First of all, I expect everybody is flabbergasted when I mentioned this is my first vegetable garden. So here's a little background for you first.
When I was young, my dad (who ironically didn't like to eat vegetables) had a huge vegetable garden. I helped out and learned a lot in those gardens so I'm no stranger to vegetable gardens. Of course at the nursery, I've grown many crops and also planted a mix of personal-use vegetables in the field as a home-garden substitute. My first own home away from the family home was mainly about flower gardens. I always plunked in a few vegetables here and there, but never a full garden. When we bought a lot to build our home, primary considerations were more about privacy as well as location and proximity to family and the greenhouse for emergencies. Our property happens to sit on an area where the bedrocks crests up to it's highest point leaving in many places less than 12" of rocky soil on the surface. The rock is literally bedrock without a crack or fissure, not just rocky soil, it's bedrock. Our entire home is literally built on the Canadian Shield. A vegetable garden became something of a back-burner project knowing there was nothing to really plant into.
Fast forward more than a decade and I decided to make a real vegetable garden. Sure, I always had herbs and some little vegetables in very large pots, or an occasional garlic or tomato mixed in with my wife's flowers, but never a dedicated vegetable garden. I selected a "dip" in the yard where some large cedar trees were dying. As it happened, that dip pooled with water in the spring, and after heavy rains, hence the cedars were unhappy either sitting in water or drying out because of the shallow soil. So the cedars came down to make room for a vegetable garden (and in true waste not fashion, the cedars became a combination of mulch and firewood).
So now I had a relatively open area where the cedars used to live. Above the bedrock slab left over was around 8" or so of mixed rock and poor soil, completely depleted of all forms of nutrients by the cedars. Most people would think of doing raised beds and filling them with soil. I always find raised beds have a limited life, both structurally and the soil gets depleted. I'm also one to take advantage of tools like a rototiller to turn the soil which isn't possible in raised beds. Instead I chose to just build up on the area targeting about 12-18" of soil in total. I hear stories of people ordering up special mixes of soil, or compost mixes, or even getting soil samples and tests to put in the perfect soil. These soils are typically quite loose with some organic matter and decent drainage making it easy for roots to grow in, though overly complicated. In a spot where water sits in the spring, that would also lead to liquefaction of the soil and effectively spread it out on me effectively eroding away and being absorbed into what lawn (moss) surrounds the area. Instead, I started with what many modern gardeners would cringe at: clay.
I find clay to actually be rather interesting as a growing medium. I like it. It's fine texture doesn't allow moisture to flow through it as freely, but at the same time, that fine texture binds nutrients really well. Being so dense, it's more immobile and doesn't float away when it gets wet. Plants grow surprisingly well in clay extracting those nutrients and water as they need, but only if you know exactly how and when to work clay. Too dry and it's like concrete while too wet and it becomes a soup. Luckily, my entire strawberry field is clay so I'm comfortable with know how and when to work it. Knowing that my spot was prone to early flooding but has the strong potential to dry out, starting with clay helped my garden maintain it's structure and shape when flooding, and also acting like a sponge to hold that water when it does rain instead of drying out prematurely. So I got a few loads of dense and hard clay fill to start with. Using my trusty old 50+ year old John Deere tractor, I moved the mounds of natural concrete-like fill to where my garden would be (of course, on the other size of the house) and spread it out as evenly as I could, which again is relative with hard clay and an old tractor.
Being clay fill, more than likely from a rather deep hole in the ground of a source, there would be little to no organic matter or natural bio-organisms in there. To make my life easier and giving young transplants a fighting chance, I put a few loads of topsoil on top. I used raw unscreened topsoil which means I had to (and still am) dealing with stones and what not, but it was inexpensive and did the trick. In case you didn't know, unscreened topsoil is probably nothing more than the stuff they scratch off the surface of a new construction site. My old tractor and I spread the topsoil on top of the clay. In proportion, there's more clay than topsoil. It's worth noting that I did make a rather large garden at around 30' x 40' or so which is considerably larger than most, hence my tractor was my best friend.
