Planting, growing tips for rookie vegetable gardeners

By Mary Maguire Lerman

Victory Gardens 3!

For the first time in decades, a bumper crop of rookie gardeners is gearing up to dig in the dirt and raise some of their own food. Just as was the practice during World Wars I and II, the nation is ripe for a new gardening army.

Today, national seed companies have never seen this kind of response to grow Victory Gardens, with many nearly sold out of their seed stock! Given the surging interest in vegetable gardening, I will explain how to create a successful garden on your first try, using both plants and seeds. (Note: If you are not successful the first year, rarely will you try again.)

Keys for success

The key is in site selection and soil preparation. If vegetables are your goal, full sun is ideal to get the best production.

So, take a sunny day to first sit out in your yard and watch the light patterns throughout the day. Often the best light is from the south or west, but you may have overhead trees in your neighbor’s or your yard that may reduce the light. You want to have six to eight hours of bright sun to successfully raise vegetables.

The other critical factor is that you want to stay outside the drip line of any tree, since trees have their major feeding roots in that area located only six to eight inches deep. If you dig in this area, you will injure the tree. One last step, you want to be sure you will not hit any underground utilities. You won’t hit water or sewer lines as they are usually seven feet deep. However, cable, electrical and gas lines are a concern.

Once you have chosen your vegetable garden site, mark it out with stakes or use those metal marking flags sold at the hardware. Please do not plan to tear up your entire yard! Select a reasonable size for your garden so that you can be successful! Then place a locate request by either calling Gopher State One Call at 811 or make the locate request online at While there is no charge for a locate, it normally takes several days for the locaters to get to requests.

Once your site has been cleared of any utility issues, you can begin your dig. Why dig? Why not rent a tiller?

Hand dig first time, take photos too

I always recommend that you hand dig your site the first time you prepare a garden. Why? Because you don’t know what is lurking underground that could be very problematic if you use a tiller.

At our first home, I had followed all the above procedures. Then, my husband rented a sod kicker (not good on the back and shoulder- go for the motorized sodcutter as the chiropractic bills easily pay for the rental.)

Next, I spread large amounts of peat moss over the area while Bill went to rent a tiller. No sooner had he unloaded it, our neighbor popped out her back door and screamed “DON’T!” She explained the previous homeowners were too cheap to take their rusty swing set to the dump and they dug a hole and buried the pieces there. If we had started the tiller, we would have severely injured ourselves and the tiller. It was an experience pulling out the rusted chains, swing seats, triangle bars and all.

So, now you are ready to hand-dig your new garden. How deep? For a successful vegetable garden, I recommend 18 inches so that deeper rooted vegetables (i.e. tomatoes) can easily penetrate.

That may not sound fun, but you can turn that into a family game. You can do this over several days. Tell your family that you are having an archaeological dig or a treasure hunt. Each child (with the appropriate tool) can dig in their designated area with a parent assisting. Have a yardstick available and tell them the hole needs to be 18 inches deep. Explain that while digging, they need to check for unusual items such as rocks and bottles. Put those items in a box for later examination. The soil needs to be piled around the outside edge of the garden. This is a project that can be done over several days or weeks.

The goal is to get the soil dug without exhausting the participant. In the evening hours, the family adults may want to “seed” items for discovery the next day. This way the children will be excited each time they go out digging. You can sit down at the end of each session and create a story with the items from the box.

Once the area is dug and soil placed around the perimeter, get everyone in the deep hole and take a family photo. You want to have photos of the entire garden construction process.

We are blessed in our community to have Kern Landscape Resources which has the best soil amendment and mulch. The address is 915 Albert St. N., St. Paul, (at Pierce Butler Route).

It is called Organic Growers Mulch. I refer to it as their OMG-OGM as you will be amazed what it does for gardens. This is a light, fluffy mulch of 50 percent composted cow manure blended with triple-shredded pine bark. The cows are raised with neither hormones nor antibiotics. If you have a truck or trailer or rent one, you can drive over to pick up a half yard or yard.

However, with COVID-19 social distancing rules in place, you must order online and specify when you are arriving. No one is allowed to leave their vehicle and bagging materials is not allowed. You can also arrange for delivery.

An easy way to transport the mulch from the truck to the garden is to fill the bed of the truck with empty pots. One- and two-gallon pots are best and neighbors may be excited to give away their pots. Place the pots in the bottom of the truck/trailer bed before you leave for pickup. When you arrive, have them dump the mulch in the truck, thus filling the pots. At home, it is easy for everyone to carry a pot to the garden.

Now you must add organic matter. First, put a three-inch layer of mulch into the bottom of the garden. Next, use two-thirds of the remaining mulch to mix into the excavated soil and then backfill into the garden. Save the one-third for a top mulch. Voila! You have the perfect growing conditions for your veggies.

Time to plan and plant:

Cool season vegies (lettuce, beets, turnips, onions, kale, cabbage) can be seeded or planted beginning in late April.

Warm season crops (tomatoes, peppers, melons, cucumbers) should be planted in later May as our last average date of frost is May 24.

Place the tallest growing veggies on the side of the garden where they will least shade other veggies. Corn, tomatoes and peppers are often the tallest veggies. Then, clearly follow the seed packet and plant label directions regarding spacing. This is so important in order to provide good air circulation around plants. For example, basil plants should be planted 24 inches apart in rows so that the plants never touch.

You can get many free vege­table planting tips on line at The Minnesota State Horticultural Society has a free resource hub providing new and experienced gardeners with garden knowledge.

Don’t forget the newspapers

To guarantee a nearly weed-free garden, save your newspapers. After planting or seeding the garden, spread newspapers at least 3 pages thick on the ground between plants and between rows of seeds. Then apply the remaining Organic Growers Mulch over the newspapers.

Why go to all this effort? When you turn and bring soil to the surface there are often many weed seeds in the soil. The newspaper layer will stop the germinating weed seeds from getting through and receiving sun for growth.

Enjoy your vegetable garden and remember to harvest frequently. Don’t wait until your zucchini are the size of baseball bats, unless you have a neighborhood contest to see who can grow the largest zucchini!

Sidebar note: Want to read about Victory Gardens? Check out this resource: The Smithsonian Library has an online copy of War Gardens Victorious, published in 1919.

Mary Maguire Lerman is a gradu­ate horticulturist and lives in St. Anthony Park.

1 Response

  1. Mary Maguire Lerman,
    Thank you for your years of commitment to controlling buckthorn and restoring native plant and wildlife communities. Please consider sharing the upcoming virtual event, Minnesota Woodland Owner Weekend (“MN WOW”) with folks interested in an extension of your work. Author Douglas Tallamy and Dr. Lee Frelich are keynote speakers plus an additional ten speakers covering a wide range of natural resource topics.
    Registered attendees can begin listening to the prerecorded speakers as soon as Saturday, 9/26. A live Q & A with all speakers will follow on Saturday, October 3. The Q & A will be recorded for anyone not able to participate in the live session.
    Thank you again Mary!

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