Expert tips for the beginner gardener

Granville Online's editor gets schooled by Vancouver gardening consultant Sharon Hanna.

Credit: Hilary Henegar

Sharon Hanna’s expert tips for the beginner gardener

Granville Online editor Hilary Henegar calls in Vancouver gardening consultant Sharon Hanna for a lesson in gardening 101

This is my second year gardening and my first with a real yard. Last year, my balcony garden did okay, with both great successes (the tomatoes were delicious!) and great defeats (all the seeds I started died).

Being a newbie, I’m a bit overwhelmed by the task ahead, unsure what to plant where and when to do it. Luckily, I have a great resource: The fabulous Sharon Hanna.

Sharon is a regular contributor to GardenWise magazine and an organic gardening consultant. She teaches classes and has coordinated the garden programs at many Vancouver-area schools.

Recently, I had her over to check out my garden beds, which were left with over-wintering veggies from the previous tenants and lots of weeds. What follows is the plan of attack that she laid out for me:

Sharon Hanna, gardening lessons from an expert
Garden got you overwhelmed? Sharon Hanna to the rescue!

Sharon Hanna: Hilary’s garden will be challenging because of the mature tree to the south! We love trees (especially in the city) but they do interfere with sunlight—and bright light is crucial for most veggies!

1. Beginner gardening

Beginners, start small and simple. Your first year you just want to figure out what works so don’t go crazy with a million different kinds of plants. Don’t overwhelm yourself.

Try peas (put them in now!); a few easy greens, which can be direct-sown; and buy some tomato plant starters to plant out around the May long weekend (temperatures must be warm for tomatoes to grow).

The West Coast Seeds catalogue has a great garden calendar at the beginning, which is tremendously useful—especially for new-to-veggies gardeners. The catalogues are free at garden centres that carry their seeds. Herbs are easy too, especially the perennial types. But, no, basil is NOT easy!

2. Fix the soil

Okay, first of all, the soil. It is in need of organic matter, for sure. It’s heavy and waterlogged-looking, though little plants are trying to come through. Add peat and lots of organic matter, like a good organic soil and compost. You can get it delivered by the truck-full (preferably from West Creek Farms, who has organic soil!) and split the order with neighbours.

Soil is integral, and a wonderful investment.

Adding organic material, like manure or compost, in spring is best done very early—February or March. April is a little late, unless you are starting a brand new garden.

compacted soil; gardening lessons from an expert
Sharon says the soil is too compacted and heavy and suggests adding peat moss and lots of organic matter, like a good organic soil and compost.

3. Horse manure

The best time to add horse manure to the garden is in early spring and fall. Be sure that horses have not been given their worming pills recently, as the medication will then be found in the manure. Add manure to the compost bin anytime to kick start compost and get it heating up.

4. Compost

Hilary’s compost was too wet and smelled a bit—not terrible, but I would give it a C– ?. Add dry leaves or other carbon-type material—even paper from a shredder, or shredded newspaper—layered between the wet veggies. This puts air into the compost and allows it to decompose properly.

Remember the compost burrito idea: Wrap veggie trimmings in newspaper in the kitchen and roll up like sushi or a burrito, then wet it and put it into your compost bucket. This layers carbon and nitrogen easily.

compacted soil; gardening lessons from an expert
To balance your compost easily and effectively, try Sharon’s “compost burrito technique”: do your chopping on a sheet of newspaper, then when done, roll up the whole thing, wet it and drop it in the compost bin.

5. Weeds

Yes, the weeds. Get them out pronto! Don’t let them grow to the point that they start to produce seeds, otherwise you’ll never get rid of them. Especially the little “snapweeds,” a type of cress; once they “snap,” you’ll have more and more.

6. Shady garden beds

Hilary’s centre garden bed is too shaded for herbs and most veggies, so pull up everything that’s already there, especially the ailing rosemary (which can be potted), and find something else to plant there.

