Starting a Vegetable Garden (For the absolute beginner!)

This presentation was originally shown as an online event for Oakville Public Library March 17, 2021.

Why Grow Vegetables?

Save money

Eat what you grow

Access to organic produce


Try different varieties of vegetables - you won't see these vegetables in grocery stores!

But remember, produce grown at home won’t look like grocery store produce – and that is ok! 

Embrace imperfection!

Some blemishes are cosmetic only and won't affect taste. Others can be easily remedied by making minor changes to how you grow your food.
  • Carrots need sandy, loose soil to grow, otherwise they ‘fork’. 
  • Tomatoes crack when watering is inconsistent (dry spells followed by wet weather or excessive watering)
  • ‘Catfacing’ occurs when developing flowers are subjected to temperatures below 16C

For more solutions to problems in the garden see the “Common Problems in the Garden” blog post.

Growing vegetables at home doesn't need to be intimidating.

There are many different ways to grow your own food. If you have a yard, you can create an in-ground garden or build a raised bed. If you live in an apartment building or condo, you can grow almost any type of vegetable in a pot on your balcony, providing you get some sun every day. If you don’t have access to a yard or a balcony, you can always grow microgreens or sprouts in a sunny windowsill. 

Tuck vegetables in amongst your perennials, or in a pot in the landscape. In the picture on the left, a perennial bed is bordered with parsley and rosemary.

If you have a yard, you may wonder what the difference is between a raised bed and an in-ground bed. 

A raised bed allows you to control the quality of the soil. If you have high amounts of clay in your soil, a raised bed may be the way to go. Raised beds are also easier to weed and keep pests, like rabbits, out. Unfortunately, raised beds are often more costly than in-ground beds due to the materials involved. If you do build a raised bed – be sure to use untreated wood for the frame, to prevent any leaching of chemicals into your garden!

In-ground beds are cheaper and, if you had an existing bed in place, may be easier to create, but you have to work with the soil you have.

If you don’t have access to a yard, don’t let that stop you from growing your own food. A patio, deck or balcony will work just as well. Spend some time researching crops that don’t take up a lot of space. Many varieties of common vegetables now come in ‘patio’ or ‘dwarf’ size. 

Take advantage of vertical spaces on a balcony and grow up, instead of out. Many plants can be trained up a bamboo pole, a balcony railing or other trellising system. 

Any container will work, plastic, metal, wood, ceramic or terra cotta. The only criteria is that the container needs holes in the bottom to allow for proper drainage. 

Some vegetables, like leafy greens and herbs can be grown in shallow containers but others, like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers need deeper containers to allow for root growth and to maintain moisture, as container gardens are prone to drying out quickly. 

Buy a high quality potting soil for containers. Do not use top soil as it is heavy and dries out quickly. Water frequently; terra cotta and ceramic containers dry out quickly. 

Location, Location, Location!

The site, soil and amount of sunlight your yard receives will determine where you will be able to garden. If you plant in pots, keep in mind that you don’t need to keep all the pots together. 

The soil should be rich and loamy. If it is not, build raised beds, use containers or add lots of compost to create the conditions you need. 

Most vegetables need at least 6-8 hours of sunlight a day, so choose a sunny location. For ease, put the garden close to your house and close to a water source. 


What is compost? Compost is made from decomposed plant material. That can be leaves, vegetable scraps or spent plant material. It is an excellent source of nutrients for growing plants. Compost improves the soil – it creates conditions where there is better water movement and gas exchange at the root level, all of which create healthier plants.  

  • Make your own! See our YouTube on how to make your own compost
  • Or Buy! 
    • Buying in bulk is cost effective with less waste than bags
    • Split an order with a neighbour
    • Many local companies to choose from
    • Halton Region has a Free Compost Giveaway twice a year!

* Remember good compost should not smell bad!

The latest wisdom from scientists, is that tilling is very bad for your soil. Check out our blog post on “Save Your Back: The Benefits of a No-Till Garden” for more information on why tilling isn’t such a good idea


Don't waste your time and energy on vegetables your family won't eat!

GMO? Hybrid? Open Pollination? Heirloom?

What does that mean? How do I choose?? And what about organic?

Hybrid seeds are created by crossing to unique parent plants. The first generation, or F1, is designed to be stronger than the parents. Often a disease resistant tomato is crossed with a tomato that is very tasty to create a tasty, disease resistant new variety. The plant is bred to have all the desired traits of both parents and none, or few, of the undesirable traits. A disadvantage to hybrid seeds is that the seeds of the F1 plant might not come true – whIch means it might not look like its parent but instead it will revert back to the previous generation and have undesirable traits. 

