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Tips to Gardening Sustainably and Successfully with GCC’s John Simoulidis

Patrick: I am here today with John Simoulidis, who is a Professor and Program Coordinator of the Business and Society program at York University and also the treasurer at GCC. Among all else, he is also an avid gardener! Today, we will be talking about tips to gardening sustainably and successfully at home. The first questions I have for you John, is what got you into gardening initially and what were the first plants that you grew?

John: That’s a good question, I think back to growing up and all the different vegetables we grew. My parents lived in a small village in Northern Greece. They always grew their own vegetables and even had chickens in the backyard! I loved eating fresh vegetables from the garden, but I hated the work of turning the soil, tying up everything and watering constantly. That was all difficult for me, and for the longest time I wasn’t thinking about having a garden. Eventually, while renting, we started on the balcony with some containers and gardened with just a few things. When we got our own place and had a backyard, it was a clean slate and we turned it into a huge vegetable and flower garden. The first plants that I grew, were really a bit of everything: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, kale, zucchini, eggplant. I love doing it and I look forward to doing it every year. I get excited around January when I place my order for seeds andI usually receive them around the end of February. I start preparing the first seeds at the end of February or early March, with hot peppers that need to be started early.

Vertical planters in John's garden.

P: That’s a great variety of plants! What are some problems you encountered and how did you find success in gardening?

J: The first thing that you have to do is make sure that the soil you are growing your plants in, is good. A good growing medium is important for any plant. For the first couple years, the soil was great, because it had been unworked for so long and it was just grass before. After that, we started having problems with water and the soil was becoming a lot of clay. We had to amend the soil and get it a bit loamier and more receptive for plants. The other thing is pests; if you are growing organically you have to be pretty vigilant when it comes to inspecting your plants. I do a morning tour of the garden, and make sure cucumber beetles are removed from my plants and the cabbage worms are removed from the kale. So that’s a bit of a challenge as well.

One of the first things I did was look to see, if I have a question, where do I go? And I found some good resources. One of them I recommend is an organization called Toronto Master Gardeners. Toronto Master Gardeners runs a discussion board where you can post a question, and someone will respond to it in a few days. The learning curve is pretty steep if you’ve never grown vegetables before. Start small and start with a few plants, even if it’s just a small corner of the garden or a few small containers if you’re living in an apartment. You never know, sometimes it gets enough sun, sometimes it doesn’t. So, try and see what works, and what success you can have. If space is an issue, you can try vertical gardening and stacking up planks on a piece of bricks and grow stuff vertically if you don’t have a lot of room.

Another thing is not being too anxious to get your plants in the ground and speed things up. Nature has its own time and you sort of have to learn what it is and figure out how to adjust your own schedule to what the plants need. Most plants will require certain warmth of the soil in order to survive and you need to avoid cold temperatures at night. For example, this year, early May got really warm and people were thinking of getting stuff in the ground—but at the end of the May, we got a cold front and a couple nights of frost. I lost a couple cucumbers, which was unexpected of course. The rule is after the May 24 long weekend, that’s when you start planting your vegetables. This year some of us planted too early and got the frost for that. Those are some helpful things, finding success is fun!

Rain barrels and composter in John's garden.

P: That’s a great set of first tips for beginner gardeners! Now that we have some tips for success, how have you been able to incorporate sustainable practices in your garden?

J: I’m always looking to do that and I’m always learning better ways to do that. I think sustainability is something to be aimed at and worked towards over a long period of time. I use a rain barrel and a compost tumbler which are both things that are a good start, but not enough. When you see how quickly you can go through a whole barrel of water for a garden, you’ll need a few rain barrels!With the compost tumbler, one of the things I’ve learned is that it’s not magic! You don’t just throw stuff in there and all of a sudden compost appears.There is a little bit of work that goes into it, like turning it every once in a while, making sure you add enough brown matter like grass clippings. Composting and learning how to compost properly is important. You need a 90:10 ratio of brown to green material.

The other thing I’d say about sustainable gardening is regarding herbicides. I grow as organically as possible and that means that things will grow in your garden which you may not think are desirable, things like weeds. “What is a weed?” is a good question. For some people, a weed is something to get rid of and for others, these weeds can be edible, and things that you like to grow. In our garden, I have purslane, dandelion, stinging nettle and a couple other “so-called weeds” that we eat. It’s fantastic and great stuff! When you’re moving away from chemicals and long release fertilizers to organic fertilizers, it’s important to learn how to apply organic fertilizers and to really stick to a schedule. You can’t just fertilize once and expect everything to grow magically. You need to do it on a consistent basis, every few weeks or so.

