Start the garden of your dreams this season with help from your local farmer!
If you find yourself heading out for a leisurely drive this spring, be sure to indulge in some roadside shopping. Starting in May, farms across Ontario begin selling seedlings to help their customers grow the most bountiful, robust gardens ever.
The beauty of a seedling versus a seed is that the farmer has done the work of starting the plant for you—all you have to do is find a good spot in your garden.
Vicki’s Veggies in Prince Edward County is the place to go for heirloom tomato seedlings. Run by Vicki Emlaw, an eighth-generation family farmer currently in her 20th year of operation, the farm is known for its roadside stand. Emlaw says she “hated” the red tomatoes her parents grew on their farm when she was growing up. But when she started farming herself, a friend introduced her to heirloom tomato seedlings and she was sold.
“I got eight different varieties in the first year. And these tomatoes were like nothing I had ever seen before,” she says. “One was a tiny, yellow pear shape that was super sweet. One was purply black and looked ugly but tasted so good.”
From there, Emlaw became “totally obsessed” with heirloom tomatoes. She even joined Seeds of Diversity, an organization that offers thousands of varieties. “People have saved seeds from their ancestors who came from countries all over the world, including Italy, Portugal, France and Holland.”
This year, Emlaw’s fellow tomato enthusiasts can choose from over 200 varieties of tomato—from lemon drop to Italian noire to green zebra and more—at the farm stand. She transformed a tiny former post office into a charming, cottage-like stand that operates on the honour system; customers can order heirloom seedlings in advance through Vicki’s Veggies website, then swing by her makeshift drive-through for pick-up. Everything is $5, and customers can even grab an iced coffee or a lemonade from another PEC small business, Lemonade Dave.
Buying seedlings directly from farms means you can be confident that the farmer has chosen the very best, just like Emlaw and her favourite tomatoes. “The varieties we offer to home gardeners are often varieties we’ve tested and can stand by,” says Amy Kitchen, who runs Sideroad Farm in Grey County with her husband Patrick. They offer seedlings they would grow for their own garden (think eggplant, kale, squash, rosemary, etc.) and flowers like marigolds and snapdragons. “We get a lot of testimonials from folks saying, ‘Those tomatoes you gave us are just amazing,’ and we say, ‘That’s why we grow them, too!’”
But, she explains, there’s also a practical reason to opt for seedlings: certain veggies, like peppers, require a longer growing season and must be planted as seedlings in order to thrive in your garden. That’s why the Kitchens start growing peppers in their greenhouse in February. “If you throw a pepper seed in the ground in late April or May (once the snow melts and it’s above 15 degrees Celsius), it’s not going to fruit by the time the frost comes again. It’s better to buy them pre-started.”
Aside from the obvious benefit of knowing where your food comes from, seedling sales also provide financial support to farmers during the slower seasons (harvests usually don’t happen until late June or July.) Plus, stopping by a local farm is a great way to pick up some gardening tips. “There are fewer and fewer farmers these days and people who know how to grow food,” says Emlaw. “It’s important to keep the tradition alive.”
If you still need a reason to get your hands dirty, Kitchen says cultivating your own garden, or planter, is a great mood booster. Last spring, after the COVID-19 pandemic began, every single flower seedling sold out at Sideroad Farm. “I think people are just really looking for that extra bit of joy in their lives right now that growing a garden can bring.”
Ready to start your own garden?
Follow these five pro tips from Hanna Jacobs, farmer at Matchbox Garden & Seed Co. in Caledonia.
- Select a good location
For balconies, Jacobs recommends starting with five containers, approximately five gallons each—they should be between one to two feet deep. In a yard, start with a plot that’s around five feet by 10 feet. “But work with what you have,” says Jacobs. Just choose a spot that gets enough light. Save space by using trellises and buying veggie seedlings that grow upward, like pole beans.
- Go for good soil
The soil is the cornerstone of the garden,” says Jacobs. “Plants are only going to be as healthy and bountiful as the soil is.” For containers, choose an organic potting mix; for in-ground gardens, look for garden soil or topsoil. In both cases, be sure to read the label for need-to-know info and add lots of compost to feed the plants.
- Grow your favourites
“If you’re brand new to gardening, grow what you love to eat or what’s beautiful to you,” she says. Try not to let your eyes be bigger than your stomach, she adds. It’s easy to get caught up in planning epic gardens, but planting too much means you may find yourself struggling to manage a mini jungle by mid-summer.
- Consider time management
Be realistic about how much time you’ll be able to spend on your garden and consider whether you’ll have help from family or friends. “If you don’t have a lot of time, it’s going to get weedy and you might be discouraged,” says Jacobs. If in doubt, start small and see how you manage, then consider adding more next season.
- Try community gardening
If you don’t have any outdoor space for a garden, consider joining a community garden, a shared plot of land where people can sign up to grow their own fresh vegetables and flowers. Find a program near you at sustainontario.com.
- Give lots of TLC
“Plants are more resilient than we give them credit for,” says Jacobs. “As long as we give them enough light, water and love, they will be absolutely fine. Don’t be afraid of the garden!” Check out Jacobs’ three-hour virtual gardening workshops on her website (matchboxgarden.ca).