Advice on making a new garden from scratch

My friend just bought a house with a (small) front and back yard.

He has enlisted my assistance with making him a garden, which I’m really excited about. I have some experience container gardening but none at all with the actual earth. So I know how to plant stuff once I have a nice place to plant it. So my first question is, how to make the soil plant-worthy?

We’re in Toronto so it’s going to be April or May before the soil thaws up. It appears as if there were gardens (flowers and/or vegetable) and small lawns in the yards years ago but haven’t been maintained for a while. There’s a very young evergreen tree of some sort in the front (which he may want to move; it’s in a strange spot).

So what do we need to do? I have lots of good compost that I can put on the garden when the time comes. Left to my own devices I would dig everything up once it’s soft enough, and spread compost on it, and then I’d stop because I wouldn’t know what to do next.

My second question is, what should we plant? We’re planning on some vegetables (root veg; herbs; tomatoes; beans; greens; squash; the usual), and sunflowers to cover up an ugly fence. Other ornamentals are welcome, but I don’t have any experience with them.

No pesticides will be used, and we don’t want a grassy lawn partly because of the pesticides and partly because the space is so small it doesn’t really merit buying a lawn mower. I am thinking of ivy or some sort of native plant for ground cover for the front, but there is a picnic table in the back and it would be nice to have some green space to hang out in. What’s a good sturdy ground cover alternative that can stand up to people walking on it?

He’s really into heirloom varieties and he really likes tomatoes, what are some good varieties?

Any and all advice will be greatly appreciated.

We’re in the process of rehabilitating a much-neglected garden in Toronto too - we bought our house last spring, so we did some work last year, but the real work will probably start this year. It’s backbreaking work, but it’s damned rewarding. :slight_smile:

To start, we got a great soil blend from our local garden centre… it’s equal parts black earth, peat moss and manure. We cleared out all the weeds from the beds, we gave everything a good turning over with a hoe and rake, spread a thick layer of soil on top and then gave everything another good turning over to blend everything. The manure you have may do the trick, though I would probably suggest a bag or two of black earth to balance it out.

Re: plants… while you’re waiting on the thaw, have your friend spend the next couple of months evaluating the light in the garden. You’ll want to put veggies and sunflowers in the sunniest possible space, for example, and cultivate more shade-loving plants like hostas and ferns and solomon’s seal in the darker corners.

If the fence gets enough sun, morning glories would probably be a great pick to camouflage it… they grow like you wouldn’t believe! I’m partial to honeysuckle and trumpet vine as well - the honeysuckle has a wonderful smell when it blooms.

If you own a car and/or live closer to the downtown area, the Evergreen complex at the Don Valley Brickworks will have a native/ecologically sustainable nursery in the spring. Their plants will be pretty much idiot-proof to add to your garden, since they’re already suited to our climate and soil. You might score a few interesting heirloom tomato plants there, come to think of it, and you can probably chat up the sellers for good tips on what would work in your friend’s garden… they’re often more than happy to share their wisdom.

Sounds like you’re on the right track. When we decided to convert our back yard in Calgary from the former owner’s kids’ play area, we did pretty much that: plotted out where we wanted our garden, dug up the sod, and turned over the earth. Now, mind you, preparing the earth was the tricky part–we seem to sit on a very clay-ey soil, so we needed some loam. That was easy enough to get from places like Home Depot or Canadian Tire, and once we’d worked it into what was already there, we were pretty good to go. If you find a somewhat clay-ey soil in the yard, you may want to get some bags of loam from a local garden centre and supplement that with your compost.

I’m unsure if they’re heirlooms or not, but I did have some great success in Toronto years ago with “Beefsteak” tomatoes. Beefsteaks are beautiful, big, flavorful tomatoes, just right for slicing and putting on burgers, or for just plain eating. Or, he may want to try “Early Girls,” which, as the name suggests, ripen earlier than many varieties, so you can enjoy your tomatoes in the summer without waiting until late August or early September to do so. Of course, you can have a lot of fun with cherry tomatoes too (there are a few varieties), which grow and mature fairly quickly and which will probably leave you with enough to pass along to friends, relatives, co-workers, etc.