All that work was done in the late summer of 2020. I didn't plant anything in the fall, but instead waited. Sure enough, a mass of weeds germinated. Coming from a farm, that was completely expected. Any time you get new soil, especially bulk, there will be weeds (plow a field 1' deep around here and you'll have a field of mustard next year). The only way not to have weeds is to a) chemically treat the soil and we'd have no idea what residue may or may not exist or b) heat or steam sterilize the soil which would kill off anything beneficial in the soil as well. I turned the soil and killed the weeds, or at least the ones close to the surface. Repeat through the fall when more weeds came since each time you work it, more seeds are pulled to the surface. We're cleaning the soil at this point and that's a very important step. Also, never pull the weeds - work the land. A hoe or a tiller or something. For ever big weed you see, there are numerous small ones underneath starting to germinate so by working the ground, you're getting rid of the weeds you can't see as well as the ones you can.
Just before freeze up, we did our fall planter clean-up. All the finished annual planters got dumped on top of my vegetable gardens along with various clippings and other green-matter debris. We call that "compost in place" where we put items to compost right were the compost is needed. Just remember to keep the weeds away or they will spread seeds. The future vegetable garden had a nice layer of fresh "mulch" in the form of garden debris.
Spring time arrived in 2021 so it was time to plant. I resurrected my father's old John Deere walk-behind rototiller, which I'm sure is older than I am and considered deceased for years, with some new belts, fuel lines, and some improvised cables (replacements being long-since discontinued). They sure don't make heavy behemoth tillers like this any more, though a more modern and compact one would work equally well. I went back and forth over the garden a few passes, regularly cursing at rocks that jarred my teeth (always remove them when you find them), and being sure to work in all that organic matter from the planters I spread in the fall. Eventually I ended up with a lovely seed bed of soft soil. Considering the weather and frost forecasts, I again let the garden sit for a flush of weeds. A week later, another tiller pass and planting could begin.
I'm going to be blunt and say I don't think much of the concept of square-foot gardening. I'm a big believer in the opposite where if you give your plants space and airflow, you'll get more yield from fewer healthier plants. Generally speaking, all rows I plant are 4' apart which gives ample room to walk between the plants and either use the rototiller or get a good swing of the hoe (I tend to use a heavy European hoe where possible). Between plants, spacing varies from 2' for tomatoes, brassicas, peppers, etc. down to 6" for small plants like the onions, kohlrabi, beets, and beans. When in doubt, space it out I like to say. If you don't have much space, show restraint early and be selective planting what you're most likely to enjoy.
What did I plant? Most of my garden was influenced by what I like to eat, but having my own greenhouse to start anything also had an part in that selection process. I chose a few different tomatoes - Big Beef, Carolina Gold, Manitoba, Early Girl, Roma, Celebrity, Sunsugar cherry, and Venti Salad. More than I needed, but I did want to test some varieties out in the real world. The same for eggplants where I put in a few Patio Baby and Fairy Tale. Peppers I chose Giant Marconi, a large sweet pepper, a Mexican Poblano, a Basket of Fire Thai Chilli, a couple La Bomba Jalapeno, a Time Bomb, and a couple Habanero. In the cole/brassica family, I planted white and purple cauliflower and the close cousin the romanesco, brussel sprouts, a kale called Prizm, and kohlrabi. For greens, I dropped in some Romaine Lettuce, Simply Salad Mixed Greens, Bull's Blood Beets, and Bright Lights Swiss Chard. I planted one Zucchini, and one Patio Snacker Cucumber. A few Orion Fennel, a French Quarter Okra and some Imperial Star Artichokes rounded off the exotic plants. Mixed in here and there were some basil and green onions and some green and yellow beans.
