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How to start gardening for beginners with local chef Guy Rawlings

Growing vegetables, herbs and other plants at home can be fun, delicious and even easy. Local chef Guy Rawlings talks gardening for beginners in any space.

Gardening for beginners | Growing vegetables and herbs indoors

After spending the better part of a year at home, our focus has shifted, and gussying up our living spaces, improving our cooking and relying on more sustainable food sources have all been top of mind lately. With spring in the air, we’re looking at growing our own ingredients as a way to cover all of the above.

Whether you’re placing a pot on your windowsill, redecorating your balcony with some planter boxes or turning your patch of grass into a garden, growing your own ingredients can be a great way to liven up your living space and elevate your home cooking.

Even if you don’t feel like you’ve been blessed with a particularly green thumb, gardening can be therapeutic, fun and, (dare we say?), easy. To give us the lowdown on getting down and dirty in the garden, we chat to Guy Rawlings. Formerly the chef and co-owner of the recently shuttered Montgomery’s, Rawlings is an expert in making delicious meals from scratch with local, seasonal ingredients all sourced from within Canada.

Why grow your own ingredients?

“In terms of benefits, obviously from an eating side it's the best. You grow your own food, you pick it at the best moment — it's going to taste 20 gazillion times better. Even when you buy something from a farmers’ market, they have logistics, those small farmers. And even though it’s only coming from an hour or two away, instead of thousands of kilometres away, they still have to pick some stuff at certain stages to make sure it transports well. A tomato is a great example, or certain fruits, where they’re more perishable. They’re not meant to be picked and packaged. They’re not designed like that. They’re meant to be eaten at that moment.

When you buy fruit from a grocery store — let's say raspberries — they're refrigerated. Maybe you put them in your refrigerator, and maybe you put them on the counter. Usually you're eating them somewhere between 4 C and 20 C. But to eat one that's been basking in the sun on a hot day, let's say it's 30 C outside, that 10 degrees makes a huge difference in flavour and experience. Those are the kinds of things you can experience when you're picking your own fruit and vegetables and eating them at that moment.”

Gardening for beginners | Local chef Guy Rawlings

What are some gardening tips for beginners?

“Don't try and grow everything. You get really excited when you go to buy seeds or seedlings [young plants], like, “I'm going to do one of these, and one of these, and a bunch of these and one of these.” If you're a novice, and you're just taking a first dive into this, every plant likes different things. Make sure you don't overwhelm yourself with all the different information of what plants like — if you're growing less variety, there’s less to learn.

Let's say you do tomatoes, you don't want to plant them really close together. But some people get excited and they think, ‘Oh yeah, this pot, I'll squeeze two tomato plants in here because then I'll get twice as much.’ When actually, two tomato plants in a small space means you'll get less than if you did one plant and did it properly.

So the hot tip there is, don't try and grow too much. You don't go to the grocery store hungry after you've smoked a doobie — you're just going to buy too much stuff you shouldn't. And understand the spacing.

What if you only have a small space?

“If you have a small area, the first thing to consider is what kind of sun you're getting. Because south facing you'll get the most, north you get obviously the least, and then east and west, you get a variety of either early morning, or late afternoon.

Everyone would think that south is the best because it's lots of sun, but it could mean other things. Lettuces don't really like tons of direct light or when it's really hot, because then it makes it seed. So instead of growing a nice head of lettuce, you'll have this weird thing reaching for the sky that looks like it's from the dinosaur era.”

Gardening for beginners | Growing vegetables and herbs on a window sill indoors

What plants should you start with?

“There's a reason everyone always says herbs are a good place to start. I know it's pretty typical, but herbs are easy to grow. And they're pretty satisfying. Lettuce is easy too. And everyone eats lettuce.

The other thing for people to not forget about is flowers. It's really nice to have flowers just for the way they look. And don't forget about cannabis. It’s a pretty hardy plant and it's fun to see the different stages of it, because not many of us have had a marijuana plant sitting in front of us, and they get huge.”

Should you start with seeds or seedlings?

“You don't need to do things from seed the first year, because that adds an element of difficulty and maybe stress for some people. Because if your seeds don't germinate, or if something happens, then you missed the window.

I always suggest the first year, buy seedlings. It really makes it easier and more enjoyable when someone more experienced has taken the time to germinate those seeds properly. You also get a head start. With certain vegetables, like tomatoes or peppers, you have to plant outside after the frost. They've already done all that stuff for you and gone ahead. So seedlings are a good way to start for the first year.”

How can you get over feeling intimidated?

“I think anything can feel that way. When we were kids learning to ride a bike it felt intimidating. But it's just one of those things, you just do it. Everyone gets really worked up about it being great the first time. That's really not the point. Don't do too much that is going to overwhelm you and be unenjoyable. Start small, read lots, check stuff out. It really should be a life journey.”

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