Container Gardening 101

One of the best things about gardening is that you don’t really need a garden! You can adjust to virtually any amount of space using containers for your plants. Plants can thrive in containers of many shapes and sizes and make anything look pretty. Containers can be tires, food buckets, pots, old sinks, baskets, kettles, shoes, bags, cans and more. You can really be as creative as you like!

When container gardening, be sure to provide your plants with adequate sunlight and water, healthy soil, proper drainage, and love! Keep in mind that containers tend to dry out much quicker than garden beds, so keep an eye on your pots/tires/buckets to make sure they have enough to drink.

You can also check out this post on how to construct a self-watering container. We built one for the first time this week, it went really well for some first timers! These containers are really handy for those of us who might me over- or under-attentive to potted plants, they do all the watering themselves! Pretty cool.

My Little Container Garden

I finally moved, this spring, into an apartment with lovely south-facing balcony, and a shared backyard. This has allowed me to expand my horizons from indoor herb and house plant gardening, to extensive container gardening!

I was extremely lucky to score several beautiful terracotta pots from a good friend and avid gardener. I also scavenged several 4 gallon ice cream buckets from a local ice cream shop to plant in. The ice cream buckets were a little gross when I first got them, but nothing baking soda, vinegar and a little elbow grease couldn’t take care of. After I cleaned them, I used a hammer and nail put some holes in the bottom for some drainage (next time I might add a little gravel at the bottom), I also placed little pieces of brick to lift them off the deck to ensure water can escape. And voila! There you have a free and sturdy container to put your plants in! In mine, I have tomatoes and kale! They are flourishing and my tomatoes are about to bloom. 

In the terracotta pots I have leeks, herbs, peppers, cherry tomatoes and greens. I have noticed that these pots tend to dry out much quicker than the ice cream buckets, and I find myself watering them more often. The plastic of the ice cream buckets seems to hold water a little bit better.

I also have some nasturtiums in baskets that a farmer friend gave me, they have a special place in my back yard because they’re just so darn pretty.

Thus far, this has been a wonderful and easy experiment; everything seems to be growing extremely well. My biggest expense was soil and compost; I burned through almost 2 bales of potting soil, as many of my containers are pretty large. Hopefully next year will be a little better on the pocketbook, as I intend to employ some tricks to extend the lifespan of the soil (stay tuned for the next post!).

Written by: Mhari Lamarque

Practicing Safer Soil: Growing in the City

When you are planning a new garden in the city it is important to consider the health of your soil. Because of industrial practices over the years, natural soil chemistry, motor vehicle emissions, and lead and zinc in old house paint for example, some of our city’s soil is contaminated. So when you are ready to start planning your new garden, it is important to test your soil for common contaminates so that you can have a clear idea of the health of your soil and make informed decisions that feel safe for you and your community. This post will explain a little more about how to test your soil, and how to plan your garden accordingly.

Soil that is considered contaminated is soil which has levels of a particular element (such as lead or arsenic), that are higher than the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) guidelines for agricultural use.

There are two kinds of soil tests. The first is to test your soil for its nutrient contents, and the second is to test for heavy metal contaminants. Here is a little bit of information about how, when and when to do each of these tests.

Nutrient Testing

The Nova Scotia Soil testing Lab, located at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, will test your soil for organic matter, acidity and other essential nutrients (but not heavy metals). This test will help you decide how much compost you need to add, as well as other soil amendments to boost the fertility, neutralize the pH and condition your soil. 

When To Sample

Soil sampling should be done in the fall, after the crop has been removed. Sampling in the early spring, when the water level is high, can cause misleading analysis, especially for pH and lime requirement. In order to be sure that you get the proper analysis for your soil, they must know what you are (or are hoping to) grow.

How to Take a Soil Sample

Step 1: Obtain soil sample boxes and sample submission forms from the local field office of the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture or from the Quality Evaluation Division, Laboratory Services in Truro.

Step 2: Take a garden trowel and go down 12 to 15 centimeters (5 to 6 inches) in 6 to 10 different areas of your garden or flower bed.

Step 3: In a clean bucket or pail, empty the contents of each area. Remove plant debris. After you have done this, mix the soil together.

Step 4: From this mixture, take a 500 mL (2 cup) sample. This sample will be a good representation of the garden or flower bed soil.

Step 5: Place the 500 mL (2 cup) sample into the box. If you do not have a soil box, a freezer bag that can hold the full sample of soil can be used.

Step 6: When you receive your soil test results, consult your local agricultural representative or specialist about recommendations.