My dad always taught me to plant in the stereotypical German way: perfect. Two sticks, some string, and a measuring tape. Mark out your first row with a stick at each end and run the string taught between them. Plant in a straight line, double-check the spacing with the measuring tape. When the row's done, move each stick 4' giving you another straight row 4' away and repeat. There was something immensely satisfying following the lead he taught me a good 40 years ago. Once planted, water it in. I used a spinkler for a nice even watering so I didn't compact the soil and have erosion.
During the season, growing was pretty easy after planting. As soon as I started to see weeds, I ran the rototiller through the rows, then took the hoe between the plants. It took about a half an hour to an hour each time. I repeated that 2-3 times until the plants got too big for the tiller to fit (it is a beast of a tiller). After that, it probably needed 2-3 times lighter hoeing since weed germination tends to slow in the summer before the fall flush. I usually went out and did a couple rows of my five rows a day over the course of a week, then repeated again a couple weeks later. Not much time at all, really. Most of the time, that hoeing exercise was while waiting for the old BBQ to warm up anyway so help get my appetite primed. As for watering, I think I really only watered maybe a couple times all season after the initial watering in, always digging down a little to see how much moisture my clay was holding first. If there was enough moisture, I didn't water and let the plants work to build more roots and extract all those goodies that gives our food it's flavour. Although one may find this counter-intuitive, when you till or hoe your garden, you're actually conserving moisture in the ground and reducing the need for watering. As a kid my dad always told me that, but I never believed him. One year I did an experiment and used the hoe on half a row of peppers and pulled the weeds on the other half. The ones I used the hoe ended up nearly twice the size! Bet that's something you never considered.
For the most part, we didn't have many pests. One night our Sunsugar got ransacked by what I think was a raccoon, and a few tomatoes got pecked at by birds. As soon as I saw the little white butterflies, I walked through the cauliflower and brassicas picking off the little green caterpillars that were sure to be there as a result. The Japanese Beetles seemed to enjoy my Okra and I picked them off a few times, but didn't have too much of a problem. My wife likes to feed the birds in her flower garden so there's a chance that high bird population helped pick away at some pests, but that's just a hypothesis. Late in the season, the cucumber got powdery mildew, but that happens at the end of their life. My Early Girl Tomato had a good yield but late blight killed the plant. My basil also got downy mildew after the heat wave, which was disappointing, but I had lots of harvests before that.
To keep the soil healthy, I continue to compost in place. Essentially, I just drop old leaves or compost between the rows and work it in as I till or hoe. That process helps bring in the various beneficial organisms like worms and the like and feeds the soil as you go. Sometimes it can look a bit on the "ick" side, but practicality trumps aesthetics in my books. You just have to work it in regularly and/or have the matter sufficiently dried out that it doesn't invite grey mold or other pathogens.
What's the good, the bad, and the ugly? As far as the garden preparation, nothing really ugly. A bit of hard work getting it ready, but gardening is work - don't fool yourself on that aspect. Aside from the rock-picking, the design worked perfectly. You may find it worth the extra few dollars to go for screened topsoil. In some cases, I had too many things to harvest, while others not so much. Always take note of everything in your garden and tweak it year to year. Always remember a tomato is not just a tomato and some varieties are better performers than others. Heirloom, organic, hybrid, or whatever your choice may be, find the varieties that give you the performance and yield that suits you.
I had way too many tomatoes, but I did expect that since I really wanted to test garden performance of some plants. Manitoba, Carolina Gold, Early Girl, and Roma will probably be cut from my list next year. Manitoba because it was rather blah - it's a short-climate tomato for more northern prairies but we have a season long enough to offer better varieties. Carolina Gold is a yellow low-acid Beefsteak type and performed excellent with lots of big fruit, but we prefer red tomatoes with that higher acid zing. Early Girl is early and yields nicely but is far more disease prone - that's a no for me. Roma is a late paste tomato while the Venti Salad is a saladette which is also a technically a paste type but with less mealy characteristics and it produced more larger fruit earlier. The firm flesh made Venti Salad texturally nicer in salads and was great for sauces relegating Roma to more of a one-trick-pony status. Big Beef made lots of nice sized traditional Beefsteak tomatoes with healthy disease free plants. Celebrity is also another top tomato and should be on any gardener's list with lots of fruit, crack free, healthy and disease free plants, and slightly more compact than Beefsteak. Sunsugar was first to harvest with lots of little very sweet orange fruit that produced non-stop. The only downside with Sunsugar is that kept going and going and going and the plant nearly consumed every other plant around it.
