A Guide to Growing Food in the City

As interest in locally-grown food continues to grow, more residents and community groups are exploring ways to create productive gardens in backyards, balconies, schools and parks across Toronto. This guide was created to support you in those efforts.

In addition to providing much-needed food, urban gardens provide opportunities for fun, education, exercise and community building. With a little soil, sunlight and water, food can be grown just about anywhere. Let’s get started!

The videos below can help you get started with a container or balcony garden. Hint: Click on three bars in the upper right corner of the video to see the full playlist.

Container Gardens

It’s easy to grow food in containers on your balcony or patio. You can use everything from buckets, barrels, bushel baskets to plastic bins.

Tips for container gardens:

  • Good drainage is essential, so make sure there’s a drainage hole in your containers – you can poke or drill a hole if needed.
  • Water frequently, most will need water every day. Container plants dry out faster than plants in the ground.
  • Buy potting soil that is lightweight and specially formulated for containers, otherwise, they can be difficult to lift and move. Add some compost.

Suitable fruits and vegetables include:

  • salad greens
  • bush beans
  • garlic
  • pole beans
  • peas
  • mint
  • cauliflower
  • thyme and oregano
  • tomatoes

Tip: Fertilize tomato plants and other heave-feeders with compost tea or manure tea at least once a week. To make the tea, place equal amounts of compost or manure and water in a bucket and let it steep for a day. You can also purchase liquid kelp or fish emulsion.

Small Gardens

Small gardens are ideal for:

  • low-growing herbs, such as thyme and oregano
  • carrots, radishes and other vegetables that don’t take up much space
  • vegetables that grow tall, such as corn and beans

A little planning up front can help you get most out of your small garden. For example, once you harvest an early crop, such as radishes, you can plant cucumbers in the same spot for a fall harvest.

Larger Spaces

Plant in rows with paths between rows for easy access while watering and weeding. Use wood chips on paths to prevent weeds from sprouting

Spaces in Between

Plant a mix of tall-growing vegetables, such as beans and tomatoes, with lower growing cucumbers and peppers. Grow berry shrubs in a sunny spot for fruit throughout the summer.

Squash, melons, cucumbers and pumpkins grow on vines, some of which can be trained up walls and fences or allowed to sprawl along the ground.

On a Window Ledge

Long and narrow window boxes are perfect for a herb garden filled with basil, oregano and parsley or even mixed salad greens. Simply snip off leaves from the outside of the plant and they’ll continue to grow week after week.

Up on a Wall

With strings for support, you can grow climbing vegetables — such as beans and cucumbers — up the sunny side of your house, fence, trellis, apartment building or garage.

On a Roof

Flat, accessible roofs are perfect for pots of vegetables and herbs. Soil will dry out very quickly on a sunny roof, so be sure to water frequently.

Community Garden or Allotment Garden

Start or join a community garden, or you can rent a plot in one of the City’s allotment gardens for a small fee. Talk with your neighbours to learn if others in your community are interested in starting a community garden in a local park. To find out how to start a community garden, visit the City’s website: toronto.ca/community-gardens, or call 311 to find a garden near you.

Backyard Sharing Program

More and more community organizations are starting backyard sharing programs, matching up people who have extra gardening space with those who are looking for a place to grow food. Contact your local community centre to see if there’s a backyard sharing program in your neighbourhood — or start one!

 

Plant your favourite vegetables and fruits. Here’s a quick guide to what grows well where:

Shade-Tolerant

These plants will tolerate some shade

  • lettuce
  • arugula
  • bok choy
  • beets
  • kale
  • parsnips
  • spinach
  • radishes
  • garlic
  • peas
  • parsley
  • rhubarb

Sun Lovers

Some fruits and vegetables require a lot of sun, about 6 hours a day. These include:

  • tomatoes
  • peppers
  • okra
  • squash
  • zucchini
  • cucumbers
  • herbs such as basil, oregano, thyme

If you want a garden that is both productive and beautiful, remember that many vegetables are also attractive plants in their own right. The flowers of eggplant and okra, for example, will brighten up any garden.

Edible Flowers

Edible flowers can add a bit of flair and colour to any plate. They include:

  • daylilies
  • nasturtiums
  • violets
  • borage
  • hyssop
  • lemon verbena

Fruits

Some fruit trees, such as cherry, peach, fig and plum, require more care than others, such as apples and pears.

