Long Lake author John Whitman’s roots as a gardener were planted decades ago when his mother handed him some sprouted potatoes and told him to cover them with soil. As summer passed, he watched the plants pop up, then followed his mother’s instructions to dig up the area after the plants died.
“I couldn’t believe the number of potatoes!” Whitman said. “Within three years I was growing at least 30 different kinds of vegetables.”
He has put those many years of experience to use to write “Fresh From the Garden: An Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries and Herbs in Cold Climates” (University of Minnesota Press, $49.95). Whitman’s book, which covers everything from compost to nutritional content of various crops to combating pests, is a conversational, common-sense guide to growing 1,700 varieties of plants in places like Minnesota.
Whitman recently took time to chat about his strategy for dealing with hungry deer and rabbits, the best veggies for northern gardens, and why he thinks gardeners need to loosen up:
Q: I’ve never seen such a comprehensive guide to growing organic edible plants aimed at gardeners who live in northern climates. Where’d you get the idea?
A: After reading numerous articles and books, I became frustrated that many of them mixed less hardy plants with those that would do well in cold climates. Cold-climate gardening poses unique challenges, such as colder winters and longer summer days. I always wanted a book that combined in-depth growing information on the widest variety of crops possible with specific nutritional and culinary information on each.
Q: While your focus is organic, you seem more practical than purist in your approach to growing chemical-free plants.
A: I hope people will garden, and whether to use synthetic or organic chemicals is a choice. I avoid all pesticides because I think this helps the soil and the environment, by protecting beneficial insects and amphibians. I try to give both sides to any given argument to let readers decide on their own what to do.
Q: How did your views on growing plants this way evolve?
A: In a sense, I have been an organic gardener my whole life. I began growing vegetables when I was very young, adding natural products to the soil, especially lots of manure. What has evolved is a better understanding of why what I’ve been doing for decades has worked so well for me.
Q: I really liked your advice for gardeners to loosen up and not expect continual success in the garden.
A: Gardening is both a science and an art. All artists have failures, but I prefer to call them “learning experiences.” ... Lots of gardeners like challenges and prefer to live on the edge, and I’m one of them. If a plant doesn’t make it, I probably have a few seeds left over and will try them in a different place at a different time next year.
Q: Tell us a bit about your garden in Long Lake.
A: Each year I grow some plants in my main garden, which is just a little larger than 900 square feet — some in flower borders, some in pots and some vining plants such as pumpkins and winter squash. I grow perennial plants such as asparagus, berries and herbs, as well as a few edible perennial flowers. My favorite annuals are greens. My favorite annual flower is nasturtium with its fabulous scent and color. Its leaves, flowers and seed pods are all edible. I love fresh corn and have grown it many times in other areas, but my present garden is on the edge of woods. This translates into a herd of deer and a few raccoons who eat corn at different stages.
Q: If you had a small yard, which edible plants would you absolutely make space for?
A: Everyone wants to grow at least one tomato. Leaf lettuce is easy to grow and productive. Chives and parsley take up very little space, as do a short row of beans, beets or carrots. Consider a small patch of your favorite greens, since they are so nutritious and can be eaten when very small. Spinach is a favorite. I would grow these each year, along with at least one compact summer squash and bush cucumber. Along one side of the garden, I would have a sturdy fence to grow vining plants, including peas.
Q: Patience and perseverance seem to be a large part of your approach, for example, in your dogged approach to killing Canada thistle by repeatedly cutting it to the ground. How do you think this plays in a time when many people want instant results?
A: Dealing with weeds, especially Canada thistle and quack grass, is quite annoying. You can’t just dig up Canada thistle — you have to kill it over a period of time. You can dig up quack grass, making sure to dig deep enough to remove every bit of white root. If quack grass begins to invade the garden, dig it up immediately. It spreads rapidly.
Q: You advise against buying predatory insects like ladybugs, and instead emphasize creating an environment where nature combats pests for you.
A: I do. Predatory insects may not arrive in good condition, they may prey on good and bad insects — including each other — and they may not disappear once the pest you want to get rid of is gone. By planting a wide assortment of plants, many of which are flowering, you will attract beneficial insects. Begin with dill, and let it form delicate light-yellow flower clusters. A number of other plants will help nature combat pests, and some are outlined in the book. The key is diversity in the garden!
Q: Is there anything in the garden that you feel you’re still trying to master?
A: Yes, keeping deer and rabbits from eating plants at their prime. This will never happen, so I have learned to stop trying to “master” this problem at all. Remarkably, this often works. Deer eat the foliage of my strawberries every spring and fall, and I think I’ll never get a berry, but I get plenty. Many of my greens are nibbled back just when ready to be harvested. Instead of throwing up my hands, I wait. Most of them spring back, and if I’m really quick I get the crop before the deer do. I guess my idea of mastery is to let nature take its course.
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis freelance writer, a Hennepin County Master Gardener and a Tree Care Advisor.