If the last time you planted vegetables was as a kid, sprouting a bean in a Dixie cup, use this gardening primer this spring.
Maybe it's a sign of the economy. Maybe it's a sign of the times. Whatever the reason, growing your own vegetables is one of the hottest trends in gardening. If you want to get in on the action, do yourself a favor and start small. There's a limit to how many hours anyone wants to spend in the garden. Besides, trying to get your family to eat six bushels of Swiss chard is a losing battle.
Even if you don't have a yard, plenty of veggies can be grown in containers on a sunny deck or balcony. One word of caution: If you grow plants in containers, you'll have to take more care with watering and fertilizing.
The one thing you can't grow vegetables without is sun. Most veggies need at least six hours of full sun per day. So pick a garden site that won't be shaded by nearby trees or buildings.
Lots of veggies can -- and should -- be grown directly from seed sown in the garden. Examples include quick-growing leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, arugula), root vegetables (carrots, radishes, beets), and peas, beans, squash and cucumbers. You can find plenty of seed selections at garden centers and hardware stores.
Other vegetables generally do better from transplants (seedlings that were started indoors, then gradually conditioned for outdoor planting). These include warm-season veggies such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants as well as some early crops such as broccoli and cauliflower. While you can start your own transplants indoors, first-time gardeners and those without the space for indoor growing will find plenty of vegetable transplants available at local garden centers. In addition to standard varieties, many growers now carry at least a few specialty plants such as heirloom tomatoes.
Vegetables can be roughly divided between those that like cool growing conditions and those that need plenty of warmth.
Cool-season plants can be seeded or planted in the garden well before the frost-free date, which is usually around May 15 in the Twin Cities. Seeds of lettuce, spinach, arugula, other greens, radishes, peas (including snap and snow peas), and carrots can all be sown early, as can potato sets and broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower transplants.
Warm-season vegetables need warmer soil and air temperatures to grow or germinate from seed. Planting these heat-lovers when the weather is too cold can result in stunted plants or seeds that fail to germinate. For most of Minnesota, wait until late May before transplanting tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and basil. Seed-grown veggies like sweet corn, cucumbers and squash also need warm soil to get started.
If you're starting a new garden, remove grass and weeds, then work a generous amount of organic matter (compost, aged manure) into the soil. Established gardens benefit from an annual top-dressing of organic matter, lightly worked into the soil. Avoid walking in the garden as much as you can. Use designated pathways to avoid compacting soil.
Seed size determines how deeply to sow: tiny seeds should be barely covered with fine soil, while larger seeds, such as peas or beans, should be planted about 1 or 2 inches deep. Keep soil evenly moist until seeds germinate. Transplants should be gently removed from pots and planted at the same depth as they were in the container. (Tomatoes can be planted a little deeper because their lower stems can produce roots.) Water gently but thoroughly after planting transplants.
Tiny seedlings and new transplants need a steady supply of water. Once the plants are established, water deeply but less often and be sure to adjust for rainfall.
If you've worked plenty of compost into your soil, you probably don't need to do any additional fertilizing. Using compost to mulch the garden also adds a slow, steady supply of nutrients. If you decide to fertilize, follow directions on the label. (If you use a dry, granular fertilizer, be sure to water it in thoroughly after applying.) Don't get carried away with fertilizers. Too much nitrogen can lead to lush leaf growth but little fruit production.
Nancy Rose is a horticulturist at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. She formerly worked for the University of Minnesota Extension.