Q: I want to plant a more sustainable garden this year. Anything I can do to prep for it?
A: As your lawn sheds its muddy yellow tinge and neighbourhood bulbs take bloom, it's a good time to think about taking your garden to a deeper shade of green. And while global warming hasn't yet shifted growing seasons enough that we'd recommend planting everything today, there's plenty you can do to gear up.
Take the lead from Earth Day cleanup sprees and start tidying your garden and planting carbon-dioxide-sucking trees of your own. Look for those with a large enough canopy to eventually shade your roof on the south and east sides. Evergreen trees and vines on the north and west sides can help insulate your house from the setting sun. Not-for-profit LEAF (Local Enhancement & Appreciation of Forests) offers native trees and shrubs to property owners at a subsidized cost through its backyard tree-planting program (call 416-413-9244 or leaftoronto.org) and has planted over 9,000 trees to date. For a free tree on your front lawn, contact the city's forestry section at 416-338-TREE. They actually give them away!
Feeding your soil (whether in pots or beds) with the right stuff will mean you'll be munching on tomatoes rich in nutrients, not petrochemicals. Stay away from synthetic fertilizers and chemically boosted soils and spread a good layer of compost on your garden instead. Now's as good a time as any to start on this and the city just gives this stuff away (see www.toronto.ca/compost/leaf.htm)
If you want to give trees, shrubs or plants an added boost, look for all-natural fertilizers made from kelp meal, worm castings or other non-chemical substances. T.O.-based Urban Harvest sells a wide assortment at Grassroots on Danforth or Bloor.
FYI, this is the first spring and summer when Toronto's public health in-vestigators will be handing out fines for violating the anti-pesticide bylaw. Stay away from chemical weed killers and make your peace with the pesky greens. A few weeds won't kill you, but toxic pesticides will. Now's a good time to add a little topsoil to your grass and throw down some low-maintenance rye or fine fescue grass seeds instead of water-sucking Kentucky bluegrass. Overseeding and mowing high keeps weeds at bay. Keep your lawn healthy by sprinkling it lightly with carbonite (broad-spectrum minerals) in early spring.
If you're an ultra-eager gardener and already started seeds indoors, well, for one, you put the rest of us to shame. But more importantly, now's a good time to give them a little tough love. We don't mean you should shove them out in frost's way (even though the Farmers's Almanac predicts Toronto's last frost will actually be May 9), but you could build some cold frames (halfway houses for little seedlings) with plastic sheeting and metal frames or even old windows.
Haven't seeded yet? Start some in a cold frame now to give them a little extra boost and put homegrown food on your table sooner. Hardy cold crops like peas, lettuce, spinach and Swiss chard can all be planted freely now.
When it comes time to plant the bulk of your greenery, try to stay away from big-box chain and corner-store flowers, which tend to be grown with chemical inputs. You can help restore Ontario's biodiversity and provide habitat for wild birds and insects by planting native plants instead. They're extra-hardy because they're already adapted to local conditions, and tend to need less water, pest contol and overall fussing then plants that originate in other climates.
Keep in mind that most native plants available at big retail stores have been dug up from woodlots where they provide habitat for local critters. Get yours from trusted growers who start them from seed, like Ontario Native Plants (www.nativeplants.ca, 905-649-8176) or Grow Wild ( grow-wild.com, 705-738-5496). Urban Harvest Garden Alternatives (www.uharvest.ca, 416-504-1653) offers certified organic heritage vegetable, herb and native seedlings, seeds and soil amendments. Check out FoodShare's annual plant sale, which'll have all sorts of organic veggies, herb seedlings and some kickass compost (May 13, 10 am to 1 pm, 200 Eastern). FYI, it's best to buy flowers when they're not in bloom.
Got garden envy? Most urbanites don't have much space to cultivate. If you lack a yard or your balcony potting just ain't satisfying your need to dig up weeds, look into helping out around your local community garden. Many, like the Eglinton Park Heritage Community Garden (firstname.lastname@example.org), hold weekly work bees as well as monthly workshops on eco gardening topics. Toronto has more than 100 of these unique green spaces. Some are free, others charge $15 to $50 to join. To learn more about the garden nearest you, call 416-392-6655.
Want to know more about gardening naturally? Check out a workshop on the topic at the Stan Wadlow Clubhouse (on Cedarvale) at 7 pm on May 16 for more tips on greening your lawn, garden and trees without resorting to toxins.
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