The peppers were great all around and having a Basket of Fire Thai Chilli in the garden is perfect when you need just a tiny pepper for a little zing in your dish. It may be a tiny pepper, but it sure packs a punch, but the plant produces literally hundreds of peppers in a very small space which also freeze well. La Bomba produced plenty of nice Jalapenos of a good size and heat and my Poblano was another nice addition with a touch of heat and not as soft as bell peppers making for easy stuffing. Habanero are late maturing so they're still changing colours but they make a mean hot-sauce, especially coupled with onion, carrot, and lime juice. Time Bomb is cute and tasty, but didn't find I used them as much as I expected, and the little round shape makes them more suitable for poppers than in dishes. Giant Marconi has gigantic sweet red peppers, but it's really late so don't expect a pepper during the summer from this one.
Patio Baby Eggplant was a really great performer. It starts producing very early and has lots of fruit, but they're quite small eggplants only about 3-4" long. Not really suitable for stuffing or where you need a 2lb eggplant, but we had eggplants all summer. I discovered a grilled eggplant salad with thin slices of Patio Baby dry grilled, garlic, Thai chilli, mint, lemon juice, and olive oil that was just perfect. Fairy Tale was another nice plant, but much later. For me, Patio Baby became the most versatile and practical eggplant for the small garden.
We really enjoyed our Cauliflower. Purple Graffiti was a nice novelty producing well and tasted nice, but our white variety aptly named Amazing was just that - amazing. I really enjoyed the flavour of our Romanesco, and the unique colour and shape, but it had a very short harvest window so it's probably off my list for the future. Kohlrabi is, I feel, a completely under utilized vegetable and I loved my kohlrabi. They're pretty fast growing so you can harvest early and re-seed for multiple crops. I just julienned raw kohlrabi with similarly sized bits of apple and cheese tossed in a citrus-vinagrette and it made the perfect side to BBQ chicken wings or ribs. Brussel Sprouts are always the last things to harvest so they're still growing now, but there's a sentimental note for me having them in the garden. The last day we saw my dad he just harvested his Brussel Sprouts from the garden, which was the very last vegetable to harvest, He passed in his sleep that night - the day the harvest was complete.
On the exotic vegetable side, I can safely say I'm not a fan of Okra. I probably don't know how to prepare it properly to make it really good, but I don't see it as a vegetable I can just grab and cook that night for dinner. It's growing great and has lots of fruit on it, but not for me. My artichokes on the other hand I think are the coolest plant. Don't even think of this one without lots of space as they are HUGE plants and water hogs. It's near impossible to grow them in a pot - and we've tried. We had four Artichoke plants and ate at least 10-12 artichokes. There are more on there, but have since flowered in the heat wave creating an equally sensational show of near-artificial neon purple blooms. My Fennel turned out really well, too, having a fragrance and flavour tenfold of what you get in the grocery store. Unfortunately, my wife is no fan of anything licorice which made preparation a challenge, though a roasted onion and fennel soup with prosciutto accompanying a dinner of artichokes ended up a real hit.
When it comes to greens, Prizm Kale is a real winner when it comes to performance with large clean leaves and more tender than some kale I've tasted. Ultimately, I really just don't like kale when there's anything else to harvest in the garden (or otherwise) so I'll probably pass on that plant next year. The lettuce all had great performance right up until the heat wave. Lettuce in general don't like too much heat and become bitter once summer heat sets in. I found it interesting that, although we regularly eat Greek and Caesar salads, we really ate almost no salads where we had other options to harvest from the garden. Lettuce will probably be demoted to a fill-in plant for early season and then go on to something else. Our Chard was planted late and performed well, but we only occasionally ate it, probably like the lettuce conundrum. The same for beet greens, but that's not a loss since I love beets in the fall anyway.
