To Garden or Not to Garden

By K.I.

As soon as the weather warms up, our neighbourhood transforms. People are everywhere: bearded men sit in a cluster of lawn chairs on the corner discussing the day’s events; women in long flowing dresses saunter down the sidewalk, pushing strollers with two or three small children toddling behind. Groups of young people lean lazily against store fronts texting casually as they watch the world go by. Packs of schoolchildren fill every stretch of grass chasing soccer balls in chaotic games of pickup soccer. The street bursts with life: summer is finally here. Everyone is happy to slow down and not rush indoors to escape winter’s bitter cold.

Summer is a short season in Canada and there is always an urgency to make the most of it. Gardening is one way to do just that, especially if you are an urban dweller. Maybe you have always dreamed of having your own garden, but have never had the time to make your dreams a reality. Or maybe not having a yard has held you back from trying out your “green thumb.” Or maybe all the house plants you have ever owned met a withered demise, so you don’t believe you possess the magical talents necessary to grow anything, let alone a garden.

Here are a few reasons why this year might be the year to set aside your excuses and try your hand at horticulture. (I collected these from my own experience and from chatting with a group of Kitchener-Waterloo MoveIners who have a balcony garden).

Reasons to garden when you live in a city (or slum):

1. You don't need to have a lot of space

One of the biggest roadblocks to gardening for apartment-dwellers is not having a yard. There are a couple of solutions to this. First, many cities have community gardens that anyone living in the neighbourhood can join. (There’s usually a small fee: Edmonton plots only cost $10-25 for the season). Second, if you have a balcony, you don’t actually need much space to grow a decent amount of produce. Even with just a nice sunny window, you can grow certain plants in pots indoors. It may take a bit of research and creativity, but you’ll be surprised at how much you can fit into a small space.

2. Create your own oasis

MoveIn patches are rarely places people choose to live because of curb appeal and plentiful green space. If you are a MoveIner who thrives on spending time in nature, you may have to take initiative to surround yourself with growing things. Furthermore, living in a small apartment with several roommates (and/or children) can make finding quiet time alone a challenge. Instead of a dead space where you throw random tools and cleaning supplies, make your balcony an oasis to retreat to after a chaotic day of patch life.

3. Connecting with neighbors

Gardening is an amazing way to connect with your neighbours and community. Joining a community garden gives you an opportunity to meet people you might not normally encounter. The women in Kitchener said their balcony garden is a great conversation started when neighbours visit. One MoveIner said, “Two kids from our neighbourhood helped us plant everything and would visit to see how the garden was doing.” If you aren’t an expert gardener, there may be neighbours in your building who would be happy to pass on some of their expertise. Also, how nice would it be to share some of the fruits of your labours with neighbours or to cook a meal for friends using ingredients you grew yourself?

4. You don't have to be a master gardener if you start small

There is always uncertainty when you try gardening for the first time. Am I doing it right? Will I actually grow anything? There must be more to this than just putting some seeds in the ground! Gardening is not rocket science: it’s horticulture. Yes, there are techniques and methods to improve, but you don’t have to be an expert to grow a garden. If you start simple, with plants that are easy to grow, gardening can be a very rewarding experience.

Tips for Balcony Gardening:

1. Bigger (and more complicated) is not always better

    It’s tempting to try and grow big, impressive veggies when you start off (like cucumbers and squash). Sadly, this can be discouraging since they take up a lot of space and may not thrive in crowded quarters. Stick with hardy, small plants at first. Leafy greens (kale, lettuce, even spinach sometimes), certain varieties of tomatoes and snap peas all tend to do quite well in smaller gardens, as do carrots and radishes.

2. Maximize your space

    Gardening in small spaces is like a puzzle. Take time to plan how to maximize your space. The MoveIners in Kitchener built long boxes out of wood that they put along the edges of the balcony. They leaned old ladders against the railing of the balcony so that plants could climb up them. This is a great example of using vertical space. Plants like herbs and leafy greens grow well in hanging pots.

    Another great method to maximize space is squarefoot gardening. For this you can divide your planter box into a grid of 12x12 inch squares. Depending on the spacing needs of your plants (indicated on the seed package) you can determine how many plants to put in each square. (ie. plants that require 12 inch spacing = 1 plant per square; 6 inch spacing = 4 plants per square; 4 inch spacing = 9 plants per square; 3 inch spacing = 16 plants per square). You can find a square foot gardening planting guide here:

3. Consider drainage

    Drainage is easy to forget when planning your balcony garden. The Kitchener team shares some tips, “If you want to start a garden on your own balcony, make sure you have a good drainage system.” They had to angle their boxes to ensure that water would not drain onto the balcony of their neighbour below.

Kitchener Team's balcony garden

Kitchener Team's balcony garden

4. Beware the squirrels

    Pests are real. Most community gardens do not allow you to use chemical pesticides and you may not want to use them on your balcony either! Planting onions in your plot is a natural way to deter bugs from getting at your plants.

    Pests may not only be of the creepy-crawly variety. Squirrels can be a nuisance, even if you are well above ground level. “Although we live on the third floor, we’ve had some major problems with squirrels,” the Kitchener team reports. “A tree right outside our apartment allows squirrels to leap on to our balcony and pick at our vegetables. One year, a mama squirrel made a nest in the space between two boxes during the winter and it was quite a hassle to get rid of them. After that we made sure that there were no nooks or crannies where animals could nest.”

5. Save it for a rainy (or snowy) day

    Freezing your produce can be a great way to make your garden last throughout the year.  Kale freezes very well and can be added to soups and smoothies in the winter. Peas and beans are easy to blanch and freeze. (Place them in boiling water for one minute and then dunk them immediately into ice water for a few minutes before drying and freezing). You can even freeze fresh herbs to use later by placing them in ice cube trays and covering them with oil (this preserves the flavor).


Gardening may not be for everyone, but you won’t know until you try! Share your tips and tricks for urban gardening in the comments.