The easiest fruits to grow include:

  • strawberries
  • raspberries
  • currants
  • gooseberries
  • blackberries

Tips:

  • Grape vines can be trained to grow on fences, arbours and trellises.
  • For small city gardens, look for dwarf varieties of fruit trees.
  • Apple, cherry and pear trees need to be cross-pollinated to produce fruit. If there isn’t already another tree nearby, plant two trees.

Seeds

For best results, read the label on the seed packet for information about planting depth, spacing and time to plant.

  • Some tiny seeds, such as lettuce and carrots, need to be scattered on the soil surface with only a very thin layer of soil covering them.
  • Other seeds, like peas and beans, need to be planted deeper.
  • Water all seeds gently after planting.

Seed-Sharing Events

Seed-sharing events are held across Toronto each year, beginning in late February. These events are a great place to find a wide variety of seeds, including hard to find heritage varieties, and get advice from gardening experts.

For more information on seed-sharing events, visit the Toronto Community Garden Network.

Heritage Seeds

Vegetable grown from heritage seeds are prized for their unique flavours. Gardeners have saved and shared these seeds for decades and they are sometimes difficult to find commercially.

Seedlings

Young seedlings can be planted in the spring, as soon as the soil warms up and the danger of frost has passed.

To plant, dig a hole that’s slightly larger than the pot the seedling is in. Gently sprinkle water into the hole, then plant the seedling at the same depth as it was when growing in the pot. Firmly press the soil around the seedling, and water well.

Keeping seedlings healthy
To avoid damping-off, a disease that sometimes affects young seedlings, follow these tips:

  • using a sterile potting soil;
  • leave space between your seedlings for air circulation; and
  • water seedlings until they are moist, not soaked

Seeds or Seedlings?

Starting plants indoors from seeds can be more time-consuming than buying young seedlings, but seeds are cheaper and offer more variety.

Planting seedlings directly into a prepared garden bed is an easy way to start a food garden.

Some seeds, such as tomatoes and peppers, can be started indoors in early spring. You’ll need a sunny, warm place, such as a south-facing window, or a shelf fitting with grow lights, which you can buy.

Other seeds, such as peas, beans and lettuce, can be planted directly in the ground in the spring.

Preparing Your Garden

In the spring, before you plant, take a few minutes to:

  • remove weeds, including roots
  • add and dig in lots of compost or  manure
  • break up big clumps of soil

How to Start a New Garden

If you want to convert an existing area into a vegetable garden, it’s easy to dig up grass and dig in compost.

An even easier no-dig method involves preparing the bed in the fall. Simply cover the area with a layer of newspapers (about 10 sheets thick), add a layer of dead leaves (up to 6 inches thick), and add a layer of compost to stop the leaves from blowing away.

Then, sit back and relax. The newspapers and leaves will decompose enough over the winter that you can simply plant right through them in the spring.

Preparing for Winter

  • Remove stalks and dead foliage. Chop them up and put them in your compost bin. Place any diseased plants or excess dead foliage in paper yard-waste bags and put them out at the curb on yard-waste collection days.
  • Dig lots of compost into your garden.
  • Collect dead leaves and spread them in a thick layer over your cleared vegetable bed. It’s not necessary to chop them up first – worms will gradually work the dead leaves into the soil.
  • Have a good long look at your garden, and think about what worked well and what you’d like to change for next year. Keep notes!

Plants will do best in soil that is full of nutrients, loose rather than compact, and high in organic matter.

Check Your Soil

  • Find out what kind of soil you have: Scoop up a handful of moistened soil and squeeze it into a ball. If it holds together in a tight ball, it’s high in clay. If it breaks apart and doesn’t hold its shape, it’s high in sand. If it holds together in a loose ball and then starts to break apart, it is loam, the ideal garden soil.
    • Clay soil tends to drain poorly and can become hard and compacted – add compost to improve it.
    • Sandy soil doesn’t retain water or nutrients and dries, out quickly – adding lots of compost will help.
    • Ideal soil is a mix of sand, silt and clay. No matter what type of soil you have, you can improve it by regularly adding compost.

More About Compost

  • Dead leaves, weeds, grass clippings and kitchen scraps (except meat, fish, dairy, oils) can be recycled into compost. Simply layer these materials in a compost bin and, over time, they’ll decompose or break down into a rich, sweet-smelling compost.
  • Keep your compost bin as moist as a well-wrung-out sponge and turn over materials to add air to the pile, regularly.
  • Never add diseased plants to your compost.

Tip: Free compost is available from the City. Call 311 for more information.

