Planning for your Vegetable Garden

Steve Poppe, Horticulture Scientist

March 2018

March and April are the perfect months to begin planning for your upcoming vegetable garden.   We all know that gardens take effort on our part, but the rewards of a successful harvest can be well worth it.  Follow along with a series of questions and answers, geared to help you get going in the right direction with your vegetable garden this year.

Q:  I don’t have a vegetable garden, but would like to put one in my yard.  Where is the best place for a vegetable garden?

First you need to select a spot that is free of perennial weeds such as thistle and quack grass.  If there are perennial weeds present they should be eliminated the fall before, preferably with a non-selective herbicide like glyphosate (Roundup).  In the fall, perennial weed growth slows, and plants pull nutrients or the herbicide deep into their roots in preparation for winter. 

Select a sunny (8-10 hours of sunlight per day), well-drained location.  Typically, south facing slopes are warmer.  Avoid low lying areas or potential frost pockets.  On frosty nights cold air sinks to the ground and literally flows downhill to collect at low points which are known as frost pockets.  A garden in a frost pocket is at significant risk of late and early frosts and will shorten the growing season of early flowering plants. 

Choose a location with close proximity to a water source as well as one that offers some protection from the wind.  Consider a location that allows you to manage your garden in a way that works best for you (for example, near a garden shed or close to your house).  Avoid areas near trees and shrubs, because they will compete with your vegetables for water and soil nutrients.  Certain vegetables, such as beets, carrots, lettuce, pumpkins, and celery will grow in partial shade.

Q:  What is the best way to prepare my soil for planting vegetables?

Don’t work your garden soil when it’s too wet in the spring. When it’s wet, tilling encourages soil compaction.  Compacted soil is more challenging for roots to penetrate reducing productivity.  Determine if the soil is dry enough by squeezing the soil into a ball.  Release the pressure on the soil ball, and poke it gently with one finger.  If the ball breaks and crumbles, then the soil is ready to be tilled.  If the soil ball holds its shape, then the soil is too wet for effective tilling. 

Consider planting cover crops as early as possible in the spring.  Incorporating this type of organic matter to the soil promotes good drainage and keeps the soil healthy by acting like a “sponge” to hold water, fresh air, and plant food.  These cover crops include vetch, clover, beans, peas, annual ryegrass, oats, rapeseed, winter wheat, winter rye and buckwheat.  Grow these cover crops for about 30 days, turn them under and then plant your warm season vegetables.  Or, after early-maturing vegetables have been harvested, plant a cover crop and then turn in the dead plant material after a killing frost in late fall.

Q:  What are your recommendations for best planting practices?

Use a hoe to make a small furrow; if the ground is dry, water the furrow prior to planting.  Tap the seeds into the furrow.  Using the back end of a steel-toothed rake, gently cover the seed with soil as it is important to have good seed-to-soil contact.  As a general rule for seed depth, cover to a depth no more than three times the seed size.  Don’t sow seeds too thick. 

A common problem is that gardeners tend to empty the whole packet of seeds in a small space.  Thank: less is more.  Sowing seeds to thick cause’s vegetables to develop tall, weak stems that never recover.  Instead, mix in smaller seeds (for example, carrots) with sand or coffee grounds to “sprinkle” them more evenly.  It is very important to follow the seed spacing directions on the package.  Never lightly sprinkle water on the top, but rather water thoroughly each week (especially important during the first two weeks) so that the soil is soaked.

Q:  When is the best time to sow seeds in the garden?

Most all seed packets offer planting recommendations, and it’s generally a good idea to follow the suggestions on the individual packet.  However, for cool season crops, plant according to the soil temperature rather than the date on the calendar.   Peas, spinach, lettuce, radishes and potatoes can go into the soil when soil temperature is at 50 degrees F.  Carrots, beets, swiss chard and parsnips need a soil temp of at least 60 degrees F.  Warm season crops, such as beans, squash, cucumber and sweet corn, can go in after the last killing frost.

Q:  What are some of the better seed varieties for our growing area?

Green Snap Beans: Provider, Tendercrop, or Blue Lake. 

Yellow Beans: Goldcrop Wax, Improved Golden Wax. 

Sweet Corn: Incredible, Bodacious, Peaches and Cream, Ambrosia, Kandy Korn, Sugar Buns, and Silver King-white. 

Broccoli: Munchkin, Early Dividend, Bonanza, Packman, Premium Crop, and Arcadia. 

Spinach: Indian Summer, Tyee, Boomsdale Longstanding, and Correnta. 

Leaf Lettuce: Oak Leaf, Grand Rapids, Black Seeded Simpson, and Red Sails. 

Romaine Lettuce: Little Gem, Romulus, and Cosmo.

For more information, plan to attend our upcoming class on Vegetable Gardening in Minnesota – Things You Need to Know on Wednesday March 21, 2018, beginning at 12:15 in AgCountry Auditorium at the West Central Research and Outreach Center, Morris.  Admission is free.