Payment and Shipping

Cost is $20.50 per sample + Disposal fee + HST.  A cheque or money order made out to the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture must accompany the soil sample. If you are mailing the sample, please address your package to:

176 College Road, Harlow Institute
Truro, NS   B2N 2P3

Heavy Metal Contaminants Testing

You can get your soil tested for various contaminants if you are worried about or unsure of the health of your soil. In Halifax you’d likely want to test for Lead, Arsenic, Copper and Zinc.

Where to Send Your Sample

Daniel Chevalier,                                                                              

Manager, Minerals Engineering Centre
Dalhousie University
1360 Barrington Street
GH Murray Building, Room G101
Ph: (902) 494-3955

AGAT Laboratories                                                                               

11 Morris Drive
Dartmouth, Nova Scotia
Tel 902-468-8718
Fax 902-468-8924
Toll Free 1-888-468-8718

MAXXAM Labs                                                                                                       

200 Bluewater Rd., Suite 105, Bedford, NS B4B 1G9
Tel: (902) 420-0203 or (902) 832-4852
Toll Free: (800) 565-7227

Reading Your Results

The CCME soil quality guideline for agricultural land, is a baseline for what acceptable levels of each of these metals are in your own garden. These are all measured in parts per million (ppm) and are as follows:






Maximum acceptable concentration for agricultural lands – ppm





pH measures if your soil is acidic, alkaline or neutral, indicated by numbers from 0-14 with 0 being extremely acidic and 14 being extremely alkaline (“basic”). Most plants prefer a neutral soil, somewhere in the range of 6 – 7. Keeping your pH neutral helps to make nutrients available to your plants, it also helps to “lock-up” heavy metals in your soil, making them less available to your plants.

Organic matter refers to the plant and animal materials that exist in the soil. It is important to be constantly adding organic matter to improve soil structure and replace micronutrients that plants need to thrive. According to Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture, a good organic matter concentration is greater than 3.5%.

Gardening in Contaminated Sites

If you’re not sure, or you know that your site is contaminated, you can build raised beds and bring in clean soil from elsewhere. There are lots of ways to do this:  building a box at least 6 inches high out of scrap wood or stone tiles and laying a sheet of landscaping cloth along the bottom. Food-safe plastic buckets salvaged from grocery stores also make great container gardens. 

If you’d rather work with the soil that already exists on your site, there are lots of ways to reduce possible health risks. We reached out to professionals and urban farmers across Canada and the United States to ask their opinion on mitigating the risks of contaminated soils, and together came up with the following recommendations:

  • “Eating dirt” is by far the most significant way that heavy metals enter the human body. Wear gloves if possible, especially if you’re gardening with children. Clean your hands afterwards and wash produce carefully.
  • Avoid weeding on very dry days, or use the “chop-and-drop” method where you cut young weeds just above the soil and let the greenery fall to the ground as mulch.
  • Since a little soil sticks to roots, peeling root vegetables and growing lots of leafy greens and fruits is a good approach, just wash them before you eat them. 
  • Last but not least, adding organic matter to your soil reduces the amount of contamination that is taken up by your body and dilutes what exists in the soil.  Similarly, adding wood ash, lime, or egg shells to make the soil less acidic reduces heavy metal absorption in humans. These things also help your Nova Scotian garden grow!  

For more information on heavy metal contamination you can read our Community Garden Heavy Metal Contamination Study (2011).

Written by: Garity Chapman

Grow Your Own Veggie Transplants

Maybe you’ve tried to grow your own vegetable starts before and had trouble, or maybe this is your first go at it. Either way, here is the plain and simple how to on growing your own beautiful and strong transplants, with lots of links to more information if that’s what you are after. 1. Use Fresh Seeds

Always start with fresh seeds. This means using seeds that are no more than 2 years old, and have been kept in a cool, dry and dark spot. If you want to be gutsy about it and use old seeds that are really special, try a germination test first to see what you are up against. If only half germinate, simply plant double the amount you’d like to have.You can often buy local seeds at Farmers Markets or at your local Seedy Saturday event. For the date of one near you check out the Seeds of Diversity page.

2. Choosing the Right Vegetables 

Not all vegetables need or want to be started inside, and it always works out better if you know which are which. It’s helpful to understand that you are starting your plants inside because the vegetable doesn’t want to be outside in the cold quite yet (it is not cold hardy), but it still needs extra time to grow and so you are giving it this time, inside.

So a good rule of thumb is, heat loving plants want to be started inside, this includes a lot of herbs and flowers which tend to need a big head start as well as tomatoes, cucumber, peppers etc. Cold hardy plants generally aren’t fond of being transplanted and are happy out in the cold thus, we tend to put this straight out in the garden, often before the last frost has passed. You can check the seed starting charts below for a comprehensive list of which vegetables like to be started inside and which don’t and when.

