Here’s how to get in on the urban gardening boom in Toronto

No matter how many local organic produce shops you visit, nothing quite beats the taste of a homegrown cherry tomato. In a dense city like Toronto, it can seem impossible to bring agriculture into your backyard — especially if you don’t have a backyard — but that isn’t necessarily the case.  Most people in Toronto have small, multi-use outdoor spaces and the new urban gardening trend is all about growing more with less.

During the pandemic, Canada experienced a massive boom in urban gardening, with over half of Canadians reporting they’re growing at least one fruit or vegetable and one in five doing so for the first time.

It seems as if every corner store in the city is overflowing with multicoloured shoots of lettuce and basil as people flock to grow fresh produce using their kitchen counters, balconies and backyards. Here are a few tips to consider when starting your urban gardening adventure.

Unbelievably easy-to-grow plants 

Leafy greens like kale, swiss chard, arugula and lettuce are the perfect fit for a beginner urban gardener. These dependable plants will flourish with lots of water, and are shallow-rooted so they grow well in garden boxes or hanging planters on balconies.

Mint is an impressive homemade mojito ingredient that’s nearly impossible to kill.  Beets are misunderstood, along with parsnips and radishes. These underrated root vegetables will grow in the shadiest of backyards, and their shoots make the perfect salad base.

You can also grow veggies vertically using peas, beans and tomatoes. Use stakes to support the plants, or grow them along a trellis or fence. Make the most out of your space by growing ground cover produce like strawberries along the base of other plants.

If you’re still worried about a lack of green thumb, don’t stress. Apps such as Planta and From Seed to Spoon Gardening make urban gardening a breeze by offering watering reminders and tips on optimizing sunlight.

Where to find plants: local plant nurseries, garden centres and swaps 

It’s easy to germinate seeds using a jar, some water and your living room windowsill. If you’re unfamiliar with agriculture or just don’t want the hassle of germinating, it might be easier to purchase shoots from a local business rather than sprouting them yourself. Fortunately, there are tons of options across the city.

Parliament Smoke & Gift and Jamestown Milk are two Cabbagetown convenience stores offering an incredible selection of plants. Bloor & Kennedy Flower Shop is another amazing option located near High Park.

Purchasing produce from a local garden centre or plant nursery is a great option for beginner urban gardeners. The Davenport Garden Centre offers delivery and pick up from three locations, alongside a massive selection of produce options ranging from sweet strawberries to ghost peppers.

Fiesta Gardens in Christie Pits features a selection of organic produce and seeds for delivery or pick up. Other garden centres include the aptly-named East End Garden Centre and Down 2 Earth Garden Centre in Etobicoke.

You can also hunt for shoots at local farmer’s markets such as the Leslieville Farmers’ Market, starting May 15 (their vendor City Girl Greens offers space-friendly microgreens) and the Junction Farmer’s Market, starting May 21.

If you’re feeling thrifty, you can trade through communities like BUNZ, where you can find tons of people offering up free plants.

Getting imaginative with upcycling and companion planting 

Assess your space before picking plants, as you probably don’t want to grow stalks of corn inside your studio apartment. Consider hanging baskets or vertical gardening if you’re pressed for footage.

Go uber-green by using upcycled takeout containers as indoor planters. You can put all the quarantine ramen you ordered to good use by planting easy-to-grow kitchen herbs such as basil, chives and oregano in leftover containers.

You can repurpose almost anything into a planter. Upcycle a teapot for a succulent display, fill the storage bin from your last move with potting soil for your balcony or reuse old bookshelves as vertical planters — perfect for city dwellers with limited space.

If you have a backyard available, companion planting can help you maximize the space. Companion planting can seem complicated at first, but it’s based on the simple concept that some plants grow better together. Certain plants are complementary (like basil and tomatoes), improving flavour and preventing pests when paired together. Planting pollinators such as butterfly milkweed next to your produce attracts produce-pollinating bees and butterflies.

One important choice to make when planning your garden is between beans and tomatoes. Typically, plants will flourish with one or the other, but not both. Cabbages, cauliflower, beets and broccoli prefer beans while peppers, garlic, herbs and onions get along best with tomatoes.

Urban gardening is all about making the best out of what you have, whether you’re sprouting pea shoots in your kitchen or growing kale in your backyard. It’s incredibly rewarding to watch your produce grow, so indulge your inner farmer, get creative and enjoy the fruits of your labour.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO