HALIFAX, N.S. — Gardening is much more than digging a hole, planting a seed, and watching it grow.
Knowing what to plant when, how, and where is generally only done well after many years of practice. Gardening takes patience, but when done well, it truly is a work of art.
Laura Jayne Hambly, who lives in Fall River, N.S., with her husband Kevin Fournier and two children, Katherine and Jacob, knows that well. Although she’s a self-proclaimed amateur gardener, she has been gardening off and on for the majority of her adult life. And her gardens reflect her family’s years of hard work.
“When we found a three-acre lot on a lake and built our family home 19 years ago, that’s when I really began seriously gardening,” she says.
She’s learned about gardening through hands-on experience, trial and error, books, friends and local resources like author Niki Jabbour, who writes a column for SaltWire Network.
Hambly and Fournier created and landscaped the property themselves and the hard work was stretched out over a period of time with them adding a new bed every few years.
The vegetable gardens
The couple created their first vegetable garden about 15 years ago and have expanded it over the years.
“My vegetable plots cover about 1,000 square feet. They are arranged in raised beds around our property to capture the best spots for full-sun and good drainage,” says Hambly.
They grow a wide variety of produce, including what she calls “novelty plants” like cantaloupe and watermelons, alongside traditional vegetables mixed with flowers.
“I typically grow a variety of beans, peas, peppers, broccoli, radish, carrots, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, Swiss chard, lettuces, beets, cabbage, summer and winter squash, turnip (Purple Prince is a personal favourite), cucumbers and a variety of herbs,” she says.
Hambly also adds colour to her vegetable garden by planting flowers.
“I mix among my vegetables, sweet peas, sunflowers, scarlet runner beans, dahlias and nasturtiums,” she says.
“I also have a raspberry patch with a beautiful lavender border. I use the lavender in jams and to make a delicious lavender ice cream that is lovely served with fresh strawberries.”
Hambly also loves to grow summer savory, which her family uses throughout the fall, especially at Thanksgiving to flavour stuffing and meat.
“I dry it and store it for those colder months,” she adds.
Taught by mom
Heather MacLean lives on her grandfather’s property in St. Peters Bay, P.E.I. Her garden grows where part of a pasture field and some of an orchard used to be. Her garden, first started by her mother, has resided in that same spot for 45 years.
Like Hambly, MacLean also considers herself to be an amateur gardener and also has a lot of years of gardening experience: 35, to be exact.
MacLean’s mother Lexi loved to garden and she transferred her gardening knowledge to her daughter early. MacLean recalls a gardening lesson learned as a teenager:
“Mom asked me to plant beet seeds. She gave me the seeds and explained there was enough for two rows,” MacLean recalls.
“I was 15 years old at the time. I went to the garden and dispersed them quickly throughout half a row. Upon discovering this, Mom made me return to the garden, pick the beet seeds out of the soil and replant them in the two rows as I was initially instructed to do.”
Even with that hard lesson learned early, MacLean grew up with a love for gardening.
“It is relaxing to be so connected to nature, plant little seeds and nurture them.”
She says there is something very “rewarding about planting little seeds that will eventually nourish you.”
“It is relaxing to be so connected to nature, plant little seeds and nurture them.”
— Heather MacLean
Location location location
MacLean’s garden measures 125 feet long by 40 feet wide.
“It’s in a perfect location and is on a south-facing slope. It drains well, is protected from cold winds, there are no trees not near it, and it gets a lot of sunlight. It is the ideal location for a garden,” she says.
She doesn’t use any fertilizer, sprays or herbicides: “it is as natural as it can be,” she says.
MacLean also plants flowers “interspersed throughout the garden and often not in rows.”
She also does as much companion gardening as possible.
“For example, carrots love tomatoes, roses love garlic, asparagus grows well with strawberries, and sunflowers like cucumbers.”
She uses a seeder that she bought 25 years ago at Veseys.
“It’s a walk-behind thing that has different discs to put inside the hopper depending on what you are planting.”
With the help of a friend, MacLean built her very own greenhouse in 2021.
“It is built onto the end of my grandfather’s barn where the horses used to be kept.”