3. Make a Schedule

Different vegetables want to be started at different times. If you start them too soon they could begin to get root bound and not transplant well. One great tool for making a schedule is to use a seed starting chart, put in the last frost date for your area, then it will plug in the dates for starting each plant.

You can make your own on paper, or use a pre-made excel sheet that does all the math for you. Here are two charts, the first is very specific, so if you like that, use this one. It will tell you the earliest and latest time to plant each vegetable both inside, and putting it out in your garden. The second chart is the same, only all the dates are an average, so if you plant within a week of this date you’ll be on track (it means fewer numbers to look at, which I find helpful).

4. Containers

You can start seeds in all sorts of containers including:

  • New or recycled trays and cell packets
  • Toilet paper rolls
  • New or recycled paper coffee cups
  • Milk cartons (cut in 1/2)
  • Newspaper cups made with a wooden pot making tool
  • Peat, Cow or Coir pots (biodegradable)
  • Yogurt containers

Whatever pot you decide, make sure it has drainage holes in the bottom, or add holes yourself, then set them in a plastic tray to catch the water. You can add pebbles to the bottom to ensure the plants aren’t sitting in water, which helps to prevent root rot.

If you start in a smaller container you may need to “pot up” your plants partway through the process. This simply means putting your transplant into a larger pot. This would likely be the case with the toilet paper rolls and the newspaper cups, and in some cases the plastic cell packs. If you’d like to stay on the recycled materials route, yogurt containers make great larger pots. 5. Potting Mix

Seeds and seedlings are prone to disease and need proper nutrient levels and they will appreciate it if you buy a seed starting mix from your local gardening store. These mixes are soil-less help to get your plants off to a good start. For an added boost, I like to mix in some worm compost into my mix. If you want to make your own, Gayla Trail has a great recipe.6. Planting the Seeds

Moisten your starting mix in a bucket and then fill each container with soil up to 1/4 inch from the top of the container. Put one or two seeds in each cell or pot. One rule of thumb is to plant the seed at a depth that is 3 times its thickness, but you can also read the seed packet for more specific information. If they are very fine seeds you can leave a bit of room in the top so that you can scatter a bit of seeds and then just dust the top with more starting mix. Gently pat the soil down and water with a fine mist. I like to add a bit of chamomile or nettle to the water to help prevent damping off disease. To do this boil a bit of either herb in a pot and let it cool to room temperature, then dilute it with water in your spray bottle and away you go.

7. Labelling

Make sure you label all your trays with the variety of vegetable and when it was planted. It is also helpful to write this down on your seed starting chart, or in a journal when you planted each one as a reference for next year.8. Germination Time

Cover your trays with plastic to keep them humid during germination (this takes about one week) and keep them warm (around 20 degrees celsius). As soon as the seedlings have emerged, remove the plastic wrap. Place containers in a south or east-facing window away from radiators to save watering, as seedlings do not need to be kept as warm as germinating seeds. If you have more than one plant emerge in a small cell, clip the smaller one at soil level to allow the stronger one to grow (this can be hard, but it’s very important!).If you don’t have a warm spot to put your germinating seeds you can invest in a heat mat that will keep the soil warm during this time. They can be quite pricey, but are worth the investment if you know seed starting is for you and you have trouble with germination, but make sure you know your seeds are viable before you blame the temperature.

9. Lights

You may want to use lights to extend the sunshine hours of our short winter days. To do so hang fluorescent lights above your seedling in a way that they can be raised as the plants grow taller. You don’t need to buy full spectrum bulbs, as they tend to be quite a bit more expensive. There are lots of DIY instructions on the web to help you set this up. 10. Care

Keep your seedlings moist, but not soaking and not bone dry. Don’t let them sit in water. Putting a fan near them helps to increase air flow and makes their stems stronger. Try to keep them in a slightly cooler spot (around 15-18 degrees) and give them sufficent light, as this helps prevent legginess (when your plants grow tall but are floppy). Your bigger vegetable (likely tomatoes) will need to be potted up into larger containers part way through their time inside. You can also give your seedlings a bit of organic fertilizer every couple of weeks.

11. Hardening Off

Once their day to go outside is beginning to grow near its time to get those babies ready for the real world. It is important to do this slowly. Put your plants outside on a mild day, when it’s not too sunny and not too stormy. Start them off with a couple of hours in a shady and sheltered spot, then bring them back in. Gradually expose them to more sun and wind and longer trips outside. Work them up to being outside overnight over a week or so. Make sure to bring them in if it is stormy or dropping towards freezing.

That’s it. Now they are ready for the big outside. Wish them luck.

Written By: Garity Chapman