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Growing an edible garden in a small space pays big!

Containing your green thumb.

There are few things more satisfying than picking a cherry tomato or a lovingly tended herb grown from a seed you planted in your own garden. Of course, size isn’t everything! Your garden may be a condo terrace or a few well-placed pots on your back deck; what counts is that you did it. The rewards of your labour taste all the sweeter!

We dug in the proverbial dirt to talk about container gardening with Christopher Wong, general manager and co-founder of Young Urban Farmers (YUF) and Paul Spence, farmer, agripreneur and clean food advocate based out of Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

Pretty portable pots

YUF is a business dedicated to helping people grow their own fresh food and Wong, who’s worked in hundreds of balconies and small urban backyards in the Toronto area, says he's noticed a trend towards ornamental containers inter-planted with edibles like kale, chard and a variety of colourful herbs. Why planters rather than traditional gardens?

"They're portable, don't take up too much space, they're lightweight and easy to plant," says Wong. "Not only do you get a beautiful planter, but you can harvest some of the plants at the end of the season or when it's time to switch to another, new seasonal planting."

Food-friendly material

If you're starting out, Wong suggests looking for containers on wheels, casters or rollers for easy mobility, and make sure they have liners for easy planting and replanting. If you're using plastic (and growing edibles), make sure you're buying a UV-stabilized plastic that's made with food-grade materials.

Spence says sprouts are increasingly popular because within two weeks, you've got a harvest of tasty pea tendrils, alfalfa or bean sprouts and even wheat grass. "Home cooks and chefs are using these as decorative, edible garnishes on top or underneath grilled meats, as a colourful bed," he says.

Grow up

For those yearning to grow food in a space-deprived setting, Wong recommends stacking planters to make use of your vertical space. Stacking planters lets you grow a good variety of plants out the side and tops of the planters - perfect for small terraces or condo balconies.

A top pick includes the Cascada planter. It features a modular design so that you can set up the tower in two or three tiers with space to grow up to 13 plants in each planter. It’s suitable for strawberries, greens and herbs, or interspersed amongst your favourite flowers.

Water everywhere

Wong also favours the fact that this model has an eight-litre water reservoir built in. In fact, he recommends sub-irrigated or self-watering planters; particularly those with a built-in water reservoir at the bottom of the container with a separating screen, so the soil doesn't stay waterlogged and plants stay hydrated.

If this isn't possible, he suggests choosing the largest sized pot you can find or afford. "Traditional pots dry out quickly and sometimes need to be watered several times a day in the height of summer," explains Wong. Spence adds that fertilizing soil, which can be as easy as buying sheet manure from your local hardware store and mixing into your potting soil, will give your garden the nitrogen it needs.

TIP: Don't overcrowd your plants. If you do, they'll compete for light, nutrients, water and space, and reduce overall yields. Check the label to find out how big your plant will be when mature and plant them with their final size in mind. Some will grow a few inches; some (like tomatoes) will becomes several feet high and wide.

TIP: Start with a few, simple plants. “It's better to have a great experience and want more,” says Wong, “than to take on too much and have the garden turn into a burdensome chore." Herbs and lettuces are great choices for beginners.

SIDEBAR: The easiest garden goodies to grow include herbs such as chives, thyme and mint, veggies like beans, kale and sprouts, and fruit like strawberries or raspberries. If you long for tomatoes or peppers, know that those take a whole summer to grow in northern locations and they need room to grow properly. Ditto cucumbers that are fickle to soil conditions (too wet and fungus starts to attack the crop), and either need to be trellised or grown amongst a row fence where they can climb, advises Spence.