I also often grow peppers. I haven’t found that sweet bell peppers (green, yellow, red) work very well for me, but you may have better success with them in Toronto. I can grow cayenne peppers here, and those seem to work well (and I must be doing something right because they’re indeed hot).

Other than that, various herbs are fairly easy to grow outdoors. We like to have dill, oregano, chives, and rosemary growing; plus whatever else strikes our fancy when we’re at the garden centre. Avoid mint plants (including catnip); they will take over your garden. But whatever you grow, have fun with it!

  1. start with dirt
  2. plant desired seeds during proper seasonal times
  3. Water plants with optional food
  4. Watch plants grow
  5. Profit!

When we moved to the Bay Area, the soil in the place where it made sense to put a garden was awful - full of clay. Now it is wonderful.

The first thing is, don’t expect it to become great the first year. It takes time.
What I did was to incorporate both kitchen compost and composted horse manure. My daughter rode, so this was readily available. Our waste management company also sponsors a compost give away once a year, from what they collect in our green cans. Usually they limit you to a few bags, once I came at the end of the day in my truck and was offered all I wanted

You also have to dig deep - just putting compost on top of the soil isn’t going to do it. I have a cultivator, but when I started I had to dig even deeper than that can reach. When I lived in NJ my neighbor had a big roto-tiller that I could borrow. My house was also built on an old chicken ranch, so the soil was great from the beginning.

So, the cheapest way of improving the soil is to find a barn nearby with a manure pile. Since they have to pay to get it hauled off, they will probably be happy to let you have some. If that fails, buy a horse. :slight_smile:

If you can hire somebody to roto-till your gardens, it’s a lot easier, especially the first time. Buy some straw to mix in, too.

If you care to hand dig it, I’ll paraphrase from Jim Crockett’s Victory Garden book.

For the first row, dig a trench, one shovel deep. Set aside the soil, or take it to the other end of the garden. Don’t hurt yourself; dig a piece no bigger than a volume of an encyclopedia at a time.

At the bottom of the trench, drive in a spade fork. Wiggle it just enough to pull it out. You are making holes through the clay for drainage and nutrients.

Dig out the next row, putting the dirt-books into the trench, with the sod at the bottom. Do the spade fork thing at the bottom of your new trench.

Take a break when you get tired. Who cares if it takes several days?

Repeat the procedure until you reach the other end, then drop in the soil from the first row.

If you want to hurry the progress toward crumbly garden soil, sow annual rye seed over the whole garden at the end of the season. In the spring, dig all that rye into the soil as you do your annual turn-over.

IMO (and I’m not a particularly good gardener) he should start his compost pile now. Why throw away all that great composting material that he’ll have between now and spring?

Many harmful insects don’t care for the scent of marigolds. Some folks plant marigolds in among their food plants.

I don’t know if honeysuckle or jasmine will grow in your part of the world, but they make lovely fence covers (put them on a trellis in front of the fence) and they smell heavenly when they’re in bloom.

Cucumbers are very easy to grow, and prolific producers. Wash, peel or not as you please, and serve with Italian dressing, or just olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper. Bell peppers are very nice. I used to think that I didn’t like tomatoes, until I tasted home-grown tomatoes. I still don’t like supermarket tomatoes, but I adore real tomatoes.

Anyone who’s moved into a new house, I recommend you hang out for a full growing season to see what you’ve already got before starting much of anything. Plants don’t all appear at once, in April.

The oft reccomended Honeysuckle can be an invasive son of a gun down here in Zone7, the central Southern United States. YMMV. :slight_smile:

Your local library is a good starting point and the librarians are very helpful. You should probably get the soil tested before you spend money on additives. In the U.S. most county gov’ts have soil testing services and advice on agriculture/horticulture, Canada probably has something similar. Get started on learning now and you should be ready by planting time.

I would adjust that to if you want to grow mint plants, grow them in a container so they will be, well, contained.

I am actually a landscape designer, and my first advice to you would be to go slowly and carefully. Take your time, do your research and plan things out. Gardens are marathons, not sprints - gardening is not for the impatient. :slight_smile:

You might want to consider getting rid of the evergreen. Depending on the type, evergreens can get huge and take over the entire yard. I don’t recommend a full sized spruce for a small yard (something like a dwarf mugo would look great, though).

