Veggies on the rocks

Food gardening on the Canadian Shield can be done, it just takes a lot of patience. The payoff, however, is extraordinarily tasty.

by Lisa Harrison

Early settlers in northern areas of Ontario’s Cottage Country found the soil appeared best for growing rocks. The good news is that many of those families stayed on and, generations later, newcomers are also homesteading here. Proof, that with patience and persistence, home food gardening on the Canadian Shield is, indeed, viable.

Growing stuff on a giant stone

Most Cottage Country gardeners must contend with the Canadian Shield, the exposed portion of the North American continental crust that extends from northern Mexico to Greenland. It consists of hard rock at least one billion years old and makes up about 50 per cent of Canada’s land mass.

Muskoka, the Haliburton Highlands and the northern portion of the City of Kawartha Lakes sit high along the southern end of the shield’s Ontario portion. Soil depth and quality tends to diminish the further north you travel, and plants must be able to survive in Zone 4 of the Canadian rating system for hardiness, all of which makes for interesting gardening.

In contrast, Kawartha Lakes has less acidic soil – and more of it in the south – and sits in Zone 5 with warmer evenings and a slightly longer growing season. As a result, it’s a notable agricultural region.

Everything’s coming up veggies

The desire for homegrown vegetable gardens has risen sharply in the last two years. It’s one of our many things we do to try and live the best life possible during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Santosh Patel, owner of Rockwood Forest Nurseries in Cameron, saw “significant demand” in 2020 for vegetable seeds, plant plugs, good quality soil, organic fertilizers and soils and container gardening supplies. He expects even higher interest this year.

In October, Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab released a preliminary report on home food gardening in response to the pandemic. The lab’s national survey showed that 51 per cent of respondents were growing at least one vegetable or fruit at home. Of those, 17.4 per cent started the gardening during the pandemic. Expect that number to be higher in small towns and rural areas, which accounted for only 37.6 per cent of overall respondents.

Reasons for home gardening included concerns about food safety, food shortages, difficulty finding specific foods and rising prices during the pandemic. And prices are expected to increase. Canada’s Food Price Report 2021, released in December, forecasts a rise of 3 to 5 per cent this year, with vegetable (and meat) prices climbing by as much as 6.5 per cent.

Food gardening has increased over the past decade as more GTA families move north, according to Carolyn Langdon, a Haliburton County Master Gardener.

“There is a sizeable sector of these new residents who have sought to leave the city for ‘affordable’ land in the country where they can have a few acres to grow their own food. These changes have been accelerated since the pandemic started.”

“I think the younger generation is taking more of an interest in their own vegetable gardens,” says Dinah Wilson, Master Gardener in the City of Kawartha Lakes. “They are looking at more organic foods. Personally, I see more children and their parents with food sensitivities.”

Start your kitchen garden early indoors and then replant outside once you have prepared your bed with local soil and compost.

From the ground up

Here are the basic building blocks for vegetable gardening in Cottage Country.

Order your seeds and plant plugs early. Wilson recommends using local nurseries, although she adds big box stores are an option. Start with just a few plants to avoid becoming overwhelmed and grow only what you love to eat and will use.

Many plants can be started indoors.

“Heat is important,” says Patel. “Once the frost is behind us, move (the plant) to a container or into the ground.”

Prepare your container or planting bed using local soil in a location with the longest period of full sun.

“There is no replacement for native soil, so use what you’ve been given and add kitchen and yard compost, leaves, well-rotted wood chips, biochar or manure as amendments,” says Langdon.

In most parts of Haliburton and Muskoka, you’ll need to add some clay “to retain good soil microbes and to prevent plant-loving nutrients leaching from your sandy soil and into our waterways,” which will contribute to toxic algae blooms and pollute wetlands.

“Raised garden beds seem to be easier unless you have a good spot with great soil and sun,” says Wilson.

Fencing can help keep rabbits, groundhogs, beavers (it happens!), deer and other intruders away, but consider one at least five feet high if you have a large plot. One new gardener found a stag in his large, 4.5-foot-high-fenced garden, the deer obviously (and accurately) confident that it had room to jump out again.

Add “companion” plants such as tansy, yarrow and certain herbs to attract beneficial insects and deter harmful ones.

Mulch around the plants thoroughly. With mostly sandy soil, it’s essential to use five to 10 centimetres of untreated natural wood chips to hold moisture and suppress weeds, says Langdon. Avoid coloured wood chips, which could come from sources containing harmful chemicals.

Ensure you have a water source nearby to avoid becoming overtired. The best solutions include rain barrels and piping water from a lake if possible.

Note that if you establish an Ontario farm business that grosses $7,000 or more annually, you are required by law to register the business with Agricorp (

If you don’t have great soil and lots of sun, raised beds can make growing vegetables much easier.

Join the group

If gardening at home isn’t a good fit for you, you’re not alone. Community gardens are springing up all over, whether on public or private land. Operations differ, but generally, volunteers help establish and tend the plants and benefit from the produce. Local gardens can be found on social media, or you could start one.

“I’m always open to chat with and share my files with people who want to start a community garden in their town,” says Kim Scott, organizer of the Klahanie Community Garden at River Mill Park in Huntsville.

“Every town needs a place for people who couldn’t otherwise have a vegetable garden to grow their own food, be part of a special community and be outside. We have seen this increase over these past two years where our mental and physical health has been in jeopardy.”

Learning how to preserve the bounty from your garden means you can engine fresh produce all year.

Make the most of a good thing

If you’re gardening at home and you find your harvest is more bountiful than your needs, you have several disposal options. For example:

• Learn how to “put up” or preserve your excess produce by canning it, freezing it or storing it in a cold cellar.

• Sell it from your property (farmgate sale).

• Barter with a neighbor or friend for other produce or services.

• Gift it to a neighbor in need.

• Check with your local food bank to see if they have room to accept it.

• Ask charitable food security programs such as SIRCH Community Kitchen in Haliburton about whether they can use it.

• Contact restaurants to see if they’re looking for local produce.

• Compost any decaying healthy produce (diseased produce should be placed in a plastic bag as trash).

Get grounded

“Join your local horticultural society or master gardener group,” Wilson recommends. “You will make friends and get tips on where to buy plants and how to look after them.”

“I’m certain that people will continue to garden even after the pandemic restrictions have fully lifted,” says Langdon. “Once you experience the benefits of working out of doors, grubbing about in the soil and witnessing the magic of a tiny plant growing into a health-giving food for your family, there’s no going back.”