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In early June I had the opportunity to visit the Toronto Botanical Garden (TBG) to give a seminar on the topic of my latest book, Groundbreaking Food Gardens. The TBG occupies about four acres of urban Toronto and features a series of contemporary, themed gardens whose purpose is to provide both beauty and education to those that stroll along the paths. Admission is free, but members to the gardens enjoy certain privileges such as access to the world-class horticultural library.
My visit coincided with the last hurrah of the tulips, and just in time for the early perennials (oh, the peonies!), alliums, and lilacs. My interest tends to lean towards food gardening and I was rather anxious to check out the Teaching Garden (for the children’s camps and courses) and the famed Kitchen Garden. Paul Zammit, the Nancy Eaton Director of Horticulture, and perhaps the most enthusiastic gardener to ever walk the earth, gave me the grand tour.
Each year, the Kitchen Garden highlights a certain cuisine or region, growing a range of vegetables, herbs, and edibles flowers from the selected area. Yet, in 2014, they decided to use their six large raised beds to spotlight six plans from Groundbreaking Food Gardens!
The TBG chose to recreate the following designs:
Mark Cullen’s Beat the Grocery Bill: Mark is widely known as ‘Canada’s Garden Guru’ and in his plan he encourages gardeners to focus on growing food plants that are both high yielding and high value. For example, he includes a T-bar trellised bed of raspberries. Have you seen the price of organic raspberries? Growing your own highly perishable raspberries on a sturdy trellis will save you money and keep the rambling plants under control. Mark also suggests including annual flowers and herbs in a vegetable garden as they will attract the good bugs and pollinators, as well as provide blooms for fresh-cut bouquets.
Marjorie Harris’ Partially Shaded Vegetables: Marjorie lives and gardens in downtown Toronto where maturing trees have left her property with increasing shade that deepens every year. Therefore, she has learned how to grow food in less than ideal light conditions. As a talented garden designer, Marjorie has created a beautiful, but functional, checkerboard plot by staggering light coloured stepping stones. The stones serve several purposes. First, they make comfy perches for seeding, tending and harvesting the crops. Second, they absorb heat and reflect light back to the plants. Finally, they look fabulous! In the TBG Kitchen Garden (shown in our feature photo), the bed is raised and therefore the stones won’t be used for stepping, but will still absorb heat and reflect light. (Plus, Paul found them from a construction site and upcycled them in the TBG gardens!)
Kathy Martin’s Urban Shade Garden: Continuing the theme of shade – especially as two of the TBG’s Kitchen Garden beds are quite shaded – Kathy offers solutions to gardeners who deal with both small spaces and partial shade. Her own tiny urban plot is located in Boston and she has learned to make smart plant choices to ensure a bountiful harvest. In less than ideal light, she uses leafy greens, quick-growing beans and dwarf peas. If you must have tomatoes, opt for cherry types over large-fruited varieties, which are more likely to produce a decent harvest.
Paul Zammit’s Pollinator Friendly Plot: Not only is Paul the Director of Horticulture at the TBG, but he’s also a garden whiz, sharing his love of gardening with any and everyone who visits the gardens! As we walked along the many gardens at the TBG, at least half a dozen visitors stopped us to ask him questions and he was always so happy to take a few minutes and chat. Inspiring! In his garden plan, Paul encourages home gardeners to think beyond their own needs as they plan their vegetable gardens and also to consider the pollinators and beneficial insects. Of course, this is in our own best interest as these important creatures will boost yield and help prevent pest problems. Paul’s plot in the Kitchen Garden also includes several vertical structures to demonstrate how growing up can save serious garden space – especially important in small space urban gardens – and reduce insect and disease issues.
Steven Biggs’ Fig Pig Patio: Steven Biggs is a fig pig. And thanks to Steven’s widespread seminars and workshops, many other gardeners across Canada and the U.S. are learning the joy – and ease – of growing fabulous figs. In his plan, Steven combines figs with other ornamental edibles like Swiss chard, lavender and cardoon to create a lovely border to a patio, deck or pathway. Steven’s love of figs goes way back to when he started his first fig tree from a cutting 25 years ago — and he’s never looked back.
Niki Jabbour’s Year Round Vegetable Garden: The TBG also included my plan for a Year Round Veggie Garden, concentrating on cool and cold-season veggies like mizuna, mustards, and other salad crops. This bed will really come into its own when summer morphs into fall and the bed can be topped with a winter structure like a mini hoop tunnel. Meanwhile, however, a few other elements from Groundbreaking Food Gardens have been recreated in this space. At one end of the bed the TBG has included Doug Oster’s clever technique for trellising tomatoes. Check out the sturdy wooden stakes with diagonal string to support the vining tomato plants. Can’t wait to watch the vigorous vines climb up these structures!
What are your secrets for creating a groundbreaking food garden?