“Can an urban homestead work in Montreal?”  This was the query of someone who found my blog once upon a time. “Yes, of course.”

But. (There’s always a qualifier!) You need to have sun, and then you need to have space. If you don’t have sun, you can’t do it (unless you go to step #2, community group part, and then it’s a garden, not a homestead, but that’s OK).

If you have sun and space, then the only other thing you need (than water), is to be ready and willing to put up with the learning curve and the occasional need for help on any of the following things:

1. Start your seedlings indoors in March (some as early as February). That means now! Many require eight weeks before planting.

2. Try not to spend more than $250 on the initial effort. Every new venture — and this is a work of pleasure and a cost-saving measure— should be started with a minimum of capital until it looks promising. If you invest too much and your plans fail, you won’t be happy at the end of the growing season, or if you spent more for your harvest than buying it from a CSA. Sure, you’ll benefit from the experience of gardening, which is therapeutic, but you need to derive value or success from it to make it an ongoing thing.

  • If you worry about failure, join a community garden group, where the power of people and experience will help you derive what you need from it until you’re sure you can succeed. (Just make sure you show up for all your shifts, for your own sake as well as others.)

3. The growing season in Montreal starts with a huge leap of growth – but you need city soil to be well-amended to take advantage of it. Here’s how:

  • Test your soil as soon as you can! Make the necessary pH corrections with lime. Think about the future productivity of the garden; unless your soil already is acidic enough to support an acidophile plant with minimal sulphur, don’t plant blueberries. (If you soil is acidic, then plant all the acidophiles you like, and add more sulphur if needed!). You will need to dig in your soil amendments, not top-dress them.
  • Take a day in April if you can, or early May, to procure (the Ville gives it away by borough in May) and dig in your compost. It’s better to dig the compost in several days before the plants go in, not after, except on top as mulch. Compost can burn seeds and roots of young plants.

4. When the plants go in, install a grow fence (plants go up) or exclusion fence (keep animals and humans out) —you’ll almost certainly need to. The fence should still allow wildlife to get around or through at safe points, because otherwise you’ll trap them (neither nice, nor good), or they will destroy it anyway. Also keep in mind: if the fence is too rickety or fugly, neighbours might complain. Cute counts.

10 tips urban homestead
The pickle barrel rain barrel bought from the Eco-Quartier for less than $50, since replaced with a fancy Home Depot version.

5. Buy a rain barrel (cheap if you get one from an EcoQuartier) and a seeping hose from any garden centre. Obtain permission from landlords and neighbours to get water from their downspout, if necessary. Montreal is prone to having an early heat wave beginning with the Victoria Day / Fête du patriotes weekend, just when the growth is getting going. This causes lettuce to bolt and other plants to stop growing. Rain barrels with seeping hoses are the way to keep the ground just moist enough for highly transpiring plants during the growth phase. And mulch!! — but just enough to cover the soil. Don’t smother it like a blanket!

6. The late June-to-July and then the August heat waves happen in this climate zone. If you come from a different zone, or you are just learning, read up on strategies in the garden and the varieties of fruits and vegetables to plant. We are in Plant Hardiness Zone 5a, but due to the urban heat island effect from too much paving, not enough green space, and people using air conditioning (especially in their cars), the city is more like 5b and even 5c, depending on the direction your building faces and the amount of sun it gets. You probably won’t need to shade anything, but water, early and often — and also be aware of our Mon-soon-treal moments, where we get a deluge. (Hence, rainbarrel, and put out pots to catch even more!)

7. Put a net over top of the delicate leafy things as they get started, because house sparrows love them. They and, yes, the occasional rat (don’t panic!) predate on seedlings, and very young plants do not often get the opportunity to unfurl their 4th and 6th leaves – they are often gone by the first two. 
Which brings me to say: Squirrels don’t care about your plants, they’re going for the disturbed soil. Wherever they see fresh dug soil, they have to investigate: “There’s a nut in there, I just know it!” So try to plant your seedlings after they’ve gotten “big enough to defend themselves,” and cover up the soil with mulch. Replant them if they get lifted out in search for food. Once the delicate things are hardy, you’ll need the net to stave off the squirrels going for your fruits. Though the next point is critical about that:

8. Put out a water dish for wildlife. Fruits growing on a plant are just a convenient Capri-Sun pack of hydration for a passing critter. They go for your cucumbers, tomatoes, and other fruits just to have a drink of water. Provide them a water bowl, and change it consistently, and they’ll come to know your place as they place to get a drink. Be their oasis, not their Veg-Capri-Sun convenience store.

9. Hang a house for solitary bees, just in case. Leave a messy corner in your yard for others, especially for ground-dwelling bees. Offer them every form of hospitality, because we’re dependent on them. Assume an insect is beneficial first, and then learn to identify and only be deadly towards those that actually cause harm. Sugar ants, stinkbugs, wasps, hoverflies, and all kinds of bees, ladybugs, spiders, centipedes, or sowbugs—all have a part in our great chain of biodiversity.

10. The season here goes to the end of October. Get a good gardening book that tells you the stages for successive plantings, and keep going with planting new seedlings until mid-to-late August for an autumn harvest. Peas, spinach, and Swiss chard are cool-weather crops you can enjoy until the snow flies. Or even after, if you put them into a cold frame.

Give it a go, and good luck!