 

Mulch

Mulch is any material you place on top of soil around your plants to conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and moderate soil temperatures.

Organic materials such as dead leaves, grass clippings, shredded bark, compost and wood chips make great mulches. As they break down, they’ll also enrich the soil.

Apply mulch around — but not touching — young seedlings in early summer when the soil is warm and young plants are at least 3 inches high.

Watering

Fruits and vegetables will need to be watered frequently. Young plants are especially vulnerable to drying out.

Check your soil – if it feels dry a couple of inches down, give your plants lots of water.

 Tips:

  • Water the soil around the root zone of plants, not the leaves. Wet leaves may promote fungal disease.
  • Water in the morning or early evening, to reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation.
  • Plants in container gardens can dry out quickly. Water daily in hot, dry weather.
  • Consider attaching a rain barrel to your downspout to collect rain as it  runs off your roof. Plants love fresh water!
  • If you have a large garden, you may find it easier to install a soaker hose or drip irrigation, available at nurseries.

Weeds

Tips:

  • Dig out weeds when they are young, before they go to seed.
  • Most weeds are easier to pull out after a rainfall when the soil is moist

Edible Weeds

Many weeds are edible and delicious. Instead of tossing them in the compost bin, consider adding these to your plate:

  • dandelion
  • garlic mustard
  • plantain
  • burdock
  • chicory
  • purslane
  • amaranth
  • lamb’s quarters

Improve Your Harvest

No matter how large or small your garden is, these tips can help you make the most of it:

  • Intensive planting, sometimes called “square foot gardening”, can maximize production in your small space.
  • Intercropping: Plant smaller vegetables such as radishes and onions under taller plants such as corn. Quick-growing plants, such as salad greens, baby carrots and spinach, can be planted close to longer-maturing plants such as onions, corn and parsnips. The early crops will be ready to harvest when the slower crops start to need more room.

Organic Fertilizers

Homemade compost is one of the best ways to improve your soil – and it’s free! Many vegetable plants benefit from an extra boost of nutrients in the soil. Good sources of organic fertilizers, available at nurseries, include:

  • well-rotted manure
  • blood meal and bone meal
  • fish emulsion
  • seaweed

Tip: The City offers free compost between May and September at Community Environment Days? Call 311 for more information

  • Rotate your plants every year for a healthier, more productive garden.

Tips to Extend Your Growing Season

To extend the growing season, you must protect your plants from frost.

  • Cover your plants with clean plastic sheets suspended above them with plastic or wire hoops. Lift off the plastic on warm, sunny days, and replace it at night.
  • Build a cold frame using old salvaged windows.
  • Cover your plants with a floating row cover (white fabric or fine netting) on cold nights.

To reduce pest infestations and disease, rotate your crops. That is, plant them in a different spot in your garden each year.

Good Buddies

Companion plants are plants that grow well together and benefit each other in some way. For example, marigolds are great to grow near tomatoes as the scent of marigolds repels pests.

Good Bugs

Lots of insects are beneficial to your garden. Some, like lady beetles, eat other insects, such as aphids. Bees and butterflies are essential for pollination.

To attract beneficial insects, create a habitat garden with a diversity of native plants, nectar-producing flowers, fruiting shrubs, and trees.

Organic Pest Control Recipes

Many pests can be controlled with easy-to-make, all-purpose organic pest control solutions mixed in a spray bottle:

  • Spray your plants with a mixture of crushed garlic and water (1 part garlic to 5 parts water)
  • Mix 1 part biodegradable liquid soap to 4 parts water and spray lightly on plants with unwanted pests.

Kids love to garden! Encourage your kids to join you. Children love to play in the dirt and getting them involved helps to encourage them to eat their veggies.

Easy-to-grow foods for kids include:

  • peas
  • beans
  • greens (lettuce, kale, etc.)
  • sunflowers
  • pumpkins
  • zucchini
  • carrots
  • potatoes

Tips for gardening with kids, courtesy of the City’s Children’s Garden Program:

  • Give kids their own space in your garden.
  • Provide colourful, age-appropriate tools (plastic is best for young kids).
  • Pick unusual and heritage varieties (purple carrots, yellow pear tomatoes, rainbow chard, etc.).
  • Plant a mix of seeds and seedlings – kids like quick results!
  • Keep tasks fun – most kids like watering more than weeding.

For more information and programs on gardening with children, visit the Children’s Garden Program’s website at toronto.ca/childrensgardening.