Open pollination is the natural way for plants to exchange genetic material. Wind, insects, birds and bees carry pollen from one plant to the next or the plant can self pollinate. Open pollination can mean greater genetic diversity in a species which increases its resilience to things like climate change. It is also the best type of plant to use if you are saving seeds from one year to the next. There are some disadvantages to open pollinated plants. Open pollinated plants may be less disease resistant in the short term than their hybrid counterparts. Also, there may be some varieties that you don’t want to cross pollinate with flowers in the wild. Carrots, for example, flower in their second year of growth and can easily cross pollinate with Queen’s Anne Lace, a common weed in Ontario. The result would be an inedible vegetable. 

Heirloom plants mean they have been grown for at least 50 years. 

GMO? It is illegal in Canada to sell unlabelled GMO seeds. Genetically modified organisms are sold to farmers after they sign contacts saying they will not save the seeds.  It is a multibillion dollar a year business and they will not risk losing their money by letting backyard gardeners grow and save their seeds. That being said, if you are adamantly opposed to GMO, research the company you are buying seeds from and make sure they are not a subsidiary of such companies. No point putting money in their pockets!

What about organic? Any seed can be grown organically, but if you believe in organic food, buy organic seeds to support the organic farmer who grew the organic vegetable to get the organic seed!

Setting Up Your Garden

Watch the following video to learn how to set up a square foot garden. 

You can buy starter plants if you cannot or do not wish to start seeds indoors. Common starter plants include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, leeks, broccoli and cauliflower. 

If you grow plants from seeds, remember to label them!   

Peas, lettuce, spinach, kale, beets, arugula, Swiss chard, radishes, Bok choy, chives carrots, and green onions are all examples of vegetables you can start outside in April or early May, as soon as the soil can be worked. Read the packet for directions on soil depth, spacing and when to plant. 

If you have expired seeds – don’t throw them away! It simply means you won’t have as high a germination rate.

Companion Planting: Part Art, Part Folklore, Part Science!

  • Some plants improve the soil and help other plants grow, like peas and beans
  • Some plants attract beneficial insects to the garden, some repel harmful insects
  • Some plants use space efficiently allowing multiple plants to share the same space

Include herbs in the companion list!

Besides improving the flavour of food, herbs have numerous benefits in the garden:

  • Cabbage moths don’t like sage
  • Thyme is good if you want to dispel cabbage worms which munch on cabbage and broccoli, cauliflower and kale
  • Mint wards off a host of pests
  • Borage deters tomato worms and is a companion to squash and strawberries
  • Caraway loosens the soil and attracts parasitic wasps 
  • Oregano repels and distracts aphids

Other companion planting ideas

  • Onions (including leeks & garlic) should be planted near carrots and cabbage to keep away carrot flies and cabbage worms
  • Carrots attract assassin bugs, lacewings and parasitic wasps
  • Tomatoes deter asparagus beetles and diamondback moth larvae, which chew cabbage leaves 
  • Leafminers will damage spinach leaves but planting radishes among the spinach will draw the leafminers away. The leafminers will eat the radish leaves but leave the radishes underground alone. 
  • Basil protects tomatoes from tomato hornworms

Don’t forget the flowers!

  • Marigolds don’t just look pretty, they repel nematodes which attack vegetable roots. 
  • Asters are general insect repellents
  • Geraniums can attract caterpillars, luring them away from your edibles
  • Lavender is a general insect repellent

Some things don’t grow well together…

  • Onions will stunt the growth of beans
  • Pole beans should be kept away from beets (bush beans are ok)
  • Don’t plant tomatoes and potatoes beside each other – diseases!
  • Keep tomatoes away from corn, cabbage, cucumbers, fennel, and rosemary
  • Cucumbers and sage don’t mix
  • Potatoes and summer squash are prone to blight plus both are ‘heavy feeders’ meaning take a lot from the soil
  • Carrots growth can be affected by coriander, dill and parsnips

Bugs in the Garden

Only one of these insects is undesirable in the garden

Do not use insecticides or pesticides in the garden! Insect populations are on the decline. Each and every one of them plays a role in our environment. It may be a bug you don’t want munching on your vegetables but it could also be lunch to a hungry songbird! 

Research the insect first and, if necessary, remove it from the garden, leaving somewhere something else can eat it. 

If you see a Tomato hornworm looking like the bottom picture, leave it alone. A new generation of braconid wasps are about to be born.

Have extra produce?

Consider our Grow and Donate program!

The objectives of “Grow and Donate” are two-fold:

  1. increase access to fresh, local, nutritious produce by all Halton residents
  2. reduce food waste by preventing surplus food from spoiling  

An added benefit is the sense of community that is built by coming together to grow, donate, and help our neighbours.

In an effort to prevent food waste and help our neighbours in need, any extra food can be donated to Kerr Street Mission and St. Luke’s via their new contactless method:   

Donations are by appointment:  

St Luke’s: 

Kerr Street Mission:


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