A how-to: Backyard gardening in Ottawa

If you have ever felt a little envious when a neighbour dropped off cherry tomatoes from their backyard garden, maybe this year is the year to grow your own.

“But I can’t keep a houseplant alive,” you say. “I’ve killed cactuses!” I’m with you, but Ottawa Jewish community member Alex Wilner says simply “It’s not rocket science.”

“You do need some critical pieces. Sun, for most vegetables you want to grow … anywhere from seven to 10 hours of daylight, especially for tomatoes and peppers,” explains Wilner.

“Then you need soil, proper soil. If you just put seeds into your grass soil, it won’t grow, it’s not very nutrient rich. Turn it over and augment it with store bought soil.”

The last thing you need of course is water, but as Wilner puts it “less is better.” Most people tend to overwater.

“I’m not a professional gardener by any means, said Wilner when we asked to speak to him about his garden. “I just have a lot of gardening.”

Wilner teaches in the international affairs department at Carleton University and moved into his Alta Vista home six years ago — this is where he’s honed his skills and built up an impressive plot in the backyard. Here are his tips for how you can get started.

Start slow

“Start with a maximum of six different vegetables,” advises Wilner. “Every plant needs different care, so take time to learn the best practices for each type of plant.”

In Ottawa, the growing season is short, with late spring and early fall frosts common.

“Tomatoes can only go into the ground in your garden in mid-to late May in Ottawa, but you have a lot of time before May to plant non-warm-friendly plants,” said Wilner. “By mid-April I’m planting spinach and arugula and peas. Those are cold-friendly plants and should go in as soon as the soil can be worked. When we had snow mid-April, I already had rows of lettuce, but they survived the snow.”

Extend the growing season by replanting

“Replant cold-resilient vegetables at the end of August and you can be harvesting those all the way into October. It won’t be as robust, but you can do it,” said Wilner, meaning things like spinach and arugula. “I’ll also cover them if there’s going to be a deep frost. You can extend your growing season if you’re planting the right stuff in the fall and in the spring.”

Keep it inside (perfect for small spaces!)

“You can absolutely grow seven to eight-feet high tomato plants in 10 gallon pots filled with mushroom compost. Peppers, lettuces, herbs are very popular to grow in containers,” said Wilner.

“I would avoid planting root vegetables, because you need plants that grow up not down. The only risk is because the pot is open to the air, the soil dries out, so you need to water more. Otherwise the same conditions apply: sun, good soil.”

Wilner has both used grow lights and not bothered with them — it all depends on the amount of sun you get inside your home. If you don’t have a good growing window, pick up a few lights to help sustain the hours of sunlight you need.

Give away your extras

Wilner plants about 50 tomato plants a year, starting them as seeds indoors.

“Every year I give half of them away … those plants get big!” Wilner posts in Congregation Machzikei Hadas’ WhatsApp group to find takers sometimes, or drops off bags on neighbours’ porches.

“My neighbours are all used to getting a bag of lettuce and cherry tomatoes at least once a year,” said Wilner, who also makes tomato soup batches, blanches and freezes the produce, and has even gotten into pickling.

Enjoy the experience

“Ultimately it’s not about growing food, it’s about growing with your family, with your kids, even if you only ever get 10 tomatoes,” said Wilner. “Once you get it dialed down it’s an activity that keeps giving.”

Wilner also cautions to not take yourself too seriously.

“My first year in the garden, it was an open garden, I planted everything and it was beautiful … I came out one morning in Mid-May and something had gone through and eaten everything and destroyed it,” said Wilner. “I realized I had a groundhog problem! I bought a big fence, dug it down a few feet and I restarted. Then I was worried I was too late to start again, but it wasn’t too late.”

Plants will almost always grow if the conditions are right, so think of it like tackling the conditions, rather than the plants themselves.

“Don’t lose heart,” says Winer. “Some things will work well and some won’t … you’ll find the things that work for you.”

Looking for somewhere to drop off your piles of cherry tomatoes? Dahlia Milech at the Ottawa Kosher Food Bank says they definitely accept “and welcome!” fresh produce through their doors. OKFB distributions take place every two weeks, so check with Milech first, to make sure your donation times out with a distribution. Visit here for more information: https://okfb.ca/donate/.