Starting a Garden from Scratch

A Garden for Eating

You want to grow vegetables but aren't sure of how or even what to grow. So where do you start? It all begins with questions. Before you start your first vegetable garden you need a plan for bed type and size, location, etc., but, the first and most important question is 'What are you going to grow'? (Hint: The best answer is the vegetables you like to eat.)

Planning the Garden is a question and answer process as many decision need to be made. What type of build, who is going to care of the garden? How much time do you/care giver have to work the garden? And then, how will you use the produce? Will it be eaten fresh? Or, are you wanting to preserve the harvest by caning, drying or storage? Do you have proper place for vegetable storage? How many plants should be grown to have a winter surplus? These questions must be addressed before anything else as this is the garden plan. Here, we will work through these and other concerns so you can make informed decisions to grow and enjoy your garden.

Location - Location – Location applies to gardening.

So, where will you put this garden? Which direction does it face, south? Is it out of the wind? Are there trees nearby where you could be in their roots? (Tree roots are generally 18 in. / 45 cm deep) Is it out from under any overhangs such as house eves?

So where/what is the perfect location? Do a site analysis before prepping for a garden and take stock of sun, wind, water/drainage, traffic, extreme weather, and note any micro-climates. Now think of what you want to grow and in what conditions they require. This is most important as large leaf crops such as Spinach will bolt, go to seed, quickly if out if full sun. Once they go to seed the leaves become tough and inedible.

Sun: Things to consider…

  • Sun-loving crops such as tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, and squash need a minimum of 6 (and preferably more) hours of direct sunlight per day.
  • Shade tolerant crops such as chard, spinach, lettuce, cabbage, leeks, and many root crops need 4 (and sometimes less) hours of direct sunlight each day.
  • Southern facing sites may actually be too hot to grow some vegetables.


In Southern Alberta things can be a bit windy…Things to consider

  • Airflow is important for healthy plant development.
  • Tall, top heavy plants may be especially sensitive to strong winds (consider staking or growing plants in a sheltered location).
  • Summer storms may bring sudden changes in wind direction.

Water: Rules for Watering

  • Water deeply and infrequently.
  • Let your plants tell you when they are thirsty.
  • Try to only water in the morning and evening.
  • Use drip irrigation instead of overhead sprinklers.
  • Don't water when it's windy!
  • Where is your garden in relation to the water source?
  • Are there areas in your garden where moisture collects? Where does rainwater pool?
  • Are there opportunities to collect rainwater?

Traffic (human and animal movement):

All gardens have movement through them even if just for garden maintenance. Things to consider…

  • Are your garden beds/containers accessible?
  • What paths do humans and/or wildlife take when they pass through your site (desire lines)?
  • Where would you like to reduce or redirect traffic from? Or, increase or encourage traffic to?

Extreme Weather:

Calgary can receive frost, strong winds, hail and snow any month of the year. Things to consider…

  • Is your planting site exposed to extreme weather conditions?
  • Which of your plants (if any) are resistant to extreme weather conditions?
  • Can barriers be installed to minimize risk of damage to sensitive plants?


Microclimates provide us with subtle variations in biodiversity. They are influenced by sun, drainage, wind, structures (reflections and shade), vegetation, biological activity and even soil. Things to consider…

  • What kinds of unique microclimates exist in your garden? Why are they there? (Light reflected off a garage and sheltered from wind).
  • Could plants that don't typically thrive in our growing zone survive in one of your microclimates?
  • If a microclimate is not suitable for growing, how can it be adjusted or managed?

Plot Size:

How much space do you need to make it worthwhile? A suggestion from the old Canada Food Guide is 30 by 50 ft. / 9 by 12 m. to feed a family of 4 with a fall harvest for storage. Size also may dictate what you are going to grow as some veggies take up more space than others. One tip is to start small and keep it simple for success. You can always expand later. The worst thing is to be overwhelmed and frustrated, this is not the goal of gardening. Tip: Plant climbing crops - green beans and peas - to make use of the garden's vertical space.

Bed Type:

So now you have chosen the best location in your garden for the vegetables you want to grow, the next question is the bed type: In-ground, Containers, Vegetable box / Raised bed.

