simply getting over all those gardening rules floating around out there.

1) Don’t test your soil

So many books instruct you to test your soil before starting a garden, but Biggs says it’s not necessary.

“A print-out with numbers probably won’t mean anything to gardeners,” he says. “It adds this layer of complexity you don’t need in a backyard garden.”

If you’re worried about contamination, by all means, get it tested; otherwise, use the soil you have and if you feel it needs to be improved, add compost and manure, he says. And don’t assume that certain soils are bad either. Clay, for instance, isn’t as bad as you may think.

“I’d rather have a clay soil than a sandy soil.”

Clay, he goes on, can hold water and nutrients. If you need to, lighten it up with some compost or mulch.

2) Where to plant?

Figure out where you have the most sun, Biggs says, as most crops like lots of rays. Many experts say you need full sun, but as long as you have at least six hours of sunlight you should be okay. Some crops — like parsley or leafy greens — do better in cooler, less sunny areas.

3) How to make a garden bed

A lot of people think they have to have raised beds, says Biggs, but that’s simply not the case. Raised beds can be good as they drain more quickly and warm up faster in the spring, but that will also mean you’ll have to water them more. You also don’t have to frame your bed in wood, something Biggs and his co-author Donna Balzer object to on an aesthetic basis. With a flat spade you can cut an unframed, ground-level bed right out of the turf.

4) When to plant?

Start making your garden beds and planting as soon as the ground thaws. And don’t stress about getting everything in the ground at once. Biggs says many people think the entire garden has to be planted the May 24 weekend, but you can garden all summer long by succession planting. Plant the veggies that grow all summer — like parsnips — as soon as you can, and keep harvesting certain plants — like celery and parsley — past the frost.

5) What to grow?

Keep it simple: grow what you like, especially if your backyard or growing space is limited.

Try not to grow too much of one thing, as then it definitely won’t grow on you.

“I grew too many parsnips one year,” Biggs says. “I made parsnip wine and it was revolting.”

Growing one thing new every year is also a good idea. Biggs makes his choice eclectic, so the kids will enjoy it. These are what he calls Wow crops, which can even be good options for you to dedicate your garden to.

“If you have limited space, grow something you can’t find in the store.”

6) Don’t stress about transplants

A postscript on what to grow: there’s no shame in buying transplants (ready-grown plants), Biggs says.

“Some people feel they have to start everything from seeds,” he says. “Don’t feel you have to do everything.”

Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, which take a longer time to grow, can easily be bought as ready-grown plants and planted. Meanwhile it makes sense to plant the seeds of plants that grow easily and quickly, like peas, carrots, lettuce and beets.

7) Blocks versus rows?

You needn’t plant the traditional long, straight rows with a lot of space between them, he says. A square metre block takes up less space, and, because there’s not all that space between rows, there’s less room for weeds to grow.

“In more open spaces, weeds tend to hang out.”

8) When to water?

There’s no simple answer to that. Plants in containers will need to be watered more, Biggs says. With the rest, simply stick your hand in the soil. If it’s moist, good; if it’s bone dry; bad. Take it from there.

9) Don’t aim for perfect

Last word: Biggs advises not fretting the details too much, as something will always come up.

His philosophy: “Vegetable gardening is detox for perfectionists.”

Four backyard Wow crops Biggs says are sure to please

• Beans: Pole beans or bush beans; purple, plain Jane green beans or yellow beans. Grow a variety and serve ’em up raw on a veggie platter — then stand back and watch the kids eat all their veggies.

• Ground cherries: Technically a fruit, these tomato-like cherries taste like fruit too and can be served as a dessert. They’re easy to grow and you don’t see them in the store often.

• Mexican gherkins: They’re the size of a thumbnail but the kids love them and they’re easy to grow. They’re similar in taste to a cucumber but more tart. The skin is thin enough that you don’t need to peel them.

• Tomatoes: not the ones you get in the stores. There are endless, and quite unusual, varieties out there from green striped tomatoes you can bite into like an apple to small pear-shaped yellow ones.


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Posted: May 11 2011 1:17 pm
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Edition: Toronto
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