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The Globe and Mail

What to know about growing your own veggies

This is the first in a series of seasonal columns on DIY vegetable gardening by Gayla Trail, a Toronto author and creator of the gardening website

Since the 1950s, the vegetable plot has been lurking in the shadow of its popular cousin, the flower garden. When advances in agriculture and food preservation made it cheaper and easier to feed a family, North Americans signed an unconscious cultural contract to quit growing their own grub, focusing instead on gardening as a symbol of leisure and prosperity.

The curbside version of the mullet was put into effect: a polished business presentation out front, with any freaky horticultural shenanigans hidden in the backyard. Sure, there was a brief back-to-nature movement in the 1970s, but then the eighties hit and, well, that was the end of that.

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In case you've been living on Mars for the past six months, a quick recap: The economy is in the tank, green is good (again), vegetable seeds are outselling flowers for the first time in more than 50 years and America's newest (and decidedly coolest) first lady is cultivating a kitchen garden on the White House lawn.

Yes, a garden of the sort we were all sticking up our noses at a decade ago is now a hot topic at downtown dinner parties, where knowledge of heirloom tomato varieties is the latest cool cred.

But talking is one thing, doing another. If you're not already a diehard veggie gardener stepping out from behind the garage with your freak flag flying high, the question remains: Why bother growing your own when you can buy whatever catches your fancy at the local mega-mart?

The most obvious answer is that it is the cheapest and most environmentally friendly way to get good-quality, organically grown food to our tables. What went into dinner is no longer a question mark, and the backyard is about as "local" as one can get.

But there are other reasons, too. Growing your own is a way to subtly educate your family, cultivating excitement about eating fresh produce and connecting them to where it comes from. Research shows that kids are more likely to eat food they grew themselves - no more dinnertime bargaining over a bite of broccoli.

Any gardener will tell you that homegrown food also tastes one hundred times better than store-bought, no contest. Harvesting food grown with our own two hands also inspires an unexpected burst of pride and self-sufficiency. I grew this! Now, what else am I capable of?

So if you're considering breaking ground this spring, here's what you need to think about.

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Assess the sunlight

Most edible plants require ample sun and will not produce a good yield in shady spots. However, leafy plants (such as lettuce, kale, mustard greens and Swiss chard) will tolerate partial shade, as will some herbs, including mint, thyme, oregano and lemon balm.

If your backyard is shady and you want sun-loving tomatoes, consider unusual spaces where the light is right, such as a treeless front yard (more and more people are doing this), a sunny deck, balcony or roof or a secure window box.

In the absence of any outdoor space at all, look into joining a community garden, contacting your municipality or visiting for options near you.

Assess the soil

Beyond the fertility and quality of the soil, toxins and chemicals are a worry for many neo-gardeners, especially if the house once featured lead paint. You can have your yard's soil tested for toxins through a local lab (for locations across Canada, visit Planting in containers is one way to avoid the issue; another is to build raised beds above the soil line.

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Decide your garden style

Do you want to cultivate straight rows of beans, mix in veggies with ornamentals or go fully containerized?

Anything can be grown in containers as long as the size is right for the plant. Fruit-producing plants including tomatoes and cucumbers need lots of root space (30 centimetres deep or more); leafy greens can live in smaller pots.

Finally, what do you want to grow? Markets and garden shops are full of transplants, but it isn't too late to sow directly from seed either.

Tuck fast-growing lettuce, radish and arugula seeds in among tall, leafy plants and boost your bounty; you'll pocket the savings and eat well to boot.

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