In-ground is the tried and true traditional food growing method. Remember though, you can't just pick it up and move it. You need to place in-ground beds with consideration of adequate sunlight, moisture and protection from extreme weather conditions.

The pros are:

  • Ideal for streamlined production
  • The ground stores water established plants may draw on (slower to dry out)
  • Easy to amend soil
  • Plenty of room for companion planting!

To build:

  • Mark out your site with flags or pegs and string.
  • Clear your site of grass, weeds and plant material. The bed can be dug out (lots of work!), grass removed with a sod remover, or by laying down cardboard and mulch (lasagna gardening technique).
  • Add soil to create a raised planting area (6-8 in / cm high will work without sides)
  • You may wish to edge around the bed or delineate with bricks/stones/markers

REMINDER: Always, always, ALWAYS call Alberta One-Call (Click before you dig), before you disturb your site!

Raised Bed Gardening

has become very popular and is part of the square foot gardening movement. They can be any length but limit width to 3 to 4 ft. / 1 to 1.5 m. across so you can reach the center from either side. When building beds there are options such as; Permanent (anchored to the ground) or Portable? Connected to the ground or isolated?

The Pros are:

  • Can amend soil
  • Better drainage than in-ground
  • Warms up faster earlier
  • Easier to weed and maintain
  • Less compaction
  • Can look very attractive. Also, when you enclose a bed with vertical boards, it's neater as soil won't collapse onto paths.
  • Lots of options for construction
  • Good for people who may have difficulty bending down or standing for long periods.
  • If planned right, you don't need pathways unless you have more than one bed.

And the Cons:

  • Need to plan pathways/access
  • Larger raised beds are heavy and difficult to move.
  • Dry out quicker than in-ground beds.
  • Decide if your bed will be connected to the soil below or if you are building on a non-porous surface. Consider drainage!!!
  • The site needs to be level so the bed sits on it evenly. Bed frames can be 'blocked up', or shimmed to level.

Container Gardening:

A raised bed is just large scale container so if starting out or just short on space, go smaller. Just about anything works as a container as long as it has good drainage and can hold enough soil (old bathtubs, plastic containers, pails, wooden planters, plastic bags etc.). Note: Be sure you know what the container was used for before you decided to use it. You don't want anything toxic to be leeched into the vegetables.

The Pros are:

  • Moveable
  • Controlled soil mixture
  • Warms up early (you can put new soil in rather than waiting for the thaw)
  • Warmer soil throughout the season
  • Easy to maintain (weeds, pests)
  • Good for small spaces

And the Cons

  • Soil can warm too much and become hot.
  • Dry out more quickly and requires more watering
  • Limited space (fewer crop choices)
  • Generally require fertilizer of some kind.
  • Must provide adequate drainage


A good size is 12-18 in / 38-46 cm. however, when considering the container size, the important thing is the volume of soil available for the plant's roots. Essentially the more space offered the better, but there are disadvantage of having extremely large containers, so some compromise must be made. Tip: Put plant trolleys under big pots for ease of movement.


Almost any vegetable can be adapted to growing in a pot. When choosing your plants look for smaller cultivars who will be more at home in a container. Give some thought to selecting bush or dwarf varieties. Vegetables taking up little space - carrots, radishes and lettuce -, or, crops bearing fruits over a long time periods - tomatoes and peppers - are perfect for container growing.

Limited soil availability mean plants have limited access to water and nutrients. The gardener must be diligent about providing consistent moisture and fertilizer to the container as vegetables become strong flavored, stringy, and tough under dry or low fertility conditions.

If you are using containers on a balcony, be sure to factor in the microclimate. Some balconies can be very windy, and heat and light may be reflected off building walls. Color Considerations: Be careful when using dark colored containers as they absorb heat which can damage plant roots. If you do use dark colored pots, try shading just the container.


Pots and containers always require more frequent watering than plants in ground. As the season progresses and plants mature, their root system will expand and require even more water. Don't wait until you see the plants wilting. Check your containers daily to judge their water needs.

