When Don Burnett was a kid growing up in Kelowna, he remembers everyone having a garden.
Growing vegetables in your back yard was the norm, and it wasn’t out of place for people to have a chicken coop on their property as well.
“My parents had a vegetable garden, but the generation after that seemed to get away from it,” recalls Burnett.
For his parents to have a garden was no surprise given that the Burnetts ran a gardening centre for many years in the city as Don was growing up.
Today, Burnett has become of Kelowna’s gardening experts, hosting his own radio show on 1150 every Saturday morning, writing a regular column for the Capital News and running his own home and garden consulting business.
Burnett says he can sense a movement among homeowners today to get back to what their parents and grandparents did – start their own vegetable garden.
But Burnett says many people are gung-ho on the idea every spring, but then get overwhelmed by how and where to start. Their enthusiasm to grow their own produce turns to frustration because they’re too ambitious off the start, and don’t realize how much work is involved in tending a vegetable garden.
“A couple of things I always tell people who are trying to grow a garden for the first time, don’t grow any more garden than your wife can look after, and don’t go to a garden centre hungry—as you go to the seed section in a gardening store and buy every vegetable seed in front of you,” Burnett says, echoing the old axiom that you never go shopping for groceries when you are hungry because you will always buy more food than you want or need.
One of the initial discouragements in growing a vegetable garden is if you don’t understand the soil you have to work with.
“You will be flogging a dead horse if your have a clay soil base or if there is gravel rock in your soil. You’re going to have a difficult time of it.”
“You end up with a patch of weeds rather than vegetables and in frustration you just say to hell with it.”
“Make sure you are planting in soil that you can dig into and break up and there is good drainage.”
He says Glenmore is infamous for its clay soil base but there are ways, he says, to break up the clay such as using gypsium or organic material that will make the soil more plyable for vegetable growing.
“The Okanagan is a great place to grow vegetables, but the thing to remember is vegetabale plants love the sunshine, so any southern exposure is the best. The more sun the better.”
While Burnett says just about any vegetable can grow in the Okanagan climate, he suggests starting out on a small scale, to build up your growing success and knowledge.
“Start with a small plot, say a 20 by 20 plot so you won’t try to grow too many things at once off the start. Don’t go hogwild right off the bat. Plant some tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, cabbage…and few of each,” he suggests.
And Burnett also notes it might be easier off the start to buy plants that can be transplanted in your garden. “It costs most to buy a starter plant rather than seeds but again it’s a good way to start.”
While tomatoes usually don’t get planted until the May long weekend, Burnett says some vegetables such as peas, which he starts planting in February, and carrots can thrive in the ground during winter, if protected by a covering of mulch.
Burnett says gardeners might also want to consider another past generation concept, a cold storage room or root cellar for your vegetables during the winter.
“We have a lot of local vegetables grown here in the winter and you like to support local producers, so I always suggest growing vegetables that you can store and eat over the winter when the local growers are shut down,” Burnett says.
“It’ old school theory for preserving vegetables, but if you build a storage room under a deck or under the stairway of your deck, insulated with a light bulb you can turn on when the temperature goes below -25 Celsius to keep the frost out, then you can eat your own vegetables throughout the winter.”
Burnett says gardening is a lot of fun, a recreational pursuit that is both relaxing and invigorating to the point where people can get hooked on it.
“There is no better feeling than having a barbecue in the summer and the only thing you didn’t produce yourself is the beef. Many people now even make their own wine to go with the meal,” he says.
One other tip Burnett offers newby vegetable growers is to take advantage of opportunities that come your way to talk with oldtimers who have been growing a garden in the Okanagan for most of their lives.
“They are the people who have lived all through the different experiences of gardening here and they have a wealth of knowledge in their heads.”