Gardening tips for beginners

Woman holding green leafed seedling

Grow your own groceries once you map the sun and choose a planting strategy like “no dig” or pizza gardening. (Photo: Nikola Jovanovic via Unsplash)

Do you want to grow a garden?

There are many reasons to dig in, including to:

Where and how will you plant?

A leaf in a sunbeam with forest in the background

Sketch a sun map

Is your yard, balcony or windowsill in full shade, part shade, full sun or a combination? No need to guess. Find out how to map or sketch the sun’s daily pattern. You’ll save time and money planting in the correct place and you’ll learn how to interpret instruction tags on plants. Did you know “full sun” means the site receives more than six hours of sunlight each day? Beware of frost pockets (dips or the lowest part of your yard) and note if you need wind protection.

Shovel digging in garden bed

Get your lawn off grass

Use sheet mulch instead of tearing up sod. Put down about three layers of cardboard (free from tape and/or staples) to smother lawn. Then add soil, compost or raised beds and get planting annuals and perennials — maybe start a food forest! Free arborist wood chips are great for trails between beds. Call a tree-trimming company to ask for a free load or flag down a truck chipping in your neighbourhood.

Tip: Fill raised beds with 30-40 centimetres of soil and compost.

Learn how to get your lawn off grass

Man reading in the grass

Keep a planting journal

Record what you planted and where, and how it did. That’ll make it easier to plant crops next season. Or take pictures and draw a map of beds and containers. Timing is everything. Check regional planting guides like this one to avoid failed crops and a broken heart!

Composting pile ready for the garden

Amend soil with compost

Backyard compost (fully decomposed) is a simple way to feed the garden and build up organic matter. Good store-bought compost brands will be free from plant disease, weed seeds and agricultural herbicides. Research a source or ask a retailer. Eco-conscious gardeners avoid peat moss because peatlands store carbon. And when the living layers of centuries-old bogs are mined, carbon dioxide is released (among other negative biodiversity consequences). Municipal compost can be good, although not good enough for certified organic farmers.

Shovel on table with soil sample

Test your soil

Soil health is important. Urban soils can sometimes contain contaminants like heavy metals (e.g., lead, cadmium) that make their way into fruits and veggies. Check to see if any local organizations that promote urban gardening test soil samples for free! And learn more about healthy gardening practices.

How do contaminants get into your garden?

  • Through rain.
  • Wind moves dust from the street.
  • Vehicle emissions (backyards are less at risk than front yards or boulevard gardens).

How to prevent or reduce risks of soil contamination?

  • A neutral pH (6.5-7.5) can immobilize or bind lead, zinc and cadmium. Many metals are more bioavailable in acidic soils.
  • Leaves are great for mulch, providing a protective blanket come fall and winter. They’ll help insulate the roots in winter and keep them cool in summer. But don’t collect leaves from roadsides.
  • Don’t plant edibles within three metres of buildings or busy streets where lead levels are highest.
  • Don’t make garden beds from chemically treated wood like railroad ties or pressure-treated lumber.

Learn more about suitable crops to grow with low to moderate levels of soil contamination, how soil contaminants behave and their health effects.

Download the urban gardens fact sheet

Pizza using fresh green vegetables from your garden

Idea! Plant a pizza garden

You can grow most of what you need to create your favourite pizza toppings and sauce in a small- to medium-sized garden bed. Most ingredients are sun lovers! It’s a great activity to do as a family.

Limited to a few pots on the balcony? Grow herbs in one container and one or more containers of tomatoes. You can create a delicious pizza sauce.

You’ll need:

  • Two to three tomato plants.
  • One jalapeno pepper plant.
  • Two to three herb plants like basil, sage and oregano.
  • One zucchini plant.
  • Two sweet or bell pepper plants.

Five planting strategies

1. Practice “no dig”

Digging and turning destroys soil structure and its living community. The top 10 centimetres of soil is home to active microbes, worms and more that you’ll need for a successful garden! Linda Gilkeson, author of Backyard Bounty: The Complete Guide to Year-Round Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest, shares the harms and risks associated with deep cultivation:

  • Breaking up important fungal mycelia. (Did you know mycelium is one of the largest living organisms on Earth?)
  • Killing worms.
  • Burying microbes with less oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange.
  • Bringing up weed seeds to germinate.
  • Breaking up the capillary flow of water to the roots from below.

