Well, here we are, late, late March! Are you ready to design the layout of your garden and get your seeds started?

For those who have space and haven’t planted a garden before, or for those who planning it anew this year, you always start with a rough plan: what to place where, and how much space and sun it will get. This will give you an idea how many seedlings you should start or have on hand of each kind of plant.

I don’t always start seeds every year, and when I do, I’m almost always late at it. We gardeners always get a little overzealous and end up tending tonnes of seedlings we have to sell or give away. But of course, you start by planting many seeds, because some never germinate, or else germinate and start, but then fail. If you have the space to add a few more good planters, extra seedlings can come in quite handy.

The time to start seeds varies depending on what you’re going to plant. Here’s a cheat sheet I created on when to plant certain kinds of seeds in zone, 5A (or is it B?), in Montreal. The best time to start is February, and yes, you have to start nasturtiums and several other crops that early. But some you can start a little later, if you can provide them excellent starting conditions. Lettuce, for example, can be planted in successions; it appreciates cool weather. So does spinach and Swiss chard—whereas the Mediterranean types of plants want warmth and water all the way.

Seed Starting plan by crop
When to start certain kinds of seeds indoors; some information gathered from Rodale’s The Basic Book of Organic Gardening.

In one of my first big years here, I made super-awesome plans for a SPIN farm, and it failed. I had way more plants than my yard had space for. And then I failed at doing the successive plantings, and the backyard was too shady and plagued with pests and thieves (slugs in particular, even with a welcome skunk here to eat them), so it wasn’t very productive. That’s being kind. Plenty of things just didn’t grow at all.

And it was SO MUCH work I had to write a lessons-learned listicle.

A few planning resources for growing your own food:

If food production is the focus, here’s a short list (I’ve received no endorsements and can make none, this list is just to get you started):

  • Mother Earth News has two: Garden Planner and Vegetable Garden Planner.
  • The Old Farmer’s Almanac also has a mobile-friendly Garden Planner.
  • SmartDraw landscaping software looks powerful. It’s an online version of a downloadable software (the software is good for more than landscaping), but it requires a login after it’s loaded. You can use your Google account.
  • Smart Garden Planner – This is a pragmatic tool for layouts and plant options, priced for convenience: $15 for a 3-month membership or $40 for an annual membership.
  • If you like old-school planning, you can still get SmallBluePlanner’s Garden Planner 3 allows you to create a plan, but you can’t save or print it without a license. However, its classic interface seems like a great way to practice if you are trying to learn and visualize what can fit into a measured space by nudging elements around. The details of the elements, like the colours and textures of gravel, are nifty.

You’ll find others if you look, but give these ones a go, and do let me know if you like any of them or have others to recommend.

Canada-specific gardening advice

Harrowsmith magazine, a classic that was once Canada’s most successful international magazine, went defunct in the early 2000′s, but many people held the torch and it started up again in an attractive online format. You can read their gardening articles here.

If you’re looking for clever gardening ideas, as well as hard-to-find implements (tools, gadgets) and supplies, browse the Lee Valley catalog. They’re the go-to place for online order (or a trip to one of their stores) for specialty items. This Canadian store also has an American and International business presence, including a flagship store in Nevada for American customers.

And if you want to read up on more advanced gardening techniques for market gardening, check out The Market Gardener Institute. It’s a farm in the Eastern Townships that learned how to create online gardening courses, a book, and a film, as well as grow a lot of vegetables.

Now for my “specialty:” Native gardening

I was not very successful as a food gardener because having shade trees and wildlife (potential pests!) on my property was of far greater importance to me than providing myself with fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables. The shade of just one tree in the sun’s path is sufficient to reduce your yield; you also need appropriate irrigation and soil conditions. So after 2015, I abandoned vegetable gardening. I still have potted plants and tomatoes (ugh, hardly) and I encourage ground cherries to grow, but it’s enough to basically garnish a party platter, or a Thanksgiving table.

Instead, I derive way more satisfaction out of having flowers bloom all season long, in volleys according to time of season, and just being “lazy,” planting native plants I come across, seeing what thrived, seeing what volunteered (blowing in on the wind, being deposited by other vectors), what it did next, and better yet: what it did the next year. I’ve moved things around once I knew what they were all about, and it’s been very satisfying.

So with that in mind, I’m pointing you in the direction of native plants with Plants for Birds – a native garden planning resource from the Audubon Society.

It’s a native-plant database—plants that evolved in local landscapes—cross-referenced with birds that use (food and shelter) and benefit from those plants. If you know – or use eBird to find out – which birds pass through your area, it’s a great research tool for making decisions to help wild birds.

For Americans, it’s even better: it’s integrated with local nurseries where you can buy the plants! This aspect won’t apply to Canadian gardeners, as we wouldn’t be able to shop and bring plants back across the border. However, we share some of the same hardiness zones and other conditions as those in the northern states. Only distance and our immediate habitat type (for instance, dry and open vs. wet and forested) might differ, so we still can benefit from this cross-referencing.

How to use Plants for Birds if you’re in Canada:

You have to enter your email address and a US zip code. Montreal is closest to Champlain, NY, so I looked it up at https://www.unitedstateszipcodes.org: 12919.

Enter your account details (name, email) to get direct access to the database – no need to confirm your mailing list subscription.

Check your gardening zone and make sure, when you spot a plant you like, that it’s hardy enough for Canada’s slightly longer winters/cooler climes.

Armed with plant ideas and information (from all the pretty pictures!), you can then enquire at local nurseries, plan, and plant.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Trumpet Honeysuckle -
Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched on Trumpet Honeysuckle – © Will Stuart, Audubon

You can also get online gardening resources, namely plant species and garden data and how-to webinars, from the North American Native Plant Society.

Lastly, whether you do a food garden, or a native flower garden:

Plan on adding a water feature, too.

While we are talking about making gardens more welcoming to our friendly feathered friends, one of the best things you can do is install a water feature. I have a backyard pond with a little waterfall that is definitely a draw for all kinds of birds and wildlife, but here’s How to Make a Birdbath , from the folks at Audubon.

A water feature will always attract wildlife and insect pollinators, but a source of water will also help reduce pilfering of your harvest. Because plump, green tomatoes and itty baby cucumbers are…easy sources of water to a thirsty squirrel or other creature passing by. Having a bowl nearby as a consistent source of water is even easier for them. They’ll use it. You’ll see them.

Just remember the mosquitos, if it’s standing water, and clean out the bird bath or water bowl regularly!