Soil and Fertilizer:

You can use garden soil in your vegetable container, but, the soil-less mixes are much better. Peat-based mixes, containing peat and vermiculite, are excellent. They are relatively sterile and pH adjusted. They also allow plants to get enough air and water. Mixing in one part compost to two parts planting mix will improve fertility. A slow release or complete organic fertilizer used at planting will feed you vegetables the whole growing season.

Vertical Gardening:

is a great space saver especially for crops which take up large amounts of space. It's important to determine how a plant climbs - Twining stems: grow around supports by spiraling clockwise (hops) or counterclockwise (beans), or, Tendrils: modified stems that coil around small objects to support the main stem (some are modified leaves) – so you can give them support with either string, stakes, poles, trellis, etc. Some climbing vegetables are - cucumbers, beans, peas, winter squash, and, hops.

The Pros are:

  • Frees up ground space
  • Keeps fruit off of the ground and rot-free!
  • Can double as screening

And the Cons

  • Plants can damage surfaces as they climb, such as Virginia Creeper.


More questions to answer such as; how much will you and your family eat? Will you store or give away excess produce? How many seeds or plants will you really need to put into the ground? Many beginners make the mistake of planting too much. Tomatoes, peppers, and squash produced all season long, whereas carrots, radishes, and corn produce only once.

Preparing the ground All you really need are Soil and Compost. Soil is the medium plant roots grow in; a successful garden's foundation. They are responsible for anchoring the plant, and, for accessing water and nutrients – if impeded, the plant's performance is affected. Drainage is a must as soil needs to be able to drain and not have standing water. Beware of soil compaction – don't walk on the soil when it's wet. Remember: You feed the soil, not the plants!

Ground Rules:

  • Encourage and foster soil micro-organisms and worms.
  • Disturb the soil as little as possible.
  • Keep the soil covered so wind and sun don't dry it.

Compost is the single most important supplement you can give your garden soil. Soils amended with organic matter are a better sponge for water. More water goes into the soil and less water runs off the surface. Because surface runoff has reduced additives like fertilizers (and pesticides, if you use them) retained in the soil. So instead of washing into nearby rivers and lakes, organic matter holds it in the soil.

Compost is…

  • Easy to make
  • A good use of 'waste' material
  • Simply the best way to return nutrients to your soil!

A wonderful compost is Leaf mold; the results of letting leaves sit and decompose over time. Leaf mold is far superior as a soil amendment. It's dark brown to black, has a pleasant earthy aroma and a crumbly texture, like compost. It doesn't provide much in the way of nutrition, so you still need to add compost or other organic fertilizers to increase fertility. Leaf mold is essentially a soil conditioner. It increases soil's water retention, and, according to some university studies, the addition of leaf mold increased water retention by over 50%. It also improves soil structure and provides a fantastic habitat for soil life such as earthworms and beneficial bacteria.

You can dig or till it into garden beds to improve soil structure and water retention. Or use it as mulch in perennial beds or vegetable gardens. It's also fabulous in containers due to its water retaining abilities. Leaf mold is simple, free, and effective. If you're lucky enough to have a tree or two (or ten) on your property, you've got everything you need to make great garden soil.

Planting - Remember when purchasing seeds or plants Calgary's hardiness zone is 3b-4a. Sowing small seeds can be tricky.

There are a couple of techniques to use:

  1. Mix seeds with sand and sprinkle on top of soil.
  2. Drag a moist thread through seeds and lay it on the soil.
  3. Use a 'Dibber' - Use pencil or wooden skewer.
  4. Purchase your seeds as Seed tapes.

Tip: Seeds are very tasty to birds and critters! Cover with wire or plastic mesh until sprouts come up to ensure no one runs off with them!

Planting Techniques are so you can grow as much food as possible within your beds. In order to do this we need to make the most out of the season. By paying attention to timing, we can plant for early and late harvest crops. This is referred to as Succession planting.

