When a suspicious-looking sprout appeared in the St. Paul garden of LeAndra Estis, she plucked it. The willful plant popped up again. Instead of pulling it out a second time, the new gardener fired up Google. The would-be intruder was spinach.
“I kept thinking, ‘That’s not right,’ ” said Estis, who had never seen the leafy green emerge from the ground and was expecting the spinach she planted from seed to look more bushy, like the mustard and collard greens she watched grow as a child.
In Minneapolis, Christopher Lutter-Gardella faced a different problem. He had to sow peas several times because his plants were getting chewed down at the base from some unseen force.
“The littlest, humblest critter can bring your whole enterprise crashing down,” he said.
Such challenges have not discouraged these two urban gardeners. Estis broke ground behind her home in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, looking forward to teaching her two daughters — Quaia, 19, and Lonna, 13 — the joys of growing your own food. Lutter-Gardella decided that with more time at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, this was the summer to expand his gardens, including the front yard of his home in Minneapolis’ Powderhorn neighborhood.
Amid the exciting victories, both gardeners have accepted minor setbacks as an inevitable part of cultivating gardens that deliver food, beauty — and a few lessons along the way.
In this season of renewed interest in home gardening, we are following Estis and Lutter-Gardella throughout the growing season.
“Everything is growing so fast — especially the weeds,” Estis joked.
The spinach that originally confounded Estis was the first plant to spring up and came in strong. Another robust grower has already produced fruit: “The tomatoes are growing like mad,” Estis said.
The same is true in Lutter-Gardella’s gardens. He calls his tomatoes — about 15 plants of them — “out of control.” He is racing to stake them. “Every year I am like, ‘Wow, tomatoes are amazing.’ They are so low-maintenance and so productive,” he said. Lutter-Gardella’s squash is also thriving. But it’s the native corn that he planted for the first time this year that has impressed him most. “The corn is blowing my mind. It’s booming. You know the saying, ‘knee-high by the 4th of July’? Mine is shoulder-high already and gloriously beautiful,” he said a few days after the 4th.
“I have struggled with the leeks. I planted a ton but only a dozen have survived,” said Lutter-Gardella. In another unpleasant surprise, only about half of his first planting of carrots germinated, and his pepper plants aren’t producing. He’s not sure why.
Estis has a row of strawberry and tomato plants that seem stunted. When she had no more room in her two garden plots, she added a row on the back side of the garage. “That was just a horrible spot,” she said, “I’m not getting much growth there.”
Eager to taste the fruits of her labor, literally, Estis nabbed a green tomato from a vine to make fried green tomatoes. It turned out to be too firm and lacking juice. She also picked a cucumber too early. “It was bitter. I’m hoping that … if I keep it on the vine longer, it will taste better.”
“Make sure you lay out what you are planting and pay attention to how much space they need,” said Estis, who is in a quandary about three cantaloupe plants she now knows are far too close together. “I am trying to decide if I should pull the one in the middle and replant it in another spot.”
She also recommends enriching the soil. In her garden plots, she laid down Miracle-Gro garden soil and nitrogen-rich coffee grounds, a trick she learned from her mother, longtime gardener Ann Estis. In those plots, you can hardly see the soil for the greenery. She didn’t amend the soil behind her garage, where the plants are withering.
Turn to trusted sources, Estis advises. She gets tips from experienced garden store clerks. She has turned to Google. But her favorite and steadiest resource is her mother, who lives a few blocks away and visits most days to weed and advise.
Estis also is glad she labeled her rows of vegetables. She used simple wooden sticks bearing the names of vegetables-to-come and empty seed packs, which show pictures of the mature plant and also note timelines for harvest.
Lutter-Gardella, meanwhile, has been working to protect his garden from animals that are as insistent on living as his plants. Bunnies were nibbling the stalks of the corn plants, so he put up a low fence to keep the hoppers away. He also sprinkles fox urine powder around the base of his plants and sprays a cayenne pepper wax onto plants every two weeks to repel little nibblers.
Beyond those organic protections, Lutter-Gardella has learned that trimming a plant back can enhance its production.
“I am being more bold with pruning,” he said. Culling branches off his tomato plants encourages air flow, and sends more energy and nutrients to the fruit, he said. When his basil plants looked scraggly, he chopped off their tops, and they rebounded with vigor. “As long as you trim it right above an existing leaf, it will bush out more,” he said.
He also recommends companion planting, in which certain plants benefit each other. The classic example is corn, squash and beans. “Corn grows tall, and beans vine up the corn stalk; squash grows low around the corn to keep down the weeds. They support each other.”
Both gardeners now know that shade is not necessarily the enemy of gardens. Lutter-Gardella was surprised to find that his squash plants in partial shade look much better than those in full sun. Estis has two garden plots, and one is doing better than the other. She intends to cover the poor performer with a canopy on super-hot days on a hunch that the temporary relief from the heat will aid the plants there.
When Lutter-Gardella greatly expanded his garden this year, it was with an eye toward the kind of food production that could help sustain his family. He stays busy tending his crops, but looks forward to the future. He plans to can tomatoes and also simply slice and freeze some to be added to sauces in the winter. He planted three varieties of beans. Some will be eaten off the vine, but others he expects to dry, to be prepared long after summer passes, for bean-based dishes such as burritos.
When Estis planted her garden, she hoped her enthusiasm for growing food would spread to her daughters. She now says they do more in the garden than she does, and they post pictures of their green-thumb successes on social media. Each new burst of life — a yellow bloom transforming into a squash, for instance — thrills them. Said Estis, “I come home from work and they say, ‘Mom, Mom, look at this!’ ”