The Patio Snacker Cucumber really turned out well starting to produce very early and continued to be productive until it got too hot. By that time, my Venti Salad plant overtook the cucumber so that probably played a role in it's demise. I think next year I'll plant it further from other plants with a larger trellis and see how long it goes. Our Zucchini also produced well, but we only planted one. That's a plant you need to check daily or the fruit goes from tender grilled side fruit to zucchini-bread filler quality in the blink of an eye. Next year I may try a different summer squash like the Patty Pan to change things up. Regardless of what summer squash you plant, remember those plants are BIG so you need to provide space, hence I planted it at the very corner to let it spill onto the lawn if it wanted to.
Green and Yellow beans are a real winner. I planted maybe 6 to 8 plants and that provided more than enough beans for my wife and I to enjoy in the summer. I probably should have started a second crop a month later and removed the first one to keep the fresh beans going longer. Mental note for next year.
My basil I planted in the ground did 100 times better than those in the pot, though they took longer to establish. The plants were more compact, very dense, and dark green compared to one I planted in a container. I planted my Moroccan Mint in a container since mint spreads so much, but I may actually plant it in the garden (somewhere at the perimeter where it can safely crawl into the lawn if it wants and far away from my wife's flower beds). Generally speaking, I think I'll plant more of my herbs in the garden next year rather than just in containers to get that extra intensity. My green onions were planted after some other plants were done so I didn't get to enjoy them as much, but they really turned out nice. Planting earlier would have make them more versatile.
What will happen next year? The first golden rule is to make sure you never plant the same plant in the same place two years in a row. My tomatoes will move to the other end of the garden. Where they were, probably the Artichokes. Beans will replace brassicas. peppers replace the beans, and so on. All the debris from this garden will be worked back into the ground to feed next year's harvest along with the remnants from all the flower pots and planters around the house. If I can, I'll try and get a load of poop to work in as well. Nothing is better than poop, though a tractor and rototiller makes that job more pleasant. As for plants, I need to plant broccoli which was only excluded because we sold out of plants early. Maybe a few more really early crops I skipped to keep the weeds down, like peas or radishes that can be replaced with herbs later on. I want to add some Arugula since it really adds a nice little accent to dishes unlike the way lettuce is a whole salad. Cabbage is another one to potentially add in place of kale. I'm more likely to eat cabbage than kale and sauerkraut can be preserved. Onions are something I didn't really didn't get to enjoy so I need to plant more and they're more compact so make great fillers. I think I need an early sweet pepper as well since Giant Marconi is just so late. Big plants like melons or squash just aren't worth the space for me and readily available things, like corn, I'll let somebody else grow. Strawberries and Garlic I grow in volume already so I don't need them as garden additions, though I think everybody should try growing garlic.
So that's the synopsis of my first and rather large vegetable garden. In no way do I expect the majority to have the tools or space to create such a garden, but I hope it gives you the inspiration to start your own. The value of growing your own food is not to save money but rather to enjoy the freshness of the harvest by selecting the plants most useful to you and your lifestyle. Very few people ever need a six-pack of tomatoes planted in their garden to produce a few bushels of fruit you simply can't enjoy. Having one tomato so you can have a BLT for lunch, a couple beans so you can butter them beside a roast chicken, a kohlrabi to accompany a rack of ribs, a spicy pepper to dash into your grilled eggplant salad, is really what you want. There is no better feeling that to walk though the garden every day and base your meals around what's ripe on that very day and be able to find something ripe nearly every day. Always harvest fresh and prepare your vegetables that day - even one day having your bean in the fridge will change the texture. Doing that, you can savour every drop of effort and enjoyment you put into your garden, right up until the last Brussel Sprout.