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Published April 27, 2015, 10:08 AM

Growing Together: Coaching readers on vegetable gardening basics

FARGO -- Have you ever hesitated trying something new because you didn't know where to begin? I've never golfed. Picture me showing up at a golf course giving it a whirl alone and untaught. I know you whack a white ball toward a tiny hole somewhere in the distance. Maybe I could figure it out as I go.

By: Don Kinzler, Forum News Service

FARGO -- Have you ever hesitated trying something new because you didn't know where to begin? I've never golfed. Picture me showing up at a golf course giving it a whirl alone and untaught. I know you whack a white ball toward a tiny hole somewhere in the distance. Maybe I could figure it out as I go.

The experience would be much different with a golf companion to coach me along. I was lucky to learn gardening from my mom, beginning at age 5. Practical wisdom from an experienced gardener and side-by-side participation yielded lessons I remember every time I plant our garden.

To anyone who's never planted a garden: Don't worry, we'll take this walk together.

Garden location

Full, all-day sun is required for most vegetables. Half-day sun is marginal. Leafy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, kale and herbs will tolerate shade better than "fruiting" vegetables like tomato and pepper.

When to start

My mother always told of a warm spring in her younger gardening days when she planted the entire garden in early April. It grew beautifully until May turned cold and everything froze. Gardens forever after were planted between May 15 and 25.

The regional last spring frost occurs between May 11 and May 20 on average, although frost has occurred in Fargo as late as June 20, in 1969.

Cool crops, warm crops

If you'd like to split your gardening task and plant some vegetables early, "cool season" crops can tolerate frosts between 28 and 32 degrees. Broccoli, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, onions, peas, radishes and potatoes can be planted in late April.

"Warm season" vegetables easily damaged by frost include tomato, pepper, eggplant, beans, corn, cucumber, melons, pumpkin and squash. Wait to plant until May 20 or 25 unless you're prepared to cover when even light frost threatens.

Tools needed

If you don't own a rototiller, you can rent one. I'm still using the Troy-Bilt my dad purchased 55 years ago. Small gardens can be worked with a spading fork. A heavy-duty garden rake smoothes soil before planting. Two wooden stakes with twine are used to create rows. A yardstick or wooden lath marked at 6-inch intervals determines proper spacing between rows. A hoe will dig and cover planting furrows.

Seeds vs. plants

Vegetables that are usually seeded directly into garden soil include carrot, beet, bean, pea, lettuce, radish, spinach and sweet corn. Vegetables best planted from pre-started transplants (your own, or plants purchased) include tomato, pepper, eggplant, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and melons. They require a season too long for direct seeding. Squash, pumpkin and cucumber can be direct seeded, or use started transplants for earlier crops. (If seeded into peat pots in early May, they'll be ready for garden planting about May 25.)

How to plant

Once the garden has been rototilled and raked level, mark the first row by stretching twine between stakes across the garden from one side to the other. Using the twine as a guide, pull the hoe along, making a trench in the soil.

Depth depends on seed size. Check the seed packet for recommended planting depth. Plant large seeds like peas and beans about an inch deep and an inch apart. Small seeds like carrot, lettuce and radish are sprinkled in a shallow trench only ΒΌ inch deep. Packets will tell how many feet of row the seed quantity will plant.

Using a hoe or rake, pull soil back into the trench, covering seeds to the proper depth. Then go back over the row, tamping the soil lightly with the flat side of the hoe blade.

Move stakes and twine to the next row. Most seeded rows are best spaced at least 18 inches apart. Space rows of vegetable transplants like tomatoes and cabbage 24 to 36 inches apart. While continuing along, mark each row so you know where seedlings are expected to emerge, since weeds often sprout about the same time.

Alternative gardening

If you don't have much space, consider "square foot gardening." Raised wooden boxes, 4-foot square, are constructed of cedar 2-by-12s. Fill with a mix of one-third each of peat moss, vermiculite and compost. Regular soil does not perform as well in raised planters. Divide each planter box into 16 1-foot squares. A square can accommodate nine beets, 16 carrots, one pepper plant, one potato, four lettuce or 16 radishes. A tomato plant requires four squares. These high-intensity plantings are incredibly productive. Create as many boxes as space allows.

Apartment dwellers with a sunny patio can raise vegetables in containers. Beets, carrots, radishes, onions, salad crops, herbs, beans and some types of tomatoes and cucumbers produce well in pots.

Before anyone offers to coach me in golfing as previously mentioned, thanks, but I'm perfectly content gardening.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler's Greenhouse in Fargo. Tune in to his weekly radio segment from 11 to 11:30 a.m. Fridays on WDAY Radio 970. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com.

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