“Can an urban homestead work in Montreal?”  This was the query of someone who found my blog last week. “Yes.”

But. (You know there is always a qualifier!)

You must be ready and willing to put up with the learning curve, and the occasional need for help, on the following things:

1 Start your seedlings indoors in March (some as early as February). That means now! This week, I’ll start the seeds that require eight weeks before planting.

2 Try not to spend more than $250 on the 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, you won’t be happy at the end of the growing season if your plants failed, or you spent more for your harvest than buying it from a CSA. Sure, you’ll like the experience of gardening, which is delightful at times, but you need to derive value from it to make it an ongoing thing.

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 – and try not to put sulphur in the ground for acidic plants like blueberries, unless your soil already is acidic enough to support them with minimal sulphur.
  • Find out in March or April where to get your compost from in late April and early May (the Ville gives it away by borough). Take a day in April – or early May if you can – because you will need to dig in your soil amendments, compost, and build up all the plots you need for your crops. 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 or exclusion fence (you almost certainly will need to). Ask handy friends or be prepared to hire someone to assist. You have to keep certain critters, including people, out of your plots while still allowing wildlife to get around. Keep it as nice and non-intrusive as possible. If the fence is too rackety or fugly, neighbours might complain.

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 weekend, or Fête du patriotes, 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 pavement, 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.

7 Put a net over top of the delicate leafy things, 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.  Try to plant them after they’ve gotten “big enough to defend themselves” – and then protect and watch them like a hawk! Once the delicate things are hardy, you’ll need the net to stave off the squirrels going for your fruits.

8 Put out a water dish for wildlife. They sometimes go for your cucumbers, tomatoes, and other fruits just to have a drink.

9 Hang a house for solitary bees, just in case. Offer them every form of hospitality, because we’re dependent on them. Also, get a small shop vac to suck up insect pests. (But not sugar ants, ladybugs, bees, spiders, centipedes, or sowbugs, please!)

0 (For 10. Sorry.) The season here grows long into 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 July for an autumn harvest. Peas, spinach, and Swiss chard are cool-weather crops you can enjoy until the snow flies.