Succession planting is staggering the planting dates of veggies (an example is radishes. Plant a few every weeks and you keep radish coming all summer). This planting type is especially important for poor storage crops. Look for different cultivars or selections of the same crop with different maturity dates, (an example are Tomatoes). It's best to plant side by side and it make it easier with crop rotation. Plant late season crop after an early season crop, (for example kale after lettuce, beets, spinach etc.). Inter-planting is when one crop is planted between the seeds of another. This is done when one crop is very slow to germinate, or, has a hard time breaking the soil surface. Inter-planted crop should be fast growing so it can be harvested before the second crop needs the space, (examples are: radishes between carrots or parsnips, or, lettuce between pole beans, lettuce with tomatoes, beets with pole beans, spinach with winter squash, leeks, and radishes with sweet corn, sprawling squash under stake-grown tomatoes, surround corn with lettuce, or, peas with radishes).

Companion Planting is when plants are beneficial to each other such as Tomatoes and marigolds, the flowers working to keep bad bugs at bay. Or, the Three Sisters where corn provides a climbing pole for the beans and squash keeps the ground shaded retaining moisture.

Rotating Vegetable crops:

Do a 3-5 year planting rotation plan for the best production. You grow crop groups in different beds each year, moving them in the same order, so they end up back in their original bed in year 5. By doing this you thwarts pests and disease, help prevent soil minerals depletion, and, match plant needs to feeding requirements.

  • Light feeders – Beet family, Onion family, Carrot family
  • Moderate feeders – Leafy crops (lettuce, kale, spinach)
  • Heavy feeders – Cabbage family, Squash family, Tomato family
  • Soil builders - Legume family and potatoes, are used to feed soil.

Which variety of vegetables is always a question but by looking for seeds Days to Maturity, the spacing required, and, what the vegetable's water and feeding needs are on seed packages, helps to decide. Also, group plants requiring the same conditions, such as moisture levels, together, (beans love moisture so plant together). Seeding timing is about soil's temperatures and the temperature seeds need to germinate. Also, how much cold the seedlings can tolerate.


We want to grow as much as possible, however, spacing is important as crowding foliage increases disease risk. Air circulation is a must. On average one foot between rows with two inch spacing gives the highest yield.

Water and Fertilizer:

Just as with container gardening, water & fertilizer are most important for a successful crop. It's best to water in the early morning and use drip irrigation to water slow and deep, (and save $). Most vegetables, especially cabbages, carrots, and tomatoes, need consistent watering. All this said, any way to water is better than none.

When it comes to feeding the garden, amend soil with compost and fertilize crops. There are so many fertilizer's available on the market today but I suggest you use organic rather than chemical; Nurseryland organic has proven successful. Manures are good but MUST be well aged. Fresh manure will burn roots. Earthworm castings are full of nutrients and make a great tea for the garden.

Cool-season vegetables - Some vegetables don't like being transplanted, particularly most root crops such as carrots, beets, turnips, and parsnips. As cold-hardy vegetables you can direct seed them early and not bother with transplants. Crops like corn, beans, and peas are also finicky about transplanting and grow best when you direct-seed. Potatoes must be mounded as they grow. A good technique is to dig a trench then fill in as potatoes grow, (don't bury their leaves).

When it comes time to planting outside choose an overcast day or plant late afternoon/early eve. Make sure soil is moist and plants have been watered. Remove plants and loosen roots. Dig a hole slightly larger than the root ball, place the plant, and firm soil around roots; avoid compacting the soil. Water gently but thoroughly.

Cool-season vegetables:

  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Carrots
  • Radishes
  • Beets
  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Potatoes
  • All cabbage clan members
Warm-season vegetables:

  • Beans
  • Corn
  • Tomatoes
  • Cucumber
  • Peppers
  • Melons
  • Eggplant
  • Squash
Extend the season with:

  • Cold frames
  • Cloches
  • Cozy coats
  • Row covers
  • Raised beds
  • Start seeds indoors


Harvest fruits and vegetables as they ripen. Many gardeners harvest too early, or too late. The goal should be to harvest vegetables when their quality is at its highest. After all, it's the quality of garden produce that sets it apart from store bought produce. Many vegetables not picked at the optimum time become stringy, woody, and tasteless, nullifying all the hard work and expense of growing the crop.

If you are a beginner, start small. It's better to be thrilled by what you produce in a small garden than be frustrated by the time commitment a big one requires. Try starting with a 10x10 ft plot. Keep it simple by selecting five vegetable types to grow, and plant a few of each. Happy growing

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