For less-than-perfect light situations, I recommended leeks; they can survive, if not exactly thrive robustly, in four or five hours of sun, or a day of dappled light. I told her to try strawberries, too, especially wild strawberries, which enjoy shade. They come in white and red varieties and you can often find them in garden centres.

rosemary; gardening lessons from an expert
This ailing rosemary plant is planted in the shadow of a mature tree. Sharon recommends digging it up and putting it in a pot in full sun.

7. Kale

Leeks and kale are the two things everyone should grow. Especially Kale. Kale scores 1000 (the top score) on the ANDI (Aggregate Nutritional Density Index). Check it out. Plus it grows (easily) all year around in the Lower Mainland, is fabulously good for you and can be used in any recipes where you’d use spinach: quiches, spinach pie or just steamed with butter or olive oil and lemon juice.

White beans and kale make a great soup: start with slow-braised onions (everything tastes great with those!); Italian, chorizo or other sausage (or not); garlic, etc. It’s more of a winter soup but… try it.

8. Broccoli and crop rotation

Broccoli is a great thing to grow—a good use of space. You keep harvesting the shoots as they form but must do it regularly, otherwise they flower, much like the broccoli in Hilary’s garden. The bees love the yellow flowers, though mostly late summer/early fall. I recommend people leave one plant to bloom for the bees, in fact.

In Hilary’s case, I recommend she cut back the broccoli flowers (and use it for salads and stirfries) and see if new heads form. When growth slows pull up the plants and plant something new.

Broccoli should be grown in a different spot each year. This is called crop rotation and makes a difference. Plants take what they need from the soil, so the second year broccoli would find the soil depleted of what it likes!

broccoli flowers; gardening lessons from an expert
Flowers are blooming on over-wintered broccoli plants; cut them back and throw them in salads and stir-fries.

9. Lemon balm

Lemon balm, or Melissa officinalis, drifted over to Hilary’s garden from the neighbour’s yard. Some people like it, some don’t. Personally, I think it tastes and smells a bit like gasoline. Plus, it is tremendously invasive and the roots really take hold. Be careful with this plant.

Grow it in pots, or grow one plant and don’t let it seed or it’ll be everywhere. (Unless you absolutely love it, of course.)

lemonbalm flowers; gardening lessons from an expert
Unless you love lemon balm (right; chard on the left), dig it up and re-pot it in a container; it’s invasive.

10. Carrots

Everyone wants to grow them, but carrots are unfortunately not that easy. We are prone in these parts to carrot rust fly, the larvae of whom burrow through the roots and make them icky. You can prevent this by using landscape fabric (see-through white stuff, sometimes called Reemay cloth), which must stay in position. The light and rain goes right through and the carrots push up the cloth as they grow.

But I recommend trying to grow carrots in pots. Seeding is a pain; the seeds are tiny and must be spaced (and then thinned meticulously), and they take two weeks or so to germinate, to boot. So, you have to be very committed to grow carrots—not recommended for novices unless you have a lot of time and patience.

11. Euphorbia

A type of Euphorbia called “Gopher Plant” was sold quite a bit in nurseries for a while there and I am not sure why. It can’t be edible, as Euphorbia is generally a poisonous/irritating species. The sap can damage the skin and cause temporary blindness (really!). A gardening friend of mine was out pruning his Euphorbia one day and lost his sight for a number of days after wiping his eyes with his garden gloves. I was surprised to learn that the ER physicians did not know about this, at least they didn’t at UBC, but they do now, evidently!

The bottom line

So, the bottom line is don’t grow too many things the first year, consult the West Coast Seeds catalogue for timing (which is everything with veggies and super important), and realize that you need full sun, mostly, to grow food. Above all, soil is the number one priority—don’t skimp!

bokchoy; gardening lessons from an expert
Over-wintering veggies have bloomed as spring develops. Time to harvest all that bokchoy (right, with yellow flowers) and dig up it up, along with all the weeds, to start my summer garden.