I mentioned earlier, when I was growing up, I hated turning the soil and as I get older, less effort is better for me. I’ve since discovered that there might be some benefits to the no-till method. For those of you who don’t know, Patrick took a course with me on the Business of Food and Farming. One of the readings by Montgomery on dirt, talked about how no-till agriculture is a better, more sustainable way of farming. I’ve tried it the past couple years, and I’m really happy with it! I work organic matter back into the soil with a hoe. Try using ‘green manure’. These are different seed mixes you can sow in either the spring or fall that can return nutrients to the soil—rye, clover and peas not only help improve the soil, but they also act asa natural mulch to retain moisture and keep other weeds in check. Whatever I take out I try to put back in and that’s really what sustainability is! If you can get to a point where you rely on less and less exterior inputs and more on what you produce from within your own household. That’s the goal of sustainability for sure.

P: I certainly appreciate the insight towards sustainability and ways we can incorporate better sustainable practices in our garden! The next question I have is, what are plants that a beginner should try to garden first?

J: Most herbs are very, very easy. Chives, parsley, thyme and basil. You can get a pack of seeds and start them indoors, then transplant them outdoors in late May. Just make sure the danger of frost has passed. Chives are great, because they’re perennials so they come back every year. They’re also one of the first things that come out in the Spring that you can eat, along with some of these so-called noxious weeds that are very tasty. Mint is another good one too. What you can do with mint or rosemary is buy it from the store, in April. Cut off some of the pieces, stick them in a clear glass with water and take some of the bottom leaves off. Put the glass on a windowsill and watch them grow roots. Once they develop enough roots you can transplant them into soil, just pick a cool and cloudy day. And you have yourself a little plant. It’s a little bit of fun to watch them. Be careful with mint because it spreads a lot. Plant it in the corner of your garden where it can be contained, or it could even be planted in a pot to prevent the roots from getting everywhere.

Tomatoes in John's garden.

P: Those are some great plants for a beginner! So, for someone with more experience in gardening, what are plants you would recommend for them?

J: Definitely the standard thing to grow is a tomato and there is nothing tastier, more delicious than a red tomato from your garden. You can explore all kinds of different varieties of tomatoes and different heirloom varieties. You can keep all kinds of funky colours and flavours. Some are absolutely prolific! I have a Matina tomato that is very prolific and then I have a frustrating tomato like my Pink Brandywine one, which is the best flavour tomato. It’s one of my favourite tomatoes but I never have as much luck with my Brandy ones. You learn what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting the fertilizing schedule right. The key thing about plants is that they need water, when they need water, and you have to be there to water them. Otherwise, they are not that forgiving. Some vegetables are a bit more forgiving if you miss a watering cycle. But generally speaking, watering and fertilizing regularly is important, especially in the morning. It’s better in the morning to avoid problems with different kinds of diseases, bacteria and fungi!

P:When you were describing those tomatoes, they sounded so juicy! What is your favourite memory from gardening?

J: Grabbing a tomato and putting a little bit of salt on it and eating it like an apple! That is a great memory. My mom was an avid gardener. Every summer after we plant everything, she would spend the rest of the summer in the backyard, monitoring. Watering things when they needed to be watered. Harvesting them when they needed to be harvested. I remember things that she would do, and I find myself doing the same kinds of things in my garden. I remember that and gardening with my mom is one of my favourite moments from gardening.

P: We’re reaching the end of our interview, and what final advice would you have to someone who wants to start a garden?

J: I would say, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Gardening and growing vegetables, you don’t do it that often! There are lots of things you might do that you practice 20-30 times a week! With farming, you might only get 30 or 40 years to do that in your lifetime. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and if you do, start over again! Try something new! Don’t be afraid to talk to your neighbours and ask them for advice and talk to them about what they know. Sharing knowledge in the community is a really good thing and it could lead to other good things like talking about what varieties [of plants] they grow. You might even start a seed club or seed sharing event through this kind of connection.

P: Thank you so much, John! I hope that we get more people starting gardens from reading this interview!

This interview transcript has been adapted and condensed from a Zoom interview on June 29, 2021.

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