Niki Jabbour wanted to know all the enterprising ways that gardeners are growing food, whether with tips on growing in shade or laying out the design of a pizza garden. The Halifax-based garden writer spent more than two years reaching out to her favourite gardeners to contribute to her new book, Groundbreaking Food Gardens: 73 Plans That Will Change the Way You Grow Your Garden. Her tenacity helped lock down a list of gardening luminaries that includes Mark Cullen, Amy Harris, Andrea Bellamy, Amy Stewart and Globe and Mail gardening columnist Marjorie Harris. “Anybody doing something interesting that I had heard about in the past 10 years, I was calling them,” Jabbour says. The author spoke to The Globe and Mail about the front-yard frontier, looking for a sense of history and why there’s really no excuse to not grow your own food.
LaManda Joy lays out a plan for a vintage “victory garden,” which was popular during the Second World War, and Teresa O’Connor offers a “founding fathers garden” design that includes elements from Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello. Do people want their gardens to tell a story, to have a history?
That’s part of why people want heirloom vegetables. They want to know Charlie Mortgage’s lifter tomato. They want to hear how Radiator Charlie grew these during the Depression. People want to know, how did Thomas Jefferson grow his vegetables? What did he use for fertilizer? The story is really important.
Is there such a thing as too small a space for a garden?
Even if you don’t have a balcony, as long as you have a sunny windowsill. And if you don’t have a windowsill you can add a grow light. There’s no excuse for not even having a pot of herbs.
A lot of people love the idea of growing their own food, but there’s an intimidation factor.
There’s a huge intimidation factor. People think a vegetable garden is a lot of work. I say it over and over: start small. Or if you have kids, a pizza pot. Plant mini-peppers, some oregano, basil and cherry tomatoes. To take care of one little pot with three or four types of vegetables and herbs is easy.
What’s the easiest way to get young people interested in gardening?
All you need is a 12-inch pot. Plant about 30 miniature pea seeds and keep them well watered. They can easily harvest peas in about six weeks.
Why do the tomatoes I grow – sorry, try to grow – in containers turn out so bad?
You’re growing them in containers and then you’re watering them every once in a while but you’re not feeding them anything, are you? That’s the biggest thing with container gardening. To make your life really easy, go to the garden centre and get a container of little organic fertilizer pellets. When you put your potting soil in your pots, put the recommended dose in your soil and mix it up, maybe even add a bit of compost. That way, every time you water you’re releasing food to your plants, because potting soil is pretty sterile.
One of the book’s contributors, Chris McLaughlin, proposes turning front yards into suburban farms, while Sarah Elton suggests planting forage-able plants such as strawberries and brambles. Do you think front-yard gardening will become a trend?
I do. And I think it’s horrifying that some communities don’t allow it. But I think that if you’re going to garden in your front yard, you have to be responsible in that you have to keep it looking ornamental and tight. But that’s not hard to do.
What do you say to people who feel they’re strapped enough for time as it is and gardening is too hard?
It’s not hard. You’ve just got to prioritize. Start with a couple of pots this year. One pot of sun gold cherry tomatoes will blow your mind. If you’ve got kids, get a tray six or eight inches deep and plant some lettuces, let them help. And stop, you’re done.
The worst thing you can do is overwhelm yourself.
You host a radio show. What’s the most common problem listeners call in to discuss?
Deer. Deer, slugs, goutweed. Those are my top three. I just have to say the word “deer” and the phone lines light up.
This interview has been condensed and edited.