Urban Gardening 101: here’s how to plan the perfect garden

by Amie Watson

Want to turn your thumb green this year? Fear not! As my mother always told me, ‘Any idiot can do it,’ by which she meant me. And you know what? I did…which means that you too can grow heirloom tomatoes, Montreal melons and (literal) bucketfuls of herbs.

But the first step is figure out what kind of garden you want and what seeds grow best in those conditions. Do you want a few herbs on your balcony, some self-watering containers, or an all-out backyard garden complete with carp pond? Here’s the ultimate primer!

1. Where to plant

Lawn gardenSelf watering containers

These puppies can handle nutrient-sucking seeds like tomatoes, peppers and squash. You can add some companion plants (see below) like basil. They’re basically containers with a repository of water in the bottom that gets sucked up by the roots of the plant, which means you only have to water once every week or two depending on the weather.

Where to get them: Make your own from instructions online or buy them pre-made. Look for local organizations that give workshops or sell them at low prices to support food sovereignty.

Patio Boxes

See those parsley leaves overflowing the railing of that second-floor apartment? You can buy that type of planter box with or without seedlings already in them. Hook them onto your railing or secure them somewhere sunny where they won’t blow away, then water when they feel dry to the touch.

Where to get them: Markets or any garden centre. Look for organically produced seedlings if you’re buying plant-filled boxes. For those feeling nervous about the watering, there are even self-watering window boxes.


Anything from a garbage pail to a storage container can work as a planter. They’re not as convenient as self-watering containers because there’s no lower level from which the plant can suck up water as needed, but boy are they easy to set up. 

Where to get them: Markets or garden centers. Here are some fancy ones and here are some…well, simple ones you can make yourself (anything from pasta strainers to rubber boots to tires can work).

Lawn Gardens

You’ve got a little more work cut out for you. First you need to test the soil (here’s an American option and here’s a Canadian option) to make sure it’s not contaminated. Then you need to dig it up and fill the hole with compost and planting soil according to the nutrients it’s lacking. You might also need to protect it from animals with a fence or higher edges. A lawn garden is an investment, but it pays off because the world is your gardening oyster. You can grow pretty much anything if you have enough space and direct sun, including grains, pawpaws, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, root vegetables, persimmons, hardy kiwi and nut and fruit trees.

Community Gardens and Communal Gardens

No need to dig your way through rocky earth! Most likely you just need to add a bunch of compost and some soil to top up the nutrients, then plant to your heart’s content. Keep in mind, though, that some plants might be forbidden. I’m not allowed squash, amaranth or sunflowers in mine, since their abundant and unwanted seeds will blow into adjacent gardens. And if I plant anything in the mint family, I’ll end up tearing up its strong, wandering roots that steal nutrients and water from my other plants.

The difference between a community garden and a communal garden is with a community garden, you have your own plot while with a communal garden you share the work on a single large space with multiple gardeners and then harvest together and split the rewards. Tasks are assigned and you most often work in teams, so it’s a more beginner-friendly way to get into gardening.

Where to get them: Check with your municipal government and local community organizations to get on a waiting list.

2. What to plant

People get all huffy about which growing zone you live in, but as long as you don’t cry because you can’t grow peaches on your Winnipeg balcony, you and your garden can get along just fine. You just need to choose a spot with:

  1. Enough sunlight (you need 8 hours of direct sun a day for tomatoes, squash and peppers, but less for greens like swiss chard, arugula and lettuces). Check out The Urban Homestead for tips.
  2. Easy access (if you have to climb a scary ladder to water your Arctic kiwi every day, I have a feeling your kiwi are going to die). For more on Arctic kiwi and other cool fruit you can grow on the prairies as well as other northern climates, check out Alberta Home Gardening.

And in case you do have your heart set on peaches, here’s a map of North America’s hardiness zones. This will tell you where you need to move… By figuring out which zone you live in, you can then cross-reference the zone with the hardiness of the plant. For instance, peach trees can survive year-round in zones 4 to 8 and do best in zones 6 and 7 (the warmer zones). Warmer zones also have longer growing seasons, which long-ripening fruits and vegetables need to reach maturity. But that doesn’t mean you can’t grow sweet peas, for instance; just that you should choose your varietal carefully, as some will be more heat- or cold-resistant. Here’s a guide to which plants grow in which zones.

Cool Seeds

Handful of beets and radishes

Heirloom or heritage varieties of seeds are non-GMO and they protect genetic diversity (EcoWatch gives tons of other great reasons, too). So, if there’s a disease attacking bananas and there’s only one type of banana being grown for the majority of North America, we’re in trouble. But that wouldn’t happen, right? And certainly not twice…which is why you should look for the weirdest sounding tomatoes, beans, melons, peppers and peas you can find. You can buy amazing seeds from organizations like La Co-op Tournesol online. Ever heard of Sweet Dakota Rose watermelons, carrot bomb hot peppers, chufa nuts or jelly melons? Now you have.

Popular Plants to Grow

Tomatoes, zucchini, arugula, basil, sorrel, parsley, spinach, coriander and peppers. Most peas and beans require trellises or material to climb, but if you have a lot of stakes (which you’ll need for tomatoes anyway), they can work too. But don’t think that because you’re growing a food garden, you can’t grow flowers, too. Flowers can deter pests and attract pollinators.

Companion Plants

You want to choose seeds that get along, like tomatoes and basil or carrots and chives, which also help deter pests and improve soil. Here’s a graphic of companion plants.

Quick Tips

  1. If you’re a lazy gardener (or plan to be), buy perennials instead of annuals. Greens like lemony sorrel, raspberry bushes and rhubarb come back year after year with little effort.
  2. Anything in the mint family will take over your garden, so keep them in separate pots so their roots can’t get in the way of your gorgeous zucchini.
  3. If you have limited space or shallow soil, stay away from root vegetables. Instead, go with greens and herbs that will produce in abundance and can be planted close together.

Happy gardening!

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Amie Watson
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Amie Watson

Amie is a heavyweight food writer and a lightweight television personality but a featherweight foodie. She loves writing recipes and restaurant reviews for her blog, Multiculturiosity and freelancing with enRoute, Menu International, Fine Dining Lovers, MAtv and Ricardo Media. She loves all things local, organic, gluten-free and dairy-free, but only if they’re delicious. Celery root? Well, it's growing on her.


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