How to grow a vegetable garden in times of food uncertainty

Don Kinzler
Forum News Service

Toilet paper wasn’t the only thing in short supply in recent weeks. Potatoes were hard to come by in the grocery store, and canned and frozen vegetables were sparse, not to mention the bare bread aisle.

The pandemic proves scarcities are possible for nearly everyone, and it’s no surprise home vegetable gardening is suddenly viewed with great interest.

Back on Feb. 1, our garden column titled “Victory gardens are back! Here’s why,” explained about growing your own food, which offers increased food security, plus other benefits. Considering the pandemic, now might be the time to kick Victory Gardens into high gear.

What if you don’t know how to plant a garden? Beginning this week, we’ll do a three-week series on vegetable gardening basics. This week we’ll discuss traditional garden practices. Next week we’ll focus on raised beds, container gardens and growing vegetables without a traditional plot of ground. The third week will discuss community gardens and how we can participate in group gardening.

Following is a guideline for growing a vegetable garden the traditional way, with a plot of ground. Many of these tips also apply to the raised gardens we’ll discuss next week.

Garden location: Full, all-day sun is required for most vegetables. Leafy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, kale and herbs will tolerate some partial shade, but vegetables that produce fruits or underground structures require eight hours of direct sunshine, including tomatoes, potatoes, squash, cucumbers, beans and others.

Decide what to plant: Focus on vegetables you or your family like. For winter storage, plant potatoes, squash, onions and carrots. For canning, freezing and pickling, plant tomatoes, corn, beets, peas, beans, cucumbers, broccoli and cauliflower.

When to start: Don’t start too early, as frost still occurs most years during the first half of May. The 10-day window that is most successful for widespread garden planting is May 15–25.

Cool crops and 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 through early May. “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, as they also require warm soil for growth.

Tools you’ll need: If you don’t own a rototiller, you can rent one. Small gardens can be worked with a spading fork. A heavy-duty garden rake to smooth soil before planting. Two wooden stakes with twine to create rows. A yardstick or wooden lath marked at 6-inch intervals to determine spacing between rows. A hoe to dig and cover furrows. Stakes to mark where rows are seeded. (Plastic milk jugs cut into 8-inch strips make weatherproof row markers.)

Seeds versus transplants: 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 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: After the garden has been tilled or dug and raked level, mark the first row by stretching twine between stakes from one side of the garden 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 1/4-inch deep. Packets usually tell how many feet of row the packet is expected to plant.

Using a hoe or rake, lightly 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. Mark each row so you know where seedlings are expected to emerge, which helps with weeding since weeds often sprout about the same time as the vegetables.

Next, 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.

Next week: Gardening in raised beds and containers.

Fielding questions

Q: Our petunias have been blooming for several weeks, thanks to our AeroGarden. — Nancy Edmonds Hanson, Moorhead.

A: When I saw Nancy’s recent day-brightening post on Facebook, showing an indoor garden of healthy, full-flowered petunias on a drab, not-yet-spring day, I had to have details, and she shared the following.

“We’ve grown a variety of hydroponic crops in this little AeroGarden unit — herbs, lots of flowers and even a bumper crop of cherry tomatoes. We order kits of six cone-shaped pre-planted seed pods, lower the LED light bar, and fill the tank with water and the liquid fertilizer that’s provided. These friendly little flowers burst into bloom about six weeks later.”

Thanks, Nancy, for describing what has been a successful growing kit for many who have tried it, based on your report and many others I’ve received.

Q: I’d like to try growing potatoes this year. I remember my dad growing them, so I know you cut up a potato into pieces and plant the chunks. I have some potatoes left in a bag I bought from the grocery store, so was thinking about using those to plant. Will that work? — Dan L., Fargo.

A: Someday I’ll write a book about gardening terminology, because it isn’t always self-explanatory. Although potatoes are planted from pieces of the tuber, as you mentioned, the tubers used for planting are called “seed potatoes,” which could be confusing if we envision the seed being like carrot, bean or radish seed.

Food-type potatoes from the grocery store should not normally be used as seed potatoes for garden planting. Most commercially produced potatoes are grown with sprout inhibitors, which explains why they can be stored in the grocery store at room temperatures without sprouting. If planted in the garden, the sprout inhibitors interfere with normal growth.

Instead, buy certified seed potatoes, labeled as such and available from garden centers or other stores, which have been grown specifically for planting. These potatoes have been tested and certified to be free from diseases that can decimate a potato patch. That’s why it’s best not to use our own leftover homegrown potatoes as seed potatoes the following spring. It can work if no other seed potatoes are available, and I’ve done it in the past, but you run a great risk of transmitting diseases to your new potato patch through the infected pieces you plant.

When planting potatoes, cut large seed potato tubers into pieces, each containing at least several “eyes” from which the new sprouts grow. Egg-sized tubers can be planted whole, without cutting. Allowing cut pieces to heal, by placing them in a shallow layer for at least two days before planting and up to two weeks at 55 degrees helps to prevent rot, in a process called suberization.

Q: I remember you mentioning that plastic can be used to make muskmelon and watermelon ripen quicker, but I don’t recall if it’s better to use black plastic or clear. I tried researching it, but I’m finding mixed answers on national websites. Can you refresh my memory? — Elmer S., West Fargo.

A: Using plastic mulch greatly speeds the growth and ripening of melons, making it possible to harvest these heat-loving vines within our growing season.

Research on growing melons was conducted at North Dakota State University in the 1970s, which set the standard for melon production in northern climates. Research showed that using clear plastic 3 or 4 feet wide, laid directly on the soil in rows, with pre-started melon plants transplanted into openings cut into the plastic, greatly outpaced other growing methods, including black plastic.

Black plastic warms up nicely on its surface as it collects sunshine, but it doesn’t transmit heat readily to the shaded, cool soil below. Clear plastic allows sunshine to radiate through, creating a warm, greenhouse effect on the soil below, collecting heat and stimulating melon growth.

Vegetable gardening can help relieve shortages during times of food uncertainty.
A reader says their petunias have been blooming for several weeks.