MacLean began by digging the post holes herself, then dug and inserted metal roofing three feet into the ground around the base of the greenhouse.
“It is attached to the posts so the critters can’t get in,” she adds, because foxes, skunks and raccoons have dug their way into the barn before.
A friend assisted with the framing, roofing, attaching the greenhouse plastic on the sides and ends, and putting the greenhouse panels on the roof. She built the work tables in the interior.
“It will mostly be flowers that will be started in greenhouse. I am excited about using it for the first time in the upcoming growing season.”
MacLean is quick to acknowledge the help she gets from neighbours and friends.
“A farmer down the road provides and spreads manure on my garden,” she says. “Another farmer friend brings their 10-feet-wide rotavator to till the garden every spring. It is a group effort.”
Hambly doesn’t grow seedlings and instead prefers to directly sow seeds in her vegetable garden.
“I transplant only two vegetables, tomatoes and peppers, which I purchase from a local nursery,” she says.
She uses other methods “like cloches and open-ended mini hoop tunnels to get an earlier start on the growing season. My next investment is to build some cold frames to extend our growing season into the late fall and early winter. So excited about that.”
MacLean recommends trying something new every year as your confidence grows.
This year, she’s trying cucamelons; one year, she tried peanuts. Two years ago, she tried orange mint (which she found makes delicious tea).
A constant education
Hambly admits that there is a great deal to learn about gardening. Her first piece of advice is to not worry too much about perfection.
“Gardening is a constant education. Some years, you have bumper crops of summer squash, and other years a flop. So much is trial and error,” she says.
She does admit, however, that there are ways to ensure the best outcomes when starting.
“Three of the most critical components to a successful vegetable garden, are sunlight, great soil, and water. For example, I amend my soil every year with the most fabulous horse manure, which comes from a local farm called Garlic Mountain Farm,” she says.
“Some years, you have bumper crops of summer squash, and other years a flop.”
— Laura Jayne Hambly
The family also invested in soaker hoses for their garden, which cut down on time-consuming watering and ensured that veggies weren’t under- or over-watered.
Surprisingly, MacLean doesn’t ever water her garden.
“I’ll plant it. I’ll weed it. Then God has to do His/Her part,” she says.
For the novice Atlantic Canadian gardener, Hambly recommends beginning some research by reading publications by local gardening writers such as Jabbour or Janice Wells.
“Understand your micro-climate as well as your growing zone,” she says. “Testing and amending your soil and planting the right plants in the right spots can go a long way in establishing healthy growth.”
MacLean echoes those thoughts, and recommends doing your research and talking to people with gardening experience.
“We can all learn something from somebody, especially with respect to gardening on the East Coast about what will grow and what will not grow. Our growing season is relatively short so there are some things we simply can’t grow,” she says.
“It is not as simple as it looks.”
MacLean recommends first-time gardeners “start small and start simple. Plant things that are easy to grow such as lettuce, beets, beans, or a tomato plant,” she says.
“If you don’t have a lot of land to work with, another option is to do a container garden.”
MacLean also stresses that you must be willing to put the time in to weed it.
“There is nothing worse than an unkept garden and it will get ahead of you very quickly. It does take time to maintain it,” she points out.
Hambly also recommends starting small. Begin by growing “some easy vegetables like lettuce, radish, beans and tomatoes,” she suggests.
“A warning though: it is addictive!”
It can also be expensive.
“It can take years to establish perennial beds, build raised beds, plant trees and shrubs,” she points out.
Like anything in life, she recommends starting with a plan and “invest in that plan in a manageable way over time.”
Hambly takes great joy in providing fresh produce for her family.
“Although some of the upfront costs are an investment, my vegetable garden provides fresh food during the summer and preserved food throughout the winter,” she says.
“I dry a variety of herbs, I harvest and freeze our raspberries, I blanch and freeze beans, peas, and tomatoes for the winter months, and store potatoes and winter squash and pumpkins that we eat throughout the fall.”
For Hambly, gardening requires some patience, but the rewards are enormous.
“It is truly one of my great delights.”