Shrubs are the bones of your yard - plant some nice, not too large shrubs around the periphery, and fill in the rest with perennials, groundcovers, annuals, and herbs. Lilacs are usually a good choice for Canadian yards - you get a lot of bang for your buck with the beautiful, hardy lilacs.

Don’t forget your hardscaping - stepping stones, pathways, benches, arbours, trellises, driveways, etc.

Consider planting the herbs and vegetables amongst the flower beds, rather than having a strict, rectangular “garden.” You could also do some very nice things with containers of herbs (like mint).

The important things to look for in choosing plants is what growing conditions they like (sunny, shade, or part-shade, moist or dry-lovers) and what their mature size (height and spread) will be. Zone isn’t as important, since most plants at your local nurseries are usually chosen for your particular zone (you can look up your zone or just ask a local gardener - we all know what zone we’re in). You can ask them about sturdy groundcovers, too - there are many to choose from. Some of my favourite hardy plants are lilies (daylilies and asiatics), roses, and peonies - all very hardy, easy to grow, and mostly pest-free (except the damned ants on the peonies).

I find this site to be quite nice and useful, if a bit overwhelming. Then again, you have some time until the ground can be worked, so you can browse and daydream to your heart’s content!


Last year was my first year gardening; my roommates and I got a garden plot in a local community garden. They did the tilling and such for us, but we got started so late that we had to weed and turn all the soil anyway.

One thing I’d say is that you can grow an awful lot of vegetables in a very small space. Our plot was maybe 20x20 square, and that yielded quite a bit (would have been more if we were more attentive to it).

We had luck with many varieties of tomato, kale, cauliflower, lettuce, cucumbers, and beans. Our eggplant didn’t work so well, and the peppers were underwhelming. Carrots and beets came out all right, but I was too afraid to thin them out while they were growing (what, you want me to pull up my precious plants!?!?), and so they ended up very small. We had butternut squash, which are oh so tasty, but we didn’t end up with very many of them.
I absolutely loved gardening this summer (the last time I had a ‘real’ garden I was a kid helping my mom weed our garden at home). For Christmas I got this book which has a lot of good, general advice.

featherlou, excellent advice! I always keep in mind the aphorism about perennials: The first year they sleep. The second year they creep. The third year they leap.

I see that Canada and the US use the same plant hardiness zone scale, and Toronto looks like it’s in Zone 5. That’s the same zone as where I live.

If you’re planting a veg. garden, you need a spot that gets LOTS of sun. As far as ornamentals go, you could plant perennials, like clematis, to cover the ugly fence. Autumn clematis grows like crazy (after it leaps in its third year).

Regarding tomatoes and peppers, don’t plant them until the soil has really warmed up. You don’t gain anything by getting them in the ground earlier. If the soil’s cold, they’ll just sit there and sulk. I never plant tomatoes and peppers before June 1, and I still get tons.

Heirloom tomatoes: My favorites are Brandywine and Mr. Stripey. Brandywine tomatoes are almost pink. They’re big, slicing tomatoes. Mr. Stripey is another beefsteak type, with beautiful red and orange/yellow stripes. Gorgeous! I used to grow an open-pollinated tomato called Ciudad Victoria, which produced currant-sized tomatoes in clusters. Oh, they were wonderful! Snip off a bunch, like grapes, and enjoy. And they “reseeded freely,” producing volunteers that actually yielded tomatoes.

Heirloom varieties have their drawbacks, especially if you don’t know what kind of soil you’re planting in. Most modern hybrids are VNF resistant, and if it turns out you have soil inoculated with one or more of the problematic soil-born fungi, your heirlooms may not have much of a chance.

Roto-tilling can really help in the first year if your soil is compacted and you want to work in lots of organic matter. But keep in mind that, once you’ve got your soil nice and rich and friable, roto-tilling can do more harm than good. It roto-tills the earthworms, too, and can make the soil particles so fine that you end up with soil more prone to compaction.

Look into succession planting. Plant peas and lettuce early, and when they poop out as the weather gets hot, replace them with your tomato and pepper plants. I love lettuce! Makes you appreciate the concept of a “spring tonic.” Plant squash, and when you’re sick of them, take them out and plant cabbage or another crop of lettuce and spinach.

Have fun, cowgirl!

Eonwe, I have the same problem with thinning! :slight_smile: