How to grow your own food in a small, urban space

As the price of produce in Canada soars, growing your own fruits and vegetables in a garden can be a wallet-friendly — and healthier — alternative.

“I think people want an alternative to store-bought, mass-produced foods,” said certified horticulturalist Dave Attard.

But what if you’re strapped for space?

READ MORE: Honey, hives and highrises, why urban beekeeping is trending in Canada

Attard and co-owner Joe Veroni run Urban Gardener, a landscaping business and garden shop in the Junction neighbourhood in Toronto with a focus on local products.

We asked for his top tips on growing your own herbs and vegetables in a small space like a balcony.

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How to maximize your space

One of the trickiest things about balcony gardening is the limited space.

Attard recommends maximizing your space by using shelving and placing pots throughout the tiers.

Another option is to build an herb and vegetable box, which can give you the space and depth required.

READ MORE: 5 reasons why supermarkets want you to eat your fruits and vegetables

If you’re worried about high winds knocking over your plants, Attard suggests regularly pruning them to keep them low, and if needed, using stakes to keep everything secure.

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The best foods to grow in a balcony garden

Attard says that basically anything you can grow in the ground can be grown on a balcony, except for items like carrots and potatoes, which require deep growing bases.

Veggies like zucchini and eggplant are fairly low-maintenance, as are herbs like dill and mint.

“You just have to be aware of your light requirements and make sure that you’re putting the right plant in the right space,” he said.

So if your space is shady, avoid tomatoes and peppers and opt for leafy greens instead.

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Soil and fertilizer

If you’re planting in pots or boxes, Attard always recommends potting mix for soil.

“Things like black earth and triple mix are too dense of a soil to work in pots,” he said.

Potting mix is ideal for balcony gardening because it’s mixed with peat and perlite to hold moisture and allow air to flow through your plants in an enclosed container.

READ MORE: How to make your vegetable garden both pretty and functional

As for feeding your plants, Attard emphasized the importance of opting for organic over synthetic fertilizers, especially for plants that you intend on eating.

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And if you’ve ever wondered what those three numbers on fertilizer packages mean, Attard says they represent the levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Each respectively encourages the upward growth, downward growth and the flowering or fruit development of the plant.

“When you’re growing vegetables and herbs, they have such a short growing season, so you really want to promote upward growth and flower and fruit development,” he said.

So pick a fertilizer with fairly high first and last numbers.

Fill your gardening toolkit

Like any good craftsman, a good set of tools helps yield the best results.

If you’re looking to fill your toolkit, Attard suggests investing in a trowel, cultivator, grape pruner and a watering can.

But don’t forget about your two best tools: your hands.

“Never discount your hands,” he said. “Don’t be shy about getting your hands dirty.”

What to avoid

“People’s biggest problems are when they’re watering their plants,” explained Attard. “They like to wash their plants and water on top of them.”

He says this is one of the worst things you can do to your plants because keeping plant leaves wet for too long can promote unwanted pests and diseases.

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Instead, always aim to water the soil around the plant and keep the plant itself dry.

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