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.
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:
Suitable fruits and vegetables include:
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 are ideal for:
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.
Plant in rows with paths between rows for easy access while watering and weeding. Use wood chips on paths to prevent weeds from sprouting
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
These plants will tolerate some shade
Some fruits and vegetables require a lot of sun, about 6 hours a day. These include:
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 can add a bit of flair and colour to any plate. They include:
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:
For best results, read the label on the seed packet for information about planting depth, spacing and time to plant.
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.
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.
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:
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.
In the spring, before you plant, take a few minutes to:
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.
Plants will do best in soil that is full of nutrients, loose rather than compact, and high in organic matter.
Tip: Free compost is available from the City. Call 311 for more information.
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.
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.
Many weeds are edible and delicious. Instead of tossing them in the compost bin, consider adding these to your plate:
No matter how large or small your garden is, these tips can help you make the most of it:
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:
Tip: The City offers free compost between May and September at Community Environment Days? Call 311 for more information
To extend the growing season, you must protect your plants from frost.
To reduce pest infestations and disease, rotate your crops. That is, plant them in a different spot in your garden each year.
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.
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.
Many pests can be controlled with easy-to-make, all-purpose organic pest control solutions mixed in a spray bottle:
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:
Tips for gardening with kids, courtesy of the City’s Children’s Garden Program:
For more information and programs on gardening with children, visit the Children’s Garden Program’s website at toronto.ca/childrensgardening.
Looking for more advice, assistance or encouragement? These groups may be able to help. Some of them received a Live Green Toronto grant to help them expand local food production.