Plant seeds and seedlings in the soil and organic matter, leaving the digging to worms.

Carrots and root vegetables for food


Roots (beets, parsnips and carrots) can be great at busting up clay soils so put them to work!

2. Try intensive gardening

Neat row-by-row planting no more! Grow more food in less space with less work with these intensive gardening techniques:

  • Create permanent garden beds to avoid trampling.
  • Add lots of compost for a slow release of nutrients, to hold water and improve the soil.
  • High-intensity mixed planting — use the entire surface of each bed.
  • Succession planting — stagger plantings to extend the growing season (e.g., plant carrots on Canada Day!) and replant gaps after harvest.

3. Crop rotation

For farm crops, rotation is a way to manage soil fertility. But for home gardens, adding compost is the best way to add nutrition. Rotation can be helpful to avoid soil-borne root diseases. A few facts to get started:

  • All veggies need nitrogen. Leafy greens and those in the cabbage family need it the most.
  • Peas and beans are nitrogen fixers! Use legumes to increase nitrogen levels in the soil for the next crop. Nitrogen-fixing species (legume family) provide this nutrient to other plants and microbes in their immediate vicinity.
  • Root veggies need potassium.
  • Fruits like phosphorus.
  • Rotate based on plant families since pathogens are host-specific.
  • Rotate crops that are heavy feeders like garlic, squash and tomatoes. They deplete the soil.
  • Most at risk for root diseases are the onion family and potatoes (nightshades).
  • A short rotation (a few months) is needed between carrot family crops to prevent carrot rust fly.
Young man in garden


Generally there’s no need to rotate edible perennials. However, strawberry beds may need to be dug up and replanted every two to four years due to overcrowding (You’ll know it’s time when you see no fruit production).

4. Try intercropping

This means growing different crops close together at the same time to improve yields in a small space. And if your climate allows, plant winter crops into summer plantings. In some cases, it’s choose a “canopy” and an “understory” crop to co-exist. Examples include:

  • Alternate rows of radishes (an early crop) with carrots.
  • Fall brassicas (e.g., broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage) with cucumbers (as long as they’re not shaded completely).
  • Lettuce with any crop that gets larger, later in the season.
  • Thread late-season squash vines between mature plants (or send them to ramble and spill into non-garden spaces).

The Permaculture Research Institute suggests:

  • Avoid plants from the same family in the same grouping.
  • Choose plants with similar water needs.
  • Choose plants with different root systems (to avoid competition underground).
  • Consider how plants might affect each other’s sunlight (e.g., “nurse” plants provide shade and moderate the microclimate for new germinants).
  • Combine plants with different growth rates so they won’t interfere with each other at the most crucial points of development.
Vegetables and Fruits growing in a raised planter


Learn about specific conditions and garden pests for your region. Check out the local chapter of Master Gardners, get a regional gardening “how-to” book or find a local gardening expert. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, lettuce is a handy interplanting species and tomatoes can be grown in the same soil year after year. But this isn’t the case in Eastern Canada where they must be rotated in soils due to root-knot nematode, advises Linda Gilkeson.

5. What about companion planting?

While popular on the internet, it lacks a scientific basis.

Linda Gilkeson explains: “Some insect-repelling compounds in herbs are used as repellent pesticides, but the effect occurs when the essential oils are extracted and used as a spray — not while the plant is simply growing in place. Pest insects have very sophisticated, accurate abilities to detect their host plants and usually have no ability to ‘smell’ irrelevant plants that are not their hosts.

Companion planting the right flowering plants is effective to attract beneficial insects to a crop; interplanting attractant plants has lots of scientific research to support it and is widely used in certain horticulture crops (e.g., lettuce in California and strawberries in Ontario).”

Check out other garden myths busted by Linda Chalker-Scott of Washington State University.

Cat wandering through a garden

Keep cats out of the garden!

Neighbourhood kitties digging in your garden can be a nuisance and a serious health risk (due to the spread of toxoplasmosis in a proportion of cats’ feces). Maybe it’s even your own cat! Make your garden beds less inviting, or less like a litter box. Try some low-cost, upcycled and even simple prickly solutions to deter cats.

Learn more tips and tricks