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  • Writer's pictureLauren McMullen

Into the Thick of it: Backyard Gardening

By Lauren McMullen

Picture of several pots of plants and dirt on an outdoor table
Photo courtesy of

Learning to cultivate food in your backyard (or balcony) is a great way to cut down on transportation emissions and engage with your community. I sat down with Dr. Tan Bao from MacEwan University’s Department of Biological Sciences to talk about some things that aspiring gardeners may benefit from knowing before diving into the hobby.

First and foremost, Dr. Bao believes that gardening should be approached without fear. “Just try anything; it just can’t go that wrong. They may not live, but that’s not that big of a deal….[Gardening] is really forgiving as a hobby.”

However, you may still have some questions before you dive in.

What do I need to start gardening?

You might be tempted to stock up on supplies before planting your first seeds. After all, you want to do your best to make sure that your plants survive. Dr. Bao’s advice on the matter? Resist that temptation. “I actually feel like you can garden for free,” Dr. Bao says.

Of course, you’ll need seeds or seedlings of some sort. You can get these for a low cost at any gardening store, but you can also get seeds for free through trading with others, foraging wild seeds on walks, or saving the seeds from the produce you eat.

For soil, you can purchase prepared bags from gardening stores, or you can use the dirt available to you in your backyard, although you may have to add nutrients to this soil using fertilizer.

Containers come in all shapes and sizes, so feel free to use whatever is readily available to you. This could be anything from old yogurt containers to unused garbage cans. The most important thing to remember when choosing a container is ensuring that it has proper drainage so that water doesn’t pool around your roots.

Seeds, dirt, containers, and water—that’s about it. You can use a spade or shovel to help you plant, but it’s not necessary. “I use my hands. I think those are the most useful tools,” Dr. Bao admits. He also recommends “a good hat and sunscreen.”

Picture of carrots and kale bundled on a white background
Photo courtesy of

What should I plant?

“Just try anything, and I think you’ll be surprised at how well things grow. Plants have been growing for hundreds of millions of years without us,” Dr. Bao says. You can grow produce you like to cook with, or even food that connects you to different cultures. “I have some Asian vegetable seeds that I’ve acquired…things like Perilla leaves, which are used in Korean cooking.” However, Dr. Bao does recommend some plants that tend to thrive no matter your skill level.

If you’re working in a small space, he recommends herbs or beans, which grow quickly and do well on windowsills. Lettuce is a good choice if you want something that will produce a yield fast. If you’re inclined to explore root vegetables, carrots and radishes can be a good choice with a little extra care during planting—make sure your soil isn’t compacted and space out your seeds. “You’ll get better vegetables if they are nicely spaced out.”

If you have a big backyard to work with, you can try your hand at growing pumpkins or zucchini. “They create lots of foliage, which is exciting. And when you get into harvest time, they can really produce a lot of stuff.”

No matter what you decide to grow, you’ll get the most bang for your seeds if you learn how to harvest effectively. “If you clip the stem and take the correct leaves, the plant has a lot of capacity to continue to grow,” Dr. Bao says. “But if you just lob it off at the bottom, you’ve lost that potential.”

When should I start planting?

You may have heard that a good time to plant is the Victoria Day long weekend, and while this is not wrong, Dr. Bao emphasizes that you don’t have to adhere to a strict schedule to be successful. Dr. Bao prefers to plant earlier in the season. “I like to go into the ground as soon as possible because you get that extra month, almost, if you go at the end of April.”

If you plan to plant early, be prepared for frost (you may want to cover your plots), but don’t let a little chilly weather deter you. “Plants are actually quite tolerant to weather, and if you give them a little hand by giving them a little shelter…that alone gives you quite a bit of a margin of safety.”

Planting earlier will give you a higher yield throughout the season, but if you aren’t focused on the quantity of your harvest, you can plant later. “It’s fine to be a fair-weather gardener. There’s no need to suffer through,” Dr. Bao notes.

At the end of the day, gardening is a great hobby. Not only are you shortening the supply chain for your food, but you are also increasing the time you spend in nature and engaging in an activity that promotes community and social connections. “It’s fundamentally a community process. I find that aspect really hard to ignore,” Dr. Bao says, and we agree.

Happy gardening!

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