Friday, May 21, 2021

Turn up the heat on your food garden!

By: Candice Keast

Are you excited to get your summer balcony ready?! Now is the ideal time to beautify your outdoor space by growing food -- and we've got all the info you need right here.

As a great intro (if we do say so ourselves), check out Live Green Toronto's 3-part Get Growing Toronto video series, which helps you along your container or balcony gardening journey. In the first video, we go through the process of turning a balcony that was largely unused into a food-producing space. If you don't have a balcony, not to worry. The video and the information in this post can be applied to any outdoor container garden location. You can grow food just about anywhere!

There are a few other things to keep in mind when you are getting your garden started. In this post, we will cover: 

  • Hardening off
  • Transplanting
  • Using compost
  • Spacing
  • Companion planting
  • Drainage/watering, and 
  • Vertical supports

Tip: If you need help deciding what to plant, check the 'plant selection' tab on our Get Growing Toronto page.

Hardening Off 

If you started seeds indoors this year, you need to adjust your seedlings to outdoor conditions gradually. This process is called "hardening off", and you start by placing your seedlings in a shady patch outside for a few hours, then bring them back inside. Each day, increase the time spent outside and gradually introduce them to direct sunlight. Leave them out overnight after a few days of this process, then transplant them to your garden. Pay attention to overnight temperature – heat loving plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants should only stay outside when the temperature is 10°C or warmer. Cool-temperature crops like kale, chard, collards, leeks, can handle lower overnight temperatures. Read more about hardening off here.


Transplant stress is a real thing! There are certain plants you will want to avoid transplanting altogether, like peas, beans, and root vegetables. Sensitive transplants to avoid are arugula, dill, cilantro, cucumbers, zucchini, etc. These plants should be directly sowed (seeded outdoors), so there should be no need to transplant them anyway. A few more tips:

  • Ensure seedlings have at least two sets of true leaves and a good root ball
  • Hardening off is crucial
  • Water seedlings before transplanting
  • Lessen the shock by transplanting your seedlings as gently as possible
  • Transplant on a cloudy day or in the evening when the sun is less intense
  • Water immediately 
  • For greater success, add a little compost into the holes before you place your seedling in

Read more about transplanting here.

Using Compost 

Did you know that you can reuse your container soil from the previous year? Each year, replace about a third of your soil with compost. Soil will lose nutrients year by year and will require a soil amendment. Adding compost to your soil is a good way to ensure happy and healthy plants. You can buy compost from your local garden centre/nursery. 



When it comes to spacing, always follow the instructions on the seed package or the instructions on that tag that comes with the seedlings you purchased. Each variety has a different space requirement. Overcrowded plants will compete for soil nutrients, leading to unhealthy, weakened plants. Your plants may also experience heat stress, disease, pests, mildew, or even rot, if overcrowded. If you are planting in raised beds, a good rule of thumb is that you should be able to run your hand through the space between each plant. 

 Companion Planting 

A few benefits of companion planting are:

  1. Crop protection – Taller plants can protect delicate plants from sun and wind, e.g. peas can shade heat-sensitive lettuce and keep them from bolting too early. Bolting occurs when your lettuce shifts from leafy growth to flower production and results from high temperatures, extended sun exposure, and less moisture. 
  2. Positive hosting – Plant flowers that attract beneficial insects in proximity to plants prone to pests, e.g. plants like calendula, dill, marigold, cilantro, and chives attract ladybugs that eat aphids. Plants such as tomatoes, lettuces, kale, and cabbage are host plants for aphids.
  3. Trap cropping – Some plants with a strong scent like marigold will repel unwanted pests while trap plants like nasturtiums attract pests. Once a trap plant has drawn a pest, dispose of the plant along with the bugs entirely. 

 Watering & Drainage 

We all know how hot Toronto summers get, and if you are growing food in containers, the soil will dry out quicker than if you were growing food in the ground. Most container-grown vegetables will require water every day. Additionally, if your garden is located on a balcony or rooftop, wind can play a role in drying out your containers. Always keep a full watering can nearby. Try to water in the early morning or evening to avoid evaporation during the hottest part of the day.

Drainage is another important factor to consider. Having proper drainage ensures the plants uptake the water they need while the extra water drains out. If you have a container with inadequate drainage, put pebbles, gravel, broken pottery or even Styrofoam peanuts at the bottom of your pot to facilitate drainage. Inadequate drainage will cause plant roots to rot.

Tip: add mulch on top of the soil around the plant to conserve soil moisture, suppress weeds, and moderate soil temperatures. You can use straw, leaves, or bark chips as mulch. 

 Vertical Supports 

As mentioned above, it tends to get windy on balconies and rooftops, so it may be hard to grow climbing plants in shallow pots. Try using existing structures in your space, like a railing for beans or peas to grow up. Alternatively, you can DIY a vertical support using bamboo stakes, sticks, or plastic poles. Try making a tripod or an A-frame structure for more stability rather than using single stake. Some plants that require vertical supports are cucumbers, pole beans, mouse melon, peas, tomatoes, etc. Take a look at this website for some fun DIY ideas.

Raised garden bed filled with various of plants and flowers.
Lisa R's Raised Bed in May 2019

Lisa R's Raised Bed in August 2019

The photos above are from Live Green Toronto's 3-part Get Growing Toronto video series. The first picture was taken while filming the first video. The second photo was taken later by Lisa R. sometime in August.

As always, feel free to ask questions in the comment section below & share your garden progress with us on social media by tagging @LiveGreenTO and using the hashtag #GetGrowing.


 Get Growing Toronto Newsletter 

Did you know that Live Green Toronto has expanded the Get Growing program to include a monthly newsletter? Whether you're growing food for the first time or a seasoned gardener, there are always new things to learn and try. Our goal is to help you on your gardening journey with lots of tips and resources. Get Growing with us and sign up here!

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