Dreaming of Spring

Starting the summer vegetable garden. (Getty Images) Seedlings of tomatoes. Spring season. Tomato sprout lit by the sun

Spring is almost here and I am already planning my vegetable garden. I grew up in Toronto, and when I moved out on my own, I hopped around from apartment to apartment but I managed to get some tiny crops of beans, kale, arugula, tomatoes, herbs like basil and parsley, and even eggplant! I love reading about gardening methods, permaculture, easy to follow botany & ecology, and all things plant-y. I am very much a beginner gardener, and hope to share my beginner tips with you, too!

Here are some general tips for gardening that I learned from The Backyard Gardener by Kelly Orzel, a thorough primer that focuses on organic growing practice. I found this book to be very accessible, fun to read, and a great way to build confidence in starting a garden. Many of these practices can be adapted to small spaces, containers, or big backyards.


Whether you have a 200-acre farm or a single pot, healthy soil is a necessary starting point but you need different soils for different stages of plant development. Visit your local garden centre and ask the staff what they would recommend based on your garden space. Ideally, you want a soil that has a good mix of nutrients and drainage.


For starting seedlings you want a high drainage, very fine soil. There are often “seed starter” pre made mixes available. You can start seeds in egg cartons, Solo cups, and many more iterations. Make sure they stay damp and warm and get lots of light.


Compost is your friend! I love this video on how to make your own compost at home. It’s cheaper and low-waste, but it can be very stinky so, as Ina Garten may say, store bought is fine!


Know your hardiness zone! Kitchener & Waterloo are Zone 5B. This means there are different times of year (depending on last frost) when you should plant certain things. This website is great resource for timing.

pH Levels

Orzel highly recommends testing the pH of your soil if you are gardening directly into the ground. You can get the testing kits fairly cheaply online or in gardening stores. Have your children help; cool activity for kids. Orzel has a guide for the ideal pH levels for certain things.


If you’re container gardening, triple check that your containers have drainage holes, or drill a few yourself. I have lost many a houseplant to rotted roots, and it’s a tragedy that is easily avoidable.


Many soil mixes have fertilizer mixed in. I tend to go with mixes that include black earth for my veggies, but also check out companion planting on how you can plan your garden to put nutrients like nitrogen back into the soil just by planting pole beans, for example.


You don’t need a million gardening tools to be successful, but of the ones Orzel recommends I think the absolutely necessary ones are gloves, a hand trowel, hand fork, and pruners/snips. I’ve had great luck at Value Village and garage sales to pick these up second-hand.

Pest Control

Natural pest control tips:

  • a jar of water and a couple drops of dish soap will attract and help end many bug problems
  • plants like marigolds, yarrow, and lemon balm also act as natural pest deterrents
  • managing bigger wildlife, Orzel says, can be a trial-and-error process to find what works


I love Lasagna Gardening, also known as sheet mulch. It is simply an area, or a sheet, left covered with fallen leaves. Over the winter the leaves decompose and, come spring, you have a ready to go nutrient-dense planting area. This can work on a balcony too in a Tupperware or container.

One of the most important takeaways from Orzel’s book is this: gardening is a process of patience, experimentation, and observing and respecting nature. Notice what plants grow together, how they reach for light, what circumstances in which they thrive, then try and create that environment in your garden, too.

Looking for more gardening resources? Check out some of these books too:

Grow All You Can Eat in 3 Square Feet

Canadian Gardener’s Guide; editor Lorraine Johnson

Small-Space Container Gardens : transform your balcony, porch, or patio with fruits, flowers, foliage & herbs by Fern Richardson

— Jackie M.